Michelle Henry set up her company HNS Signs when the company she worked for fell into administration. She wasn’t looking to start a business, but the encouragement of one of her former customers, Birmingham Children’s Hospital, gave the confidence to take the plunge. “I was swept away with the idea…and here I am, three years later, proud to say that the business is going from strength to strength. I now do fundraising for the Hospital as a thank you.”

1. Describe what’s unique about your business?

We are a very young and creative company and I believe that we offer more services in-house than many other sign companies. And thanks to my background in signwriting we’re able to offer traditional services too, which makes us unique.

I am a fourth generation signwriter, so it is in my blood! My great grandfather was a signwriter and used many traditional printing methods which we still use today at HNS.

We love to mix the traditional with the contemporary for real effect and are one of the few who can still offer traditional signwriting services. Even our apprentices are competent in this art and are also learning how to screen-print and apply gold leaf. In the age of digital print, I believe that this gives us a real edge over our competitors.

2. Have you made any mistakes and what did you learn from them?

Many! And yes I have learnt from all of them. My first mistake was being too keen to get orders. By this I mean being too keen on the price. I soon learnt that the companies who wanted quality signs were prepared to pay for them, so low prices drove them away, and that the companies who wanted the low prices expected the kind of sign which I didn’t want to make. Getting the balance right was tricky, but I soon perfected the formula.

3. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting up a business?

First, make sure that you’re doing something that you love. Starting a company is the most challenging and tiring thing that I’ve ever done. I knew that it would involve long hours, but I greatly underestimated just how many. If I didn’t love what I was doing I wouldn’t have had the commitment and energy to get me through the first year.

Second, know your industry and know it well. I recently read that only 21% of start-ups make it through to their third year. I believe a lot of this is to do with limited knowledge of their industry and its market place.

Find out who your competitors are, what the threats to your business are and where your weaknesses and strengths lie – ie carry out SWOT analysis.

And if you learn to talk confidentially about your industry, you’ll gain the trust of potential customers.

Finally, cash is king. Make sure that you have adequate cash flow as it’s vital to the survival of any business. If you do cash there’s plenty of funding out there to help you through when you start. When I started up, I used my savings to purchase equipment and took out a Prince’s Trust loan of £4,000 which I used for my cash flow.

4. Have you taken any chances or risks that you feel have really paid off?

Starting up on my own in a recession was my biggest risk…and it has definitely paid off. Had I thought too long and hard about starting up during that time, I probably would have talked myself out of it, but as it turned out, it was the best decision that I ever made. I love seeing the company grow and develop. We’ve had three apprentices and it has been fantastic watching them grow in confidence and ability.

I also love that having a business enables me to be able to help others, for example, helping train people from the Timkin Vocational Training Centre. The Timken centre provides hands-on experience and skills-training for adults and young people who are furthest away from academic or job opportunities. We help them to gain the skills they need to apply for apprenticeships.

5. Where have you taken inspiration from?

My biggest inspiration is my Nan. She ran her own company for thirty years, but has passed on now. I used to love spending time with her and playing ‘grown-ups’ by doing all of the tasks that she used to give me in her office. She taught me the importance of relationship building with clients. Many of her clients became long life friends. She was a real support when I set up on my own and was always just a phone call away if I ever needed advice.