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Posts for June 2014

Three schoolboy (or girl) errors to avoid when hiring online

June 30, 2014 by Guest contributor

Doh{{}}Smart businesses and entrepreneurs are increasingly getting more hands on deck by using freelancers online. Gone is the need for an endless list of “stuff I need to do” (aka everything). Whittling down your to-do list to the stuff you want to do (and are best at) and getting someone else to do the rest frees up your valuable time.

Across Elance and oDesk there are over 8m freelancers covering over 2,500 skills – that’s a big pool of talent you can tap into. But it’s not just a question of posting a job and then forgetting all about it. Online hiring can make a huge difference to your business but only if you approach it in the right way. Avoid these schoolboy errors and you’ll be laughing.

Error 1: Not knowing what you want

If you don’t know what you want, you’ll never get what you want. Whether you need a mobile app created or a piece of content written, clarity and details are all important.

The very first question you need to ask yourself is quite simply, what exactly do I need them to do? The more clearly you can define this the easier the process will be.  Let’s say your website needs an overhaul. Perhaps you’ve gone as far as you can with free website templates and now need more functionality. Or perhaps it’s time to integrate a customised ecommerce engine that connects your market with your products. Take the time to work out exactly what you need. If you have an existing site, note where you are having issues currently (eg technical problems that come up on a regular basis). Prioritise your wish list into “must-haves” and “nice-to haves”.

If you don’t have the technical know-how to write a really great brief, your first job should be to find someone who can help you craft the brief before it even gets to the freelancer who will actually do the work.  Trying to write a brief for something you don’t understand yourself is schoolboy error #1.

Error 2: Starting with a monster

In the same way that you don’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive and you wouldn’t buy a year’s supply of wine you haven’t tasted, don’t launch into an enormous project with a freelancer you haven’t worked with before.

Start with something small to test the waters. Bite-size chunks are what you’re after. You could even try giving the same small job to a couple of different freelancers (paying them both of course – nobody should have to work for free). That way you get to see firsthand whom you like working with best. When you’ve selected your freelancer, again make sure the project is split into clear milestones and deliverables – and don’t forget to check in regularly.

Error 3: Hire in haste – repent at leisure

You can find talent very quickly online. Often within minutes of posting a job you’ll receive proposals from relevant freelancers and it can be tempting to choose quickly and let them get on with it. Don’t. If you were hiring a full-time employee, you wouldn’t take the first CV that lands in your inbox, you’d wait until you’d had a few applicants, conducted interviews and checked references. All this can happen much more quickly online, of course, where you can see a person’s portfolio and read feedback from previous clients.

The bigger the job however, the more time you should take selecting the right person for it. On Elance, for example, you can conduct a video interview with your shortlisted freelancers to get a better feel for whether they are right. Also bear in mind that often the best freelancers are busy people and they may not have chance to see your proposal right away. For bigger design or development jobs you may be better off posting the job and then inviting selected freelancers to apply. Be sure to tell them why you’ve selected them specifically – flattery gets you everywhere!

Blog supplied by Hayley Conick, Country Manager for Elance UK & Ireland.

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Nine telecoms mistakes to avoid when starting a business

June 26, 2014 by Guest contributor

Nine telecoms mistakes to avoid when starting a business{{}}Telecoms are an essential part of any new business – so you need to get them right from day one. Here are nine of the most common (but easily avoidable) mistakes new business owners make with their telecoms…

1 Only having a mobile number

Research shows more than 30% of people do not trust and therefore will not contact mobile numbers. Plus, you’ll only have a single voicemail for personal and business calls. 

2 Using your home number

How will you know if it’s a friend or customer calling? Also, you can’t turn off your business in the evening and at weekends, while there is limited functionality for handling a second call and personalising voicemails.

3 Long-term contracts

It’s tempting to accept offers of free installation if you sign a long-term contract, but if you expand and/or move you could face penalties for cancelling the contract. Plus, you are locking yourself into prices in an environment where prices are generally going down.

