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Posts for December 2010

“And so this is Christmas… What have we done?”

December 23, 2010 by Mark Williams

Christmas crackerIt’s been a fabulous second year for the Donut. We’ve been steadily building things and now, each month, tens of thousands of UK businesses visit our websites for advice, free resources and offers. So what have been our other key achievements?

In August, following 12 months’ development, we launched the IT Donut, which has since become a popular destination for small firms in need of advice on a range of hardware and software issues. We were delighted to welcome Microsoft and Sage onboard as founding sponsors (a big thank you to all our other sponsors, while we’re at it). Amazingly, the IT Donut blog beat off stiff opposition to be named Computer Weekly’s small company IT blog of the year – a superb achievement by any standards.

Crucially, we’ve created almost 100 syndicated versions of Donut websites for Enterprise Agencies, Chambers of Commerce and law firms across the UK. We’re extremely proud of this fact. We welcome the involvement of all of our syndicator partners and look forward to welcoming many more next year.

Our Donut writers and editors have been very busy. This year they’ve produced more than 400 stories on a range of issues that matter to small firms new and more established.

We’ve also produced 12 editions of our information and offer-packed e-newsletter MyDonut, which is distributed to tens of thousands of registered site users each month. We’ve got big plans to make MyDonut even better in 2011, so sign up if you haven’t already (don’t worry, there’s no charge), and keep an eye on your inbox…

None of the Donut sites would be possible without the involvement of our small business experts – a network that has grown to almost 250 leading professionals across our four Donut sites.

We’ve also built our combined Donut Twitter following to almost 24,000 followers – 5,250 on the Start Up Donut Twitter page alone.

And as well as interviewing some of the biggest names in UK enterprise – more importantly – we’ve shared the highs, lows, views and comments of hundreds of small-business owners.

We’re proud of our successes this year, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the enthusiastic support of you, the reader. We truly appreciate your input on our forums and the kind comments and messages of support you’ve sent us throughout the year.

What does 2011 hold? Well, you can expect fresh Donuts - and an even stronger local flavour. And, of course, we’ll continue to champion the cause of small-business owners. Watch this space.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. We’ll be back on 4 January. All the very best…

Mark

Does your graphic designer give you what you need?

December 23, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

I was talking to a potential client today who is tearing her hair out because she’s had a new website designed which she knows isn’t quite hitting the mark, but she can’t quite put her finger on why.

After a brief conversation we identified the issues: insipid stock photography; clunky use of fonts; and a less than inspiring layout.

“To be fair to the designer,” she said, “I wasn’t really quite sure what I was looking for, so I probably haven’t given him a very good brief.”

“That’s not your job!” I wanted to scream.

This poor lady was beating herself up because she’d failed to choose the right stock photos and failed to tell her designer exactly what she wanted. As a result, the design work was less than impressive.

Your job as a client is to give your designer the answers to the questions they ask you. I sincerely believe it’s not your job to tell them what you want and where, just get them to “construct” your vision. If you do that, you’ll get back, at best, what you wanted. You probably won’t get what your business needs.

So what do you really need?

When I meet with a client on any project we don’t discuss colours, fonts or layouts. I ask the client about their objectives, business and clients. We talk about goals for this piece of marketing literature and we get to grips with the messages they want to communicate. We might also talk about brand identity (if they have one) and about the impression they want to create.

At no point do I expect the client to tell me how they want the piece of design to look. And I actively discourage any client from creating a mockup.

What’s the point? You work with a creative, insightful and intuitive designer to add value to your business. You shouldn’t be expected to provide a steer on the design – that’s what you’re paying us for. Sure you need to give a decent brief – but it’s down to the designer (or account manager in my company) to ask insightful questions and draw the right information out of you.

You know what results your business needs. And if you can relay that information to a graphic designer you trust, they will be able to provide you with the collateral you need to achieve that result.

Now I appreciate that this level of design doesn’t come cheap. But it’s worth investing in for peace of mind, the value it’ll add to your business and the fact that you can get on with doing what you do best and leave the design work to the experts.

So next time you brief a designer, listen carefully to the questions they ask you. Do they reassure you that they really understand your needs and really care about the result you’re looking for or are they just trying to please you by giving you what you want?

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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Six good reasons not to feed your Tweets to Facebook and LinkedIn

December 22, 2010 by Alex Astell

It’s come to my attention over the past few months that more and more people are merging their Tweets with their Facebook and LinkedIn status updates.

I’ve also noticed that sometimes my Facebook and LinkedIn news streams are totally clogged with meaningless Tweets that have no relevance to me whatsoever.

So I thought I’d put together a few reasons why, as busy as you are, you shouldn’t feed every single Tweet to other social and business networking websites.

