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Will you be at Sage World?

August 19, 2010 by Rory MccGwire

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the forthcoming Sage World event on 8-9 September.

For my part, I will be chatting about a question that has fascinated me ever since my first ‘proper job’ as an investment controller at the venture capital company 3i: What simple principles and tactics make business success easier? Or, put another way, what things allow you to survive the tricky first stage of business growth, so you can then have the time to build a truly successful business?

I’ve been discussing this topic with audiences for over ten years. It is a subject that never loses its excitement, because starting a business is never anything less than exciting for the people doing it. I come out of these sessions buzzing with enthusiasm and wanting to spend a couple of hours with each of the people who come and talk to me about their businesses straight after the session. I think it helps enormously that I started my own business as a one-man-band and I’ve continued to grow the company with no outside investment — in other words I am like 99% of the people in the audience.

Sage is one of a handful of mega-success stories in British business over the last 25 years and I’m pleased to see that Sage World is trying to do something different from the usual business event, by using their ‘interactive delegate technology’.

So there will be lots of demonstrations of the software tools you can use to get your business idea off the ground. If you’ve already established your business, then you’ll find plenty of ideas to help you build on that foundation and meet the technical challenges that small firms face in the modern business climate: finance, HR, sales, marketing, and so on.

Sage World also offers a tremendous opportunity for you to build useful contacts. Networking is about meeting the right people, making the right connections and tracking them during and after an event. So I’m dying to try out Sage’s Spotme electronic networking device - I’m sure this will really help me find and talk to the people that matter to me.

I’m sure it’ll help you, too. So please do track me on Spotme, come and say hello and make the time to hear the presentation.

Sage World is a free two-day event in September for anyone starting or growing a business.

Rory MccGwire, BHP Information Solutions

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Five tips on how to make the most of a business break

August 17, 2010 by Emma Jones

When you start and grow a business, you’re involved each day in the detail of running the business; perfecting customer service, ensuring positive cashflow, making new products and so on. This is all good and right but to plan for business growth, it’s important to step away from day-to-day affairs and take a good look at the business from a distance.

Years ago someone told me the story of a successful business owner who, once a year, would pack his bags, leave the family home, and head off to spend a week alone with the business plan. I’ve emulated this ever since and every year I think it’s time well spent. Freshly back from this year’s break, here are my five tips on how you can reap rewards from taking a business break.  

1 Head to a place that stimulates the senses

This place doesn’t have to be far from home but it’s important you travel to it as the journey itself gives a sense of separation. As the car drives away/train pulls out/plane takes off, you positively feel yourself moving farther from the detail of the business and heading towards a space and place that will help you focus on ‘the bigger picture.’ Ideally, choose a place with dramatic scenery; open seas, rolling hills, tall skyscrapers; essentially you’re looking for a landscape that’s different to the one you’re used to as this will stimulate the imagination and create the perfect setting for planning.

2 Get settled

You’re in the setting and a new place, get yourself accustomed to it; take a walk, have a drink, allow your mind to wander and people watch! Feel yourself starting to relax? Good. You’re in the right frame of mind to start planning!  

3 Ask yourself two questions

How has the business performed over the past six months/year and where do you want to take the business in the next six to 12 months. Write down your thoughts... on napkins... in a notebook... on your phone... whatever is closest to hand. Be ambitious in your goals and make the most of being in a place that’s encouraging you to plan for your dream business.

4 Don’t rush it

It’s likely you will come up with a new idea for the business in a ‘eureka’ moment of "Ah! Why didn’t I think of that before!" – allow time for this moment to come. You’ve certainly created the right conditions for innovation as your brain is finely tuned on the business and not distracted by detail.

5 And now for action

Possibly the most important point of all. Take your notes, head home, and get started on turning plans into reality!  

Business breaks don’t have to be a full week or far away. What’s important is to place yourself in conducive surroundings. I do this alone, as did the man I emulate, but you may choose to go with a business partner or friend so you can vocalise your thoughts. Go with what works for you and know that taking time out may seem like an extravagance, but it will pay dividends.