4 084 numbers

Using inbound numbers such as 0800, 0844 or 0845 creates two problems. Firstly, using 0845 for post-sales service is now illegal. Secondly, if most of your customers call you from their mobile, they’ll get a warning telling them it will cost a lot of money, at which point 40% hang up.  

5 Not reading the small print

Check contract lengths, notice periods and penalty clauses, and make sure your supplier is signed up to the Telecoms Ombudsman (here’s a list of participating companies).

6 Planning for the future

Are the telecoms flexible and scalable should you expand? If you are working from home, is the number portable should you move into premises?

7 Using numbers provided by your serviced office

This can be very expensive compared to organising your own telecoms and they may not release the number should you move out. Some business centres offer to forward calls but this can be costly. Always ask if you can bring your own and if not are the numbers portable if you leave.

8 Skype

Not everyone in business uses Skype, particularly larger businesses. Also, Skype phone numbers are not portable, so when you have outgrown Skype you’ll lose the use of that number.

9 Call Answering Services

What do you want them to do? If it is just to take a message you need to ask yourself what value is that adding. However, if they can handle certain queries, that can enhance your offering.

So what are the options? For micro businesses, a simple inbound geographic number can be set up for about £7 a month. For a little extra it can have a voicemail and a whisper facility to tell you that it is a business call.

For larger start-ups, the choice is VOIP or traditional telecoms solutions. The more sites and the greater the likelihood of growth, the more likely it is that VOIP is the best solution. If you’re looking for more sophisticated features then a PBX may be better.  This guide and this one will tell you more.

In conclusion, think about your business, not just now, but in the future. Ask the relevant questions of your potential providers and ensure your telecoms align with your plans for the business. If in doubt, an independent telecoms broker can help.

  • Blog supplied by Dave Millett, who has more than 35 years’ telecoms industry experience and now runs independent brokerage and consultancy firm Equinox Communications.

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Could your new business benefit from a virtual assistant?

June 23, 2014 by Guest contributor

Could your new business benefit from a virtual assistant? /Too much work office situations{{}}Not enough hours in the day but can’t afford to take on staff? Looking to focus on your passion as opposed to spending hours on time-consuming admin? Wish you could hire specific staff as and when you need them? Well, taking on a virtual assistant (VA) could be the answer.  

A VA is a highly skilled professional who can provide a diverse range of administrative, technical and creative business support services to businesses operating in a broad range of sectors. Rather than hiring full-time employees to fulfil numerous job roles, businesses use VAs to provide a wide range of skills.

The VA industry is rapidly growing, as businesses wake up to the associated benefits. However, with varying hourly rates and so many to choose from, how do you know which VA is right for your business and what should you consider before taking one on?

Managers: Many VA companies operate a pool of assistants to complete work. Look out for companies that assign one account manager to complete the majority of tasks. It really helps to have a single point of contact.

Sole traders: Most VAs (72%) are sole traders who work with various clients, so make sure you are clear about specific deadlines so your VA can juggle workload appropriately.

Contract: Although there is no minimum commitment in terms of hours and VAs only invoice for work completed, protect yourself with a contract that includes clauses about confidentiality and data protection.

Fees: Although there are no recruitment agency fees or HR-associated benefits to provide, it is important to double-check what the hourly charge includes. For example, this rate usually covers all normal office supplies but excludes postage or anything bought in specifically for a job.

Workload: Weekly work for a VA ranges from general admin to bookkeeping, marketing to events; there is no all-encompassing job description. VAs are also starting to take on more social media responsibilities so make sure you are maximising a broad range of services.

Blog provided by Caroline Wylie owner of Virtually Sorted and founder of the Society of Virtual Assistants.

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How to become a skilled networker

June 18, 2014 by Guest contributor

How to become a skilled networker/Business people shaking hands{{}}Networking. Some people do with such ease and confidence, elegantly working a room. How we envy them. Because for ​some of us the very notion of networking with strangers fills us with dread. But making the most of social small talk is a valuable skill that we can teach ourselves, because you never know what doors a new contact can open in those few minutes. So, what’s the key to effective networking?

