Growth & Customers
How to recession-proof your business
GoProposal founder James Ashford reveals how you can future-proof your business to tackle recessions, increase your profit and stay positive.
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In part two of James Ashford’s episode, he explores the ways in which you can future-proof your business to tackle difficult obstacles—one of those being the dreaded recession.
James never watches the news, nor does he allow negative people into his space. These are just some of the many things he does to stay positive and battle the business blues during tough times.
This is a story about not buying into crisis culture and learning how to put the right processes in place to create a sustainable and successful business—no matter the weather.
If you missed part one, be sure to go and check it out: How to build a resilient mindset.
Here’s his unfiltered advice:
- Growing a software company with no investment
- Have a system running your business and people running the system
- Learning when to manage or remove people from your life and prioritising your time
- Putting in systems and processes, so your business can run without you when you decide to sell
- How to future-proof your business for stormy weather
- How to approach conversations with your customers about price increases and offering them the best experience possible
- Money isn’t the biggest motivator—it’s the lifestyle you want to create
- Look for the gift in every day
Growing a software company with no investment
What were some of the big challenges as you scaled that you came up against? What were some of the fears as you grew the business?
So we grew a software company with no investment. So that was quite an unusual thing, Kate.
I didn’t necessarily buy into it, part of it, I’m a tight Yorkshireman. Part of it was a lack of knowledge about taking investment. I didn’t want to give up a share of my business.
Did investors approach you?
Later on they did. Not to start with.
Later on they did. But I wanted an old school profitable business, because of the mistakes I made in the past, I wanted to get it right. I wanted to get everything implemented properly.
There’s just one key step, Kate, before that, just to be aware of.
I needed my wife and I to be on the same page with everything. This is really important for any business owner out there, is that at home you’re aligned with your partner, whoever’s in your life. It’s really key.
So we had joint bank accounts, we moved to Starling Bank, but any challenger bank would do the same thing. So we had a joint bank account and then a collective joint account that all the money would pool into.
And then within there, and the reason why these challenger banks work very well, is you can then set up spaces. So for Christmas, cars, emergencies, birthdays, everything.
So the money gets pooled in, splits out into all the spaces, and now we’ve got complete transparency over our financial situation, and we know that we’re moving in the same direction.
That’s really important.
Alignment at home, visibility, transparency at home. And I learned that through the mistakes of the past.
We also, before we started, put a financial plan together, worked with a financial planner. How much money do we want a month? What are some key life goals we’re trying to achieve?
There were my goals. I wanted Becky to leave work, because she had a very difficult job. This was her goal as well, by the way. She had a very difficult job as a secure psychiatric nurse.
I wanted to move closer to the kids’ school. And I wanted to be able to take my kids to and from school every day. That was it.
So we built the financial plan around, what are your personal goals? What’s the financial plan that’s going to help you to give you that, and the time that you need to be able to do that as well?
And then ultimately, what would you want to sell the business for if that was a possibility?
So we did all that first, and then we started the business and started to grow it. We grew it on very solid financial principles. We invested very heavily into the finance function of that business.
When we sold the business, we were at a £1.5m revenue, and I was spending about £6,000 a month on the finance function. So that was for accounting and bookkeeping.
And I speak to businesses like, “What were you spending all that for? Geez, I’d never spend that much.” I’m like, yeah, and you’d never be able to sell your business.
The first thing you do when you come to sell a business, anyone that’s looking to buy it will say, “Show me the last three years of monthly management accounts. Show me the board meetings that you’ve had for the last three years.”
They just want to see the data. They want to see it fast, because they want to know you’ve got it and that you’re on top of this stuff.
So if selling your business is ever a possibility, and you don’t have monthly management accounts, get in touch with your accountant today and say, “I need to start having this. I need a budget, I need a forecast.” You need to do all of these things. So I made sure that those things were in place.
One of my first goals was set up a separate bank account for all the tax to be saved, so I never made that mistake again.
