'I thought starting a business was for people who went to Smurfit school - I didn't think I could do it'

After years in health service administration, Margaret Young quit her job to set up her own firm.

By Margaret Young Margaret Young Business Services

I THINK ANYONE who knew me 20 years ago would be shocked with the route I’ve gone down.

I’ve always wanted to start a business, but I thought it was for people who went to Smurfit business school, had lots of money and all that kind of thing. I didn’t think I could do it. 

There wasn’t one moment that changed my mind. I just wanted to leave my job, and setting up a business was the option there for me. It was a new challenge.

I was working in health administration and, after a stint at the HSE, I went back to work in a hospital, but I got disillusioned. I made the move back for this promotion that took me seven attempts to get only for it to be a disaster. 

So I felt life is too short for me to be sitting here miserable. I was complaining so much and even tired of listening to myself moan.

I could have sat there, taken the money and gotten my pension, but I just couldn’t. I applied for other jobs and when it came to the interview, I would just withdraw. So I came to the realisation that I didn’t want to be an employee anymore. 

I started reading business books and after a 12-week ‘start your own business’ course with Enterprise Ireland, I quit my job. I realised I can do the role that I loved while working for myself.

So my business focuses on four things. I provide training, virtual assistance where I do admin work for people from home, a little bit of digital strategy, and I plan conferences for the likes of the HSE and Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland. 

1 Margaret Young
Source: Margaret Young Business Services

In the beginning

Maybe I should have stayed longer in my job and done more work on the side to begin with, but I didn’t feel like that was honest.

And if I did both my job and planned for the business, I wouldn’t have been able to give it my all and probably would have done both roles badly.

People told me I was brave for leaving a secure job, but I don’t think of it as being brave. I just didn’t feel like I had a choice, I had to leave because I was so unhappy.

It didn’t bother me to take that risk. First of all, I saved for a good length of time beforehand so I would have a safety net. And secondly, if it didn’t work out, I could just get a job.

When you’re so long in a company and become institutionalised, you forget there are thousands of other companies you could work for.

Especially when you’re in the health service, you just think of hospitals and the HSE and forget about the whole rest of the economy.

I had saved a five-figure sum before I set up the business, all set aside for the mortgage and bills. It wasn’t money to spend on fancy laptops, it was for the worst-case scenario.

When I left, the first thing I needed to be able to train people was to become a qualified trainer myself. At the same time, I was working on my website and stuff I had no clue about like search engine optimisation (SEO).

Then I needed to get an accounts system and an accountant – I had his heart broken for all the questions I was asking him. Then I had to get an SEO expert.

If I was to try to track all the steps I went through to set up the business, I would have to go through all my receipts and paperwork to tell you. It’s a bit like buying a house.

I’ve done it, but I can’t even explain to someone the steps you need to go through to finalise it all.

I made loads of mistakes at the beginning. I suppose I was kind of naive about how much I had to learn about marketing, accounts and all the basics of running a business.

I listened to podcasts and read business books – I was trying to brainwash myself into learning everything. But I probably spent too much time doing that and then found it hard to switch off.

You need to be a jack of all trades at the beginning, but when you learn one thing, it feels like something else is pushed out. 

Coping with stress

Of course, because I wasn’t making money, it was really stressful at the start. I felt like I was getting nowhere, so the first thing I did was set up a spreadsheet and every Friday I would list what I achieved that week.

I had always achieved something, whether it was attending a networking event or I had got a certain amount of Twitter followers.

That was a big help for me at the start. It was a progress report to show myself how I was performing and keep me focused on achieving my goals.

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Source: Margaret Young Business Services

There were some months that were really quiet, and I would start to panic a bit. I was thinking, maybe I should pick a deadline, and if business doesn’t improve by then I will have to get a job.

It was around July this year that I said I’d give it until September. But I kicked myself out of that mindset. I reminded myself there is no plan B, I wasn’t going back to being an employee and I had to make it work.

Then it seemed like a bunch of the vague and “maybe” enquiries turned into sales, and now I’m booked up until December and have some bookings for next year.

Most of the work I have lined up involves organising medical conferences, and I have some training days booked as well.

Future

I don’t see myself working for someone else again. I’m not going to admit defeat within the next decade, I’m too stubborn. I don’t have a big master plan for the business, and I kind of don’t mind that because it’s already evolved in good and unexpected ways. 

There are lots of opportunities that have presented themselves that I wouldn’t have envisioned, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out – I’ll go where the work takes me to be honest. 

The way I look at it for now, I still haven’t spent my safety-net savings, so I must be doing something right. 

Margaret Young is the owner of Margaret Young Business Services. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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