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Posts for July 2010

Happy birthday to us!

July 29, 2010 by Anna Mullinder

Three colourful donuts in a rowThis week we're celebrating the Start Up Donut’s first birthday - and what a year it has been! With a new roster of great sponsors, popular content, a much-improved blog and some 30 enterprise agency partners now on board as syndicators, the site continues to go from strength to strength.

My personal highlights are:

Successful use of social media and blogging

Our followers on Twitter continue to grow but, more importantly, we’re having more and more conversations with start-ups and more established small businesses. By being able to speak to you directly, we can find out what information is most useful to you and tailor the site accordingly.

We’ve recently improved our Facebook page, too, so there’s more interaction with and between our users. Recently we asked what your favourite things about being a small business are and we got some excellent responses ― come and join the conversation.

A few months ago we integrated our blog into the main site (it used to be hosted on Wordpress), which has fuelled growth in visitor numbers and boosted content on the Start Up Donut. We now have a larger number of blog contributors including many of our experts. We add a new post every day or so, keep checking back regularly to see what’s been added. If you’ve got something you’d like to share or get off your chest then send us your blogs.

A large number of case studies

What better way to learn about starting and running a business than from people who have been there and done it? We’ve added a large number of case studies covering topics from “How I set up a business in my 50s” to “How I attract customers”.

More recently, we’ve been adding sector-specific studies, which provide a step-by-step account of how to set up everything from a café or restaurant to beauty business.

The Business StartUp Show

In May we took a stand at the Business StartUp Show in Excel, London. It was great to be able to meet our website users and Twitter followers face-to-face, as well as get the opportunity to tell even more people about the Donut project.

“Mumpreneur” week

In the week leading up to Mothers’ Day we celebrated mums in business. We discussed the term “mumpreneur”, looked at the issues surrounding running a business when you have children and posted a range of interesting guest blog posts. The week was really interesting and we learnt a lot about the different challenges young women face when starting up. My summary blog post captured the highlights.

What have I learnt?

The main thing I’ve learnt is that a project manager’s work is never done! There are always ways to improve the site, different types of article to add, forum posts to reply to, blogs to write and people to speak to on Twitter.

I’ve also learnt that there is such a vast range of start-ups and small businesses out there that are looking for need-to-know information and advice that can help them to start and run their own business more successfully. Please let us know if there’s anything we should be doing to make www.startupdonut.co.uk even better. Here’s to the next 12 months.

  • What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in the last year? What have your biggest business successes been? Please add your comments.

Spend wisely at the start

July 28, 2010 by Chris Barling

When starting a new business, the way that you spend your limited resources is critical to your chances of success. There are places where you can’t afford to scrimp, and there are places where you simply must not waste. You need to keep the chance of failure down by spending what you have very wisely.

  1. For a business with any risk, forming a limited liability company is a must. Then if the business goes down, loans and debts owed by the company won’t follow you. So set up a company by searching for “Company formation” on Google. It’s unbelievably cheap.
  2. There are other things to consider too. You need to keep all of your paperwork, including sales invoices and supplier charges, so that you will be able to do accounts and tax returns. But this doesn’t mean setting up a complex and expensive accounting system. It means employing a cheap book keeper for a few hours a week, or even keeping all of the paperwork in one tidy pile, so you or an accountant will be able to do the accounts when the time comes around.
  3. Registering for VAT, the Data Protection Act and possibly other specialist health and safety laws are other start up activities. Do these at the minimum possible cost and effort. These are overheads, not keys to your business success. You can nearly always find out everything you need to know with a few hours of research online. Everything possible like this should wait if it can.
  4. Don’t spend money on things that you don’t need yet. In a start up situation, tomorrow can take care of itself. The critical thing is to concentrate your money on getting your product right, making sure that your customers are happy, then selling like crazy. This is much more important than a slick operation. I’ve seen a number of people spend precious resources on preparing for massive success, only to have that success elude them because not enough attention was paid to sales growth.
  5. When you have a growing business with satisfied customers, then it’s the time to get better organised. As you grow, you will need to invest in systems to maintain quality, and you should also be able to drive down costs as a proportion of your sales. But all of that is for later.

It sounds easy, which it isn’t. However, following these tips will increase your chances of success. Good luck.

