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back to article My name is Trevor, and I'm ... an IT consultant

For years I worked as a sysadmin, as addicted to late night security patch updates as I was to bad coffee and long hours. One day I woke and decided enough was enough. It was time to get clean and become an IT consultant. This is my story. While the barriers to setting up your own IT consultancy vary from jurisdiction to …

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I miss the days when I had my own business, but don't miss the days I dashed it against the rocks.

Oh, and as for accounting software - I used quick books, well actually mu monthly accountant did. Seriously if you are going down this route get an accountant, and if you plan on cabling offices become friends with an electrician.

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IT Angle

so what is an IT consultant?

When we actually sat down to plan out what the company would do, we envisioned "IT in a can."

Now this is my ignorance, not your fault, but .......

So , er , what do you do?

Is this any different from being an I.T. Contractor?

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Re: so what is an IT consultant?

That depends on which immigration official you talk to. Some call it management consultant, others "computer systems analyst." For some clients I'm a contractor...pushing buttons and fixing widgets. For others I serve an almost CTO role; setting strategy, handling subcontractors, vendors, etc on their behalf. For other clients, I write content. That runs the gamut of jobs titles, I should think.

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Anonymous Coward

I'm a British citizen and can visit the US for 'work meetings' (which has included giving training courses) without a visa. I can't turn up and get employed there - that would need a Visa

I'd be amazed if a Canadian employee cannot do the same and just visit for 'meetings'

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We can't

If I am working for a company that has both Canadian and US offices, I can go to the US for meetings. If I have only a Canadian branch...I need a visa.

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Anonymous Coward

The US work thingy......

It's easy to read too much into the rules as they are written........

Meetings, training (giving or receiving), project planning and monitoring all seem to be things that the US Border official doesn't mind. Never mention the W word (Work - it's always business) and don't say consultancy since the rules suggest otherwise. It's all very grey (where do you draw the line between training and consultancy?) so as long as the terms of you being there fit the letter of the law, you should be fine.

The worst I've had happen is the border agent raising an eyebrow to four weeks of meetings (and it really was mostly meetings and reviews - I really should have said training and monitoring too; I was giving advice on process adherence and also monitoring the project on behalf of an end customer in the UK).

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Re: The US work thingy......

Yeah, I agree. You do *not* need a work visa to spend time with clients in the US. Oddly, the Americans realize that it's in their interests to do business with people from outside the country. I've done 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off with the same client for 6 months without a single raised eyebrow. And Sony sent me there 6 times in two years with no visa and no problem, when I was working for them.

At the extreme end, I knew one guy who spent 18 months working in the US (for a UK company with the same US client) with just the mandatory flight back every three months. None of this meetings bullshit - outright working. Eventually the immigration guy asked him, "Look, who pays your salary? The US company, or the UK company?" The answer "The UK company" was the correct one, and he was waved through once more.

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Re: The US work thingy......

Again, if you are a Canadian and you own your business, and this business does not have a US branch then legally you need a visa to attend meetings. My understanding is that this is true of other countries' treaties as well. You can work around this by lying. If you are caught, you may be denied entry forever. Go ask your lawyer, I promise I've done an awful lot of research into this.

More bizzarely, with NAFTA, certain job categories re ieve more scrutiny than others. Canada got a raw deal...

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other countries' treaties

I have no idea what the US rules for Canadian residents are, but for the UK they are different to your description.

From the London US embassy website (http://london.usembassy.gov/vwp3.html) about the visa waiver program:

You will qualify for travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) if you are a citizen of the United Kingdom,

...( clipped for brevity)...

[travelling] for business, pleasure or transit for less than 90 days. Visa-free travel does not include those who plan to study, work or remain in the United States for more than 90 days;

I think that there is a distinction between business and 'work' - I can sell a service to my US clients and visit them legally. These visits include meetings, training, setting up equipment, debugging software I have sold, etc.

I don't think I could go to the US and take wages from a US employer visa free (e.g. go and work as a stage performer for a theatre). That would be 'work' and that seems not to be allowed.

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Re: other countries' treaties

Yeah, Canadians, not so much. Advising a company - including software debugging, I checked - is considered "computer systems analysis" and is thus immediately covered under "Trade NAFTA" as opposed to "B1". Goign to a conference is B1. Telling someone how to best set up their business computers is TN.

