From social worker to entrepreneur

Social workers wanting to start their own business should be preapred for long hours, meticulous planning and setbacks. But it's worth it, says practitioner-turned-entrepreneur John Byrne.

Social worker turned businessman John Byrne
Social worker turned businessman John Byrne

As a hospital social worker, I had became rather disillusioned with my role. The seemingly never ending paperwork or being stuck at a computer screen for hours on end wasn’t exactly what I had signed up for. I therefore felt I needed a new challenge, but one that was not a huge step away.

My thoughts were on assisting people in choosing a care home – offering professional advice and practical support. As a social worker, I knew that this was a service much in need, as sadly, people do not get the practical support they need – especially those who happen to be self-funding their care.

The service would be offered free, in exchange for a ‘referral fee’ from the care homes. As most people I met with previously could not afford to pay a fee for such a service, this seemed the only feasible way. Each independent care home that enlisted in my service would pay the same charge, negating any possible preference or even perceived preference to any given care home in my portfolio.

The actual decision to start out on my own was one to which I obviously gave much consideration. I have two young children, a partner and a house to keep over our heads. The thought of losing a regular and fair salary was almost unthinkable. Over approximately 18 months, I worked tirelessly in my spare time (ask my family!), putting together a concise business plan which I would ‘pitch’ to the financial world.

My local bank’s business manager took considerable time checking through my credentials and the plan, and said it was of “excellent quality”. However, I was informed that, despite my credit score being “not at all bad”, the bank could not offer me the amount I requested. I then contacted my local business advice centre to apply for a social enterprise grant. However, after completing numerous forms, I was informed that as my new role was not totally on a par with my previous role with the local authority, I would not be awarded social enterprise status.

The end, I thought. Then, a spark of hope appeared in the form of a family member who had also read my business plan, and liked it. Following several meetings and discussions a deal was struck and an agreement was made to at least cover my essential living and business expenses. This would be in exchange for a relatively small percentage of the company.

I then, still tentatively, gave notice of my role to the local authority and in October, 2011, Care Home Support Services was born. The finance received enabled me to exhibit at the Care Show at Birmingham NEC, where we received very positive feedback. It also helped me to set up our own website, have leaflets and business cards printed and buy essential IT equipment.

It was a slow start, with very few referrals coming our way. However, as time progressed and more people became aware we existed, the doors well and truly opened and we are now receiving regular referrals and, I might add, regular positive comments from both the general public and professionals alike.

Starting out on my own was indeed a scary event and still is! Yet I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve taken on another director also, someone who was instrumental in the start-up and planning process and remains a key component of our hopeful success. We’re not there yet, as we have strong competition with an already long established business, and it’s a hard thing to change the habits of some people it seems. However, we continue to grow steadily and we’re close to the point where we’re considering taking on new staff.

My advice? Anyone considering starting out on their own needs to plan, plan and plan again, and once you have that plan, be prepared to change it all again. And any financial predictions and forecasts you may have are also, I’m sorry to say, destined to be folly. However, with the right team on board, the right advice and a (suitable) form of finance, it can be the best move you’ll ever make. But do be prepared for the long hours.

John Byrne is managing director of Care Home Support Services, which provides advice on choosing a care home to people in the West Midlands.

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