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Posts for February 2010

Organisation – the key to making tax less taxing

February 26, 2010 by Anita Brook

Tax is never a popular subject – made even less so by recent revelations that HMRC has got many of our tax codes wrong, meaning excessive charges for some. Mistakes by HRMC aside, ‘tax doesn’t have to be taxing’, as the saying goes. If small firms take the time to keep their books in order throughout the year, a mad dash at key dates in the taxation calendar can be avoided.

2010 has only just begun, so now is the perfect time to turnover a new (bookkeeping) leaf. Start by buying yourself some filing equipment, with different folders for sales invoices, paid and unpaid bills, bank statements and VAT returns, plus wages, if you have staff.

Now you have some inviting looking new folders, go through your in-tray – at least once a week – and put all your bits of paper in the appropriate place. If you set aside a small amount of time to sort out your books, weekly – or even daily – it shouldn’t become too much of a chore. Bookkeeping needs to be part of your routine, like reading emails, otherwise it can be all too easy to find something else to do instead.

Keeping accounts isn’t just sensible, it’s a legal obligation. Companies must keep all records relating to their VAT returns for a minimum of six years after the tax year to which they relate. As a minimum, you must record any income earned or expenses incurred by the company and retain all related documents, including receipts, cheque stubs, invoices, bank statements, PAYE records, etc.

To get a clear picture of where your money is going, your transactions must be recorded in a meaningful way. You should give your ‘expenses’ record a sheet of its own, with columns representing categories such as ‘rent’, ‘utilities’, ‘travel’ and ‘stationery’. This will give you an ongoing sense of where you might be over-spending, which can help you to cut unnecessary costs

Why rely on books or bits of paper when there is a wide variety of accounting software available? For a more simple and cheaper solution, an Excel spreadsheet is a perfectly useful tool for keeping records on your computer.

Keeping your records on a spreadsheet or using bookkeeping software enables you to see your total transactions in an instant. You can also search for a figure among your costs should a mystery debit appear on your bank statement and even produce projections based on the average transactions made in previous months.

You should be using your bank statements as a reference point, checking every figure in your bookkeeping records against transactions on your bank statement. This is a great way to identify missing receipts, while giving you a consistent monthly deadline to follow for getting your records in order.

Make sure you note all key deadlines for filing with HMRC. Set reminders on your computer, so you don’t have to rely on remembering to check your diary. The next one to note is the PAYE deadline on 19 May, when employers must register with HMRC to file online. HMRC is supplying free software so small businesses can file their employee data securely. For more information visit the HMRC website.

If you really can’t commit to the above, it may be time to call in an experienced bookkeeper. Of course, there will be an expense associated with this, but since it could free up your time and give you better information with which to make business decisions, it could be worth the investment.

Anita Brook is director of chartered certified accountancy firm Accounts Assist. Follow her on Twitter.

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How to use technology to reduce your carbon footprint

February 25, 2010 by Peter Gradwell

Businesses and individuals across the globe are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint than ever before. We have all learnt to switch off lights in empty rooms and turn off the tap while brushing our teeth but the expectancy on us to do more to stop global climate change is increasing.

It can be hard to see what more you can do if you are already very conscious about your carbon footprint but perhaps your work or business life has not had as much scrutiny as your home life.

With all the great advancements in technology surely there are alternatives that many businesses may have overlooked. Here are a few of our suggestions:

Cut your travel with VoIP
How often do you travel across town for a ten to thirty minute meeting? Cut the cost of travel and the price to the environment by exploring the benefits of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). Call conferencing features enable you to hold meetings over several sites on one phone system – saving time, money and emissions.

If you would like to enhance your meeting then you can use services like GoToMeeting where you can share your screen, and therefore PDFs, spreadsheets, presentations, video etc with all the meeting participants. It will add extra interaction to your meeting and help add the visual element conference calls lack.

By holding meetings online you can easily work from home meaning you don’t have to drive to work or drive around all day to get to meetings. Cutting transport emissions is key to the Government’s ‘Low Carbon Transition Plan’. It’s not just great for your company’s green image, but also your budget.

Why run two offices?
Think about all the things that are needed to run an office. Electricity for your computers, phone system, servers, lighting, air-conditioning etc. And then there’s the gas for your heating systems and your staff facilities. Why not seriously cut costs and do your bit for the environment by encouraging your staff to work from home.

Not only will you cut emissions from reducing travel to an office but you’ll also be using almost the same amount of energy that is used to heat and light your home anyway.

If you are concerned about accessing your files and you still have an ‘office machine’ then you can remotely log into your work computer by installing free programme LogMeIn or ask your IT consultant about remotely accessing your server.

Accessing files wherever you need them also reduces the amount of hard copies you have to make, saving paper, ink and energy on printing those long documents – which are usually only read over once or twice before being discarded.

There are also other hidden benefits to working from home such as reduced stress, increased productivity and no train delays or traffic jams.

Gradwell is keen to assist their customers to reduce their carbon footprint. One such client ‘Sustain IT’ has already adopted this as part of their corporate culture and reducing their carbon footprint is seen as a vital part of their company policy, with VoIP being the centre and catalyst for this.