Emma Jones is founder of Enterprise Nation, a business expert, and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up’ and ‘Working 5 to 9’

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Complaints are like gold dust

August 13, 2010 by Chris Barling

Complaints are great. Although there is a tendency to do the same with complaints as with a medieval runner bringing bad news from the battlefield – blame the messenger – this temptation must be avoided at all costs. Complaints are the best and most unvarnished source of customer feedback. That’s when they are read in the raw, uncorrupted by staff editing, “summarisation” or by any other subtle bias from your customer surveys.

It’s much better to hear from a customer, and have the chance to fix things, than for them to bad mouth you behind your back, or even worse, broadcast your failings for others to hear. A customer who has been able to complain, and feels that the complaint has been taken seriously has already reached the first base in changing their feelings about your organisation. They are then much less likely to spread their complaints more widely.

Customer complaints highlight problems with people or processes, often way before other indicators show red. You can then fix them before they cause too much trouble. It’s all too easy to glide blithely along while significant problems are developing, with no recognition at management level. Complaints help to shatter the peace, for the better.

If you don’t already have a customer feedback facility on your website, consider introducing one. Ideally hosted by a third party so people know that the comments are authentic. You’ll get positive and negative input, and make sure you respond to the latter saying how you’ve tackled the issue.

Research has shown that customers with issues that are resolved quickly often become very loyal, which is good for all involved and often helps boost the bottom line. In other words, listening and fixing complaints creates better customers, and better customers are more profitable.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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Secrets of growing your business from the kitchen

August 11, 2010 by Antonia Chitty

If you have a home business, how can you run it in an effective way, maximise your results and allow the enterprise to grow? Here are some tips on breaking through the barriers that could be holding your business back.

If you look at your business right now, who is involved in running it? What would happen if you took a day off, wanted a week away or were unexpectedly ill for several weeks? If you want to build a business income that your family can depend on it is important that the business does not just depend on you.

Do you ever feel the pressure of running your business is overwhelming? You can be required to cope with selecting new products or developing new services, pick and packing, promotion, marketing and accounts as well as being your own receptionist and tea lady.

There is a way to both make sure that your business can run without you AND ensure that the money continues to come in whether you are there or not:

Build a team for your business

Look at all the functions in your business. Make a list right now of all the things that you do. You might want to include:

  • Website management
  • Marketing through social media, blogging, newsletters
  • Public relations
  • Picking and packing
  • Arranging couriers or taking parcels to the post office
  • Customer services – answering queries by phone or email
  • Bookkeeping and end of year accounts and tax return

When you’ve made your list, put a tick by the things that you like doing and feel that you are good at. Then look at the other areas. Which one would you be really pleased to get off your hands? Who could help you with this? You might need the help of a:

  • Bookkeeper
  • Accountant
  • Lawyer
  • Public relations specialist
  • Marketer
  • Website manager

A virtual assistant can do many things for your business and different assistants have different areas of expertise. Some may be able to create emails and newsletters for you and upload items to your website. Others may offer call handling and be able to answer simple customer queries for you.

Or you might need someone local who can come in on an occasional and part time basis to help with packing and dispatch.

Having got this far, is there a little voice inside your head saying: “But my business can’t afford more help”? If so, push it aside for a moment or two. Think how much more effectively you could work on the tasks that you have a natural talent for if this one task or area of work was taken off your hands. Could you do more work to generate sales that would then pay for the support? Are there tasks that just aren’t getting done that are holding the business back? Getting extra specialist support could help you take the business to a new level.

Think about this over the next few days. Work out how much you would have to increase sales in order to pay for help – and conversely estimate how much sales are being held back because of the things you aren’t able to do or can’t do quickly and efficiently.

Build your network of support for your business and it can really allow your business to take off. Network on and offline and ask for recommendations to help you find your essential support people.

Be clear about the tasks you want to delegate. If you are nervous start by passing on small tasks and build up as your confidence grows. Develop ongoing relationships and set up systems that work and you will get to the stage where your business can succeed even when you aren’t there.

