Business confidence is a funny thing. The news can be full of doom and gloom and yet many small business owners manage to remain resolutely positive. Certainly, when we polled small firms last Spring, there was a good deal of optimism, with 48% saying they expected 2012 to be better than 2011.
What a difference a year makes. Now, it seems, business owners are considerably gloomier. Our February 2013 small business survey, sponsored by Sage, found that just 34% of business people are optimistic about the year ahead.
And it seems this dramatic drop in confidence is having some knock-on effects. 6% of respondents say they plan to make redundancies — double the 3% who said the same in 2012.
In addition, 22% are unsure about the prospect of redundancies, significantly more than the 10% who said they were unsure about laying off staff this time last year.
It looks as though many are putting growth plans on hold as they adjust to what some are calling “the new normal” — economic stagnation. For instance, just 32% told us they planned to spend more on marketing — a big drop from the 51% that were planning to invest more in marketing in 2012.
Most small firms say that Government support is not sufficient — a total of 72% of respondents told us that the Government will either not do enough or not do anything to support businesses in 2013. Mind you, last year that figure was 73%, so there’s little change there.
What has clearly changed is business optimism.
SME owners are the backbone of the British economy, making up 99.9% of all UK private sector businesses and contributing 48.8% of private sector turnover (according to the FSB).
Small business owners have done everything within their power to ride out this storm — from painful belt-tightening to finding new gaps in their markets and opportunities to grow. But it has been a long haul and there’s a sense that they are growing weary.
It’s important not to give up now. We recently published James Hay’s blog, Keep swimming, on Marketing Donut, extolling the business benefits of simply keeping going. It clearly struck a chord.
The relentless bad news can be hard to ignore but small firms need to stay positive if they are to survive and thrive. Let’s hope that in confidence terms — as well as economically — we have already hit bottom.
Rachel Miller is the editor of Marketing Donut.
Those who completed the survey were automatically entered into a draw, with a spanking new iPad mini available as a prize. The winner was Jackie Beard, owner of Gloucestershire-based florist and flower arranging business Jessabel Flowers. Many thanks to sponsors Sage, as well as Jackie and everyone else who took the time to complete the survey.
All entrepreneurs are self-reliant. I know – I’m a serial offender! But almost everyone who starts a company cannot make much of it without support from a whole range of people – both in the company itself and outside.
These people are always chosen to be the best, most reliable, the most trustworthy. So how does it come about that dynamic self-starters with handpicked teams frequently not only make mistakes, but costly wrong decisions too?
Part of the explanation comes from our personality profiles. The kind of people we are not only affects how successful we are with the outside world (customers, suppliers, the authorities and so on). It also impacts on relationships and effectiveness within the company itself. In my book, Decide – Better ways of making better decisions, I have included advice from acknowledged experts and a guide to the main personality types, and how you can cope with difference and similarity – and importantly pick successful teams.
But decision-making is not a straightforward process, and so-called Decision Traps lie in wait for the unwary. Below I list some of the most lethal. You may well be able to identify examples from your own experience.
The decision-maker is so excited about a potentially exciting outcome (the upside) that he/she seriously underestimates how bad the downside could be if everything goes wrong. Most of us are optimists and it’s natural to be enthusiastic. But wise decision-makers always weigh up reward and risk, and it’s often sensible to turn down an option (however glittering) if the downside could be disastrous enough to break you.
A group of really bright people cannot believe they can ALL be wrong! But it can happen – particularly if the balance of personalities in the room is skewed on the positive side. Ten people are as capable of being wrong as one. There is a related trap called ‘Confirming Evidence’ – when we are prejudiced in favour of people who think like we do. The trick is to make sure it is always someone’s job to be the devil’s advocate, and ensure frequent reality checks.
Sometimes it is tempting to go ahead and make a decision even before we have all the data we need. And it can be fatal to press the button before you have all the necessary information and research. But this is where judgement comes in. It can be almost equally wasteful to insist on having more and more information to the point that the opportunity has been lost. That is ‘information overload’.
This is a polite term for a hasty decision that can come back to bite you. Governments and ministers do it all the time. We are all inclined to kid ourselves we have thought things through when we haven’t.
Really bad this one – making the same mistake again and again.
David Wethey is author of Decide – Better ways of making better decisions, published by Kogan Page.
The idea of entrepreneurship and the real-life, day-to-day experiences of entrepreneurship are two vastly different things. In my first serious venture our team raised $250,000 for an online financial technology start up, which was focused on educating and assisting investors to develop asset-management strategies to self-manage their own capital in various financial markets.
Our business model was strong. The company had several key revenue streams and after nine months of pre-launch development and another nine months of post-launch operations, the company finally began to make money. Then, for an additional six months the company largely broke even. And, finally, after 24 months, the company began to make enough money to make the venture worthwhile.
Through the life of our company, our team learned many lessons, but one has stuck above most. A successful entrepreneur is characterised by many attributes, but ability to manage risk is key. Most people never even consider this aspect of business, but the ability to actively manage risk is often the difference between entrepreneurs who have a great idea and entrepreneurs who actually build successful companies.
The greatest risk
The single greatest risk for any entrepreneur is running out of cash. A business fails when it runs out of cash or available credit. If a business spends more than it makes per month, that burn rate will eventually cause the business to fail once all cash is spent and available credit is used up.
Therefore, every entrepreneur should be fixated on controlling costs and managing this risk. Let’s discuss a few key points that will empower aspiring entrepreneurs to successfully manage the risk of cash flow.
Cut out the non-necessities
When starting a business it can be tempting to spend money on non-essentials, such as nice office space, beautiful office furniture, expensive computers, administrative staff, etc. This is a black hole of lost cash, however. Until a business is generating healthy net-positive monthly returns, it is wisest to keep in “bootstrap mode”. The only money spent should be what is absolutely necessary to create the business’s product or service and take it to market. Bootstrap mode may not be the most fun experience, but it’s necessary and often means the difference between a business idea and an actual business.
Know your burn rate
A second temptation many entrepreneurs face is to ignore the numbers. “If I just keep my head down and keep moving forward, we’ll make it. The numbers are depressing, so I don’t need to look at them.” This is disastrous. As a business owner and leader, one should always have a direct pulse on the cash position of your business and how cash is flowing in and out of it. One of the most important numbers is the burn rate. This is the amount of money you are losing each month.
If you divide your cash reserves by the burn rate, you’ll get the maximum number of months the business can survive at its current trajectory. Know this figure at all times, and be proactive about cutting costs to extend the lifeline of the business.
Entrepreneurship is a great challenge. Put yourself in a position of power by taking a proactive stance toward active risk management and seek to manage your cash risk by consistently keeping expenses low during the early stages of your company’s growth.
This has been a guest post by Danielle Thomas from Merchantseek.com.
Part of the job of running your own business is figuring out how you can get ahead of the game. You need to have processes or systems that can focus on you finding cuter/smarter/cleverer ways of doing things. You must find ways that are cuter/smarter/cleverer than the way your competitors do things.
I will suggest two options:
1 The ‘Think On’ Hour
Most business owners arrive at work before the rest of the team. The place is quiet and there are far fewer interruptions. I know of some business people who take this time every day and spend up to one hour simply sitting and thinking about how to improve things. After all, if we agree that we need to spend more time working on the business and less time working in the business, this is a blindingly obvious thing to do – even if you only do it once a week!