“Initially we had not thought of our carbon footprint. However we now consider it to be a vital part of our Company Policy. Internet Telephony helps us to reduce our employee travel and therefore reduce the impact on the environment that commuting is having. So anything we can do as an employer to encourage our staff to use home working or increase the use of the public transport network and cycling has to be good for the future of our children and the planet.”

Everyone making a small change will make a big difference to the planet – and it can benefit your business too.

Peter Gradwell, Gradwell

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Five reasons to have your website well coded

February 24, 2010 by Zoe Brown

Unfortunately the web design world is not regulated in any way. Awards can be won for design but the technical code that drives the website is often given little importance. When commissioning a website it’s so easy to get swept away with fantastic design or worse still to to opt for a low budget/DIY option. Either way, many business owners judge a website only based upon how it looks. They often completely overlook the code *under the hood*.

Skimp on the code and your website will cost you more in the long run. Here's five reasons why.

  1. Google. Ensuring that your website is well coded will make Google and the other search engines very happy. In return your website will feature in more search results and benefit from more visitors. Your website does not have to include search engine optimisation (SEO) at the time of purchase to be search engine friendly. If you later decide to hire an SEO expert they will much prefer having some nice code to work with.
  2. Accessible. A well coded website will be accessible to visitors with different sized monitors, different software, different hardware and to people of all abilities. Not only is there a legal and moral obligation to ensure that the website can be viewed, it will also increase your customer base.
  3. Cross browser compatible. OK so you only use one computer and one browser to surf the internet but your visitors combined will have a wide array of different applications. Some are using browsers that are 10 years old and others are bang up to date. Your website should downgrade gracefully, meaning that it could take advantage of new features but still display nicely without them on the older browsers.
  4. Fast loading times. How annoying is it when you have to wait for a web page to load? Perhaps there is a big spinning image on the screen to remind you to wait? Your customers won't want to wait. When coded in the right way, your website pages should be light and fast to download.
  5. Most important - easy to update. Did you know that if your website is coded correctly you should be able to do simple things like changing the banner on every page with just one line of code? This is because well coded websites use different files, one file for the content (HTML) and another for the design (CSS). If your website is not well coded you could end up paying for a lot of development time should you want to have it redesigned in the future.

Ensuring that the website is all neat and tidy backend shouldn't cost much more initially but it is guaranteed to last longer and give you better results. Even if you out-grow the design the code behind can be built upon like building bricks.

If you are buying a website then please do ask your website designer/developer how it will be coded. Ideally you are looking for a website written in XHMTL/CSS and one that is absolutely not table driven. Beware of purchasing sites with content management systems (CMS) that do not generate very good code. If in doubt - get a second opinion.

Zoe Brown, B Websites Ltd

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

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Are you with the wrong PR agency?

February 23, 2010 by Paul Green

At one of my PR seminars a while ago, I asked how many people had used or were using a PR agency. Half the audience put their hand up.

When I asked them to keep their hand up if they were satisfied with the results, I wasn’t surprised when most people lowered them again.

Some PR agencies are their own worst enemies. They fail to set clear expectations for their clients, they don’t keep them fully up-to-date with developments or provide regular written reports on actions and outcomes.

There is a perception that buying PR is a risk, but it doesn’t have to be that way, if you pick the right agency. Here are five signs that you might be better advised to find a new PR agency.

1 It’s staffed by PR ‘luvvies’ rather than former journalists. I may be a PR person now, but I was a journalist for 13 years. I get really annoyed when I meet PRs who don’t understand what it’s really like to run a business or what stories appeal to journalists. Effective PRs are results driven, they’re focused people. They understand what your business needs to achieve and what role they need play to aid your success. That’s why I prefer PRs who are former journalists. They understand what journalists really want and cut through the waffle that PR luvvies frequently add in.

2 It charges lots of expensive add-ons. If you ask for something unusual that costs your agency money, then fair enough, but doing day-to-day PR for your business shouldn’t create exceptional costs, certainly not without prior agreement. Basics such as media monitoring should be included in a pre-agreed fixed fee, not charged for as expensive extras.

3 It doesn’t understand there must a direct link between your PR and revenue – or how to put it in place: The most effective PR is direct response PR. That’s where you have a system to turn media attention into leads and those leads into sales. Without a system like this, you’re wasting your time. Most PR agencies claim there’s no direct link between PR and revenue. They’re so wrong it hurts.

4 It claims it’s all about contacts and press releases. Total nonsense. You don’t necessarily need a book full of media contacts or expertly crafted press releases to get coverage. Often you just need a good story and some basic knowledge about how best to bring it to the attention of the right editor.

5 It’s stuck in the past. I interviewed a potential employee recently who said the PR agency at which he worked focused only on getting clients into the newspapers. Still a powerful way for many businesses to get good publicity, agreed, but if you’re going to do direct response PR, you must also secure online coverage. In the modern world, for many businesses, it’s crucial. Many PR agencies talk about online PR, but don’t really understand what it is or how to do it effectively.

Paul Green, Publicity Heaven

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What sort of start up?

February 22, 2010 by Chris Barling

There are two ways of starting up a company. The first is to take an existing business idea, and do it better. Preferably you will concentrate on an area where the competition is limited or you have some existing connections.

