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Posts for February 2011

How to pick the right ecommerce platform

February 28, 2011 by Chris Barling

When you start an online business, as well as deciding what to sell, you have to make some fundamental decisions about your “platform”. In other words – what technology and payment methods are you going to use.

Benefits of online marketplaces

The last few years has seen a dramatic rise in “online marketplaces” such as eBay and Amazon. These have helped tens of thousands of people to start ecommerce businesses and some have gone on to major success.

The great advantage of marketplaces is you don’t really need any technical knowledge to start selling and even more importantly, they deliver visitors to your store from day one, so you don’t need any knowledge of online marketing either.

Marketplace downsides

The first marketplace downside is cost. Listing and transaction fees will take a big bite out of your profit margin – up to 15 per cent of sales in many cases.

The second is control. You must adhere to the marketplaces’ strict policies and your business can disappear overnight if they decide you have stepped out of line. And this really happens to some people. It may not be important when you’re a part-time start-up, but it’s critical once you have an established business.

The final disadvantage is slightly ironic. Because it’s so easy to get started, there is a constant stream of new competitors, many of whom are running their business in the evenings. The most common approach of these businesses is to compete on price, which puts pressure on margins for everyone. Most of these businesses do not last long, having exhausted their savings selling at a loss. Unfortunately, there are always new ones to take their place.

Owning your own store – pros and cons

The alternative is to register your own domain name and run your own store. If you are going to do this it’s sensible to choose one of the online store or shopping cart providers. Again, that pretty much eliminates the need for technical knowledge. Search for ‘ecommerce software’ to find the top providers.

You will need to learn how to attract traffic, probably using search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising through Google, but you will be rewarded with much better margins. I must declare an interest here as my company, provides a low-cost start-up online store called SellerDeck Express.

Many merchants with their own websites also sell through Amazon, eBay and similar marketplaces, so the choice isn’t black and white.

It’s also worth thinking about telephone ordering. This is more critical for certain demographics and products, particularly technically complex and higher priced items where customers want to be sure they are ordering the correct item. Telephone ordering won’t work through marketplaces, because they require their margins.

Payment options

The final decision is how to take payment. The main choice is between using PayPal (which allows payment from a PayPal balance as well as by payment card) or having your own merchant account that allows you to accept card payments directly.

As a start-up, it’s best to use PayPal, because this gets you going quickly and easily. However, once you are up and running it’s best to add ‘merchant status’ from a bank. This enables you to accept card payments without going through PayPal, and it’s much cheaper.

It’s worth keeping the ability to accept PayPal balances because some online shoppers have a balance in their account, especially if they have sold items on eBay. This can burn a hole in their pockets and some sites report up to 10 per cent of more sales from accepting PayPal.

The choices are fairly clear, Marketplace versus own store, PayPal versus merchant status, or a combination of them all. Get your choice of platform right and you could end up on the high-speed train to success.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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Productivity-boosting tools for startups

February 24, 2011 by Ruben Kostucki

As the founder of an organisation that helps small businesses grow, one of the key challenges owners often face is how can they boost their productivity? At a basic level, increasing productivity starts with developing an optimised, streamlined workflow for day-to-day administration.

Thankfully, there are literally dozens of tools that can help you do just that. Here are a few of the ones I use.

  • Echosign – do you ever need to get a contract or other important document signed quickly? Echosign provides a simple solution, that allows your clients to sign documents electronically and send them straight back to you.
  • MessageBase – a state-of-the-art telephone answering services and virtual office that provides a range of products for businesses of all sizes.
  • Paymo – for those who need to keep a tab on how much time they’re spending on a project, this time-tracking and invoicing utility comes in pretty handy.
  • Dropbox – an incredibly user-friendly online backup utility that allows you to sync and share all your files without any hassle. New users automatically receive 2GB free storage, after which various premium plans are available.
  • Teambox – an amazing project management toolkit, ideal for virtual teams and client collaboration.
  • Hootsuite – a social media dashboard that allows you to manage all your social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) in one place.
  • Evernote – acts as a second brain that allows you to save and manage information in one place. 
  • Highrise – a web-based customer relationship management (CRM) system that simplifies managing contacts, leads and sales. 

Ruben Kostucki of www.seeducation.org

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Posted in Business IT | 1 comment

Business owners, help us to help you — let’s Get Britain Trading!

February 22, 2011 by Chris Gorman

Get Britain Trading Logo

A message from Phil Orford, chief executive of the Forum of Private Business

Last week, we launched Get Britain Trading — a new FPB campaign designed to transform the fortunes of smaller businesses across the UK.

