Welcome to Saturday Business chat. Today we meet Sarah Rennie from Rennie Consulting. I first met Sarah at the Birmingham Entrepreneurs meetup, when she was just setting up her business, and we both turn up at a number of other events in Birmingham. We’ve had some excellent chats and exchanged experiences as we’ve gone along our different paths – some things about running small businesses are surprisingly similar, whatever it is you actually do!
And what Sarah does is really important. After 3 years practising as a property litigation solicitor, Sarah left to set up her own disability and access consultancy company. She supports businesses and organisations who have a certain reputation to protect. By reviewing physical access, running workshops and implementing mystery shopping programmes, she checks her clients are offering services to disabled people in a dignified and commercial manner.
What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
Oh I was imaginative with that one … Rennie Consulting! I couldn’t think of a name that wasn’t either really naff (like ‘Access4U’) or broad enough to let me diversify. I set up in December 2010.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I had confidence in myself, skills and business offering. Having no dependants and knowing that my initial overheads would be minimal, there was no sensible reason not to. Then I just dared myself into it!
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
I was born with my particular disability and have been a wheelchair user all my life. At Uni and work, I was notorious for writing letters to customer services departments of big companies to tell them where they were either breaking the law, wasting money or offering inadequate levels of customer service to me and other disabled people. Being a qualified lawyer, I knew the law and being a discerning consumer, I knew what standards of service to expect! It seemed natural to go behind the scenes of these organisations and support them to offer the right services to disabled people in the right way.
Had you run your own business before?
Nope. One day I was at the bottom of the pecking order in an international law firm and the next day I made myself the boss!
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
Handed in my notice and then had a think. I wrote one of my ‘special letters’ to the managing director of a huge company telling him about my experience of their services as a disabled consumer. He called me in for a coffee and gave me a whopper of a contract! Best Christmas present ever. We became good mates, actually.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
From a freelance consultant’s perspective: don’t expect too much loyalty from people you know beforehand. However positive they seem about you, they may not actually have the decision-making power to give you work! Imagine starting out knowing ‘0 people’ and ask yourself if you think you can get complete strangers to believe in you.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
“Sarah, don’t waste your money on ‘nice to haves’ (fancy websites and social media pages, etc.) too soon! Keep it lean and concentrate on strengthening your reputation.”
What do you wish you’d done differently?
Being so keen to network and prove my capabilities, I gave too much away for free. Several big companies were a bit naughty asking for my help, implementing my advice and then didn’t return the favour later on!
What are you glad you did?
It was right for me to concentrate on larger businesses rather than chasing lots of smaller contracts. Not only is this more efficient for me as a ‘one man band’, but it means that when clients implement my advice it has the potential to make a bigger difference to more disabled people like me. That pleases me greatly!
What’s your top business tip?
Get on Twitter. It’s free, keeps you connected to the world when you work alone and it may just win you work!
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
Grown and diversified. I started off concentrating on access audits (i.e., reviewing clients’ physical buildings for disabled access requirements). I then ran a disability ‘language and etiquette’ workshop for a client to help their staff feel more confident that they were saying and doing ‘the right thing’ around disabled people. These sessions have proved very popular since then. My current focus is really getting the mystery shopping side of the business off the ground – I’ve got a great bunch of talented and perceptive disabled people ready to offer my clients a great service.
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
Still here and still happy. I wouldn’t mind being known as the wheelchair-user version of Mary Portas by that point!
The work Sarah does is so important. I grimly remember looking for venues for various events and finding companies that either didn’t seem to care about accessibility or tried to look like they cared but failed on the basic details. It’s not just relevant to disabled people themselves; anyone who organises any kind of event needs to take account of all sorts of accessibility needs, and I for one won’t look at a business that doesn’t take this seriously. Sarah’s actively improving life for hundreds of thousands of people who use the companies she works with, and I look forward to seeing her business grow and prosper. Although hopefully she won’t be as scary as Mary Portas!
Sarah has now found a role within a larger organisation, and we wish her well in her future endeavours.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured. If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my new book, Going It Alone At 40: How I Survived my First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment.