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Why I started the Donut

I’ve always found small businesses compelling – what makes them work and the challenge of going it alone are to me the most interesting questions in business. And after 19 years of running my company, BHP, I admire SMEs more than ever.

Running your own show is tremendous fun, especially if you know what you’re doing and can manage the 101 challenges that come your way every month. Which is where BHP content comes in.

We’ve been producing our expert how-to guides, sponsored by blue chips and government organisations, for nearly two decades. But, of course, as an entrepreneur, I wanted something new to do. In a (rare) idle moment online, I scouted about for a really good marketing website for small businesses. There wasn’t one.

So we decided to do it, launching on 20 April 2009. We built small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) their own site with everything they needed to make their marketing thrive. Founding partners Google and Royal Mail backed us all the way, as have our ever-growing list of sponsors such as Vodafone and Yell.  

What we’ve achieved in a year

As well as Marketing Donut, we launched two more Donut websites to cover starting up and law. We’ve just announced that the fourth site to launch will be IT Donut, scheduled for the week commencing 23 August.

We use 300 top people to provide the expert advice on the Donuts, but, for me, the real experts are also the users. Before we started work, we asked people running small businesses what they wanted from a site. They told us they needed fast, practical and accurate answers to their questions. The Donuts give SME managers that, free. Tools, templates, checklists, the lot: plus the news their business needs to know.

All the Donuts report live on major small-business happenings – we were the first business advice site to break news of the rise in minimum wage on Budget Day. MyDonut, the e-newsletter, now goes out to tens of thousands of people a month – next year numbers should top 100,000. (This is in addition to the 300,000 subscribers to the SME newsletters that we publish for our clients. Life at BHP is one big deadline.)

Since the launch a year ago, the Donut sites have fast become a key player in the UK small-business scene. Our Twitter accounts have over 40,000 followers and our Twitter team picked up two national awards last year.

Local versions of marketingdonut.co.uk, startupdonut.co.uk and lawdonut.co.uk are syndicated to our partners, both nationally and in the regions. Thirty-five organisations already have their own Donut websites and more are coming on stream every month.

The Donut is a strong business model, because it is a win-win for everyone involved. Crucially, BHP had already invested several years building up the strategic relationships and the content before launching the first website. As with most successful SMEs, we always knew that the Donut project would not be a sprint to success, it would be a marathon.

2010-2011: what’s in it for you?

As we expand the core “answers to your questions” pages of the Donuts, we will continue to cover news and key topical issues for you. For instance, this month the Law Donut explains how to cope with recruitment and redundancy as the economy remains fragile, as well as what to do when all your staff want time off for June’s World Cup.

We’re currently building the IT Donut, which will be a comprehensive resource for demystifying IT, troubleshooting and trading online. It will become the first place any small business turns to when they have a tech problem that needs sorting fast. We’re currently recruiting experts who will rid us all of pesky IT stress forever, I hope.

We’ll also be providing a local service for users, thanks to our partners. Law firms, chambers of commerce and enterprise agencies are all getting involved. This is really exciting, as it gives users the best of all worlds – a huge library of constantly updated advice from experts throughout the UK, combined with local content.

An SME owner’s work is never done, so I’m signing off to tackle the above. Before I go – thanks to you, our users, and all our partners and experts, for a great year.

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The Start Up Donut’s week-long celebration of mums who run businesses – mumpreneurs, kitchen table tycoons, business mums, businesswomen, call them what you will – is over for another year. What did we learn?

People don’t necessarily like to be labelled, so do we need a term to define this group? Is it necessary for people to know you’re a mum or is the fact you have children irrelevant?

The discussion surrounding the term ‘mumpreneur’ on our forum threw up some interesting opinions.

On the one hand, business women such as Laura Rigney are proud of the ‘mumpreneur’ tag. She said: “It takes an awful lot of determination and dedication to start a business from scratch and then continue running it while doing the everyday things that come with being a mother”.

Emily Cagle disagreed, saying: “The main issue for me is the irrelevant categorisation of a business owner (who happens to be female and a parent). People tend to mean well by using the term to recognise the challenges mums often face, but I think it’s generally unhelpful.”

There will always be disagreements over such things, anyway, if Cara Sayer is right, the term ‘mumprenenur’ will undoubtedly go out of fashion”. Other terms, such as ‘kitchen table tycoon’, were also disliked, it must be said.

We also invited guest blog posts from business mums last week and it was interesting to see the common themes: the importance of being resourceful; effective time-management; the need for multi-tasking; the need to start up on a shoestring; remain flexible; and being adept at prioritisation of time and tasks.

The lessons learned when managing a family and various school runs, mealtimes, hobbies and bedtime routines can be very useful when running a business.