I wanted three months of overheads in another separate account, so I knew that if anything dried up, the money was there. And then that turned into six months’ worth of overheads. So solid financial principles were there.
We had a major competitor that had seven years on us and had $24m of investment. So that’s what we were up against, so it was a tough climb.
And I’m not going to say there weren’t challenges along the way, because there were certainly challenges, and there was a lot of doubt and difficulties and all those things.
But I don’t really recall anything major.
And one thing that I was able to do was maintain a good quality life outside of work as well and be there for my children. And everything that you do in business comes with a cost.
So if you want to scale more rapidly, if you want to take investment, if you want to make more money, whatever, that’s fine. That’s cool. It comes with a cost. And you’ve got to ask yourself, am I happy with the cost of doing that?
So I could have grown it bigger, I could have perhaps grown it faster, but it would’ve been at the cost of seeing my children, or the cost spending time with Becky. And I’m sure I could have been more present and more there, and I enjoyed what I was doing.
But I think it’s really important that, especially if you’ve got young children. The years while they’re young are very, very precious, and they’re not with us for long, and they’re off doing other things.
And so it’s important that you’re not just successful in business, but you have to be successful in life.
And that encompasses everything.
We have to have our good mental health is primary. Physical health is primary. They’re the two most important things, more important than anything else, more important than your relationship with your partner, more important than your kids.
You’ve got to be in good health. Then it’s the relationship with your partner, then it’s your relationship with your children.
Then it’s to make sure that you’ve got your finances coming in, and you’ve got your time right. And if you’re not successful in all of those areas, you’re not successful.
And I’ve just been speaking with a business owner very close to where I am now, hugely successful guy. Makes a fortune. Multi-multimillionaire. Properties everywhere. He doesn’t spend any time with his kids.
So to me, that is not successful, because that is important to me.
So I think if I was to say a challenge, I think it would be that, in just getting that balance right all the way, Kate. And if I was to beat myself up, it would be that sometimes I wasn’t always present.
I was there with my children, but not always there. I’d be distracted, I’d be on my phone, I’d be thinking about something else. And so I think that is probably the biggest difficulty that we face.
Have a system running your business and people running the system
But what were some of the things that you put in place to make sure you were doing the school runs, and being there for your family, and looking after yourself?
Were you quite disciplined with your diary in the meetings and working at the weekends?
So I, like I say, had studied business for years before implementing this. So everything that I’d been trialling with these other companies, I was able to put into play very, very effectively and very quickly.
And so one of the things is that everything was systemised. If it could be automated, it was automated. I had the most ridiculous systems in play, so everything just flowed through.
But I knew how to build all of those. So I built them all myself.
So from an automation point of view, right the way from a lead capture, right the way through to a sale, to onboarding that client, to delivering email content, things going out in the post to them, through if they had a failed payment, how that got caught, everything, right the way through to them cancelling.
Everything that could be automated was automated. Everything that sat outside of that was documented.
So there were systems and processes in play for everything. Everything had a playbook. Right the way from how you answer the phone, what’s the script, what do you say?
So everything was there.
So when I got my first member of staff, who was Jack, we started to work on the playbooks together. And what happens is, you’ve got to have your system running your business, and people running the system.
Where people fall down is, they have people running the business, but then you’ve got chaos. Because everyone’s doing things in their own way, and nothing’s improving.
Your business is only in competition with one other business, which is yours last month. That’s it. And all you’ve got to do is for your business to be incrementally better than it was last month.
But if you’re not locking down a process and setting that in stone, and people are doing things in their own way, how can that get better? How can that welcome call improve? How can that cancellation call get better?
Everything has to be improving all the time, and it only has to be improving incrementally.
If your business is getting an inch better, one degree better, month in, month out, nobody can catch you.
Learning when to manage or remove people from your life and prioritising your time
So you’ve got all these processes and systems in place.
What else did you do to build a resilient business and get the balance you needed?
So we had that in place. We had the key metrics in place. Everything was systemised. I was very disciplined and very selfish with my time. I was blocking out all negativity. I don’t listen to the news.