Get Britain Trading is all about improving the conditions small firms are forced to operate under — but it also aims to inspire business owners with a strong message of confidence and positivity.

We’re only a day into the campaign, but we’ve already had a phenomenal response. The Forum has been inundated with emails, Tweets and calls from small businesses expressing their support and asking how they can get involved.

A number of trade bodies have also been in touch, both to back the campaign and to ask us to link up with them on future initiatives which they have in the pipeline.

Get Britain Trading comes from a simple premise — small firms make a massive contribution to the UK’s economy. They employ half of all the workers in the UK, make up around 99 per cent of businesses, and contribute well over a third to the country’s income. Why is it then that successive governments have made things so difficult for them, adding layer upon layer of complex legislation and making the process of employing people risky and confusing?  

If we were smart and were looking to give our economy a real boost, making things simpler for small companies would seem like an excellent solution to the economic problems we’re experiencing. Not only would business owners benefit from increased profitability, but jobs would be created and unemployment would go down, creating a real win-win situation for everyone.

The current Government does seem to be taking some steps in the right direction, but there is much, much more that could be done.  

And that is what Get Britain Trading will do. It will raise awareness of the massive contribution small firms make, and lobby the Government to make changes that will enable small firms to grow and become more profitable.

But in order to do this, we need as many businesses as possible to support Get Britain Trading. You can do this simply by visiting www.getbritaintrading.co.uk and signing our pledge — it literally takes just a few seconds.

It also worth mentioning that we want to hear your suggestions for what could be done to help your business, and other firms like yours.

You can get involved through the Get Britain Trading website, where we’ve also got a group of experts together and asked them to share their tips on ‘getting your business trading’. Businesses will be able to download this advice guide when they sign the pledge.

We’ve got a big task on our hands, but there are actions that we can all take to Get Britain Trading for the benefit of the economy and everyone who lives in Britain. Please don’t hesitate to submit your ideas and suggestions via the comment boxes below.

This blog post originally appeared on the Forum of Private Business website

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Is your business in trouble?

February 21, 2011 by Matt Bird

Over the years I’ve experienced the pleasures of working at a successful start-up – and heard about the disappointments of being trapped in a failing one. Often there is a thin line between success and failure, and you’ll want to be on the lookout for any signs that your company is not heading in the right direction. So what are the signs?

1 Struggling to pay yourself

It’s a familiar story for many self-employed people. The end of the month comes round and you don’t have enough cash in the bank to pay yourself, but hope there will be enough cash next week. This particular ‘next week’ never comes. Then, in a couple of months, you find you haven’t taken a wage and are in mortgage arrears.

DON’T do it. Not being able to pay yourself in anything other than extraordinary circumstances is the first real signal that something is wrong. If having enough money to pay yourself becomes a persistent problem – close the business down and get a ‘proper’ job.

2 Using your personal credit card to pay suppliers

DON’T do it. If you use three personal credit cards to pay business suppliers, all with £10k credit limits, and your business fails – imagine being left with £30k of personal debt.

3 Always at your overdraft limit

You never have any cash in the bank, you are running an overdraft and you’re continually hovering around your limit. If you can run your business within your overdraft limit – why can’t you run it without an overdraft?

4 Fearing the bank manager

You dread that phone call from the bank manager asking you to come in and see him. Once that panic sinks in, the alarm bells should be ringing. Don’t let it get this far down the line.

Don’t fret if you recognise these warnings. A failed start-up is not the end, it can be a stepping stone onto your next idea, which could be a much more successful business. Noticing the downward spiral and avoiding the accumulation of unwanted debts and wasted time – now that’s a real life saver.

Take solace in the fact that it took my boss three businesses before he started Stinkyink.com. The lessons he learned from his failures helped shape the company into the success it is now. So whatever happens with your business will doubtless make you stronger.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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How to write more effective recruitment adverts

February 18, 2011 by Darren Leighfield

Writing recruitment adverts needn’t be a chore and, if done well, it can transform your response, generate strong interest and attract good candidates.

Think first. Focus on what you’re trying to achieve – attract the right person for the requirements of the role. If you’re to do that, you must attract the attention of the target audience, tell them what they need to know and persuading them to reply. Make sure you have a clear idea of your target audience and how your advert will reach them.