The second is where you come up with an idea that’s completely new. People think that it’s the only way to make a real fortune, but that’s not true. It may come as a shock, but Bill Gates became the world’s richest man largely by improving on the work of others. He wasn’t the leader in new technologies, but he was close behind. And he did things very effectively.

Microsoft didn’t invent the Windows and mouse interface. It was invented by Xerox at its research labs. Microsoft didn’t even produce the first commercial Windows-based computer. That was Apple with the Lisa. But it did get its timing right, do a plausibly good job and market the product very well. The rest is history.

The problem with developing a totally new concept is that it’s totally new. You are not only selling the product, you have to sell the idea too and educate the market. Even if it would sell, it’s more than twice as much work. If you have all the capabilities you need, with limited resources it is hard to succeed. And it’s even harder to recover from a failure.

The world economy is driven in the long run by breakthrough products. But for your own success, it’s worth remembering that the odds are greatly improved by exploiting an area where a market already exists.

Chris Barling, SellerDeck

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Marcela's story continues... Off to the bank

February 22, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

I had always thought that the word “entrepreneur” sounded so glamorous. The truth is that you are “it”, from key decision maker and strategist to garlic peeler. When people ask me what my position is in my company I laugh - I’m the CEO and the cleaner.

If you decide to start your own business without your finances completely sorted and you can’t afford staff, you are in for a difficult time trying to do everything. Even if you have a business plan that maps out incomings and outgoings, there is always that extra marketing opportunity that you don’t want to miss, or that packaging that you had to buy etc... spend, spend spend. I left my job early on in the planning of the business to throw myself fully into the project - maybe I should’ve been more patient and kept my salary for a bit longer.

Having said that, somebody said to me at the very beginning of my business journey that I should just go for it and borrow £100k from the bank. Thank goodness I didn’t do that. Yes, life would’ve been so much easier, I'd have a budget for machinery and packaging, maybe one or two part-time staff and a salary, but I wouldn’t have known how to spend it as well as I do now. Now, I have proved a concept, I understand which things worked or didn’t work and I know exactly what I need to do next. The only small detail missing is the cash itself.

So, this week has been about focusing on raising finances and boosting my sales. I'm looking after my key customers and revising my business plan so it reflects what I know now to allow me to get to the next stage. I’m off to the bank today and, hopefully, the bank manager will like it and believe that I can make it work. Hopefully I will be able to raise the finances and afford to pay a member of staff and the machinery I need. Feeling positive. I’m not superstitious.

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

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I'm terribly sorry, but…

February 19, 2010 by Clare Bullock

It's every business–owner's nightmare: a furious customer on the end of a phone demanding to know why their purchase hasn't been delivered, why it's broken, or even to complain about a member of your staff. Even if the problem isn't actually your fault, it is crucial to have a proper complaints policy in place.

Recently I made a complaint for the first time and was gratified when I received a full and genuine–sounding letter of apology in return. I was less pleased a couple of weeks later when I received a call from the same company wanting feedback. Although I had been satisfied by the initial apology, being asked by a bored–sounding woman whether I was 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with the apology instantly grated. It was clear that the apology was merely part of a process; my answers were probably being tapped into a database as I spoke. For me, this meant that the sentiment of the original letter was lost.

Business Link advises business owners to deal with complaints 'courteously, sympathetically and – above all – swiftly'. Obviously it is important to find out whether your policy works – but is it a good idea to call up the recently–irate customer and take up more of their time only to fill out a brief questionnaire? How useful is a questionnaire anyway? I would suggest that the best feedback is whether the customer returns to you after having made a complaint.

Word–of–mouth recommendation is arguably the best PR for small businesses, but similarly a bad experience can damage your firm's reputation. It is vital to handle a customer's complaint sensitively and promptly, but at the same time ensure that you are motivated by the customer's needs, not just by the desire to prevent bad publicity.

It seems that many people I know have had bad experiences at the hands of larger companies, and this is an area where small businesses can excel. By its nature, a small business is much more likely to offer a personal touch when it comes to dealing with complaints. Rather than having to wait in endless queues, being passed from one customer service manager to another, your customers can connect with you directly to get the answers and, if necessary, the apologies they want.

What do you think? Have you ever had any complaints, and how did you handle them? Did you ask for feedback, and how did you implement it? Are you a customer whose complaints were handled well? If not, how could it have been improved?

Clare Bullock, BHP Information Solutions

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Five reasons you shouldn’t design your own logo

February 18, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

I feel very qualified to write this post at the moment. As the owner of a brand and marketing agency, I work with a lot of small business owners who are missing opportunities because their logo (and brand image as a whole) isn’t sending out the right signals.

And as someone who has just been client, creative director and designer (along with my other fabulous designers in the studio) for her own business, I can see things from the other side, too.

The fact is you really shouldn’t design your own logo. Here’s why.

1 You need outside perspective. Our clients tell us one of the most valuable things we bring to the table, aside from design, is the perspective we help them gain on their business. Working with a branding agency on your corporate identity forces you to think about the way your business is structured and who your most profitable clients really are. Working with someone who is not as close to your business provides a different – and important – perspective.

