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New business champion learned the hard way

Monday, 30th November 2009.

When £100,000 of European cash was to be channelled into encouraging Haverhill’s jobless to start their own businesses, the organisers didn’t have to look far to find a local champion for the project.

Working at Haverhill’s learning centre was Chrissy Proctor who, with her husband Sean, had explored both the highs and the lows of running their own business in a two-year rollercoaster ride.

Menta, the Suffolk Enterprise Agency, decided her experience would make her the right person to lead the charge for the 16-month support initiative, which aims to go out into the community and explain the help that is available to start up businesses.

It was just another twist in the Proctors’ dramatic story. In 2008 they won two categories at the Haverhill Chamber of Commerce CB9 Business Awards, for best new business and best use of technology, having rocketed from zero to £180,000 turnover in just 12 months with their Internet shop business Essential Shops Ltd.

Within a year both were personally bankrupt and they still don’t know if they will retain their home – but they are already well on the way up again.

“We didn’t listen to any advice,” admits Chrissy. “We learned the hard way. Now we take advice. We know we had a very successful model and we know where we went wrong.”

Not yet a qualified business advisor, Chrissy passes people on after her initial contact to one of Menta’s advisors for their three free sessions under the scheme.

But she is the one who has the fascinating job of first listening to their plans. “I have heard some fantastic ideas,” she said. “Of course, a lot are what you would expect at the moment – builders, decorators, etc. But I had someone who designs and makes very individual wrought iron furniture.

“I had an inventor who wouldn’t tell me what his invention was in case I nicked it! I have had someone wanting to start a charity venture, a mum wanting advice on becoming an interpreter or translator, someone wanting to set up a stables – all sorts, really.

“Some people don’t have much idea and you have to ask them if they have a hobby or something they enjoy doing which could earn them money.

“I talk to mums and ask if they have considered doing ironing or childminding, because these are the sorts of things they are doing already.”

Coming from a varied background of having been an executive PA in London for ten years, a financial advisor and a design consultant, Chrissy was running the Cricketers Arms in Rickling Green with Sean until seven years ago when they moved to Haverhill.
“We came here with nothing but Sean began building websites as a hobby and it became a 24/7 business. We set up an Internet consultancy. Then he built a shop website called Essential Bits, trading household items and went on to trade board games, toys and all sorts.

“We overtraded the first year. We were too insular to listen to advice and the orders kept rolling in. We took on another unit and then came the recession and the bank pulled the overdraft and made us insolvent.

“We had to go personally bankrupt and we still don’t know if we are going to lose our house. But we rebranded and relaunched the consultancy for Internet marketing and it is flying now.”

Things were so bad for a while that Chrissy, 43 and a mum of two girls aged nine and seven, was reliant on relatives bringing food for the children, so she knows the downside.

“I’ve been there and I’m not prepared to stay there,” she said. “I won’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, but I just tell people my experiences.”

Menta launched the pilot scheme in Haverhill (one of only two funded from the European Social Fund – the other is in Bedfordshire) because the part of the town had been hard hit by the recession.

“Many people have been unemployed for some time,” said Chrissy. “Redundancy is a huge dent to self-confidence, and there are just no jobs available in some industries. It is important for these people not to feel they are worthless.

“Running a business is not for everyone, but were are giving them the tools to make an informed decision whether it’s for them. Menta gives impartial advice on an individual basis. There is no ulterior motive. It is just to help people change their lives if they want to.

“After all, it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.”

* Our picture shows Chriss Proctor outside Menta's business units in Hollands Road.

Haverhill Online News

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