You can see from the case studies that we’ve featured on the site, such as April Browne who runs Crystal Jewels, that despite much competition for their time, many mums continue to be inspired to start a business, while for some, such as Claire Willis of SnugBaby, necessity is still the mother of invention and the basis for many new mum-owned enterprises.

At the end of the week, I asked an open question on Twitter aimed at all business mums: “What was your inspiration for starting your business?” These were just some of the replies:

  • Being able to work around my children and hopefully be able to provide them with a fulfilling, nurtured life! @LauraARigney
  • Flexibility of working hours, being able to do kids’ illnesses with no guilt and calling my own shots on what I take on. @essentialnm
  • Being my own boss and the ability to work from home while still looking after my children. Doing something I love helps too! @EmmaEwers
  • I wanted more flexibility! My long-hours PR job didn’t suit any more – I wanted control! @businessmum
  • Sick of making a lot of money for someone else and wanting to spend time with my bubs! @bingoreviewer
  • Flexibility to not miss out on my children growing & to keep my brain active doing something I enjoy (designing websites). @glassraven
  • An overwhelming demand for my products. Initially a hobby, so I really had some learning to do!  and the realisation that if I worked hard enough I might be able to stay at home with George @Preciousparcels
  • Because it’s something I’m passionate about. I think more people would choose #realnappies if they knew how fab they are! @RealChoiceNappy
  • My inspiration was not wanting someone else to have the pleasure of bringing up my children when I had struggled to have them. @mumstheboss
  • I’d always wanted to work for myself & having my son made me desire financial independence. These 2 goals still motivate me. @EmmaWimhurst
  • Redundancy, divorce and the need to see my children through university. @cathyrecruit
  • I saw how much my kids enjoyed facepainting & had a go, 3 yrs on & i have a party business w/ online party shop. @myfunkyparty
  • Being able to work around my children and having the luxury of not having to rush treatments as I plan my own diary. @OnlyHolistic

These were broadly representative, with the vast majority related to having enough flexibility to look after children while still providing for the family. Starting a business seems to be the perfect solution for women who want to continue working but who also want to spend time with their children while they’re small.

On a personal level, it’s been really nice to be in touch with such a lovely group of people who’ve been so helpful and really got stuck in with the discussions.

I’d like to say a special thank you to our blog contributors and to everyone who retweeted, commented, said hello and helped to spread the word. Although Mother’s Day has been and gone, our support for mums running their own businesses will continue throughout the year.

Anna Kirby, BHP Information Solutions

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I don’t often write about the challenges of running a business and being a busy mum to four children. And whilst I do attend some of the women’s networking clubs, I do like to think that our business can stand on its own two feet – mum or not.

To be honest I think that most of us mums have a massive advantage over the men and child-free ladies who are competing in the business world.

Why?

Well firstly women are naturally blessed with amazing multi-tasking and time management skills. Show me a working mum and I will show you a lady who has set the alarm for one hour before the the kids are up to complete a project and who has successfully managed to feed a baby whilst drafting an email on her blackberry.

The second and most influential success factor for working mums is determination. I was a young teenage mum. Before the birth of my (now nearly 19 year old) daughter, I was studious but really lacked any kind of focus on what I wanted to be. Having had a baby before my first job (does a paper round count!?) prompted me to question what I needed out of life. And the answer to that 16 year old mum was money. I chose A-Levels and a Degree that would open doors (Maths, Physics, Business Studies and a Degree in Computing). In fact my whole adult life has been goal driven.

Now in my mid thirties and with baby number five on the way I am so happy to have been able to carve myself a career whilst managing the work-life balance. Just in the last few weeks our home has been struck with a sickness bug, terrible three week long colds and on Wednesday my three year old son woke up covered head to toe in a horrendous rash which later turned out to be an allergy. Had I still been in the corporate world I dread to think what my boss might have said each day as I requested more and more leave to care for my children!

Zoe Brown, B Websites Ltd

A version of this post originally appeared on the B Websites blog.

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After 11 years of working as a lecturer in further education, I was beginning to feel more and more like I needed a change, but just didn’t know what.

What I did know, was that I wanted to work for myself in some capacity. I’d run my own business before, but took the job at the college because I wanted the benefits of maternity and sick pay.

In February of 2007, I found out that I was pregnant. It came as a complete surprise and it certainly wasn’t planned. I already had two boys and had made my mind up that I didn’t want any more.

As soon as I began my maternity leave, I had an overwhelming feeling that now was the time to start my own business and I just knew that I wouldn’t be going back to the college.

But what would I do?

In October 2007, I gave birth to a gorgeous little boy and I became even more determined to work from home, running my own business.

