There’s no doubt that Wales is a nation of self-employed and small business owners. My partner, when he first moved here from Leeds and started to get to know people, would ask what they did for a living and was constantly met with a series of unexpected responses. “I’m a…poet, yoga teacher, Reiki practitioner, vegan cake maker, photographer, musician, mushroom grower, actress, chakra dance teacher, gong therapist, outdoor instructor, silversmith, the voice of the Welsh Peppa Pig!…. finally he asked me if I knew anyone with a ‘normal’ job?
Err, the answer to that is probably no. But I do know an extraordinarily large number of self-employed people.
Figures from a House of Commons Briefing paper 2016 report 5.5 million businesses listed in the UK with 99% of them being small to medium-sized, although 96% are considered micro businesses (employing less than 10 people) while the number of sole traders has increased by more than the number of all businesses 77% compared to 59%.
Considering the comparative size of the Welsh population to the whole of the UK, we have one of the highest rates of self-employment, and this is positively encouraged throughout schools and colleges in several ways. The Welsh Baccalaureate qualification is a compulsory subject taught in all Welsh schools and has a strong emphasis on employment skills and entrepreneurship. This is further supported by local entrepreneurs who are booked to speak, share their stories and conduct skills workshops with Big Ideas Wales . I’m one of those entrepreneurs. So why has self-employment become such a thing in Wales, and why is it a significant part of the curriculum?
With high unemployment and little remaining traditional industry there is little in the way of viable job opportunities for young people in Wales. Aside from public services (which employs the largest proportion of the local population), much of the work is based in the hospitality, retail or tourist industry. Youngsters face the prospect of working on predominantly zero hours contracts or in seasonal jobs. Inevitably this leads to what is referred to as the ‘brain drain,’ where the best of Welsh talent leaves the country looking for employment, training or the chance to shine elsewhere.
Consequently, the people of Wales who stay or return, migrants and natives alike, are very good at being inventive, thinking outside the box and doing it for themselves. Wales is a proud, talented nation of artistic, musical, sightly eccentric and community minded individuals and certainly, the part of Wales in which I live, has a very high percentage of said creatives.
Many of the most successful business owners I know have started small, grown steadily, without over stretching themselves too soon. In 2016 there were 383,000 business births and 252,000 business deaths. Many businesses that fail, do so because they have misjudged the market, overstretched themselves, invested too much, taken too much of a risk or failed to adapt. A striking feature is that across the UK only 20% of SMEs are female led, however, many of the business owners that I know are extremely dynamic, intelligent and sightly formidable women (probably myself included). Indeed it seems like most of the sole traders and self-employed people I know are also women.
When I think about those successful female or family led businesses, many actually began life in the kitchen at home. Sometimes with a simple creative or sometimes crazy idea. A few people spring to mind; Paola and Danny at Dr Zigs Extraordinary Bubbles , Margaret Carter and Patchwork Pate and Alison and David Lea-Wilson at Halen Mon salt
David and Alison set up their first business while still students at Bangor University, supplementing their student grant by growing oysters. After graduation this evolved into a wholesale fish and game business which they ran for twelve years. Noticing that people were just as interested in the live fish as they were in eating them, they set up The Sea Zoo. This was established in 1983 and became the largest aquarium in Wales, but both this and the fresh fish business were seasonal which caused income problems over the winter months. The couple set to work on income generating ideas; after brainstorming and rejecting many, they settled on a plan to make sea salt.
In 1997 they put a pan of seawater to boil on the Aga in the family kitchen. Soon salt crystals began to form and that is where history was made. In 1999 they started selling the salt to the local butchers in Menai Bridge and from there they haven’t looked back. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate just how successful their simple creative idea would be, but now that their salt is being sold at over 100 of the best delicatessen’s in the UK plus supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Harvey Nichols and successful export to more than 22 countries, there’s no denying, it worked!
Halen Mon are potentially Anglesey, if not North Wales’s, top small business success story.
I have used Halen Mon salt since 2010, for me it knocks the socks off other sea salt brands. Initially I bought it at the local produce market, then began to buy in bulk from their original base on Anglesey ( a series of portacabins) until today; now I visit Tŷ Halen, their award-winning Saltcote and Visitor Centre. A truly unique £1.25m bespoke building; a first for Anglesey, Wales and the UK. It is their centre of production, shop, headquarters and tourist attraction in its own right. It lies on the banks of the Menai Strait in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, next door to Anglesey Sea Zoo in Brynsiencyn and is well worth a visit.
So, to go back to the beginning. When I started my supper club people laughed. “Who’s going to come and eat dinner in your living room?” people said. A year later I launched a business and a blog, both of which are still thriving. So, the moral to this story and the point I wanted to get to, is…go take a risk. Do something you love. Have passion and belief in your ideas. Don’t let anyone tell you that your plans are crazy. You never know, you could be the next Halen Mon, Patchwork Pate, Dr Zigs… you could write that book, be that musician; but you’ll never know if you don’t try!