Times are tough, but young people can find joy in starting their own business

Linda J. Dodson

Q: My granddaughter, who got her A-level results last week, is considering her future. In these difficult times, can you encourage young people to go into business? Is it fun? Are there happy and rewarding times to be had?

A: Young people have drawn the short straw: school work at home without meeting friends, estimated exam results, student life online in a virtual university, with lectures on Zoom and apprenticeships interrupted by furlough. 

But they shouldn’t let the pandemic put them off a career in business, especially if they have ambitions to be an entrepreneur. With so much change going on, the 2020s will probably be a boom time for businesses that get it right.

We must put the pandemic into perspective. Life since March has been far from fun. Thousands of entrepreneurs have seen decades of measured progress unravelled when lockdown put big chunks of the economy on pause. The “new normal” promises permanent changes that will put many companies out of business. To survive, managers have been spending time on cost cutting, redundancies, new bank facilities and shrinking companies they’ve been patiently building over many years. There’s not much fun there.

But we must not base future judgements purely on our most recent experience. When I think back over nearly 60 years in business, despite having several spells of stress and depression, my business life has given me much more fun than misery. 

Put simply, running and growing a business is like playing Monopoly with real money (I guess if Chancellor Rishi Sunak played the game, he would be the banker, providing bounce back mortgages to any players that went bust). 

That said, we shouldn’t just measure success by looking at profit and loss or cash in the bank. The real fun comes when you have a new idea and make it work. I was fortunate enough to spend several years as a fashion shoe buyer. I still sense the excitement experienced when a new style hit the shops and sold so well in the first week that I knew I had a winner to boost sales for the whole season.

Some of the best fun in business is provided by contact with other people – particularly those colleagues who work by your side and supply the social attachment that is such an important part of wellbeing (in the more virtual future world, remote workers will need to find new ways to keep in close touch with their colleagues).

Building a business can be almost as rewarding as bringing up your own family. In “semi retirement”, one of my greatest pleasures is to spend a day visiting lots of our shops, talking to colleagues and a few customers. It’s good still to be recognised as I walk through the door, although since masks became compulsory, it helps if I wear my name badge. 

As I’m not involved in day-to-day management, it’s easy to have a relaxed conversation. I discover a few problems, but mostly get the impression that we have created a culture that really works. I find that both rewarding and fun.

I have no qualms about encouraging young people with a good commercial idea to start their own enterprise. With new jobs hard to find, self employment will be the easiest way to get into the world of work, as long as you’re an innovator who uses your initiative and, when it’s time to expand, can pick people with a positive personality to be part of your team.

I worry most about young entrepreneurs who started a business that has been destroyed by coronavirus. Despite going through the worst few months since records began, I hope the experience hasn’t put them off for life. Through no fault of their own, many young people have had to face failure during the most miserable time for business anyone can remember.

There are certain to be lots of opportunities when the pandemic disappears. It would be totally fair if those entrepreneurs who suffered in 2020 can find success in the next few years and discover that business really can be fun

Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.

Send him a question at [email protected]

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