2 The ‘KPI Focus’ Hour
A more focused and less freeform approach may produce even better dividends. We all have basic key metrics we use to measure and evaluate business performance – key performance indicators. If you don’t know what I am talking about you can stop reading now and just go for the ‘Think On’ Hour option.
Use your KPIs (or metrics or whatever you wish to call them) to evaluate performance. Once a week spend an hour (alone or with the team, whatever works best for your business) and focus on the one key issue you need to improve in your business. This can be called your single, most-important, over-arching goal for the coming month.
Decide what the over-arching goal is going to be then brainstorm, Google, steal, talk and debate about how you are going to improve your performance. Decide what you are going to do. Make it a high priority. Commit to it. Communicate it. And do it.
Robert Craven shows MDs and owners how to grow their profits. He is a keynote speaker and author of business bestseller Kick-Start Your Business (foreword by Sir Richard Branson). His latest book – Grow Your Service Firm – is out now. He also runs The Directors’ Centre, helping growing businesses to grow. For further information contact Robert Craven on 01225 851044 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A business plan is the equivalent of a roadmap for businesses. It is a document that provides vision, goals and benchmarking. It creates momentum and also provides an opportunity for a reality check – what worked last year, where the gaps are and what next year is going to look like.
Many start-ups fail because they lack a map to guide them through their new business venture. A research study conducted by simplybusiness.co.uk with 400 British entrepreneurs shows that 54% have no written business plan and more than two-thirds make decisions based on gut instinct alone. According to the Federation of Small Businesses: “Britain’s best performing small companies are being hampered by a failure of the planning system to allow them to expand”.
Writing and maintaining a regularly updated plan can have a profound impact on business success, helping to demonstrate the viability and value of a business to potential investors and illustrating how investment will be used to grow sales and profit. It also provides a useful reference point and motivational tool for the business owner.
In terms of content, a plan should document objectives and strategy across three key business areas; marketing, operations and finance. These aims should be quantifiable and split between short term (next 12 months) and longer term (next three years). Other sections can include:
In summary, a business plan helps to focus clear roles and goals and motivates business success. As Matthew Brearley, former board director of Vodafone, said: “With a great plan you can engage others with a sense of direction and purpose, align all activities and review progress."
John Davis is managing director of Business Centric Services Group.
In a business mentoring relationship, a seasoned business owner meets with a new or potential business owner one-on-one to give advice, focus objectives or simply boost morale.
The relationship can be a paid arrangement organised through a business support group or free advice from a local business expert. Either way, there is strong evidence that mentoring hugely benefits small businesses:
However, despite these encouraging statistics, surprising evidence has emerged recently that suggests 42% of small-businesses owners have never consulted a mentor (source: Moore & Smalley accountancy survey). Furthermore, according to a recent poll we conducted at BCSG, 55% of start-ups do not plan to use a mentor once their business is up and running.
It can be easy for small-business owners to get caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day tasks involved in running their business, but putting aside time for regular mentoring sessions can prove invaluable, for personal development and business growth. Specific ways in which mentors can positively impact success include:
Above all, effective mentoring can foster a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship between mentor and mentee that can span the length of a career.
The Government is encouraging small business growth through mentoring by promoting initiatives such as MentorsMe, a national portal that gives businesses a single, easy-to-use search engine to locate organisations that provide mentor services. So far, 100 mentoring organisations are accessible through the portal, providing details for more than 16,000 trained mentors, and organisers are aiming for a network of 26,000 mentors by the end of September 2012.
In many cases, as a small-business owner it’s impossible to have a separate project manager for each project, especially if you’re a start-up, in which case it’s probably just you. However, projects still need to be accomplished on time and within budget and you don’t want to appear super small, because some people will believe this is a liability.
As a start-up or small business, you have many advantages. Firstly, you can complete projects done for less because you have less staff overheads. This can be very stressful, because as the sole business owner you must handle all projects without a project manager. But thankfully, because of cloud-based technology, it can be done.
How can you do it all? How can you be professional, accurate and continue to garner new clients when it’s just you? If you understand the dynamics of project management which are:
Then you can figure out how to control each one of these areas using technology. Today, there are many cloud-based applications that can assist you with running your start-up. The cost of entry into using project management software in the cloud is very low. In many cases, your small business can be up and running using enterprise level software for less than the cost of buying MS Word.
You can afford to use systems such as Basecamp, Central Desktop, Google Apps and others. It used to cost thousands of pounds to equip an office with essential project management software, but with access to systems in the cloud that’s no longer true. In addition, while security used to be a huge issue when it came to the cloud, this is no longer a big issue. Cloud-based application creators are aware of security issues and work diligently to harden the security of their servers. In fact, your data is probably safer in the cloud than it is on your desktop computer.
Elke Schmitt works as a marketing manager for GetApp. Her mission is to help startups select cloud business apps and tools to be more efficient and cost-effective.
As a small-business owner, you are busy and your time is limited. Social media is ubiquitous and may seem like a great way to communicate with hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of people really quickly, but it will only work if you do it right.
1 Know your audience
The first thing you want to do is figure out who you want to reach – new customers; existing customers; past customers or a more targeted group? For new customers, specify as much about your ideal client as you can. Are they male or female? How old are they? What hobbies do they have? What social media do they use regularly? There are, of course, more details you can add, but you must build a picture of your perfect punter.
If you want to talk to existing customers, find out what social networking sites they use the most. You can make free surveys online, hold focus groups, ask questions on relevant forums and more. If they don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, there’s no point in creating an account. Your target audience should dictate the social network(s) you are on, so once you know where they like to hang out, it’s easier to establish a goal.
2 What’s your goal?
You should know exactly what you want to achieve. Do you just want to provide another channel of communication between your business and your customers? Are you trying to increase awareness of your brand? Are you looking for another way to distribute great content? There are loads of things you can do with social media, but don’t try to do them all. Identify your most important goal and focus on that.
Whatever your goal, it’s a good idea to incorporate your social media activities into everything you do. Web design software makes it easy to integrate social elements on your website, and you can talk about your social media accounts in your newsletter, as well as list the social media links on your marketing materials. It also works the other way. Use your social media channel(s) to deliver relevant, useful information to your customers.
3 Plan your time
How much time can you commit to social media? If you can only spare a few hours a week, you may not see much of a return for your time. In fact, having a poor social presence can be more damaging to your brand than not having any – it will seem like you’re ignoring your customers. You’ll need to work on your account consistently to build momentum and a reputation.
If the responsibility will be shared among two or more people, consider creating some basic guidelines so everyone knows what is expected of them. Among other things, it’s important for everyone to use the same tone of voice to maintain brand consistency.
Much like Rome, nothing awesome is built in a day. If you’re expecting to see positive results in a few weeks, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Allow at least six months before evaluating how well you are doing, then decide whether you want to continue.
4 Monitor your success
You should regularly monitor the impact of all of your marketing – including any social media activities. How you do that will relate directly to the goal you set. If your goal was to offer a fast way for customers to ask you questions (to reduce incoming support emails and calls), find out if it worked. There are a lot of different calculations you can do that involve percentages, comparisons to last period’s figures, and time spent per query, or, you could use the built-in analytics in your social media accounts.
However, you might get a better understanding of how you are serving your customers by simply asking them. Again, you can make use of free survey software, emails, focus groups, etc. If your customers love the new social media support option (and it’s actually being used enough so you can devote less resources to your traditional support methods), it is a good idea to keep it.
