Becky Lodge Founder of Little Kanga Ltd and StartUp Disruptors (a business club and community for start-ups and small business owners) interviews Sarah Jane Black, a business to business management consultant who owns and runs SB Business Services, working across Portsmouth and the UK. This is the third article in a new series exploring the impact of Covid-19 on local businesses and start-ups in Portsmouth.
Sarah Jane is an experienced management consultant for business to business (B2B), in the construction and engineering and cleaning sectors. Her specialism is compliance and organisational structure and management. She has had a career spanning over 25 years and is adept at helping small business (10-50 employees) to be more profitable and effective in growing their business, helping with cost saving and analysis, and problem-solving for companies that may be struggling. A single parent to two children, Sarah has worked with some of the most challenging individuals and sectors in society to manage change, including the prison service and care provision in the community. She has been providing consulting services since 2003, but has only more recently decided to ‘go it alone’ without paid employment to support her.
Becky Lodge: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
Sarah Black: My career started as a PA when I was 17, working for accountants and auditors. I did a diploma in sales and marketing from home and then went into care into the community for a while. Aged 27, I started a family but when my daughter was 2 years old, I started a local cleaning company and had about 25 contracts. I then had my son and sold the business. I was headhunted to go and work for a local newspaper and I started my business consulting for a cleaning company, and branched out into health and safety and management consulting from there. As a single mum, juggling a life and a career is difficult to say the least!
Over the last 10 years, I have been made redundant seven times and the business had lain dormant.
At 40 years old, I did a teaching qualification and then worked at Kingston Prison, teaching ‘lifers’ to become mentors. They in turn, learned to mentor younger prisoners and children with ASBOs to help educate them and minimise re-offending. This was the most personally and professionally rewarding thing that I have ever done in my life. We reduced re-offending across Hampshire and West Sussex by 48% on the ‘Through the Gate’ project. Since then I have worked for local colleges as an assessor for IQA and teaching and helping others is my passion.
After working with local colleges and moving on from my redundancies, I continued to consult with a local electrical company for ISO 9000 and completed the management in construction qualification. I am a compliance expert by trade. My business is supplying consulting: I am a management consultant and I help companies with operational management and solutions applications, supporting businesses with accreditation schemes (e.g. ‘Safe Contractor’), and helping with things like staff training, and event management to help businesses get the ‘word out’.
What have been the challenges for you as a female business owner?
As a woman, the biggest challenge has been looking after my family, having a business has been a challenge. Credit and loans have also been an issue to continue to finance the business, as I have not had the credit history to be able to get loans and grants from schemes that others may have had access to.
Women are expected to do much more in terms of the family and having to prioritise my family and the business at the same time has been tough for me, but not insurmountable.
How did you feel about the Covid-19 pandemic?
I was frightened and fearful for my future and I was employed at the start, but not by the end! Everything was new. People were not sure about what was going on.
After this, I wasn’t sure what was real. Where I live is really quiet and I felt detached from everything and everyone. I felt that we had almost gone back in time to the Second World War and the TV was like the radio. telling us things each day that just weren’t comprehensible. I was hanging on every word and cocooned myself for safety. I was also fearful for the economy and what would happen to jobs and the impact on my family.
What helped you as a small business during the COVID lockdown?
I have been able to reflect over this period and realised that I don’t want to be employed by others any more. My children are now older and I can focus on my business. I also want more of a work/life balance.
Three years ago, I had a tumour removed and I had the chance to reflect on what I wanted to do with my future. By nature, I am a hard worker and want to be able to have time to be a mum and a daughter with caring responsibilities, and COVID bought all of that home to me. It’s not easy juggling the clients that I have and the family caring responsibilities that I currently have, but the business is building slowly but surely. I knew that it would take a year and I currently have seven clients and my first very large contract has come through, so I am very pleased about that.
I think that imposter syndrome also plays a part. I am from a family of brothers and it’s hard to compete within that unit. I became a solution provider. This started from when I was a child and my brothers were allowed to do things that I was not allowed to do, but they still seek me out now for help and support. Women are far more reflective and often have to shout louder to get ‘seen’. I am proud of the person that I am and am immensely proud of all that I have achieved.
What do you think will happen in the next 6 months with your business?
I am looking forward to delivering the large contract that I have sold, and aim to have at least one more large, long-term consultancy project that I can take on. I do work from home and I would like to have a small office to be able to go to so that I can ‘go to work’ and have more storage space. GDPR plays a big role in this from a data security point of view. I am also conscious of building a culture that helps and supports people and my clients in a safe space that feels secure.
What’s the next move, both for you and the business?
The next move is to bring more paying customers on board, to network more fully online, build up a monthly newsletter to help to build my customer audience, and focus more on social media activity and a marketing plan and what to say, how to say it and who to say it to.
How have you found starting up a business in Portsmouth?
Your help has been invaluable. You are so supportive! I felt alone when I met you and you gave me help when others wouldn’t. It has helped me at a time when I wouldn’t have known who to ask or where to go to for help and support, so I would personally like to thank you for helping me with this. It really has changed things for me in both life and business.
I am still ‘up against it’ in terms of getting funding. Further support is key and this has been hard for me to access, and for women funding is still a barrier. There is not a lot of localised support for this in terms of helping women to understand business finance and how they should/could access it. The judgment of others is more harsh for women in business and I have had some negative responses in the past from people when I explain what I am trying to do in B2B (Business to Business sector), which can be seen as a male-dominated environment. But I am more than up for the challenge!
Were there any periods in the last few years that were challenging for the business?
My health being good has been the biggest challenge; at one point there was no money coming in. I felt like a failure and I wasn’t sure how to get through it. I keep myself healthy and now this is a priority over everything else. I have found that a routine with Pilates in the morning has been extremely helpful and financially, this has a ‘knock on’ effect in me being more focussed for work and my clients.
Like living on a hamster wheel, when you are employed by someone else you live on ‘hope’ and I had to get off the employment ‘hamster’ wheel and make a change. This is what I have done and I am now looking forward to a brighter future and helping more people to change their companies and grow their businesses.
You can find out more about StartUp Disruptors and how to join them, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn and you can follow Becky Lodge over at LinkedIn. You can also telephone: 0333 444 0364 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- POC communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.