City Life Coaching: Jenny Ungless

Jenny Ungless left the political world to start a life coaching business

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Name: Jenny Ungless 
Age: 35 
Business: City Life Coaching 
Type of business: Career and life coaching for young professionals 
Start date: January 2003

When did you first decide you wanting start your own business? Is it something you've always wanted to do, a natural development in your career or something else

I'd worked for 10 years or so in the Civil Service and politics, ending up as Chief of Staff to Iain Duncan Smith MP, leader of the Conservative Party (at time of interview – ed). I knew that I wanted to get out of politics and do something different, but I didn't know what!

I've always been interested in psychology and personal development, and I came across life coaching when I was researching possible career options in that field. I realised that it was the perfect way for me to combine my interest with earning a living.

Because the industry in the UK is so new, most coaches work on their own, so setting up my own business seemed the obvious move.

Tell us about your business:

City Life Coaching specialises in working with professional people in their twenties and thirties who are seeking to change career direction, improve their prospects or find a better work-life balance.

We're based in central London, and work with most of our clients on a face-to-face basis, but also offer coaching by telephone and email. We also offer occasional workshops on career-related issues.

You can get more information about our services via our website:

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from?

The idea really came from my own experience of wanting to change career but not knowing how to go about it! There are lots of good career management books around, but ploughing through them can be a lonely process.

I couldn't find much on the internet in the way of dedicated career support for people in my position – yet I figured I couldn't be the only thirty-something who wanted to change direction. So I realised that this was an interesting market niche.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals?

I did a lot of research on the internet, looking at other life coaches' sites and businesses.

It made me realise that a coaching business would be viable as long as the service being offered was high quality, targeted at a real customer need and marketed in a professional way.

What makes you think there's a market for your business?

Research shows that 60 per cent of people think they are in the wrong job but don't know how to go about finding their career niche. That is my target market. People in their twenties and thirties are really the first generation who have had so much choice in how they live their lives and what they do for a living.

These days, there's no such thing as a job for life, it's acceptable to change jobs half a dozen times – or more – in ten years, and no one bats an eyelid if you decide to go off travelling round the world for a year or two!

Decisions about starting a family can be postponed until your late thirties or early forties. All of these social changes mean that we have much more opportunity and flexibility than ever before.

The downside can be that, with so much choice, it becomes difficult to decide what to do with our lives – and most of us don't get it right first time!

Once you'd decided to start a business, what did you do first?

The first thing I did was enrol on a coach training course. I also read everything I could find about coaching and career management.

On the basis of my training, the niche I wanted to cover, and my research about the industry, I wrote my business plan.

The next step was to decide on the name of the business, get the website up and running, and register with the Inland Revenue. Then I was in business!

What research did you do?

As I mentioned above, I spent a lot of time looking at coaching and career-oriented websites, to see what was already on offer and to get ideas.

What advice did you seek? Did you approach any of the government advice centres such as Business Link?

 I didn't use the Government services as I have a Masters degree in Business Administration and so I felt fairly comfortable with the business planning process.

I do recommend to my clients that they use them, though, as they can be very good and much of the support they offer is free!

What other help did you get?

A friend and former colleague helped me with the name and “branding” of the business.

I also used friends mercilessly as guinea pigs to practise my coaching techniques on, and persuaded them to contact all their friends and acquaintances to let them know about my services.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business?

In my view, the most important thing the Government could do would be to give some decent tax incentives to people setting up new business.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. How did you find it?

Because I have a business qualification, I didn't find the process too daunting, but I did buy a couple of business planning books to help me.

The most important thing, in my view, is to be sure that you have identified your target market, and to know what your competition is and how you are going to differentiate yourself from them.

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you'll stick to it as your business begins to grow?

Writing the plan was an invaluable discipline as it forced me to focus on the specifics of the service I was going to offer, how I was going to market it, and how I thought I would make money from it!

I've reviewed the plan a couple of times since – I use it very much as a working document to measure my progress.

How much did it cost to start the business?

The main costs were the coaching training, the purchase of a laptop and the design of the website. In total, probably about £3000.

How did you fund this?

Luckily I was able to fund this from my own savings.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off?

I have (well, had!) some savings. I also do some occasional freelance political consultancy which helps to pay the bills.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected?

I made sure when I wrote my business plan that my income projections were conservative and that I had enough money from savings and other income to keep me going for a year.

That has been vital because it means that I have the time and space to grow the business without panic – there's nothing more likely to put off a potential client than the perception that you're desperate for the work!

When did you stop working? How did you find the transition from full-time employment to self-employment?

