Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Advice for your business’ Category

It may sound a little strange, but in retrospect, I can’t think of a better time to have started my business than during the recession.

I trained myself up on food safety and manufacturing, as well as on managing a business during the depths of the economic downturn. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but in reality, now I’m ready to scale up, the general atmosphere for businesses is much more positive.

Now, I realise I have some ingredients for a tasty business which can succeed:

  • the sector of the market I’m operating in has had a record-breaking 12% rise last year despite the recession;
  • my never-ending, and indeed, increasing passion for cooking the best authentic Mexican food there is in the land;
  • importantly, the great, fantastic people I have met along the way who bring different experiences and skills …

All of this seems to be combining to create something very special. Maybe entrepreneurs are like passionate foodies in the kitchen, combining the different ingredients to create a delicious meal, where timing, quality of input, skill, and the heating element of their passion all have a part to play to create success.

You can find out more about Marcela on the new interactive business website www.inafishbowl.com

startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share
Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Everybody knows that if you stand still you are, in reality, going backwards.

My company, a Bristol gym, is fortunate to be in a location that is conveniently close to its target market, which makes advertising virtually unnecessary.

Most readers will be aware of the statistic that most gym members stop going after between one week and three months, after having paid for a year’s membership.

It seemed clear to me from the outset that we ought to focus our time, energy and money on what we offer the member once they have joined, as opposed to the industry model which, as some of you may be aware, is to promote heavily, sign people up and then just ignore them.

We hold about four staff meetings each year. Last Tuesday we spent one and a half hours discussing whether we should alter the number of repetitions (ie complete lifting and lowering of a weight) that we advise members to attempt, on the basis that it might be easier for them to understand what we wanted from them, if we gave a lower figure.

It’s easy to forget how much resistance there can be to change, simply as a gut instinct. I personally find the process draining, possibly because I don’t like to tell my staff what to do, I’d rather work through some questions and examples in the hope that they will feel empowered by their decisions.

In the initial stages, progress is slow, because people have different levels of understanding. But the best bit for me is always the passion they show for their jobs and for our customers – the members. They show this passion by arguing with each other about what’s best. I think this is lovely.

Ross Campbell, The Exercise Club, Clifton.

startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

You may well be using various social networking sites to promote your new business, but are you exposing yourself (and the company) to identity theft and malware attacks in the process?

In March 2010 my company published results from a survey of over 1,100 members of Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and other popular social networks. It showed an increasing awareness among social network users of how to keep personal information private, BUT it also revealed how they still put their identities and sensitive information at risk. For instance, 28% of respondents never changed their default privacy settings and over 60% published their date of birth (a key piece of information for identity theft).

What can you do?

To help business owners understand and protect themselves while online, here are some tips as a guide for safer social networking:

  • Make personal information private — Protect yourself by updating privacy settings on all your profiles to restrict or omit access to any personal data. Users of popular geo-location services that allow you to share where you are should be especially careful not to disclose your location to the wrong people.
  • Read between the lines — Familiarise yourself with the social networks’ privacy options to ensure you’re taking advantage of any enhanced security features.
  • Think before you click – You and any employees might know not to follow a link in an email message from an unknown source, but if that link appears in a message from a social networking “friend” or in a tweet from someone the employee is following, it might be a different story. A bad link would result in malware being downloaded to your company network.
  • Protect your password — As a critical line of defence, it is more important than ever for you to choose passwords wisely, and make them different from one site to the next. Incorporating numbers, letters and special characters like !, $, and * into your password makes it stronger. Microsoft has a free password checker. If the green bar doesn’t show “Strong,” change the password.

Use a free password generating tool like LastPass if you can’t come up with a good one yourself. I’d also recommend changing your password at regular intervals, and never use the same password at more than one site.

