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From The Business Inspector to Dragons' Den: the irrepressible Hilary Devey

February 04, 2011 by Simon Wicks

“The thing that's really amazed me since doing The Business Inspector is how many people start businesses with hearts so full of hope and heads so full of cotton wool. They think because they've been good at a hobby they can make it into a business.”

So said The Business Inspector Hilary Devey when I interviewed her a few months ago for the Start Up Donut. It was a great interview – one of the three most enjoyable I’ve conducted in 15 years of interviewing and writing about people from all walks of life (the others were Joanna Lumley and a retiring chemist who was the first in Britain to produce penicillin commercially – and illegally; but these are other stories). Hilary was pithy, direct, outspoken, enthusiastic and completely honest. She even answered a couple of personal questions with a frankness that surprised me.

People like Hilary, with such memorable personalities, are paydirt for an interviewer. Writing up the interview becomes a matter of wondering what to leave out, rather than what to include. You just know it’s going to be a good piece – and so it proved (in my humble opinion!). My colleagues and I remarked at the time that she’d be good as a new Dragon on Dragons' Den.

Guess what? Today the BBC announced that Hilary would be replacing the outgoing James Caan when Dragon’s Den returns to BBC2 later this year.  She’s perfect as the new Dragon – experienced, knowledgeable, no-nonsense, driven, resourceful, direct and – critically – excited about business. She’ll talk tough; she’ll ask awkward questions; she’ll keep it real. And when she sees something – or someone – she likes, she’ll genuinely appreciate it. She’s that kind of person, I think.

Have a read of the interview and see if you agree: What it takes to succeed in business: The Business Inspector speaks.

The Tipping Point?

February 03, 2011 by Alex Astell

“Things can happen all at once and little changes can make a huge difference” – 
Malcolm Gladwell

January was quite a month. In fact, it’s been my business’s (Manage My Website) busiest period since I started it two years ago.

The enquiries are coming in thick and fast – from the UK (where we’re based) and countries as far flung as the USA, Egypt and Holland. We’re working on websites for retailers, charities and even the NHS, plus we’re about to partner with MODA Commerce, one of the teams behind the Mary Portas website. My business is on the brink of exploding.

Some years ago I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. As Gladwell explains, tipping points are: "The levels at which momentum for change becomes unstoppable."

So what’s led my business to this key stage? Lots of little things, really. They may have seemed insignificant at the time, but together they’ve created what we have become today and our business has reached its very own tipping point.

  1. I was made redundant from my day job two years ago and decided to take a risk by going solo with my own web design and consultancy business.
  2. I sourced talented suppliers and freelancers who I knew I could trust and work well with. My friends at Flipside Studio and Kinetic Pulse have been key to my business growth and reputation, although I now use several innovative designers and developers.
  3. I decided to keep a journal on my website and updated right from the start, which is incredibly good for SEO. Try Googling “web design providers” and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. I’m a social animal. I immediately set up Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn pages and worked hard at keeping them fresh and interesting, to build up a following and gain vital industry contacts and new clients.
  5. I added my business to as many relevant web directories as possible (all free).
  6. I emailed every one of my family and friends and enlisted their help in spreading the word about my business. Through this email, I won The Cherry Closet account.
  7. With every new enquiry that came in I kept my quotes as competitive as possible to ensure we won the business, had the chance to prove how good a job we could do and help to build up a portfolio of happy customers and great work.
  8. Our team established firm friendships with our clients and befriended them on Facebook. This wasn’t a calculated decision; it was natural progression; they are all open, lovely people. We also promote their businesses as much as we can on social media websites.
  9. We earned a reputation for high-impact, well-built websites in niche markets.
  10. I never waivered from my belief that customer service is everything. I have collected as many client testimonials as possible over the two years we’ve been in business.

Before starting my business, I hadn’t realised I could sell. But in my eyes, I’m not selling to potential clients, I’m just extremely passionate about what I do and that probably shines through.

Nobody can predict what’s around the corner, but I have a very good feeling about 2011. I hope I’ve inspired anyone thinking of branching out on their own that if you’re passionate about what you do, have the right skills and work incredibly hard, you’ll reach your own tipping point.

