Steven Parham is currently the Managing Director of The Starjammer Group. In a rare Bulletin blog at a time when the world is experiencing a global pandemic, he, like the majority of us, is trying to manage his business, expectations and overall thoughts for what possible future his business might have after all this blows over, if ever or at all.
At present, the United Kingdom is in lockdown, experiencing its biggest peacetime emergency in living memory. Strange days indeed…read on.
“Well. That didn’t quite go according to plan.”
One way of summing up 2020 so far. There are other sentences, phrases or memes we could use, apart from catastrophe, pandemic, disaster, apocalypse. I myself prefer to refer to the situation as ‘The Current Imbuggerance’. For what it’s worth, here are some of my experiences and thoughts which I hope some of you can relate to.
The pandemic, from a certain point of view
Before the pandemic, a number of small businesses in the UK were struggling with a far different problem – the changes in legislation to IR35, which would have allowed HMRC to collect payments from contractors that they deemed effectively to be employees of the companies that they worked for. The problem was that some contractors (like us), class themselves as consultants or freelancers, and satisfy all the criteria that would meant that we are not subject to IR35. In Starjammer’s case, we’re not a sole trader, have a few long term employees on the books, and we have over twenty long term clients in various areas which we either do long term project work for, or occasional but regular small works.
This piece of legislation was already hitting the consultancy industry heavily, as penalties for companies that until then benefited from the use of non permanent labour outweighed the benefits and flexibility of their use. Not just for the end clients, but the people who choose to work for several clients at a time. Penalties for consultants and freelancers meant that HMRC could come after you, ranging from 30% of unpaid taxes if they determined that you were careless or negligent about your IR35 status, to 70% if you deliberately ignored it, and up to 100% if you blatantly hid your status.
To be honest, the pandemic was only vaguely on some of our radars – we knew or were vaguely aware it was happening, but it was elsewhere in China, too far away to worry about and supposedly out of harms way. The first time that I really became aware of it was on Christmas Eve. More people were concerned about the massive bush fires in Australia, and on reflection the pandemic seemed to start off like the AIDS crisis in the eighties; just a nebulous threat, nothing to worry about – rather like an electric car on the road that you can’t hear approaching you at speed when you’re crossing. By the time you realise it’s there, it’s too late.
I’m not going to go into the history of what we now already know, or its dreadful human cost so far. We’re all guilty to some extent of taking our eyes off the ball in this situation and sleepwalking into a disaster. It’s useless to throw blame about in this instance. You could say that the perhaps the authorities didn’t act fast enough. But then the threat of the coronavirus was so variable, it being mild in some cases, near negligible for some and yet fatal in others. What on earth were we dealing with?
It’s a similar reaction to that we all had when 9/11 happened. Did we just see that for real? Wow, what was that, was that a clip of the new Die Hard movie? Disbelief was followed by shock, grief, fear and reaction. The new normal as it was back then had arrived. Even so, we adapted, made mistakes along the way as a species, and largely for the majority of us, we finally moved on.
The imbuggerance however is very different.
The pandemic was like 9/11 in slow motion. It crept up on us, only occasionally impinging on our everyday consciousness and in discussions around our offices. Occasionally my phone would ping up with a BBC alert every couple of days – now, it’s constant. The way we now live under lockdown, the way companies run (well the ones that can still operate in some form or other), everything that we took for granted has been turned upside down.
In January, we knew it was happening but life went on. By February, serious chats in offices about possibly working from home were had, but that’s all they were – just a proposition, whether it was practical or not. At the beginning of March, IR35 was perceived to be a much bigger threat to small businesses – the legislation in question has now been delayed by a year due to the crisis, possibly (hopefully) even mothballed forever if the House of Lords have their way. By the end of March, lockdown in the UK was firmly in place and we should all be self-distancing. As the time of writing this, to date there have been over 3,000,000 infected worldwide, over 21,000 have died in the UK alone, 211,000 globally, and the United Kingdom has just held a minute’s silence to remember the key workers who have died as a result of the outbreak.
Coronavirus was never in the playbook, and even if it was, you would have to keep making revisions to the text daily. Until now, you assumed that your business could possibly be hit by any number of tangible threats, or perhaps affected by other forces or factors; for example, people not paying their bills, the work not coming in, or being sued, or perhaps the business becoming unviable due to losing key staff. Acts of god, war, famine, pestilence and plague, for some reason are not planned for so much, as business owners always like to be optimistic. To paraphrase HG Wells, this is our great disillusionment.