The underlying key points are these: while social media is free, it takes a lot of your (or someone else’s) time to research, plan, promote, execute and assess your activities. You’ll want to see a return on investment at some point, so you should only do it if you are going to do it well.
I regard myself as a bit of an expert on business planning. I even wrote a few books about it, with “imaginative” titles such as Planning for success, TENbizplan, Business planning for the social economy and the best-seller Start your own business: a workbook.
With regret, I’ve concluded that my books are no longer as relevant. They focus on a lot of preparation, lots of research and a very formulaic approach towards a business plan document. Too slow, too cumbersome, too detailed.
The tension is between the need for preparation, preparation, preparation, the way you communicate your venture and coping with the chaos and speed of change that makes long-term planning impossible.
If a “Twitter” becomes mainstream in a month, there is no point in having two-year planning cycles. 42% of the most successful entrepreneurial businesses in the USA have no plan at all.
Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson is a book that tells about the journey two entrepreneurs made setting up a company that builds project management software with huge success (three million people around the world use their product and they are generating multi-million dollars of profit). I think we can agree that we can regard them as experts.
From Rework we find out that:
The whole message of the book is that it is not about long-term planning, but short-term movement.
A three-year business plan is pointless
I can quote a long list of books that talk about how the business world is getting more and more complex, chaotic and moving at ever increasing pace. (“funky business”, “future files”, “break from the pack”, to name a few). Combine that with information overload and you can see why a three-year business plan document is completely pointless.
Ron Immink is managing director of BookBuzz
In the past 30 years I’ve set up three businesses. I started my current business, Stinkyink.com, on 22 April 2012 (yes, we were ten years old last month!), knowing nothing about ecommerce. To make matters much worse, within months of starting the business I was almost bankrupted by a national ring of scamsters who defrauded me out of £32,000 using stolen credit cards.
The police could do nothing and I was at a very low ebb. But I’m not a quitter. I discussed it with my dog and decided to carry on! That really coloured the first four years of the business because it made it hard to get credit from suppliers as our balance sheet was so weak. It taught me the importance of having cash in the bank and watching my P&L like a hawk.
However, the gamble paid off and within two years my company was in profit and today Stinkyink.com employs 14 staff and turned over more than £3m last year. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved together over the years in a highly competitive market. We all work hard to look after our customers and that has paid off with them staying loyal and recommending us.
I’m often asked for my tips for new businesses. It’s different for everyone, of course, but these tactics have worked for me:
If you start a business with a friend, you will fall out eventually. That’s my experience, anyway. When my first business failed the bank chased me for the total amount of the guarantees when my partner couldn’t pay his share. This was £40,000 and took 10 years to clear.
Putting time and thought into a business plan and revisiting it regularly is worthwhile. Unless you have a target to aim for you won’t know when or if you’re succeeding.
Never take a charge on your house and try to avoid providing more information than a lender requires.
Do your accounts, get invoices out promptly and don’t accept being messed around over payment. Pay your suppliers on time, too – it gives you their goodwill and possibly more credit.
One of the many bonuses of online selling is you can find out where your customer has come from; how they searched for you; how quickly they left and whether they actually bought anything from you. Using this information will enable you to improve your website and also your customers’ satisfaction, which can only be a good thing.
It’s impossible to place a value on a hardworking employee that cares about your business and where it’s heading. Spending the extra on wages for key skill sets or talents that are suited to your business can be the difference between a 5% and 20% growth in a start-up’s early years.
Over-50s unemployment is an increasing problem. In fact, the increase in the unemployment rate for this group is growing twice as quickly as the rate for the widely lamented 18-24 year olds.
My colleague, Kay Gorman, and I founded skilledpeople.com when we retired. We had amassed a wealth of invaluable skills and experience we realised was of most value to SMEs and start-ups. Both can benefit enormously from instant experience and know-how.
We believe that the over-50s can help galvanise the economy if small businesses know they are available and how they can connect with them. The concept behind skilledpeople.com is a particularly good one for SMEs, because small business owners simply don’t have the time or resources to train poorly educated young people.
The over-50s come ready packaged with a quantifiable skill base, a good education and a willingness to put their experience to good use. Unfortunately, the issue of the unemployed over-50s has gone largely unnoticed by the press. Youth unemployment, it would seem, has taken precedence and as a result in the public mindset. However, the problem is real and it’s getting worse. There are many initiatives to get Britain’s youth working but besides skilledpeople.com I can’t easily name any for the over-50s.
In February, Office of National Statistics unemployment figures revealed that vacancies and skills demand is increasing. It is well documented that one of the biggest hurdles facing SMEs and start-ups is finance. The feedback we have received from our site members is that this directly affects recruitment, with many small businesses unable to afford salaried employees despite needing their skills.
Skilledpeople.com has a reservoir of talent that SMEs can tap into at very economic rates. We offer a unique service supporting both business growth and getting experienced people back into productive employment – a true “win-win”.
Our ‘Project Assignment’ service covers short project work (1-20 days), where SMEs can take advantage of the skilled specialist services of candidates to help them with activities such as HR, marketing and business planning, but without employing them full time. This makes it viable for small firms to get the right skills at low costs.
Small businesses need support if they are to help the UK out of recession. We are also in danger of losing a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience from professional people aged 50-plus who find themselves out of work.
David Hiddleston is chairman of skilledpeople.com, which connects small businesses who want to expand and improve with skilled, experienced people, typically 50+ who add value and quickly become productive. Contact them on Twitter – @skilledpeople
Two of the most important metrics a start-up needs to look at are customer retention and churn. These figures should be two of your key performance indicators (KPIs), and getting systems in place early to track and minimise issues in these areas will set you in great stead for your business life.
Customer retention is a measure of how many of your customers are loyal to your brand and return for another visit. Customer retention only deals with existing customers, with no consideration for new customers.
All companies spend a lot of money to acquire customers so sometimes it can be shocking how easily we let them walk away. It costs an estimated seven times more to acquire a new customer than it does to sell to an old one, due to factors such as lack of brand recognition, offering new customers incentives (e.g. a discount) and not having contact details to initiate a conversation.
First things first, decide on a ‘churn time’, i.e. a period in which you would expect a customer to make a repeat purchase. Where I work an average user would be expected to re-order every three months, and in total we’d expect the vast majority of customers to have ordered at least every six months before thinking something is wrong.
This will obviously vary by product, so a supermarket’s churn time will be vastly different to a holiday booking’s company.
Next, you simply take whatever date period you wish to calculate retention for, and compare how many existing customers ordered within the expected time frame.
For example: to calculate our recent retention rate, we’d look at existing customer repeat orders in the past three months, and compare these customers to how many ordered in the three months before.
Customers ordered from Jan to Mar = 500
How many of these customers ordered again between Apr-Jun = 400
Customer retention rate - 400 / 500 = 80%
Churn, sometimes known as customer attrition, is the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e. how many customers don’t return to your company after making a purchase. Customer churn takes into account new customers in its calculation, which is a major difference to retention metrics.
Churn is obviously something you want to avoid, as it’s nigh on impossible for a business to grow with a high churn rate. Thus it is a fantastic indicator of whether something is wrong with your product or service.
Again, the first step is to decide on a churn time as we did above.
Next, ensure you can accurately track the total customers you have in a given time period. Don’t forget to include all the different ways a customer can reach you. For example, website, fax or phone orders all count as conversions in our system even though they are processed and recorded differently.