I left my full-time job at the end of July 2002. The trickiest issue for me was that I didn't know what I was going to do next so I was literally starting from scratch.

On the other hand, the world was my oyster and I had the opportunity to do whatever I wanted, which was a very liberating feeling! The day I launched the new business was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

Are you working from home or from premises?

For the first 6 months I worked from home. I have just moved into office premises. I made the decision to do so on the basis that I felt that I was missing out on some “top-end” work because I did not appear professional enough.

Many of my clients are high-flying professionals, and they need to be in an environment in which they feel comfortable. At the same time, I have worked hard to develop an office environment which is comfortable and homely, because people need to feel relaxed and able to open up, rather than feel that they are being interviewed in a formal setting.

So, for example, while I have some traditional office space, I also have a consulting area with a comfy sofa and a fully-stocked wine rack!

How many hours are you working at the moment?

Moving into my own office has really helped me to delineate work and leisure time. At home, I found it hard to resist the temptation to check emails last thing at night and so on.

Now I find that I tend to work a 10-hour day or so. Because most of my appointments are in the evening, I often don't go into the office till 10 or 11 in the morning, and I'll usually be there till eight or nine at night.

What about staff, is it just you?

At the moment, it's just me and that's probably how it will be in the short to medium term. I am focusing on building the business through a series of “strategic alliances” rather than through taking on more employees.

Perhaps it's the control freak in me (!), but I feel that coaching involves such a personal approach that I would be hesitant to bring in other people to coach under my auspices.

I am looking at hosting workshops and other kinds of seminar, however, rather than focusing exclusively on one-to-one work.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you?

Yes. I have had experience of this in the past, and it is definitely one of the reasons why I am reluctant to expand in that way.

I am much more drawn to strategic alliances and outsourcing as effective ways of growing the business.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far?

I discovered very early on that coaching is not a service that lends itself to traditional methods of advertising. People are in effect buying YOU as the product.

They are therefore much more likely to respond to you if they have had a personal word-of-mouth referral, or if they have come across you through some other source that they already trust.

Most of my business comes from personal referrals, or the strategic alliances that I have built.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time?

I have a clear objective in terms of turnover, which I believe is realistic. At the minute I'm ahead of my business plan projections, which is quite reassuring!

What are the main obstacles to growth?

The most difficult issue is that coaching is such a new industry in the UK that you have to sell the concept in principle as well as your services in particular.

Most people have still not heard of a life coach, and even if they have, would struggle to articulate the benefits of one.

On the other hand, the advantage is that I am working in an immature industry, where the potential market is significant.

How do you plan to overcome these?

I have found that the key is being able to describe what I do in terms that people can relate to. So rather than describe myself as a “life coach” or a “career coach”, I say that I work with people who want to change career direction, improve their prospects or find a better work-life balance – people can relate to those concepts.

Tell us about your website. How important is it to your business?

I've found that my website is not a way of generating business in itself, but it's a very useful tool by which people can “check me out” in a non-threatening way. It's easy to say to someone: here's what I do, have a look at my website.

In the industry I'm in, I'd say it's pretty much essential to have your own site: it gives you credibility and it lets people find out who you are and what you offer so that they feel confident in contacting you.

I got a former colleague to design it for me for a reasonable (i.e. discounted!) fee and I now pay him to maintain the site for me.

There's been a certain amount of trial and error – I've actually just revamped the site – but I think that that is inevitable when you're developing a business.

The benefit of a website is that it is reasonably cheap and easy to change its content, whereas it's much more expensive to do that with printed material.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do?

A mixture of both I suppose! As a career coach, people often come to me with what they see as a dilemma: either you have a job that you really enjoy or you have a job where you earn lots of money, but you can't have both.

I don't agree with that – I firmly believe that if you find your career niche and love what you do, you'll be successful. Most people hate their jobs and most people are mediocre at their jobs- that's an obvious connection for me.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you'd done differently?

As I've said, the difficulty has been in marketing a fairly new concept. In retrospect, I wish that I had concentrated specifically on career coaching from the outset: at the beginning I tried to market myself as a life coach covering all lifestyle issues, but the reality is that you can't be an expert in everything and you can't be all things to all people.

The secret is to find the issues that really interest you – that's your niche.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business?

I think you need to have a blend of self-belief, resilience and a capacity for hard work! It also makes a huge difference if you have a team of people to support you, however informal.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?

I would say: do your research, check out your ideas against what's already in the market-place and make sure you have a niche. Take the time to write a good business plan – get support if you need it – and then go for it!

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