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I wish that every meeting could be as interesting as the one that I just had.

It was a group of founders, but not just any old founders. These were the founders of UK business advice websites primarily aimed at small businesses. Between us, we have a regular user base of over half a million businesses each month. By any standard, that is an extremely large audience.

Doug Richard (of School4StartUps), as always, had a lot to say. Fair enough, as it was his Enterprise Manifesto that we had all gathered to discuss.

We started with his number one question: Should Business Link be scrapped? I must declare an interest at this point. Various bits of Business Link, and the website businesslink.gov in particular, are clients of my company. But I not only depend on Business Link for part of my annual revenues, I also see first hand some of the good, effective support that is given by Business Link and its partners to small businesses.

Doug would scrap the regional (“offline”) part of Business Link tomorrow. As someone who has been involved in turnarounds before, he reckons that the set-up in the regions is too institutionalised to be capable of being turned around into a new approach. “Best to start from scratch. Scrap it, then wait a couple of years and see how things look.” Obviously, this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but Doug is not a man for half measures.

Shaa Wasmund (smarta.com) was more soothing and pragmatic than I had been expecting from reading her ultra-dynamic biography. While she commented that Business Link is too dominated by cadres of civil servants and the government way of doing things, she also mentioned how impressed she was with some of the initiatives being delivered by a Business Link that she works with.

Emma Jones also had some positive feedback, saying that the homeworkers who chat to each other on her Enterprise Nation website recommend the Business Link seminars to each other. Then she asked the question that was on everyone’s lips. If one did scrap Business Link, what would you replace it with?

At this point someone mentioned the figure of 35% as the projected shrinkage in the public sector over the next several years. Many of these people, notably the over 45s, will not find employment thereafter. “What will we do?” I asked the room, “Abandon them? Or help these business novices into some kind of self-employment, if that is the only option for them other than welfare?”

Nick James (freshbusinessthinking.com) is a big believer in online. So much so that, like Doug, he reckons that Business Link should only offer online help. “If people do not want to take advantage of it, that’s up to them. Nowadays every business should be online if they are serious about what they do.”

The trouble is, the website businesslink.gov reaches less than 45% of businesses (it says in its latest annual report … which, being a bit of a swot, I had read that morning). And the excluded 55% are exactly the people who need the most help to start up and grow a small business.

Dan Martin (Business Zone editor) backed me up on this point, saying that we must not assume that everyone else is like us. We regard online information as the obvious solution, but lots of other people don’t.

We all agreed that Business Link has become very good at delivering the metrics demanded of it by government. But, as Nick neatly put it, “to score a metric point for having a phone conversation or for having sent out a brochure is to miss the point of what business support is there to do.”

We all felt that the Business Link access brand itself is valuable. Even slash-and-burn-Doug agreed that it would be wasteful to throw this away only to then have to reinvent another access brand to replace it. Over the last fifteen years Wales has regularly reinvented both its business support network and its access brand, at great cost and for no obvious benefit.

So, although Doug had started the discussion session as provocatively as ever, likening his Enterprise Manifesto to the successful manifesto approach taken by Karl Marx 150 years earlier, at the end of the day we all found that our positions on business support had a lot in common.

Firstly, we all have a desire to help people to start and run businesses and feel that someone, somewhere, needs to be paid to do this support service. Secondly, we loathe what you might call the public sector obsession with spurious metrics, metrics which start life as a measurement to help achieve a goal and which then quickly themselves become THE goal.

Our discussion ranged over a number of topics in a short space of time. We covered public sector procurement (Yes, have a quota for small businesses, which the big contractors have to fulfil through transparent subcontracting), social enterprises, and the need for a high speed broadband infrastructure.

It was a pity that not everyone could make it. David Lester (Crimson Publishing, which owns startups.co.uk), Stuart Rock (Caspian Publishing, which owns realbusiness.co.uk), Alex Bellinger (smallbizpod.co.uk) and Jasmine Birtles (moneymagpie.co.uk) couldn’t make the meeting but would have enjoyed it I’m sure.

Michael Hayman of the PR firm Seven Hills did a great job of keeping the conversation going and keeping us all laughing at the same time. We were never going to have time to each propose and then debate our own vision of how business support should be run in the UK but we got some good points out on the table.

An interesting meeting, as I said. I don’t think you could find a more committed, can-do group of individuals when it comes to helping other people to start and grow a business. Something tells me that we will be meeting together many more times over the course of 2010 and 2011 to exchange our views on how business support, regulations, taxation and the whole enterprise landscape might be improved in the UK.

  • Business regulation
  • 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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    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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    On the roller-coaster ride of running one’s own business, I used to think that having a fantastic product would be enough. As you know, this is far from the truth. This probably accounts for the 1% inspiration bit.

    As I have discussed before, everyone expects you to be an expert in your business and in a small business, if you are on a shoe string and a one-man band, this means being an expert in everything. Is this the perspiration bit? The 24/7, never switching off, always being on task? Reading the paper on a Sunday looking for relevant articles, checking emails late at night when it’s quiet, cooking, etc..? I think the perspiration bit is also connected with the resilience of taking the failures as lessons to be learned, to stand up after falling, to get on with it and persevere when things may not be as rosy as one would wish for.

    But we are in the 21st century and I would add another element. Yes, you had your 1% inspiration in your great idea and you are working really hard, which is your 99% perspiration. What about the communication bit? I think this changes the 1%+99% equation. Nowadays, entrepreneurs are required to twitter, to tell their story, to shout out their values and they are also allowed, and indeed expected, to drive their enterprises ethically. Green issues, fair trade, sustainability…

    I think this is a great time to be an entrepreneur because it’s become the norm to have ideas and to communicate them effectively. I’m starting to learn how to communicate with people out there about what I’m trying to do – introduce new adventurous flavours of food that come from local growers and those who are far away, who share my passion for great food and respect for the environment and people. 21st century communication media – what a great opportunity to relate with possible customers and, hopefully, make a difference.

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

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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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    I specialise in helping self employed people pay less tax and avoid fines – our clients are mainly one person businesses, usually working from home.

    As such, I am always looking at ways of increasing their profits for a low cost – we have had several start up businesses recently where they are particularly looking for low costs in their first year as they build up the business.

    The traditional way of doing things when you started a small business was to maybe print some flyers and distribute them, or to take out an advert in the local press or printed listing directory.

    Vanessa Warwick started an excellent discussion on the propertytribes forum, regarding Social Networking for business, which very much applies to every small business owner.

    I recently ran a talk on ‘Social Media for Business’ at the Epsom BNI group, where I am the chapter director, and was surprised by the number of people who hadn’t considered the business return that is possible from social networking.

    This got me to posing the question: How many accountants offer advice on Social Networking to increase their client’s profits?

    Following feedback from the talk I gave to Epsom BNI, in addition to continuing to promote ecademy and twitter for business to our clients, I have decided to offer a simple introduction to Social Networking for Business as part of the service I offer to small business owners, helping them to increase their profits.

    Social Networking is ideally placed for the type of clients we specialise in, the small self employed business, as there are low costs and great potential benefits for the business.

    A good example of what is possible is another propertytribes member, Sally Asling, who has in fact generated £6,000 of income via twitter in 3 months.

    ‘The twittering tax man’

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