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Positive business attitude is all in the mind

IN this week's SME Focus a psychologist who has developed a successful people business reflects on the value of having an entrepreneurial mindset.

Name: Professor Ewan Gillon

Age: 43

What is your business called?

First Psychology

Where is it based?

We have centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and the Scottish Borders. We will be opening in Inverness later this year.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We offer a range of psychological services and treatments such as counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to individuals, couples and families. We also work with businesses to support employees directly as well as offering training for HR staff and general coaching and consultancy.

What is its turnover?

Around £650,000 at the end of our financial year in September.

How many employees?

We have over 35 psychologists, CBT therapists, counsellors and coaches. In addition, there is a small management, communications and client administration team.

When was it formed?

I started out as a freelance practitioner in 2001, virtually renting one room to see one client per week. At the same time, I was developing websites offering advice and coaching, especially for men who tend to find it harder to seek professional help. By 2006, both strands of the business had expanded so far that I founded the Edinburgh Psychology Centre, taking on two associates at the same time. After three years, the centre was thriving and it was time to expand into Glasgow in late 2010. To mark our growth, we rebranded to become First Psychology. Since then, we've added one new centre each year.

Why did you take the plunge?

I think I have always had an entrepreneurial streak. Aged 16, I started a photography business and, following my PhD, I headed up a research company before starting First Psychology. I love psychology, but I've always had an interest in business as well, so combining the two seemed logical. At the same time I spotted the proverbial gap in the market: There were many very good practitioners working as freelancers in Edinburgh, but it felt nobody had pulled together a comprehensive range of services and offered them in one place.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

For a number of years, I'd had somewhat of a 'portfolio' career, working as a part-time university academic, NHS and independent psychologist, self-employed researcher and lay member of Employment and Mental Health Tribunals. My workload grew, mostly thanks to the internet-based work I was doing at the time, and I started referring more and more clients to other colleagues. The idea of building a bigger psychology brand had been growing on me for a while as I wanted to consolidate the 'applied psychology' work I was doing under one roof.

Having said that, I still remain in the university world as a part-time Professor of Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Fortunately, I needed very little funding because of low overheads. I used some of my savings to get the business off the ground, take on staff and build a professional website. There was little point in speaking to banks as the conditions for lending to small businesses were simply unrealistic. Luckily, the business started making a profit in year one. Since then, we've always reinvested from existing revenues.

What was your biggest break?

I was introduced to a very good business mentor a few years ago, who is involved in a number of businesses at senior level. He has really helped me cultivate a business mentality and steered me away from approaching everything from a psychologist's point of view. First Psychology has always been very people-orientated and I've had to learn to put the business' needs first. Getting my head around that has hugely contributed to our recent growth.

What was your worst moment?

The first time I had to let one of our practitioners go.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

I am a 'problem solver' at heart, and enjoy the creative challenge of helping something grow. Working out the best way to develop and expand the First Psychology brand is exciting and daunting at the same time.

What do you least enjoy?

Over the past couple of years, I've felt a bit over-stretched by the sheer amount of work I've had on my plate, between seeing clients, managing the business and my university work. Thankfully, the business is now at a stage where we've been able to take on staff to look after some of the key operational functions and the day-to-day running of our centres, allowing me to concentrate on further developing the company.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

As well as planning the opening of our Inverness centre later this year, I'm looking forward to moving our Glasgow centre into bigger premises in November. After three years in the city, we're busier than ever and it is time to move. We also want to grow our presence within the business market for psychology services and employee assistance, and we are planning to further develop our services for children, young people and families.

At the same time, we're working on a range of online services with a view to launching a virtual psychology centre early next year which will allow our clients to connect with us as and when it suits them. Times are certainly busy.

What are your top priorities?

Personally, I want to become better at managing my time and communicating with colleagues, family and friends. Like many professionals I'm guilty of not following the advice I give to others regarding the importance of work/life balance!

What could Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

Both Governments appear to have little appreciation of the needs of small businesses. I would like to see schemes such as the National Insurance Contribution holiday and the small business rates scheme being extended, as well as some rebalancing of taxation and regulatory priorities. Sometimes it does seem that there is really very little incentive to grow a business in the face of the many hurdles placed in front of you.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

Keep going. When you come up against obstacles, don't give up, don't waver and have faith that all will come good in the end. I am a great believer in the potency of hard work.

How do you relax?

I read and spend time with my family. I also enjoy cycling and walking. Having said that, I while away many happy hours playing my bass guitar at high volume (when my wife is out).

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