1 Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder

When a Tweet’s been fed into my news stream I know that the person who’s written it hasn’t written it from the website I’m using. It feels impersonal and can convey a lack of interest in what their Facebook or LinkedIn contacts are up to.

2 Twitter has its own language

Twitter is the only social networking site that has its own language to either tag a subject (#), reply to a Tweet (@) or Retweet (RT@).

These make absolutely no sense on other platforms (although Facebook now has a tagging feature that uses @) and can make your update look as though you're speaking in tongues.

3 The scrolling and frequency factor

This mainly applies to LinkedIn in my case. Several of my contacts appear to be feeding every single of their Tweets to LinkedIn. Bearing in mind that some people might Tweet 20 or 30 times a day, this equals a heck of a lot of RSI-inducing scrolling to find even one update that might interest me.

And talking of interest…

4 Why did I need to know that?

Facebook is generally for your friends to keep up with what you’ve been up to or for businesses to promote themselves. Therefore, the fact you’ve replied to a hilarious tweet (@DippyGirl lmao and rofl!!) won’t really have any relevance whatsoever.

LinkedIn is for business people to share knowledge, help each other and network. The fact that the roast chicken you cooked with your nearest and dearest last Sunday was delicious really doesn’t matter.

5 The walls have ears

Can you remember every single person you’re friends with on Facebook or connected to on LinkedIn? If not, be very careful to check your Tweets before feeding them to the other sites. If your boss is connected to you on LinkedIn he/she probably won’t appreciate knowing that you’ve just pulled a ‘sickie’ and sounded realistically croaky on the phone.

6 It’s not the size that counts – it’s what you do with it

With an extremely restrictive 140-character limit on Twitter and a more generous 420 characters for status updates, it would make sense to post to these two websites separately. You can be far more personal and descriptive on Facebook, so why not make the most of your update?

If you still feel the need to merge your tweets with other social and business networking sites, please remember to be selective.

Alex Astell of Manage My Website

Read more about social media on the Marketing Donut:

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Protecting your printer warranty

December 21, 2010 by Matt Bird

Hardware warranties play a massive role in minimising early start-up expenditure. They provide not just after-sales value, but also security against future unexpected costs.

A 2009 survey conducted by Lexmark (State of Printing) suggested that 78 per cent of customers expected to have to replace their printer within five years. Printer manufacturers have attempted to assuage these consumer fears by providing guarantees lasting up to five years for most popular printers (excluding budget sub-£50 machines).

It stands to reason that you are going to want to protect this, so you’ll need to know how the terms of your warranty are affected.

Your warranty will typically be void if:

  • damage is caused by you attempting to repair a hardware fault yourself
  • modification of the hardware
  • use of the product in unsuitable environment (eg very hot, sub-zero or dusty conditions)
  • acts of God or nature
  • unreasonable print volumes for the printer in question.

Although it is slightly annoying to know my Oki isn’t covered for lightning bolts or flash floods, these are nonetheless reasonable terms. However, there is one area of huge controversy that can affect your warranty – using third party printer consumables

Third party cartridges, as feared by the vast majority of customers, can have implications for your warranty, wholly dependent on the stage of the warranty you are in.

Standard warranty

Standard warranty typically covers the first year’s performance of your printer (or a high volume number of prints stated in the warranty conditions, whichever occurs first). It is illegal for a manufacturer to void this standard warranty because of third party cartridges. Rest assured, they’ll try to tell you they can, but you’re protected by this piece of legislation:

Magnuson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act Chapter 50 – Section 2302
(c) No warrantor of a consumer product may condition his written or implied warranty of such product on the consumer's using, in connection with such product, any article or service (other than article or service provided without charge under the terms of the warranty) which is identified by brand, trade or corporate name; except that the prohibition of this subsection be waived by the commission if:

  1. The warrantor satisfies the Commission that the warranted product will function properly only if the article or service so identified is used in connection with the warranted product, and
  2. the Commission finds that such a waiver is in the public interest.

Extended warranties

Typically requiring registration with the manufacturer to activate, it is hazy at present whether these optional, manufacturer-provided, warranty extensions are exempt from the aforementioned Act. Do not be surprised if legislation soon moves to block this common practice by making the Act clearer.

This is unavoidable and places even more importance on the retailers from whom you source consumables. Always check for evidence of quality testing, performance guarantees and testimonials on customer service before buying. You are paying money in a highly competitive environment; these should be provided as standard.

Ultimately, third-party cartridges should be perfectly reliable (it’s so rare I have only encountered it once in the past year) you just need to be careful shoppers.

Working towards better warranties

At my company, Stinkyink.com, we are in contact with manufacturers for explanation of how they can legally enforce this, and we will get back with their response if they ever do provide a straight answer.