Alex Astell of Manage My Website


Three must-read email marketing tips

January 31, 2011 by Dale Cook

Creating a successful email campaign isn’t easy. It takes skill to make sure your email isn’t marked as spam. You’ve also got to convince the reader to open the email and take action – which usually means buy something. Here are three things you can do to maximise your chances of making a sale.

1 Identify target markets in your mailing list

If you have a large email list, chances are that not all your customers will be interested in the same products or services. It’s a good idea to do some research and find out what they are most likely to be interested in.

Have they bought something from you in the past and would they benefit from your latest offering? Maybe you want to sell exclusively to either men or women? By sending targeted emails, you should get an above-average conversion rate.

2 Personalise your emails

How many times have you read “Dear Valued Customer”? How valued are you if the person/business writing the email doesn’t even know your name?

It’s easy to include individual customer’s names, even in a bulk mailing, so do it. Your target audience will dictate whether you use a formal “Mr Smith” or a more casual “John”.

There are plenty more ways to personalise emails (eg mentioning prior purchases, regional references, etc) but your email should also be personable. Businesses, especially medium to large ones, should try to be as human as possible. A great way to do this in an email is by having a real person signing off. Instead of ending with “Yours sincerely, ACME” use an employee’s name. Adding a photo helps, too. Customers like to buy from people more than faceless businesses.      

3 Constantly test your emails 

You should be tracking the results of your email campaigns, even if it’s as rudimentary as working out how much money you made (or didn’t make) from each one. Ideally, though, you’ll want your email service to provide feedback on bounce, open, click-through, conversion and unsubscribe rates.

Once you’ve got a benchmark, start testing. The easiest way to do this is an A/B split test, where you send one version of your email to half of your target audience, and a slightly modified version to the other half. It’s advisable to only change one element per test (like the subject line, heading, images etc), so you can identify best combination of features. 

Testing can help you improve the effectiveness of your emails as well as confirm that what you are doing is working. For example, if you normally send your customers long emails, test it against a short version. You’ll then know what works best for you and your customers.

Writing the perfect email isn’t easy, but, using some tried and tested methods, you can maximise the potential of each email campaign and (hopefully) increase your profits.   

Dale Cook, Serif


Six need-to-know start-up tips

January 27, 2011 by John Sollars

Thankfully, things are going very well for my new business, but I’ve experienced failure in two previous business ventures, as well as huge losses and a risk of bankruptcy. Based on all of my experiences so far, here are my six start-up tips.

1 Go it alone

If you start a business with a friend, you’ll fall out eventually. Sole ownership and responsibility gets past a tremendous amount of pitfalls and issues that you just won’t anticipate.

2 Minimise your personal risk

Never take a charge on your house and try to avoid providing more information than a lender requires. The bank manager only looks at the information you present him with, so just give him what he wants and leave it at that. When my first business failed, my partner could not find a job and the bank chased me for the total amount of our personal guarantees – which equalled £40,000 and took 10 years to clear.

3 Stay on top of your accounts

Do your accounts, get invoices out promptly and don’t accept being messed around over payment. I remember sitting in our largest customer’s reception waiting for a cheque to be written and the receptionists sneering at me. They could afford to sneer, they’d been paid – my staff and I hadn’t. And ask your accountant to visit you every quarter to make sure you are on top of everything. If you wait until the year-end, you can be looking at information up to 18-months-old.

4 Keep track of key performance figures

It’s much easier for a small business to lose a thousand pounds a month than to make a thousand pounds profit. Make sure you are on the positive side of that line. If you are working hard, the least you can do is make a profit.

5 Pay your bills on time

Think of how much you appreciate being paid on time and the goodwill that makes you feel towards that customer. Now flip that on its head. I prefer to be known as a good payer than a bad one, and in these tough times your bill-paying performance will feed directly into the amount of credit you will receive from your key suppliers.

6 Always employ the best you can afford

It’s impossible to place a value on a hard-working employee who cares about your business and where it’s heading. Spending extra on wages for certain skill sets or talents that are suited to your business can be the difference between 5% growth and 20% growth in a start-up’s early years.