Although my partner was working, he also had a small online business called www.BeingaMillionaire.com. It had been moderately successful but he’d begun to lose interest and because of this, some orders had been overlooked.

I decided to start sending the orders out while I was off work.

I should add that at the same time, we were having a very large extension built on the house and the place was crawling with builders. The only place I could sit quietly and work was our bedroom. So it was there that I would sit on the bed, laptop perched on one knee, baby bouncing on the other while I typed emails with one hand!

It didn’t take long for the business to take off. It was such a great idea, all it needed was a little TLC.

I chose not to use childcare so baby had to go wherever I went – to meetings, visiting suppliers, seeing the bank manager…everywhere, and he always got a great reaction.

When the time came for me to return to work, I took the plunge, called HR and told them I wouldn’t be back. I did have to pay back some of my maternity pay, but it was worth it.

Even though I was sad to leave as I had made some great friends, I’ve never looked back.

Two and a half years later and my little baby is now a toddler and I work during his playgroup sessions and nap times.

The business has just had it’s most profitable year yet and I’m currently in the process of expanding the product range.

I know not everyone will have such a great experience as me but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from taking that big step into their own business.

Andrea Daly, The Accidental Businessmum

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In last Monday’s blog post we introduced you to www.inafishbowl.com which follows the trials and tribulations of three startups. We’re featuring the story of Marcela of Rico Mexican Kitchen, who produces home-cooked Mexican food products. Follow her story each week as she deals with buyers and distributors at department stores and discusses the reality of running a home-based business.

Crystal ball, where are you?

We normally start doing something new because we think we have a chance to succeed. Well, at least, that’s what I keep on saying to myself: “Look, you’ve put in your all, people like Mexican food, and your Mexican food has soul, YOUR soul in it.” Well, yes, and? Surely, giving your all and having a good product should be enough to make your business work, shouldn’t it?

I gave up my job to dedicate my full energy to getting Rico Mexican Kitchen off to a good start. My idea was simple: to make fantastic authentic Mexican food so everyone in the UK could try something healthier, tastier and ethically sourced. But this game is sooooo difficult! Will I make it work? How? Any advice welcome!

Everyone told me that it was a brave thing to give up my job to start a business. But deep down I was thinking, “I really want to try my best to make it work- it’ll be simple- I’ll make these amazing, delicious and authentic and people will buy them.” At the moment, however, some shops think that it’s not the right time for Mexican food… what are they thinking? What do they think Mexican people do when it’s winter… not eat? What do you think?

Anyway, luckily Selfridges doesn’t think this and I am off to do a tasting session. I don’t know if I’m more excited or more nervous – I’m a bit of both, I suppose!

The week ahead of me looks like an incredible juggling act of cooking, training course, kids off school, delivering, entertaining 10 girls for my daughter’s birthday party. The added complexity is that we are having new labels designed especially for the Selfridges launch and the printers don’t want to say that the labels will definitely be ready- just keeping me on my toes! I am really really nervous about this- will the labels arrive on time?

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

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While I was a journalist, I saw many business owners make the same three basic PR mistakes time and time again. When it comes to trying to secure free publicity for your new business, the following mistakes should be avoided…

1 Trying to push dull, irrelevant or non-stories

Sorry, in truth, journalists don’t really care about you or your business. They only care about stories that are of interest to their audience. It can be very dull being a journalist, having to wade through the same old marketing guff being sent to you day in, day out. So when something special comes along, naturally, you jump on it. As a business owner, that’s your opportunity. If you are to engage journalists and their readers, you must have a compelling story to tell.

2 Giving up after one failed press release

If you send out 100 direct mail letters and then stop because “direct mail doesn’t work for you”, you could be missing out on a huge opportunity. It’s not necessarily that direct mail doesn’t work for you, you might not be sending your communications to the right people, you might not be writing about the right product or service or you might simply not be communicating your key messages effectively. Sometimes the timing isn’t right or your success is hampered by external factors.

The same can be said about PR. There is no way that each and every press release you ever send will lead to coverage, no matter how good your story, media release or how well you know the journalist. Effective PR requires a long-term commitment.

3 Having unrealistic expectations

PR is not really meant as a direct lead-generation tool (although it can work that way if you are fortunate). It can certainly be used to raise awareness and enhance the credibility of your business and support the rest of your marketing activity.

Your goal should be to encourage and make it really easy for interested readers, listeners or viewers to find you (or more usually, find out from your website how your products or services can benefit them). Don’t expect overnight success either, raising awareness, securing sales and ensuring customer loyalty usually takes a lot of time, effort and investment.

  • The first 500 Start Up Donut Blog readers can get a free copy of Paul Green’s book – PR Success Made Easyhere.

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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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