Have you had a bad experience with a manufacturers terms and conditions? Post below and see if anyone else has not only gone through the same thing, but if they have suggestions to help.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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The Apprentice: the final

December 20, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the final episode? Catch up here.

The task

Stella and Chris have made it to the final and they have one last task to complete — to create a new premium alcoholic drink brand, film a commercial and pitch it to industry bigwigs at a swanky do at the Hurlingham Club.

It’s a tough challenge. So it’s lucky, then, that Lord Sugar has invited back a few of the contestants to help them out.

Or is it? Stella is all smiles. “I’m so glad to have you all back,” she tells her team. Chris is not quite so welcoming — “I’m willing to work with you again,” he says as their first meeting kicks off.

So how do they fare?

Chris Bates

The proposition: A rum-based drink designed to appeal to young professionals that enjoy cocktails such as Mojitos.

The name: Prism

The strap: It reflects every side of you.

The branding: A dramatic three-sided pointy bottle that looks like an over-sized perfume bottle.

The taste: Three ingredients — rum, pomegranate and aromatic bitters.

The colour: Pink.

The advertisement: Three people walk into a bar. It sounds like a joke — sadly it is!

The pitch: Chris works hard to liven up his droning voice. Jamie coaches him and promises to give his delivery va va voom. It works.

Stella English

The proposition: A modern bourbon drink aimed at young professionals

The name: A last minute stroke of genius from Stella — Urbon

The strap: Urbon — the new way to drink Bourbon.

The branding: A tall, slim bottle redolent of a supermarket oil or vinegar bottle from the Christmas gift aisle. 

The taste: At the lab, Shibby gives an involuntary shudder after he tastes it but decides to go with it anyway. Lord Sugar calls it “pungent”. Stella admits that it is “over-spiced”.

The colour: Amber.

The advertisement: Two guys and two girls in a cool bar. The girls persuade the boys to try Urbon. To be honest, they don’t look convinced. Cheesy.

The pitch: Polished and with some surprising off-the-cuff humour. When one expert questions whether rural consumers will buy it, Stella says, “I’m hoping to move out to the country if this goes well” and gets a big laugh.

The verdict from the experts

Prism: Good name, clever concept, great bottle, hideous colour, poor ad.

Urbon: Great name, clever concept, dodgy bottle, horrible taste, poor ad.

But who cares about the drinks? It’s the people that count.

Stella: Meticulous, experienced, well-liked, a good leader, cool as a cucumber, impressive career progression.

Chris: Incredibly articulate, intelligent, calm under pressure, voice like a low-flying bomber, inexperienced.

The verdict?

Stella wins. But Lord Sugar predicts a bright future for Chris.

Quote of the week

“I didn’t come here to win the competition. I don’t care about that. I came to get the job and I think you’d be mad not to employ me.” Stella to Lord Sugar shortly before he hires her.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Search engine optimisation – should I outsource?

December 20, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

Last Friday I was approached by a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist, guaranteeing me page one positioning for my chosen key phrase within six months. They carried out a free SEO audit, the result of which has set my mind in some level of turmoil and has actually made me realise how much work I have to do.

Although the audit did not provide intricate details of what should be done – well, it wouldn't, it was free! – it highlighted the areas where improvements were necessary. The auditors, with their long list of blue chip clients, were asking me to commit to a 12-month contract for several hundreds of pounds each month, to guarantee me page one positioning.

At this time, that level of commitment and financial outlay is not realistic for my business, Mama Jewels, but I definitely need to do something and I’m wondering how much of this I can do myself?

Do I need to be highly technical and fully understand the complexities of Google or can I manage for now doing this in-house with the basic knowledge I already have.

I know I need to obtain good quality back links, but how? The content needs to be keyword rich, how do I do this without going too far? I am aware, but am not sure how often I need to change the content on my site? What else am I not aware of?

Every book I pick up seems to have a different answer, probably because the rules keep changing to keep us on our toes. From the audit, it seems to me that this is something I could do myself, but looking at the monthly charges from the specialist, I’m sure there must be more to it.

So, should I pay for some level of on-going SEO support or is this something I could effectively be doing myself, after all, I have the deepest knowledge of my business and should know what potential customers will be searching for. On the other hand – should I call in an SEO expert?

Amanda Waring, Mama Jewels

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

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The Apprentice: Just two survive the interviews

December 16, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the eleventh episode? Catch up here:

The task

It’s the interview stage. The previous tasks look like a walk in the park compared to a day facing Lord Sugar’s inner circle of business heavies — Margaret Mountford, Viglen CEO Borden Tkachuk, former Amstrad CEO Claude Littner and lawyer Alan Watts.

