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Posts for May 2011

Why analytics are vital to your business

May 27, 2011 by Matt Bird

The majority of UK businesses now have some level of online presence and one of the brilliant things about the digital world is that performance is measurable.

When should a start-up look at this? Yesterday! Never underestimate the value of historical data, especially if your product/service experiences seasonal demand. In its simplest form, historical data can help you forecast peaks and troughs, with significant implications on areas such as your business cashflow or marketing budgets.

Tell me more

Analytics software (eg Google Analytics) are remarkably easy to install and offer potentially endless performance benefits. To give you a taster, here are three analytics-based tasks to help boost your start-up’s website and business performance.

1 Referral tracking

Any decent analytics programme will tell you where traffic comes from. This can be anywhere from a search engine or marketing email, to someone typing in your website URL into the address bar.

These statistics include what are called “referrals”, essentially, other sites linking to you. Referrals include business directories, comments posted in forums, affiliate sites and links from articles you’ve had published. Knowing where you are getting traffic from allows you to decide where to focus your energy and budget on building traffic, while monitoring brand mentions and opportunities. These brand mentions give you first-hand access to: people mentioning your company; accolades; and complaints.

If someone has had a bad experience with your business, you can get in there early and limit the damage. If someone is telling their friends how great you are, get their permission to use them as a testimonial, ask them what they liked, let as many people as possible know how great you are.

You’ll find plenty of Twitter search tools that complement analytics referral tracking here.

2 Search monitoring

Most analytics packages enable you to track the exact queries being used in your own website’s search bar. This is invaluable customer intelligence. You can see what people are searching for, which pages result in the highest interest, which searches return no results, etc. You can even see trending in market demands. If you monitor spikes in certain terms being used, you can see where the customer interest is heading. The possibilities for this information are huge, and can really help steer your start-up in the direction your customers want – instead of the direction you think they need.

3 What technology your visitors are using

What browser do your visitors use? Are they on a laptop or mobile phone? Knowing how your visitors view your page is important. Imagine the changes you’d make to your marketing plan if you knew most of your traffic came via mobile.

You can also highlight performance issues on your site. I know one update released had... let’s just say “interesting”... repercussions for Internet Explorer 6 users, which missed testing, but analytics bought the issue to our attention.

Craving analytics yet?

I hope those points have opened your eyes to the benefits to be gained from analytics, even on a low traffic start-up site. Be inspired and go implement it now – or dust off your analytics package and have a tinker.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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The Apprentice: the beauty parade

May 26, 2011 by Rachel Miller

Missed the fourth episode? Catch up here.

The task

It’s dawn at the British Museum. Watched over by a statue of Aphrodite, the bleary-eyed would-be apprentices are here to get the lowdown on their next task. They have to select two beauty treatments — having watched eight demonstrations — and then sell them to shoppers in Birmingham.

Sounds simple right? It always does.

Lord Sugar moves Zoe to team Venture and makes her project manager. Felicity is project manager of team Logic.

Team Logic makes its first mistake at the demonstration stage. The team fails to realise that they are in competition with Venture to secure the best two treatments. Some treatments are definitely more appealing than others — they have higher margins and they are easier to sell.

The winning treatment by a mile is the spray tan — highly profitable and perfect for those young Brummies getting ready for a night on the town. Zoe and her team impress the spray tan people with their enthusiasm and get the gig. They also choose the pedicure. A lacklustre team Logic misses out on the spray tan and instead has to select the hot shell massage and the winges.

Yes, that’s right, winges. Come on. You must have heard of them. Winge – as in fringe crossed with wig. No? They are so awful I honestly thought that they were planted as a joke by a mischievous Lord Sugar.

The best bits

There are some cracking lines this week.

Vincent continues to make my flesh crawl with lines like this: “You’ve got nice hair, do you want a free massage?”

Leon’s no better. He offers to get women naked and spray them. Later, he hooks them in by pulling them around by their little fingers. Eugh.

When Susan fails to sell, she says what she’s thinking out loud — “No-one has any money around here, everyone’s so poor.”

One woman that is being massaged says that she normally gets a massage from a man and that it usually leads to something else. “It won’t do this time, I can assure you,” says Ellie.

The worst bits

Felicity makes lots and lots of mistakes. She doesn’t listen to Tom when he is talking sense. Tom’s willingness to do his research and crunch the numbers is definitely not appreciated by Felicity. Stop reading Tom, put the book down!

She also misses the main point — the treatments are the money-earners — and allows her team to spend all their time selling the dreaded winges. Which are, of course, terrible and can’t be sold.

The winners and losers

Zoe’s team makes a small profit — £203.01. Felicity’s team manages to lose £246.28 of Lord Sugar’s money. Oops.

To be fair, there are winners and loser on both teams. Tom did try and inject some business sense into team Logic. And Susan was lucky to be on the winning team. She bragged about her beauty knowledge and over-ordered products on the strength of it and then failed to sell them. Had they lost the task, Susan would have been up for the chop.

But Felicity was the biggest loser of all. She had one excuse — that everything had been decided “as a team”. She might as well have said, “I’m a weak leader, I can’t make decisions and I never take responsibility for anything.” Felicity, you’re fired. Taxi!

The ones to watch

It might be time to focus on the quiet ones. Melody and Jim established themselves as contenders early and are now stepping back to let their rivals hang themselves.

Business lessons

  1. Location location location. The wrong location will lose you money.
  2. Never lose sight of your margins. Focus your sales efforts on the most profitable products and services (this is so basic it beggars belief).
  3. Relationships with suppliers work both ways — you have to impress them, too.

Quote of the week

Leon: “I can’t promote this product. You know, I’ve got a girlfriend and if she started realising that I had started wearing make-up... I can’t be a part of this.”

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.


This week Lord Sugar lost £43.27

The Apprentice entrepreneurs

May 24, 2011 by Mike Southon

You may have noticed that the positioning for the new series of The Apprentice has been subtly shifted from business in general to entrepreneurship in particular. This is evidenced by the prize, which is no longer an opportunity to work for Sir Alan Sugar, but £250,000 for the winner to start their own business.

This makes sense, given the nature of the candidates. If not before, they will certainly be unemployable in the traditional sense after the series. They may be bright, hardworking people, but the nature of reality television is to entice the unwary in to saying or doing something stupid, and then broadcasting the output to many millions of people.