And I’m alright removing people from my life. There are eight billion people on the planet, I don’t mind getting rid of people.
So if you can’t get rid of them, you might have to manage them. So some need removing, some need managing. So if they’re your parents or whoever, but you know they’re bringing a level of negativity with them, you have to learn to manage those relationships.
But you have to become super selfish for your own sake, to give you and your family what it is that you need. Everyone wants your time.
We’ve got an interior designer in at the moment. She messaged me, she said, “James, I’m sorry, I don’t know if I overstepped the mark last week, but I sent a message, and you didn’t reply to me.”
I said, “If you’ve overstepped the mark with me, you’ll be the first person to know, because I’ll ring you and tell you. If I’ve ignored you, you’re just in the group of other people I’ve ignored in the last week, including my mum, including friends, because I’m just on with things.
“If I’m not replying to you, it’s because I’m doing something that I deem to be more important.”
You’ll have seen the quadrant, where we got urgent and important. Have you seen this one, Kate? You know it? Yeah.
And people spend their time in what’s important and what’s urgent, but what you should be spending your time in is the quadrant of what’s important but not urgent, because you should be focused on it before it ever becomes urgent.
Working on your marketing today if you’ve got loads of customers coming in, it’s not urgent, but if you don’t focus on it now, at some point in the future when it dries up, it will become urgent and important.
So you want to fix stuff before it gets to that point.
But here’s the other bit the people don’t tell you about. It’s what’s important to you. I’m not bothered what’s important to you, Kate, I’m sorry to say. Don’t mean to break your heart, but I’m not. I’m bothered about what’s important to me.
And what we do is we assign levels of importance to things, or just because this thing is dinging and ringing and binging and bonging and making a noise. I respond to my emails once a week.
And if you’re upset with that because you’ve emailed me because you’ve got something important for you, that’s your problem, not mine.
Putting in systems and processes, so your business can run without you when you decide to sell
I was just going to say, that almost brutal level of prioritisation and that level of automatisation, systemising everything, putting processes and play books in place, was that also a very deliberate move to make sure the business could run without you?
Yes. Yeah. From day one.
Because GoProposal was a company that was built to sell, right?
It was built to sell, but you can’t just have an exit strategy, Kate. You’ve got to have what’s called an option strategy. Because you can only sell it if someone wants to buy it.
And at the start of this thing, you talked about being recession-proof, which is the same as being future-proofed, which is the same as being storm-proofed. They’re all the same thing.
And what it means is, no one knows what the future brings. No-one knows what’s coming. So the only way you can prepare for the future is to be adaptable and to be ready for it. That’s it.
So when we talk about having option strategies for your business, what I mean is that I could sell it, is one option. Great. I could scale it. I could franchise it into another industries. I could sell it into another country. I could bring in a management team and get them to run it. I could go and set up another business, whatever.
These are all the different possible options. The end goal ideally was to sell it, but that was only if the stars aligned, and you do need a bit of luck.
So how much of that is down to meticulous planning, and how much of that is down to luck?
I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past of crediting yourself with, it’s all on me, it’s all on these amazing decisions I’ve made along the way. Yeah, that’s part of it.
There’s a lot of luck as well involved in it. And so that does play a part.
So we had these option strategies, but it was built to sell. It was built to scale, and it was built to run without me.
So it took four and a half, five years to get to the point of £1m revenue. That’s when you become much more attractive to someone wanting to buy your business, because to get to a £1m revenue, you have to have got a lot of stuff right.
So all of a sudden, that is confirmation that other things have to be right to get to that point.
So you’ve got everything running like clockwork without you. How did you get the business ready to sell?
It was largely running without me at that point, but the following year that was coming, even if we’d not gone through the sales process, Heather, who’s the operations director, had called it ‘Kill the King’.
So the idea was in that final year, I was being killed off anyway.
So where people can get nervous is, you’ve become a key person of influence, you’ve built your name out there, people see you as the face of the business. All of those have been turned into assets. So the book was an asset. The videos there were assets.
