From a tough upbringing, Richard Osborne is now a multi-award winning entrepreneur and founder of the UK's largest online community for small and micro business owners, UK Business Forums.
There are currently over 500,000 members — a number rapidly growing with the spike in new start-ups, home working, and an increasing move towards a micro-business economy.
I was doing a lot of drugs, stealing and getting up to no good before I met Steve Coates, who became a father figure to me. I don’t know why he kept me employed but he saw something in me.
He ran a small business and grew to be chairman of Advanced Group, a commercial kitchen design company. People looked up to him and he devoted time to training me and, later, put money into my first business. Even though we didn’t gel together as business partners, he was simply someone who inspired me to clean myself up
In the mid 90s, I was on the street and out every night, before an old school friend saw me one night and took me down to the local YTS centre. ‘How do you feel like doing design?’ they said. I sat in the interview and one of the questions was where I saw myself in five years.
‘Driving a car and doing the driving like you do,’ I told Steve. I was offered a job there and then for £35 per week but I could have earned more selling drugs. However, things clicked. I took a computer book home and did a 3D drawing the next week, which the company had never seen before. They loved it and purchased another computer, which I then realised could produce more quotes in quick time.
I could see how I was adding value to the company by bringing in more tech ideas. Yet, my home life wasn’t in a great place. My stepdad had disappeared, the bailiffs were on to us and mum was working two jobs. I had a difficult childhood, for sure, but Steve was sending me on training courses and soon promoted me to team leader. I started to throw my effort into a career and wanted to please Steve.
I look back now and see how he really was a fatherly figure. He wasn’t aggressive or angry; he wanted to develop his team. I ended up working seven days a week, improving the company network and introducing email to the company.
However, I was also running into a breakdown and made the illogical decision of handing in my notice. By the time I left I was second in command, with around 40 staff.
I started Netrotech in 1999, with investment from Steve and we later sold that business after two years, 2001. I then formed Quick Formations, which became the UK’s largest company registration agent. It was soon overtrading, I was doing it all on my own and didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have Steve to define me.
I was setting up 150 businesses a day and it was swallowing me up. I sat there on my kitchen table and realised I couldn’t be the only person in the same boat. I was, though, familiar with online forums and I soon got UK Business Forums up and running. In 2005, I took ownership.
It was a place for people working for themselves, trading together and asking questions. Running a community is quite stressful with so many different personalities and I soon had some offers on the table, it changed our lives, while the money from the sale allowed me to launch Business Data Group, which now owns UK Business Forums.
During the pandemic, we looked at the business plan for UK Business Forums, with the owners looking to sell back to me. We knew there was revenue growth and there was no hesitation with my investors.
We’re only at the tip of the iceberg. We know that the pandemic will accelerate the progress towards a micro business economy, with sole traders and contractors working with large corporations on the rise. We are already seeing it with the banking sector — the rise in virtual assistants supporting SMBs is testament to that.
We are creating a source of guidance. Our statistics show that nearly 50,000 young people don’t go on to further education and start a business. However, these young people aren’t taught about tax or VAT in school.
Services like ours have to exist as a source of a million different questions being asked by the self-employed. Connecting them with people who have been there and done it is one part of the solution.