I was gobsmacked recently to learn that a person in the business community has been imprisoned. This person is someone who I met very early on in my business start-up stage, someone who seemed above board, even successful. At the time, a keen bean, raring to go and really no understanding of how to navigate this new world of small business and self-employment, I welcomed chats and coffees with most who asked. This person connected online, messaged me and we met for coffee. Red flags started when I was asked if I had suggested the meeting time because they “fit with the school run.” It wasn’t necessarily the question (although a little irrelevant), more-so that the conversation became very personal very quickly. Even for me. We met a number of times in different circumstances before I ended the professional relationship. Something just didn’t sit right with me.
When reflecting on this specific relationship there were actually a lot of red flags that I simply disregarded. Now, it seems crazy that I was so amenable and convinced myself a lot of the comments and behaviour was banter and a quirky sense of humour. What strikes me the most about this, is that the micro business community is totally unregulated. How would anybody know that this person had been accused of rape, twice and was awaiting trial? He operated (what looked like), a successful business, he frequently networked, he spoke well, he was well-educated, and he talked in that business bullsh*t way that a lot of people buy. How the hell could I know, even if I wanted to that this person was not safe?
It strikes me that micro business is sometimes like the Wild West. You don’t have to have many conversations to find out that people short-change one another, renege on the deal, pressure others financially, even borderline emotionally manipulate one another. To be honest, this is a side to small business I had NO IDEA even existed. The steepest learning curve in becoming self-employed isn’t the multi-faceted nature of doing your own accounts, marketing, sales, processes and delivery. The hardest part is silencing the noise so that you can make sound judgement calls on what feels right and not end up in situations where you suddenly feel compromised or at risk. The hardest part is learning very quickly who to trust and who to not, who wants to use you for gain and who is friendly to your face and entirely different behind your back. So as usual, I have some suggestions for things I have learned along the way that might be helpful.
1. Don’t overshare
I am very honest and open; I have never been the one to hold back and this is both a gift and curse. A gift because I can connect and create trust with others more easily. A curse because it encourages others to open up, maybe more than they wanted to and creates an unusually close dynamic which can get blurry. So just be mindful how much you share at first and perhaps practice caution here until you feel more able to judge the situation.
2. Is it your business?
Closely related to the above, thinking about the questions we both ask and want to be asked. In a business capacity, is it any of our business if someone is married, has kids, plans to have kids etc. As a mid-thirties’ woman, I get asked this ALL THE TIME. Truth is I have chosen not to have kids. But the fact that we blur the lines with personal questions can sometimes make things a bit too personal a bit too quickly. As a rule, if it doesn’t make a difference to business, don’t ask it.
3. Feel how you feel and recognise where that feeling is
I learned this from my life coach. Where in your body to you feel things? For me, I feel stress in my stomach, anxiety in my head and sadness in my heart. If I meet someone and feel uncomfortable my body has a table tennis match between my head and stomach. I feel agitated, nervous, my anxiety pricks up and I feel a bit nauseous. Recognising what happens inside your body also takes some of your thought process out too. We quiet the bit that makes excuses for someone’s behaviour and we can rest knowing that we just aren’t OK about them or the situation.
4. Meet in public spaces and let people know where you are
Captain obvious here but I have been asked to meet people I have never previously met in all sorts of places. Again, I tune into my spidey senses and think, “hang on… is this weird?” I now have a select few places I meet people, places I feel comfortable. If I am meeting someone I don’t know I will ask people who do know them a bit more about them and if they push for a location I am unprepared for I will make sure it is in my calendar and I check in and check out with friends, family or trusted people before and after.
5. Veto alcohol or “after work meetings”
I love a good glass of red and I love even more a big glass of red and a great conversation. BUT sometimes you can leave yourself wide open here. I know, because I feel this has happened to me. It doesn’t always have to have negative connotations like something terrible will happen to you, but sometimes a glass is enough. When you are in a semi-business situation you don’t want to be “that” person and a glass can lead to a bottle, and to a late night and maybe you are totally unproductive on a Wednesday because you got swept away on a Tuesday night and didn’t want to say no when you know you should have. If you veto or meet in a non-alcohol-based environment, then you can just avoid all of this.
6. Silence is complicity
I recently heard someone say that silence is complicity. I think this is so true. This is why I have chosen to display my pronouns in my title (she/her) to show my support of others and normalise gender identification. This is also why when someone says “that’s so gay” I question the use of the word and the context with which it was meant. When my colleague joked about breast size or his dating needs, I could have said something to question his need to share this information, or the relevance of breast-size to business. This would demonstrate my discomfort but also enable him to understand my boundaries. The truth is if we don’t say things, we are complicit. We are allowing negative views and behaviour to be seen as acceptable. On a personal note if we don’t say anything, we hold onto the frustration or feeling it causes in us which can lead to stress. So, it is better, albeit perhaps awkward to get it out. This is not about being the banter police but rather recognition what you don’t feel OK about and enabling others to understand your view.
7. Google them
It was only after I heard about this business connection being imprisoned that I Googled him, and all sorts popped up. We talk about the digital revolution sometimes like it is the enemy but in this instance is it VERY useful. Being totally honest here I often look people’s financial returns on Companies House to see if they are a legitimate as they appear to be on social media. It is a useful tool to weed out the “contraprenuers.” You can’t always believe everything you read, testimonials can be false, positive reviews and can bought and in the age in which everything we share is curated it is difficult to figure out the truth behind the gloss.
8. What do you get out of it?
I often get asked “did you do X for free?” firstly, please refer to point 2 of this article and secondly, please know that I rarely make any decision unless I see a mutual and fair gain for both parties. This is something I didn’t think when I started and would give and give and give until I was flat out exhausted. Now I am measured and spend some time considering what benefit is in it for me…. And do you know what? It is OK to think this. As a micro-business you have me, myself and I to think about, you have a family, a mortgage, a car, whatever. You need to live, and it is totally absolutely OK to put this front and centre of your thought process. If you offer services for free make sure you get something out of it, if it is not a fair exchange and someone is taking advantage then opt out.
I have written this to raise awareness and start a discussion about what is going on and how we can protect ourselves and our trusted business connections. I also want to help newer businesspeople, to steer themselves in a positive direction, know that it is OK to make decisions for your own benefit in the early days, not be compromised and stay true to who you are. Business can be highly rewarding, highly motivating and the connections we get out of it can be incredible. We just need to be mindful and stay safe along the way. Stay safe people and listen to those spidey senses.