1 Think of networking as free marketing

It’s just another part of your marketing tool kit, which can be refined and improved. And like all tools – knowing when and how to use it, will serve you well. Prepare by writing down two or three short sentences about yourself and your business or idea and learn these in advance. Make it current, factual and positive. This doesn’t need to be a sales pitch; it’s a conversation-starter; an opportunity to introduce yourself and your business to new people or tell people you already know something new so that they can leave with a refreshed version of your ‘asset value’.

2 Networking is just social communication

It’s a conversation between people, not you trying to sell your latest product or service, but a taster, an appetiser. Give a glimpse of what you do using positive, confident language (which you’ve already prepared). And it’s two-way thing – show an interest in what others have to offer, so all parties can see if there’s something of mutual interest to follow-up.

3 Break the uncomfortable first contact by asking a question

Be conversational in your approach with a few casual questions, such as: “How have you found the event so far?”, “What’s your business about?” or “Who’s been your favourite speaker so far?” Top tip for the tongue-tied: worry less about what you have to sell, focus on being interested in the other person person. Top sales people are often great listeners.

4 Don’t be shy about moving on

If you are at an event where badges are given out and networking is part of the agenda, you’re expected to mingle rather than stick with one person for ages. It’s perfectly polite to spend a few moments with someone, make introductions, have a conversation and then say: “Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. I’ll leave you to meet other people…” or “I must take the opportunity to meet so and so…”

5 Be bold – ask for connections or introductions and make them in return

It’s OK to ask if the person can think of another person at the event who might be interested in your service or products. It’s also great when you can recommend someone whose products or interests are similar and agree to connect them via email or social media.

6 Do your follow-up quickly

When you get home or have a few moments to spare, make a list of those you’ve spoken to (or scan their business cards or staple them into a notebook) and make a note of interesting things that will help you to remember them another time. And, of course, follow-up with any promised information. You should follow-up within a few days to make sure trust is maintained.

Blog supplied by Lisa Gagliani, CEO of Bright Ideas Trust, a charity that helps young people in London who aren’t in employment, education or training or who haven’t had the same chances as the rest of society to start their own businesses.

Further reading

Do small firms really need bank finance as much as we're led to believe?

June 16, 2014 by Guest contributor

Do small firms really need bank finance as much as we're led to believe?/English money{{}}I have a Room 101 nomination. It’s media headlines and political comment telling us that 'businesses are unable to access funding from banks, we have to get the banks lending again, we need to make alternative funding available'.

This has been so noisy since the 2008 sub-prime bubble burst that I’m convinced it’s merely a default utterance when political parties sense that 'business' hasn't been in the headlines of late. The tone sounds so desperate at times as to imply an imminent hiatus if this matter isn't addressed. I’m not convinced that the need for bank funding is as important as we’re led to believe.

We accept as fact that since 2008 the banks have reined in their lending, as a response to previous over-lending. A good entrepreneur will secure investment from other sources, because they will perceive the banks’ reluctance to lend merely as a challenge to overcome. Other sources of funding may even be more appropriate, because some can bring additional commitment and proven commercial expertise.

Interestingly, among my local business community there is no issue around borrowing from banks, it's a message that you mainly hear in the media and from politicians – but why?

Historically we’ve been programmed to approach banks for finance. 2008 caused a paradigm shift and while those of us running our own businesses on the frontline are comfortable with this, the banks and politicians haven't caught up yet. There are two reasons – ego and economics. The banks and the City have always been thought of as the 'big boys' to whom us small firms should turn for support. They’re used to being in control – to dominating us.

However, 2008 showed that they aren't that great at managing their own businesses. Their validity to dominate has been undermined, but their ego has not been humbled yet. I’m not an economics expert, but I’d guess that the banks and the State are used to profiting from failing SMEs. Finding money from elsewhere takes away income from the 'big boys'. These are the real reasons for SMEs needing financing from the 'big boys' being in the headlines, it is their income streams that are being affected.

Our UK DNA as a nation of shopkeepers has prevailed and revealed its talent for resourcefulness and diversification. We don't need the 'big boys'. Question is – how long will it take them to adjust to their new relationship with us? Maybe we'll start asking for their investment once more when they’ve grown up and proved that they can run their businesses as well as they have expected us to run ours in the past.