Now to calculate! Imagine a company with a churn period of 30 days.
Day 1 - you have 100 customers
During the next 30 days you acquire 30 new customers.
During the same 30 days, 5 of your existing 100 customers do not convert, or cancel a subscription for whatever reason (assumed lost).
Total customers = 100 + 30 - 5 = 125
Churn rate = 5 / 125 = 4%
Monitoring these two metrics gives a great performance benchmark that you can aim to better each period. If you implement any service changes or new features, these two KPIs will give you an accurate idea of the possible benefits to your company's performance. Couple this with some long-term customer value estimations and you’re well on your way to some fantastic performance data!
In my next post I’ll cover some easy methods of reducing churn and increasing your customer retention rates.
Running a business is hard work. There’s never a time when there’s nothing to do. So, it can be hard to stand back and get some perspective on whether or not you’re on the right track. If any of these tell-tale signs ring a bell, then stop, take a moment and think about where you’re heading.
If your business is overly dependent on one big customer, it’s not really your business – it’s theirs. You’re at the mercy of their decision-making rather than your own. Take a look at your customer mix, if more than 60% of your income comes from one client, you need to get your thinking cap on to reduce your dependence on them.
Is there someone in your business whose mind is the resting place of your most valuable business information? If there’s a key person in your company, you need to take steps to ensure their work is shadowed and their knowledge is captured.
Winning new customers is expensive. Even if you don’t spend vast sums on marketing, there’s always time gone into securing a new deal. If new customers slip through your fingers, by not staying with you for long enough to make a profit, you’re throwing good money after bad.
How do you generate new customers? If you’re mostly or wholly reliant on one source of new business, then there’s cause for concern. Imagine that tradeshow stops running, your telemarketer goes off ill, a key referrer goes out of business or your Adwords suddenly jump in price… Whatever the source, having just one is a risky strategy. You don’t want your business drying up because someone turned off the tap.
How much does your business earn for every hour you and your team put in? Understanding what people are doing with their time is essential to maintaining profitability. Are you using expensive people to do cheap jobs? A little analysis of what people do with their time can help you make sensible decisions about training needs, job allocation, and outsourcing.
Are you doing the right kind of work? Lots of small businesses keep themselves afloat by being a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ – but this can mean that you end up becoming known for the kind of work you don’t actually want to do, or isn’t particularly profitable. If you can’t describe the wrong, and the right, type of work for your business you’re unlikely to be able to find more of the latter.
I know, I know – you’re a creative soul… But are you paying the bills? Getting on top of your numbers is essential in addressing all of the points above. If you can’t immediately bring to mind your business’s vital statistics, then you can’t make informed decisions.
Is marketing something you do if and when you find the time? Many small businesses find themselves head down delivering client work, and whilst doing so they don’t find time to promote their company. This means that when one project is finished they hit a dry patch. It’s the marketing equivalent of a yo-yo diet, and is about as good for your business health as it would be for your body. If you find yourself staring down an empty sales pipeline each time to lift your head to breathe… then you need to work on finding a low level set of marketing techniques that just keep going come what may.
A sure fire sign that something’s not right is a spike staff sickness. They could be working too hard, demoralised by work they don’t enjoy, or they could be bored of twiddling their thumbs as they wait for the next project to land. Either way, if a few of your team start going off sick, it’s time to ask some questions about how your business is running.
Now, it’s not scientific, and I can’t put a metric on it… but if you, the business owner, hate Mondays more than you used to, there’s something wrong. Running a small business is hard work. But, if you get it right, it’s also exciting and rewarding. If you’re not feeling this, it’s time to get some perspective.
Recognising the warning signs enables you to do something about them. So, if any of these look familiar it doesn’t mean you’re on the inevitable path to failure. It means you have the power to change it. The business-owner who is able to acknowledge and address a tricky issue is in a much better position than the one who can’t – or won’t – see the signs.
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
The past few years have been tough for most businesses and even highly experienced business people have suffered. Many a good business that in more prosperous times could have been successful has gone to the wall, with failure often being outside of the owner’s control.
So, when should you accept that things are not going to get better?
Unfortunately, there will not be one clear sign that tells you it’s time to pull the plug – it will be a combination of factors. The important thing is to be looking for early warning signs.
The build up to failure maybe slow, with a combination of unmanaged factors leading up to the final nail in the coffin, including:
By this time alarm bells should be well and truly ringing, but the key is to put effective management reporting systems in place so that each month you are checking these figures and managing things BEFORE they get out of hand.
Even with effective management systems in place showing the business is going off course, the emotional attachment that the owner has can mean that the warning signs are ignored. Before they know it the business is beyond recovery and it is too late.
The tell-tale signs that this may be the case are:
The writing is on the wall and in all likelihood the owner is at the end of their emotional tether. Even if a solution was available, many business owners are so stressed at this point that they are unable to function effectively.
Quitting and closing the business is probably one of the hardest business decisions anyone ever makes. The success comes when the business owner recognises that this is the best route to take and puts the steps in place to close everything down.
Closing any business that does not have debts is quite simple. If it is a sole trader or unincorporated business all you have to do is complete the accounts, file the final returns, pay outstanding taxes, inform HMRC of the closure and physically close the business down.
A limited company must take a few more steps, including advising Companies House via a special form, telling shareholders, directors and so on.
However, if a business has debts it gets more complicated and expensive to close down the business – madness given in all likelihood there will be no funds available.
When there are debts involved there is a legal process to follow and it is best to seek specific advice from a specialist who can advise the best route – especially if you operate as a sole trader or have personal guarantees on loans through a limited company.
Using 20 years’ experience spent working at some of the UK’s leading businesses, award-winning chartered accountant Elaine Clark is the founder and managing director of www.cheapaccounting.co.uk, an online accounting service aimed at small businesses with big ambitions.
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
Difficult trading conditions call for difficult decisions. When markets are contracting, it’s no time to put your head in the sand. But what do small firms need to do in order to survive?
We asked some small business owners, including our followers on Twitter and Facebook, what they do to get going when the going gets tough.
“Don’t delay making difficult decisions. If something is not working respond quickly and do something about it,” says Neil Westwood founder of Magic Whiteboard. “Only spend money if it’s going to add value to the business. Keep a close eye on your margins and remember to make a profit.”
“Don’t compete on price — you can’t, and you will just devalue your brand,” advises Hayley Chalmers founder of clothing retailer Short Couture. “If your product or service is worth what you are charging for it, then your challenge is to target the right customers who are willing to pay that price, and do a good job of selling to them. If you keep reducing the price you are eating into your profit and not necessarily increasing sales – just changing who your customer is.
“I try never to lose sight of the back office costs,” adds Hayley. “I keep re-evaluating processes and sometimes I can make something more efficient — sometimes it’s by using a different product/supplier or by doing it differently.”
Being adaptable is important says Denbigh Army Surplus. “We have several selling channels so if one of them is quiet the other usually takes up the slack. Ultimately, it's a giant game of chess and you have to use your instincts, drawing on the knowledge and experience you have in your industry.”
Many long-standing businesses have been through hard times before. Rich Brady reveals how his family business got through a previous downturn. “Some lean periods are difficult to plan for. Twenty years ago we purchased the unit we're in now and after moving in we had the worst January, February was no better, sales continued to drop in March and April and we were really beginning to panic.”