  • Suite security — Protect your PC with an internet security suite that includes antivirus, antispyware and firewall technologies. Remember to schedule updates daily and to scan the whole machine for malware weekly.
  • Always automate software updates — If you’re already using anti-malware software, be sure to install updates which include the latest malware definitions. Do the same with updates to your operating system, web browser and other key applications. However, watch out for fake software updates like emails that purport to be from Microsoft or Adobe which require you click on a link to update your computer. Try using Secunia PSI, a free tool, to double-check that any automatic update is genuine.
  • Check shortened URLs – Especially on Twitter with its 140 character limit, and Facebook, the use of URL shortening has exploded. But these anonymous links can lead to a malicious payload. If you use TweetDeck then set it to display a preview of the shortened link including the full URL , its page title and number of visitors. Also most web browsers offer a plug-in that shows you the long version of the URL when you hover over a shortened link.

Jeff Horne, director of Threat Research at internet security software supplier, Webroot (www.webroot.co.uk)startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

Scrap Business Link?

In Part 1 of this blog I summarised the recent history of business support in the UK. I concluded that, after 20 years of heavy expenditure, one precious asset that we have is a brand that most business people recognise. Business Link is “the place to go to access whatever help is available”.

I take this view notwithstanding the fact that I’m still hearing the same things now as I’ve heard every single year during that period.

“Business support is too fragmented.” “I don’t know where to go for help.” “It needs to be more practical.” “The advisers need to be people who have run SMEs.” “It must be local.” And meanwhile the civil servants seem as keen as ever to have a service that is “innovative”, a word that is prominent in every tender that comes across my desk at BHP, the company behind the Donut websites.

In his intentionally controversial Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto, Doug Richard proposes scrapping Business Link and moving business support online.

Traditionally, business support has been delivered one-to-one through business advisers and telephone helplines, together with an extensive calendar of training courses and networking events.

But hold on a minute, let’s start by asking what we are trying to achieve. What are the objectives of government business support?

Well, it’s support for businesses of course. There are about four million of them.

Some of them are like Doug Richard and me: successful (OK, he’s a lot more successful than me, I’m the first to admit it), confident, experienced, and so on. Do these individuals seek Business Link’s help on how to start a business, or how to comply with all the regulations surrounding employing someone? Probably not, but we do take advantage of tailored support for ‘high growth’ companies. The UK invests a lot of money helping its most capable businessmen, not least because the next Google, Dyson or Nokia may be among the businesses that they start. I have mixed views on this.

I generally prefer ‘pull’ to ‘push’. So who are the people who actually come looking for help?

In a word, novices. It is people who feel they would like to be self-employed, but want to bounce their idea off someone with some experience who can also tell them how to go about getting started.

One obvious group that springs to mind is women who are returning to work once their children are in full-time education. They have a high propensity to seek help.

Another group who ask for help is people who have never run a business, but suddenly find themselves out of work. (By the way, Tony Robinson, the well-informed boss of SFEDI, the standards-setting body, was quoting a UK statistic that if you’re made redundant at age 45 you only have a 10% chance of getting a new job.)

There are lots of subgroups like this. Some of them get lumped together in reports under the unflattering name of ‘disadvantaged groups’, or ‘the hard to reach’.

Do these guys all use the web for business support? Er, no. The latest research from the Small Business Research Trust reveals the true extent of this non-use.

In 2007, ‘information on websites’ was the most popular form of business advice, having just pushed ‘face-to-face contact with an adviser’ into second place. But the latest data, published in December 2009, puts the business advisers back at the top of the charts. I guess there is simply too much information out there on the web for people to cope with.

BHP’s own user-testing bears this out. Users with a specific business question are unlikely to be able to find the answer online. Their first port of call is businesslink.gov, which is also their best chance of finding the answer. So it should be after the vast sums of money that have been invested in it. Happily, they also find the Donut websites useful for the topics that we cover. And likewise a specialist website such as j4bgrants is a treasure trove for that specific search. But while other small business websites are brilliant in other ways, they don’t always give you direct answers to direct questions.

As the data shows, businesses are once again finding it easier to simply ask someone: a friend, an accountant, an adviser, or whoever.

Business Link, and the plethora of business support organisations that it acts as the signposting for, delivers this face-to-face support. So it’s no good simply scrapping it. The question is, how can we improve it and which organisations should be delivering this one-to-one business support?