2 It’ll cost more than you think. You think design agencies get their design for free? Think again. I’ve spent thousands of pounds on developing the identity for Flourish, my new branding, graphic design and marketing services business. The staff cost and the opportunity cost of both my designers and I working on our own stuff rather than billable client work has been significant. And if you’re not a designer I recommend you focus on what you do best and let us get on with what we do best. More profitable all round – and the end result will be better.

3 Unless you’re a graphic designer, you’re unlikely choose the right fonts or colours. I’ve studied typography, colour psychology and logo design for years, as have my graphic designers. We understand how to evoke an emotion through a colour or a font.

4 You won’t add the creative flair your business deserves. Great logos have wow factor. Usually, they’re simple, but clever. And I don’t mean a Photoshop drop shadow (sooo nineties!) or a web 2.0 glassy reflection (oh so naughties!). I’m talking about a clever icon or creative treatment that will get your clients taking you seriously.

5 You’re too close to it. Being so involved in the design process makes it incredibly difficult to make objective decisions. In the end, the only way we broke through our creative block was for me to completely disassociate myself from the design and act as creative director only.

I see now why other design agencies commission someone else to design their logos. In the end, we managed to crack it ourselves and I have to say, I’m delighted with the end result. But if you’re not a graphic designer I urge you to invest in a professionally designed brand identity. It’ll be one of the best decisions you ever make.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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USPs? Piece of cake…

February 17, 2010 by Iain Scott

USP is much beloved on the Dragon’s Den. Often you’ll hear Peter Jones saying: “I like that, that’s your USP.” USP, of course, stands for unique selling point (or proposition).

To explain USPs, I’ll tell you a personal story. When I started my first business more than 20 years ago, I went on a high-growth, business start-up programme. The guy who was teaching us about marketing was obsessed with USPs.

Problem was, he was trying to apply multi-national corporate thinking to my small start-up. His approach was totally inappropriate. I was going to be doing the selling myself and he wanted to construct a fake sales pitch for me that followed a big business template.

Glasgow approach

If you’ve been to one of these start-up seminars, you’ll know there’s always some bloke or woman standing there telling you how important your USP is. So how do you identify your USP?

Well, today, you’re going to get the Glasgow guide to USPs. In other words, straight forward, no messing around.

Basically, a USP is something that makes your product or service different. It enables you to charge more or sell more because it separates you from the competition. A USP allows you to you make more money as a result of the competitive edge it gives you.

How do you find your USP? There’s only one way – get people to sample your product or service and listen to what they say. In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk – you “conversate”. You talk and you listen. Listen, listen, listen.

Matter of taste

Making cakes was my first business and the guy who was running the start-up course I went on asked me what my USP was. I simply stuck a slice of cake in front of him, he had a bite and replied: “Ooh - that’s delicious”.

My chocolate cake was vastly rich. It was made of pure chocolate, raw cane sugar, good chocolate shavings on the top, no preservatives, no additives and extremely high quality. That tells you that my cake was special, aimed at the top end of the market. It didn’t look perfect, so I stressed its homemade qualities, giving it a sense of authenticity and wholesomeness, both powerful USPs.

When you’re trying to find your USP, you need to identify something that makes your product, service or business distinctive. How do you do it? As I did with my cake, you should take your product or service and shove it in front of people as much and as often as you can. Ask people what they like best about your offer. You might find that certain phrases and words will be repeated. In the case of my chocolate cake, it was, “My God, very rich!” and “Wow – really chocolaty”.

Ever heard of Kobi beef? It’s the world’s most expensive beef – I think it’s looked after by nuns or whatever. Actually, I’m kidding, it comes from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, which is raised strictly by traditional methods. It’s renowned for its flavour, tenderness and fatty, well-marbled texture. Its rarity and great care taken in its rearing are powerful USPs, as well as its flavour and succulence. Its price is another USP (“The world’s most expensive meat”).

In conclusion

Does your business/product/service need a USP? Absolutely. Whether it’s chocolate cake or Japanese beef that you’re selling, if you can come up with something that marks your product and business out as different – as special – you’ve already got an important head start.

Iain Scott, Enterprise Café

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Media interviews

February 16, 2010 by Paul Green

If your well-crafted and targeted press release hits the spot, soon you can expect journalists to contact you for more information or an interview. Usually, for newspapers and magazines, these take place over the phone in a few minutes.

Don’t panic – tough questioning by journalists is usually reserved for politicians. Instead, journalists will simply be seeking to add a little colour to the story by way of a few well-chosen quotes or sound bites.

Here are a few basic tips to ensure you come across well.

Be prepared. Re-read your press release (or story suggestion) and make sure you have swotted up on the subject. If you have a couple of updated or additional interesting facts to throw into the conversation – all well and good – but don’t go over the top, because the journalists will only be able to write about so much.

Anticipate likely additional questions and have your responses prepared in advance. Practice your responses with someone you trust.

When doing the actual interview, use notes as a prompt. Don’t read verbatim from a script because it could be interpreted as lacking confidence or knowledge (or worse still – having something to hide). Be warm, human and friendly. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest enough to say so. If necessary, offer to find out the information and forward it on to the journalist as soon as you can.

Knowing what you are talking about will help you to sound more confident, which will make you come across as more credible. Avoid jargon at all times – it only confuses people. Use simple language to explain key points.

