How to run a successful small business for over a decade: a Simply Business customer's 8 top tips

Starting your own business, while exciting, can also be an uphill battle at times. Many businesses don’t make it past the first year, let alone reach a decade.

Heather Miller, a garden designer, has insured her business with Simply Business for over 10 years, so we reached out to get her top tips on how to build a business that will stand the test of time.

Heather’s story

15 years ago, Heather was on an enforced career break, living in the USA for her husband’s job. Today, she’s a successful garden designer. Here’s how she got there, in her own words.

“The break gave me the opportunity to take stock, having had a 20 year career as an HR manager and with two young children.” She said. “I was a keen amateur gardener so I decided to re-train in horticulture and see where it took me.

“I embarked on the Royal Horticultural Society Diploma course in the USA by distance learning and completed the exams on my return to the UK.

“I wanted my second career to involve something I was passionate about and to fit round the children’s schooling, so I decided to take the plunge and start a garden design business.

“I had absolutely no experience of gardening for anyone other than myself so it was a huge learning curve getting started. A friend wanted her flower borders re-designed and planted, so she gave me free rein and a budget for the plants, and that gave me a big confidence boost.

“I also answered an advert for someone wanting a regular gardener. That gave me experience of efficient and safe working practices, and keeping to time schedules. I did a lot of garden maintenance in the early days - which was not my long-term goal - but proved invaluable for building up my plant knowledge and experience.”

Getting started and spending money wisely

“In terms of setting up the business, I found the government websites really useful – they gave me all the information I needed in a clear, straightforward format and I recommend them highly as a first port of call.

“My financial model was quite simple with few start-up costs, so I decided not to use an accountant and to keep my accounts on a spreadsheet - I kept my costs as low as possible.”

However, even when you plan to keep costs down, it’s easy to ‘go a bit mad’ - as Heather says - with all the excitement when you first start. What’s important is knowing what’s worth the money and what isn’t.

“I printed off my business cards from the computer and bought an entry in a local ‘Directory of Excellence’ that I knew many local people relied on, rather than on more expensive newspaper and magazine adverts,” said Heather. “That has proved to be a good decision as my first job every season more than covers the cost of the annual entry and most of my work comes from the Directory.”

Successes, failures, and how to learn

Becoming self-employed is hard, particularly as a sole trader, and it’s easy to make mistakes when you first start out. Heather says some of hers were under-pricing in estimates, accepting work that she didn’t want to take on out of fear that the right jobs wouldn’t come along, and not putting aside enough money for the quieter winter months.

“I like to think of failures as learning moments and I have had lots of ‘learning moments’ along the way!

“I was once working on two huge borders at a grand country house for overseas clients who were due to arrive for their annual stay in three weeks’ time. The planting was taking several days and, as there was a lot of wildlife around, my landscaper put a fence around each section of planting as I completed it each evening.

“On the last day the fence was permanently secured and all was well. The following day I went in to water and a muntjac deer had managed to jump the fence and graze every single plant to the ground!

“A hasty reconstruction of the fence and copious watering meant that there was just enough plant life to keep the clients happy when they arrived but I learnt never to underestimate wildlife!

“Another time I managed to chop off the only bloom on a client’s prized clematis, and I have cut through a couple of electric cables that have been buried under mounds of foliage.

“The elements are always a challenge in my job and on one occasion the wind was so strong that a gust blew me straight off my stepladder into a bush.”

But acknowledging when things haven’t quite gone according to plan - and making sure you have a safety net (sometimes literally!) in place - is a great learning for the future. It’s also important to look at things that have gone particularly well, and hang on to those moments when the going gets tough.

“My biggest success is when I instil a love of gardening in a client who was previously disinterested and just wanted me to come in and ‘sort the garden out’.” Heather says. “I am very enthusiastic about plants and can talk about them all day long – when that rubs off on someone else and they get as much pleasure from their garden as I do from mine that is real success to me.”

Managing your day-to-day

When you picture an office job, the routine is obvious, but for sole traders and the self-employed it can be rather more chaotic. For Heather, these are the things that can change day in day out - and the things that are ever-present.

“My day-to-day varies enormously which is what I love most about being self-employed. If I am working on a project, I will be on-site supervising the landscapers if there is building work involved and doing the planting work alongside them.

“Communicating with clients is a huge part of the process, explaining the schedule of work, providing reassurance and ensuring that they are confident about looking after their new garden.

“On other days I will be at the wholesale nursery buying plants for the next project. Having trusted, reliable suppliers who will go the extra mile for you is invaluable and it is worth spending time at the beginning doing your research and building relationships.

“I also have to schedule time for paperwork preparing quotes, issuing invoices and keeping the accounts up to date. Weekends and evenings can be taken up in visiting prospective clients who are at work during the day.”

Heather’s top tips for the self-employed

We asked Heather what advice she had to give for those looking to strike out on their own. These are the things she’s learnt that will set you apart, ensure customers return, and get you stand-out reviews.

  1. Be on time, do what you say you are going to do, and do it with a smile on your face.

  2. However small the job, it is important to the client, so treat them and the work as a priority.

  3. Embrace the quirks of the great British public and accept the foibles with respect and humour. I once had a client with a butterfly phobia who wanted a guarantee that his new cottage garden would not attract the feared creatures. A tricky one to sort out as the garden had already been installed!

  4. Enjoy your job - or at least look as though you do! No-one wants a grump around the house.

  5. Communicate with the client so that they are never left in the dark about timelines, costs, or problems. Most people are understanding if they know what is going on.

  6. Have people around you who will support you. My children thought up my business name and my husband taught himself to design websites so that he could build mine. They are my cheerleaders when times are tough and their pride in my achievements keeps me going.

  7. In the early days, make sure to keep things simple, and stay focused as best you can.

  8. Enjoy! Relish being answerable only to yourself and the client, having time flexibility if you need it, and doing work in which you excel. Being self-employed has given me joy and a sense of pride that overcomes the scary and frustrating parts and equips me for the challenges of the years ahead.

Why Simply Business for 10 years?

We’re incredibly proud to have insured Heather and her business for over a decade. And as one of our truly long-term customers, we wondered what it was that kept her coming back, year after year.

“There are so many things to think about when setting up a business. Insurance is an important consideration but you don’t want to spend too much time researching when you need to focus on building your brand.

“When I started, I shopped around and Simply Business really seemed to understand what I needed without over-complicating things. I got a quick competitive quote and was ready to go.

“Over the years, renewing has been straightforward and, although I regularly check other rates, I have found Simply Business continues to be competitive. Their customer service is excellent, the monthly newsletter is informative, and I like the fact that I am dealing with a company that has won employer awards.”

Heather Miller is a garden designer with clients across Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. She founded Enchanting Planting in 2006 after qualifying in horticulture with the Royal Horticulture Society and has since worked with well over 100 clients. She is passionate about creating beautiful spaces for her clients and transforming their gardens into places where they love to be.

Do Heather’s tips ring true for you? Let us know in the comments.

Looking for self-employed insurance?

With Simply Business you can build a single self employed insurance policy combining the covers that are relevant to you. Whether it’s public liability insurance, professional indemnity or whatever else you need, we’ll run you a quick quote online, and let you decide if we’re a good fit.

Start your quote