The candidates put on brave faces but the masks slip pretty fast after the first bruising encounters. To begin with they try to convince their fellow candidates that they have done well as they wait between interviews but as the day wears on, the toughness of the task is written on their faces in sweat and Stuart sums it up by saying, “I feel like I’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson”.

How did the candidates perform?

Jamie

Jamie’s attempt at joking on his CV — saying he has a third nipple and then revealing it’s a lie — is derided as “puerile” by Margaret Mountford. His Cyprus-based property business also comes under scrutiny in the interviews. He is accused of playing the blame game — blaming his parents for his poor qualifications and his Cyprus partner for his business failings. He tells Margaret Mountford, “I’m a key cog in a wheel.” She says, “Any wheel?” and he replies, “I am a cog”.

Stuart

Stuart greets Margaret Mountford like an old friend and gets a frosty reception. He tries to convince all the interviewers that he isn’t dishonest even though he has written on his CV that he once told the media a whopping lie — that a rival had gone bust. Worse, he has claimed to have a full telecoms license when in fact he only holds an easy-to-get, inexpensive ISP license.

Claude Littner really goes to town on him. He says, “’I am Stuart Baggs the brand’ — what on earth are you talking about? Don’t tell me what a brand is. You are not a brand.” Later Stuart says he is a big fish in a small pond. Claude responds, “You are not a big fish. You are not even a fish.”

Stella

Stella’s corporate background is still being cited as a drawback. At one point she is accused of being a “glorified PA”. Borden Tkachuk calls her the “admin queen”. But Nick Hewer leaps to her defence calling her “entirely decent” and Karren Brady says, with feeling, “She’s ambitious and there’s nothing wrong with an ambitious woman.”

Chris

Chris is not that long out of university, so he bigs up his academic achievements. This does not go down well at all and you get the impression that Stella’s “I left school at 15 with no qualifications and look where I am today” is impressing the panel far more than a first class honours degree.

Chris also has to deal with accusations that he’s a quitter having dropped out of a law degree to do politics and having left his investment bank job after just nine months.

Joanna

Poor Joanna is like a rabbit in headlights when Borden Tkachuk asks her to tell him about Lord Sugar’s companies. She doesn’t know how to pronounce them, let alone what they do.

Praised for starting a business, she is then criticised for not trying to grow the business. Joanna says “I don’t want to be known as Joanna the Cleaner”. But the panel suggests she should focus on being Joanna, owner of a successful cleaning business.

The losers

Lord Sugar wastes little time in sacking Stuart. He tells him, “I don’t believe a word you say.” And he berates himself for allowing Stuart to come this far.

Jamie, meanwhile, is let down a little more gently — he has “come to the end of the road”.

Finally, Joanna gets high praise from Lord Sugar as he, regretfully, points the finger at her. He says, “You leave here with your head high, You’ve done very very well.”

The finalists

So two bankers — Stella and Chris — have made it to the final. My money is still on Stella.

Quote of the week

“My four advisors, they have said to me you’re full of s**t basically.” Lord Sugar, as he fires Stuart.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

How to deal with negative comments on your blog

December 15, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

Many things hold people back from blogging: fear of writing; fear of weaknesses being exposed; fear of peoples’ reactions to your beliefs. At the top of the list is fear of being ridiculed. How many times have you hit the “publish” button terrified of what people will think or say?

Negative blog comments can destroy the confidence of all but the most experienced blogger – and they can knock the wind out of the sails of the best of us. In all the time I’ve been blogging, I’ve received two of what I would describe as negative comments. That’s out of almost 1,000 comments. I can’t say I’m plagued by negative comments then, but I hope I’ve learnt from my own experiences and that these thoughts are helpful. Here’s my own checklist:

1 What’s the spirit of the comment? Do you sense the commenter is being constructive or are they being downright negative and unconstructive? If unconstructive, hindsight tells me now to simply not publish the comment. Remember: it’s your blog, you are in control! If you don’t want to publish that comment, well – don’t do it.

2 How does the comment sit with you? OK, so they might not be singing your praises, but if it’s said constructively, is likely to spark some debate and you’re happy with it, publish and come back with your own response.

3 Take time to construct an objective, balanced response that addresses the points the commenter has made. Avoid getting personal or emotive!

Most of all, remember that most of us are blogging to win more business. If the comment is untrue and likely to undermine your professionalism – don’t publish it. Let me give you an example.

Some months ago I published a post about a website we’d created for a client. I was pretty excited about it and was enthusing in the post. Reading back I can see that I was probably a bit too excited, which could have been perceived as being cocky. Perhaps I wound the commenter up…

Anyway, he commented to tell me that the site was dreadfully coded for mobiles and a couple of other points. At the time I thought – constructive comments. Let’s publish them and look into them and come back with a measured response. The fact was that on investigation, all of his points were utterly without substance and untrue. We responded and never heard from him again. At the time I felt I was doing the right thing showing that we could take the criticism.