Blog provided by Samantha Acton, who founded Domestic Angels in 2002, which provides home cleaning services across the Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch areas.

Further reading

Recipe for start-up success: five key ingredients

June 12, 2014 by Guest contributor

Recipe for start-up success: five key ingredients/Spices and herbs in bowls{{}}There's no doubt that as a start-up you live on the entrepreneur diet of hard work and dedication. However, over the years I've also identified five other essentials that have been vital to our success…

1 Work from the ‘front line’

My role is to direct the strategic growth of the company and leave the day-to-day management to senior staff. However, from day one I've maintained a keen eye on the 'front line'. Each morning I spend 25-30 minutes reviewing our customer service enquiries to understand what the complaints are, what's being returned, etc. I even listen into recorded conversations for greater detail.

Spending time at the customer-facing side of the business allows me to spot trends I might miss if I were to be removed from the heart of the business. Often trends are only understandable if you have insight into what customers want here and now.

2 Taking a scientific approach to marketing

This ethos has been essential to driving our growth. Now, all the decisions we make are based on cold, hard facts rather than instinct. As a result, we take an obsessive approach to data. We trial and test everything to finality, exploring each and every variable to develop the best possible system for all our services.

This means we evaluate all that we do, from comparing our competitor's prices to analysing our customer's feedback to one product over another. Furthermore, we define short-, medium- and long-term goals. With goals in place it's easy to work backwards to identify the stepping-stones needed to reach that success - and therefore all the elements we need to trial and test to get there.

All our analysis is done in-house, we never outsource. The ability to harness data is something all business owners should learn. If you can interpret figures, you can determine your business's strategy. And you don't want to put that power in the hands of someone else.

3 Know when to outsource

You can feel compelled to manage everything in-house to try to save money. In our experience, though, it can be a false economy. In your quest to cut overheads, you spend time you don't have striving to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, often leaving yourself vulnerable to mistakes. Outsourcing has been one of the best things we've ever done. It allows us to employ agencies, such as recruitment and PR, to deliver on our goals, achieving what we want, but don't have the time or experience to afford.

4 Reward your staff

Recruiting the very best is great, but ensuring you can offer an ongoing, rewarding experience is crucial. We reward staff in a way that motivates. We have found that if you pay your employees market or above-market rate and offer them praise them when deserved, your staff will meet their targets. People are driven to do well and if you make sure you pay them enough so money is not a distraction, their focus will be that purpose.

5 Focus on one business and one business alone

It can be very instinctive to run from one great idea to the next. A short attention span seems to be the DNA of an entrepreneur. We soon learned, though, that it's best to focus on one business to the nth degree. We initially set up a number of sister companies alongside Cartridge Save. All were online retailers, built upon a similar model, so in theory, should run like one another. The reality was they were all equally demanding and we spread ourselves too thinly. So, we decided to focus on the cartridge ink business and operate in a market in which we knew we could really make difference.

Blog supplied by Sean Blanks, managing director of express online printer cartridge supplier Cartridge Save.

Further reading

Hiring interns: top tips

June 10, 2014 by Guest contributor

Hiring interns: Dos and Don'ts/Work experience{{}}I co-founded the cleaner-booking platform Mopp in April 2013. For us, hiring interns (ie a student or trainee who works in order to gain experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification) has been a great way to help grow the business while staying lean. But how do you find great candidates and motivate them to really contribute to your business?