Spending was cut drastically, as Rich reveals. “There were several months when we didn't pay ourselves anything.” Cutting back can help he adds — “You don't buy any new stock, marketing budget is massively reduced or scrapped. Often your competition, though, will be suffering the same fate and that creates opportunities. Perhaps a collaboration or investing more in marketing while the rest of your sector is holding back may help you to stand out. But first and foremost you should position yourself so that you can cope with a lean spell.”
But starting up during a downturn can be a good thing, says Julia Lowe of Farm Toys Online. “I was told that it is always a good idea to start a business in a recession. That way you have to concentrate on every aspect of the business from the word go and if you can make a success of a start-up in a recession — things can only get better!”
Make sure your business is visible on social media sites, recommends Sharon Bassett, co-founder of coaching firm A-Star Sports. “Don’t underestimate the value of social media, even if it looks daunting. If what you deliver is up there with the best, don’t be afraid to let people see that and they will start talking about it. Embracing social media over the last few months has been crucial for us to develop our customer base, find suppliers and open up PR opportunities.”
There’s no end of advice and support from fellow entrepreneurs out there thanks to Twitter. Here are some of the tweets that we’ve received about business survival:
Sandy Banfield agrees. “I think it is all about the mindset that is needed and having clear goals as to why you are doing it and what you are working towards,” says Sandy. “There will always be ups and downs with finance and cash-flow. But what keeps you going and moving forward is down to your why, your motivation to keep going when those tough times hit.”
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
So what are the other key reasons why many new businesses fail to survive their first two years of trading and why do more established businesses go under? Once again, in no particular order…
Inability to manage cashflow is the most common reason businesses fail. Many profitable and seemingly successful businesses have gone ‘belly-up’ because they haven’t had enough cash to pay their bills on demand. Lack of access to working capital is a major business killer.
Some owners are overly cautious, which can hinder their new business’s chances of getting off the ground. In other cases, taking too many risks can quickly lead to disaster (see 6). If in doubt, when it comes to big decisions, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution (well, most of the time…).
No matter how great their products are or attractive their prices, successful businesses prioritise customer service. Get it wrong and potential customers will vote with their feet. Offering superb customer service is one way to set yourself apart from competitors large and small.
Small firms can’t afford to carry baggage, especially in the early days. Each team member must add value, excel at what they do and their commitment to the cause must be beyond question. Recruiting the wrong people usually proves to be a costly mistake.
Successful businesses know who their customers are and what they want. Their products are tailored perfectly to their customers’ tastes. They also know how best to let customers know about their products and services and the channels through which they need to sell.
If you or others you employ don’t have the skills to sell, your business will fail. Simple. Selling doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you can’t do it, find someone who can and pay them to do it for you.
This can affect all business to an extent, but for those that rely on footfall, picking the wrong location leads to disaster. Sometimes poor decisions are made to save money, when paying more for a better location could deliver more sales.
If you don’t believe you have any competitors – think again. And the bad news is some of them will have been open a lot longer than you, which means they will already have customers. You should know who your main competitors are and what they offer, but – underestimate them at your peril.
Not everyone has a head for figures, but if you don’t control your business’s finances you’re asking for trouble. Common misdemeanors include not getting invoices out promptly or chase them when overdue; failing to separate personal and business expenses; borrowing money out of the business for personal use; not properly keeping track of expenses; failure to keep accurate or up to date books. At all times you should have a good idea how much your business owes and how much it is owed.
Poor day-to-day decisions by people who aren’t cut out to run a business. Partnerships that don’t work. Inability to communicate ideas. Unwillingness to listen. Fear of success or failure. Too much or not enough confidence. Procrastination. Rash decisions. Inability to cope with pressure. Domestic distractions. Failure to learn from mistakes. Poor time- and task-management. Market conditions and wider economy. Bad luck.
In your experience, why do so many new businesses fail and what survival advice can you offer to start-ups?
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
Opinions differ greatly over the exact survival rate of new businesses in the UK, but without doubt the failure rate remains depressingly high. Some claim that more than half of small businesses fail in their first year, while 90% don’t last two years. So what are the key reasons why they don’t make it and why do more established businesses go under? In no particular order…
The ‘build it and they will come’ approach to starting up isn’t advised. You should only start up if you have firm evidence of demand. Start-ups that don’t have products people want to buy usually come to an end when the owner’s savings run out.
One of the best ways to prove the viability of your business model is to put together a sound business plan. There are no guarantees, but if your numbers are realistic and your idea can be shown to work on paper, at least you’re not dealing with wholly unrealistic assumptions. Fail to plan and you plan to fail.
If your new business is ‘under-capitalised’ from the start and your sales fail to live up to expectations, you’ll soon run out of money, which is likely to spell the end for your business (and don’t expect the bank to help). What if you don’t make any sales for months – will your business survive?
Just because you want to start a business doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it. Knowledge and skill can be gained, but if you lack drive, commitment, won’t make sacrifices and you’re lazy, running a business won’t be for you. That said, hard work and determination alone is not enough to succeed in business.
If you’ve never ran a business previously, there will be many times when you won’t know what to do. Fortunately, others can help. Access as much free reliable advice as you can. The bad news is, there’s a lot of bad advice out there, too, so beware.
Performance in your first year might exceed your expectations, but investing heavily to try to grow at the same or even a higher rate can leave your business overstretched and with bills it can’t afford to pay.
Your initial ideas might not bring the results needed to keep your business afloat, so you must remain agile enough to make changes where necessary until things begin to work. In business it pays to have other options up your sleeve.
These are important skills that can enable you to produce a business plan and spot when a potentially serious cashflow problem is heading your way. Failure to accurate forecast sales can lead you to make terrible decisions based on false assumptions.
Successful businesses get their prices right. Go too low and you won’t make as much profit as you could. Furthermore, you could struggle to increase your prices. Go too high and you’ll put off potential customers. When setting prices you’ve got to know your market.
These create an unnecessary burden from the off, by making it much tougher to turn a profit. It’s reckless to waste money on things your business doesn’t need. You must minimise your start-up costs and remain lean and efficient as your business develops.
In your experience, why do so many new businesses fail and what survival advice can you offer to start-ups?
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
With few new UK businesses surviving to reach their second birthday, we asked followers of @StartUpDonut, @MarketingDonut, @TaxDonut, @LawDonut and @ITDonut on Twitter and members of our Facebook network for their advice about how to make it through your first two years in business…
@JudithMorgan: Head down. Hard work. Plough on.
@JigsawCare: Support of family. Thick skin, hard work, endurance and remaining excited/positive that your service can have positive impact.
@rachelperry01: Networking & marketing. Not expecting customers to flood to you just because you're open for business...
@hcnewhouse: #Cashflow – without a doubt IMO. If you don't have cash everything dries up.
@CrtivCornerCafe: Determination. Commitment. Help. Hard work. All clichéd, but all true.
@EmmaWalker01: Strong back bone, it's really hard. And lonely. But you got to just keep going at it.
@Rileyandcoltd: Key to survival = cashflow, flexibility, stamina, understanding the market, including competitors, USP.
@enhance_me: Good customer care, if you can build up a customer base prior to launch even better! Have key goals, too!
@CharlieMoos: Sticking to your original idea. Biggest problem when I first started was I would do anything anyone asked – it nearly killed me!
@AgnesCserhati: Cashflow, determination, resilience, support by coach/mentor, ability to identify/focus on priorities and sense of humour.
@Change4Life_UK: Having great passion for what you do, and being successful at it, generates word of mouth and many referrals.