If necessary – carry out some basic research. Maybe the salary you’re offering is a bit low – or too high. Before you can write your advert you also need to carefully consider the contribution the role needs to make to your business. Only then can you set out the skills, knowledge and experience you seek.

You must get the tone of your advert right. Formal language will work best for certain roles, while in others it might put candidates off. Even if you opt for a formal tone, remember – you’re communicating with human beings. Keep it friendly, almost as if you were having a conversation with the reader.

Good candidates won’t want to read the same dull, old lines they’ve read in a thousand and one other job adverts. Quickly they must be able to recognise (or not) their suitability for the role and the benefits this will bring to them.

Try and be creative. I admit it’s easier said than done. Try and say something that other adverts don’t. Perhaps you’re offering a brand new role or unique opportunity in a new market. Find a unique selling point for the role and do a good job of selling your business to readers.

Get the structure of your advertisement right. There’s an accepted structure; one that readers know, recognise, trust and expect. You include something about your business; something about the job; something about the person you’re looking for; and something about the benefits. You’ve also got to tell people how you want them to respond (ie by letter or email?) and what the deadline is.

Also make sure you include an attention-grabbing title. Throughout your copy, avoid clichés, business speak and jargon. Keep the language simple and to the point. When finished, use your spell check, because any errors will reflect badly on your business. Get someone else to read through the copy, just to make sure there are no mistakes and that all key information is included. Good luck.

Darren Leighfield, Director at EtcEtc Ltd

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Posted in Employees | 1 comment

Three common e-commerce mistakes to avoid

February 15, 2011 by Zoe Brown

Selling online is an art. Not only do you need the right products, at the right time and price, but also your website will need to be an effective shop window, shop floor, sales person, cashier and stock controller.

The three most frequent errors I see on e-commerce websites are:

1 No contact telephone number

Including a telephone number may be an issue for small-business owners who do not have a dedicated number or work full-time, but I can guarantee that the lack of contact details will be noted by your visitors and can put off people buying from you. This is especially true for first-time customers who may be worried about trusting you. You can buy telephone numbers from www.ttnc.co.uk and have these forwarded to an answering service or voice mail. Including a number is unlikely to trigger a million calls, so don’t worry too much.

2 No product links displayed on the home page

Your homepage is the shop front of your store. It needs to tell people what you sell, who you sell to and invite them in to spend. I’ve seen far too many homepages filled with poor copy focusing on the business owner’s credentials. Statements such as: “We have been established for 10 years and sell our products to the whole of the UK. We take customer care very seriously… blah, blah, blah...” Forget all this.

Simply show your visitors what you do. Fill your homepage with a seasonal banner promoting your current special offers or favourite products; display your most recent products on the page with links; and include a number of entry points into sections of your store. Your homepage should promote your products.

3 Hidden terms and delivery information

I always check delivery prices before I buy. Many online stores offer free delivery for larger purchases, which can be a real incentive to add some extra goodies to the shopping cart. If your visitors cannot see your delivery prices clearly (ideally on all product pages at least), you risk them shopping elsewhere.

Zoe Brown, B Websites Ltd

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Two tips to make a billion

February 10, 2011 by Chris Barling

I have the privilege to serve on a board with two guys that started their own business and grew it to the point where it’s knocking on the door of the FTSE 100. Start-ups don’t get much more successful than that and they’re collectively worth more than a billion pounds.

At the heart of their approach, it seems to me, lie two principles: doing right by the customer and only doing things that make a profit. Their business is in financial services and it can be argued that this philosophy is one that hasn’t always prevailed in that industry.

In my opinion, these are two principles that underpin every successful and sustainable business:

  1. Focusing on what’s good for the customer is pretty obvious. If you’re selling something that gives no value to customers, your business is essentially a confidence trick. It means that you won’t get any recommendations, you won’t get any repeat business, and you may even get tangled up by being sued, being investigated by Trading Standards and the like. Since these are all extremely damaging and time wasting, you are very unlikely to build a valuable business.
  2. Doing things that are profitable is a second objective. Even if your primary motive in starting up isn’t to get rich, profit is vital. You can think of profit as oxygen – without it, the patient (the business) won’t survive. As someone who has had to lay off staff when the company I was working for at the time wasn’t profitable, I have a compelling desire to stay profitable. The danger lies in being ultra sales-driven at any cost. This can turn your business into a charity. We need to be constantly reminded that anyone can sell £10 notes for £9. It has been pithily summarised in the phrase “Sales are vanity, profit is sanity”.

