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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

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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 

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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.
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Think back to those heady, idealist days, before you started running your own business… What was your business meant to stand for? What would your being your own boss give you, which employment couldn’t?

Now honestly, look at how you are running your business? Are you truly in control, or is the tail wagging the dog?

From personal experience, and also my client’s experiences, some of the symptoms of your business running you (rather than the other way around) are:

  • you are always busy
  • the passion you once had for running your business has significantly diminished
  • you don’t get the time or opportunity to work on your business
  • your work/life balance is out of kilter
  • mistakes or poor service/quality is creeping into your work or product
  • you are tired, stressed and potentially run down

Unfortunately, there is no easy one-size fits all solution – every business owner and business is different. Whilst one business owner may want a six figure income, another business owner may be happy with significantly less.

The first step in the process of taking back control of your business is to reconnect with your initial vision for your business and the lifestyle you wanted to lead as a business owner. What was it that so attracted you to business ownership? What was the aim of your business?

The second step is to identify where you have lost control and moved away from this vision, and in what aspects the business is now running you.

The third step is to start to allocate time in your working week to stepping away from the technician role and move into the entrepreneur and manager role. When I talk about technician, this is actually working in the business, doing the client work. The manager is the role where you put in systems and processes into the business, which help run your business more efficiently. Finally, the entrepreneur role allows you to lead your business and take the time to grow it as per your vision.

The fourth step is to plan how you want to run your business rather than letting momentum carry you along. Do you have to be in such a hurry or can world domination wait a little longer?

And then, finally, the last step is to implement the plans for your business.

It may sound simple, but in practice this process may be hard to complete.

Heather Townsend, The Efficiency Coach

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1 Plan your marketing
Far too often, new businesses take a scattergun approach to marketing. They spend a huge amount of time and focus on marketing – which is correct – but there is no cohesive strategy, plan or thinking. So what happens is, 80 per cent of their marketing efforts results in little or no return.

If you have done your homework, you will be clear about how you help your target market with their ‘pain’, know where your target market hang out and how best to get your message to them. Use this knowledge to plan your marketing, so you focus your marketing on your target market, in a place where they will see it – and in a way that will encourage them to take action.

If you believe that word-of-mouth is going to be all the marketing you need, think again. Word-of-mouth works very well when you are an established business with a good name. Until you are an established business, word-of-mouth, in isolation, will not be an efficient marketing strategy.
Think very carefully about taking an enhanced listing in a physical or internet directory. When was the last time you looked in one of these for a tradesperson or supplier?

2 Know your costs
I’m going to be blunt. If you don’t know the cost of running your business, it normally means you are running your business as a hobby. Poor financial management of a new business is one of the main reasons for a new business to fail in its first year. Poor cashflow is a major factor in this. If you sell to businesses, see how short you can make your payment terms. For example, can you ask for some cash up front?

3 Look for recurring business opportunities
At the start of your business life, most of your business will have to be won from new clients. Winning business from existing clients is estimated to be between seven and 14 times easier than winning business from a new client. Aim to target new business from clients or customers that are likely to result in recurring business.

4 Be flexible
No one can predict exactly how your new business is going to perform. In the first 12 months of trading, you will probably need to tweak part of your business and marketing strategy. If you keep yourself open to opportunities and possibilities, you are more likely to be able to change strategy before it costs you time and money.

5 Work to your personal talents and strengths
In the early days as a one-man-band, you are going to have to be all things to all people. There are always going to be tasks that don’t fit your personal preferences. For me, this was bookkeeping. Be honest with yourself and outsource or delegate any tasks that can be done by someone else, without materially affecting the running of the business.

6 Set and write down business goals
Only about 3 per cent of adults have clear, written goals. These people accomplish five to ten times as much as people of equal ability and standing, but who, have never taken the time to write out exactly what they want to achieve. It’s the same with new businesses. Those businesses that remain focused on their goals are more likely to achieve greater things. In the early days, you are on a steep learning curve, so you will need to revisit these business goals every three months.

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Market research is an essential part of any business plan, whether a fledgling business or a multinational organisation. Knowing that there is a sustainable market for your product and understanding what your audience expects from you is vital to a successful business launch. Market research can generally be split into two categories; primary and secondary, and during this article I will explain both and discuss their respective merits and appropriate uses.