In summary:

  • Spend the minimum on being legal and decent
  • Focus on getting something customers want, and make sure that they are happy
  • With that core in place, sell, sell, sell
  • With sales growing strongly, invest in operations to maintain service and reduce costs

Chris Barling is CEO of ecommerce software supplier Actinic

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How to commission a website designer

July 26, 2010 by Brian Copeland

The first thing a potential customer is likely to do after meeting you, or hearing about your business, is look at your website.

If it makes the right impression, hopefully, you can move onto making your first sale and build the relationship from there. If your website falls short of the mark, it’s likely to put them off and they will go elsewhere.

So where do you start? If this is the first time you’ve needed a website, it can seem overwhelming. But, if you get a good designer onboard, it shouldn’t cause you any problems. You can benefit from their knowledge and experience, providing you commission them effectively. But how?

Your website must reflect your brand. It should be a tool that enables you to achieve your marketing goals. So before you even think about commissioning a web designer, you must know what your brand stands for and how your website fits into your marketing strategy, otherwise, you’ll waste precious money.

What’s your brand?

So what’s your brand? Think of it as your business’s personality – how it speaks, looks and behaves. It’s something far greater than a logo, typeface or a few colours.

The essence of a brand is voice, look and behaviour. Often, these are defined by brand values, so take time to work out what these are. Before you ask a web designer to start work on your behalf, be clear in your mind about your brand values. Draw up a list of five or six brand values, if necessary, seek advice from those with knowledge of your professional or commercial values.

Now think about your marketing strategy – how you will sell your products or services. Your website will be part of this, even if you don’t intend to sell online. Your website must seamlessly complement your other sales efforts, whether that’s cold calling, distributing leaflets, direct mail, newspaper adverts, using online social media such as Twitter or quite possibly a mixture of these.

Be clear about the contribution your website needs to make. Do you need it to sell, generate sales leads/enquiries, capture information or simply tell people more about your business and its wares?

Choosing a web designer

Your choice of web designer will depend on several factors – and budget will be a key. Big agencies don’t work for small fees, while a self-employed web designer could create just as good a website for your business anyway.

Decide on your budget and stick to it. You could search online for web developers, but I’d recommend seeking recommendations from other businesses you trust. Give them a call and ask about how happy they are with the service and value for money they received. Ask whether they encountered any problems.

Shortlist at least three potential designers/agencies; check out their work and ask what solution they recommend for your business. One of the important questions, of course, is price. That’s not to say go with the cheapest – it’s more a question of value for money. Negotiate a set price before any work commences and get all work set out in black and white. There should be no unexpected additional charges. Most web designers often offer ready-made packages, so make sure your website will meet your individual needs.

Briefing your designer

Once you’ve decided on a supplier, you’ll need to brief them properly. A good brief is the cornerstone of any successful design project. They don’t have to be wordy, multi-page documents; aim for concise and clear guidance on the form, look and content of the site you want, totally in step with your brand and marketing strategy.

When it comes to key decisions (eg site structure, fonts, colours, images, etc), the designer should explain your options, which will enable you to make well-informed decisions. If you’ve picked the right one, you should have confidence in your designer’s ability and opinions, but that doesn’t meaning settling for something you don’t like. You should also be prepared to have your choices criticised where necessary, as long as this is accompanied by suggestions for better alternatives.

The process might involve having to make a few changes (hopefully minor) along the way, but soon enough, come launch you should end up with an important tool that enables you to start and grow your new business.

Brian Copeland, creative director of the multi award-winning agency, Graphic Clinic

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2020 Vision – Have you got it?

July 23, 2010 by Emma Wimhurst

Got an idea for a business? Great! What are you going to achieve with it? Let’s fast forward to 2020. Now tell me what you see....

  • Have you built a trusted brand?
  • Do you have a national, or perhaps, a global business?
  • ARE YOU A SUCCESS?

The vision of where you will be is all part of strategic planning. It’s something you must seriously consider before you take your business idea any further let alone launch it into the marketplace. BUT, what if you’re having trouble gazing into the future and planning your way? Where do you start?

Look at what you’ve done already. You should have carried out a little research, found a niche and run your idea by friends or family. Their enthusiastic reaction, combined with you ambition, will have turned it over and over in your mind, giving it an identity and inspiring you to create it.             