But was it the right thing to do? I’m not sure. The negative commenter had undermined a small part of our credibility, however credible our response. And at the end of the day, this was our blog! A few days later, with the comment still praying on my mind, I unpublished the comment along with my responses to him. And I felt that the world was a better place.

Now I’m not suggesting that there’s not a place for constructive criticism – we actively encourage feedback. But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and unconstructive criticism. Sometimes you need a little time to spot the difference.

Have you heard of ‘trolls’? It’s when someone deliberately leaves an inflammatory comment to cause mayhem. They’re not always easy to spot but when deciding what comment to publish on your blog, remember, not all comments are left in the constructive spirit you might hope.

Finally, remember – you reap what you sow. If you drift around other peoples’ blogs peppering them with negative and unconstructive comments, you can expect the same in return. Take the time to sow some constructive and positive comments and you’ll see the benefits in return.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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A Twitter convert living in Marrakech writes…

December 14, 2010 by Andy Robertson

I run Splash Morocco, an adventure company and riad (small B&B) in Marrakech, Morocco. When a colleague told me Twitter was the future for web marketing I rolled my eyes, but I was prepared to hear him out. One year later, after giving it some time and effort, I'm forced to agree with him: Twitter rocks! 

I use social media as a way of attracting clients, building contacts and providing free information to prospective travellers. The cost of using this medium? Absolutely nothing. The benefits? Several thousand pounds worth of bookings and all for the cost of some of my time each day.

I'm lucky that here in Marrakech, there aren't that many other businesses that are Tweeting on a regular basis, so slowly I'm developing into an authority on travel and information in the area. I use TweetDeck and have various search terms set up to allow me to filter through the myriad of information out there and capture the useful data I can directly respond to.

Tweets I love seeing are things like "Just booked my flights to Marrakech - anyone got any tips on things to do?" or "Looking for an adventure in Morocco". With these, I can send a speedy response speaking about the riad or the adventure activities and tours I offer. These vary from white water rafting, canyoning and quads to gentler sightseeing tours of the High Atlas Mountains.

Any business can use this as a method of not only sharing information about their products on the web, but also of directly interacting with their potential clients and even acting as a free information service, building trust and reputation amongst followers who otherwise may have never considered or found your business.

Follow @MarrakechAndy on Twitter

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The Apprentice: Stuart bags a place in the final five

December 13, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the tenth episode? Catch up here.

The task

And then there were five. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel — characters keep getting bumped off left, right and centre. But before we get to this week’s boardroom firing, the remaining six have to set up tours around London and sell tickets to tourists. Stella and Liz are in team Apollo with Stuart at the helm while Synergy’s Jamie and Chris are lead by Joanna.

Apollo chooses to run a cockney tour while Synergy plumps for a ghouls and ghosts experience. Both team get the chance to pitch to the London Visitors Centre who are willing to sell tickets on behalf of one team – for the right deal.

This task allows Stuart Baggs to say lots of disturbing things like — “Tourists are just juicy money bags. I’m going to dip my hands into their pockets.”

The best bits

No-one handles the negotiation with the London Visitors Centre well. They don’t have a plan and their negotiation skills are poor. Stuart pitches his prices far too high. But the manager of the Centre is rubbing his hands in glee when Chris inadvertently offers the Centre 20 per cent of the entire takings — rather than just a cut of the Centre’s ticket sales. Synergy even has to hand over 20 per cent of Jamie’s hard-earned tips! Collected in his very own hat!

But it turns out that this deal is, in fact, a stroke of genius. The partnership with the Centre ensures they sell way more tickets than Apollo.

The worst bits

The tours are terrible. It’s amazing that the passengers don’t simply get off the bus when it stops at traffic lights. Jamie’s commentary is endearing but wildly inaccurate — “The Thames is the second biggest river in London”. Nick Hewer is on board and his face is a picture.

Stella’s tour includes a lot of time spent wandering around the East End looking for a jellied eels stall (and never finding it) and having a lovely sing-song on the top deck of the bus. Karren Brady also looks less than impressed.

It’s getting pretty tense too as the competition reaches its final stages. Chris and Stuart have a turf war in Trafalgar Square and after a good deal of swearing, Stuart challenges Chris to an actual flight. It reminds us that Stuart is young enough to behave as if he’s still back in the playground.

The winners and losers

So Synergy wins and Liz, Stella and Stuart are left in the boardroom. Stuart quickly takes the offensive, making crazy financial promises and pleading for another chance. The substance of what he says does not impress Lord Sugar. “One day you’ll look back and cringe,” he tells Stuart. Lord Sugar also highlights Stuart’s childishness and wonders if it’s time for “beddybyes”. But Stuart’s spirit has made an impact and, amazingly, Lord Sugar points his finger at Liz.