DO

  • Write a standout job ad. Show you’re offering an opportunity to shine, not just do the grunt work. We’ve made statements such as: “This is an awesome opportunity to really make a difference. You will not just be a cog in the machine, we really want you to show us what you can do.”
  • Try different sites. We’ve used Workinstartups, Internwise, and UKStartupJobs, which were great. Inspiring Interns, a specialist agency, is another option, but you'll need to pay them as well as the intern.
  • Set them a test. Before we hire an intern we always ask them to submit a piece of written work (if it’s for a content role) or test their phone skills if we need them to be confident on the phone. At the end of the day they will also play a role in representing your business, so you need to be sure they are up to the job.
  • Consider apprentices. Depending on your business, this is a low-cost option that could be great, as long as you have the time to train them. We’ve used JustIT and have some great young apprentices on our team.
  • Set targets. Give your interns real projects to own and set them targets. We track our interns’ results weekly, from PR leads generated, to blog posts written, to social media traffic generated. It helps them focus and feel motivated to excel.
  • Involve them. Make them feel a part of the business you’re building. Our interns are involved in everything – from company socials, to team presentations, to planning the new office design.  
  • Teach them. Taking the time to teach your interns new skills will motivate them, while taking the burden off your staff. We do a one-hour training session once a week on topics from Google Analytics to search engine optimisation.

DON’T

  • Be too busy to manage them. If nobody has time to manage your interns, they won’t grow in skills or confidence – and they won’t be able to bring value to your business.
  • Expect them to know everything. Hire people with the ability to do the job, but teach them the skills so they can develop into an indispensible team member.
  • Micro-manage. Allow your interns the room to solve their own problems. It’s the best way to learn – otherwise you will end up doing all their work yourself.
  • Undervalue them. This is an obvious, but important, one. You can get some really bright, enthusiastic candidates that in the right environment can be real assets to your business. Just make sure they don’t feel like all they’re doing is making the teas and coffees.

Blog written by Pete Dowds, co-founder of cleaner-booking platform Mopp.

Further reading

 

Surge in UK self-employment - despite average earnings plummeting by 20%

June 09, 2014 by Mark Williams

Surge in UK self-employment - despite average earnings plummeting by 20%/ Self employed Entrepreneur pyramid{{}}The recent publication of Just the job – or a working compromise? The changing nature of self-employment in the UK by the Resolution Foundation (RF) offered a revealing glimpse into the world of self-employment in post-recession Britain.

RF is an independent think-tank that seeks to “improve living standards for the 15m people in Britain on low and middle incomes”. The findings of its report will prove less than inspiring for those considering self-employment, with the startling revelation that self-employed workers, on average, earn a measly 60p for every pound earned by employed people (in other words, 40% less).

Falling income

Despite ever-increasing living costs, average self-employed earnings have fallen by a punitive 20% since 2007, compared to 6% for other employees. And, of course, many self-employed people don’t get sick pay, nor paid holidays or days off, despite taking responsibility for generating their own incomes.

So, why have self-employed incomes fallen so dramatically? Well, because of uncertainty and austerity since 2007/08, many self-employed people have probably thought it unwise to increase their prices, despite their own rising costs. Another reason is a reduction in work hours, a consequence of reduced demand and greater competition (ie more self-employed people).

Perhaps interestingly, it seems that many more ‘sisters’ and now choosing to ‘do it for themselves’. There has been a marked increase in the number of self-employed women in the UK, having risen from 27% (or 970,000) in 2005 to 30% (or 1.29m) in 2013.

Go figure

Office for National Statistics figures show that between Q1 2013 and Q1 2014, the UK’s self-employed army increased by 375,000 to reach 4.55m (15% of the total workforce). But according to RF, self-employment has been growing steadily since the early 2000s, it’s not simply a consequence of recession and redundancy, but a matter of choice for many. 

A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the RF report suggests that 73% of those who’ve become self-employed in the past five years have done so mainly or partly out of personal preference.

More people are now choosing self-employment, with fewer people heading in the opposite direction (including many more older people who can’t afford to retire completely). One-third of the part-time self-employed are aged 60-plus.

Interestingly, RF’s research suggests that the self-employed are now much better educated as a group, with many operating in service sectors, rather than manual trades, as previously.

Matter of policy

RF chief executive Gavin Kelly, says: “Self-employment is often a highly precarious existence, which isn’t that well supported by public policy. High levels of self-employment seem likely to be here to stay and policy-makers have some catching up to do.”

Only 30% of self-employed people contribute to a pension, compared to 51% of employees. And, according to RF, a minority of self-employed people are “experiencing difficulties getting mortgages, tenancies and accessing personal credit and loans, due to being self-employed”.