So let’s now look at something that will give your wonderful idea a tangible form.

  • Get a pen and notepaper and find somewhere to sit, relax and think. If you’re planning to set up in a partnership you must do this together, to make sure you share the same dream and want the same outcome. 
  • Scribble words, phrases, or short sentences that you feel sum up where you want your business to be and what success means to you.

STOP! I forgot to mention, be economical, it’s not a novel you’re writing but your vision statement and it must be wrapped up in no more than 50 words. It may only be one paragraph but it is so important and you must get it right. Within it you must encompass the essence of your business success, what you want to achieve and where you want to be in, let’s say, the year 2020. It should be exciting enough to motivate you and fire up others you want to involve in the venture.

I maintain that this single exercise – whether looking ahead for a year, five years or a decade – begins the planning you need to achieve success. This is something I believed when I set up Diva Cosmetics (as a new mother) back in 2000. I had a wealth of experience and expertise in the industry, I was focused on what I wanted, and knew exactly how I was going to get it. It was, in essence, written down in 45 words!

Running a business is challenging, decisions have to be taken and if you’re not absolutely certain where you’re heading it’s possible to stumble, lose your way and ultimately miss out on the success that should have been yours. I often referred back to Diva Cosmetics’ Vision Statement when confronted by difficult decision making. If opportunities led me away from my original strategy, I refused to be sidetracked. Establishing my goals was a priority at Diva Cosmetics. I knew from day one where I wanted the business to be and achieving £1m in the first 12 months was, of course, all part of the plan.

I made use of a planning system I call my Seven Business Disciplines to ensure I don’t deviate from the path towards success. Having sold the company, I now use this proven system to guide start-ups. Of course, there are many facets to my first discipline, strategic planning, but having a clear and considered vision statement is a very positive start.

Once finished, put it aside for a week or two. When you go back to it, review it, edit it and leave it again. Repeat this process until those 50 words mean what they say. Now you have your vision for success. Success doesn’t just happen it takes enormous effort and hard work. It also takes thorough planning, specifically strategic planning as a foundation to build everything else on, so now you see just how vital it is.

A lack of research and planning is often blames for business failure, so do make sure your business planning is watertight. If you’re daunted by that then consider getting advice from someone who’s already got what it is you want. Planning is crucial to your success, so take advice.

At this early stage in your business planning, make sure you set out your vision statement and be true to it. Focus on where you want to be with the clearest of 20:20 vision and then set off but never lose sight of it. Who knows where you’ll be in 2020? You do...because you’ll have planned it!

Emma Wimhurst is a motivational business speaker, mentor and author

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What your bank will want to see when you apply for a loan

July 22, 2010 by Rob Warlow

To help banks assess whether you’re a good risk when you apply for a loan, they will give you a shopping list of required information. Failure to oblige with the right information can lead to months of delay in getting an answer. So what will your bank want to see?

1 Business plan

In the relatively short space of time you have with the representative of you bank, it’s impossible to effectively convey every aspect and nuance of your business. A business plan can do that. It’s is a ‘convincer’ for the bank and a control and check for you. A plan can highlight flaws in your business idea and potentially save you from making an expensive mistake.

2 Financial statements

Bankers love numbers. Your annual financial statements may not mean much to you, but to the bank they offer a wealth of important information. Don’t apply for finance if your financial statements are out of date. Going to the bank any time greater than three months after your financial year-end without your accounts will simply result in the bank telling you to get them done.

3 Management figures

You may have your financial statements produced within three months of your year-end, but it’s still three months of trading since you closed your books and a lot can happen in that time. The bank will want to see management figures.

The format doesn’t have to be complex; it can be as simple as an Excel spread sheet to accountant-prepared figures. You can also get accounting software that easily prepares monthly figures for you, so there’s no excuse for not having up-to-date figures on business performance.

4 Profit and loss and cashflow projections

Your projections are your view of where you think your business is going to be financially in one, two and three years’ time.

The bank will want to see to prove your business can afford to pay back the loan or overdraft facility. They can also be used as a tool to monitor future performance against your estimates. And by preparing forecasts, you will be forced to think through your numbers first.

Preparing financial forecasts can be daunting, especially if you have never done them before, so seek help, perhaps from an accountant, if necessary.