Having “failed Apprentice contestant” must be the last thing that the human resources director is looking for on a CV. It implies not only that your sense of judgement about your own strengths and weaknesses is suspect, but also that you are not a team player.

The premise of the programme is how quickly you can screw some revenue out of unsuspecting consumers while simultaneously stabbing your teammates in the back, so as to win the competition. Looking at this year’s candidate auditions, most seem to fit the stereotype required by this kind of programme.

There are the morally challenged (“there is no time for Mr Nice Guy”), the over-confident (“can only see success on the horizon”), the morally confused (“a nice person, who isn’t afraid to show her dark side if crossed”), the arrogant (“already knows it all; loud and aggressive, wants respect”), the two-faced (“intends to make friends with his fellow contestants, but also has no problem dropping them like a stone should he need to”), the unrealistic (“always gets everything she wants”) and the deluded (“Lord Sugar will find me too good to be true”).

All of these are also characteristics you find in many aspiring entrepreneurs. Mentors will tell you that the prime attribute required of the entrepreneur is an unshakable confidence in his or her own ability. They also need to be creative, charismatic, hard working, optimistic and ambitious.

All of these are excellent qualities, but to succeed as an entrepreneur is to understand that you also possess the opposite qualities in equal measure, being at times arrogant, poor at completing tasks, manipulative, prone to overwork, sarcastic and ruthless.

While these are great qualities if your only ambition is to eventually host The Apprentice yourself or be a panellist on Dragon’s Den, this will not help you with your first task, which is forming a complementary team to turn your good idea into a great business.

To do this, you have to show the opposite qualities to those currently attributed to The Apprentice contestants; to have a clear moral purpose, to be pragmatic in the short term, to be nice to people at all times, to be humble and listen where necessary, to be loyal to others, to set realistic goals and finally to understand fully your own strengths and weaknesses.

All of The Apprentice candidates will leave the programme with some fame or notoriety and ideally will have learnt something from the experience. If they find the right mentors and are honest about their own shortcomings, then they have every chance of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

An interesting question for the candidates would be how they would actually spend the £250,000 if they won. Based on the candidate interviews, I suspect that many will spend some of this money on a fabulous website about themselves, with the rest used to hire a PR company expert in personal brand damage limitation.

Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.

Read the latest blog on The Apprentice here.

Do you need professional indemnity insurance?

May 20, 2011 by Simply Business

Business insurance can be a confusing field – and few insurance types are as misunderstood as professional indemnity.

Professional indemnity insurance helps to protect your business against expensive claims from clients or third parties and can be an important investment in your financial future.

What is professional indemnity insurance?

If you make a mistake in the course of your work and a client or third party suffers a loss or damage as a result, you are likely to be held liable. Professional indemnity insurance protects you against claims of this sort.

A simple mistake can potentially have expensive consequences. Indeed, a single claim can easily be enough to financially cripple a small business. Professional indemnity insurance can help you guard against this risk, by covering the costs of such a claim and footing any related legal bills.

Who needs professional indemnity insurance?

Professional indemnity insurance is a wise investment for businesses in a wide range of fields. If you provide advice, skills, or knowledge in the course of your work, you should seriously consider getting cover. It is a sad but inevitable fact of life that accidents do happen and you need to make sure you are protected against them.

Some businesses also have a regulatory requirement to take out professional indemnity insurance at a certain level. This is particularly common in professions such as accountancy, where practitioners may have to prove they have sufficient cover. Additionally, you may find that prospective clients expect you to have professional indemnity insurance before they will do business with you.

What if I don’t have professional indemnity insurance?

If you do not have professional indemnity insurance, you place your business at risk from potentially expensive claims. These claims could come from clients or third parties and can arise from the smallest of mistakes.

It is worth noting that the total cost of a mistake or negligent action is not necessarily limited to a settlement with the client or third party. Legal fees can significantly inflate the total cost – but a good professional indemnity policy will also cover these expenses.

Is professional indemnity insurance expensive?

The cost of your professional indemnity cover will depend on a range of factors, including the nature of your business and its legal history. But cover of this sort can be very affordable – and, crucially, it should be seen as an investment in the future financial stability of your business.

It is also important to see professional indemnity insurance in the context of the suite of covers your business might require. Depending on the nature of your activities, this might include product liability, public liability and employers’ liability insurance. It is often more cost effective to buy a combined business insurance policy that incorporates all of these covers.

Deborah Reid, underwriting manager at Simply Business

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The Apprentice: Cloche, but no cigar

May 19, 2011 by Simon Wicks

Missed the third episode? Catch up here.

The task

This week starts with a surprise. Clearly fearing that the boys are just going to mess up week after week and he'll never actually see a woman facing the sack, Sugar shakes the teams up. Natasha, Melody, Ellie and Zoe (awkward individualists) move over to Team Logic, while Jim, Glenn, Tom and Leon (agreeable team players) switch to Team Venture. It's not a remotely fair swap; but fairness has nothing to do with it.

The task is intriguing: the Savoy Hotel is preparing to reopen after a three-year, £200 million refurbishment. Conveniently for the BBC, they're short of ten really essential items. The really essential items include some toilet rolls, some light bulbs and a cloche (more on this coming up). The teams are given one day and £2,000 to buy as many of the items as they can. The catch: they must negotiate the best deal for everything. Failure to buy an item by deadline will incur a fine. The team that spends the least (including fines) wins.

“If you're going to come into business with me,” growls Sugar for the 15th time in three episodes, “you've got to dress up as a clown and feed me Syrian olives from a golden spoon morning, noon and night.” Actually, he was looking for evidence of negotiation skills, “getting the right price” and ability to work to a deadline, but it all amounts to the same thing.

Susie stakes an immediate claim for leadership of Team Venture and gets it. She's into her stride immediately, delegating, organising, motivating. She's good. She's really good. Wow. Where did this come from? They're off to a flyer and on the road almost immediately.

Team Logic take three hours to stir themselves. Gavin assumes leadership after swatting away a typically limp challenge from Vince. It's a shambles. He's surrounded by strong characters and he politely asks them to “chill out”. For someone who runs his own business, presumably with employees, he shows a worrying lack of authority. Everybody's doing their own thing, including Zoe who boldly phones a rival hotel to ask for their procurement list. Karren Brady is horrified. Zoe has just booked her place on the hit list.

