23 Tips For New Sole Traders [With Advice From Successful Gas Engineers]

by | Jan 1, 2024 | Business Services, Business Stages, Growing the Business, Management Skills

Starting your own business is an incredibly exciting prospect. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in your life and could be what you work on for the rest of your career. 

But going out on your own isn’t the easiest thing to do, and it’ll test your limits, skills, and knowledge. Even still, roughly half the gas engineers in the UK run their own business – so there’s definitely something to be said about how rewarding it can be.

This article offers 23 tips for new sole traders. We’ve collected and compiled them from our years of experience working as software developers in the UK trades industry. They come from interviews with gas engineers, coaches, industry experts, and business owners who’ve learned them the hard way but – most importantly – found success too.

We’ve organised them from the most basic first – but feel free to use the table of contents on the left to jump around.

The tips: 

#1: Learn how to market your services.

As a new sole trader, your biggest challenge is finding your first few jobs. 

It’s generally always best to start simple. Leaflets and flyers posted through letterboxes, local parish magazines, and posting on local Facebook groups are all highly effective, reasonably low-effort, and free (or almost free). If you know people in the industry already who can recommend you, this will also help hugely. These strategies will help you get your foot in the door and earn your first few customers. 

Later down the road, you can focus on more complex marketing strategies. Everything from online advertising to your website does help – but it can take a little more work.

“I call it primitive marketing. I get lots of people coming to me and they want to do all digital stuff. They want an all singing dancing website. They want to do Google ads. They want to do Facebook ads. And I say to them: are you in the local parish magazine? Are you dropping flyers around to the local villages? Are you sponsoring the Christmas fair at the school? Are you doing all of this low hanging fruit? 

Because if you’re not, do that first. Do the basics first, the easy stuff, the stuff that doesn’t cost a lot of money, isn’t that there’s not a lot of risk. And you’ll be surprised at how many people neglect that because they see these sexy sort of internet option of, oh, look, you pay for some ads and then you get a load of work. It doesn’t quite work like that.”

Wayne Bettess, Off The Tools

#2: Focus on the basics first. The work will follow.

It’s easy to overthink things when you’re doing your first few jobs alone. Remember to always keep an eye on the basics: good communication, being polite, arriving on time, and doing a good job. If you have it all sorted, you’ll start to get referrals and watch your business grow.

#3: Buy good tools that are made to last

It’s tempting to go for the cheaper tool, but remember that you’ll likely end up spending more on replacing them than if you went for the higher quality option in the first place. Plus, if you’re using these tools almost every day, it’s worthwhile getting the nicer ones.

#4: Subcontracting is a good way to fill your schedule early on

Views are a bit mixed on subcontracting in general, but it’s hard to deny how effective it can be for those just starting out. While you’re working on filling up your schedule with your own jobs, think about subcontracting to keep the income flowing.

#5: Don’t try to offer every service. Focus on what you do best

Offering too many different services can make things complicated from a business standpoint, even if you have the technical skills to back them up. Things like your pricing, inventory management, and toolkits all become more complex and harder to manage. Most sole traders will find more success focusing on one, or maybe two, particular trades.

#6: Set your prices wisely

A good pricing strategy is a core business fundamental – but it’s all too often overlooked. Many sole traders simply price themselves at or a bit below what they saw in their apprenticeship or as an employee, but your prices should reflect much more thought than this. 

It’s true that lower prices generally attract more customers, but higher prices make more profit. It can be a dangerous race to the bottom with your prices if you’re constantly trying to undercut your competition. And, if you set low prices to get your foot in the door, you may find it difficult to increase prices later without upsetting customers. 

Read more about pricing strategy here.

#7: Never work for free

We’re not saying you shouldn’t do small favours for family and friends. But full jobs should always earn you something. Starting a business is no easy task, and you have to ask yourself whether you’re really doing them a favour or just hurting yourself and your business. Any experienced sole trader would preach the importance of valuing your time and understanding it’s worth.

#8: Set customer expectations 

So many disputes and unhappy customers could be avoided by setting expectations early on. By this we mean any terms of business and things like late paying fees. If people have agreed to your terms, they have less ground to contest it later on. And, if they don’t agree with them, you may end up dodging a bullet with those customers anyway. 

#9: Don’t be scared to walk away

In the service industry, customer management is hugely important. We’re not suggesting you walk away from a job that’s taking longer than you anticipated. But some customers are simply not worth your time if they’re being unreasonable, rude, or creating a fuss.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that not every job is for you, and don’t be afraid to walk away…. Sometimes you can be at a stage where you talk to a customer and you think ‘there is no pleasing you.”

Richie Basquine, RJ Heating

#10: Plan for tax before the end of the tax year

When you’re just starting out it’s easy to forget about tax until you realise you need to quickly file a self assessment tax return. Depending on how much you make, this can be a significant amount. It’s best to keep an eye on your finances and tax as the year progresses, so you’ll be able to set aside roughly how much you’ll need to pay. Even better would be to get an accountant, of which many are available at reasonable rates online.

“I spent a bit too much and then obviously at the end of my first year or so trading, I was walloped with a huge tax bill and it was hard, hard work paying that off. I think if anyone else wants to set up on their own, get a good accountant and get some solid advice.”

Dean Jones, Jones the Gas

#11: Use software

Software is absolutely essential for gas businesses that want to be competitive. For sole traders, it can make all the paperwork and admin work much more manageable. We recommend using software for both job management (things like scheduling, collecting customer information, sending service reminders, and making quotes and invoices) and for accounting (tax, expense tracking, profit calculations, and so on).