5 Personal financial statements

Increasingly, banks are taking a greater interest in business owners’ personal financial position. Banks have realised that many business owners have raided savings and ‘maxed out’ on personal overdrafts and credit cards to keep their businesses going.

Banks will ask you to complete a personal monthly income and expenditure report and an assets and liabilities statement, which will give them an immediate overview of your financial position.

6 The list could go on

Each lending request will be treated differently and may lead to your bank requesting more information than I’ve outlined above, but this provides a good introduction.

Rob Warlow helps business owner’s deal with their banks to obtain funding or assist in re-building damaged client-banker relationships. He has written a book called ‘Loan Sharp: Get the Business Finance You Deserve’ which is available via Amazon or on his website.

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Sales breakthrough and a huge dilemma

July 21, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

It is a really exciting time for Rico Mexican Kitchen at the moment. You might think I keep on saying this and that’s because business opportunities take twists and turns and there’s never a time to be bored! Having a strategy is fundamental to keep the opportunities and challenges in perspective, but there must be a great amount of flexibility and a desire to go with the flow and take any opportunity too.

The aim of my business is to introduce a new range of fresh, vibrant, genuine Mexican foods and now I’m looking for opportunities which bring volume.

We have achieved a listing with a prestigious supermarket chain, which is great news! What normally happens though is that they will list you in a limited number of stores and monitor the performance of the product and then, if it does well, they will offer to place your product in more branches. The problem here is that for some products, the minimum production runs are quite large and if they have a limited shelf life, the waste whilst in storage would be considerable.

So, if the shops are not enough to cover the minimum production run, we could end up running the production at a loss. I have identified other retailers which will stock the new products, but we still may find ourselves overproducing.

The really big question in whether we should go ahead with this listing and hope for the best, and in the meantime, work like mad to get more listings to give us the volume we need. Or is it best to delay the launch by a few months, get those extra listings first and THEN start producing?

I know that option two sounds safer but the real danger is that while we are working to get more listings, the original listing offer may disappear. This is not unheard of. It may be that a competitor may get the listing instead, or the buyer changes and their successor won’t choose our product. Difficult decision, isn’t it?

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

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5 tips for graduates going self-employed

July 15, 2010 by Emma Jones

A recent feature in The Guardian ran with the headline: ‘Graduates warned of record 70 applicants for every job’ The next line went: ‘Class of 2010 told to consider flipping burgers or shelf stacking to build skills’ Was I the only one thinking flipping burgers and shelf stacking is a flippin’ great way to earn part time income whilst building a business? For all graduates considering self-employment, here are five tips along with stories of those who’ve been there and done it.

1. Start now!

If you’re an undergraduate and looking at the job market with dread, start taking small steps now to earning an income. Is your degree in languages? Become a private tutor via sites like First Tutors or sell your skills to business through the likes of Lingo 24 and Language123.com. Are you good at making things? Make a few more and upload to sites such as Folksy.com and MyEhive.com so you can sell to a wider audience. Kane Towning started on the path to self-employment whilst at Leeds University and as soon as he graduated, became full time director of AIM Clubbing; an events company set up with two fellow students and friends.

2. Seek out help

There is plenty of help on offer whilst you’re studying – and still when you leave. Whilst studying, check to see if your College or Uni hosts an enterprise society; NACUE is a good source for this. Make the most of events, competitions and Awards hosted by National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship and Shell LiveWIRE and why not take on work experience with entrepreneurial upstarts so you can learn on the job via sites including Enternships and Gumtree.

3. Club together

Does starting a business seem a bit too daunting when you haven’t even left learning? Then pool your talent, join with friends and start that way. This is what the three amigos Oliver Sidwell, Ali Lindsay and Chris Wickson did when they came up with the idea for RateMyPlacement whilst studying at Loughborough University. After graduating, they all secured jobs and worked collectively on the business at nights and weekends. That was three years ago and the company is now a startling success.

4. Go global

To be sure of a wide market for your products and services, go global from the start. Technology enables you to do this with sites such as Odesk and elance.com allowing you to be found by customers around the world if you’re selling time and knowledge and having your own website (with good search engine optimisation) increases your chances of picking up overseas trade. In business, the world truly is your oyster and think of all the places you’ll get to travel to meet clients, and taste local culture!   