 

  • 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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Marcela's story begins

February 15, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

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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Notes from a ‘board meeting’ (9/2/2010)

February 12, 2010 by Ross Campbell

Ross (manager): “Welcome everyone, I trust you’re well. Item one: whether to invest in a company branded doormat.”

Ruth (marketing): “A company-branded mat will create a more welcoming entrance and make us look more professional.”

David (finance director; deep, gruff voice): “Make us look more professional? How exactly will a mat make us look more professional? Unless, of course, you intend the staff to wear it?”

Ruth (slightly squeakier now): “Professionalism is about the whole package, David.”

David: “How professional are we going to look when we go bust because you keep buying all this frivolous rubbish?”

Ruth (really squeaky): “If you don’t stop thinking like that, we’ll never go anywhere.”

Ross (calm, obviously): “Ok, David, can we actually afford the mat?”

David: “...........................(long pause)....................................... Er, yes”

Ross: “Ruth, do we need the extra gold tassels or will it still be fit for purpose if it’s bright pink and hardwearing?”

Ruth: “.......................(Not squeaky at all).................. Mmm… We don’t really need the tassels, no....”

Ross: “Right then, got there in the end, didn’t we? Let’s buy the mat.”

Of course, my company has but 10 staff, including me. We don’t have a boardroom or a marketing expert called Ruth or a finance director called David. I don’t know how other business owners make decisions, but when it comes to cost-benefit analysis, this type of things usually works for me.

Ross Campbell, The Exercise Club

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Overcoming the challenges of taking an innovation to market

February 11, 2010 by Senake Atureliya

I qualified with an electrical engineering degree from Southampton University in 1986. Various subsequent management and sales roles enabled me to build the knowledge and contacts needed to set up my first venture some five years later – designing and manufacturing production line machinery.

After growing, finding investment and selling that business, I ran a consultancy rolling out cutting-edge business process automation across Europe.

My current business – Pie Finance – helps innovators and entrepreneurs progress from ideas stage thanks to an innovative peer-to-peer funding solution. So what have I learnt about overcoming the challenges innovators face in taking an innovation to market?

1 Reducing risk of disclosure/competitive edge theft

Many innovators/entrepreneurs see this as the greatest risk. There are differing views on protection. The book Crossing the Chasm describes one of the most effective ways to prevent “idea theft”, it advocates rolling out the product/service to customers who are suffering considerable loss by not having it, which means it can be directly sold without advertising to a small number of customers. High margin sales can generate revenues required to launch in the mainstream market, while minimising risk of detection by potential competitors. Other solutions include: seeking intellectual property rights (eg patents); use of a ‘decoy’ product to build a potential customer and investor database; and non-disclosure agreements.

2 Adapting to market developments

Mature, saturated or diminishing markets are the most stable. Profitable, growing markets move fast, making an idea just a starting point, which is why it’s difficult to sell or get investment for them. New solutions to niche problems, competitors and consumers in the space can change daily, meaning even a well-established product/service can rapidly become obsolete. You must try to react quickly and stay one step ahead.

3 Filling gaps in your plan

Finding holes in ideas is frequently significantly harder than generating ideas. You need in-depth knowledge, whereas, most individuals create ideas by trying to find solutions to a problem. Sticking to what you know – technically and commercially – helps, but if you must venture beyond, try to find trustworthy people to fill any gaps.

Bootstrapping is the best way to retain control and profit. Grant finance is worth securing, but usually requires match funding. Debt finance (eg bank loans, overdrafts and asset finance) are the next best way to raise funds, while retaining all equity. True, it’s hard for start-ups to secure debt finance, but those with a track record could benefit from the Enterprise Finance Guarantee scheme, which can cover up to 75 per cent of the risk.

Business angels can also help, but only 3 per cent of propositions get funded and you must meet stringent criteria: very high returns on investment (x10 to x30 over five years); proof of demand (sales or forward orders); and a proven management team.

Peer-to-peer resourcing (ie getting people and other things in exchange for equity or revenue shares) without payment up front is another option.

Next to protecting your idea, protecting your investment must be your main priority. Giving away a share of the rewards is painful, but it’s well worth it, because failing to spot the gaps or not having adequate resource to overcome threats may mean you lose everything you’ve put into your idea commercialisation.

4 Avoid loss of control – and your business with it

Control, rewards and recognition are separate things. Identify what you want in return for your input. An investor’s primary concerns will be protecting and maximising their returns – which could involve them trying to dilute or force you (and possibly other investors) out. To combat this, don’t let your business get desperate for cash. Maximise your bargaining power by agreeing an alternative plan B (possibly C, D and E, too) at the outset.

An industry guide to equity sharing is that a third should go to the person with the idea or IP, a third to the management team and a third to the finance providers. The concept of equity for very early stage start-ups is flawed, I believe. As dividends on preference and ordinary shares are paid out of profit, this introduces a layer of risk for minority stakeholders.

Profit can easily and legally be “massaged” – revenue cannot. For entrepreneurs, offering equity means all external early stage input burdens the whole business on an ongoing basis, thereby discouraging adequate resourcing. With these disadvantages in mind, I believe it’s best to try and acquire capital and resources based upon on a premium fixed price paid out of a share of the revenues that they help to create.