It gets worse. As Susie, Jim et al whizz about chasing leads and making deals, Gavin's unruly mob are speculating on whether a cloche is a bell or a greenhouse (oh, it gets better – more on this to come). Finally, Gavin appoints the hapless Vince as leader of a team of three women and books both their places on Lord Sugar's hit list.

The result is inevitable. Despite buying some VERY expensive tea, Team Venture return with nine of ten items having clearly enjoyed themselves. Logic are in disarray – they seem to have criss-crossed London haphazardly and have just six items (no cloche, in spite of searching for a garden centre everywhere). At one point they run into a dry cleaners in Teddington asking about top hats. It's embarrassing, really. Funny, though.

“Can I suggest a very quick game plan?” offers Vince in his half-convinced way as the deadline hurtles towards him like a large brick. “We kick arse to get EITHER the ice OR the tea and we forget everything else?” That, my fluffy-faced friend, is why you are not going to win this show.

In the event it's an incredibly close call. With fines, Team Venture spend £1,381.61. Team Logic spend only marginally more: £1,389.20.

The inquest is entertaining. Tom accuses Gavin of looking like a “beaten man”. Both Ellie and Natasha accuse Vince (correctly) of being patronising and ineffectual. Zoe smirks unpleasantly every time someone else takes a blow. But she's called into the final three where she demonstrates great gumption while justifying her general lack of it during tasks. Vince looks on the verge of tears when criticised by Gavin. Then something extraordinary happens: he finds something convincing from somewhere and subjects Gavin to a stinging tirade. Gavin's only response is that Vince “couldn't run a bath”. It's over, he's gone, Gavin's history. He's too nice for this – he even thanks Sugar for sacking him. You what?

The best bits

Without doubt, Team Venture's hilarious inability to find out what a cloche is. Surely it's not beyond the capabilities of eight reasonably bright, motivated people to find out that in the hotel trade a cloche is the dome-like cover for a dish when serving food. Here's a small selection of quotes to illustrate their ineptitude:

Tom: “Just to check – a cloche is definitely a greenhouse, right?”

Gavin (urgently): “We've got six items. We don't have the cloche.”

Melody (sneering): “The 'clochay'.”

Melody: “If it was in a garden centre, it would be multi-dimensional. But it's not, it's one dimensional.”

What the flip is she on about?

The worst bits

Lord Sugar: “So how was Gavin as a leader?”

LONG pause. Whole team stares at floor.

Vincent (softly): “Not bad.”

Winners and losers

Winners, easy – Susie and Jim. The loser: Vince. Poor Vince. Poor, ineffectual, half-hearted Vince. He is so unconvincing you can tell that even he doesn't believe most of what he's saying. He's the anti-Blair. He seems to love the idea of being a sharp, seductive salesman, while actually hating the reality of it. I suspect he'd rather be on the till in Waitrose, flirting harmlessly with middle-aged women. Surely he won't last much longer?

Ones to watch

Susie was very impressive as a team leader. She was energetic and decisive and – a real winner, this – she complimented her team often. Her only black mark was a lack of judgement in sourcing cut-price goods in Mayfair (cough). Jim was less Machievellian than in previous weeks, but once again showed what a calm, competent and mentally-organised person he is. The “Irish charm” is starting to wear a bit thin now, though, and he's made a point of avoiding the responsibility of leadership, preferring instead to manipulate from the background. They make a good pairing. 

Business lessons

  1. Provide clear direction from the word go.
  2. If you're on a budget, don't shop in Mayfair.
  3. Don't give Vince any kind of responsibility. Ever.

Quote of the week

Vince: “What are you having problems with, mate? Share it.”

Gavin: “We are literally having problems with...with… everything.”

Lord Sugar's profitometer: a definite swing towards increased book sales and more lucrative speaking engagements.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Do recruitment agencies have a future?

May 19, 2011 by Darren Leighfield

What is your experience of working with recruitment consultants? Do you use them? Many businesses do, that’s why recruitment is such a lucrative market.

In the year-ending March 2009, the value of the permanent recruitment market in the UK stood at £2.61bn and the number of permanent placements made was 582,803.

What will happen next? Well, the times they are a changing.

According to the National Statistics office, 2.45m were unemployed for the three months up to September 2010. Many were claiming employment benefits and as such the job centre has become a hive of actively available job seekers.

Did you know that recruitment agencies advertise your job in the job centre and sell candidates to businesses for thousands of pounds?

We’re now witnessing an explosion in online social media. Forward-thinking recruitment consultants realised you can search someone’s job title through, say, Facebook, to generate candidates or start a discussion on LinkedIn, which are nothing more than job adverts, you can even tweet your latest job vacancy on Twitter.

So what does this mean? Well, recruitment agencies advertise your job using social media sites and sell you the candidate for thousands of pounds.

What are the alternatives? You could approach the leading job boards directly. Do you NEED a recruitment agency? Well, in many cases NO. Of course, recruitment agencies will tell you that’s not the case. A recruitment agent may save you time in searching and getting candidates before you, but you still have to interview them. Is that worth paying thousands of pounds for?

Darren Leighfield, Director at EtcEtc Ltd


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Are you brave enough to think big?

May 17, 2011 by Fiona Humberstone

What’s the biggest limiting factor in your business? Could it be you? I’m no performance coach, but it’s struck me recently that very often it’s not a lack of funds or a lack of talent that’s holding business owners back – it’s a lack of ambition.

Why are we so reluctant to raise our heads above the parapet and say: “I’m good at this, I’m successful”?

We recently started the process of developing the brand identity, website, blog and marketing materials for a visionary image consultant. She’s incredibly successful at what she does, she’s received oodles of high level press and exposure and she boasts an impressive client list. Her logo is gorgeous, but her website lacks a certain confidence at the moment. And her blog design is so uninspiring that she hasn’t posted since July.

Excitingly, this client was confident and visionary enough to be brave. We planned a photo shoot, creative brainstorming session and complete overhaul of her communications.

