Setting up your own construction consultancy: what's it really like?

Almost one-fifth of all UK small- to medium-sized enterprises operate in the construction sector. We spoke to three professionals who set up their own construction consultancies about the advantages and challenges of running an SME

Author: Fiona Hull David Reynolds and Justin Sullivan

04 February 2020

Q: Tell us about what your construction consultancy does and how its evolved.

FH: Construction Q is a full-service quantity surveying practice based in Cheshire. We look at all aspects of cost planning, cost control and cost management on both commercial and private residential schemes. We also carry out estimating services for contractors, have a team producing bills of quantities, and a specialist arm that concentrates on dispute resolution. The business has a growing portfolio of projects and two offices, and we were thrilled to win the 2019 Northern Power Women Small Organisation award.

DR: Bloomsbury Project Management was established in 2018. The business is based in central London and offers cost and project management services across a wide range of construction projects. Although Bloomsbury Project Management was set up as a limited company two years ago, I have been running my own business since 2011 as a sole trader. The business has grown substantially in the past two years – and I think this has been helped by the profile and protection a limited company offers.

JS: Adair was set up in September 1994 at my kitchen table in Cheam. I was initially a sole trader and now, 26 years later, Adair is a limited company with headquarters in Surrey and offices in Mayfair, the Midlands and Gibraltar. Adair has evolved from a quantity surveying firm to a business offering quantity surveying work along with project management, bank monitoring, building surveying and dispute resolution.

Q: What made you decide to set up your own business in the first place?

FH: After starting a family, I became shocked by the lack of flexible opportunities that existed for working mums in the construction industry. Working for myself allowed me flexible hours, home working if a child was sick, and it reduced travel time dramatically.

DR: A combination of wanting to offer what I felt could be a better service, and the challenge of starting something and not quite knowing where it would go. My experiences have taught me that the construction industry can often be volatile, and I wanted to give myself as much control over my career as possible.

JS: It was always my ambition to have my own business. I wanted to be my own boss and build something for myself.

Q: How did you go about setting up your business?

FH: When I decided to set up the business I had no capital, and no real idea of how to go about it. My brother had started his own mortgage company several years before, so I used him as inspiration and support. I persuaded him and his brand consultants to let me have his logo, change the colours and tweak the name, so Mortgage Q became Construction Q. Structuring the company was also done on a bit of a whim and is something I've revisited. Following a recent restructure, with far more thought and forward planning, I now have a joint shareholder and director.

DR: The key thing for me when setting up was clients. I had enough project experience and contacts who trusted my work to be able to go it alone. In the surveying profession, as the surveyor you are the product. You don't have to go out and buy stock or have a shopfront, you can do everything you need on a computer. When I became self-employed in 2011, cloud computing was becoming popular and this worked in my favour. It allowed me to operate seamlessly and very quickly without any great overheads or initial outlay.

JS: I was lucky that I had a friend who had done something similar who I relied on for advice. He discouraged me at first, mainly because I wasn't a chartered surveyor yet, but I was determined. In terms of logistics, there were two main objectives for me: appointing an accountant and obtaining professional indemnity insurance. Once I had those, off I went.

Q: What do you see as the benefits of running your own business?

FH: Having your own business can be exhausting, stressful and complicated to set up, yet the benefits far outweigh the negatives – and one of the main advantages is flexibility. I may now work weekends, evenings, and take a laptop on holiday, but I choose my hours. You work more hours than you would as an employee, but they are on your own terms. You also have an opportunity to build an ethos and, on a grander scale, shape the industry. Many of our clients, for example, are women and they see it is an advantage to have a female presence on what are often male-dominated building sites.

DR: The independence and the flexibility, which in turn lead to personal fulfilment, are the main benefits. You are representing yourself, so you're providing a service at director or partner level yourself and always looking to be your best. The nature of the construction business also means you are exposed to different clients and sectors, all offering a variety of challenges. No two days are the same when you run your own business, and that makes it exciting.

JS: Two things: the first is making your own decisions and not needing anyone else's approval. The second is being able to employ who you want to employ: it's nice to look at the business and realise that I employed everyone, and they all align with the company ethos and do a great job.

"Owning your own construction firm means you have an opportunity to build an ethos and on a grander scale shape the industry"
Q: What are the challenges involved in running your own business?

FH: Cash flow has been one of the biggest struggles for us. As a small business, particularly when starting out, you can't always be choosy about the clients you take on. As a result, we have become the victims of company insolvencies, absent builders, and clients that simply decide not to pay. Fortunately, these instances have been few and far between – you learn from being too trusting, and we created robust terms of engagement and payment to protect ourselves. We can now afford to be more selective about who we work with. Many of our contracts are repeat clients and these long-term relationships are a key factor in enabling us to grow the business.

Recruitment has also been tricky. It's a chicken and egg scenario as we grow year on year. You have to gamble when you take on staff and believe that the work will follow. Finding the right staff is crucial. Running your own business is a constant juggling act. There is always something to do, whether its planning a pitch for a new contract, working all night to meet a deadline or dealing with a human resources (HR) issue.

DR: The challenge is providing a valuable service while also managing all the administrative tasks: company registrations, VAT, legalities, and professional indemnity insurance, for example. These tasks can be quite burdensome: you are the IT department the HR department – and everything else rolled into one. Luckily, I think, as surveyors we're already trained to do most of those tasks so we can take it in our stride. When setting up the business, there are certain things that RICS guides you through but, ultimately, you need to understand what you're doing.