Senake Atureliya, Pie Finance

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Create a professional looking site in under 30 minutes

February 10, 2010 by Peter Gradwell

Create a professional looking site in under 30 minutes: Easy things to install on your web hosting

If you need to create a presence on the Internet and you already have web hosting, then there are a few things that you can do to create a professional looking site in under 30 minutes.

Blogging - WordPress
Using a blog is one of the most effective ways to build a following and create a professional web presence with little fuss. The results won’t be immediate, but with continued blogging, you’ll soon start dominating your key search terms. Blog frequently, with no less than 300 words on topics related to the words that you’ve discovered people use when searching for your products or services.

WordPress is software that is completely customisable and can be used for practically anything you need. There is both a downloadable version, suitable for parking at your web host (e.g. www.myblog.com), as well as more limited online version (e.g. myblog.wordpress.com).

Due to the flexibility of Wordpress, you can tailor the look of your blog accordingly by downloading hundreds of free WordPress themes, or by purchasing one that better suits your needs. You can also engage WordPress designers to create bespoke themes at a later stage if you wish to add to the unique nature of your blog.

These days, it’s possible to use specially designed software to convert or transform your WordPress blog into a Joomla Site so that if you want to give your blog greater functionality and potential later, then it’s possible.

CMS - Joomla
Joomla is a powerful Content Management System, or CMS, which easily allows you to build your own website. Many successful businesses that do not want to spend a fortune on designers fees and wish to retain complete control of their website choose Joomla software. Joomla is easy to use, flexible and can be tailored to your precise needs. It’s completely free to download and there’s a great deal of help and support both on Joomla’s website and across the Internet.

A content management system will help you to get found on the Internet. The CMS organises and maintains all of the content on your website and presents it to you in a way that makes it very easy for you to create, edit and publish your content to the website. With Joomla you can add music, text, photos, video - whatever you need, it’s all very simple. The main advantage of using Joomla is that CMS systems like this do not require you to have any programming skills, so once you’ve mastered the basics of Joomla, you can quickly create great looking pages without the need for technical expertise or experience.

Forums/Community Site - SimpleMachines
A great way to create interest in your site, build online credibility and drive traffic towards your products or services is to create a forum or community site. You can add an online community to your website using Simple Machines Forum. They offer a professional software that’s completely free and only takes a few minutes to setup and get running. It has a completely customisable layout and unique technology allowing your website and the forum software to work together seamlessly.

A forum is the perfect tool for bringing people to your site. There they can express their opinions on a range of subjects, all under your watchful eye, and every comment or question they add helps you to attract more people to your site.

So what are you waiting for?

Peter Gradwell, Gradwell

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The 10 golden rules of home business

February 10, 2010 by Emma Jones

1 Base the business on something you enjoy – when your hobby/passion/skill becomes your full-time job, it never really feels like work.

2 Write a plan – prepare a basic business plan to set out your vision, describe your market and explain how you propose to reach out and sell to that market. Include sound financials and review the plan every six months or so.

3 Find dedicated space – create space in your house that is your workspace. When in that space, family and friends should know you’re in business mode, plus, you can walk away at the end of the working day. Invest in a good desk and chair, because you’ll be spending quite a bit of time at and in them.

4 Create a professional front door – when customers come calling, be sure they’re met with a professional welcome. This applies from the way you answer calls, to your website, company stationery and even the places in which you choose to meet clients.

5 Make the most of social media – tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have been warmly embraced by the home business community. They are free to use and act as business development channel and a virtual water cooler for the moments when you miss the banter of an out-of-home office.

6 Become an expert – set yourself up as an expert in your field by blogging/tweeting about the subject, writing a report, publishing a book or hosting an event. Being an expert gives credibility and with that, comes customers.

7 Never stop learning – part of becoming an expert is continually picking up intelligence from those around you. Keep an eye on what others in your industry are doing, read about successful entrepreneurs and tune in to trendspotters so you can prepare for new market opportunities.

8 Get out of the house – attend networking events, work from the local café, sign up to a personal development course. It’s good to get out of the home office, but be sure you can still be contacted and respond via your mobile/laptop/webmail, etc. This is your “road warrior kit”.

9 Do what you do best and outsource the rest – to grow the business, focus on the core product of the company and subcontract non-core tasks (eg admin, accounting, PR, fulfilment, etc) to others.

10 Follow the golden triangle – to keep the business in balance, spend roughly a third of your time on each of three key things: customer care, business development and admin. That way, you’ll have a smooth-running business with happy customers and new income streams on the way.

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’. Emma’s 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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10 ways to get your attendees on board with online booking

February 09, 2010 by Alan Anderson

If you are an organiser who has recently switched your event booking and payment process from offline to online, then you’ll know that sometimes it takes a little getting used to – both for you and for your attendees.

At first organisers can be a little tentative and reluctant to becoming exclusively online. And attendees? Well, they will continue to use the booking and payment methods that they have traditionally associated with the organiser, no matter how imperfect and unsatisfactory that process is – but only until they are otherwise instructed.

Yet for organisers it is vital to grasp the nettle sooner rather than later – the financial payback of online registration and payment demands it. And you'll be surprised how quickly even your most traditional attendees will adapt to online registration.

