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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.

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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.

Put simply, Doug Richard has suggested that we should scrap Business Link and move government-funded business support online.

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”.

In Part 2, I looked at who ‘the customers’ of business support are, and how they would like to receive help. I concluded that it is a very broad audience and that business novices make up a large proportion of the group. The latest research confirms that they prefer one-to-one help to online help, although I am the first to agree that online business support is extremely cost-effective and is more popular with experienced business people. (The popularity of one-to-one support should not come as a surprise to anyone, as it mirrors the way we behave in the rest of our business lives. When we have a question, we usually approach ‘someone who knows’ for the answer.)

So the question for the final part of this three-part blog then becomes something like ‘How is this offline help best given?’, ‘Who should be doing it?’, and ‘What tools/methods can make these delivery methods more cost-effective?’.

Let’s see; what do we already do that works well? Answer: loads of things.

Take start-ups. In the UK we provide start-up packs, start-up seminars, start-up advisers, telephone helplines, and start-up premises (if there is a vacant premises lying around). Although the quality of business support services vary from place to place and from adviser to adviser (more on that later), the business novices who I meet tend to be pretty grateful for the support they have received and think it really has been useful.

Start-ups need to get their hands on a lot of information very quickly, such as information on how to do basic book-keeping. But a typical question from a start-up is not “How do I sell?” but “How do I sell to Mr Smith at ABC Ltd?”. And the person asking this question is really asking for two things. Firstly, they want some suggestions on which types of approach might work best in that specific situation. And secondly, they want reassurance and encouragement from a fellow human being along the lines of “I know that this is totally outside your comfort zone, but go on, you can do it!”. Let’s face it, starting up a business is a lonely, worrying, risky thing to do, so the emotional side of business support is massively important.

Did you notice how difficult that question was by the way, the one about selling to Mr Smith? Most people would struggle to give a good answer to that question. Which brings me on to my next point.

With the right team, you can work out what the 100 most common questions are from start-ups on the topic of sales, and you can then find 1-5 good alternative answers to each question. You can put these questions and answers on a website, for those people who like to browse businesslink.gov. And you can also put them into a business support knowledge bank, which is exactly what clever East Midlands Development Agency has done, so that anyone in any local business support organisation can use (and contribute to) these questions and answers.

I know this is all possible, because it is what my company does for a living. We find out what all the most common questions are, then provide the answers and keep the whole library up to date each year. Any company with our skill-set could do it.

It is worth noting that the involvement of an outside ‘supplier’ seems to be essential. The Training and Enterprise Councils, Business Links and Regional Development Agencies have never been good at knowledge banks; hundreds of new items of “useful” information simply pile up month after month without being organised, tagged, edited, de-duplicated or later updated.

In the UK we seem to have spent the last 30 years squabbling over budgets and contracts and who does what – and always with a focus on the delivery end of things. It is only since the businesslink.gov website came along that we have started to realise the value of providing excellent tools for those delivery organisations to use.

Look at Tesco. How would they run business support in the UK? They would hire the best of the best to create (and keep up-to-date) a set of integrated ‘products’ that their network could then deliver. They would have three suppliers of each type of product at any one time, to keep the suppliers on their toes (think CRM software, training courses, brokerage system, knowledge bank, CPD, and so on). But they would pay the suppliers properly and they would enable the suppliers to build up capacity and world-class know-how in their niches (rather than stopping to re-tender the contract every five minutes like the public sector does).

Would Tesco keep the regional Business Link offices? They could not say, until they were a lot clearer on their budget and their objectives for the next decade. But we can be sure that they would end up with a slick, branded, easy-to-access service that achieved what the customer wanted. They would use ‘invisible shopper’ market research to improve the service, as this quickly identifies the problems and the opportunities for improvement.

Let me finish on this point of economics. Business support is not just a cost. Every time we help a good company to be brilliant, we boost employment and GDP. And, looking at the other end of the scale, every time we help a long-term unemployed no-hoper to start in self-employment (even if it is just as a gardener or window cleaner), we boost employment and GDP and reduce the welfare burden on the state.

Last year the UK spent £80bn on education. We spent £97bn on welfare. And every year we happily dish out taxpayer-funded training to public sector employees on everything from assertiveness and teambuilding to you-name-it. These are vast sums of money and any spending on business support needs to be judged in comparison with these other budgets and what they achieve for our society.

Just as it makes economic sense to have a workforce that is literate and numerate, it makes sense to have owner managers who know how to start-up, run and grow a business. Personally, I do not think that taxpayer-funded business support needs to be an expensive operation, but it does need to be high quality and accessible, both online and offline.

I look forward to your comments.