If you watch my LinkedIn profile, some of the content I’ll post myself, but some of the content my team will be posting on there, with stuff I filmed last year.
So we turned all of those into assets, so the business could drive without me.
And that’s one of the key things that helps to give you the valuation of the business. It’s okay having team members. They’re wonderful assets, they’re incredible assets. You need amazing people to drive your business forward.
But somebody wouldn’t necessarily see them as assets, but they would see the processes that they run as assets. So everything has to be committed for that business to grow without you. Absolutely.
How to future-proof your business for stormy weather
I do want to focus a little bit on future-proofing, storm-proofing your business, particularly in the current climate where we’ve got relentless inflation, interest rates rising, which is really crippling business and household spending.
So how can companies get their pricing right?
What are your main tips?
So a hairdresser in my local town, I’m going that way because that’s where it is, posted, “How am I expected to grow a business with increasing energy prices, increasing rent, all this stuff? It’s terrible.”
And everyone was sympathising with him and saying isn’t it bad and stuff. And I messaged him personally, I said, “It is bad, but can you just answer me these questions?”
So this was in a private message, and I do know him. I said, “When did you last increase your fees? When do you train your guys in how to sell me additional products?
“No one has ever sold me hair gel or whatever product you put in your hair these days when I’ve been there. You do wet shaves. No one’s offered me an upsell into a wet shave while I’ve been there.
“I come every three to four weeks to have my hair cut, but you’ve never encouraged me to come every two to three weeks, so I don’t look terrible in that final week.
“You have a café downstairs. You’ve never once sold me a coffee. All these things would be moving your business forward.”
And he came back to me, and he said, “Yeah, but I can’t increase my fees. No one’ll pay more than £20 for a haircut in the current climate.”
I said, “James, go in the car parks outside and tell me what cars you see. Go into the pubs and restaurants and tell me how much people are spending on drinks and on food. Stop listening to the news and buying into everything’s in crisis.
“An energy crisis, an economic crisis, a fuel crisis, a strike crisis. Turn all that stuff off and go and do your own education, and you’ll find that there is still money out there and people want to pay this stuff.”
So I appreciate it is difficult, but the only thing guaranteed in business is that storms will come. Economic storms, recession storms, losing staff, losing customers, competitors coming, and all of this stuff will hit you.
My question to you is, are you doing everything you possibly can to peg your tent down and make it as storm-proof as possible?
Are you getting these financial things in place?
Are you saving money to one side?
Are you increasing your fees?
Are you doing what you can to boost your profit margin?
Are you educating yourself?
Are you training your team?
Do you know all of the metrics that are going to improve the revenue and profitability of your business? Are you incrementally improving them on a monthly basis?
Do you have a budget?
Do you have a forecast?
And I knew the answer for this guy was no. And the answer for many people is no.
And I’m not using it as a big stick to beat people up with, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
But you need great financial professionals around us and people who can guide us and help you to grow all this. We have to accept responsibility for everything we can, Kate.
So I know these are difficult times, very, very difficult times, but if you can hold strong and put these things in place… I always picture the… Have you seen Forrest Gump?
You know when they’re on the boat, when the storm comes, the shrimp boat, and they go into the storm. That boat was built for a storm. Your business has got to be built for a storm.
And when the storm comes, tying yourself to the rocks, retracting, recessing, stopping investing in marketing, trying to cut costs everywhere you possibly can, you’re effectively tying yourself against the rocks.
And at the end of that, all those boats were smashed against the rocks.
The only one that survived was the one that took the storm head-on and went for it. And that’s what we need to do to strengthen our boats and to go for it.
How to approach conversations with your customers about price increases and offering them the best experience possible
And how can business owners and freelancers handle those awkward conversations around price increases?
It’s complicated, and there are lots of things happening.
So I saw a bookkeeper this morning had posted a group that someone had challenged them on price, and had suggested that bookkeeping is just an admin job, and how on earth can he charge all these high fees?
And everyone was rallying around him and stuff.