Here’s 10 tips for getting your attendees onboard:

1. Go 100% online
Don’t give your attendees a choice. Stop offering alternative booking methods. When you are booking a flight online, airlines don’t also give you the option of booking your ticket via the phone. As a result we all book our flights online without a second thought.

2. Get your marketing focus right
To maximise your online registrations make your marketing emails short and punchy – a paragraph in length. See it as a short trailer for your whole event. Give a concise overview of the event highlights and make your ‘register now’ button very highly prominent. Make the button impossible to miss and ensure that when it is clicked that it links to the event registration website.

Your marketing email is about persuading your attendees to visit your registration website and not for displaying all your event information.

3. Always be linked in
Always include the URL link of your registration website in your emails. Always send several emails to potential attendees for each event and include the link in every one.

Always include your URL link clearly and prominently on your corporate website. Include the link in emails about your event to your social networking groups such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Talk about your event and include the link on online forums or on Twitter or on your Facebook updates.

Make the link a clear ‘call to action’ for the attendee such as ‘register now’ or ‘register here’ or ‘to register for the event click here’.

4. Create incentives for online bookings
Offering online registration discounts encourages early attendee adoption, so make the ticket price more expensive for offline bookings. Charge a processing fee for manual or paper registrations. Make it clearly financially beneficial to book online. It is, after all, generally accepted that you get better deals via the internet no matter what product you are buying. You need to tap into that mindset.

Similarly, consider offering discounts for early online registration.

5. Refuse phone bookings
If potential attendees phone in to book manually then explain that registration and ticket payment are now exclusively online. Let them know that you will send an immediate email that will include the link for them to go straight to the registration page.

Have the email ready to go and explain the benefits for the attendee of using online registration and payment.

6. Give prior warning
Prepare your potential attendees for the switch. Give then good warning. Send them an email in advance that will explain that your next event will only accept online bookings and payment.

Let them know what to expect and how the process will work.

7. You’ll love it
Let your attendees know how they will benefit from your online registration system, such as ease of use, convenient and quick, more secure, self service, better communication.

Get them on board either with an email or a link to a page on your corporate website.

8. Make it official
Add a message to your voicemail system announcing the newer and more convenient online registration option along with the URL of your registration website for your next events.

Promote your online registration by placing your URL address in all printed materials, e-newsletters, email communications, handouts, signage etc for each event. Or if you run many events devote a page to your events on your corporate website with clear links to the registration website for each event beside each event description.

9. Educate them
Include a short frequently asked questions section or page on your corporate website.

Provide easy to follow numbered steps on how to register for your event. Put it on your corporate website or in your emails to give attendees confidence. Make it along the lines of ‘it’s easy to register and pay – here’s how’.

Offer attendees an online demonstration of how registration works.

10. Get your staff on board
Make sure that your staff are familiar with the online registration process and comfortable explaining it all to potential attendees.

Enrol your staff participants in one of our free, online registration training sessions to answer all their questions and build their confidence.

Alan Anderson, Blue Tube Design

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Keeping it real - www.inafishbowl.com

February 08, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

We’ve recently launched new interactive business website www.inafishbowl.com to help start-ups learn from the experiences of others. Arguably, there’s no better way to learn.

Through an energy-packed mixture of video, Twitter feeds and blogs that feature on the new Big Brother-style business website, we chart the trials and tribulations of three start-up businesses, as their owners share their experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly – in real time.

The three businesses featured are a record label, a bespoke tailoring company and a Mexican food range. Each are finding their way through the start-up maze and sharing their experiences along the way. From naming their business through to frustrating first meetings with banks, the businesses lay themselves open for others to watch and follow online.

The In a Fishbowl project was founded by entrepreneur Toby Reid and is being supported by Midlands-based entrepreneur Andrew Springhall, who says: “So many people go through the process of starting a business – it’s a truly daunting experience. There’s a wealth of information available, but nothing that really provides the chance to learn from the experiences of others in the way www.inafishbowl.com does.

“The aim was to show empathy with the challenges new entrepreneurs face, but also to inspire them and enable them to learn and benefit from an interactive source of support for any budding entrepreneur.”

Taking inspiration from her native land, Marcela Flores Newburn owns and manages Rico Mexican Kitchen. The new business produces a range of authentic, home-cooked Mexican food products that are sold through stores in the UK. Mother-of-two Marcela makes all of the products by hand.

“I’m really excited to be featured on inafishbowl,” she admits. “It’s a great idea and I really hope it will help other new entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting their business.” On the site, Marcela discusses everything from dealing with buyers and distributors at department stores to the reality of running a home-based business.

You can also follow www.inafishbowl.com on Twitter for latest snippets from all three of our entrepreneurs, while Marcela’s posts have been chosen to feature regularly on the Start Up Donut blog, too, so watch this space.

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Work-life balance

February 05, 2010 by Administrator

What comes to your mind when you hear “work-life balance”?  I think of having a healthy balance between work life and my home life - family, hobbies etc.

People often find themselves thinking that they work too much and don’t have time to spend with their families. I left a full-time job nearly a year ago on the hunt for a better work-life balance. To this day I can honestly say I have never found it. My outlook on it now is that it us up to you as an individual to make things happen. If you want to spend more time at the gym or with your family only you can do that.