@nicholabates: A great network of other entrepreneurs around you. Good to have like-minded people to share your successes & failures with.
@HeathersNet: Decide your target buyer & go 4 it. Master your cashflow and network, network, network. Have enough money put by for ur 1st yr.
@jmbratley: Key to survival: business plan; control costs; accurate & up-to-date accounting records; self-believe; determination.
Debbie Oldham (self-employed at TanTastic): Consistent methods and working hard 24/7.
Yiannis Gedeon: Don’t get disappointed by mistakes. You’ll make lots. It is normal and it will pay off in the long run.
Cat Moyle: Give yourself a day off every now and even though there is a temptation not to (space helps creativity), look after yourself (without you there is no business), be prepared to question but never compromise your values (they are what make you and your business you-nique). Smile as much as possible.
SuperTollFree: Make sure you put yourself and your company out there. If people don't know who you are, you won't be able to grow. Especially in your first year, it's important to build up even a small set of loyal clients.
Sian Lenegan (managing director at Sixth Story): It's all about clarity... defining why you do what you do, what you do and linking that to your customers' pain. If you can clearly articulate what you do in your brand communications it'll make for a strong foundation. Also invest in your brand identity – it's showing your attitude and claiming your stake in the world, it shows people how you value yourself, so take it seriously!
Antonia Chitty (director at ACEInspire): Persistence – don't give up, because you'll face many hurdles. Be prepared with a good support network, both practical and emotional, to help you leap over each one.
Mandy Hemingway: Wine.
We’d like to hear from you, what tips do you offer to new owners who are trying to survive their first two years in business?
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
With low two-year survival rates for new firms, we speak to business owners who have made it past this important threshold and ask what words of advice they offer…
Ling Valentine of LINGsCARS
“Stop trying to get grants and support; don’t focus on mentoring, events and networking – get on with real work of making profit. And don’t spend a penny more than is necessary. Avoid borrowing. Charge as much as you can and ask for fast payment. Try to build a cash buffer in the bank of three-months, just in case sales slow down or stop. There’s no excuse for not making money in your first year, contrary to what some would have you believe. Businesses fail because they run out of cash. Business survival is the game – making money is the aim. Monitor your cash position religiously.”
Fay Martin of Fay's Studio
“One of the best pieces of advice I was given in my first two years of business was 'there’s no point winking in the dark'. In other words, if you have a great product or service you must take every opportunity to promote it. Word of mouth is so important for a fledgling business and it often leads to great things.”
“Don't get too bogged down in the details, go out and get selling. Whenever I meet someone who has spent six months writing a business plan and hasn't sold anything it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Invest as little as possible and pay your bills on time. In your first two years you are small; you can work from home; work all the hours of the day. Not being burdened with large premises overheads enables you to test the core concept of your business. If you can't make it profitable on a small scale, you won't be able to make it work on a big scale. Negotiate hard with all your suppliers, too.”
Alex Astell of Manage My Website
“Create an attractive brand, high-impact website and strong online presence. Focus on customer service and don’t let your standards slip. Collect customer feedback and act on it. Don’t overspend during the good times, because you may need the money to get you through at other times. Keep your accounts up to date, set aside your tax money, pay your suppliers on time and send invoices out promptly. Don't give up. Early on it would’ve been easy for me to lose hope, as I was bringing in so little money. You must remain positive. Never waiver from the belief that your business will be a success – but it takes hard work, patience and time.”
Ruth Lopardo of loveitloveitloveit
“Be brave. There’ll be times when you question whether you've done the right thing, whether you'll be able to pay your bills and worrying can keep you awake at night. Keep going. Trust your instincts. Have faith in your ideas and be passionate. Also know when to ignore your business plan, because the reality of running a business is different to the theory. Building a business involves a degree of obsession, part of which requires ploughing virtually every penny you make back in to the business to make it bigger and better.”
Sean Price of iBox Security Ltd
“The most important thing is to keep an eye on is your costs. It’s easy to ‘start a business’, get some credit or a loan and buy new equipment, software and an office straight away without being aware of ongoing costs and that you’ll most likely struggle to make ends meet for an undetermined length of time. Marketing yourself is the next crucial task and that doesn’t mean spending a fortune in magazines or online advertising, networking in local business networking groups can often be very worthwhile. Beat expectations; perform your job to your best ability. Show that you really care about your customers, it will help ensure you have a business that will grow and customers to grow with it.”
Jennie & Sarah of Clevercow Cakes
“Start small and grow a bit at a time. All too often, new businesses try to run before they can walk. Don’t try to complicate things either, keep things simple – especially your proposition, that way you’ll sell more. Try to be different, too – you must set yourself apart from your competitors. Find your niche and stick to it. And make the most of all free methods of publicising your business.”
Jake Xu of Xcetra Media
“You must remain realistic – that’s the best advice I could give. Realistic when taking the plunge, realistic about the market you’re targeting and your products and services. Know your strengths but most importantly your weaknesses. Also, you mustn’t try to not to out-grow yourself and let the ambition get the best of you – or to be too cautious and limit the potential growth of your business.”
Naomi Kibble of ROCKTAILS
“Make sure you have the time and the money to launch your business. You can’t have one without the other – and one can’t be substituted for the other. Make sure you plan every step of your start-up journey. If you miss a stage or go about things in the wrong order it could cost you dearly. But remember – a plan is useless without action. Also, I think it’s important to have fun. It’ll be harder work than you imagined, so make sure you’re enjoying it or you’ll never survive.”
Griff Holland of Friska Food
“Having a clear focus, identity and USP is crucial because it’s one of the key ways you’ll increase your visibility and voice as a new player in the market. It’s also important to use your ears and eyes just as much as you use your mouth. Shout about what you’re doing but be prepared to listen and observe your customers and prospective customers’ behaviour and react in a measured way to this. The first two years is all about making your big mistakes and turning a business plan into a living business, as such you’ll need to tweak your offering to make it more commercial.”
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
You won’t be able to create a survival plan unless you know how much of a problem your business faces. Assess your cashflow for the next 12 months. How do your costs compare with your likely income? Are there any times when your business will face serious cash shortages? If your business is to survive, it must be able to overcome short-term cashflow crises.
You might not be able to come up with all of the answers, especially if you’re under pressure and lack experience, but other people can help you. First explore sources of free support and advice, but don’t rule out paying for tailored advice from an accountant if necessary. When trying to save a business, often it’s wise to seek dispassionate professional advice from the outside. With their help, your problems might not turn out to be as insurmountable as you thought.
If you fail to eliminate unnecessary costs, you’ll significantly hamper your chances of survival. Assess every area of your business and find ways to eradicate waste and inefficiency. Rule nothing out. Often survival involves having to make tough decisions. Try to negotiate better deals with all of your suppliers. If you can save money, explore cheaper alternatives but be warned: cutting too much or in the wrong places can make matters worse, so your decisions need to be well informed.
Having an effective credit control system can help your cashflow to remain positive, as well as lessening the chances your business will be affected by bad debts. Overtime, credit control can become slack, so look for ways to improve your system. If you are to avoid any nasty surprises, you must remain aware of your cash position at all times. Explore alternative sources of finance such as factoring and invoice discounting, because these might offer you a cashflow solution.
Are there any no-cost ways to enhance what you’re offering? Perhaps you could enhance, update or otherwise improve your products to provide better value for money. Maybe you could introduce new products/services, but only if it won’t place even more demands on your time. Don’t rule out trying new things. As other business fail, there could well be new opportunities for your business.