One of the things I said, Kate, was, “What’s the experience been like, from the moment that customer interacted with you, till they sat down with you and presented the price?”
You can’t just talk about that in isolation.
You’ve got to look at the experience. Not the only, but the ultimate reason for systemising your business and people don’t talk about this, is to create incredible experiences for your customers.
Experiences change the way that people are made to feel, and they’ll remember how you made them feel long after they’ve forgotten what you’ve done for them.
So I bought a piano recently, and it was a quite indulgent, expensive cost. And when I contacted the company, they sent me a brochure through, they sent me a footprint of the grand piano as a template to lay on the floor, and to choose what size I want, and to position it there.
They sent me through music books to show what I can be playing on there and stuff. They invited me to the showroom, they guided me round the workshop.
It was just an incredible experience to the point where now you need to part with some cash.
And even after that point, I then got sent a gift in the post. I got a key to my piano, a little brass key and a little bag that I could open, and all this stuff.
And phone calls and people coming to service it straight away. It was an amazing experience that made you feel that that was worth it.
So you can’t just talk about price in isolation without talking and looking at the whole experience.
The other thing I said to this bookkeeper is, “How have you educated those people as to why your service is what it is, and why they should be paying what they’re paying?”
People don’t educate their clients enough as well to get to that point. But then once you get them to that point where you’re going to present the fees, you have to do it while you’re with them.
I know it seems scary, but you have to have a method of presenting everything that you believe that person needs.
Can you tell me something you recently bought Kate?
So you went to a nice shop to buy a coat. So you’ve been looking at it for a while, you knew roughly what you wanted, and they’ve come and presented you a coat.
But what they needed to know is that you’re preparing for autumn. So let’s get your autumn look. Let me see your Instagram channel, Kate. Let me have a look. Let’s create some Instagrammable outfits for you. Where are you going to be going with this?
So you need the coat, the scarf, the hat, you need the boots, you need the outfit. And how many outfits do we need? Shall we go for three this autumn? Let’s get you these three colours.
I’m going to present to you the very best thing that you need for this season.
Now if you turn around to me and say, “I only want the coat, I can only afford the coat,” that’s fine. I’m not going to force you to buy all this stuff. But it’s my ethical obligation to understand what you’re really trying to achieve with this, and to present the very best thing that you need.
So I might discover that you like climbing up mountains and hills. We’ll have one coat that’s going to be more designed for that, one coat that’s going to be more for your Christmas parties, I’ve got to help you.
And people are just scared to death of presenting everything they want.
You don’t have to buy it, but it’s your ethical obligation to spend time with your clients, to understand everything they need, and to present them the very best solution.
Because sometimes what will happen, Kate, is you go to buy something, and they try and pitch you something here, and you don’t see the value in it. I don’t see the value in that coat. Okay, let’s come down a bit and come down a bit.
Just because you don’t see the value in something here, doesn’t mean to say you don’t see the value in something here, way higher, which seems really counterintuitive, but it’s everything that you want, because I’m going to make your Instagram profile look incredible.
Imagine that picture walking through there, kicking the leaves, capturing it.
How many coats are we going for?
I’m going for at least three now.
I’m telling you. That’s what you need.
You have upsold me, James. So present the best possible solution, and make the experience magical.
Yes, and make sure that the prices that you’re charging, that you are then systemised off the back end of it, so that whatever you sell, whether it’s a product or a service, you are managing that as well, to know that that is going to generate you good profitability.
It’s not about earning an income from your business. An income is not going to change your life. You have to make a profit. An income will make you a living. Your profit will make you a fortune.
That’s a Jim Rohn quote. Jim Rohn’s a great guy.
So we have to focus on profitability.
And especially when you’re starting out in business, the way that you price a service may be to think, I used to be earning this wage when I worked for this company, so if I price it at this, I’m earning a higher wage now.
That’s not what you’re doing. You’re building a business.
If you’re only charging a good wage, you can never recruit other people.