The ones to watch

Stella, Joanna and Chris still look strong but after this week’s bombshell, who knows?

Quote of the week

“I’m not a one trick pony, I’m not a ten trick pony. I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this.” Part of Stuart’s impassioned speech that persuaded Lord Sugar to keep him in the contest.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Should I focus purely on online?

December 13, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

Having spent the past two weeks carrying out research into potential retail stockists, I was starting to think much of it had been wasted, when I came to the realisation that perhaps the high street is not quite right for my business, Mama Jewels, at this time.

Following some sound expert advice, my aim has been to steer clear of the bigger retailers for now and slowly build up capacity and turnover, approaching smaller stockists at a slower pace. This is a wise but difficult decision, because I’m quite impatient and would like to see results much faster.

My research has been aimed at finding smaller high street stores that stock products that would complement mine. With a couple of dates in my diary, I set about making appointments, firstly at local businesses I could easily visit and get a feeling for their interest without making long journeys to other parts of the country. A great plan – or so I thought – until I started to make appointments and came across an overwhelming response that these shops were closing down premises and moving purely online.

I quizzed one of the shop owners, in the midst of a closing down sale, why a lovely shop based in one of the most affluent areas of Nottingham would be closing down. Their response did not entirely surprise me: they could not make it work offline; competition from the web meant that they too were planning to become purely web-based.

After contacting two more shops, another based in the city centre and one more towards Leicester (facing the same issues) it was time for a rethink. I’d already been successfully approaching online boutiques; maybe this was now where I needed to focus. Yes the World Wide Web is potentially a black whole, but if that is where shoppers are specially looking for my type of products, together with those associated with maternity and nursing – then that is where I need to focus my very limited time and resources.

At the time of speaking to store owners, I had a sinking feeling, but actually this research has given me clarity and spurred me on to explore online marketing in much more detail.

So, my business continues to grow slowly, week by week. Sales are rising via our own website, auction sites and online boutiques. The feelings of panic and the enormity of not knowing whether I’m pitching enough or at the right people have subsided for now and I am so glad that I spent those two weeks in research rather than blindly pitching to any shop that would see me.

Amanda Waring, Mama Jewels

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

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Facing hard facts on the route to success

December 10, 2010 by Chris Barling

When you start a business, you need to be a raging optimist. That’s because, frankly, it’s hard and many people don’t succeed. So to stand a chance, you really need to have a sunny view of the future.

However, you also need to be a realist. A friend of mine was working in a new start up. He asked me if I was interested in investing, so I took home a sample of his product. In the meantime, he had managed to place it with a couple of major high street chains. I tried it with my wife and daughter who were in the target market. Neither of them liked it, so I declined to invest.

The business in the meantime continued. A while later they were back to the drawing board, because the product hadn’t sold through the retail channel at all and had been dropped by the retailers. Fortunately they have now completely changed the offering and are doing okay, albeit on a much smaller scale. My friend is no longer involved.

Another business planned to sell a website monitoring service to small companies. After a few months of selling, it was clear there wasn’t much of a market. The management team changed direction and started selling to big corporate sites instead. This was a raging success and several years later they still have a razor focus on the same market. I was happy and this time invested in the company when they changed direction.

What are the lessons from these stories? It’s about realism and facing the facts. The lesson isn’t to chop and change, as the second company had to stay their new course for several years. However, the quicker you face difficult facts the better, particularly when it comes to customers.

The most important thing any start-up can do is to get some happy, paying customers. If the prospects won’t buy or don’t like the product after they do, don’t try to tell them how they’re wrong. Instead, change direction and provide something that they want. Then press on. A dose of realism is worth a ton of investment. In fact, having the money to continue backing a losing strategy can be the biggest disaster.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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Is HMRC failing to follow its own rules?

December 07, 2010 by Julian Shaw

After winning a case on behalf of a client in which HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) was forced to back down and write-off more than £2,000 of previously demanded tax, Elaine Clark of CheapAccounting.co.uk has accused the tax office of not applying its own rules correctly.

“This is a terrible case. [The taxpayer] receives incapacity benefit as well as an NHS pension,” Elaine said. “HMRC was informed of the two sources of income by the Benefits Agency and the NHS, but did not act on the information provided.”

Elaine claimed under the provisions of Extra Statutory Concession A19. The full version of the concession is quite lengthy, but basically it says the tax office must waive tax owed in certain circumstances if it makes a mistake. You could claim if:

  • HMRC failed to act on information it had
  • that failure lead to a tax underpayment
  • it did not say how much was owed by the end of the tax year after the mistake was made 
  • it was reasonable for you to think everything was in order.

