I’ve always found small businesses compelling – what makes them work and the challenge of going it alone are to me the most interesting questions in business. And after 19 years of running my company, Atom, I admire SMEs more than ever.
Why I started the Donut
I’ve always found small businesses compelling – what makes them work and the challenge of going it alone are to me the most interesting questions in business. And after 19 years of running my company Atom, I admire SMEs more than ever.
Running your own show is tremendous fun, especially if you know what you’re doing and can manage the 101 challenges that come your way every month. Which is where Atom content comes in.
We’ve been producing our expert how-to guides, sponsored by blue chips and government organisations, for nearly two decades. But, of course, as an entrepreneur, I wanted something new to do. In a (rare) idle moment online, I scouted about for a really good marketing website for small businesses. There wasn’t one.
So we decided to do it, launching on 20 April 2009. We built small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) their own site with everything they needed to make their marketing thrive. Founding partners Google and Royal Mail backed us all the way, as have our ever-growing list of sponsors such as Vodafone and Yell.
What we’ve achieved in a year
As well as Marketing Donut, we launched two more Donut websites to cover starting up and law. We’ve just announced that the fourth site to launch will be IT Donut, scheduled for the week commencing 23 August.
We use 300 top people to provide the expert advice on the Donuts, but, for me, the real experts are also the users. Before we started work, we asked people running small businesses what they wanted from a site. They told us they needed fast, practical and accurate answers to their questions. The Donuts give SME managers that, free. Tools, templates, checklists, the lot: plus the news their business needs to know.
All the Donuts report live on major small-business happenings - we were the first business advice site to break news of the rise in minimum wage on Budget Day. MyDonut, the e-newsletter, now goes out to tens of thousands of people a month – next year numbers should top 100,000. (This is in addition to the 300,000 subscribers to the SME newsletters that we publish for our clients. Life at Atom is one big deadline.)
Since the launch a year ago, the Donut sites have fast become a key player in the UK small-business scene. Our Twitter accounts have over 40,000 followers and our Twitter team picked up two national awards last year.
Local versions of marketingdonut.co.uk, startupdonut.co.uk and lawdonut.co.uk are syndicated to our partners, both nationally and in the regions. Thirty-five organisations already have their own Donut websites and more are coming on stream every month.
The Donut is a strong business model, because it is a win-win for everyone involved. Crucially, Atom had already invested several years building up the strategic relationships and the content before launching the first website. As with most successful SMEs, we always knew that the Donut project would not be a sprint to success, it would be a marathon.
2010-2011: what’s in it for you?
As we expand the core "answers to your questions" pages of the Donuts, we will continue to cover news and key topical issues for you. For instance, this month the Law Donut explains how to cope with recruitment and redundancy as the economy remains fragile, as well as what to do when all your staff want time off for June’s World Cup.
We’re currently building the IT Donut, which will be a comprehensive resource for demystifying IT, troubleshooting and trading online. It will become the first place any small business turns to when they have a tech problem that needs sorting fast. We're currently recruiting experts who will rid us all of pesky IT stress forever, I hope.
We’ll also be providing a local service for users, thanks to our partners. Law firms, chambers of commerce and enterprise agencies are all getting involved. This is really exciting, as it gives users the best of all worlds - a huge library of constantly updated advice from experts throughout the UK, combined with local content.
An SME owner's work is never done, so I'm signing off to tackle the above. Before I go - thanks to you, our users, and all our partners and experts, for a great year.
1 Base the business on something you enjoy – when your hobby/passion/skill becomes your full-time job, it never really feels like work.
2 Write a plan – prepare a basic business plan to set out your vision, describe your market and explain how you propose to reach out and sell to that market. Include sound financials and review the plan every six months or so.
3 Find dedicated space – create space in your house that is your workspace. When in that space, family and friends should know you’re in business mode, plus, you can walk away at the end of the working day. Invest in a good desk and chair, because you’ll be spending quite a bit of time at and in them.
4 Create a professional front door – when customers come calling, be sure they’re met with a professional welcome. This applies from the way you answer calls, to your website, company stationery and even the places in which you choose to meet clients.
5 Make the most of social media – tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have been warmly embraced by the home business community. They are free to use and act as business development channel and a virtual water cooler for the moments when you miss the banter of an out-of-home office.
6 Become an expert – set yourself up as an expert in your field by blogging/tweeting about the subject, writing a report, publishing a book or hosting an event. Being an expert gives credibility and with that, comes customers.
7 Never stop learning – part of becoming an expert is continually picking up intelligence from those around you. Keep an eye on what others in your industry are doing, read about successful entrepreneurs and tune in to trendspotters so you can prepare for new market opportunities.
8 Get out of the house – attend networking events, work from the local café, sign up to a personal development course. It’s good to get out of the home office, but be sure you can still be contacted and respond via your mobile/laptop/webmail, etc. This is your “road warrior kit”.
9 Do what you do best and outsource the rest – to grow the business, focus on the core product of the company and subcontract non-core tasks (eg admin, accounting, PR, fulfilment, etc) to others.
10 Follow the golden triangle – to keep the business in balance, spend roughly a third of your time on each of three key things: customer care, business development and admin. That way, you’ll have a smooth-running business with happy customers and new income streams on the way.
Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation the home business website and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’. Emma’s next book – ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’ – will be published in May 2010.
Whether your business is large, small, new or been around the block a few times, every penny in your marketing budget has to work hard and give you a return. Remember though that doors opened through your marketing now may lead you down a profitable path in the future, but not yield a financial return just yet.
Marketing doesn’t have to cost a fortune and there are many effective marketing activities that you can do that won’t cost a penny yet will point you in the right direction to get your business to where you want it to be. Here goes …
The best thing to reduce your marketing spend is to Stop & Think before you commit any money. There may be a free or cheaper alternative … effective marketing does not have to cost a fortune.