Sales is grey, and at the discretion of the person you are talking to...in Edmonton they seem hell bent on not granting B1 unless they can avoid it. In Calgary, you'll get a B1 with a smile and an "enjoy your stay." Really depends on which airport you fly out of.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The US work thingy......

Trevor,

You should search for "B1 in Lieu of H1-B":

"The B-1 in lieu of H1B category, however, allows a foreign company to place one or more of their employees at a U.S. location briefly, for the purpose of performing actual productive H1B-type job duties."

That's what allows (us Brits, at least) companies to provide professional services in the US - even on the visa waiver programme. I would expect the same to be true for a Canadian - even given NAFTA. The trouble is "B1 in Lieu of H1-B" is little known by border staff - so you have to know your stuff.

However, the Canadians and Americans seem to have a love-hate thing going on when it comes to cross border professional services. Despite for years travelling regularly and without difficulty to both countries on business from the UK, this summer I travelled *between* the US and Canada - and was detained for "close questioning" in both directions. The Canadians give the Americans just as much of a "raw deal".

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Re: The US work thingy......

Actually, I believe I mentioned B1 several times in these comments. There are many restrictions on B1, including what you intend to do, for how long, for whom, what your job title it, whether or not you are working for a company with offices in the US and what your education is.

Long story short: if you are a Canadian citizen, you can not do IT consulting on a B1 visa. If you find a customs agent willing to grant you entry on a B1 for this purpose, count your blessings, you probably will not receive a B1 the next time you try. They are supposed to require a TN or an H1-B for this purpose.

Believe it or not, NAFTA quite plainly does not allow the provisioning of any professional services on a B1. It must be done as a TN, or an H-class specific to that job type. We face more scrutiny than other nations, not less.

As to Americans visiting the US to do "work" in Canada, I've never had an American client denied entry because they are planning to do TN-class work and only applying for a B1. The same isn't true for those of us seeking to face-to-face with out American clients on their soil.

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Happy

Re: The US work thingy......

Yeah, that "if you're a Canadian" thing appears to matter. Canada is not, apparently, a member of the US Visa Waiver program. UK consultants are in a far better position.

http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1990.html

"The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) enables nationals of 37 participating countries* to travel to the United States for tourism or business (visitor [B] visa purposes only) for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa."

The details of what the B visa allows are hidden behind a 404 error on that site currently, for shame.

The rules of thumb shared here by people should not be construed as legal advice, obviously, although we all seem to have had similar experiences in practice. No one is advocating telling outright lies, but when faced with that level of bureaucracy, a stretching of the truth is often expedient.

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Re: The US work thingy......

A number of years ago when first starting out I flew into Canada to visit a non-defunct but then large worldwide software company for meetings but being new this when the Canadian official asked me the purpose of my trip I said WORK instead of business.

2 hours later after being locked in a windowless room they agreed to contact the customer who had to send out their HR manager to free me from the airpot and get me into my meeting.

Never ever, ever use the word work when visiting any country, meetings, business, getting drunk, anything but the word work.

DC

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Re: The US work thingy......

Meant now defunct.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The US work thingy......

My take on UK vs Canada with regards working in the US is that Canada is within driving/commuting distance hence they want paperwork, the UK not so.

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Happy

Wow

Wow. I set up in consultancy five years ago and I didn't bother with half of that crap.

You do the minimum you can to get by - incorporate (aka form a Ltd Company), register for VAT, get an accountant, join PCG, buy employers liability and public liability insurance, (professional liability insurance if you want to go belt and braces), done. About £500 down and you're a consultant.

My (ex-)wife (still) does the books. I don't need accounting software. And why would a one-man company need Salesforce.com? Notepad has most of the CRM features I need.

I bought a domain and had a vanity email address - that was a waste of time; clients are quite happy (even prefer) to use my personal email address for comms.

As for VoIP, I have 600 minutes on my mobile anyway, and wow look my printer is also a fax machine, who knew? Again, clients *like* having my personal number.

I think the main thing when starting up a company is to defer anything that's non-essential in favour of, you know, doing actual work for people and earning actual money. So maybe I'm not in compliance with some obscure piece of employment legislation. So sue me.