But this client got me thinking. She’s just a one-woman band. It would be so easy to be cautious. So easy to say: “It’s only me, I don’t need more than X clients a week” and shrink back into “safe mode”. So many of us spend hours building our own websites, trying to learn a bit of HTML to get our blogs working the way we want them to – and the end result doesn’t usually pay off.

By thinking small, you’re undermining your own professionalism and weakening the confidence your prospective clients will have in you. You’re also limiting your market to people who also think small. That’s fine if that’s your strategy. But if you want to think big – you need to act big.

By being brave, the image consultant is being visionary enough to expand her business and create some tangible successes.

Whatever stage you’re at in your business, it’s so tempting to think small and to believe your clients will never spend more, buy more often or value you more than they do. But if you think big, you might just get what you wished for.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing


The entrepreneurs’ bank

May 16, 2011 by Mike Southon

Banks put profit before customers. This was a headline in March, based on an interview with Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank Of England.

Resisting the urge to look for shock news about the religious convictions of Pope Benedict XVI and the toilet habits of woodland bears, I filed this link in the folder marked ‘things most entrepreneurs know already’.

Here is some simple and practical advice for senior people in the high street banks. First, you should understand that entrepreneurs are very angry about how the banks behaved then and are even more incensed about how you behave now.

We note that you “respect” Mervyn King but “do not agree” when he questioned the bonus system, while dismissing his warning that failure to reform the sector could result in another financial crisis.

Angela Knight, Chief Executive of the British Bankers Association claimed that the industry had reformed itself and pointed out that it was the government, not they, who had run the economy poorly with lax banking regulations. This is equivalent to a recidivist thief blaming the government for not having enough police on the streets.

As entrepreneurs, we understand and respect people who take enormous risks, and expect them to be rewarded for what they do; this is how we run our own businesses. What we find deeply offensive is when banks are greedy and stupid, and then make us pay for their excesses with increased taxes and reduced public services.

The solution is simple, and self-evident. The banks should spin off those risk-rewarded entities and let them stand and fall on their own merits. They should not prop them up with taxpayers’ money while offering thinly veiled threats about the collapse of the whole banking system if they are allowed to fail.

Then, the banks can start lending money again to small businesses. Now that they have rebuilt their balance sheets at our expense, they can help us rebuild ours.

I expect that this advice will probably fall upon deaf ears. But this time, we entrepreneurs have a chance to make a real difference. We can start by moving our accounts immediately to banks that offer free, on-line banking services so long as we keep our accounts in credit. We can then start looking for, and then moving en masse to what we decide truly represents ‘The Entrepreneurs’ Bank’.

This would be a bank that does not have a Las Vegas-inspired gambling division that could again bet our houses on bad loans and then cause the next recession. It would instead be a bank that lends freely to entrepreneurs, giving priority to those that have a qualified finance director to provide regular, accurate and transparent reporting of the company’s performance.

The Entrepreneurs’ Bank would also favour those enterprises that plan to grow by ramping up their service revenues, not by constantly leveraging their debt. These companies would always have assets greater than their liabilities, and thus would never have to provide the entrepreneurs’ houses as surety.

And most importantly, The Entrepreneurs’ Bank would favour social enterprises, companies that are not charities, but proper businesses that make proper profits while their day-today activities result in a real social benefit to society in general.

As John Lennon famously said, “you may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one.” There are potentially seventeen million entrepreneurs out there and we all need bank accounts.

I will, of course, do one last trawl around the high street banks to see if they finally “get it”. But if I get the usual, arrogant brush-off, there is another option: we can always start our own entrepreneurs’ bank.

Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.

Six key trends to bear in mind when planning your business

May 13, 2011 by Jason Sullock

We've just launched our business planning software – Sage Planning for Business – and what I wanted to do was give you an insight into how we see the business world changing and how you can plan to thrive in it. Here are six key trends I believe anyone starting a business should consider in their planning.

1 The tyranny of speed

Potential customers won’t wait around for you to 'get back to them'; they're off, looking for someone else who can help them ‘now’. And they’ll find someone, because the internet has changed the game, putting speed at the top of the agenda.

If you can't respond quickly, you need to consider whether your unique selling points are worth waiting for – or if the customer is going to go somewhere else.

2 The impossibility of controlling the market

The creation and marketing of a business, product or service used to be expensive. It required investment and only the wealthy could afford to do it. They could push products onto their audience because there was little competition, and they controlled the production and distribution networks.

Now you can set up in business for next to nothing, so competitors can and will pop up overnight. Plus, potential customers can visit price comparison websites and go to the lowest seller. And they can read hundreds of reviews online and communicate with other users of your product or service before they buy.

Face facts – you can't control the audience anymore. But, you can be more agile. Try to build flexibility into your offerings, service and marketing to help you adapt more quickly to circumstances.

3 Be authentic in whatever you're planning

Gone are the days when customers didn't talk to each other. Today, they're always talking to each other online. And as the marketing author Seth Godin and many others have said: "the internet does not forget".

Whatever you're planning, don't try to spin one 'truth' to one audience, and the same 'truth' another way to a different audience. They'll find out you've been playing both sides against the middle and your reputation will take a real battering as a result. This can be serious and follow you around like a bad smell for years. Stories spread like wildfire online.

The best way to avoid this is to be authentic in everything you do. Speak with passion, speak with conviction, but more than both of these – speak with integrity.

4 Add more choice

If you are planning to sell online, the more choice you offer, the better you’ll do. This takes advantage of a phenomenon called “The Long Tail”. 

Put simply, the internet has enabled customers to find what they want to find, no matter how small a niche you operate in. And because there is no physical stock to store, there are no additional costs to offer that niche product or service. All those niche sales add up, so take advantage of this in your planning.

5 Can you outsource any skills or processes?

The world has changed. It's easy to outsource these days. There are thousands of web and social media sites that enable you to hire skilled people to work remotely and cost-effectively. Ask yourself if this might be a viable solution to work into your plan.

6 The definition of scarcity has changed

Colour TVs used to be scarce, as did bananas, cars, mobile phones, PCs and many other goods. Not any more.

Now, time is scarce, therefore quality time spent with a customer or potential customer is more appreciated and can have a higher value placed on it, but you need to balance this against your return on investment. How much service and support are you willing to provide, and can you charge more for it?