John Sollars is an expert contributor to the IT Donut and MD of


Why it pays to revisit your website layout and content

January 25, 2011 by Fiona Humberstone

When was the last time you carefully reconsidered your website? Have you analysed how effectively it’s working for you recently and looked at ways to get it performing even better?

My business website – Flourish Studios – has been live for a little under eight months and we’ve reviewed and tweaked it twice in that time, once after three months and again in October.

Tweaking isn’t about chucking everything out and starting again, it’s about making small changes that make a big difference, such as displaying your “bestsellers” prominently on your homepage.

Logos, websites and blog designs are the three things we sell the most of, so it makes sense to have those most clearly on the homepage. The initial design didn’t include blogs but did include marketing strategy. A quick check with Google Analytics Site Overlay tool showed me that people weren’t clicking on the Marketing Strategy button – so it was binned. We also found that no one wanted to find out how colour psychology could help their business, so that was changed too.

We replaced the buttons that weren’t working with our bestsellers and the click-through rates have gone up. This is less important with a serviced-based business, but essential when you’re selling products online.

I’ve tweaked the copy several times as we’ve settled into our own skin as a bona fide design agency. I look back at what I wrote even six months ago and see how far we’ve come. It’s exciting.
We’ve also recently tweaked the homepage to make way for the arrival of the new video. The video will get people thinking about some very specific things, so it made sense to have them just a click away to the right of the screen.

I also wanted to simplify the “bugs” (ie call to action buttons), because we figured that if there’s a lot going on with the video, everything else should take second place – otherwise you won’t know where to click first.

It’s now a bit cleaner and simpler but hopefully still has the character and essence of Flourish.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing


I blame the parents…

January 21, 2011 by Rachel Miller

There’s nothing like the subject of maternity and paternity leave to get people hot under the collar. And so the news that the government is proposing a more flexible system that will encourage men and women to share parental leave has had mixed reactions in the business community.

The new approach will come into effect in 2015 and could include new provisions for parents to take time off in several short blocks.

“We support moves to make parental leave more flexible,” says Katja Hall, CBI director for employment policy — or ‘the voice of reason’, as I call her. “This will help families better balance their work and home life.” But she adds, “Any changes will need to be simple to administer and must allow firms to plan ahead to cover staff absences.”

Absolutely. No-one wants to hamstring businesses.

So what are the arguments against this new flexibility? Some business groups are saying that shorter periods of leave will be too difficult to manage. They say it’s already hard enough for small firms in particular to find cover for employees on parental leave. Some even warn that the proposals could see some small firms going out of business.

OK, it can be challenging for small firms to cover staff on leave. But it’s not impossible. Who are these totally irreplaceable people? And I really don’t buy the idea that parental leave could bring an otherwise healthy small business to its knees.

Mind you, this is the constructive criticism. The more outlandish comments online include rants about “the scroungers who see baby breeding as a way of life” and the suggestion that we “look at this question again when men start giving birth”.

Let’s stick to the facts, people. Lots of couples decide to have kids. Often both of them work. Babies need looking after. People need to work. How individual families approach the division of labour — both bread-winning and domestic duties — should be entirely up to them.

I believe that making parental leave arrangements more flexible can only be good for businesses. By spreading the leave between two parents, the absence of one individual employee is likely to be shorter. And taking that leave in shorter blocks could make it easier for businesses to manage without that employee — knowing they won’t be gone for long.

Of course it all depends how it is administered and managed. Small businesses don’t need any more red tape, that’s for sure. And while these new parental rights are to be welcomed, businesses have rights, too — the right to be kept fully informed with enough notice to make their own arrangements.

The Department for Business is to launch a consultation with businesses on this issue soon. Perhaps if the nay-sayers were to look at the proposals more constructively, instead of offering their usual knee-jerk reaction, we could develop an enlightened approach to parental leave that is good for families and good for businesses.

Paternity leave reform plans “ignore business needs”

Find out how to deal with parental leave on the Law Donut

Previous articles on parental leave

Dec 2010: Small firms applaud EU rejection of maternity pay extension

September 2010: Maternity leave extension too costly for small firms, warns BCC

March 2010: Less than a fifth of workers would take extended paternity leave

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