5. Thanks be to folks

I hear from many students who are running a business and getting much-needed help from parents whether it be rent-free accommodation or having a bookkeeper/mentor/telephone receptionist on tap who won’t expect a salary in return! Arthur Guy started a star solutions when he was 17, after working at an electronics store. He’s now completing a PhD at Sussex University so his Mum takes care of the day to day running of the business. Thanks, Mum!

Even if you don’t turn your business into a full time venture, the experience of being your own boss and showing you have the attitude and skills to make a living will look good on your CV and set you apart from those other 69 applicants.

Emma Jones is founder of Enterprise Nation, a business expert, and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up’ and ‘Working 5 to 9’

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Greener printing – tips on lightening your footprint

July 13, 2010 by Matt Bird

Environmental printing is no longer an oxymoron and there are steps you can take to be greener in your office. Simply couple these additional pointers with my cost saving tips and enjoy these additional benefits for both the environment and your wallet.

1 Page formatting

Getting rid of bold headers or text will cut down on ink usage for each page, especially in often-printed documents. You would be surprised how much ink and toner you can save by shrinking your letterhead by 20% or switching to black and white formatting! Further formatting such as reduced margins can really get the most out of every page you print and limit your paper consumption.

2 Content formatting

Efficiently presenting all the information on your pages is a great way to limit any paper and ink waste. Consider cutting down your font size and looking at physically thinner fonts (such as Century Gothic) to make the initial size of your prints smaller. Go even deeper and look at the actual content bring printed, is it presentational work or general office documentation? Can it be reworded or broken into short bullet points to be condensed on the page? This small amount of time instead of just hitting Ctrl+P will help you save paper.

3 High capacity cartridges

Quite a few machines now provide both standard and high capacity cartridges. In a significant number of cases, the XL capacity cartridges are no physically larger than their standard capacity counterparts; they have simply been filled completely. Purchasing these cartridges will give you cheaper running costs and fewer waste cartridges being generated.

4 Standby modes

Whether in your existing machine or finding it as a feature when browsing for a new printer, standby modes for laser printers are an amazing way to limit your energy consumption. Keeping the machine active and ready-to-print drains energy throughout the day, and finding a printer which limits power needed to maintain this state is inherently important for any green-aspiring office. With some machines using a little as one watt in standby, yet going from standby to print-ready within five seconds, you can save energy without experiencing delays in your office printing.

5 Turn it off!

Leaving the office overnight or for a weekend? Turn your machine off when you know it is not in demand and fully rid yourself of wasted electricity.

6 Finally, recycle!

6.1 Paper and packaging

Don’t just bin the draft documents you have printed, get an office recycling box and encourage the recycling of all your non-confidential paper, either for re-use on the blank side, or for pulping. Plus manufacturers now produce environmentally friendly packaging which can be thrown into recycling with the minimum of fuss.

6.2 Cartridges

Continue to your cartridges. Binning them after a single use should be a crime within the industry. Keep that plastic casing away from the landfill as long as possible by recycling. There are huge numbers of recycling companies in operation, and many will often pick up your cartridges free of charge and get them back in circulation after cleaning and reconditioning. If you have one of the few cartridges not valid for recycling then it probably means it has literally no technology within it, and is just a plastic casing. Just take it to your closest plastic recycling bin and do your part for the environment.

6.3 Your machines

Under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) direction manufacturers have to take responsibility for printers at the end of their life cycle. Make sure you get your machine collected when replacing your office workhorse and ensuring minimum material ends up in landfill.

Got any great green tips to add to this list? Leave your comment and help us all be better for the environment.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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Best laid plans

July 12, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

After a very busy period planning for a major consumer show at the NEC and other important activities, I was looking forward to a few quieter days in the office, whilst Tony, my production guy come right hand, was fulfilling weekly orders and perfecting the new product to send samples of later on this week.

However... best laid plans. A large order arrived today marked URGENT and I need to drop what I’m doing yet again and come to the rescue.

Customer service vs business strategy

My customers come first. But the stuff I need to do this week is strategic stuff, things that move the business forward. I’m torn and, quite frankly, I’m tired. If I don’t come to the rescue the orders won’t be complete in time and, if I do, then I have to work all hours to do the strategic stuff in the night. And to make matters worse, Tony in production told me ages ago that he needed two days off this week.

