(first year in business – 7 minute read)
My first year in business, I didn’t even feel like I was in business.
It was back in late March 2020 that I got the call from my employers. It was a crisp autumn morning. A beautiful, sunny day that seemed to hold so much promise back then. They told me that I was getting laid off.
‘I’m really sorry Sam, but we have to let you go,’. Said my boss at my old accounting firm.
‘You’ve got to understand, employment laws in Aotearoa heavily favor employees…and with this COVID thing, we can’t risk having you on full time contract… its… easier for us to let you go while you’re still on probation,’. He enunciated the word ‘easier’ as if it was the hardest thing he’d said his entire life.
I had spent the entire previous night working on a brief for the COVID wage subsidy that the team could use to educate their clients (I did this on my own initiative). It was my second week at my new job. Despite my work, I wasn’t able to prove my worth to the team and I was let go without a second thought.
When I got home I told my wife the bad news. We cried and railed against the injustice of it all. But in the end, I accepted my fate. There was nothing I could do about it.
How did I get here?
My journey to stay in Aotearoa hadn’t been an easy one. In October 2017 I had made the decision to stay in NZ instead of returning to my native Malaysia. At the time, the (now former) Malaysian Prime Minister had been accused of allegedly embezzling money from the Malaysian taxpayers. I saw an opportunity to not return to a country with corrupt leadership, and so I took it.
My first job was working 10 hours a week for $19 an hour doing finance admin work for the Refugee Orientation Centre in Hamilton. With a PhD in Finance, I was grossly over-qualified. But it was the only place that would take a chance on a migrant like me.
From that first job, I managed to secure a succession of different accounting jobs. However none of them lasted very long. The first accounting job let me go due to staffing issues, they didn’t have anyone to train me. The next few jobs were short term contracts that weren’t extended. Another accounting firm hired me but promptly let me go when they realised I couldn’t work with their system. Finally I was hired by my last firm. It finally felt like my luck was turning around. I could finally apply for a work to residency visa. Then I was let go because of COVID.
I was told by well-meaning individuals that perhaps my problem was that I wasn’t ‘fitting in’ well enough. That perhaps if I tried a bit better to gel with ‘kiwi’ culture I would be able to hang on to a job. Maybe if I didn’t eat rice with my hands, chewed less loudly and not call out co-workers that made racist remarks I would be more ‘kiwi’. Then I’d get to keep a job in Aotearoa.
Instead, I started my first year in business.
There were no job openings available at the start of April 2020. The NZ government went hard and fast, shutting down the borders and placing the entire country into lockdown. Businesses were still figuring out whether or not they could still operate under the lockdown rules.
There was only one opening, posted just before the start of lockdown, for a firm I did short term work for. When I called them up, they told me not to waste my time. With a string of rejections from my previous jobs, they said the problem was likely with me. They didn’t want a problematic team member.
So, I gave up on the job hunting and threw myself into this blog. I had started this blog in August 2019 as www.samharith.com (that link won’t work now) to create an online profile for potential employers. Without any hope in the employment market, I focused on writing on things that mattered to me instead of writing for employers. I put up the article detailing how the COVID 19 wage subsidy works to help business owners all across Aotearoa. It was freely accessible. It became extremely popular. People started messaging me for advice.
Without even realising it, I was in business.
Getting my very first client
The very first client that approached me was Meezies Kitchen, a sole trader who makes delicious South African Samoosas and other specialty dishes. She had just started and needed an accountant to do her taxes (She’s still with our firm btw :D).
I did her 2020 returns for $18. I have since learned about setting better price points. But that’s a different story. What I did gain from that experience was the joy in helping others solve their financial anxiety. After that, the clients started trickling in. Within a month of posting the COVID 19 article, I had ten clients with my firm.
With the letters of authority from these ten clients, I applied to become a tax agent with the IRD. I also applied to become a Xero partner using my accounting and finance qualifications. And, I set up a company, because I was seriously in business now!
Doing my first year in business, part-time
In June 2020, 2 months after setting up my business, my old university was offering me a full-time job as a lecturer. At that stage I was only making about $1,000 a month from my business. Naturally I said yes!
Work on the business slowed down a bit as I settled into my new lecturing role. Teaching is great! I loved showing up to class and helping my students understand accounting and finance better. I fully threw myself into my new full time job. It was a contract for 12 months and I naively thought that it would get renewed at the end of the term. My accounting business became my side-hustle whilst I pursued a full time career in academia!
As the months went by, and NZ increasingly isolated itself from the rest of the world, the University started to suffer. Without any international students, budgets were tight. The University was losing money. In September 2020, my head of department told me that it was unlikely that my contract would be renewed. There wasn’t enough budget to re-hire me, unless things changed.
It was at that moment I realized that my business was the only secure source of income that I had. I had to stop thinking like an employee and start thinking like a business owner.
A hundred little bosses VS one big boss
One of my business mentors once told me:
‘Being self employed, you have a hundred little bosses. Each client pays you a small amount of money for doing stuff for them. If one of them decides to fire you, you still have 99 other clients. Being an employee means you have one big boss. This big boss pays you all your money. But if they fire you, you’re left with nothing’.
With the looming threat of my contract ending without renewal, I threw myself back into the business. I set myself a goal of blogging everyday for 30 days straight to increase my content output. Then, I shamelessly shared my work on every social media group I could find. Also, I networked endlessly online to build up my client base. I solicited reviews from every client that I had at that stage.
I knew that if I couldn’t build an income stream from my business, I would have no money by the time my contract ended.
By April 2021, one year after I had started my business, I was making from my business almost as much as I was making from my University salary. When my head of department told me that my contract wasn’t getting renewed, I smiled and told him, ‘That’s ok, I have to focus on my business anyway,’.
The end of my first year in business
In my first year of business, I learned some valuable lessons:
- If you can’t find a job opportunity, create your own opportunities.
- Don’t expect your employer to take care of you, you need to take care of yourself.
- Its more liberating to rely on 100 smaller clients than it is to rely on one big boss.
It felt great! It felt like I was on the track to something awesome!