Overall, it will help you get organised, save time, and look much more professional.

“When I started, it was all paper. My diary was paper, and all my certificates were paper. I was going in the van and I couldn’t find anything. So I got software and that’s helped me out a lot because everything’s on my phone now… it speeds up your day 100%”.

Luke Stanyer, Blue Bulldog Plumbing & Heating

#12: Remember to keep a work life balance

Working as a sole trader means everything from the jobs to tax, scheduling, planning, customer service, quotes, and invoicing is all on your plate. But at the same time, you should accept all the help you can – whether it be from software that saves you time, accountants to take finance work off your mind, or an admin assistant to answer phone calls.

But with all these responsibilities, it’s crucial to maintain a work-life balance. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting burnt out and your business won’t be sustainable. 

“You have to find that balance of spreading yourself everywhere but not too thin”

Richie Basquine, RJ Heating

#13: Follow up on your quotes

Every quote you send out is a lead you need to follow. Some customers will try and get several different quotes for one job, and others simply forget. Giving them a gentle reminder is a quick and effective way to boost the number of jobs you get flowing through your business. 

#14: Send invoices on the job

Sending invoices on the spot has two major benefits. Firstly, you’ll have much less paperwork to do later on and you won’t be struggling to remember what you actually did and what you need to include on the invoice. Secondly, you’ll get paid much faster – which is hugely important for a small business trying to grow and invest in itself. 

Software makes this process much easier as quotes can be turned into invoices directly on your phone. 

“When the engineers finish their work, the invoice is sitting there ready for them to use and they can create their certificates on the app. It’s easy, less paperwork for the office, less stress for us, and saves a lot of time and effort.”

Nicholas Wallder, Invicta Group Services Ltd

#15: Know who your ideal customer is

These are the people you want to work for. There are the basics which include things like:

  • They pay on time
  • They aren’t rude 
  • They don’t cause problems 
  • They aren’t overly demanding
  • People who want to buy their own materials 

But beyond this, think about the kind of person you want to work for.

  • Do you want to work in luxury, high-end homes? These jobs typically have more regimented workflows and may even involve collaborating with other contractors.
  • Do you want to work for friendly neighbourhood type people?
  • Or do you want to work on new builds?

#16: Think long-term for repeat business, not one-off jobs

 

At the start, it can be tempting to focus on jobs. Instead, it’s better to think long term and focus on the customer. 

The difference is subtle but it means being proactive about things that may keep the customer coming back. It won’t affect you in the first few months, but after a year you’ll start to see a difference. 

Your goal should be to become your areas “go-to” engineer. 

Yeah. I think obviously the newer business, the harder it is. Because jobs come in all kind of hours. I’ve got to go to it because I need that one. I need that work because I need the money too. I need that work because I need the customer. I need the word of mouth. I need the recommendation going forward.

Richie Basquine, RJ Heating

#17: Answer your phone – or hire someone to answer it for you

This sounds simple, and yet it can’t be stressed enough. If you’ve done your marketing right and once you start to get a few referrals, phone calls will become a major source of work.

The trouble is being available to answer phone calls when you’re working on a job, driving to a customer, or trying to relax at home. 

If you find yourself missing calls, it’s a good idea to get an automatic reply going. Once you start filling your schedule, another great alternative is to hire an admin assistant to help you out. If you think you can’t afford the cost, keep in mind how much extra money you could be earning with their help.

So, let’s put it this way, if I was gonna start again tomorrow, there is no way, no way that I would be answering that phone every day. No way. There’s just, it just wouldn’t even be an option.”

Wayne Bettess, Off The Tools

#18: Be communicative with your customers

 

A simple call or message to update them on your whereabouts makes a huge difference. Most customers won’t be annoyed if you’re running late, but it’s never fair to keep them waiting in the dark. As well as this, being friendly on the job and explaining what you’re doing is appreciated by many. 

As a side note, it’s a good idea to give a time window for your arrival instead of a specific time. This gives you a little extra leeway.

#19: Tidy up at the end of every job

Last impressions matter just as much as first impressions. If you leave the job as tidy as you found it, customers are much more likely to contact you for work in the future.

#20: Take and apply advice from those with experience

Nobody does things perfect the first time round. Listen to those around you and, most importantly, figure out how you can apply their advice to your business. 

“In my early days, I took everything personal. Like 100%, it was like an attack on me. And yes, obviously you have to care and there has to be some connection to it. But the quicker you can disconnect from that and just move on, the better”.

Wayne Bettess, Off The Tools

#21: It’s never all wins – don’t be scared to try things out

As a business owner, your mindset reflects heavily on the success of your business. Don’t be scared to try something new as long as it’s not too much of a risk.

#22: Planning is key

 With every part of the job on your plate, it pays off to be organised and plan ahead. This includes everything from long-term business strategy to what tools you’ll need for your jobs tomorrow.

#23: Go the extra mile for your customers

Referrals and recommendations are hugely important. In essence, this means your customers are your bosses. A little extra effort can really pay off and even earn you additional jobs.

Next steps:

If you’ve been thinking about implementing software into your workflow to save time, here’s what you can do next:

 

  • Visit our resources centre where you'll find more articles like this one and our free gas rate calculator.​
  • Start a free trial to see exactly how our software works for your business.
  • Book a demo with our customer success team. We’ll help walk you through the ins and outs of our software, how it’ll help you save time and money, and anything else that springs to mind.
  • Know an engineer who's still using paper? Help them and us out by sending our software their way!