A good friend of mine, Tony Campbell has a very good way of perceiving these things, and according to him, the coronavirus has three ‘tentacles’, a bit like HG Well’s Martian Invader in The War of the Worlds: C, D and E. Contamination, Disruption and Expulsion. Most of us will avoid contamination, however we’ll all experience disruption in some form, and many of us will face expulsion as we lose loved ones, or the loss of our jobs and livelyhoods as businesses go under, when staff are laid off to protect what’s left of those businesses that do survive and so on. We are a long way off from normal.
Then there will be the things that follow. At present, we’re just getting over the first big peak of infection in the UK, as we try to ‘flatten the curve’. There will be a second or even a third peak of infection as lockdown restrictions are loosened up and then reintroduced in order to allow our NHS to cope with the situation. This pandemic is a very much like a world war, and the final casualty count will be comparable to one. There will be other pandemics that will follow almost immediately after or concurrently. There will be a mental health crisis, many of it’s victims being those that were already fragile before the pandemic, as well as those damaged by it. There will be a spike in other illnesses such as cancer, addiction rates such as alcohol or otherwise will increase, and there will be a rise in unemployment and a new debt crisis as countries, banks and companies shore up their defences ready for whatever comes next. On the plus side, we’re seeing the best side of human nature, and we’re all realising that we’re isolated and are reaching out in new ways. We’re appreciating more of what we have, rather than in some ways appreciating what we had.
Where the business is
Right, in order to put this into some sort of context, let me tell you a little about myself. I set up Starjammer just over seventeen years ago. In the early days, it was just a small engineering company which did Computer Aided Design and prototyping work for other companies in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical and heavy engineering sector. As you can guess, I’m someone that likes to stay busy, engaged and interested in what I’m doing. If you had said to me back in 2003 that I would still be running that company to this day, to be honest I would have laughed at you.
In 2006, I started to diversify. A lot of friends and colleagues were setting up on their own, so I started setting up their companies and websites for them. Having branched out accordingly, I started taking on and dropping off staff and contractors as and when they were required. I started building up the business slowly, such as having the capability to design circuit boards and small prototypes for other companies, then moving into video content and promotion work for small firms.
By 2015, Starjammer had its own online newsletter – the Starjammer Bulletin – for customers and advertising purposes, giving weekly news bulletins and imparting occasional articles with advice for small businesses to which all the staff contributed. We are exceptionally proud too of our track record in helping our local community – we had the honour and pride for four years of sponsoring the local boys football team, the Havant and Waterlooville Hawks Youth Squad. We have a continuing and rewarding involvement with The League of Friends at St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth with their web and online presence, and we were delighted to be able to donate a number of much needed computers and peripherals to Fairfield Infant School in Havant in 2018, in what was then a challenging time in the education sector.
We stopped updating the Starjammer Bulletin and archived it a couple of years ago. It became too laborious to fact check every newsworthy item in an age of fake news, and policing content became expensive. The bulletin was not by any means a mistake, but it was no longer a cost effective means of advertising. Rule One: Know when to stop. Just because a thing is good, it doesn’t follow that it’s doing any good.
The business grew at it’s own pace and has sometimes contracted as well due to the state of the economy. I have made my fair share of business mistakes too, such as overstretching myself, or employing the wrong person here and there, taking on customers that in hindsight were problems waiting to happen, or renting an office that was way too big for the size of my then ambition. So, Rule Two: always learn from your mistakes – pick yourself off, dust yourself down, and start all over again. A lot of us will be doing this very thing soon, so above all be kind to yourself. Sometimes these things do just happen, and you will recover from them. Life goes on and it goes forward.
It is now late April 2020. Within the last two months, the business has shrunk by three quarters, the small business side of things is now closed – permanently. To be fair, that side of the business had reached the end of it’s natural life, and I’m still amazed that it had done as well as it had. I had set a goal that in April 2021, I would start to shrink the business to a more manageable size. I’m fast approaching 50 after all, I have a young family, and I have mostly done what I have set out to achieve. Until March this year, Starjammer was doing okay as a business, it still has a good reputation and I can safely say that as a boss, I could never ask or wish for better staff than I have now.
Now, it is virtually sleeping, it’s loyal staff are currently furloughed, and what little work needs to be done each day, such as the occasional invoice to post or pay, basic admin, updating the servers to keep the web clients happy and going, takes little more than an hour a day, if that. The world is in a collective coma, and we’re all drifting in and out of a weird consciousness, not entirely sure what day it is. Weekends and weekdays feel the same, and routines as well as lives have been shattered. So, here’s Rule Three: Never take anything for granted.
