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The Apprentice: turning flour into dough

October 21, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the third episode of The Apprentice? Catch up here.

The Task

Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly. Lord Sugar, Karren Brady and Nick Hewer, stony-faced as ever, have called in the candidates to give them their next task — turning flour into serious dough. They have to make large amounts of bread and cakes, get orders from suppliers and also sell their wares on the streets of London. The team names are the same — Synergy and Apollo — but the players get shifted around so it’s no longer a competition between girls and boys.

The best bits

It’s all about multi-tasking and while each team is good at some things, neither manages to get it all right. Getting it all right would be essential in the real world of course. There are three key components to the task — getting orders, making the baked goods and selling the remaining stock on the street. All this requires careful pricing and planning. So what happens? Synergy (headed by Melissa Cohen) secures limited orders but the team shines in the bakery where it manages to create an effective production line churning out bagels and croissants  — arguably much easier when you have few orders. Apollo (lead by Shibby Robati) manages to pitch well — perhaps too well — and rashly promises to deliver 1900 units to a five star hotel.

The worst bits

So what goes wrong? Synergy is hopeless at pitching and has no idea what to charge. Given five minutes to think about their strategy by the hotel management, they take a full fifteen minutes and only secure a limited order when Alex steps in with prices at the last minute. Apollo, meanwhile, has given its baking team an impossible task. And sure enough, the next morning, they arrive at the hotel with only 16 — yes 16 — of the 1000 bread rolls ordered! The result? They have to pay the hotel compensation of £130.

The losers

Both teams end up selling just under £1000 of bread and cakes. But Apollo’s profits are hit by its compensation payment. So Shibby is in the firing line and he nominates Paloma and Sandeesh to take the flak too. But they can’t — or won’t — help him and this week it is Shibby who gets the chop. As ever, Lord Sugar also has words of warning for another candidate and it looks like Sandeesh is on borrowed time.

The ones to watch

A couple of the candidates are clearly learning how to play the game. Joanna “gobshite” Riley and Stuart “everything I touch turns to sold” Baggshave radically toned down their attitudes and may last longer as a result.

Quote of the week

“They sold cheap and it wasn’t a pretty sight really.” Nick Hewer watching Synergy giving away a box of muffins for a tenner.

The benefits and pitfalls of having a business partner

October 21, 2010 by Chris Barling

Finding the right partner to help you start up your business more than doubles your chances of success.

Benefits

First there’s resource. Your business will have more financial resources and a wider network of family and friends to help.

Then there are strengths and weaknesses. Very few of us have all of the talents needed to succeed in business. If you think this isn’t you, watch the X Factor for an object lesson in over-confidence in one’s own ability. With two people, you have a greater chance of covering all the things that matter.

Then, there’s morale. It’s hard to start a business, and with two there’s always one to cheer up and urge the other on.

Finally, growth is easier. The biggest first step in growth is usually recruiting your first employee. When there are two of you, the recruit only increases the wage bill by 50 per cent, which is much more manageable.

Challenges

But there can be problems. Let me give you some real life examples. A friend of mine went into business with a partner and after several highly successful years, the relationship became strained to the point where both hated going to work.

My friend offered to buy out the partner, but with the relationship broken, the other party was uncooperative. Feeling desperate, my friend upped the price in an attempt to close the deal. Finally, all was agreed, but he had to put all of his assets on the line and take a loan from the other party. Unfortunately, the long period of wrangling had undermined the business. Unable to meet the loan repayments, my friend ended up losing everything – his job, his house and the business.

In another example, a different friend split from his business partner. The partner, again after much wrangling, took most of the existing business with an agreement to make payments on a percentage of sales. However, the business partner set up a subsidiary; made sales to the subsidiary at a highly discounted rate; then the subsidiary sold the products to the end customer. The result was the ex-partner effectively stole from my friend, although it was probably legal.

Two tips

The problem with partners comes when you fall out. Of course, in the heat of enthusiastic start-up this seems a distant prospect, but it eventually happens in many cases. So I would offer two pieces of advice.

The first is to make sure your potential partner has integrity. If they don’t, were you to split, they will try to defraud you. I parted ways with my business partner. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a happy time. But because he had integrity, he didn’t try to “do me down”. In fact, despite the tensions, I still trust him.

A quick way to check if a potential partner has integrity is to ask them about the cleverest things they’ve done in business. If they boast about how they outsmarted (defrauded) other people, you can expect the same treatment if you ever seriously fall-out.

The second recommendation is to draft a “shotgun clause” between you. This allows, at any time, one partner to offer to buy out the other. The recipient of the offer can then choose to either sell or buy at that price, but they don’t have the right to refuse. This is a great way to get to a fair valuation of the business.