I’ve got lots more to say on this fascinating topic. On call centres; on how to objectively establish the success and value of a service; on the psychology of start-ups and micro businesses; on how to make the front line and the back-office of Business Link (etc) hugely more cost-effective; on how to involve the banks (an old idea, but a good one); on how to get the support/messages of 1,001 different public sector organisations out to small and medium-sized enterprises; on how to do public sector procurement without financially damaging so many of the bidders; and, sticking with procurement, on how to tap into the specialisation, experience, passion and sheer hard work of the smaller suppliers more than we do now; and that is just the first list of things that springs to mind…

But let’s see what others have to say first. Comments please!

(By the way, thank you to everyone who commented last week on my business regulations blog, I’ve enjoyed reading them all.)

Rory’s other Have your say! blogs

startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

Scrap Business Link?

In his manifesto, Doug Richard calls on the new government to scrap the Business Link business support service to provide savings and to migrate all government business support services online to promote efficiency.

In the report he wrote for the Conservative party earlier, I think he also recommended using the universities and specialist providers such as the British Library as a replacement business support network on the ground. More recently, Mark Prisk, the Conservative Shadow Minister for Business, has been talking about using the existing network of Enterprise Agencies for this role.

I’m sure Doug is as pleased as I am to see that the government is already going flat out to move the whole business of government online. Thousands of disparate systems and websites are being corralled into three mega websites: businesslink.gov for businesses, direct.gov for individuals, and nhs.uk for health. 

Yes, this is expensive, but what an improvement.

Lots of individuals lack a computer, but most businesses are online and will readily engage with businesslink.gov, as the evidence already shows. We small and medium-sized enterpriseslike being able to do tax returns and company searches etc online; it is a real convenience. We also use the huge library of advice pages. 

So let’s talk about the more contentious idea of scrapping face-to-face business support. But first, a bit of history. 

In the 18 years I’ve run BHP, I’ve seen governments come and go. At every general election, there’s a clamour to change the way government delivers business support. And we do change – all too frequently. 

In the 1970s, we had Enterprise Agencies, which were hailed as fulfilling an important need. 

Then someone said “No let’s have Training and Enterprise Councils”, so we had 82 TECs, with a £1.3bn budget to help SMEs in England and Wales. Scotland decided to have 22 LECs. 

Why 82 TECs? Because support had to be local, as everyone seemed to agree that “a business in Preston has a different set of needs to a business in Portsmouth” (nonsense on the whole, but that’s a topic in itself…). 

Then someone (I won’t mention Tarzan by name, as I’m trying to stay clear of party politics) said “No, these TECs are failing, let’s have a one-stop shop for business support. We’ll call it Business Link”. So we had had 82 Business Links, as local was still flavour of the month, while Wales invented something else new called Business Eye. 

Meanwhile the government had also created a network of nine massive organisations called Regional Development Agencies (in England only), each with a list of tasks and targets that went on for pages and pages. 

At this point someone said “Crikey, this costs a fortune and the quality and type of business support varies far too much, so let’s take the 82 Business Links and make them into nine Business Links”. 

And that’s where we are today. Endless change. If you ran a business like this, you would have gone bust over and over again. The cost of this never-ending change is too much to even contemplate. 

But, finally, we have a brand that, like any commercial brand, has been allowed time to establish itself. Hallelujah. There are even road signs saying Business Link in some towns. 

The question now is what we want the brand to offer, and how business support should be delivered. I’ll deal with that in my next blog. 

Rory’s other Have your say! blogs 

startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

In his manifesto, Doug Richard argues that business regulation should be streamlined so that people can start businesses more quickly and run them more easily. 

I agree. But in order to achieve this, I think the law must make an important distinction between small and large businesses. They have different regulatory requirements. What is fair and suitable for one is often neither fair nor suitable for the other. 

It’s also important to recognise the natural bias in our regulations, a bias that stems from the fact that regulations are always going to favour the people who make them. So our regulatory system is heavily skewed towards the preferences of the government, the public sector, big business and the trade unions. 

The seemingly simple task of taking a chunk of time off for a family holiday is a struggle for many people running a small business, so it’s hardly surprising that they do not have time to assist in the law-making process. 

Nor do the various small business membership organisations have the power to make much of a difference. Think back to when the government raised CGT by 80 per cent without realising until afterwards that for many small businesses the only “pension” available at retirement is the proceeds of the sale of the business. A £1m threshold was hastily added, but not before it became obvious that the small business lobby groups had not even been consulted on this legislation, let alone listened to. 

