Simon Fenton

Tracey: Hello, my name is Tracey Miller. I am Director of the fabulous BBB Success Groups. We help ambitious business owners create success.

Today, I'm joined by Simon Fenton. Simon is Managing Partner and Founder of Fenton Elliot Solicitors. He's an Employment Lawyer of 28 years and he's been with BBB Success Groups now for seven months.

So, Simon, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Simon: I'm an Employment Solicitor. I specialize in helping people negotiate through the labyrinth of the laws that are employment law. And I came to it relatively late, I didn't qualify till I was about 30, because I spent my 20s either traveling around the world or being a perpetual student, but what it meant was that I came to it with just a little bit more life experience than a lot of people. And it means that I generally look at things from my clients’ perspective - what do they want to achieve, and how can I help them get there?

And if you ask me a question about whether the law allows you to do something, that's not really what you're asking, what you're asking is, "Can I do it?" So, my answer is, I will search for a way to help you do it. And only very, very occasionally do I say, you're asking the impossible, you simply can't do that. Most of the time there's another way or a third way.

So that's what I do. I generally aim to help my clients. I hold their hand through the maze of law, and we get out the other side.

Tracey: And obviously, a particularly interesting time for you, recently, with everything that's been going on.

Simon: Yes, it's been very busy. The COVID rules - the furlough rules - were changing on a week to week basis. People would be asking me for advice, I'd be giving them a definite ‘this is what the law says’, and then, the following week, I'd have to call them back and say, ‘yeah, they changed it, so you can't do that anymore.’ And then a week later, I'd be calling them and saying, ‘yeah, they changed it back, so you can.’

And it was quite difficult to keep on top of it because it wasn't law, it was guidance and rules and government websites. And we're still sort of in that slightly. You put a rule in place and with the rule in place, you don't put the what ifs.

So, what if somebody decides to go sick, but then they're shielding and then they get pregnant? I don't know. Let's have a think about this. And you break it down into its constituent questions and you try and work it out.

But we don't have any case law, so we've got no guidance. We're just using what we think is the best way to do it. So, yeah, it's been very interesting.

Tracey: Yes, so an interesting point about not having any case law. They said ‘unprecedented’ - they were not kidding. So, yes, it's not occurred to me that, obviously, there's no case law for something like this.

So, in the last 12 months, Simon, what was the biggest success that you had?

Simon: Well, there's the temptation to talk about what the clients have achieved, how I've helped somebody do this and helped somebody do that. But after 28 years, you tend to celebrate the successes a bit less just because you've done them before.

I mean, it's lovely to have clients who get what they want and get through a big reorganization and redundancy without being sued, without falling out with people because they've been properly prepared, and they've done it properly.

But if you help somebody through a process like that, which takes six weeks - I'm doing one of those at the moment, actually - everybody comes out a bit wrung out and they don't even recognize that it's been brilliant. It could have gone badly wrong. It didn't because every time it was veering off course, you nudged it back into place - it works - and then they come out the other side and you don't get thanks and bunches of flowers, you just get, ‘Alright Simon, see you later.’ And that's kind of the end of it.

I recognize that that's a success. But for me, the biggest success was launching my business on the 1st of May, this year. Because at that point, we were six weeks into lockdown. And, I mean, I've been planning this for many months, and it was always going to be the 1st of May. And then, as lockdown happens, and April happens, and you think, ‘I don't actually have to do this. I could just wait, right?’ It's all uncertainty. The cards have been thrown in the air. We didn't know where they were going to fall. Do I launch it? Or do I just hold and wait to see what happens?

And actually, my thought was, people really need this now. This is something that I can really help. If I can be visible and here and available to help, that's what people want.

So, it makes sense to provide people with what they want when they want it rather than wait to see. So, it was a little bit of a leap in the dark. But it worked. It's been successful. It's been what people need right now.

Tracey: One of the reasons why I wanted to interview you was for that success.

So, when so many businesses - and rightly, I'm not judging anybody - stopped and stalled and panicked - and it was a terrifying time for small businesses - you launched a new business, right in the centre of it all.

And one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you was for people to hear that. When there is so much that is so challenging at the moment, to hear that someone actually launched a brand-new business and made it a success in the process.

So, you're only a few months in and things are rocketing for you at the moment. For me that was truly inspirational, so thanks for sharing that.

What was the biggest challenge that you overcame? The same thing, probably?

Simon: I mean, yes, really. But the challenge actually came before that. The challenge came in the decision to launch my own law firm. And that happened about this time last year, actually, because it's a law firm - a proper solicitors firm - you need the regulatory approval, you need professional indemnity insurance, you need premises, you need a website - the sort of normal stuff you get, plus all the regulatory stuff on top.

You could stop it - I could have said ‘stop’ - but you can't just say, ‘Well, next week I’ll launch a law firm.’ It takes months to get that organized. So, the biggest challenge, I think, was making that decision and a lot of people, a lot of lawyers, don't do that, because they don't know what the regulatory aspect is, how oppressive it is or isn't going to be. And when you break it down, it's doable because people launch law firms, right? So, it must be doable.

Having people to talk to about it, having friends who've done it, makes an enormous difference. Because if you've got a role model who has done something and you think, well, I'm like them - if they've done it, I can do it - that's great. And I think that's really powerful. So that really helped. So, the challenge was making the decision and the success was doing it.

Tracey: It's obviously a big part of that journey for you, and what I loved about it was how well you leveraged the skills, resources and knowledge of the people around you. Because it's hard launching a new business, there are so many things you don't know. And you don't even know what you don't know. So just the way that you really leveraged the people around you, to help you make that decision and then go for it, implement it, I thought was pretty phenomenal, I have to say.