Jason Sullock is a marketing manager for Sage UK and author of "555 Quick and Dirty Marketing Tips". You can follow him on Twitter at @UK_Marketer 

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The Apprentice: keeping a low profile proves to be a bad strategy

May 12, 2011 by Rachel Miller

Missed the second episode? Catch up here.

The task

The candidates are once again split into teams of boys (led by the wishy-washy Leon) and girls (led by the formidable Edna). This time they have to create their own mobile phone apps — in just two days.

Both teams come up with sound-based ideas. Can this really be a coincidence or have they been advised that a few quick recordings is all they will realistically have time for?

The boys brainstorm some cracking ideas. “Traffic lights,” says Tom. “Is that it?” asks Jim. “Sorry,” says Tom, “I hadn’t got further than that.” Moving swiftly on…

The boys settle on creating some regional soundbites. Not wanting to offend anyone, they come up with some bland statements delivered in dodgy accents. The app is called Slang A Tang.

The girls plump for annoying noises — a baby crying, nails on a blackboard, the sound of them all talking at once. They create graphics to go with the sounds. For some reason, a picture of an elephant appears on screen when they play the sound of a dog barking.

So both teams have created fairly dreadful apps. But hey, there are some pretty silly apps out there that sell quite well. And these are free. So all they have to do is persuade as many people as possible to download them.

Marketing opportunities abound at a big technology show in London. The teams get to present their app to an audience of about 500 technology bloggers. And they also pitch to the teams at three technology websites. If their app is selected, it will be recommended to some vast online audiences.

Understanding the relative importance of each of these opportunities turns out to be crucial.

The best bits

Edna is hilarious. She carefully selects the best person to present — herself, naturally — and does so in a pair of long black gloves. But she neglects to explain how to download the app — in sharp contrast to the boys who get the audience to download the app then and there.

Edna comes out of the presentation with a massive grin on her face as the girls gather around her. She is clearly expecting a celebratory group hug but instead Melody speaks for everyone when she says, “I think we got thrashed”. Edna’s face turns to thunder but the grin remains. It’s worth watching on catch-up if you missed it — it’s comedy gold.

The worst bits

It looks like the boys are going to walk away with it. But this is The Apprentice and everyone knows pride comes before a fall.

The boys have actually made three tactical errors and will pay dearly for them. They’ve forgotten that the audience for their app is potentially global and their idea — based on British accents — does not travel. Although they win two out of three of the pitches to the technology websites, they manage to stuff up the big one — Wired — because their app is deemed to be in bad taste. Thirdly, Jim’s copywriting skills let them down. His app blurb is full of clever puns but it’s not immediately obvious what the app actually is.

The winners and losers

The figures are in and guess what? The boys have lost. The boys’ app got less than 4,000 downloads while the girls’ app — with its more global appeal —  got more than 10,000.

There’s chaos in the boardroom. Leon has to pick two candidates to face the music with him. He selects the people that seem to have come in for the most stick — Jim (for bad copy) and Alex (for doing nothing).

But Jim won’t have it. Employing some kind of mystic mind control he simply tells Leon not to choose him. Leon capitulates immediately and opts for Glenn instead. “I’m not having that,” says Glenn. “Pick Tom”. Tom, incidentally, looks uncannily like actor Michael Sheen.

There is incredulity on the other side of the table.

In the end, Leon, Glenn and Alex get the grilling. I would have fired Leon in an instant for his utter feebleness. But Alex had committed a greater crime in Lord Sugar’s eyes — keeping a low profile. That’s not what Lord Sugar is looking for in a business partner. And, let’s face it, it’s not what the producers are looking for either.

The ones to watch

Jim’s power over others is fascinating — will he be able to control Lord Sugar when it comes to the crunch? Gavin and Tom are socially more awkward but could have hidden strengths. Melody is looking strong and will take no prisoners. But little Susie is struggling.

Business lessons

  1. Know your market — if you are selling globally, create a product with universal appeal.
  2. PR works – a recommendation on a top website can transform your sales.
  3. Copywriting is an art. Keep it simple folks — leave the puns out.

Quote of the week

“Traffic lights,” says Tom. “Is that it?” asks Jim. “Sorry,” says Tom, “I hadn’t got further than that.” 

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.


This week Lord Sugar made: nothing

Total profit so far: £624.46

Why create a mood board for your business brand?

May 12, 2011 by Fiona Humberstone

Mood boards, vision boards, design boards – call them what you will, they’re not a new concept. Used by graphic designers, coaches and interior designers the world over, mood boards help you to clarify what’s important to you, visualise what it is you’re striving for and help you to communicate.

We love mood boards at Flourish. And in my branding workshops, I lead small business owners through creating their own mood boards for their businesses.

I love mood boards because they help us understand our client, their objectives and how they’d like their brand to feel. It’s so important to us that we create a brand identity for a client that feels right as well as looks great and mood boards really unlock the gap between what a client says they want (or even thinks they want) and what they actually want.

They also help both us and the client gain a lot of clarity around their business – you can almost hear the penny drop or the light bulb ping as we work through the session and things start to emerge. I really love the way these sessions enrich our creativity and enable us to deliver a very creative and appropriate brand identity for our client.

Intangible businesses, such as management consultancies and services, are very difficult to draw. At times like this, you need some creative inspiration if we’re to avoid trudging down the well-worn stock photography path. Mood boards really spark our creativity and help us enrich the end result.

Finally, everyone that has taken part in these sessions loves the fact that they’ve been a part of the process. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said afterwards “I thought you’d gone mad, charging me for cutting and sticking but that was the most powerful, creative thing I’ve done in a long while”.

It’s not just the mood board itself that helps, it’s the whole process. It’s not just about what goes on the board, it’s about what doesn’t make the final cut too. It’s the clarification at the beginning that comes to life as we work through the session. It’s the emotive responses we have to images, colours and words. It’s the passionate discussion, the lively debate and the understanding. What’s not to like? 

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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The Apprentice: Edward “rolls with the punches” and gets knocked out

May 11, 2011 by Rachel Miller

Missed the first episode? Catch up here.

The Apprentice is back. There are 16 new candidates. But the game is the same. Cue aerial views of London, close-ups of fingers drumming nervously in the boardroom and cutaways to Karren Brady and Nick Hewer looking like they have smelt something nasty. Build up the tension and then the glass doors slide silently open and there’s Lord Sugar, more owl-like than ever.