(If the tax office made more than one error, the time limit may not apply.)

If you have been sent a bill and you feel this applies to you, then you may wish to seek further advice. Alternatively, there are a number of draft letters available online. (Search for “Sample letter ESC A19”.)

HMRC correctly said it could not comment on individual cases and that the concession would in all likelihood apply only to a small number of cases.

The problem arises because our tax laws place the onus squarely with the individual. Basically, if your tax is wrong, it’s your fault – even if you were not aware of the situation or if the tax office made mistakes. This is clearly ludicrous, especially given the complexities of our tax laws.

Which is why we have ESC A19. It is an incredibly powerful clause – without it HMRC would be almost unaccountable. Six million people could be affected by recent mistakes by the tax office, through no fault of their own, so the usual rules should not apply. Television programmes such as Panorama and cases such as this have highlighted the problem.

Elaine is right – HMRC is failing to instigate the concession when it could do. It is an Extra Statutory Concession that is being debated, so surely it is not beyond HMRC’s remit to introduce a temporary measure – something as simple as sending out a slip inviting a claim, with space for the relevant details perhaps.

Ethically, this would be the right thing to do, but it would of course cost HMRC and by default the government. 

Julian Shaw, Founder of The Practice Hub

The Apprentice: Stella’s halo slips

December 07, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the ninth episode? Catch up here.

The task

Another pre-dawn start and this time they are meeting in Tower 42 in the city of London. As the sun comes up over the London skyline, Lord Sugar rises up to meet them in a great glass elevator. So what has he got in store for them this week? It’s a treasure hunt — the treasure being an eclectic list of hard-to-find items — including Indian gold, chickens’ feet, white truffles, a four-foot length of kitchen worktop (rarer than you might think), a special length of tartan, an antique sewing machine and the Bluebook (a set of four handbooks teaching London cabbies “the knowledge”).

There are ten items in all. But the critical thing is not just to source the items but to buy them at the lowest price possible. Failure to buy incurs a fine of £50 plus the list price. This task has got Lord Sugar’s name all over it — it’s all about wheeling and dealing. He chops and changes the teams once more and this time, all the girls are in team Apollo while the three remaining boys are in Synergy. This week’s team leaders are Liz and Jamie.

The best bits

Once again, it’s fascinating to compare the different approaches. The girls are well-organised, taking a full two hours to phone around and source the items before they hit the road. The planning pays off and they get all the items on the list. The boys, meanwhile, are strong negotiators and get some of the items at incredibly low prices. It’s all thanks to Jamie’s inspired approach — to come up with stories to support their bargaining. A taxi driving brother, a Scottish wedding — there are no limits to the tales they can spin in a bid to get a bargain. The tall stories work — not because they are believed (they are not) but because the sellers have to offer a rock-bottom price to get shot of these strange people.

The worst bits

So both teams have strengths but who has the edge? Athough the girls look like a crack buying team and the boys are disorganised, the bottom line is price. While the girls enjoy the treasure hunt, the boys rightly see it as a bargain hunt and negotiate accordingly. The biggest disaster occurs when the girls go to a Knightsbridge restaurant to buy their truffles. Not only are they shopping in the worst possible place for a bargain, they get their maths all wrong and manage to pay twice the going rate.

The winners and losers

The girls lose. Everyone is shocked, especially the boys. Talk in the boardroom is all about Trufflegate. Laura and Stella were the ones who did the deal so they come in for a lot of flak. In fact Stella is really in the spotlight this week and not in a good way. All the girls accuse her of being a poor negotiator. Karren Brady says she’s too “corporate”. Perhaps what they really mean is that she is too full of herself. Suddenly, everyone is keen to bring her down and peg or two. But Lord Sugar acknowledges her past strengths and eventually tells Laura she is fired.

The ones to watch

Stella’s halo has well and truly slipped. Judging by the frosty atmosphere between her and Liz back at the house, the gloves are off between these two strong contenders. Joanna, though, is quietly looking like a possible winner. But the boys will have to lift their game if any of them want to stand a chance. Then again, as Stuart says, “even when we’re s**t, we win”!

Quote of the week

“We’ve negotiated well, we’ve got every single product, we’ve come back here feeling confident, everybody’s done a good job and I can’t wait to hear the results.” Laura Moore, shortly before she is fired.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The pros and cons of self-employment

December 06, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

This week has been very ‘up and down’ for me and my jewellery business, Mama Jewels, but it ended positively, which has made me better appreciate the flexibility self-employment offers.

At its low point this week, my young son was admitted to hospital with an infection in his foot after treading on a metal pin. Fortunately, my husband is on holiday so that made life a whole lot easier. Being self-employed also meant I was able drop everything and look after our baby and be at the hospital.