Simon: Well, you don't want surprises, do you. You don't want somebody to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘You haven't registered with the Information Commissioner's Office, we're going to have to fine you £10,000 and suspend your license to practice.’ That's what you really don't want to hear.

But if you don't know that you have to register with the Information Commissioner's Office, it could happen and there are loads of things out there that you don't know might happen because you don't know, right? So, at a certain point, you've just got to go, ‘Well look, we'll deal with that as it comes up.’ And I'll do the right thing. I'll play by all the rules. And if the worst comes to the worst, I'll say, ‘Well, I was doing the right thing and playing by the rules, so please don't hurt me.’

Tracey: ‘Please don't hurt me’, no, love that!

Okay, so what’s the one bit of advice that you would offer, as your little nugget for business owners?

Simon: I think they talk about being managing directors or the chairman of businesses, it being a lonely place. But it's a lot less lonely there than it is if you're setting your own business up and you're by yourself, and you're making all the big decisions.

And you're also making all those small decisions and you're licking envelopes. And you're deciding whether to put another week's advert in the paper and what should it say and how should it say it? And do I get it designed or just do it myself, and it's decisions, decisions, decisions…

And, as an example, we had a big extension stuck on the side of the house at one point, and when you have building work done like that - square feet and rooms, room sizes, and then, at a certain point, somebody, after asking you for endless decisions, will say, ‘What kind of door handles do you want?’ Aargh, just put some door handles on. I don't care, I really don't care…

Tracey: Whatever opens the door…

Simon: But afterwards, you say, ‘I’m glad I chose those door handles.’

The point is, when you're running your own business, that's what it feels like. You're choosing door handles the whole time, you're choosing the structure of the business and door handles.

And as with doing the extension on the house, it really helped to have somebody else there to say, ‘What do you think? I think it should be like this, but I don't know anything, what do you think?’

And then, if you listen, they may come up with a better idea than you've got. Half the time it's statistically likely, isn't it? When you're running your own business, you feel very alone as well. And it’s things like, what would you do if you're faced with this kind of decision, this T junction, and how do you feel about it? And having somebody, or not just that person, but a group of people to throw that at. And then see half a dozen of them slap their foreheads and say, ‘Yeah, I get that too!’ That's very comforting.

So, I was thinking at one point, I really should have an office address in London. I'm based in Newbury, right, I've got an office here. But I think I should have an office address in London. Looks good, right? And so, I'll just…

And then you call places and there are serviced offices and virtual addresses and for £300 a month you can have this, or for £400 you can have this, but for £600 you can get all of this plus this, this and this.

Well, if that’s £600 pounds a month, 600 - wait, does anybody care? What does anybody else do?

And then they say, ‘No, just honestly, nobody cares, right? They want you and if you're in Newbury or Bradford or in Eastbourne, actually they don't care. So, don't stress about it.’ Great! Brilliant! That's a decision that I took days trying to think about, how to do it…

And that was because I had somebody sensible - a business person, not my wife who loves me and wants me to do the right things, but somebody who's got a critical business head upon them who can say, in no uncertain terms, don't be so bloody stupid, focus on the important stuff. And that's a great relief. And that's what the support of having a group of people really helps.

So, my big bit of advice is, get a mentor. Get a mentor, get a group of people that you can tap up for advice, who have no skin in the game in your business. They're not a solicitor, they're not a fear, they’re not solicitor in your firm. They're not a shareholder - they just have your interests at heart from a business point of view, because you've got to know, like and trust them.

And they can give you an honest view and sometimes it's worth listening to and sometimes it isn't, and that's fine. If it was always brilliant advice, then maybe they should be running your firm. So sometimes it's going to be good - just keeping your ears open and listening for the stuff that really resonates with you.

So, having a mentor or a coach or a group of people that can help you, makes an enormous amount of difference. You're not alone.

Tracey: I love that. For me you've hit the nail on the head.

I think one of the hardest things as a business owner is that isolation, and a lot of people move out of corporate because they don't want to work with the people they don't want to work with. And they have no idea what they've just taken on.

And you're absolutely right - it's all encompassing. You are literally making decisions about everything, and you get decision fatigue, and you go down the rabbit hole, and it is incredibly lonely running your own business.

So, your one piece of advice is, don't do it alone. Get yourself a mentor, get yourself a group, find someone, or a group of someones, to navigate this journey with.

Simon: If the first decision is, who do I get as a mentor - I've had a mate who runs a commercial surveying business who really helped me just about the nuts and bolts; I’ve had a business coach who was useless - nice, but really no help at all, not from a practical point of view; I’ve had a different kind of organization helping me. And so, you don't necessarily stumble on the right person the first time around. We met at a networking thing. And you said, ‘Just come along,’ and I said, ‘That's not for me…’

Tracey: That doesn’t sound like you…

Simon:… and I did, and it struck a chord. So, I'm really pleased. Seven months and I'm not thinking about leaving. I mean, that’s quite good for me.

So, you do have to find the chemistry which works for you.

Tracey: I agree. And I think that's a really important point. Not everything works for everybody. You have to find the one that really resonates with you.

And we talked about values - finding groups and people that share your values and want for you what you want, I think, is absolutely imperative. So, yes, a really good point.

That's been an absolute - as always - it's been a joy. We are very happy that you continue to be a BBB Success Group member. And it's been a real joy watching your journey so far. You've taken some big risks – they’ve paid off. So that's been a joy and I'm very excited to see where this is going to go.

Thank you for your time today.

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