YMMV. I'm a programmer/architect. If you're a sysadmin maybe it is important to have a more impressive backoffice; and if you're the paranoid type, maybe it's important to cross every "i" and dot every "t".

The one thing I did which was unusual was to hire an agent to get your first gig. Sure, they take 15-20%, but they get you your first gig. Do that, and you have a satisfied ex-client, and you're on a roll!

Don't skimp on the accountant, though. I'd definitely agree on that one.

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Happy

Re: Wow

Two secrets I want to share. First, from the article:

What your clients are buying is you; the sense of confidence you project will be immediately converted into interpretations of your competence and reliability by those you encounter. You must build around yourself a cult of personality. Your clients need to believe you will get the job done, no matter what.

This couldn't be more true. People don't ask for a job to get done - they ask for ME. Bring personality to the business.

Second, from @Eddie:

I think the main thing when starting up a company is to defer anything that's non-essential in favour of, you know, doing actual work for people and earning actual money.

Translation: No distractions!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wow

Could we please not put an at-sign character in front of user names? Please. This is not Twatter.com

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This author has little to contribute.

The author is an inexperienced start up. When he is seven years down the road AND not bankrupt then I'll give some weight to what he says. Until then? Meh.

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Boffin

@Caps Lock...Re: This author has little to contribute.

Try 20+ years as an independent owing one's own Corporation.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out who does what and what sort of equity they bring to the table.

The second thing you need to do is to figure out how to take down the corporation and how to handle if someone wants to leave and cash out, or someone needs to leave and cash out.

You can find out a lot about someone from that conversation.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This author has little to contribute.

Just like your comment.... I found it quite interesting even though I dont run a consultancy or any plans, if nothing else to see that the US dont like Canadians..

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Meh

Umm,

Seems to be a lot of 'work' experience type articles today. Does the reg pay for these? If so I suspect I could provide some hair raising, litigious stories which would draw the punters. (But I suspect there are others who have better - well at any rate - better than the current crop judging by general comments on various stories over the years).

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Anonymous Coward

They call themselves eGeeks but make their clients travel to them, One word...

Skype. Pathetic.

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Re: They call themselves eGeeks but make their clients travel to them, One word...

We use Skype, but actually there are a dozen better programs that don't have Skype's issues. That said, there are several reasons to hold mini-conference-style meetings with clients. A lot of which boils down to doing "bakeathon"-style brainstorming, bashing through code updates in real time or even working with physical hardware tinkering.

I'd say that 90% of our communications are either phone or internet-based. That's bread-and-butter work right there. That 10% that absolutely must be in person – for practical reasons, or for the human need to gauge the other speakers – is the 10% that brings in the real money.

When you do really start doing meetings in the real world, I think you'll find that there are some things you just can't accomplish via telepresence. If the meeting can be done through Skype (or similar,) then it's really not an issue to be aware of, nor is it worth mentioning in an article to a bunch of Register readers, now is it? Mind your audience...

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Happy

Re: They call themselves eGeeks but make their clients travel to them, One word...

"When you do really start doing meetings in the real world"

Ouch. Although you're right, of course; physical presence is important, from time to time, if only to sink some beers with your new colleagues.

"Mind your audience..."

That'll explain all the details on Canadian->US immigration on a UK site then :p

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Re: They call themselves eGeeks but make their clients travel to them, One word...

To our anonymous friend,

When real clients propose giving you real money, for intangibles like telling them how to run their company - they damned well do want to meet you face-to-face. You can 'do the deal' on the telephone/skype/email, you can organise stuff and answer questions that way, but you absolutely must meet some people to build up that trust that keeps them coming back to you. Even if it's only once. Putting a friendly face to that disembodied voice (or even head if you're video-conferencing) is sometimes vital.

I speak as someone who's done ten years as a small company with no products, no services and not much of anything really. We're us. Our customers come to us because we can answer weird questions, and we almost always solve their problems. If they don't trust us we've no unique products they can't replace elsewhere. And we have rivals who'll point that out to them every day, if they can. Getting in front of people is what keeps them calling back when they're in a rush to solve a problem.

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Re: They call themselves eGeeks but make their clients travel to them, One word...

There are over 200,000 Canadian readers here from a country of only 34 Million. Actual brick-and-mortar offices in London, San Francisco and Australia.