Despite the horror stories, partnership is still more than worth the risk. It’s better to have a problem sharing the pie, rather than have no pie, it just pays to take care. After all, you will probably spend more time with this person in the next few years then you will with your personal partner.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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Why you need to blog for your readers first and search engines second

October 19, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

Blogging has many benefits. It will help you build relationships with your clients and prospective clients. It enables you to demonstrate your expertise and helps you gain immediate feedback on an idea. And done correctly, you’ll also gain targeted leads. Oh, and the traffic you receive from your fabulous content will also help you in the search rankings.

There’s a reason I added SEO (search engine optimisation) as an afterthought – it’s because it should be when it comes to blogging. SEO is a nice outcome from a good blog – not the reason for its being.

At a recent blogging workshop I ran, a large chunk of our audience was motivated to blog because of the perceived SEO benefits. They felt that if they could manipulate their blog to bring them in thousands of visitors, that would have a positive impact on their website. I’m delighted to report that by the end of the day they all felt different.

Your blog will receive thousands of visitors if the content is great, if it looks good and you post regularly. You’ll build up a following of loyal readers who will recommend your blog to their friends and where it features in the search engines will be but a distant memory. You’ll be generating enough business from the blog that it won’t matter.

Recently, I stumbled upon a blog that had clearly been contrived to provide search traffic for the writer’s business. It was an imagery-based website and the images were gorgeous. Sadly, I felt a little “used” because the writer clearly wasn’t writing for my benefit, she was writing for the search engines. She’d clearly handpicked a couple of search terms (and no, I won’t tell you what they are). Every blog title was pumped full of these keywords. And scrolling down the list I could see this wasn’t a one off, this was a search engine optimisation onslaught.

Imagine this blog, full of lovely images but pumped full of keywords that mean very little in relation to the post they’re describing. How would you feel as you were reading it? Like a valued reader who just had to return to see what said company had been up to or a little used and worthless that the point of the blog was simply to scramble the website up the search rankings?

There’s an art to using your blog to gain traffic and pumping your titles and posts full of “clever” keywords. I’m not suggesting that it won’t work from an SEO point of view – I’m sure it does. But my point is that this isn’t a blog.

A blog is your chance to journal what’s going on in your world. It enables you to showcase your expertise, build relationships and generate profitable business. Make the most of the opportunity: if you don’t, your competitors certainly will.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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The Apprentice: cuulis and cat fights

October 15, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the second episode? Catch up here.

The task

Heathrow Terminal Five. The candidates are hoping to jet off somewhere hot. But Sir Alan is just messing with their minds. The two teams are staying in London to design and produce a beach accessory and try and sell it to three retailers — Boots, online retailer Kit2Fit and World Duty Free.

The best bits

Product design always entertains. The boys plus Stella English come up with a multi-purpose towel/bag/cooler which they call the Cuuli complete with umlauts. They’ve succumbed to the temptation to create a product that does several different things. It makes for an entertaining if amateur pitch. But this multi-function approach rarely works in the real world. It fails to impress two of the retailers but Kit2Fit does put in an order for 100 units.

The worst bits

The girls come up with a product that is almost as bad as the cardboard camping shelving unit of the last series of Junior Apprentice. It’s a device to hold your book. But it doesn’t do that very well and the girls get no orders at all. Worst of all, however, is the moment when the mighty Boots offer to work with the girls on improving the design as long as they are prepared to offer exclusivity. An amazing offer. And team leader Laura Moore turns it down. Accusations fly in the boardroom. It’s not cool — or even cuuli.

The losers

The girls have blown it and Laura brings Joanna Riley and Joy Stefanicki back into the boardroom with her. Joanna’s crime is to be a self-confessed “gobshite”. Joy’s, it seems, is that she hasn’t pulled her weight. Laura made a colossal mistake turning down Boots’ offer of exclusivity. But she says, “I never make the same mistake twice”. The result? Joy gets fired and Joanna gets a warning from Sir Alan to work on her aggression. The girls as a whole get a massive telling off from Karren Brady for making business women everywhere look bad.

The one to watch

Stella English absolutely shines this week. She is in her element on the boy’s team and starts by saying, “I have no problem whatsoever in whipping these boys into shape”. Sure enough, she quickly establishes herself as team leader and the boys are putty in her hands. She does a great job of managing the project and as a result, she gets a big thumbs up from her team in the boardroom.

Quote of the week

“I’ve been called the battering ram, the bulldozer and the bulldog. I tend to stick my teeth in and I tend not to let go.” Melissa Cohen

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

Flexible working: is it good for businesses?

October 12, 2010 by Simon Wicks

Employer relations minister Ed Davey has announced an extension to the right to request flexible working, which will allow 288,000 more parents to have their requests to work flexible hours formally considered by their employer.

Davey has also revealed that the government is preparing a consultation on a universal right for all employees to request flexible working, saying: “We want to make sure the law better supports real families jugging work and family life, and the businesses that employ them.”