Could you justify increasing your prices? Even a small price increase can make a big difference. If you can’t, try to reduce your costs. And even if you’re desperate, don’t slash your prices. Don’t even decrease them unless you’ve worked out whether your business can afford it. You must protect your margins.
Cutting cost doesn’t mean stopping all your marketing activity, but it does mean stop wasting your time and money on things that don’t deliver enough sales sales. Reassess your marketing strategy. If you haven’t already done so, explore no-cost and low-cost ways to publicise your business, including social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Find ways to ensure your own website is more effective Ash yourself whether even going back to basics (eg sticking cards in local shops or carrying out a door-to-door leaflet drop) would bring additional sales.
Selling to new customers is more difficult and according to some as much as eight-times more expensive than selling to existing punters. Try to find ways to sell more to your existing customers, maybe through offering new products/services or discounts for spending more. You could offer them rewards for recommending your business to new customers? Building greater customer loyalty could help your business out of the mire.
You and any employees cannot afford to waste your time doing things that ultimately do not bring any money into your business – especially when times are tough. Look for ways to boost efficiency and productivity so all team members can maximize their contribution to your business.
Survival is a team game. If your business has employees, you need their full buy-in if your business is to survive – you can’t do it all by yourself. Ask your people for their ideas on how you could cut costs and make more sales. Crucially, you need to make sure employees remain focused and well motivated. Communication between yourself and your employees must be good. You should also be in touch with your accountant for advice while trying to ensure the survival of your business.
Many ‘business turnaround’ experts condense survival strategy into three key stages. The first is to work out exactly how bad things really are. The second is to solve the business’s immediate cashflow problem. The third is to address the fundamental issues that created significant problems for the business.
There's more great advice available on the Donut business survival guide.
We spoke to a range of small firms throughout the country to find out their reaction to announcements made in the 2012 Budget. Here’s what they said…
Neil Westwood of Magic Whiteboard
“Any budget that focuses on lowering taxes for working people has to be a good thing, so increasing the personal allowances gives a strong positive message.
"Also, lower Corporation Tax for businesses will be welcomed. Freezing vehicle duty for haulage companies will also help lower costs for businesses. Simpler tax processes for lifestyle businesses will also be beneficial.
“Apart from that, I didn’t get a feel this was a budget for small businesses (or large businesses). Will it help create jobs for one million young people? To encourage employers to take the risk and employ people National Insurance contributions should be reduced by 1% for every person they employ for the first 10 people.
“Another good idea would be to offer entrepreneurs loans for young people who don’t want to go to university but want to set up their own new business, up to £2000. New businesses spend money and create jobs in the economy; more needs to be done to encourage this. Marks out of ten? 6/10”
Helen McAvoy of ROCKTAILS
“The National Loan Guarantee Scheme is another Project Merlin, big plans and big figures (£20bn) but it’s a damp squib. A 1% point reduction on loan interest isn't much use if the majority of SMEs can't get the bank loan approved in the first place. Enterprise Loans – if they're properly managed and rolled out – should see significant success. Young people may even get a better return on investment compared to investing in a university education.
“The integration of NI and income tax should be pushed ahead ASAP. It will help reduce confusion and admin for companies starting the daunting process of hiring their first member of staff. No mention of the NI holiday as yet, which has been an encouraging initiative.”
Andrew Milbourn of Kiss the Fish Ltd
“Reducing Corporation Tax is a welcome break and it will help to provide income with which small businesses such as mine can more easily employ staff. I’d have liked the Chancellor to have dropped the rate by more and faster than promised.
“Simplifying tax for low turnover businesses is a sensible move, although we’ll have to wait and see how it works. Certainly merging income tax and national insurance is sensible and should cut down on time spent on administration.
"The freezing of any further increases in fuel duty is a good, I think it could have been very damaging if he’d increased it by any amount. I’m not unhappy with this Budget. The chancellor has helped my business – although not by much.”
Elaine Clark of CheapAccounting.co.uk
“After cutting through the puff and noise from the 2012 Budget speech, what did it really contain for our micro business clients being those who, in the main, have a turnover below £250K? The most leaked budget to date is leaving me wondering why on earth I spent an hour listening for what results in no immediate changes for the micro business – we already knew what the tax rates were from April 2012, see our recent blog.
“So what of the proposed cash accounting system for businesses with turnovers of less than £77,000? Yes this could mean some simplification of the accounts preparation, but my guess is that many already operate a cash accounting system. How many would know what the accrual system is if you asked them?
"Plus, as usual, it’s jam tomorrow – a promise on something that may or may not happen following a consultation that could take months or years and could end after the term of this Government anyway.”
Ian Sharland of Baby Sensory
“The Chancellor alluded to a scheme whereby young people starting a new business will be granted access to loans. Hopefully these loans will be as readily available and similar to those attending university and thus only repayable when their business can afford it. Many people leaving university can’t find jobs and therefore they can’t repay their loan. A similar loan to someone who starts their own business will place the recipient in a job where they will be learning and paying tax long before they would complete a university education. The more successful young entrepreneurs will also in many cases create jobs.
“Young entrepreneurs who are uncertain about what business opportunity to pursue could take on a franchise where they will, in many cases, be supported while they develop business skills that will serve them well throughout their working lives. Loans for young entrepreneurs should not be subject to more rigorous inspection than loans to students. Some new businesses will fail, but the entrepreneur will learn and the loss will be no greater than that of a student who is unable to find a job.”
Ruth Lopardo of www.loveitloveitloveit.co.uk
“My initial reaction, before the full details are winkled out, is that this budget is a damp squib for small businesses. It’s a relief to see that children's clothing remains VAT-exempt. I’m disappointed that there's no real stimulus for small business growth. More details are needed on tax simplification and the expansion of the Enterprise Finance Guarantee.
"Changes to child benefit could be bad news for small business-owners with children – the self-employed have no access to childcare vouchers. For sole traders, it will be interesting to balance the increase in personal tax allowance against the reduction in corporation tax to see if an accelerated move to incorporate may be worthwhile.”
More on the Budget 2012
The Chancellor announced a raft of measures affecting small firms in the 2012 Budget, which he said “unashamedly backed business” so that firms could “innovate and be the best”.
Key points for small businesses at a glance are:
More on the Budget 2012
I don’t think that I am alone in thinking 2011 was a difficult year. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was flippin’ hard work. So what have I learned from my experience during 2011 that will benefit me in 2012?
I seem to remember the Royal Wedding being declared as an event that would stimulate growth and now it is being blamed for a poor second quarter!
There are two more big occasions in 2012 – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. The first gives us another four-day-long weekend, which isn’t great for employers because we have to pay staff for another day off. However, I say smile and take it with good grace – and use the opportunity for a themed promotion or sale.
What benefit will the Olympics bring to small firms? It could be two weeks of utter misery as everyone watches the telly and I’ve already got people queuing up to book time-off for the games. Again, you can market yourself around an Olympic theme, make it work for you, start planning what you will sell, how you will go to market and use the opportunity to boost your sales. Don’t forget to also think ‘against the flow’ by trying to appeal to those who are fed up with the Olympics.
These seemed to be the overriding media stories at the end of 2011, and this sort of stuff can really get you down. You can’t ignore it because it is important and if one thing is for certain – 2012 will be even worse – according to our leaders.
