It Takes an Information Community to Raise a Business

Deciding to go out on your own and start a library-related business is a huge step. Anne Welsh gives us some tips and resources based on her experience of setting up her Beginning Cataloguing business.

With some people working from home, some wanting to leave face-to-face services with customers who are not compliant with social distancing rules, and some staring down the barrel of redundancy, there have possibly never been more information professionals contemplating self-employment. Here are some tips and resources from my experience this year setting up Beginning Cataloguing.

The Information Is Out There

Here’s the good news: There’s not been a question I’ve had about setting up a business that I have been unable to find the answer. The British Library Intellectual Property Centre (BLIPC) and the national network of IP centres cover far more than intellectual property. I found them to be the best starting point for pretty much any business query.

HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs) are also helpful. As well as step-by-step instructions on setting up a business, they offer webinars and helplines. Lots of local councils also offer services. I’ve not had reason to engage with mine, but I know they are there if I need them, and I am keeping an eye open for any local training courses that might be useful. Similarly, I know some people have made great use of their local Rotary Club.

Be Prepared

This is the bad news. No-one likes a stereotype, but I can’t think of an area of our profession that doesn’t favour planning and preparation. Most of us do tend to be people who think ahead. I’ve written elsewhere about how I had to have the financial security of paying off my mortgage before I felt ready to take the leap. Stepping out from being an employee, with the (often illusory) feelings of security that entails means doing as much planning as you can, while also accepting that things will happen that we cannot predict and that, ultimately, it will all be OK.

Whenever I speak about business planning, I give a well-deserved shout-out to Judith Broady-Preston’s Management classes at Aberystwyth, which provided me with a structure on which I was able to fall back, and also to the various resources published by high street banks, which I found really helpful for working out the Beginning Cataloguing’s strategy and plans. It’s perhaps always worth going back to your old library school notes: I know mine have lots of content that wasn’t immediately relevant when I was a new professional, but have been there waiting whenever I have entered a new phase of "library life".

Expect the Unexpected

Emotionally, we’ve all been learning about the unexpected by living through the global pandemic. You can use this to advantage, regardless of how you are reacting to the Weltschmerz and incipient waking dread of potentially catching a deadly virus. It is a good indicator of how you are likely to feel about a month in which you can’t see enough money coming in.

If you are someone who finds themselves galvanised into action, wanting to seize every moment before The Bad Thing happens, you’re probably someone who will face a weak business month head on, hitting the emails and phone lines to bring in extra sales. If, on the other hand, you just want to hide under your duvet, retreat into a good book, movie or video game, or quickly go for online cocktails with your friends, then you’ve identified some things you need to work on.

Avoidance is perfectly normal, sometimes. We all want to run away on some days. But do start work on any tendencies towards procrastination. If you work for yourself, the buck will always stop with you, so you need to know you will show up and deliver even on the hard days.

Set a Routine, But Enjoy the Freedom

I guess every employee dreams of the freedom being your own boss brings. However, attending online events for business startups, I’ve discovered that you don’t have to have been a workaholic to struggle with taking time off. Elsewhere I’ve blogged about how it took a literal knock on the head for me set a sensible workload, and how it’s even more important to make yourself have a weekend when you are running your own business from your own home office.

I attended a free short course organised by Virtually Done. One of the things they emphasise is “thinking like a CEO” from the start, including setting your own timetable. It’s amazing how often opportunities pour in when you’ve stepped away from the screen. I took Monday off this week and returned to an inbox that included confirmation from the National Acquisitions Group that they wanted to book me for an online training seminar in May, and an approach from a brand new client through word of mouth recommendation. If I’d spent the day intensely working on strategic planning (or finishing this article), those offers would still have arrived, but I feel better for planting the last of my Spring bulbs, and it’s good to know that both the physical and the metaphorical Beginning Cataloguing Garden will be blooming in 2021.

My top tips are to switch email off on Friday evening until Monday morning and take time out whenever you feel the need to recharge your positivity. People respond best to enthusiasm, and as a sole trader or small business owner you have to be your own cheerleader. Mood matters.

Assemble Your Squad

When you step out on your own, you need people around you. I’ve been lucky as my friend Sara has also been setting up her business, Teaching Manuscripts. I’ve also met people through the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (APDO) who provide great peer support.

I asked five colleagues to be Beginning Cataloguing Associates and they have all been helpful in different ways, from designing and offering courses, to contributing to our monthly newsletter, to acting as interested sounding boards.

The wider community of information professionals is full of people who like to help. As well as booking our services and speaking at our seminars, people have helped in lots of ways. One colleague advised us on establishing the look and feel of our brand. Another provides access to their LMS (Library Management System) so we can create training materials showing real-world entry screens.

If you are thinking of going into business yourself, my advice is: have faith and courage; talk to your friends and to your bank; engage with the British Library IP Centre; and be thankful that our professional community is one that is always there to help.

Anne Welsh recently left academia to establish her own business, Beginning Cataloguing,