You may think that this is partly due to bad planning on the production side and that I should hold stock. However, our products are chilled, with no preservatives, and have a short shelf life (30 days from production), so I need to produce and ship quickly so the distributors and the shops get products with a decent shelf life.

It looks like I’m up until 2am again working for a few days! Oh well, I don’t mind, it’s a super exciting time and being stretched to fulfil orders is a nice problem to have. I just have to make sure I do the strategic stuff as well so that I am working on my business as well as in it!

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

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Are you an entrepreneur, manager or technician?

July 09, 2010 by Martin Johnson

Reading E-Myth by Michael Gerber changed the way I thought about my own business, Big Picture. It helped me decide to change my offering from business consultancy to providing a template that could be packaged up and delivered to established coaches, consultants and accountants.

After much research and development, we’re back thinking about start-ups and how Big Picture can help shape successful businesses. So, getting back to E-Myth, what are key parts that Big Picture and it share, starting with the personalities that are present in any new business?

It’s no coincidence that the three personality types E-Myth describes are easily placed on Big Picture: the Entrepreneur; the Manager; and the Technician. To quote: “While each of these personalities wants to be the boss – none of them wants to have a boss”.

Anyone can start a business, but to build one that actually succeeds you can’t just play the natural role of technician. “Your ‘Entrepreneur’ needs to be coaxed out, nourished, and given the room it needs to expand. Your ‘Manager’ needs to be supported to develop its skill at creating order and translating the entrepreneurial vision”.

For a new business to progress from infancy, through adolescence to maturity, starting with an Entrepreneurial perspective provides the best chance of success... That’s the theory, anyway.

Martin Johnson, Big Picture

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Are you putting all your eggs in one basket?

July 08, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

It’s tempting to think that a website will solve all your marketing problems. Once that new site’s built, the customers will come flooding in. Or will they?

I speak to far too many business owners who have invested (usually not enough) money in having a website built for them. They’re struggling to make ends meet and genuinely can’t understand why their website isn’t generating the enquiries they need. So they chuck a bit more money (again, usually not enough) at someone else to try and fix the problem.

The thing is that I think the problems are usually much deeper. Take a contact I spoke to at the beginning of the week. He’d just had a site built by a company and was frustrated that his site wasn’t being found in the search engines. A quick look at the site told me the problems were greater than just being able to Google him.

The copy was weak. It didn’t show prospective clients how he could help them. Instead he talked first about himself and his business. Secondly, there were no “products” that people could easily “buy”. But crucially, his marketing plan started and ended with his website.

Your website is a piece of the marketing jigsaw. But it’s only a part of it. If you haven’t thought through your offering; if you haven’t created a process for managing and converting your enquiries into clients; if you haven’t identified other ways of spreading the word offline as well as online, then I think you’re going to struggle.

So before you invest all your time, energy and hopes into your website, just think for a minute: do I have a robust marketing plan that will help me win the clients I need? If not, then start looking there first and come to your website when you know what you want it to say.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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I blame Simon Cowell

July 06, 2010 by Mark Williams

So the new series of Dragons’ Den starts on 14 July on BBC2. Well, let me tell you where I am… I’m out, if I’m honest.

For those who don’t know – and if my Wikipedia serves me well – this will be the eighth series of the Evan Davis-hosted show, which was first broadcast on 4 January 2005. The Sony-owned format is based on the original Japanese series and it has proved a hit around the world.

Contestants who lack funding, yet believe they have a good business idea, get the chance to present to five successful entrepreneurs (the “Dragons”), in the hope they will invest their money, time and expertise. If contestants don’t raise the money they require from one or more Dragons, they leave empty-handed. In exchange for investment, the Dragons receive equity, the percentage of which is open to negotiation (they usually want much more).

Obviously, part of the Dragons’ role is to expose non-viable ideas and shortcomings (great and small) in the entrepreneurs’ thinking. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. If done properly, it gives someone with a badly thought-out idea the chance to go away and reconsider. Better to save money or not waste any more on an idea that’s doomed to failure.

