Top critical review
7 out of 10 - Quite a nice personal account about the trials and tribulations of running a small business, with some useful tips
9 October 2016
I think this book deserves 7 out of 10, but Amazon’s start system doesn’t allow it.
Now, it seems that I am the first reviewer on Amazon of this book, so I do feel a little more responsibility than usual to prospective buyers, and to Tom Hodgkinson himself – as he may well read it. But personal honesty is important, and what I write is only my own opinion, after all. Ready? You too Tom?
Firstly, if you are familiar with and enjoy the writing of Tom Hodgkinson, then you will undoubtedly enjoy this book. I am someone who almost always enjoys the writing of Tom Hodgkinson; I think he is a very good writer. I have read and enjoyed all of his books (apart from the one about parenting which I haven’t read, though probably will); I am a subscriber to both his and his wife Victoria’s ‘The Idler’ on-line newsletters, and a subscriber too to the regular printed ‘The Idler’ magazine/journal. I also recommend the several annual hardback editions of ‘The Idler’ Tom and Co. produced over the last few years, still available via Amazon, I believe. All of this I highly recommend.
Now, I did enjoy reading ‘Business for Bohemians’, partly because I like Tom’s writing style – which I find relaxed, light, informal, casual and usually mildly humorous - and partly too because I have been a successful ‘small businessman’ of a couple of ‘microcompanies’ for the last twenty years – I’m a sort of ‘Educational Entrepreneur’ myself (and a bit of a Bohemian in the way I live and the ‘unconventional’ work I do) – and so I was interested in what he had to say about such things both professionally and personally. I recommend this book for the reading list of people considering starting, or just starting out, in a small business endeavour. As an aside, I can’t say I found the writing noticeably ‘funny’ generally; nice but not funny, to me at least. So I had no ‘laugh out loud’ moments as suggested by the book description; but maybe I expect too much and humour is very personal too, so other readers may well find it funny to read.
Through personal anecdote, Tom discusses a good number of important things you need to consider when running a business, including, perhaps most importantly, examples of what can go wrong if you’re not careful. For example, I was particularly interested to read Tom’s experience of hiring young staff to run his shop (which he and Victoria no longer run but is mentioned several times in the book). I saw some rather nice poetic justice in Tom’s relating of his frustration and anger at the chronic ‘lateness’, ‘slacking’ and ‘(bone) idleness’ of his pretentious young staff. In Tom’s otherwise excellent book, ‘How To Be Idle’, I was, to be honest, angered – nay, outraged - by what I see as his contemptable condoning of work ‘skiving’ and taking ‘sickies’ – including promoting the ‘Phone-in-Sick Day’ – the only time I believe such actions are condonable are when one is seriously and genuinely mistreated by one’s boss and/or company. Otherwise such actions show a lack of personal goodness, decency and honour in my opinion – ‘old fashioned’ notions I thought Tom would relate too. And let’s just hope none of our emergency and other ‘key’ workers find Tom’s ‘skiiving’ and ‘sickie’ ideas worth giving a go on a regular basis! On reading Tom’s views my initial thoughts were something along the lines of: “I wonder how Tom would feel if he had a company and his staff behaved like that?” Well, sweet, poetic justice indeed! Another lesson Tom should have learned – but I’m really not convinced has – is related in ‘Business for Bohemians’ with the way he initially selected his young staff: it seems Tom is rather too impressed by youngsters – and people in general, in fact - who have an Oxbridge degree and a private education (he even lists their schools, for goodness’ sake!). I can’t help wondering how this relates to Tom’s own privileged private education, Oxbridge degree and professional contacts – not that there’s anything wrong with any of this, of course, as long as such people don’t end up feeling in some way ‘better’ or ‘superior’ for it. They’re not. Tom soon discovers all four young Oxbridge ‘miscreants’ to be what I would call ‘pretentious young a-holes’ one way or the other – one actually criminally so, though Tom chooses not to press charges (I would have done) – who all regard themselves rather too highly based on the evidence, and yet Tom persists to the end, despite everything, in describing them as ‘nice’ young people, or words to that effect! He didn’t even ask for independent references so blinded was he by their academic (and family?) credentials! Serves him right if they ended up costing him grief and money. I’m sorry to say that I see this as a broader prejudice I believe Tom demonstrates in this book (and his other writing too), of being something of a pretentious academic snob and irritating name-dropper (many times in this book, including those ‘names’ of the people listed in the publishers’ reviews – hardly unbiased reviews if they are his chums or associates). I suppose one ‘takeaway’ from Tom’s tale is don’t employ ‘bright young things’ just BECAUSE they’ve had a private education and have an Oxbridge degree – but then what sort of plonker would?