According to RF: “For too many self-employed people, [housing and credit] are difficult to access, with many poorly positioned to cope with unexpected financial demands and retirement. Reform of the mortgage market, the pensions system and the introduction of Universal Credit should take into account the needs of this ever-growing group.”

Blog written by Start Up Donut editor Mark Williams.

Further reading

Why starting and investing in Community Interest Companies is about to become even more viable

June 04, 2014 by Guest contributor

Why starting and investing in Community Interest Companies is about to become even more viable{{}}CIC Regulator Sara Burgess explains a key regulatory change due for introduction in October 2014 that will come as welcome news to good causes, Community Interest Companies (CICs) and their investors.

In 2015, the Community Interest Company (CIC) model will be ten years old. It has proved to be one of the fastest-growing structures in many years, in spite of some early reservations, hesitation and fears.

CICs have slotted very successfully into the mix of options for meeting social need and delivering social purpose. They have weathered the economic crash and the numbers continue to increase. By the time we get to the 10th anniversary in June next year, there will be well over 10,000 CICs across the UK and we are likely to see more growth following some key recent initiatives.

CICs limited by shares have always been able to distribute some of their profits in share dividends to private investors. Over the years it has become evident that the regulations around this created barriers to setting up a CIC limited by shares and to investment into them. We made some changes in 2010, but when we consulted on it again in 2013 it was clear there was more to do. 

In October 2014, the regulations will change to remove the 20% cap on share dividends and as a result of this remove the peg to the paid-up value of the share, which amongst other things was making CIC shares of little interest to investors.

CIC shares will have greater value, but CICs will still only be able to distribute 35% of post-tax profit in dividends, everything else is kept in the company. The more profit the company makes, the more it can pay in dividends (within the 35% distribution cap).

If a CIC has sufficiently more profit to pay its shareholders, it is making sufficiently more profit to put back into the purpose of the company, to meet its community interest. If the CIC is paying millions in share dividends, imagine how much it will be putting back into its community interest! Shareholders will get a return on their investment and see a return on the social impact of the company. Once it is set up, the CIC will always be a CIC, unless it winds up so it won't be taken over by shareholders who want to take all of the profit.

  • For information about how to set up a CIC (including converting an existing company into a CIC) and to download the relevant forms visit the gov.uk website.

Further reading

Why more graduates are choosing self-employment

June 02, 2014 by Guest contributor

Why more graduates are choosing self-employment/ Male university graduate{{}}Recently there has been a surge in the number of graduates choosing to work for themselves as soon as they leave university. Rather than becoming employees they are choosing self-employment. Armed with their entrepreneurial skills they are turning their talents and passions into businesses, the most popular of which being website design and mobile app development.

It seems graduates are plagued by gloomy thoughts of leaving higher education to compete for the restricted number of jobs available. The latest graduate unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that around 9% of recent graduates were out of work, while a significant 47% were forced to take ‘non-graduate’ jobs after leaving university.

So, with this in mind it’s no wonder start-ups are on the increase, after all, who wants to job hunt when you can be your own boss so easily, especially with advancements in mobile and online technology, which allows you to start and run businesses from anywhere.

Small-business owners can now tap into a global marketplace of highly skilled freelancers and run a flexible workforce, with flexibility to hire more staff on a temporary or one-off project basis without the overheads or office space requirements that come with taking on employees.

With that in mind there really has never been a better time to start a business, and it seems Britain’s young graduates are doing just that with the number of recent graduates registering as freelancers or micro-business owners increasing by 97% in the last twelve months. The number of male graduate entrepreneurs was up 110% and female graduates up 94%.

Considering the average cost to start a business from scratch is £632*, for a graduate leaving university with little or no start-up funds, the prospect of going it alone doesn’t feel as daunting as the days when you had to ask your local bank manager for a business loan. With low start-up costs and armed with all of the tools to get a business off the ground, the graduate entrepreneur is here to stay.

* Statistic from a recent survey of 1,000 start-ups by PeoplePerHour

Blog supplied by Xenios Thrasyvoulou, founder and CEO at PeoplePerHour (@PeoplePerHour)

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