But what’s new? It’s the prize — a chance to win £250,000 to start up a new company with Lord Sugar as a business partner.

The task

How simple can it get? Just buy £250-worth of fresh fruit and veg from New Covent Garden market, make something with it, sell it and make a profit. The skills required include negotiation, financial planning, food production and selling. What could go wrong?

Everything, obviously.

Boys’ team leader Edward Hunter claims to be a “wheeler dealer” but when it comes to a negotiation between apprentices and market traders, there’s no contest. The apprentices shake on a deal as if they have won something; the market trader keeps pointing out that he has not actually dropped his price at all.

Food production is always fun to watch. This time, the boys entertain by trying to squeeze 1,400 oranges by hand when the juicers break down. Needless to say, they fall short.

Talk about costs, margins and profit is curiously absent during this task — most notably from trained accountant Edward, who says he doesn’t believe in margins.

The best bits

The boys vow to “make soup like they’ve never made soup before”. No problem there then — they’ve never made soup before.

The worst bits

Vincent Disneur - doing an impression of a creepy version of the Diet Coke man — as he sells orange juice to girls in offices and leers over them while they drink it.

The winners and losers

The girls do better then the boys — but as ever on the Apprentice, they also make plenty of mistakes. Not least, deciding to “save” money by only spending £150 of the £250. Given that they made three times margin, their total sales of £592 could have been closer to £1,000.

But it’s the shambolic boys team that loses and Edward is in the firing line. Lord Sugar says to him, “You said on your resume that, ‘I am Lord Sugar’s dream’. With the greatest respect you’ve been a bit of a nightmare.”

Edward’s rambling defence includes this humdinger: “Not only am I the youngest in the team, I’m the shortest.”

Edward — you’re fired mate.

The ones to watch

Gavin Winstanley could be a dark horse. He doesn’t have the bravado of some of the others but he sold well and Lord Sugar seems to approve. Unlike poor Leon Doyle, who is told, “I’m not very enthusiastic about you to be honest”. Jim “souper-man” Eastwood comes in for a lot of praise. Meanwhile, Melody Hossaini praises herself all the time and will undoubtedly make enemies fast.

Business lessons

  1. When someone invests in your business, they don’t expect you to “save” money by not spending it. If you’ve got your margins right, you should spend all of your start-up capital.
  2. "Rolling with the punches" (Edward’s motto) is an occasional necessity in business; it is not a business philosophy in itself. Try planning — remarkably, it works.

Quote of the week

Vincent: “I’ve got plenty of charisma and yeah I’m not bad looking.”

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.


This week Lord Sugar made: £624.46

How your business could slash its fuel bills

May 11, 2011 by Mark Krull

With many businesses still suffering from the harsh economic climate, the rising cost of fuel is unwelcome. Thankfully, there are ways to save on light and heating - many are very simple and even free.

1 Open your eyes

As a starting point, assess your workplace. Are lights left on in empty rooms or equipment left on when not in use? Are employees wearing T-shirts in January? Has the air-conditioning been turned on because people are too hot? All these things can be rectified at no cost, simply turning off lights or equipment when not in use or turning down heating can make a big difference.

2 Understand your energy performance

To truly understand how much energy your workplace is leaking, invest in a Commercial Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). These cost £200 and will highlight problems – and tell you how to rectify them. If you rent an office or manufacturing facility, this is down to your landlord. They should have presented you with a Commercial EPC when you moved in.

3 Get employees involved

An energy-efficiency drive needs the support of the whole business, so get everyone involved. Incentivise energy-saving acts with rewards for cutting costs. You can ask your utility provider to help out here, too, by providing details of energy used before and after you made the changes. Beyond energy used within the workplace, you could also encourage your staff to walk or cycle to work and do simple things such as cut down paper use and recycle more.

4 Monitor electricity use

Smart meters monitor electricity used and equate this into pounds and pence. They are a great way to get people to understand the true cost of boiling a kettle. Currently being rolled out across the UK over the next 10 years or so, some electricity providers already offer them for free.

When it comes to lighting, apart from energy saving bulbs, there are low-energy options available and, if you can’t trust employees to switch things off, motion-sensor lighting can provide a great solution.

A single computer and monitor left on 24 hours a day will cost a business more than £50 a year. Switching it off out of hours and enabling standby features could cut this to £15 per annum, according to the Carbon Trust.

5 Keep warm for less

Get to grips with the timer and thermostat on your heating system, but don’t switch it off completely – warming up a freezing cold room wastes more energy than keeping a low-base temperature. Switching your thermostat down by one degree could save 8 per cent on your heating bill.

If you haven’t got a condensing boiler – consider making the investment. Heating controls can further optimise efficiency, taking into account things such as computers and lighting that give out a lot of heat. Talk to a Gas Safe Registered engineer to find out more.

Make sure all radiators are free of obstruction from furniture; invest in draught proofing and some thick curtains.

Next year, the Green Deal will provide insulation for ‘free’, paid back through utility bills, more information can be found on the Department of Energy and Climate Change website. The Carbon Trust also offers interest-free loans for energy saving measures.

6 Switch utility providers

Shop around for a better deal and negotiate – they all want your business so you might get a special offer. If you really want to ‘go green’ look at where your energy comes from, too.

7 Cut down your reliance on fossil fuels

To reduce your carbon footprint you could invest in renewable technologies. Feed in Tariffs give cash back for electricity generating technologies. Next year a similar scheme is being launched for heat generating renewables. Make sure you employ Micro-generation Certification Scheme (MCS) accredited engineers, because you won’t have access to these initiatives unless qualified trades people install your equipment.

Mark Krull, Logic4training

  • Whatever changes you decide to make, always choose qualified trades people to carry out the work. For more information about Logic4training’s courses, visit:

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Spend every pound like it’s your last

May 10, 2011 by Jonathan Rodger

In the early stages of any business, it’s easy to spend heavily on all kinds of start-up costs. Each item may seem small in isolation, but they all add up. Without proper care you could be burdening your fledgling business with unnecessary overheads.

