Finding support as a sole trader

Author: Wendy Foster
Business Librarian/Advisor

Whether you’re a start-up or well established, being a sole trader can feel like a pretty lonely place at times, and it’s hard to know where to go for help, support and advice. Below are a few pointers that can hopefully make you feel you are not alone, and that there is support out there for you!

The technical (how to) ones first:

Q: How do I do my tax returns?

A: Some people like to do their own tax returns, others not so much…
a) If you fancy having a go at doing them yourself then the HMRC has a number of free webinars available on its website explaining ‘how to’. Webinars are live, and you just need to sign up to the one(s) in which are interested 5 mins before they start. If you prefer to have a brief introduction before you sign up to one, there is also an HMRC YouTube file of pre-loaded self-help guides on tax. You can watch these at any time, which can be really useful to give you a flavour of what is required, and it can take the sting out of the fear of those dreaded tax forms.
b) If you do not want to do them yourself, you can appoint an accountant to do them for you. To find an accountant you can either go through the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales) or you can do a search online, one great website to look at is Peopleperhour, the name of which basically tells you what its aim is. Make sure to read comments from previous customers.

Q: Where can I find financial help?

A: There is a perhaps surprising number of investors, private and organisations, out there that are keen to invest in businesses. Their business is making money on their investments, so they will look to invest in a business they think will thrive – this could be you! There are also several organisations that will give you a loan, and a few who will give grants. Grants are going to be for mainly social enterprises who are not for profit, so unless you are a not-for-profit, your best routes are going to be loans and/or investment.
If you want a loan, investment or grant, there is a range of websites that are useful, but the best one to start with is the government’s own page for Finance and support. The City Business Library also has a folder headed Funding on our page for Recommended Websites where we have put together reputable websites. These sites ask you the basic questions such as stage of business, area, how much you are looking for, and then you are presented with a list of potential organisations for you to look into.

Q: How do I find practical information on new things, like hiring staff, or advice on marketing?

A: There are various business support organisations in the UK, including chambers of commerce, growth hubs, the City Business Library… There is also a great online resource called Cobra (Complete Business Reference Adviser) that has ‘Factsheets’ on all things business related. They are laid out clearly and easy to use, and a great source of information. There are of course many, many, many videos online if you search on the internet or YouTube, but it is not always easy to identify if something is going to be good, accurate, reliable, current, etc, so it is definitely worth starting with something you can rely upon, and Cobra is exactly that. Not only is it a credible source, it is also free to access from anywhere at anytime if you have a City Business Library membership. As well as technical support, having moral support is equally important in the enjoyment and satisfaction in running your own business:

Q: How can I feel less isolated? 
(Even though you will meet many people in the course of your business, such as customers, sub-contractors and suppliers, it is still a pretty lonely place because they do not share your responsibility or passion for your own business).

A: The good news is that there are places to get that support, moral or technical.
a) Online. Your best bet is to look for relevant groups on LinkedIn. If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, create one. It is extremely easy to set up a profile. Although some people use it incorrectly and think strangers are interested in their social life, most people use it properly, as the online business network it was designed to be. There are other social media platforms that people use, but LinkedIn is the one designed to be a business network. By building your online network you are giving yourself a wider exposure of your business. It is a good idea to join relevant Groups on the site, then you will be able to ‘talk’ to like-minded people, or seek advice, get inspiration and generally feel more connected with others.
b) In person. A good handshake is a powerful thing – no flimsy ones and no bone-crushing ones, thank you. Just a firm handshake will do fine, and a great way to introduce yourself to someone new.

There are many events happening all over the world, and Eventbrite is a place where many organisations post their upcoming events. The City Business Library certainly does, and I have used it myself to find other events going on. If you’re new to it all, then try looking for free networking events – I’ve just looked up ‘free networking’ in London and it’s given me 100s to choose from. To be honest, free ones can be hit and miss as they can attract people who don’t want to part with any money and may not be genuinely focused on business. However, they’re great as an introduction to face-to-face networking, and if you are looking more for moral support rather than to sell your services/products, then they can be as good as any. Another great thing with Eventbrite is that there is a map with location pins to show where the events are taking place – so you can search for events near you. c) Having a mentor. Many people find it extremely useful to have a business mentor, so if you want to investigate whether or not this would be right for you, I would recommend having a look at the Association of Business Mentors website.

So, if you are feeling a little disconnected and struggling a bit with how to find support for your business, try one or more of the above. There are so many people just like yourself looking for not only technical support but also moral support to re-energise them in their business. Connect with others, get (and impart) new ideas and skills, and new energy!

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