Read Doug Richard’s Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto

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Whether you’re selling your knowledge or products crafted by your own hands, there are online platforms to help you reach an audience of customers and make sales. Here is my top ten:

Business services

 If you’re an IT contractor, graphic designer, business coach or expert translator, these sites might help you:

  •  Peopleperhour.com – more than 45,000 freelancers use this site to source work and new clients. As the freelance, you respond to job opportunities, pitch for work and receive payment, all via www.peopleperhour.com
  • Business Smiths – companies needing anything from business plans to web design head to www.businesssmiths.co.uk to find experts who can help.
  • Wooshii – a new kid on the block, this site has been created for creatives who produce video and rich media. Companies upload their projects to www.wooshii.com and Wooshii-registered creatives respond with their best offer.
  • Lingo24.com – for linguists, Lingo24.com can become your business development tool as work is sourced on your behalf. Clients include multinational companies and government bodies and Lingo24.com services these clients with a workforce of thousands of freelance translators spread across the globe.

Personal services

If health, beauty and wellbeing is more your thing, here’s where to head:

  • Return to Glory – London’s largest home massage and mobile beauty company, the site is a displaying ground for beauticians and health experts who deliver treatments in the client’s own home. Visit www.returntoglory.co.uk
  • Wahanda – welcome to the world of therapists, stylists, practitioners and trainers. They gather at wahanda.com as customers come looking, ready to order their services.

Handmade crafts

There is a growing number of sites for the artisan and handmade community. Here are just three of them:

  • Etsy – the mother of all craft sites. Since the company launched in June 2005, more than 250,000 sellers from around the world have opened up Etsy shops.
  • MyEhive.com – launched in September 2008 to promote the products of handmade devotees. Visit www.myehive.com
  • Notonthehighstreet.com – this site offers personalised gifts and other delights you won’t find on the high street. At the end of 2009, the company reported 1,500 craft designers using the site with sales of £6.4m. Visit www.notonthehighstreet.com

Manufacturing

  • Alibaba.com – through this site you can make your niche manufacturing dreams come true by sourcing production in China and then selling the finished item. Visit www.alibaba.com  
  • Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation, the home business website, 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’m infuriated by the election campaign. When things were booming, the Government poured more petrol on the fire, preventing any correction and encouraging the whole population to binge on debt. Then times turned bad, so they borrowed even more. Spending has to reduce because we’re spending more than we’re earning. We understand that on a personal and business basis so why not on a national one?

In business we know that delay makes things worse. Every day of piling on more debt steals from the future. Japan blazed the trail we’re following and got 20 years of stagnation with still no end in sight. And the Government is running on a record of being a safe pair of hands! Yeah, right.

The opposition isn’t getting the point across, because they think we don’t want to hear bad news. They are too scared to say that public sector jobs and benefits will have to be cut.

Sometimes the future of the country should be put before immediate electoral gain. And sometimes a gutsy and principled stand is rewarded. But we aren’t really engaging with the issue and the political commentators aren’t making much of it either. Maybe I’ll take a holiday in Greece this summer. It will be nice and familiar.

Chris Barling is chief executive of Actinic

Do you agree with Chris? What do you think about politicians’ promises and their handling of national debt? Leave your comment below.

  • Have your say! Business support – Part 1
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 2
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 3
  • Visit our extensive election coverage page on the Start Up Donut
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    If you’re thinking about starting up, you must carefully consider whether to form a limited company straight away or hold off for a while and become a sole trader. 

    You may think forming a limited company will save you tax and must therefore be the best route.  However, many start-ups incur considerable costs in their initial months. And even if you do not have sizeable initial outgoings, you should still factor in a realistic margin for error in your budgeting. 

    You will more than likely have a “learning curve cost” if this is your first time in business or if you’re going to be operating within a sector of which you have no prior experience. In either case, you should not expect the same return straight away as your more experienced competitors. 

    If you make a loss as a sole trader, it can be set against your employment income for previous years, which in all likelihood will give you a handy refund after the first tax year. If you make a loss as a limited company, it can only be carried forward and set against future the company’s profits.  If the company never makes a profit, it will be wasted.

    Even if you’re more confident that your business plan will be a success, you may still profit from waiting until you form a company. As a sole trader, you can build up custom, contacts, brand awareness and reputation in the business. From a tax point of view, this goodwill can be sold to the company. Future drawings from the company can be taken in the form of a director’s loan repayment, which will be especially beneficial if you expect to be paying tax at a higher rate.

    You can set up as a sole trader by simply telephoning HMRC or registering online, whereas the route for a company formation is more complex.  Ongoing accountancy costs are bound to be higher and Companies House will publish your company’s financial results for anyone to see – including your competitors, suppliers and potential clients.

    Yes, if your salary and dividends are organised properly, a company can save you considerable tax. It can also limit your liability to company debts. But the decision is not so straightforward. If you want to protect your trading name, you can always form the company and leave it dormant at Companies House until you are ready to start trading.

    A limited company can save you tax in certain situations, but it is not always the best way to start out. A brief review of the options with your accountant could save you time and money in the long run.

    • Raphael Coman is the owner-manager of chartered certified accountants Coman & Co.

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    There are a huge number of companies peddling different solutions to boost ecommerce sales, and of course they all state that they are the future. Some claim that they will address the “trust” issue of online commerce; others are working on smart imagery, providing the consumer detailed product information via zoom, crops and 360 degree transitions. Then there are the latest developments enabled by smart phones, including augmented reality.

