I’m Karen Gilbert and have been properly self-employed since 2003. My current business is writing and teaching perfumery, but I didn’t set out with the intention of it being a business, it just kind of happened. In 2010 I decided to take a break from my other business as it was really draining me, and started to teach a few classes for fun. I got a book deal a few months later and never actually went back to working full time in my first business, which is a clothing shop and tattoo studio.
My retail business is ten years old and has premises and five employed staff plus myself and my partner, as well as four freelance artists. Nowadays I only really do the financial stuff related to the business and my partner, Richie, does the day-to-day stuff. It’s doing really well with a great team who are great at what they do. We don’t have a shop manager and there is no real hierarchy, everyone has responsibility and it works really well. Richie pops in to make sure everything is running smoothly and I’m always on the end of a phone or email.
With my perfumery business it’s currently just me working from home with Richie doing the online tech stuff and SEO for my website. In 2014 I have decided to join forces with a business partner to help push the growth of the perfumery business as being a one man band limits what you can achieve, both physically and financially.
What tips would you share to inspire other business owners?
Get really clear on your skill set and what you love to do, but be prepared to wear all the hats in your business at first so you know how it all works. Outsource as soon as you can afford to those things that don’t light you up. Don’t overstretch yourself financially and be realistic about your growth. Slow and organic is OK. Try to keep your business and your personal relationships separate and make sure you keep aside time for yourself and your family, life is too short not to have fun.
The biggest lesson I learned is to find something that you love to do, are good at and that people will pay money for; you need all three to make a great business in my opinion.
What did you struggle most with in your start-up phase and how did you find solutions for that?
My start-up phase lasted almost six years for my first business and I struggled with everything from staffing, debt, cashflow and premises to the extent that I felt like I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We tried to grow too quickly without really knowing where we were heading and it very nearly ended in bankruptcy. I cracked it by diversifying and increasing our profit margins. I also think that me pulling out of the day-to-day shop floor work helped massively. I was so stressed all the time it was affecting staff morale.
With my current perfumery business the struggle has been to really get clear on what I do and don’t want to do. I turn away a lot of opportunities that are not the right fit for me now, whereas at first I felt I had to say yes to everything.
What have you learned about yourself while working solo?
That you can’t and shouldn’t do everything yourself. Build a good solid team with complementary skills as soon as you can, as well as a support network around you, and always take care of yourself first.
Did you choose self-employment or did it choose you? Any regrets?
I chose to be self-employed when I realised I found it incredibly draining to work 9-5 for someone else. I had my first taste of self-employment as a photographer’s assistant when I was 19, and didn’t actually work as a conventionally full-time employed person until I was about 24. Even then, I always negotiated my hours outside of the norm and only managed five years each with two separate employers. No regrets at all; I worked for both companies as a means of learning rather than earning and I learned lots!
What one story would you tell to encourage newbies?
In April 2010 I decided to start teaching again and write a book. I set about getting in touch with perfume people on Twitter and attending events. I actively looked for opportunities and just put myself out there to help people. I re-established old industry contacts and ended up with a brand new business and two books in a short space of time. I’m a great believer in everyone’s ability to manifest what they want. You just need to take three simple steps:
- Get clear on what you want
- Look for opportunities
- Consistently move in the direction of Step 1
What’s your current project?
I run regular live classes and have a free online perfumery training series: KarenGilbert.co.uk/free-perfumery-training
Do you feel lonely or isolated when working for yourself? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How do you get your social needs met?
Goodness, no, I love it! I’d say I was an introvert and am happy with my own company. I love teaching and being around like-minded people but need a chunk of alone time afterwards to recharge. I’d say that if this sounds like you, then make sure you plan social events with some time alone afterwards.
How can we find out more about you, Karen, and become your fan and follower?