Where I am right now
I’m used to working from home, although I prefer to be in the thick of things and working alongside people. Curiously, when it all goes well, I don’t mind commuting. A number of my close friends are fellow commuters, who themselves are in a similar situation. If anything, the imbuggerance has proved that we can all work from home if we have to, that we don’t have to dress up in a pinstripe suit to do our jobs or prove our worth, and that nobody is superhuman. Do we actually need to commute if everyone can now see the benefits of working from home where possible? We’d all like to think we’re the ‘Big I am’ if we could, but the fact of the matter is that we’re not in the driving seat now – it’s the doctors and nurses on the front line, the binmen taking away our rubbish safely, the postman making sure we all stay connected in the normal way, the shopworkers and funeral directors that spend every day in the firing line of this insidious little bug.
As for our permanent staff, they have been incredible in these difficult times, and are used to working from home, and I doubt the business would work as well as it does if they were fully office based. The business will adapt and change according to circumstances as it has often had to do, and any successful business should have that flexibility if it wants to survive. We’re lucky to have them (they know who they are).
I’m also lucky in that I have an extremely supportive wife and family, who are also still getting used to these oddball days. My boys have been home schooled for a number of reasons since just before the lockdown, and are raring to get back to school as soon as possible. Being a bit of a social bunny, I do miss being able to catch last orders down the pub, or see my friends without having to put at least two meters or a webcam between us, and it’s still very odd that you can only see relatives by waving at them through a window or talking to them via Zoom and Messenger. On the plus side, I have caught up with old friends online, and made a point of learning new skills while I currently sit here waiting like everyone else in the naughty corner of the Twilight Zone.
Home schooling has been an eye opener too. My kids have taken to it quite well, and the missus is used to riot control with far more than just our own two clowns to keep entertained and on their toes. I have also been teaching them stuff, such as extra maths and science, mixing in some text book stuff with You Tube videos of chemistry experiments, old Eric Laithwaite lectures and Johnny Ball when possible. Sometimes they’re not in the mood for it, and who can blame them? Their world too is also upside down.
A part of their homework was to study the blitz during World War 2. So, with the aid of a kitchen table, some blankets and cushions, my wife and the boys took cover when I sounded the air raid siren on Spotify over the speakers, and playing lots of sound effects around the house. Enormous fun for me, punctuating ages of deafening silence with ack-ack fire, bombers and bombs going off, old recordings of the odd bloke shouting “PUT THAT LIGHT OUT”, that sort of thing. Kept them under the table for nearly three hours.
I am also fortunate in that I have a number of hobbies and personal things to catch up on. And enjoying simple things like cooking. At the beginning of the lockdown, I diligently went through old household and business paperwork, and shredded old out of date documents which now form 12 dustbin bags full of life chaff.
My office has never been so tidy. Or the house. Or the garden, which has been until now been neglected of late and the source of much attention over the last fortnight. It now has so many solar lights, that it resembles the end scene from Silent Running. I’m fairly sure Elon Musk shot something like it into space recently.
Where I want to be
Obviously, like everyone else, I want this to be all over, so we can get back to normal, or some kind of new normal. We can’t pretend life will go back to what we knew before. Some of us will have had the virus, some will have sadly lost people. What we are going through is a massive shift of consciousness. On my evening walk, I watch the empty trains go by. Twelve coaches from London to Portsmouth – all empty, except maybe at about 9pm when you might see up to six people on such a train. The key workers commuting at the new rush hour.
And a lot of good has come out of this horrid situation. The air is cleaner, the peace and quiet is great. I heard a woodpecker just around the corner from my house the other day. I have never heard or seen one for real until now. Even though everything feels like it’s on a precipice, I often experience an almost a zen like calm towards these events. Because either physically, mentally or economically, I am at the mercy of these events, so is everybody else. We are all equal, and because of that, this virus has been a great leveller. At other times, I’m bouncing off the walls and chewing bricks.
As a businessman, naturally I want my business to survive and flourish. I’m looking at new ways of doing things, and maybe discarding some of the old ones. We can no longer be reliant on what was the norm. There are a number of things that I enjoy doing that I have realised could be potentially lucrative, and for a few hours a day, I have been exploring these. I hope the readers of this have been doing the same too. Depending on how things turn out, these may form part of your revised business model, maybe even your new life, post imbuggerance. You always hear the phrase, ‘don’t work harder, work smarter’. It turns out that maybe we all no longer have any choice.
Rather than worry about the change, perhaps it’s time embrace it.