Robert Peston and Faisal Islam will be looking lugubrious on the BBC and Channel 4 news respectively and making hefty pronouncements, but I say – don’t let the b******s grind you down. Life will continue and people will still buy stuff, so stay focused and keep working. You might need to move out of your comfort zone and think ‘out of the box’, but both can be good things for business owners?
I’m an absolute idiot and a disgrace to my profession. I run an online business and have always considered the Christmas shutdown to be just that. We have a skeleton staff on and do enough business to justify opening the warehouse. In 2011, it was pointed out to me that Boxing Day is the busiest online shopping day of the year. So we held a warehouse clearance sale over the holiday and increased our turnover by five times. In 2012, I am going to be really looking forward to the Christmas break and will definitely NOT allow just a skeleton staff to be on duty.
So there you go, three opportunities for the coming year. The bigger picture on the economy is that small business closures – although climbing – aren’t climbing exponentially. Interest rates are non-existent and likely to stay that way. The Government can’t really cut much more. In fact, the only thing it can really do is tinker at the margins and try to make life better for us wealth and job creators. We are constantly told that we are the backbone of the nation – let Government forget that at its peril!
Read more of John's published posts on his Google+ page
According to the government, three-quarters of all British businesses are sole traders, which amounts to about 3.6m businesses out of some 4.8m firms. Sole traders (aka the “self-employed”) drive the UK economy.
All you need do is call the HMRC ‘Helpline for the Newly Self-Employed’ on 0845 915 4515. You’ll be asked for your name, date of birth, address, telephone number, National Insurance number, business start date, name and type of business and whether you’re a sole trader or working with a partner. You can register even online or download and complete the HMRC form ‘Becoming self-employed and registering for National Insurance contributions and/or tax’.
You must register as self-employed with the HMRC within three months of starting your business or you risk a £100 fine. Best advice? Do it straight away, there’s no point in delaying.
As a sole trader, you are the business. It’s not a separate legal entity, as it would be if you formed a limited company. Therefore, you’re liable for your business’s debts. If you’re starting a business that won’t build up big debts, becoming a sole trader isn’t too risky. If you are likely to build up significant debts, you should consider setting up a limited company.
You have to pay to set up a limited company and running it requires slightly more administrative effort when it comes to tax. Registering as a sole-trader costs nothing, while accounting costs and tax liabilities are likely to be cheaper than if you started a limited company.
But if you do employ people, you must collect income tax and National Insurance contributions (NICs) from them and pay these to HMRC. You’ll need to operate a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) payroll scheme for this purpose.
You pay income tax based on your business profits. You (or your accountant) must fill in a self-assessment tax return each year, detailing your income and expenses. You’ll also have to make flat-rate Class 2 NICs throughout the year (£2.50 a week payable every six months). If your annual profits are more than £7,225, you’ll also have to pay Class 4 NICs (9 per cent on profits up to £42,475; 11 per cent on annual profits above this figure). You pay this with your income tax and the figure is calculated from your self-assessment tax return.
That includes details of all your sales. You must also keep proof of any expenses (eg receipts, invoices, utility bills, etc). Anyway, they’ll help when you’re filling in your tax returns. Keeping basic financial records (aka Bookkeeping) doesn’t have to be as arduous as it might sound.
If your turnover exceeds the VAT threshold (currently £73,000 a year), you will need to register for VAT. When you’re VAT registered, you charge your customers VAT on VAT-able goods and pay it to HMRC. In turn, you can reclaim the VAT you pay on goods and services you buy.
The size and nature of your business can change quickly and for a range of reasons (including increased exposure to risk) you might want to set up your own limited company (“incorporate”) at a later stage. Providing someone else hasn’t already registered the name, you should be able to use your sole trader name (with Ltd added, of course).
Self-employed people pay tax on the 31 January following the end of their tax year. Crucially, HMRC will request payments on account for the following year’s estimated tax – on 31 January and 31 July each year. That means, after your first year in business, your tax bill could be 150 per cent of what you were expecting to pay, with another 50 per cent payable in July. If your business income is very low, you may not have to pay Class 2 National Insurance contributions.
When it comes time to pay HMRC, you’ll be glad you put a few quid away each month. Being faced with a large tax bill you haven’t saved for is a nightmare. Try to put 25 per cent of your grow earnings into a separate bank account (and don’t dip into it). Failing to pay your tax bill on time will result in penalty charges.
Crucially, you’ve got be good at sales and marketing. If you don’t make enough sales, your business will fail – simple. There will be admin tasks to take care of, too, including simple accounting/bookkeeping. Paying an accountant to do your tax return can save you time, but you’ll still have to maintain simple financial records. Having to manage employees for the first time could prove a big challenge, too.
Mark Williams is a freelance journalist and editor of Start Up Donut.
It was depressing to see Business Secretary Vince Cable quoted as saying that the economy was in worse shape than under the previous administration and that a double-dip recession was a distinct possibility.
While the opposition immediately seized upon his comments, it could be argued that this was rather hypocritical as the current debt crisis and poor bank regulation were a direct result of their own policies.
The feeling of most entrepreneurs is that government is essentially powerless to influence the economy at the grass-roots level. Rather than decreasing regulation as they always promise, any intervention on their part, however well meaning, always seems to create even more obstacles to enterprise.
The solution to our economic challenges is clear. Rather than sit on our hands and complain, now is the time for entrepreneurs to get out there and sell our way out of the recession, bringing the rest of the UK's economy along in our wake.
But this will need to be the UK's real-life entrepreneurs, not the get-rich-quick chancers we see in the media, an image actively fostered by offensive and unrepresentative programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice.
And while it is always a joy to inspire young people into a path of entrepreneurship, this is a long-term policy rather than the immediate help that the UK's economy needs.
Real-life entrepreneurs first felt the effects of the recession in 2008. Those that have survived followed the best practice that all businesses should follow. This includes the banks, which are always quick to criticise small businesses for their lack of planning.
Successful entrepreneurship involves reducing risk wherever possible by concentrating on the core business of the organisation and, wherever possible, finding the most profitable niche or vertical market. While cost-savings are important, the main focus should be on generating revenue and reducing the length of the sales cycle.
Rather than chasing brand new customers who promise big orders from exotic locations, the place to find immediate revenue is always your existing customers. They may be equally affected by the recession but willing to discuss mutually beneficial outcomes with people they trust.
It is also a myth that there is no money out there. This is the strong message I have received across the spectrum of industry, from private equity and venture capital companies, angel investors and those companies who have managed to grow successfully in the last few years.
You only need to scan the regularly published lists of fast-growth companies to see which industries have thrived in a recession; all of these companies and others like them have money to spend with the right suppliers.
I am also determined to do my bit to help the UK's entrepreneurs. Starting on November 1st in Essex, I will be presenting at twelve branches of the Federation For Small Businesses (FSB), events that are open to everyone.
The FSB recently launched a new initiative “Championing The UK's Real Life Entrepreneurs”, which focuses on the key issues facing its members. These include increasing the routes to finance, improving cash flow, adopting a new approach to regulation, reducing and simplifying business tax, incentivising job creation and opening up export markets.
The FSB's Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Andrew Cave explained to me that the campaign is designed to galvanise the small businesses in the UK to take a forward-looking and positive attitude towards the economy by increasing their revenue and taking on staff, especially the increasing number of unemployed young people.
He argues strongly that the opportunities and skilled, hard-working people are out there; all it needs is a positive attitude.
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.