Even if you've managed to secure investment, your start-up capital should only be spent on things that add value to the business. This is especially true if you’re funding the business yourself. I question whether it is absolutely necessary to invest in the following four areas:

1 Offices

Do you really need them? They may make you feel more important, but do they really add enough tangible value in the early stages? As well as the obvious choice of working from home, there are many places you can use to “hot desk” and arrange meetings. Alternatively, see if you can rent a corner of someone else’s office. In these tough times, many businesses will welcome such a contribution towards their rent.

2 Staff

As well as the actual salaries, there are plenty of hidden costs associated with hiring staff, such as National Insurance contributions, holiday and sick pay, etc. In today's modern, flexible economy, it pays to use freelancers for tasks you can't do yourself.

3 Software

There are open source versions of most desktop software packages to cover most of your everyday requirements. An example is Open Office. The internet has made it easy for small software developers to publish a multitude of free and low-cost software applications, so take your pick and save some money.

4 Travel

Face-to-face meetings are sometimes important, but try to limit them to ones that are essential. With all the communication tools at your disposal such as video conferencing and free VOIP calls, you can cut your travelling expenses drastically.

Of course, there are moments when the purse strings just have to be loosened. The following three areas are essential to invest in wisely.

1 Product/service development

As a small business, your existence is defined by the quality of the products or services you offer. Make sure this is optimised to its full potential. Always be thinking of how you can improve and differentiate your service.

2 Image

How you present yourself is critical to ensure confidence – not only from your customers, but also your suppliers. As a minimum, make sure your logo and website exude style and reflect your business well. Good design is really important these days. A decent freelance designer should cost no more than around £250 per day. This is money well spent.

3 Customer service

This is easy to overlook when you’re pulled in several directions. But it is so important to make sure those precious first customers are really well looked after. Drop everything to deal with their queries. Treat them well and you’ll be rewarded in the long term with a loyal kernel of customers that will be unpaid ambassadors for your company.

So, my advice is invest sensibly in your start-up; avoid the big overheads for as long as possible; and keep a realistic view of how much time it will take for your business to gain real momentum.

Jonathan Rodger is managing director of email marketing service Message Horizon.

Prevent problems when commissioning a website

May 09, 2011 by Zoe Brown

Commissioning a website can be a minefield. As with all industries, there are some cowboy web developers and designers, but I firmly believe that most problems between businesses and their web suppliers are caused by miscommunication. And it’s no wonder when there are so many different options and technicalities to understand. Here are some of my tips on how to avoid problems when commissioning a website:

  1. Your website address ( is a really important asset and you really do not want to lose it. Domain names only cost a few quid, so buy them yourself. You can go to It’s fine for your supplier to buy your domain, just as long as it is in your name. You can check the public records for your domain at
  2. Make sure you review your content management system (CMS). Is it easy to use? Does it allow enough control over the website? What kind of support is on offer? How portable is the website once built (you don’t want to be stuck with a CMS that only works on one hosting supplier or cannot be moved). It is not usually easily possible to add/change your CMS once built since the website is normally created within the CMS itself.
  3. How much support does your prospective supplier offer, does it match your requirements and how much does it cost? While there are many talented developers and designers out there, you will usually receive more support from an agency than a one-man-band working from home.
  4. There are many different types of website so check your supplier’s portfolio of work matches your requirements. Don’t judge a portfolio by looking at pretty pictures: visit the websites and contact the owners for references.
  5. It’s often easier to allow your supplier to organise third party requirements. Don’t try to shop around for your own hosting, CMS, merchant banking, shopping cart, etc and then expect to find one supplier who can bring it all together. It will be cheaper overall (and much less stressful) if you find a supplier you trust and allow them to recommend the tools they usually work with.
  6. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is rarely included in the price of a website. This is because SEO takes time, uses different skills and is an ongoing process. If your supplier tells you your website will be optimized (so it appears high up in search engine results), double check. Ask for a list of what they will do. If they are not doing keyword research or offering to help with your website copy –they are not really optimising. They probably mean it’ll be search engine friendly. Having a search engine-friendly website is a great start, but make sure that you can add SEO if you want.
  7. Ask your supplier how compliant your website will be with industry web standards and accessibility regulations. You also need to know what browsers (eg Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer) they support. This may sound boring but loosing 20 per cent of visitors due to a poorly coded website is not much fun.
  8. Designing a website is a service and ultimately you’re paying for time. If you know you’re going to want to have discussions about the website and lots of help, you’ll need to increase your budget. Designing and coding a website correctly takes time so ask how many hours/days is included in your quote and work out if this reflects your needs.
  9. You need good copy and great images. If you’re planning to create your own content, before you begin, read around the topic of writing web copy.

You need to be confident your supplier will supply a website that looks and performs how you want it to. Whatever your budget, make sure you understand what you’re getting for your money.

Zoe Brown, B Websites Ltd  

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

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How to minimise your accountancy costs

May 05, 2011 by Elaine Clark

Every business has different needs when it comes to using an accountant. Indeed, some may decide not to use one at all.

Only a limited company with a turnover of more than £6.5m and a balance sheet total exceeding £3.26m needs an audit – which would require an accountant. Most other businesses can do their own accounts and tax returns, if they so choose. However, running a business is hard enough without having to learn every accounting and tax rule, regulation and law.

But what exactly do you need your accountant to do?

Most businesses need their accountant to complete what we accountants call “compliance work” – basically, filing your accounts and tax returns (eg statutory accounts, annual return, VAT, Self Assessment, Corporation Tax, PAYE, etc) in correct format, ahead of deadline.

Most small businesses have very simple accounting and tax needs. Accounts usually consist of:

  • sales invoices each week/month 
  • costs for stock, advertising, web hosting, etc
  • daily/weekly travel expenses 
  • mobile and other phone charges 
  • monthly salary/wages 
  • use of home as office 
  • insurances and/or professional subscriptions 
  • bank interest/charges 
  • sundries such as stationery, postage, laptop, etc 
  • dividends (if your business is a company) 
  • and, of course – accountants fees!

So how many individual transactions would this be a year? 100? 200? 500? Not too many, really. Add a free or inexpensive accounting system to your PC to record these transactions and you won’t have to face the nightmare of bags overflowing with receipts, invoices, statements, etc.

You can save a lot of money simply by doing your own bookkeeping, of course. Modern PC-based systems also grant better control of the financial side of running a business. Thanks to accounting software (or even just a basic Excel spreadsheet system), you no longer have to wait several months after the year-end to find out how your business has performed.

