My pal, Tim, should have known better. One morning – the wrong side of forty – he woke up, had a mid-life crisis and announced that he was going to do stand-up comedy. And all credit to him. He did. But then he ‘died’ on stage in Manchester.
“It was awful, Ed,” he told me. “All these bloody students. Staring at me. Saying, ‘Go on then, you middle-aged idiot, make me laugh.’ I was paralysed with fear. I tell you,” he said, “On that stage, facing those kids, it was the loneliest place in the world.”
I bought him a beer and told that I’d always thought inside a boxing ring was supposed to be the loneliest place in the world.
We spent ten minutes speculating – mountaineering? Sailing-round-the-world-solo? Gary Neville in the Kop? – and decided it was all subjective. I left him on the stage in Manchester and he left me in the house – the first time my wife went out and cast me adrift me with a three year old and a new baby…
The ‘loneliest place’ was still in my mind the next morning when I had a coaching session with one of my clients. I mentioned the conversation with Tim. “Loneliest place in the world?” my client said. “Easy. Running your own business.”
And maybe there’s something in that. One of the points TAB members always make is that it’s good to be with people who truly understand. Because if you don’t run a small business (or a big one), you’ve no idea what it’s like. Trapped between customers and staff and rules and regs and HMRC…where do you turn?
Your husband/wife/partner maybe? But they’ve got their own job, their own worries – and besides, how do you find the time with the house descending into domestic chaos and the kids running riot?
Your mate? Well, fine if your mate runs a business as well – but supposing she’s a teacher ticking off the days until her index-linked pension pops through the letterbox?
There’s another problem about running a business or being self-employed. You’re always running the business. You can’t resign at five on a Friday and pick it up again on Monday morning. You can’t dump the problems in the departure lounge and collect them two weeks later in ‘Arrivals.’
And that, I respectfully suggest, is one of the great advantages of The Alternative Board. That you can come to a meeting knowing everyone else round the table exactly understands your point of view. No, you can’t dump your problems but at least for a few hours, they’re not wholly your problems. And when you present a business problem at a TAB meeting, there’s a pretty good chance that one of your fellow board members will have travelled down the same road, and will be able to say, “Yep, we had the same problem. This is what worked for us.”
But it’s not just practical support you need when you’re running a business – and this brings me back to the loneliest place in the world – it’s psychological support. Someone to simply say, “I understand how you feel.”
One of the most interesting – and rewarding – things about running a TAB meeting is to see people at their first meeting. Immediately sharing problems, finding solutions and confiding in each other in a way that they almost certainly don’t do with anyone else. As one of the members said to me, “Accountants and bank managers are fine, but they both have their own agendas. The other board members are the only people I can be truly honest with.” Then he smiled at me and added, “Apart from the Inland Revenue, of course…”