The upside of being self-employed is that you can just take that time off whenever you need to without anyone questioning what or how much time off you take. This is a huge plus for any parent with two small children.

The down side is nobody is paying you while you do this; nobody is standing in for the appointments missed and orders still need to be processed. I had quite a busy schedule set up for the past two days and I had to cancel or postpone most appointments, which only adds to my workload in the weeks to come.

This is something you need to be prepared for when you start your own business. It can be a world away from receiving a regular monthly income, paid holidays and sick pay, as well as having other people to step in and pick up your work in times of crisis.

Before I became self-employed I attended a six-week course run by Business Link. During the first session I realised the course was not going to tell me how to become self-employed or what I needed to do, instead it explored whether I was in the right situation or state of mind – was I really ready for such unpredictability. It was incredibly helpful and confirmed my readiness to start my business.

I was semi-prepared for the rollercoaster world of self-employment, because my parents ran their own business. As a child, I remember the early days when money was very tight, but later I also remember the fabulous foreign holidays and nice family cars.

I remember our financial advisor warning my husband and I, when I told him of my plans to start a business that we needed to be prepared to live on one salary, which is what we’re now doing. Don’t let this put you off, necessarily: I’m just sharing my thoughts, but it’s just worth thinking and planning for this when considering starting your own business.

Our online sales are up slightly on last week and I’ve secured another online stockist, who also has a retail shop, so it isn’t all bad news this week.

Amanda Waring, Mama Jewels

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

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Start-up lessons from the World Cup Bid failure

December 03, 2010 by Chris Barling

So England has lost the bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As soon as the result was announced, someone on my company (SellerDeck) forum posted that they were really pleased. As a result of the failed bid, a new stadium and 2,500 houses wouldn’t be built a couple of miles from their front door.

It did get me to thinking about some of the lessons start-ups can learn from this whole tale of woe. Often what is a disaster for one person is a blessing for another, and things aren’t always what they seem.

Firstly, going for a big win is a dangerous strategy. Think of the bid team. There were years of work and further years of excitement. Then suddenly it’s all over and they are out of a job. It’s the same way if you focus on landing one big contract when you’re starting up. Generally, it’s best to aim lower first, then you can gather some momentum before finally going after the bigger fish.

While there will be howls for several months to come – and no doubt the FIFA voters can look forward to many years of entrapment and hassle from the British media – there’s probably a big lesson about messing in the political field. It’s certainly the case that some decisions in business are not made for rational reasons. It’s important that when you’re starting a business you ensure you understand the area you are targeting. If connections are critical and you haven’t got any – leave the field to others.

Sometimes the loser is the winner. Certainly for years, winning the Olympics was almost the kiss of death for a nation’s economy. In the same way, there will be contracts that we lose that turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s important that when we lose, we can pick ourselves up, quickly get over the disappointment and move on to better things. In fact, if you don’t have this kind of resilience, maybe you’re not cut out for starting a business. On the other hand, if you know that this is a feature of your character, then congratulations, you already have one of the critical success factors in place.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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All you need to know about the VAT increase

December 01, 2010 by Justin Randall - Accountant London

There is now just over a month remaining before the standard rate of VAT climbs from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent. VAT-registered businesses are being urged to prepare themselves for the change.

Any sales of standard-rated goods or services made on or after 4 January 2011 must carry a VAT charge of 20 per cent. All VAT invoices must charge the 20 per cent on bills raised on or after 4 January.

Retail businesses do not have to pass the increase on to customers, but they will have to pay HMRC the additional VAT.

If a customer pays on or after 4 January for an item that has been collected or delivered prior to the 4 January, the sale is normally deemed to have occurred before the changeover and the old 17.5 per cent rate applies.

Where the supply of services is continuous (ie a consultancy service), a business must charge VAT at 20 per cent on invoices issued and payments received on or after 4 January. It can, however, apply the 17.5 per cent rate for the services that have been supplied up to 3 January and the 20 per cent rate thereafter.

Moreover, from 4 January 2011 there will be a new list of flat rate percentages. The threshold for joining the scheme will remain at £150,000 in respect of income in the next 12 months and the exit threshold will increase from £225,000 to £230,000.

Non VAT-registered businesses should consider making any large purchases prior to 4 January and expect the cost of standard rated supplies to increase by 2.5 per cent. The VAT registration threshold of £70,000 remains the same.

VAT registered businesses that have questions about the time of supply and the tax point for any VAT transaction should contact their accountant to make sure the relationship between the two is correct. Zero-rated (0 per cent) and reduced-rated sales (5 per cent) will see no change.

You can visit the Jeffreys Henry LLP website at www.jeffreyshenry.com

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