Reducing your hours at work to have a better work-life balance won't necessarily work. You might end up  filling your time with pointless tasks and activites or struggling for money. You still won’t spend more time at the gym or with your family or you won't be able to  afford to do the things you want to.  We all need to plan our time better and make an effort to achieve what we want to in life.

We all want different things out of our work life and our everyday life but going on the hunt for that work-life balance may be a bit of a long road. Plan well and the world’s your oyster!

Emma Williams, justbooked

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Two weeks to start a business? Nonsense…

February 04, 2010 by Mark Williams

Why do people who should know better continue to give credence to the myth that it’s difficult to start a business?

A recent high-profile example of this came a few weeks ago on Sunday morning on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and it was uttered by no less a figure than would-be Prime Minister David Cameron.

Detailing measures he would take to aid small firms (and so the economy) if the Tories win the General Election, he said: “It takes something like 13 to 14 days to start a new [sic] business in this country. In America, it’s half as long. We have the ambition to make this [the UK] one of the fastest places in the world to start up a new business.” Later, this was reported on the BBC News website and others, but remained totally unchallenged.

It must be the party line. A few days later, shadow business minister Martin Prisk MP, in his ‘New year, new start, new business’ Blue Blog on the Conservative Party website, further fuelled the myth, saying: “We would cut the time it takes to start a new [sic] business in the UK. Currently, it takes twice as long as in the USA, Denmark or Hong Kong. Conservatives want to change that, so we would reduce the number of forms needed to register a new company and move towards a ‘one-click’ registration model.”

What type of business are they talking about? Have I missed something?

Setting up as a sole trader (AKA becoming ‘self-employed’) is likely to take 10 minutes tops. All you need do is call the HMRC Newly Self-employed Helpline on 0845 915 4515 to provide some key details (eg your name, DOB, NI number, address, telephone number, start date and type of business). You could even have been trading for up to three months previously (if you leave registration any later than three months, you’ll be fined £100). Should you prefer, you can register online. Where’s the problem?

And while forming a limited company (“incorporation”) takes slightly more effort (you need to fill out an IN01 form and complete a Memorandum of Association and Articles of Association), it can be done within a day if you pay £50 for the Companies House same-day service. Otherwise you’ll have to pay the standard registration fee of £20, which, granted, could take between eight and 10 days to process. Pay a professional to do it all for you and opt for the same-day service and your new company could become a legal entity in four hours or so.

So why spread the myth? Is it because our politicians are so out of touch with the reality of starting a business? Probably, yes. Few politicians of whatever persuasion have or will ever start or run their own small business. And that’s part of the problem, but one for another day.

And while it’s understandable that any party trying to gain power should seek to appeal to small firms and the wider electorate with the promise of a better new world, using untrue ‘facts’ (if you’ll forgive the deliberate oxymoron) merely increases the risk of putting people off, at a time when the economy needs them to start a business. We should encourage people to go into business – not discourage them.

Truth is, registering a business isn’t difficult and it doesn’t take a long time, the myth needs to be challenged (same as the ‘excessive red tape’ red herring). The real difficulty lies in surviving that all-important first 12-18 months and then moving the business onto the next stage. Any small-business owner would tell you that, Dave.

Mark Williams, Start Up Donut editor

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True net gains?

February 02, 2010 by Mark Hook

“Small firms should increase their website presence,” urges BBC entrepreneur expert Howard Graham in a new piece on the BBC website.

He cites the well-established business wisdom that growing your firm depends on creating a unique selling proposition (USP) and communicating it to your target market. “The web is simply the best way of doing that,” he argues.

In many cases, he’s right. For example, an independent bookshop selling rare first editions could make invaluable use of a website to make its unique publications known to a wider audience, and of course sell them via an online shop.

But I’m surprised that Graham should believe it’s “extraordinary” that fewer than half of all small businesses have a web presence. Is it really that astounding when, as the Federation of Small Businesses says, “the vast majority of small businesses serve their local markets”?

I spoke to my greengrocer this week. I suggested the very thing Graham is advocating, that he should consider investing in a website. I expected a negative reaction based on likely cost, but I was wrong. He simply replied: “I’m based in Bristol, why do I want someone in Leeds to know who I am? He won’t want to buy from me, and even if he does, by the time he gets to me, the carrots will have rotted!”

My local grocer was more concerned with making sure families down the street know he was open for business. Graham’s firm carried out a survey that backs this claim up: “A recent survey we carried out at Made Simple Group clearly showed that… specifically improving visibility to generate new business was a key concern for many.”

But is a website always the best way to achieve this? How vital is a web presence to a plumber, mobile hairdresser or local newsagent? Surely good old fashioned word-of-mouth, attention-grabbing signage and business cards do the job just as well – if not better – than an expensive website?

This is not to say small businesses should ignore other avenues of online marketing - social networks such as Twitter, Ecademy and Facebook, as well as blogging. All can provide excellent, low-cost exposure for your business. The Start Up Donut has some great videos that provide an introduction to online social networking.

But a purely web-based approach to publicising a small business can be ineffective if not suicidal. Small firms should increase their website presence – but only if there is true value in doing so.

Mark Hook, BHP Information Solutions

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Business owners’ three biggest PR blunders

February 01, 2010 by Paul Green

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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