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The Apprentice: Cloche, but no cigar

May 19, 2011 by Simon Wicks

Missed the third episode? Catch up here.

The task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best bits

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

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

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

Melody (sneering): “The 'clochay'.”

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

What the flip is she on about?

The worst bits

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

LONG pause. Whole team stares at floor.

Vincent (softly): “Not bad.”

Winners and losers

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

Ones to watch

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

Business lessons

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

Quote of the week

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

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

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

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Do recruitment agencies have a future?

May 19, 2011 by Darren Leighfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren Leighfield, Director at EtcEtc Ltd

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Posted in Employees | 2 comments

Are you brave enough to think big?

May 17, 2011 by Fiona Humberstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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The entrepreneurs’ bank

May 16, 2011 by Mike Southon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six key trends to bear in mind when planning your business

May 13, 2011 by Jason Sullock

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

1 The tyranny of speed

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

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

2 The impossibility of controlling the market

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

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

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

3 Be authentic in whatever you're planning

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

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

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

4 Add more choice

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

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

5 Can you outsource any skills or processes?

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

6 The definition of scarcity has changed

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

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

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

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

May 12, 2011 by Rachel Miller

Missed the second episode? Catch up here.

The task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best bits

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

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

The worst bits

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

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

The winners and losers

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

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

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

There is incredulity on the other side of the table.

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

The ones to watch

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

Business lessons

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

Quote of the week

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

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Profitometer

This week Lord Sugar made: nothing

Total profit so far: £624.46

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