The Register is no more "a UK site" than McDonalds is American at this point. The HQ may be in London, but both the talent and the readership span the globe. Comment times alone should tell that tale...

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ive
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Too much too soon.

I'm an IT Consultant going on my 11th year being self employed. I didn't do or worry about any of the startup things that you worried about. Then again you were looking to do things legally and i was just fixing peoples computers for fun to start. I created 2K business cards for 40 bucks. Gave them out as i fixed peoples computers. Things eventually snowballed and i had to quit my day job. 11 years later and over 700+ customers i'm doing fine. I've stick with just IT too. I outsource programming, SEO, wiring, and other things. Sometimes i'll do network wiring installation of business is a little slow. My rates are 75/hr for homes and starting at 100/hr for businesses depending on their size and complexity. I've never had a website and i've never spent 1 dollar on advertising besides my business cards. All of my business comes through word of mouth.

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Re: Too much too soon.

Sounds swank! Our rates are currently $60/hr if it can be done from the office during regular business hours, $125 for onsite or out-of-hours work.

I've ran Astlor Computer Systems as a sole-proprietor-style "printed some business cards and did some stuff" since I was 12 years old. The truth of the matter is that once I started writing for The Register, explaining the extra revenue to the CRA became so cumbersome I had to get the business set up properly.

Astlor was retired as a business name, though I retain is for my personal e-mail domain. We choose to use eGeek – another domain I owned – and went about setting things up properly. So yeah, I've gone through what you described, but this was the story of "from the moment we got the first official business licence."

In Canada, there are provisions for making "a little money on the side" without needing a full-bore business licence. A few grand a year doesn't get the CRA's hackles up so long as you declare the income. Do it too often – or start nosing up past $15K a year – and the CRA starts frowning at you.

Of course, once you get the business licence and get your GST number, this whole "paperwork" thing cascades and down the rabbit hole you go…

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Happy

Re: Too much too soon.

Well Trevor if your ever looking for a good accountant let me know. My wife is a CA at a firm in Edmonton, and they have a US tax division to answer all those pesky working south of the border questions.

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Re: Too much too soon.

Ping operations at egeek dot ca. Kat is the lady and mistressof the books; totally her call. :)

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Anonymous Coward

I'm not a huge fan of your (old) articles but think I might find consultant focussed ones a bit more interesting.

Either way: Good Luck!

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I'm not a fan of many of my old articles. At least in terms of writing style, legnth, etc. I've learned a lot in the past 2.5 years...I am embarassed by how bad my early stuff was. I can do nothing about that except make the next articles better.

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Anonymous Coward

"The most important bit of advice I can offer potential entrepreneurs is to speak less and listen more. Everyone distorts what they perceive to fit their own preconceptions; the worst possible thing you can do as the founder of a start-up is refuse to hear what your own clients are telling you."

Ok, what size does your company have to be before you can ignore your clients? My boss is convinced we passed that threshold

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Angel

"What size does your company have to be before you can ignore your clients?"

Let's wait and see how Windows 8 does.

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Re: "What size does your company have to be before you can ignore your clients?"

Crushed that I can only upvote this comment once.

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IT Angle

Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

There are only few travel purposes that require Canadians to get non-immigrant visa, and business travel (the B1 visa) is not one of them. The full list is here:

http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1260.html

So citizens of Canada are free to travel to the US for business meetings, training and other work-related activities.

It is in DNA of most consultants to impose restrictions on themselves out of compliance concerns but I prefer the kind that sticks to the facts.

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Re: Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

Unless your "business meetings" consist of consulting. At that point. you are considered to be doing "professional work" and require a TN visa. If your business meetings involve you telling someone how to run their business in any way, it is consulting. and will be treated as such.

The business meetings section of the B1 is designed to allow people to meet with colleagues from the same organisation that has multiple branches in both countries, or to allow you to meet with clients, etc where you do not do any meaningful work. Especially in the case of high-paying jobs like computer consulting, you are not to be doing any work that could be performed by an American worker. If you do, you are expected to get a visa; and one that is more than a B1.

You may be able to get by without adhering to the letter of the law by simply not telling the customs and immigration officers the full truth. That does not make what you do right or legal.

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Re: Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

Nope. As others already mentioned, there are conditions for you to do consulting while on B1 - see http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/types_of_visas/temporary-employment-holp/b1-in-lieu-of-h2.html. And B1 is not required for Canadians and those on VWP.