So you’ve got to think long term, will this price that I’m charging now work in three years’ time when I’ve built a bigger team?
Will this give me the profit I need?
Money isn’t the biggest motivator—it’s the lifestyle you want to create
James, you always said that your motivation for running a business was to be a millionaire. You’ve got the piano now, you’ve got the lifestyle.
What motivates you now?
Well, that wasn’t the true motivation.
That was the thing to get me to the thing that I wanted, Kate.
So where it really started was, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint. And I set up a studio and I started doing portrait painting. And I realised this was going to be a really long slog to be able to do it, but that’s the thing I wanted to do.
And then we’re all after the same thing, really.
When you boil it down, and I’m always interested in these things, what we all want to do is to be able to do the things we want to do, with the people we want to do them with, when we want to do them, for as long as we want to do them for.
We don’t need things. The piano’s just a thing, but what we want to do is things, you want to go for walks, eat nice food, have holidays, whatever you want. And you want to do it as long as you want.
The thing that you’re going to need that’s going to facilitate that is cash. You can’t hide from that. If you want to go and live in a cave somewhere or a little hut in the middle of the woods, beautiful, you go and do that.
But otherwise, if you want to operate and be able to do the things, we need money for that.
So that was my driver.
So money was the vehicle that enabled me to do that. So I had this question of, how can I stop money from preventing me and my family from doing all of the things that we want to do for the rest of our lives?
That was the real driver, Kate. And therefore that’s where the money came into that. So just wanted to be clear on that one.
So ask me a question again based around that. Sorry.
What gets you out of bed in the morning now?
I’m always curious. I’m always just interested in how things can be better, and how can I help the people around me to become better at what they do, and for them to be able to flourish. I just find life just an interesting place.
Every day when my feet hit the floor, every day when my feet hit the floor, I say thank you.
You’re going to laugh at this, but my feet hit the floor and I say thank you, that’s my first thing. I’m above ground. I’m winning already. Game on.
And then the next thing I say is, “Today’s going to be a great day.”
And I tell myself, today is going to be a great day. If you’re waking up, and you like “Urgh”, if that’s the first noise that comes out your mouth, I can tell you what the rest of your day is going to be like.
So that’s it.
The actual truth, what wakes me up in the morning, is my son. He’ll be the first up. He gets up between five and half five, gets up, in his uniform, and he’ll come in, he’ll throw my covers back and be like, “Dad, let’s go. Let’s get up.”
So we go downstairs, have a cup of tea, watch something on telly, and that’s how we get started.
He’s got the same energy as you.
Look for the gift in every day
I love that positive mindset.
I mean, artist, magician, entrepreneur, bestselling author. You are a man of many talents. Thank you so much for sharing all your tips and anecdotes and practical advice with us today, James.
Thank you, Kate. And I guess just a final thing is, just keep going.
Whatever you’re doing, just keep going.
It gets difficult. And sometimes when things do get hard, and they have got hard for me many times, they’ll get hard for me many times in the future, I always try and ask myself, “Where is the gift? Where is the gift in this thing?”
Because sometimes just because that thing you’re experiencing right now… It’s all right us being positive on here, Kate, but someone could be listening to this and have a real challenge.
Just because that thing that you’re experiencing now, obviously illnesses aside and things like that, but a challenge in your business, just because it’s not what you think you should be experiencing now, because you’ve lost a member of staff or this has happened, whatever, there can still be a gift in there.
And when I think about the toughest times, I know you asked me about that earlier, when I’ve asked the question, “Where is the gift in this?”
One specifically was when we could have lost 25% of our entire clients within the next few months, to turn it into a completely new product, and developing loads of profit off the back of it.
And it all started with a question, is where is the gift? The first thing your brain will come back with and say is, “There’s not a gift. This is horrific.”
And you say to yourself, “But if there was to be a gift, where is it?”
And if you look for it, and you keep going, and you surround yourself with people, and that’s really key, the people you have around you who can point out those blind spots and who can help you in those difficult times, you will find the gift, and you will ultimately get to where you want to get to.
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