But what do small businesses think? We asked Matthew Jones (MJ), founder of Open Study College what he feels about staff having flexible working hours.

Q: How many people do you employ? Do any of them work flexibly?

MJ: “We employ 20 people and currently allow many of them to work flexibly if they wish to. It boosts staff moral and leads to a more relaxed working environment. Some of our staff commute a reasonable distance to work so we also allow people to work from home during bad weather; it’s safer for everyone and ultimately means they aren’t spending unnecessary hours travelling.”

Q: How is increasing the right to request flexible working likely to affect you?

MJ: “We run a small office so absent staff always have an effect on us. We do have to be aware of presence for time-sensitive roles, but providing our customers don’t suffer and the work gets done on time we look auspiciously at requests for flexible working from staff with or without children. Increasing the age limit will have a minimal effect on our business.”

Q: Is flexible working for all employees a good idea?

MJ: “Flexible working can be a very positive concept providing it is fair, managed and controlled. It leads to a better working environment and more motivated staff. It also makes us appear forward-thinking to our customers and suppliers. It can sometimes be a pain when trying to book meetings and ensuring staff are available, but this is a small trade-off when you consider the benefits. It can help greatly with day-to-day activities such as booking doctors’ appointments and takes the stress out of having to wait for an after-work slot.”

Q: How clear has the government been that this is a right to request, not a right to have?

MJ: “The government has been clear that flexible working is not compulsory, but whether this will filter down accurately I can’t say. But we are clear with our staff regarding what is available to them and it seems to work well.”

Q: Will having this right help to create a “fairer, family-friendly society” as Ed Davey claims?

MJ: “I believe that there’s an inherent problem with childcare and how society deals with it in the UK. While laws and guidelines have been put in place to support parents, it would seem that “childcare” by its very nature has not changed much for a long time, in terms of the hours in which children can be looked after. I would also like the government to help on the other side of the coin, too, with the children themselves, as I don’t believe an employer should be completely responsible for the entire burden of childcare.

“Unfortunately, with today’s strain on purse-strings many families find it hard not having a two-parent income when bringing up children, so we try and do what we can for our staff. It certainly won’t affect our staff here because they already receive these benefits.”

Not all business owners and managers are in favour of giving the right to request flexible working, however. Charlotte Williams of recruitment and HR company Novalign told us:

“The new law could have a negative impact on some small businesses who may feel pressured to accommodate requests for flexible working. This could result in additional and possibly unaffordable costs, inability to compensate for employees with flexible working hours and a detrimental impact on the business’ performance including failure to respond to customer demand.”

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

The catalogue is back

October 11, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

After years of believing the holy grail of marketing was a flashy website with plenty of SEO activity, online retailers are getting back to basics and placing the catalogue at the heart of their marketing campaigns. It’s a clever strategy and something small businesses would do well to take heed of.

In our age of information overload – hundreds of emails a day, blogs, Twitter and other social media – the catalogue (to borrow an analogy from a famous beer brand) quite literally reaches parts other marketing media can’t reach.

A catalogue is intrusive. It lands on your doormat or desk just when you’re not expecting it, with its “oh so evocative” photography and asks you to sit down with a cup of tea and see what’s the latest must-have.

A catalogue will travel round the house with you: from kitchen table to sitting room, up to the bathroom and your bedside cabinet. A catalogue can be marked, written on and well thumbed. You interact with a catalogue physically in a way you simply can’t with a website. And you can dip in and out of it at your leisure. In fact, you’ll probably revisit a favourite catalogue much more than you will a website. A catalogue is a truly powerful medium.

To sell successfully online, you need an offline strategy, too. The big retailers know that. The White Company, Viking, White Stuff, Boden and Isabella Oliver have been doing it for years. Small businesses understandably see doing away with their catalogue as a way to save money in a tight marketplace – but it’s a shortsighted strategy.

A catalogue is your branding tool. It will underpin your web and retail propositions and help your business become memorable. According to The Catalogue Exchange, when you mail a catalogue, 45% of recipients will visit your website. You compare that to an email campaign where if you get a 17% click-through you’re doing well and you can see why the big companies haven’t given up on direct mail.

For every £1 spent on a catalogue, The Catalogue Exchange says you’ll get back between £2 and £5 in store or online. And if you run a luxury brand – or any brand come to that – you need to differentiate or die. A catalogue, with its evocative brand images, space to properly communicate and the way it intrudes on your customers, will help you do that.

I’m not for one moment saying you should ditch your online marketing methods, but what I am suggesting is you look at where your marketing spend is going, and invest it in the activities that are going to give you the greatest return. Put together a proper strategy that you believe will bring you a real return. If you’re spending anything on advertising, you can afford to create a catalogue. Advertising will build brand awareness if you’re lucky (and you chuck lots of money at it). A catalogue will bring you a return on your investment.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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