While everything that I’ve said is true, there is much more to success than simply following these principles. Having strategic vision, being a good manager, negotiating well, organising the management of operations and many other attributes are also needed. However, taking hold of the core principles of customer focus and doing profitable business underpins everything else. Grasping this can only improve your chances of fulfilling Del Boy Trotter’s dream - next year we’re going to be billionaires.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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From The Business Inspector to Dragons' Den: the irrepressible Hilary Devey

February 04, 2011 by Simon Wicks

“The thing that's really amazed me since doing The Business Inspector is how many people start businesses with hearts so full of hope and heads so full of cotton wool. They think because they've been good at a hobby they can make it into a business.”

So said The Business Inspector Hilary Devey when I interviewed her a few months ago for the Start Up Donut. It was a great interview – one of the three most enjoyable I’ve conducted in 15 years of interviewing and writing about people from all walks of life (the others were Joanna Lumley and a retiring chemist who was the first in Britain to produce penicillin commercially – and illegally; but these are other stories). Hilary was pithy, direct, outspoken, enthusiastic and completely honest. She even answered a couple of personal questions with a frankness that surprised me.

People like Hilary, with such memorable personalities, are paydirt for an interviewer. Writing up the interview becomes a matter of wondering what to leave out, rather than what to include. You just know it’s going to be a good piece – and so it proved (in my humble opinion!). My colleagues and I remarked at the time that she’d be good as a new Dragon on Dragons' Den.

Guess what? Today the BBC announced that Hilary would be replacing the outgoing James Caan when Dragon’s Den returns to BBC2 later this year.  She’s perfect as the new Dragon – experienced, knowledgeable, no-nonsense, driven, resourceful, direct and – critically – excited about business. She’ll talk tough; she’ll ask awkward questions; she’ll keep it real. And when she sees something – or someone – she likes, she’ll genuinely appreciate it. She’s that kind of person, I think.

Have a read of the interview and see if you agree: What it takes to succeed in business: The Business Inspector speaks.

The Tipping Point?

February 03, 2011 by Alex Astell

“Things can happen all at once and little changes can make a huge difference” – 
Malcolm Gladwell

January was quite a month. In fact, it’s been my business’s (Manage My Website) busiest period since I started it two years ago.

The enquiries are coming in thick and fast – from the UK (where we’re based) and countries as far flung as the USA, Egypt and Holland. We’re working on websites for retailers, charities and even the NHS, plus we’re about to partner with MODA Commerce, one of the teams behind the Mary Portas website. My business is on the brink of exploding.

Some years ago I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. As Gladwell explains, tipping points are: "The levels at which momentum for change becomes unstoppable."

So what’s led my business to this key stage? Lots of little things, really. They may have seemed insignificant at the time, but together they’ve created what we have become today and our business has reached its very own tipping point.

  1. I was made redundant from my day job two years ago and decided to take a risk by going solo with my own web design and consultancy business.
  2. I sourced talented suppliers and freelancers who I knew I could trust and work well with. My friends at Flipside Studio and Kinetic Pulse have been key to my business growth and reputation, although I now use several innovative designers and developers.
  3. I decided to keep a journal on my website and updated right from the start, which is incredibly good for SEO. Try Googling “web design providers” and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. I’m a social animal. I immediately set up Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn pages and worked hard at keeping them fresh and interesting, to build up a following and gain vital industry contacts and new clients.
  5. I added my business to as many relevant web directories as possible (all free).
  6. I emailed every one of my family and friends and enlisted their help in spreading the word about my business. Through this email, I won The Cherry Closet account.
  7. With every new enquiry that came in I kept my quotes as competitive as possible to ensure we won the business, had the chance to prove how good a job we could do and help to build up a portfolio of happy customers and great work.
  8. Our team established firm friendships with our clients and befriended them on Facebook. This wasn’t a calculated decision; it was natural progression; they are all open, lovely people. We also promote their businesses as much as we can on social media websites.
  9. We earned a reputation for high-impact, well-built websites in niche markets.
  10. I never waivered from my belief that customer service is everything. I have collected as many client testimonials as possible over the two years we’ve been in business.

Before starting my business, I hadn’t realised I could sell. But in my eyes, I’m not selling to potential clients, I’m just extremely passionate about what I do and that probably shines through.

Nobody can predict what’s around the corner, but I have a very good feeling about 2011. I hope I’ve inspired anyone thinking of branching out on their own that if you’re passionate about what you do, have the right skills and work incredibly hard, you’ll reach your own tipping point.

Alex Astell of Manage My Website

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