Each week, we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to Andy Burton, who owns and runs outdoor activities firm Active Highs at South Laggan in Lochaber
How and why did you start in business?
I grew up in the north of England and loved kayaking and hillwalking in Cumbria and North Wales as a lad.
I moved to Scotland in 1994 to continue kayaking and funding both it and trips to the Alps, Norway and Canada by working in sales, as well as people and project management in Edinburgh.
In 2001 I gave up my city life to pursue snowboarding, my main passion and focus at that time. I became self-employed for three main reasons. Firstly, I’m a terrible employee; secondly, I needed to earn more money and thirdly, I wanted the freedom and autonomy to shape my own future and life.
How did you get to where you are today?
Having started my first business in 2002, with a small grant from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), I’m now on my third. It’s been quite a journey. I was given the opportunity to teach at Nevis Range, where I cut my teeth, and in 2004 I passed my snowboard instructing exams.
Money as a freelance snowboard instructor was tight, so I kept the wolf from the door by taking on any part-time jobs going.
In the summer I worked as a self-employed instructor and guide for a local adventure sports company, which is now my friendly competition. I also worked for Highland Council’s outdoor education department in a small team that specialised in working with young people with challenging behaviour.
In 2006 I was offered a partnership in a new, local business specialising in quad biking. Everything went well until 2012, when the business became unsustainable due to the recession and artistic differences with my business partner. We went our separate ways.
As a relatively new father, with a wife, mortgage and all of the other responsibilities that go along with it, I needed income urgently. I borrowed money from my-mother-in law, bought some kit and started again, with what is now Active Highs.
Lessons from the past learned, I started small and grew slowly. Today, we provide everything from fun and safe adrenaline-pumping adventures to more relaxing scenic tours, catering for families, couples, individuals and groups of all types.
The business is still growing, employing people and giving me a reasonable living – and I now have the time to enjoy it.
Who helped you?
HIE, Business Gateway, my former business partner in a roundabout way and my staff – I couldn’t have done it without them. Also Ron Woodwark – my old boss and now friend from my Highland Council days – and the Federation of Small Businesses for all the help and advice and, of course, my family.
What has been your biggest mistake?
Trying to grow too big, too soon. I was told my last business would continue to grow and that bad stuff would never happen to me and I greedily grasped the funding carrot dangled in front of me to keep expanding – a big mistake.
What is your greatest achievement?
After expending what felt like all of my emotional energy for six years in a business partnership that failed, I had to pick myself up and start all over again.
If you were in power in government, what would you change?
I would review VAT rates for small, consumer-facing tourism businesses. The current system stifles growth and development.
What do you still hope to achieve?
To create long-term sustainability for my business and something to pass on to my kids, Sarah, 10, and Jamie, five.
What do you do to relax?
What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on the TV?
I’m loving You on Netflix – a really freaky drama.
What do you waste your money on?
Practical, boring things like electricity bills and council tax.
How would your friends describe you?
Friendly, loving, caring and fun, hopefully.
What would your enemies say about you?
I really don’t know – I’ve never met any.
What do you drive and dream of driving?
I drive a Mitsubishi L200 pick-up and I’d love a Winnebago.