My problem is – to the great detriment of the show – more recent series of the Dragons’ Den have seen some of the Dragons take ridiculing of the entrepreneurs to new depths. I used to enjoy watching earlier series, but why now is there the need to be so aggressive and insulting – even if ideas aren’t viable? What purpose does it serve?

The answer? Well, it makes for good TV – or at least it’s supposed to. It’s the type of thing you see every week on X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent (sic), where TV audiences are treated to the modern day freak show spectacle of the talentless and deluded being encouraged to humiliate themselves for ‘our’ entertainment. Then, of course, they suffer further ridicule at the tongue of Simon Cowell and others, before finally being booted off back into obscurity.

Restricted as it is, is this really the type of thing we want from business programming? Go down this route too much and the value of Dragons’ Den and other entrepreneurial programmes is severely diminished.

There’s no doubt that successful people, such as those who sit in judgement on Dragons’ Den, have much to teach other would-be entrepreneurs. So why relegate their role to little more than pantomime villain? Let’s have more insight and less sarcasm. Let’s not allow the balance to tip too much in the favour of ‘entertainment’ at the expense of education.

And I’m not just taking a cheap pop at the BBC. At least the Beeb is making programmes for the small-business community. The recent series of Mary Queen of Shops has been excellent – and you don’t have to run a small retail business to benefit from the knowledge Ms Portas shares while trying to help ailing small firms to get out of the ‘brown sticky stuff’.

Famously, of course, she is credited with successfully transforming the fortunes of Harvey Nichols during the recession of the early Nineties. Mary certainly displays the patience of a saint while trying to convince others – from bakers to hairdressers – to follow her recommendations. Rarely, if ever, has she lost her rag or resorted to ridicule.

In May I was similarly impressed by High Street Dreams (another Beeb production), in which hugely successful fragrance entrepreneur Jo Malone gave the benefit of her experience to small-scale producers looking to make it big. Once again, the tone was advisory rather than antagonistic, which made for a much more valuable and enjoyable viewing experience.

I care little for so-called ‘talent’ programmes or for those who appear or sit in judgement on them. I know these things are popular and they attract ratings. But please, when it comes to business advice programmes, let’s focus on advice and ease off on the mockery. Cowell’s already won the ratings war hands down.

Mark Williams, Start Up Donut editor

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Is passion for your products enough?

July 05, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

Marcela has never read a sales book. She has never learned about sales techniques. So can her passion for her product alone be enough to sell?

With her confidence in her product and her ability to answer any questions about it, Marcela feels well equipped to sell Rico Mexican Kitchen's products to anyone. What do you think of her sales technique (as seen in the video)?

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

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Ten applications to connect your home office to the world

July 05, 2010 by Emma Jones

Here are my top ten software applications that can enable you to connect your home office to customers, contacts and partners in the world beyond.

Attend meetings

Say ‘hello’ and talk business with contacts by using these online tools and services:

  • Dimdim – enables you to attend live meetings, demonstrations and webinars
  • Ketchup – enables you to share and record meeting notes
  • Pow Wow Now – free conference calling at ‘Open Access’ level. Priced packages also available
  • Skype – free and easy to use conference calls for Skype users
  • Tinychat – group video conferencing, for free
  • GoToWebinar – host a meeting of many and present to potential customers by inviting them to join you for an interactive webinar   

Manage projects  

Stay on top of projects and in touch with partners via one of these project management tools:

  • Basecamp – allows you to create projects, invite people to view them, upload files and make comments. It’s effective online project management that can be accessed from anywhere
  • GoogleDocs – share documents via Google with GoogleDocs. You can edit on the move, choose who accesses documents and share changes in real-time 
  • Glasscubes – this tool offers project management, collaboration and CRM (customer relationship management) all in one package
  • Huddle – offers simple and secure online workspaces. Huddle is hosted, so there’s no software to download and it’s free to get started

There are also technologies you can adopt to ensure your business travels with you. These include: webmail systems that enable access to your emails from anywhere; a remote desktop offering files and folders on the go; or web-based office systems such as Google Apps or Open Office, so your entire business is stored online and in easy reach. I’ll cover these in detail in a future piece. Until then, happy homeworking and connecting with the globe.

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’ and ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’.

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Five things Mark Prisk should (re)learn about small firms

July 02, 2010 by Kate Horstead

Business and enterprise minister, Mark Prisk, carried out his first day of “work experience” at small firms this week. This is possibly just a PR stunt, as he has already run his own business and surely knows the score, but his knowledge may be rusty and there are some vital lessons he should learn.