Secondary Research

Secondary research makes use of existing data from whatever sources are available. There are government censuses, Mintel surveys, and many private market research agencies that allow access to their data; some of it for free. It can be hugely advantageous, especially as a place to begin. Secondary research more often than not, proves to be a solid base on which to develop your own primary research. It plays the same role as research in general does to your product launch, and should be seen as just as vital. Also, this is of course far cheaper and generally quicker than creating your own research from scratch.

The negatives

The other side of that coin is that you have neither picked the panel to suit your exact needs, nor the questions. It is feasible that you can find some research somewhere that corresponds to what you are trying to achieve but it will almost certainly require some tweaking, and will not necessarily be the people you wish to interrogate; the use of qualitative research designed by someone else will almost certainly make the target specialised away from your goals. Another main issue with secondary research is that by the time it reaches you it’s often outdated; markets change so quickly in business that the only way to be truly current is through new research. This is not to rubbish the quality of secondary research.

Primary Research

Primary research is, essentially, the creation of your own research, whether a question that you ask to your friends and family or a survey put together alongside an agency and administered to a wide panel. Primary research will instantly let you feel more in control of your project; and that is the exact position you will find yourself in. You choose the questions and select your panel through qualitative research, allowing you detailed responses from individuals. You decide how, when and where your research is administered. You can ensure that your research is focussed: the number of participants and their backgrounds, the number and nature of the questions, the amount of time that your survey is available. This is the most accurate way to research a market sector that is specific to you and your product.

The down side

It is of course, more expensive, whether financially or on your time. If performing primary research alone it will take a lot of time, refining and will need some experience in producing quality questionnaires. It will also take time for your questionnaire to be completed if you don’t have direct access to a ready panel. Most of this can be avoided by using an agency, but at a cost higher than performing your research alone.

So what’s the best option?

Neither type of research will take you to your goal alone; however, a combination of the two will give you all the information you need. Using primary research alone, without first seeing what has or has not worked for other companies and possibly missing out on important data from research that you couldn’t afford to perform yourself, is likely to lead to irrelevant questions or missed opportunities. At the same time, relying solely on secondary research is likely to leave you with answers that are vague or inappropriate to your specific audience. The two compliment each other well, and when used in conjunction will give you a well rounded and accurate portrayal of the needs and opinions of your market sector.

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My first blog post on setting up a business at home proved popular – I thought I would follow it up with some tips on the regulatory side to working from home.

  1. Decide whether to trade as a sole trader or to set up a limited company.
  2. Incorporate a company using a formation agent (e.g. @UKplc) or an accountant. This is easy and you should not have to pay more than £150 – including disbursements.
  3. As a sole trader, you will need to register as self employed with HM Revenue & Customs.
  4. You will be able to offset a portion of your home costs against your profits. This is a great way of reducing tax.
  5. VAT registration – this is compulsory if your sales are greater than £70,000. You can register voluntarily if wish to reclaim VAT suffered on purchases. It’s a complex area and you should seek the advice of an accountant. Make sure your accountant is set up to register and file returns online for you.
  6. PAYE registration – you will need to do this if you plan to pay yourself and/or your staff a salary. Again, use an accountant and make sure that the accountant is set up to make all the necessary submissions online.
  7. Home insurance – make sure that your building and contents policy covers you for working from home. Similarly, make sure that your car insurance covers business use. There should be no/minimal extra cost.
  8. Liability insurance – if you need it, you might want to make sure that it covers Public Liability Insurance at your home, particularly if you plan to regularly host clients, suppliers and/or staff.
  9. Business Rates – there is an element of scale to consider here – you on a laptop on the sofa is not a problem. Five staff turning up every day to work in the spare-room may be. If in doubt, check out your local council’s position.
  10. Registered Office – if you set up a company, you will need to have an “official” address. If you use your home address, you will need to display the company name outside your front door. The sign can be business card size. Alternatively, use your accountant or virtual office service.
  11. Make a note in your diary of the dates and deadlines that matter – particularly on the submission of official documents – because you get fined if you are late.

I’m always looking for new topics to blog about so if you have any suggestions – do get in touch or leave a comment below.

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