From Employee to Sole Trader: What it Means to Run Your Own Gas Business
We spoke to Dean Jones from Jones the Gas about what it means to run your own business in the gas industry.
Many gas engineers dream of starting their own business and becoming a sole trader. Being your own boss has plenty of alluring benefits and can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s not always a walk in the park.
You’ll know all the tips and tricks of the trade from your experience working in the gas industry, but running a business requires you to handle several other aspects at the same time. From scheduling to customer management, accounting, tax, and lots more, the extra freedom comes with added responsibilities.
This was one of the topics we recently talked about with Dean Jones from Jones the Gas. He’s packed with stories, knowledge, and advice from his 20 years of experience working as a gas engineer, first with British Gas but now as a sole trader.
Throughout our chat, he offered some great advice to fellow sole traders, what it means to be running your own business, and how it’s different from being an employee in a larger firm.
With more freedom comes more responsibilities
“People always say you are your own boss. Well, that’s not true – all your customers are your bosses.”
The initial success of a sole tradership often depends on how well the engineer can adapt to a new working environment. The jobs are of course no different, but with all the business responsibilities on your shoulders, it’s important to keep tabs on everything.
As Dean said, “When you’re employed by someone, generally you’re working 9 till 5 or 8 till 4. Whatever hours you’re doing, when you finish work – you finish work and you can go home…Whereas when you work for yourself, it really is like 24/7”.
When you have to deal with all the marketing, accounting, and business side of things yourself, it can be difficult to balance. On one hand, you’ve got to continue doing jobs to make money, but on the other, these business responsibilities simply can’t be ignored. However, he does note that “it gives you a little bit more freedom”. You won’t have a boss over your shoulder, and you can make your own decisions even if ultimately, as he says, “all your customers are your bosses”.
Treading your own path
As an employee, you can largely stick to your lane and do your job. But as a business owner and sole trader, far more decisions are on your plate.
You will make mistakes doing this, but it’s all part of the process. Even the most successful of gas engineering business owners have made missteps, but it’s how they’ve adapted that ultimately determines their success.
From all his years in the industry, Dean mentioned one thing which stuck with him from his days of being an apprentice that’s really helped him. He was told “not to work for anyone else that’s making money from you… Don’t work for letting agents, don’t work for builders, and choose your landlords very carefully”. He also advised new sole traders to “stay away from all the lead generation companies where you pay them a monthly subscription for jobs and leads”. The underlying story here is to try and build a self-sustaining business which can weather a storm or two.
As well as this, he also brought up his experience handling business tax for the first time: “I was going full steam ahead thinking I was earning loads of money…but at the end of my first year trading, I had a huge tax bill. It was hard, hard work paying that off”. His key takeaway from this experience? “If anyone else wants to set up on their own, get a good accountant and get some solid advice”.
Choosing to go the extra mile for your customers
“We plastered the wall, painted it, really tidied it up and, you know when you just do one of them jobs and the customer is, is that happy with it?
They’re literally in tears.”
In the trades, you have a uniquely close relationship with your customers. Any installation, repair, and servicing is your craftsmanship. Completing top-tier jobs will reflect positively on your business, so long as you can afford to spend the time on them.
Most engineers working in larger companies have tight schedules they need to stick to. In contrast, running your own business gives you the freedom and flexibility to do everything exactly how you want. Without managers to please and job quotas to fill, you’ve only got to worry about your customers.
For Dean, it’s important to go the extra mile and finish jobs that his customers truly appreciate. “We’ve had a few [jobs] recently where we’ve taken the boiler off the wall, and it’s been bad behind it. So we plastered the wall, painted it, and tidied it up”. His customer was so happy with the job that they teared up. “You can’t get any better than that”, he says.
It might not pay off immediately, but in Dean’s experience, having happy customers is more than worthwhile. His customers regularly return for repeat business because of his quality of work.
Understanding that your customers are your #1 advocates
“I’ve got a real loyal army of customers…it’s nice that they feel that strongly about recommending me to be fair.“
Fliers, leaflets, digital advertisements, social media, directories – they’re all great ways to get more customers. But nothing comes close to a trusted recommendation. Largely due to his attitude to his craftsmanship, Dean has been able to leverage word-of-mouth marketing to his advantage: “I’ve got a real loyal army of customers. As soon as someone asks to recommend a gas engineer or someone who can fit a boiler – they say Jones the Gas”.
While not necessarily the intention, his quality craftsmanship has undeniably helped Dean grow his business to what it is today. In fact, it leads us perfectly on to what he said was one of his biggest frustrations growing a gas engineering business: turning down work.
Managing your own time, and knowing when to turn down work
As a sole trader, it’s crucial to be able to effectively manage your time. This isn’t just inclusive of making a schedule which you can stick to – it’s knowing when to say no to a job, and how to handle such a situation.
For example, Dean’s business is so packed with jobs (especially around winter) that he can’t always accommodate the amount of work coming in. He’s sometimes forced to tell customers that he’s fully booked up for the next couple of months, and won’t be able to do the job. He could always say yes to these customers, but then he would be squeezing in too much work to do at a standard he’s happy with.
There are ways to solve this problem, though. He emphasised the importance of “good accounting, good software, and good tools”, but also simply recognised the need for an extra set of hands. He said that he “had to try and do something to expand the business”, but that it was important to find “the quality and calibre of an engineer who will carry your name and do work for you”. Pricing strategy is another element to consider, too. Higher-priced services generally get fewer customers, but make more profit (within reason, of course).
Becoming a sole trader is a huge step forward for gas engineers who want to better shape their own career. The extra freedom means you can run your business how you prefer, spend time where you think most valuable, and cultivate a loyal customer base. The whole process can be extremely rewarding, but it also comes with some serious hard work.
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