JS: As I was very young when I set up the business, I often had people looking over my shoulder to see where my boss was, only to find I was the boss! Besides that the main challenge was being paid on time, if at all. Cash is king in construction. When I originally set up the business, I was working lower down the food chain, and being paid was often difficult due to the financial situation of those above me. Riding out the cash challenge is easier as your business expands. Now my business has an accounts team with a credit control branch that chases up outstanding money.

We're also more careful about who we work for now, both in terms of ensuring we're paid and ascertaining whether the culture of the client is similar to our own culture. If they're different, it's likely we won't work well together.

Q: Can it be daunting competing in a market dominated by bigger firms?

FH: Only in the first year. The biggest obstacle is opening the door to larger contracts when you start as a one-man band. This is when you rely on your existing network and reputation to get that first break. I think most small firms are confident that they actually provide a better service – it's just persuading clients that you don't need to be a recognisable brand to know what you're doing. This is especially important as many contracts are awarded through procurement frameworks – generally long-term contracts – that look for evidence of similar schemes. Many firms invest five-figure sums into bid-writing and trying to secure a framework. A start-up firm doesn't have this resource, which is why it makes sense to focus on growing at a steady rate and building your reputation as a business.

DR: On the contrary, SMEs offer a director-level service and can be far more competitive than the bigger organisations. You can offer stealth and a level of confidentiality and discretion not possible under the banner of a large corporate organisation.

It does, of course, depend on the service you're offering. Bigger firms offer a global reach, whereas I offer a tailored, local service. I haven't got a big machine to feed, so I can pick up the small bits of work that the bigger firms don't and still offer same level of service with lower overhead costs.    

JS: Smaller firms can be more agile without the constraints that the larger firms have. Adair used to say 'small enough to care, large enough to cope'. The benefits of working with a smaller firm are that we can be cheaper, as we have fewer overheads, and there will always be a director working on the project.

"The challenge of owning your own firm is providing a valuable service while also managing all the administrative tasks"
Q: How has having your own firm helped you develop as a professional and an individual?

FH: Running your own business has an incredible effect on your personal development. Instead of being just a quantity surveyor, I suddenly also became head of marketing, head of HR and head of accounts. You have to adapt and learn skills in all areas of the business. I also had to get up to speed with social media – Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram have all helped our business win contracts and grow. As a small business, you don't have the resources to employ others to do this for you. You have to wear all hats and learn quickly. In the first year of Construction Q, I joined a well-known networking group. Suddenly I was thrown into giving presentations every week in front of 50 people. I would never have had the confidence to do this without being thrown in at the deep end due to the incentive of growing my own business.

DR: Having my own business has made me more confident and open to new opportunities. On a professional level you have to make sure you define your ethics and processes – I think thats one of the most refreshing things to have control over. The key difference is motivation – I can decide on a certain direction for the company, but I have to motivate myself.

JS: You have to learn skills that perhaps you weren't expecting to: accountancy, employment law, insurance, management skills, graphic design, web design. I'm also a prolific networker – you have to network to keep abreast of what's going on in the industry. Having your own business is like creating an animal – sometimes it's nice to you and other times it bites you. I've learned to deal with both scenarios.

Q: What advice would you offer someone considering setting up their own firm?

FH: My only regret is that I have been too trusting at times. Several unpaid debts have caused difficulties for us and if I'd been a bit more switched on in the early days these may have been avoided. It's a learning process, though, and I definitely don't want to be seen as being too contractual. I'd recommend growing at a steady rate: we have had opportunities to grow quickly, but I think our growth rate of one additional employee per year has made the business easier to manage. It is also really important to surround yourself with a good support network – not just family and friends but support from other businesses that will help you thrive. Nurture the right support team and you will reap the benefits of a trusted network. Running your own business is exhausting, but everything you do is for you. It is extremely rewarding, and if you have the drive and determination you will succeed. I would encourage anyone to take the gamble and go it alone. If you're not afraid of hard work and taking a few risks, then self-employment is definitely the answer.

DR: I would advise setting up your business as a limited company straight away. It provides stability and profile. Be open to advances in technology and learn how to apply them in what is fundamentally a people industry. Our work needs a lot of professional input; you can offer that very quickly and seamlessly if you do as much as you can digitally. Start small and lean and make sure you are open to any opportunities. Things move quickly and when you are in control of your own company you can be agile and adapt to that.

JS: Put a chairperson in place, to give a structure to your firm. Ideally, this should be someone you trust who can act as a mentor, and who is predominantly there to look after you and the business. Have your goals set out so you know where you're heading. It's vital to have a strong brand and to wrap everything you do around that brand. We look at everything – the clients we work for, the jobs we do – and then ask ourselves if they sit well with our brand. If they don't then we don't work with them. Then invest time and money in communicating that brand: get a marketing professional involved at the start of your business's journey. Finally, you need a good website – it's your shop window – and it's worth doing well.

Fiona Hull MRICS is director at Construction Q

David Reynolds FRICS is director at Bloomsbury Project Management

Justin Sullivan FRICS is director at Adair

Related competencies include: Business planning

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