The Autistic Innovator celebrates autistic business owners from all kinds of industries, which is why I am proud to introduce my very first interview with a fellow autistic business owner!
Enness has graciously volunteered to be the first interview published on The Autistic Innovator.
I am thrilled she has provided us with the opportunity to learn about what she does and how she got to where she is with her business. In this interview, she shares her wisdom with autistic people who are thinking of starting their own businesses.
Autistic people can become anything we want to be!
Let’s move on to the interview with Enness. She is a learning consultant and has a lot of great things to share with us from the UK!
Disclosure: Names of interviewees may or may not have been changed to protect their privacy. When names are changed, any relations to existing persons through name, job, business type, location, and any identifying information are purely coincidental.
How did you think of the idea for your business?
I was working for a government agency and was made redundant along with pretty much my whole team of colleagues. I knew there was a possibility of doing work for that organisation again in the future as a contractor, so I worked for a few months for a school (not a great experience) and then went back to work for the government on a day rate as a self-employed contractor. I was much happier than being an employee.
A couple of years later, with some tax issues being in the news spotlight, I was told by my client that I could only keep contracting for them if I formed a limited company and thus had a layer of business structure between us. I did that, and while I do not love dealing with the demands of being a company, I can manage that with the help of an accounting service.
How did you fund your business in the very beginning?
If you’re a service business in the knowledge economy, startup costs can be very low. Even better if you already have a client on the line. I spent nothing. I already had my PC, a mobile, and a travel laptop. I worked from home most of the time. That’s about all I needed. The risk was only in terms of leaving behind the idea of a stable income.
How long have you been running your business?
I started working as self-employed in 2007 and incorporated in 2010, so 13 years.
I have also been developing a second business line in graphic design over the past couple of years, but this is not my main earner by a long way.
Did you have any previous experience in your field before you started your business?
Yes. I had been an academic in the 90s and moved over into learning conultancy in early 2000s. I’d had a good 10 years before going into business.
I wouldn’t recommend going into any business without having expertise in the subject of the business (whether it’s education or building computers or making jam or selling fashion, etc). The thing they don’t tell you is that when you go into business you have to balance being an expert in “the thing you do” as well as in running businesses. It can be a steep learning curve. Start with expertise in the main thing, or the chances of failure are much higher.
Now that your business has been running successfully, is there anything you wish would have done differently in the beginning?
I’m not sure. I got lucky that I kind of fell into the opportunity. My business is not a massive success by normal business standards. It’s been ticking along with modest takings and long-term clients, which is all I require. I do not have the skills (or desire) to grow or frequently bring in new clients, especially as I’m now approaching 60.
When your business was merely an idea, what steps did you take to make it a reality?
As I said, the opportunity came before the idea. It just seemed absolutely right to step away from traditional employment if I had the chance. I do not make a good employee, as I have trouble accepting corporate culture or doing things a prescribed way when I think there’s a better way. I also have trouble being embedded with groups of colleagues, bosses, employees, etc over a length of time. I will almost assuredly say or do something to put someone off and end up leaving. But I make a good service supplier and develop good one-to-one relationships with my clients. I tend to either work side-by-side with them or just go away and do things and then deliver them. Both are good.
How has being autistic helped you succeed with your business?
I’m not sure it has, but it hasn’t made it impossible either. I only got diagnosed a few months ago, although I’d self-diagnosed a couple of years previously, so I have to try to back-date my impressions, which is difficult.
My autism is probably what makes me a poor employee, and it might contribute to being a successful contractor because I like working in my own way. Of course, when you have clients, you have to please them first and foremost. You have to strike a balance between standing up for yourself if you really think your way of doing something will produce a better result for the client, and also being ready to back down when clients dig their heels in. Some autistic people might find that a problem, but I’m OK with it.
Another thing that may be an effect of autism is that I’m a quick thinker and problem solver. Those are strengths for any worker, but being able to drill into a problem quickly and solve it is very valuable when the relationship between time and money is as direct as it is with running a business.
In addition, I’m ethical and honest. I can (usually) be diplomatic about the way I deliver my honesty, but there’s no humbug, and I think clients appreciate this.
Has being autistic created challenges for you? If so, what helped you overcome or cope with the difficulties?
I have two primary autism challenges: social dysfuntion and executive dysfunction, both of which can create an anxiety loop. I manage this by working flexibly as much as possible and taking advantage of good days to accomplish the most difficult things (like talking to groups, making phone calls, starting projects, etc). I also work in small chunks throughout the week, so I can avoid pushing myself beyond my energy level. It isn’t always possible to get this balanced right, but with long-term clients I can usually work out a rhythm that works well. It helps that I work quickly. When I’m “on”, I’m moving!
One important business function that I have not been able to address well is sales. Selling, networking, shmoozing are all very hard for me, and I generally just don’t do it. My business would be on surer footing if I could. In many ways, I would be happiest working in a trusted partnership with another person whose skills balanced mine, but this just hasn’t happened.
What advice would you give a fellow autistic person who is thinking of starting their own business?
- Learn about the things business owners must know about: finance (accounting, taxes, payroll), structure (sole trader, limited company), strategy, marketing/sales, organisation. You can learn some of these things along the way, hire specialists and pay for services, but you should understand the basics before you take the plunge. Take “new business” courses or workshops that may be on offer.
- Play to your strengths when choosing your business idea. Try to become aware of your key autistic traits and develop strategies for how you will navigate them to keep yourself happy and your business running smoothly. For example, if you have social dysfunction, you may not want a business that is very client- or customer-facing unless you have someone else to fill that role.
- Develop lines of open communication with clients as soon as possible. I have had clients whose minds work in sync with mine (that’s lovely) but also those who seem to be completely at odds. It’s not always possible to manage well with an alien mind, but trying to be upfront about clarity and striving to understand them is your best strategy.
- Think carefully about whether you disclose your autism to clients or colleagues. This will depend on factors such as the kind of business you’re running, your market and your target customers. I have not disclosed because I started my business and established client relationships long before I really knew I was autistic. I would not feel comfortable disclosing, except maybe in very special circumstances. Once that information is out, you may lose control of how private it can ever be in the future.
Does your business have a social media profile or a website where The Autistic Innovator readers can follow you and learn more about what you do?
I do, however I am not “out” to the world about my autism, and I would prefer not to be found by anyone interested in my business who may not be clued in about autism. If Ashley is able to do so, I would be happy for readers to contact me through her.
If you know an autistic business owner who would like to be interviewed, please feel free to send me an email via the contact page.