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Re: Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

@SlavikP

Read your own link.

Individuals may apply for a B1 or B1/B2 visa to perform H-1B work in the United States as long as they fulfill the following criteria:

Hold the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree

Now, read my article. Then I want you to go talk to a customs and immigration officer who will tell you in no uncertain terms that if you are a Canadian citizen doing H1-B class work - or any professional services - you will in fact be able to do work in the united states on a Trade NAFTA (TN) VISA. What are the requirements for a TN visa?

A bachelor's degree.

Well holy crap, that's exactly what I talked about in my article.

Now, you talk about the Visa Waiver Program, where I think you will find that Canada is not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. Instead we have CANPASS and NEXUS. Under both programs, if you intend to do work in the United States that would constitute professional services, you need...a bachelor's degree. If you are caught doing TN-class work in the United States without meeting the requirements of a TN visa, they will take your NEXUS card away from you, and you will be in Big Shit.

No matter how you slice it, if you want to do IT consulting in the United States – from Canada or any number of other countries – you must meet the criteria for doing that level of work: a Bachelor's degree in a relevant field.

You can get across the border without one, either by lying through omission or by having a customs and immigration official who doesn't fully understand the rules he is to apply. That said, you are at risk of being permanently denied entry to the United States if you are caught.

If you are considering attempting to do work on US soil, I seriously recommend you talk to an immigration lawyer who specialises in this before making assumptions.

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Re: Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

Thank you for the advise on hiring a lawyer, but I have a university degree and therefore am not a subject of certain restrictions. I think I'll be fine.

Furthermore we have yet to see a case of deported and banned consultant who came to the States on business without obtaining appropriate degree first. You chose to comply to a stupid rule that no one enforces.

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Re: Canadians are free to travel to the US for business meetings

You are making a common mistake in submitting your personal experiences as a rule that defines reality. I have witnessed individuals barred from entering based upon this rule, thus completely disproving your assertion that this is "a stupid rule that noone enforces" with only the personal experiences of one individual. If you have been lucky thus far in not knowing anyone who has actually been subjected to the enforcement of the law, then good for you.

The truth of the matter is that this is the law, it is enforced and your assertions based upon your own personal experiences do not change reality. Furthermore, the subtext of your comments indicate that you are advocating that individuals – and by extension the corporations they represent – should in fact choose not to obey the law, ostensibly "because it is stupid." While you'll get no argument from me regarding the idiocy of the law in question, it is the law and I cannot in good conscience advocate that any individual or business owner should violate the law excepting under truly exceptional circumstances.

Unlike many other laws I can name, this law does not exist due to corruption, it is not an example of oppression, megacorporate regulatory capture not even a fundamental injustice as per the UDHR. It is a niggle of international trade protectionism, subject numerous interpretations and rationale. While there is good reason for individuals both foreign and domestic to agitate for an alteration of the regulations in question, there are no good reasons to violate the law as it stands.

No moral or ethical victories are gained, no advancements for personal or group justice would be obtained. Instead, violation of the law as it stands would only incur risk of reduction of long term profits – via entry permaban – in the hopes of chasing short term gains. It's not only illegal and foolhardy, it's simply bad business.

Furthermore, attempting to "win" an argument in which you have been proven to be incorrect by advocating that individuals and corporations violate international laws is – to use a colloquial expression – "more than a little fucked up."

Cheers.

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Employment

Cash flow used to be the biggest challenge in running any small business. Not any more.

In the UK, the hardest thing about running a small business is employment law. It is geared *very* strongly in the employee's favour. Eg. It is almost impossible to fire anyone, whatever the reason. Your employee surfs the web 5 hours a day, pisses off customers and gets everything wrong ? Not a thing you can do about it. Your employee has become pregnant ? A happy event, but the consequences will will break your spirit and your company (the law even dictates how you may talk to the employee in this matter - that's where the soul-crushing comes in). A former employee has an "industrial" illness ? They can chase you fast-track for company-breaking compensation - even if there is no chance the illness had anything to do with their time with you.

So it's great for employees, right ? Wrong. It backfires. Nobody wants to hire anybody and we all end up unemployed.

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Re: Employment

Ultimately, everyone starts their own business and we all subcontract to one another.

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