Here are five things he should remind himself of during his time with small firms:

1 Time is precious. Small firms are often run by one or two people, who, alongside keeping the business afloat, clearly don’t have time to battle their way through reams of admin and study the small print of new legislation. Hopefully Mr Prisk will be reminded to keep red tape to a minimum during this Parliament, and make sure any new requirements are accessible and clear.

2 Every business is different. There is no ‘typical’ small business and so the new coalition Government should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. An MOT garage may have very different needs to a social enterprise caring for disadvantaged children, but both are important to society and neither should be ignored when decisions are made at the top.

3 Small businesses create jobs. If given the environment in which to flourish, for example access to finance and low taxes, many viable start-ups will soon grow and play their part in stamping out unemployment. At a time when we are witnessing record unemployment levels, it makes sense to help small businesses become growing businesses, by ensuring the support is there if they need it.

4 Innovation flourishes in smaller firms. As they aren’t as tied down by bureaucracy and hierarchy, most small firms tend to be more innovative than their larger counterparts. While creative people must be self-motivated, the coalition Government should do all it can to encourage investment in, and the development of, new ideas.

5 There’s no rest for the small business owner. Running a small business is like working on a never-ending election campaign. Particularly in the early stages, small business owners think about their work 24/7, and once they have pleased all the customers, negotiated with suppliers, and got all their books up to date, an early night is a rarity. Mark Prisk and his team should recognise the role played by these dedicated people, small business owners and employees alike, in keeping the UK economy going. 

What essential lessons do you think Mark Prisk could learn while he’s making the tea?

Kate Horstead, business writer and member of the Start Up Donut team

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Marketing lessons from a successful networking group launch

July 01, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

I’ve got to be honest, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. You see the Horsley Network that three friends (Jonathan, Liz and Claire) and I set up was launched earlier this year and we had more than 30 guests on our first night.

Having been to plenty of more established groups that have struggled to break 15 guests, I think we can pat ourselves on the back for having marketed the event effectively.

So how did we do it?

We focused. I’m a huge believer in “niching” your offering, and this networking group was no different. We’ve set up the Horsley Business Network for business owners who live in Horsley, as well as people who run businesses in nearby villages in Surrey. By having that focus, there’s a stronger pull for people who actually engage with the group’s aims.

We created a plan. We thought carefully about the structure of the evenings and how much it would be fair to charge. And we were realistic about how much we needed to invest in marketing – which clearly paid off. Too many people try to start businesses up on pennies because they want to be earning money before they put anything in. Prudent perhaps, but I seriously believe we would not have received the response we did had I sent round some photocopied “Word Art” flyers.

We took design seriously. We got some great businesses at our first event. Why? Because our flyers and website didn’t look cobbled together, they looked like we meant business, like it was worth bothering to leave a warm house and set out on a cold night to share a beer or two with some interesting people. In fact, we took the design so seriously that a couple of people thought that this was a franchised operation (it’s not – it’s strictly not-for-profit).

We created some compelling copy that focused on the reader. We thought about what their aspirations might be and what objections we’d need to overcome. And we used testimonials to add conviction.

We promoted – hard! We arranged to distribute 5,000 flyers in the local area – a combination of asking local schools and shops and some serious pavement pounding. We also left flyers on notice boards and in village halls. And I set up an email distribution list that included some of my own contacts as well as asking others to forward it on so that it “went viral”.

We used online as well as offline media. We have a professional looking website and we Tweeted about it. Next time, we’ll probably use LinkedIn to also spread the word.

We thought about tipping points. It’s all about enticing the reader to get out of their armchair and into the pub. There’s one benefit right there. For others it was the beer, perhaps the promise of support from like-minded business owners or the fabulous speaker in the form of Karen Skidmore.

I had also set up an online survey in December to find out what people really wanted, which made it much easier to deliver what they wanted.

I can’t help thinking that if many small business owners marketed their own businesses as comprehensively as this, they would also find the outcome exceeded their expectations. But all too often it’s tempting to skimp on careful market research, professional design and effective copywriting in favour of saving money and channelling everything through social networking. What do you think?

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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