Being Your Own Boss
Stephen Dering and Mark Nelson: a talk on deaf led business

Monday 12th January 2009, Royal Festival Hall
This hour-long talk by Stephen Dering and Mark Nelson, entitled “Being Your Own Boss” proved a popular subject with a full house in the blue room at Royal Festival Hall. Mark and Stephen gave an entertaining, informative and frank account of their experiences, including the eureka moments that inspired to them set up their own companies.

Mark Nelson set up Remark! in 1999 with business partner Ramon Woolfe after dropping out of University. Mark and Stephen both shared their disappointment in formal education and eagerness to get out and work for a living. Mark found that freelance work during his school holidays provided the excitement and fulfilment that education did not. His early experiences of the media industry saw him observing hearing-led TV production companies taking advantage of the increased demand for British Sign Language programming – and realising that a deaf-led company could do the same.

The early days of Remark! were far from glamorous though, in a grim office with a faulty lift next to a sewage plant. With equally humble beginnings from his bedroom at home, Stephen Dering set up Dering Employment Services in 2006, funded on a small redundancy package. Using his knowledge and network of contacts in access and employment services, Stephen identified more effective ways of finding work for deaf people on benefits. In the space of two years, the company has gone international and employs deaf and hearing people across the UK and Australia to help hundreds of other deaf people into employment.

Mark and Stephen agreed that hard work, grit and determination were required to juggle the demands of a fledgling business. They have learnt that cash flow spreadsheets are their best friend following a steep learning curve as they began to juggle cash flow, administration, tax, employee management whilst retaining a high standard of service to their expanding business base.

They shared how important it is not to put all your eggs into one basket, and always be motivated by supply and demand from their client base.

Many in the audience were familiar with Remark!’s deaf media work but were surprised to find out that a large proportion of the company’s “bread and butter” income is now generated by contracts won outside the Deaf community – having built up a strong reputation amongst their hearing business networks.

Mark and his business partner Ramon Woolfe realised early on that flexibility and diversification of the business was key to Remark!’s sustainability. But this approach is also not risk-free, should any ideas start to fail, they were quick to close them down so not to put the rest of the business in jeopardy. It is said you can recognise a great manager by the team they they recruit. Mark and Stephen also found recruiting staff with the right work ethic and personality as well as just their ability was key to ensuring a happy team and productive working environment.

An audience member enquired on what impact the looming recession was having and the reply was surprisingly optimistic, with both companies bucking the trend and experiencing recent periods of successful growth. But should things take a downward trend Remark!’s resilience has already been proven. Their company was almost brought to its knees by a fraudster who cleaned out their accounts. Despite being forced to shed half their workforce, they slowly rebuilt the business and are now well on track to celebrate their 10th anniversary later this year.

Towards the end, the enterprising duo talked about how vital it has been to them to network and build up a rapport with other deaf-led businesses, and to share advice and receive feedback. Mark and Stephen are not afraid of competition from other deaf businesses, in fact they welcome it. After all, when you’re your own boss – who, other than competitors will keep you on your toes?

This honest presentation stimulated wide-ranging discussion and debate from the audience and we sadly ran out of time in the end. Self-employment and deaf-led business is definitely a hot topic that the DPN will revisit at future events.

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