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Notes from a small business: Being the boss

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If you didn’t like your old boss, just wait until you meet the new one, warns Guy Browning. Prepare to discover your inner drill sergeant

Very occasionally, when you’re running a small business, you pause. Maybe you’re waiting outside for a delivery. Or you’re having a cup of coffee while your computer does one of its needy little updates.

Or maybe you’ve just got a rush job out of the door.   

But whatever it is, you pause. Then for some reason you remember your old boss. You remember the shouting, the impossible demands, the lack of understanding of your basic needs as a human being and, more than anything else, you remember the continual relentless pressure to perform. As you sip your coffee and think back, you have a brief terrible thought. ‘You know, that wasn’t so bad. Not compared with the boss I have now.’ Which, of course, is you. 


People who run their own businesses are the toughest bosses of all. Try asking yourself for a small pay rise and listen to the gales of laughter from yourself. A few days off for a nice holiday? Who are you kidding – do you think the business runs itself? Maternity leave? OK, but be back tomorrow. If I was you, I wouldn’t want to work for you. Funnily enough, after a while, other people will want to work with you and then you discover that no one is going to work for as tough a boss as you, except for you. 

Working for yourself is a beautiful combination of demanding boss and difficult employee. Self-employment causes the development of a mild schizophrenia: you have a shouty drill sergeant boss in your head that gets you out of bed, and a soft little minion who prefers life under the duvet. If you’re going to succeed by yourself, you need to pay very close attention to the shouty drill sergeant. He’s the one that pays the bills. 


One of the low points of working for a big company, having a boss and all that malarkey, is the 360-degree appraisal. This is where you are evaluated by your boss, your peers and your reports. The closest you get to a 360-degree experience in a small business is being pulled in all directions at once. On the bright side, you do get free business advice from friends, family and everyone around you as if they were all fresh from their MBA at Harvard. 

Eventually you learn that the only place you’re going to get a frank and totally honest assessment of how your business is going is from your accounts. That little figure on the bottom line will tell you either that you’re a disastrous fantasist with a short and bleak future, or a natural entrepreneur with the Midas touch. Thankfully, what you won’t be getting from your spreadsheet is any nonsense about you needing to create a supportive learning environment with your matrix-managed team. 


After a few years of paying your own way and running your own business, you realise that you will never go back to a big company and a big boss. That’s probably just as well, because by this time you have become virtually unmanageable. But a quick word of warning here: when your company finally gets bought out by venture capitalists for billions of pounds (it’s inevitable – brace yourself), on no account agree to carry on working for your new bosses. No amount of money is worth having to go through that again. 

When you’re completely sure that you’ll always be your own boss and that you’ll never answer to anyone ever again, that’s probably also the point when you really understand for the first time that there’s only ever one boss that matters: the customer. And they’re the most demanding boss of all.


Guy Browning is a writer, film director, after-dinner speaker and author of Never Hit a Jellyfish With a Spade