    Anyone considering starting an ecommerce business needs to take all of this into account. There are many different things to think about, and in this blog I try to touch briefly on a number of them.

    Actinic has around 12,000 sites using our solutions to sell online, so I do feel that we have acquired some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Interestingly, the most successful sites seem to focus on some of the most basic things: like a great range, helpful descriptions, competitive pricing and a dedication to customer service.This may be the case, but complacency is not a business virtue. So what is really likely to prove important to the future of ecommerce?

    Payment on the mobile

    The first area is payment. It’s difficult to make payments online, and the fact that it’s still possible for buyers to see charges appear on their card if their details are stolen is a real issue. We’re waiting for the banks and the mobile operators to get their collective acts together. There’s lots of optimism that the next couple of years will see progress towards the mobile being the prime payment and payment validation device.

    Multiple channels

    It’s never been easier or more cost effective to sell online, and the trend is to put online, in-store and telephone sales together in one integrated application. It makes sense that some people want to see merchandise for themselves, think about it at home, then order online. Conversely, some people want to look at what’s available in the web store, then visit the shop to pick up the goods in person. As demand has risen, ecommerce suppliers have been able to provide these integrated systems without breaking the bank.

    Mobile commerce and augmented reality

    Nowadays a large and growing proportion of the population are carrying around sophisticated computers – aka smart phones – that know their geographical location, can combine this with real time pictures or sound and are continuously talking to the web. This is very exciting and brands such as RayBan sunglasses and IKEA are already demonstrating the possibilities. Companies such as Red Lazer are also working on innovative applications that allow you to use the power of the smart phone to combine real world items with online shopping; I’m convinced that there is much more to come.

    Reputation management

    One area that has moved from beneficial to vital in ecommerce terms is reputation management. I’m very excited about this  because my company has recently done a deal with one of the companies that we see as a rising star in this field – Feefo. This area is about managing online merchant’s reputation online, and services like Feefo have a vital role to play. Feefo (which stands for Feedback Forum) runs an independent service which asks customers for feedback on both merchants’ service and products. The merchant can’t change the feedback (anything illegal or obscene is edited), but has a right of reply. There will always be feedback about merchants on the web. Having it in one place where the positive balances the negative, and having a right of reply are major benefits of an independent feedback service. The result tends to be around a 10%  rise in sales, more on some sites.

    The final word

    We are now in the second ecommerce boom. The first, around the year 2000, proved partly illusory and partly a harbinger of the future. This time it’s for real. Someone contemplating a start up needs to assess pursuing brand new areas enabled by the latest technology and where much more technical skill, money and luck is required. In contrast there’s more chance of success with a traditional ecommerce venture, although the potential rewards are smaller and it’s still vital to be aware of the latest trends.

    Budding entrepreneurs need to decide whether to build a traditional business with reasonable chance of success, or shoot for the stars in areas that are yet to be discovered. Whichever route you take, good luck.

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    We’ve seen many new taxes come in under the radar over the past few years, but for me, this is probably the most badly thought-out, badly communicated of the lot. And once again, it’s being left to accountants and tax advisors to communicate the bad news.

    If you employ staff, you’ll be familiar with the need to pay monthly PAYE and NI contributions to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by the 19th of the following month.

    Up until now, the legislation has been such that if you pay late, it doesn’t really matter. HMRC might write nasty letters – or even send someone round – but ultimately, there was no penalty for paying late. The trick was to get everything square by 19 May annually, and there was no comeback.

    This changed on 6 April this year, when the new legislation came into effect.

    Here is a brief synopsis of the new rules and penalties for those on the main monthly scheme:

    • pay your monthly liability by the 19th of the month following (this is the date by which the funds must be deposited in the bank account at HMRC – so beware of paying online on the 19th. Confirm with your bank that it will get there on time);
    • pay late once in any year and there’s no penalty – unless the payment is more than six months late – see below;
    • pay late two-four times in any year, you’ll be fined 1% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment), so, if your monthly payment is £10,000 and on four occasions you’re a day late paying, the penalty will be 3 x £10,000 x 1% = £300;
    • pay late five-seven times and you’ll be fined 2% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
    • pay late eight-ten times and you’ll be fined 3% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
    • pay late 11-12 times and you’ll be fined 4% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
    • if any payment is more than six months late, you’ll have a pay a penalty of 5% of the overdue amount. If the payment is 12 months late, you will pay a further 5%.

    No due reflection is given to the extent to which you’re late. If you are one day late, the penalty will apply.

    From an administrative point of view, the law allows HMRC to charge penalties at any stage during the tax year, or after the end of the tax year up to two years of the due date.

    In 2010-11, penalties will be charged after the end of the tax year. Therefore, penalty notices will not be sent out until April or May 2011. So please don’t test the system and think you’ve got away with it – you will get a nasty shock in April next year!

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