Antonia Chitty of Family Friendly Working

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Taking Mexican food to the masses

August 09, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

I have heard time and again that a business like mine needs a face. Well, the worrying thing is...whose face would it be? I guess it would have to be mine!

Now that I’m breaking even and orders are steadily increasing, I need to look at how I can promote the message that I want to shout about: about how amazing Mexican food is. I don’t want to preach about it, I just want to share recipes, mouth-watering ideas for creating food and drink to impress your friends, and a bit of the history and the nutritional properties.

And there is some absolutely fantastic news for the cuisine: UNESCO, the branch of the United Nations that is best known for its list of World Heritage Sites, has just awarded the Mexican cuisine the very prestigious status of “intangible cultural patrimony” along with Chinese cuisine. The French cuisine has been turned down twice.

The superior methods and ingredients used to prepare traditional food such as Mole sauce tamales and salsas are a sharp contrast with the processed cheese and sour cream-covered nachos and cardboard-like hard-shell tacos that many people outside the country typically confuse as Mexican food. I would love to inspire foodies to try a variety of new recipes and ingredients.

Not being such an internet whiz, I will need lots of advice to use the internet era to inspire the foodies who want to try new things. Your suggestions will be welcome.

  • Add your ideas for Marcela to the comments section.

You can find out more about Marcela on the new interactive business website www.inafishbowl.com

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Sole traders and micro-firms: the true Credit Crunch victims?

August 05, 2010 by Mark Williams

It’s a familiar criticism and one with which I have more than a measure of sympathy. Those nasty, greedy banks, eh? After all we’ve done for them, letting them off scot-free for the mess we’ve all ended up in, even bailing out some of the worst offenders with obscene amounts of taxpayers’ money.

And how do they repay our generosity? By not lending money to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), that’s how. Well, there’s gratitude for you.

With many of the banks recently announcing huge profits, it could become difficult for some of them to continue to justify their ongoing reluctance to make credit more available to businesses – especially with mounting government criticism from Vince Cable and others. And then there are the bankers’ bonuses, of course. God forbid the day when these aren’t being paid.

Better access to credit at affordable prices could seriously ease the cashflow crises many SMEs regularly face, yet despite having direct experience of the serious strain lack of cash creates, why are so many SMEs so bad when it comes to paying their own suppliers on time?

As a freelance editor and writer, unfortunately, I speak with a lot of experience. And it’s not just the knock-on effects of having to wait for cash, as bad as these can be. It’s also the additional unpaid effort that must go into chasing money.

Not all of my customers are ‘bad payers’. There are a couple who realise that one-man-band freelances simply cannot afford to wait for their invoices to be paid. We must pay our bills and operating expenses and try to put food on the table like anyone else. Understanding customers are worth their weight in gold. These are the people you want to work for, the ones for whom you don’t mind going above and beyond the call of a purchase order form or commissioning note.

However, no matter how great the work you do or how much flexibility you show, there are other customers who use every delaying tactic in the book to get out of paying their bills on time, from pretending ‘X from accounts is on holiday at the moment’ and ‘Oh, I don’t remember receiving your invoice…’ to simply ignoring polite email reminders.

They know they can exploit the situation by ignoring timid ‘please pay within 30 days’ requests at the bottom of invoices, because – what are you going to do – charge them interest? What, at current rates? Good luck. Even if you are prepared to ask for interest (providing you’ve made this apparent in your terms and conditions), they’ll probably stop using you. After all, it’s a buyer’s market in most sectors at the moment and always has been.

In recent years, things seem to have become much worse. The ranks of the brass-neck late-payers – the sworn enemies of cash-strapped sole traders and micro businesses throughout the land – seem to be swelling. Delaying paying invoices, often to everyday self-employed people who need the money to survive and who themselves cannot get bank credit, seems to have gradually become ‘the way things are done’, a kind of malevolent current business convention.

In the post-Credit Crunch world, were it not for the millions of sole traders and micro-firms who have no choice but to bite their tongues and wait patiently for their money, the situation for many larger businesses would be much more bleak... You’re welcome.    

Mark Williams, Start Up Donut editor

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