Yet it’s small businesses that end up paying the price for so much of the legislation. Take a law requiring organisations to offer wheelchair access to their premises. I’m sure everyone agrees that society wants to help make life less difficult for disabled people. But few people stop to consider who will be forced to pay for the door widening. We all pay for the doors to be widened in the public sector buildings and the corporate buildings, through our taxes, pensions and savings (some of which are invested in listed shares), which seems completely fair. 

But when it comes to all the properties owned by small businesses, it’s the business owner who pays. So if I earn a £20k salary working for the local council or for a big company, I am not affected at all, but if I would have earned £20k from owning a shop, I might be left with just £17k after the adjustments to my shop front. How can that be fair? It’s not. It is merely convenient, both for the lawmakers and for the Treasury. 

It’s the same with employee rights. Nobody questions the need for new parents to spend more time with their children. But who pays? There’s no compensation to any of the small business owners who pick up these costs. In a small business, every member of staff is a key person and losing them, even temporarily, is a considerable blow. Larger businesses have the resources to cushion the blow; small businesses don’t. 

Given that small businesses employ a very considerable proportion of the workforce, I suggest that society ought to compensate small businesses if we all want to have those benefits. If not, you end up with a situation where business owners are terrified of employing women of a certain age. It’s discriminatory, but it happens; the law has massive unintended consequences. 

Sensible regulation is essential to protect customers, employers and employees. But it must recognise the reality of running a small business. 

So much of our business regulation is designed for Hewlett Packard and Rolls Royce, not for “mom and pop” businesses. But, in my view, firms with fewer than five employees should have a completely different set of regulations. If you choose to work for them, perhaps you shouldn’t have quite the same rights as employees in larger companies, simply because these rights amount to robbing Peter (the employer, who is a person) to pay Paul (the employee). But then you would be discriminating against employees of small businesses, which is clearly wrong. 

So the only fair solution is for society (aka the taxpayer) to face up to, and pay for, the cost of implementing all these rights, instead of turning a blind eye while the costs fall onto the shoulders of small business owners. 

Doug Richard is right and all the political parties seem to agree. We need to do something to enable the moms and pops to run their businesses in a more flexible and efficient way. Now let’s see if anyone actually does anything. 

What do you think? 

Rory’s other Have your say! blogs

What do you think about the regulations affecting small businesses? Please leave your comment below.
startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

There’s a dilemma when you are starting a company. There are lots of boring essentials like company formation, VAT, Data Protection Act, employment law and, depending on which industry you are in, a host of other legislation. Yet complying with these doesn’t help you to sell anything, build a customer base or most importantly turn a profit.

It’s incredibly difficult to find the balance between being too gung ho about regulations (with risks starting at inconvenience and ending in prison), or over egging things, with a bigger risk of business failure. Hovering around are lots of professional advisers with fees to match – that’s the accountants, lawyers and consultants. Unfortunately it’s hard for them to be entirely impartial as their business is about charging fees.

Here are my top tips for getting this balance right.

  1. First you need to understand the issue. You need to know what laws may apply to you. Books and the web are the cheapest forms of education along with free seminars from Business Link or professional advisers offering free consultations in the hope of getting your business.
  2. Then make sure you stay legal with the minimum of work and elaboration. Remember your principle aim is to serve customers, not produce a gold encrusted employment or health and safety manual.
  3. Be appropriate. If you work in an industry that is potentially hazardous, then actually health and safety is the top priority. If you are selling cuddly toys over the internet, just make sure they don’t contain dangerous substances or harmful parts.
  4. Until you are cash positive, don’t worry about issues that can wait until tomorrow.
  5. Once you know that the business has a future and you can afford it, start employing the professionals to help.

When you’re starting off, anything that isn’t directly related to making sales or pushing the business forward is an irritant. But completely neglecting other issues can cause huge frustration when you are forced to comply; it can also substantially reduce the value of your business or may even cause its demise.
It’s different if you are well capitalised and have had previous business success. But if this is your first start up, then these tips are well worth a thought.

Chris Barling, Actinic

startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

Bookmark and Share

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »