Chris Pipe set up Planning House after working in town planning for several years. She talks about the ups and downs of starting her own business ahead of this year’s If We Can You Can Competition.
What did you do before setting up your business?
My first ‘proper’ planning role was at Hartlepool Borough Council, initially part time to allow me flexibility with my then 9-month-old son. However, I soon realised that my passion for town planning needed to progress, and within nine years I went from planning officer to senior, to principal to development control manager then onto head of planning. At Hartlepool I led the teams responsible for all planning functions including the determination of all planning applications and the formation of planning policy for the Borough, including conservation and archaeology sections.
In 2014 I knew I needed a change in direction and was offered a role as regional land director (North) at Countrywide. I was responsible for growing the Countrywide Land team stretching from Milton Keynes north which included Scotland. The team was responsible for the identification and acquisition of immediate and long-term land opportunities, predominantly for residential development. In early 2016 after a restructure I was given the role as UK planning & land director at Countrywide, covering everywhere outside of London, which allowed me to get back into a more ‘pure planning’ role and ignited my desire to start my own business. Planning House launched in July 2016.
What inspired you to set up your business?
There were two main reasons I started Planning House, personal satisfaction and choice. I’m a bit of a control freak so controlling my own work stream appealed, I get personal satisfaction by knowing a project’s needs and ensuring the best route has been taken for a particular client, ideally with the ultimate aim of achieving their aspirations.
Also, previously my working hours and travel did impact on my time with my family – adding all this together it was an easy decision to make. My professional expertise hasn’t changed, nor has my drive to ensure clients receive the best planning advice – it’s just I’m now working for myself and can make business decisions based on my circumstances rather than based on KPIs or income forecasts.
What makes this business different?
At the end of the day Planning House is a town planning consultancy which isn’t new, however my USP is that I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher! I was 1 in 12 people in the North East who headed up a Local Planning Authority, so if anyone can navigate the planning process I can.
What inspired you to enter the If We Can You Can Challenge?
I’m just about to turn 40 and a female entrepreneur who is passionate about my profession and about my north east heritage.
Being recognised as a north east entrepreneur will hopefully raise Planning House’s profile, which could lead to support from business leaders and assist in the success of my business. I also am part of the Entrepreneurial Spark Sprint programme (only a few weeks in) but this has pushed me out of my comfort zone and focused me on my business.
Where do you see your business in three years’ time?
My aim is to build the consultancy and develop the skills of graduates to become part of Planning House. In my former local government role, I realised that graduates struggled to secure planning placements and even volunteer work in the sector due to them not having any experience I would like to build the company by helping Graduates develop in the industry. My aim is to be recognised as a leading north east planning consultancy.
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?
Whilst I’ve been fortunate to have some great achievements in my career I believe that starting my own business is by far my greatest achievement to date, I do however believe my greatest business achievement is yet to come. The rewards associated with being self-employed are priceless, whilst hard work I’m dedicated to building a sustainable company. I love a challenge and strive for success so whilst the business has had a good start I’m excited to see what I’ll achieved next year, then in five years and so on.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Being a one-woman band has its limitations. I’m juggling all the roles associated with providing a professional service, such as marketing, keeping on top of finances and administration. All this while learning about developing a business and doing the work to pay the bills is a challenge.
Who/what gave you support or advice?
Outside of business my Dad’s support allowed me to fulfil my career goals, his advice helped shape my career with his philosophy of ‘What’s the worst that could happen’ which is similar to my work mantra ‘Shy bairns get nee broth’, life’s too short to wonder what if!
In business in general I admire the way Richard Branson sees the positives in every learning opportunity, failure is learning, this helped me in terms of setting up Planning House at the end of day what’s the worst that could happen (as my Dad would say) – there’ll be bumps along the road which I’ll learn from but if I continue to provide an honest and pragmatic service I believe Planning House will thrive.
However, in the planning world there are two people I owe a lot to, who inspired me in my early career - Richard Teece, who is not only the best boss I have ever worked for but also a kind and decent man who mentored a lot of planners through his career and Stuart Green who was the assistant director at Hartlepool for many years, an avid Sunderland supporter and a true gentleman who sadly passed away in 2016. Both Richard and Stuart dedicated their professional careers to Hartlepool and shaped me into the planner I am today and for this I am truly grateful.
What advice would you give to someone looking to set up their own business?
Starting a business isn’t easy so you must be passionate about your business, but my top 3 tips for any start-up are:
1. Life is too short to not love what you do. Don’t be afraid to take the leap. If you don’t try a business idea, you’ll never know if it could be successful.
2. Know where you want to be in the market. With my business, I can’t (at this stage) compete with the larger town planning consultancies, so I focus on a different audience.
3. Make connections. I’ve embraced reciprocal working with people within my industry. For example, if architectural plans are needed, I refer the client to an architect I trust.
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