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Archive for the ‘You and your idea’ Category

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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Small Business 2.0 was held on Saturday 23 January. Now in its second year, it’s an event dedicated to helping small businesses profit from the web. Emma Jones went along and picked up some useful nuggets.

Business at the weekend

One of the reasons I like the Small Business 2.0 event is that it’s held on Saturday. Not only does this mean it’s accessible to 5 to 9ers (those holding down a day job and building the business at nights and weekends) it also means there’s a relaxed feeling about the place as attendees listen, learn, and meet new people in an informal setting.

These ingredients came together well on Saturday and were the recipe for an interesting and enjoyable day. Here are a few things I picked up:

  • A bit of trivia – the first item ever sold on eBay UK was a Scorpions CD at the price of £2.89. 
  • eBay has more than 17 million monthly unique visitors and offers more than 15 million items for sale. There are 123,000 full time eBay businesses, generating more than £1.7 billion per year in turnover. To date, $600million worth of business has been driven through the eBay iPhone application. The company expect this to become an even more popular way to shop. 
  • E-commerce continues to climb: the numbers of people shopping online – and the amounts they are spending – is increasing at a rapid rate. So it’s still a very good time to be starting an online trading business.
  • Customers are becoming more demanding: the majority of customers expect their online shopping experience to be as good as, if not better, than an offline shopping experience, placing the onus on the store owner to make it as simple and enjoyable as possible. 
  • The secrets to success in creating a successful online venture can be summed up as having:

– Great products
– Competitive prices
– Outstanding service
– Giving something back (eBay report that even though sellers participating in eBay for charity give 10 per cent of the sales price to charity, their products are 20 per cent more likely to sell, at a better price. This resulted in $50 million being raised for charity in 2009).

  • Enterprise is alive and well: I met a number of people in the early stages of starting a business, from Domino Duhan who is soon to launch Flog.com as a place to create a free online store, to Steven and Zoe who travelled from Worcestershire to pick up tips for their new venture selling cottage gifts.

Altogether, there was a great vibe and positive signs that 2010 will be another exciting year for anyone starting and growing an online business.

Emma Jones is the founder of Enterprise Nation and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’. Her next book ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’ will be published in May 2010.

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I set up my first business during the recession of 1990. At the time I was given some great advice, though initially I didn’t fully appreciate its value. I thought it might be useful, given the current economic climate, to pass this advice along…

“If you enjoy something and are good at it, don’t go into business to do it. Go into business so that you can do the thing you enjoy and are good at.”

It took me a while to figure out the gem of wisdom here. Excited as I was to be setting up my own business, and taking control of my own destiny; what was motivating me was that I would be doing something I enjoyed and felt I was good at. The problem with this is that it puts the “going into business” aspect of your new venture into second place. Whereas it should come first.

You may be a good web designer, or chiropractor, or recruitment consultant, or even helicopter pilot. But if you are not prepared to be a good business person, you best stay on someone else’s pay-roll. Or if no one is prepared to pay you to be a web designer, chiropractor etc keep these skills as a hobby.

You need to be thinking “I am going into business and will be a business person first.” A by-product of your business is that you get to do something that you enjoy. If you do not focus on being a business person first: areas such as cash-flow, sales, market research, administration etc. are likely to come second to the delivery of your product or service. And those wrong priorities can easily lead to business failure.

Now, I am sure that you are a good web designer, or chiropractor, or recruitment consultant, or even helicopter pilot – but what makes you think you are a good business person?

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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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Such a big part of growing a successful business is ensuring that you’re always thinking of new ideas or making improvements to your current business. But as many small business owners know, coming up with a great idea is easier said than done. If you’re someone who struggles with creativity or can’t easily prompt a brain wave, watch this show to get ideas from a brand which is growing rapidly and improving constantly.

A popular method of tracking and recording ideas is to write them down – or to “always have a notebook with you”. Tell us, when (and where) do your best ideas come to you?

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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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1. Think of a business name. If you need them, make sure that a suitable domain name is available (for emails and website). If you are struggling to find a name, think about using your own name – credibility is essential and your willingness to use your name will reassure potential customers. Alternatively, stick with the simplest explanation of your business that you can find. “My Bookkeeping Online” is a good example of this.

2. Set up a bank account – OK – I know I said easy but I may have stretched the truth slightly! I’m afraid not much is easy when it comes to banks. ALWAYS have a separate bank account, even for very small businesses. Using your existing personal bank should make things slightly easier.

3. Buy a wireless router and a laptop. It gives you the flexibility to work anywhere inside/ outside the house.

4. Hosting your email. Have a look at Google Apps. It is only £35 a year, and it enables you to use your business email address using the Google platform – I use it and I love it – it’s cheap, and of course, accessible from anywhere.

5. Commission a website – look for a company that will build it and “optimise” it for you at the same time. By optimise, I mean give it the best chance of appearing in the free searches in Google when someone searches for a product/service you sell.

6. Install a separate telephone line – or have a separate mobile. You cannot afford to be competing for a telephone line! You may also want to look at Skype – it’s incredibly cheap and the quality is pretty good now.

7. Consider getting a smart phone, particularly if you are out and about a lot. It is a great way of staying in touch with your email.

8. Use your personal car for business trips and reclaim 40p per mile. There is no value these days in having a company car, unless you need a commercial vehicle.

9. Think about your neighbours – if what you are doing is likely to disrupt them in anyway, speak to them about it early, and make arrangements to keep them happy.

10. Running a business from home can be disruptive for other members of the household. So, try and set things up so that home life and business life to function side by side. Both my wife and I regularly work from home, sometimes long into the evening. An example of one of our “rules” is that business calls are always made/taken outside the room we relax in – and it works very well.

Look out for my next blog post on setting up a business at home – regulatory.

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