Keeping your accounts up to date in this way allows you to make better decisions based upon current financial data. It also allows your accountant to provide appropriate advice based upon your current trading rather than on previous accounts, which could be two years or so out of date.

What more do you need?

Occasionally, you might need clarification on a financial or tax matter – so being able to quickly pick up the phone to ask your accountant questions can be hugely beneficial.

Accountants like to give this advice the grand title of “tax planning”. For some businesses (ie those with a high turnover or value), it’s important to have a clear and documented tax strategy. But in most cases, a tax planning strategy can be quite simple.

Your accountant should also make sure you claim all allowable costs – those that are “wholly and exclusively for business”. Many myths exist about what you can claim (eg clothes, all lunches, etc). Some seem to think that unless you hire an ‘expensive’ accountant, you won’t get the right advice on allowable costs. Utter nonsense! The advice you get depends on the accountant – there are good and bad ones – whatever price you pay!

Changes in your circumstances

Planning for the long term may give you a different tax plan, for example, if you intend to build up and sell your business. In addition, your circumstances could change and it may be necessary to discuss your tax plan with your accountant if, for example, you separate from your spouse, want to retire or buy property, etc.

Trying to account for “ifs, buts and maybes” in a tax strategy can make it unnecessarily complex. Taking into account events that may never happened can lead to a flawed plan, so keep things simple, based on what you know and what is likely to happen. Make sure you keep your accountant informed of any likely or forthcoming changes in your circumstances. This will help them ensure your tax plan remains valid.

Pay for the advice you need – when you need it

There’s no need to pay fancy fees for specialist services you’d rarely, if ever, use. You can get the best of both words by making sure your accountant provides the service you need as and when you need it – at a fair price. An accountant with core trained and qualified staff, plus access to specialist services, should easily be able to do this for you.

Elaine Clark,


Six ways to avoid being branded a “business bandit”

May 04, 2011 by Chris Barling

A while ago, a complaint appeared on the SellerDeck customer forum about a third party who was spamming our customers using somewhat dubious methods. We got in touch with the offending party and they were totally dismissive: “All’s fair in love and war” seemed to be their attitude.

A few days later, the tone had totally changed. When anyone searched for their company name on Google, the first result returned was the thread on our customer forum. And it wasn’t good for them that every mention was a howling complaint. Swallowing larger chunks of humble pie than I had ever seen before, they promised to reform their ways and begged us to remove the comments about them. It was hard not to feel smug.

But the point of this is not the humbling of one company, it’s that things have changed. It is now much harder to be a bad boy (or girl) and get away with it. In fact, with Twitter, Facebook, review sites and online forums, you can guarantee that your dirty washing will be aired within minutes. Taking an ethical approach to all aspects of business has never made more sense.

So here are my six top tips of some of the things to do and not to do to if you want to avoid being branded a “business bandit”.

  1. Don’t lie when selling. It will come back to bite you. People expect a sales pitch to push hard, but they hate it when they are told something that isn’t true. In the worst case, they will take legal action.
  2. Act on all feedback and fix problems. It’s cheaper not to have problems in the first place, but when they occur, the quicker you fix them the less they will damage your reputation. Fixing things quickly will enhance your standing, because we all understand that things go wrong sometimes.
  3. Be easy to do business with. It’s worth looking at every touch-point with your customers to see if you can make their lives simpler. It’s not just for their benefit, because this tactic should also increase sales and grow brand loyalty. Just look at Apple. In general, treat your customers how you want to be treated.
  4. Treat your suppliers with respect. This is one that’s easily missed, yet there are a number of reasons for taking this line. Firstly, don’t we all want business to be more pleasurable? Why should we expect our customers to treat us well if we don’t do the same for our suppliers.

    Secondly, companies get a reputation within an industry and once you’ve got a bad name it’s hard to shake it off. Then you may need a favour from your suppliers one day. If you’ve always behaved badly, they will be strangely unavailable when needed, or particularly hard to negotiate with on contract renewal. What goes around comes around.

  5. Communicate responsibly. When you send customers emails or other communications, or participate in forums or social networks, be rational, avoid ranting and behave with integrity and honesty. I have caught out competitors several times over the years masquerading as independent commentators. It’s humiliating for them when it comes to light, and their dishonesty is then on record. It’s not the way to build a business.
  6. Accept cancellations gracefully. Sometimes your customers don’t want your service any more or wish to return your goods. You won’t retrieve many sales if you are aggressive, but you will ensure that they never return and also tell their acquaintances not to do business with you. If you accept the situation with grace, you can earn a friend.

In the early days of my company when we were desperate for sales, one of our few customers returned his purchase. We handled the situation courteously and quickly. The customer turned out to be a journalist, and they sang our praises in print for years afterwards.

My final thought is this. Most of us want to do a good job for our customers. If we stick to these points, we will not only run a more successful business, but we’ll also feel better about it.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

How to get the most out of networking

May 03, 2011 by Stuart Hartley

Most (if not all) business advisors will recommend networking to business owners. Networking comes is so many forms these days – everything from sporting events, such as dinners at football games and golf days, to formal referral and presentation-style roundtable networking. 

In fact, every time you talk to someone about your business idea you are networking, so most of the networking you do won’t cost a penny. The more people they hear about your business, in theory, the more people will be aware of it and the more sales you will make. If no one knows about your brilliant new business idea, you will never make any sales.

As most business-owners will probably agree, you could spend all your waking hours at networking events. Before you commit to a networking event try to find out who would typically go (ie business size, business sector, etc) to see if they will match your business marketing requirements. Be careful though, because networking is not just about the person to whom you speak, but also the people they speak to afterwards. A person might be irrelevant to your business, but their contacts could be your next big customer.

At your next networking event, try a different tack from just selling your business idea. Don’t sell your business, but try and help other people's businesses. Ask them why they are at the event, whom they want to meet and how you might be able to help them. Businesses will remember you more for helping them in this way than for the sales pitch you gave in a networking session.

And one last tip: get feedback from all of your enquiries so you can analyse how successful each networking event has been. Don’t just consider direct sales either. You might have made indirect sales that may have come from personal referrals at an event.

Stuart Hartley is a senior consultant at Angle plc and centre manager at the Corby Enterprise Centre

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