Anyway, back to the review. Tom is vaguely humorous and self-deprecatingly honest about his too numerous business failings in the early days, though, I reckon you’d need to be a bit of a ‘tosser’ and an ‘idiot’ too to make as many mistakes – and in case you think I’m being unduly harsh in my insults here, I’m only quoting what Tom’s wife Victoria says about some of his business dealings in this book – I think ‘plonker’ would be a good word too!
I’m not convinced either that the title is an accurate representation or description of the contents of the book, not least because many ‘Bohemian’ types I know – especially the ‘arty’-types – probably wouldn’t even have the mental/emotional/physical resources, wherewithal, determination and persistence (all essential in my view) to follow-through on all the things you need to do to start and run a successful business – I would argue that running a successful business is an acquired skill in its own right – certainly not for the faint hearted. For instance, Tom talks about borrowing large sums of money against his house equity for the business – with no advice about how to raise capital if you rent a property instead, as many ‘bohemians’ do, not being able to afford to buy a house, or choose not to.
Similarly, in a business book for ‘bohemians’ – many of whom are ‘poor’ - I would have expected to see more on how to start and run a business on a shoestring – such as not spending any money on things you really may not need, such as premises when you could work from home; or on fancy and expensive equipment when cheaper would do just as well initially; or on expensive ‘experts’ when you could do the work yourself. Regarding ‘experts’, for instance, Tom talks about spending several thousand pounds on a web-site design company. This may well prove necessary and advisable, of course, depending upon your business and website needs. But I have run my successful educational businesses from D-I-Y, editable template-based website services since the late 90s – costing me about £250 per year to have and maintain myself – and have done well enough thank you – and my website has an online shop with dozens of products - including loads of downloadable ebooks – and currently generates almost all of my new business. So I would recommend at least investigating such ‘cheap’ template-based website services first before spending lots on ‘professional’ website designers – remember too that you can legally and easily enough ‘copy’ and adopt/adapt the website designs of successful on-line businesses who have probably already paid many thousands for their websites to be designed. Why re-invent the wheel? Likewise, if you are a UK company with a turn-over of less than I think £230,000 then consider doing your own on-line ‘fixed rate VAT returns’, due on a quarterly basis – it takes me about twenty minutes every three months to extract the figures from my own simple financial spreadsheet and enter them on the HMRC VAT returns website, which is easier to use than most on-line banking services I have seen. Why pay an accountant for this? We only do this for our end of year returns.
Tom also mentions that his wife Victoria is part of the business. All I would council here – as corroborated by Tom’s narrative – is, as with having babies, don’t have a ‘life-partner’ as a business partner unless your relationship is good and strong, because, just as with babies, the trials and tribulations you may encounter in starting and running a business can stretch relationships to the limits and beyond. Regarding having business partners generally, I would personally strongly advise against it unless that person can do something you can’t, or has something you need – and in both cases you can’t just pay them for it. It happens all too often that sooner or later one partner ‘believes’ that they are putting in more than the other and/or the success of the company is mostly down to their efforts, and/or the failure of the company is down to the other person. I speak from experience here.
Tom related some interesting information too about raising money via crowdfunding - he used a company called 'Crowdcube', I think. Actually, in one of his 'Idler' newsletters Tom felt the need to tell us that his 'analyst' at Crowdcube is a graduate of Cambridge University – and I couldn’t work out why! Is this important, I'm wondering? Would Tom have mentioned it if the bloke’s degree was from South Bank University or some similar-standard non-Oxbridge establishment? Surely it's how well he does his job that matters, and what he’s like as a human being, of course – and not where he got his bloomin' degree from! Another example of academic snobbery, I’m wondering?
Anyway, despite all I’ve said, I think this is a nice 7/10 book and worth buying, for a light and enjoyable read about what NOT to do, if for nothing else!