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The Apprentice kicks off with a banger

October 07, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the first episode? Catch up here.

The task

It’s midnight in the boardroom and Lord Sugar has called in the 16 new candidates all hoping to be his next apprentice. Two teams — the girls and the boys — are tasked with creating their own sausages and selling them for a profit. They have 17 hours.

The best bits

Watching the stall-holders of Smithfield market make mincemeat (sorry!) of the candidates as they try and negotiate the best price for the meat they are buying. The boys leave one stall-holder abruptly after they have negotiated a discount so when they eventually come back to him, he puts the price back up! I am also loving this year’s fabulous crop of names — Raleigh Addington, Stella English, Paloma Vivanco. They could be straight out of a Jilly Cooper novel.

The worst bits

The boys’ appalling and sometimes abusive sales technique. The boys’ disgusting-looking sausages. The boys’ lack of “synergy” — their team name. It was a bad day for the boys.

The losers

Dan “shouter” Harris. No-one had a good word to say about boys’ team leader Dan. So he got the chop. But Sir Alan was also sorely tempted to boot out Stuart “everything I touch turns to sold” Baggs as well.

The ones to watch

Stella English and Liz Locke quietly got on with some impressive number crunching and came out looking like contenders.

Quote of the week

“On paper you all look very good. But then so does fish and chips.” (Lord Sugar)

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

Are your backoffice systems good enough?

October 06, 2010 by Matt Bird

Like it or not, computer systems are a part of everything to do with operating your business and are crucial to its success. An ideally tailored system, one that is adaptable, usable and affordable, will transform your business and be a huge enabler for future expansion. No matter how talented you and your staff are, a poor system will hold you back.

I certainly know that the recently introduced backend systems at my business Stinkyink have exceeded all expectations in how we can adapt and scale them to our changing needs. And I believe it is possible for any start-up or small business to be just as fortunate.

Any system that does what we need is fine

While the above statement is true to a certain extent, don’t let it control the direction of your business. An inflexible system, while satisfying your initial needs, can hold back a new business idea for pushing yourself to the next level. This “future-proofing” is key, especially as a start-up. The path your business takes will rarely be the one you imagined, and this highlights the importance of being supported by one that can survive in a changing environment.

The old systems and their providers had no intention of implementing features that are now crucial in all areas of our business and the backbone of the excellent service we provide. We would still have been good on the old software, but now we can be great.

Behind any good system there is a good team

Adaptation and scalability are key for a backoffice system, but there are other critical success factors. Dedicated support from the software supplier, knowledgeable employees and – crucially – an ability to take criticism and user advice, should all be part of the service. The sheer scope and reach of some backoffice systems, depending on the complexity of your business model, make training a necessity, and the quality of this training will heavily impact how much you get out of your system.

The best way I can sum up the ideal support team for your backoffice system is that they take any criticism or request that you, the user, highlights, and see it as an opportunity to enhance the package, for others as well as you. We are lucky enough to have that with our supplier, AxisFirst, and the efficiency gains we have experienced with little tweaks to the original system really are priceless.

Even if you’re happy – look around!

I am all for loyalty, but the sooner you can implement your ideal backoffice system, the better. Even if your existing one performs well, question it.

  • Are there criticisms you or your staff make frequently?
  • Something you’ve been told is not possible?
  • A day-to-day activity that should really be automated?

It is a competitive market, so look around. You might be surprised how the system developers begin to think outside the box and things become possible when you see what competitors are offering.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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How vital a website is in the new media age

October 05, 2010 by Stuart Fuller

You have put together your business plan, your competitor and customer research and written your marketing plan.  Hands up who thought about the simple matter of a domain name or a website? 

“It doesn’t matter,” some of you will say, because you aren’t going to be selling anything online, but where do you think more than 90 per cent of the UK population now looks for information on a business? The days of flicking through Yellow Pages for a local plumber are long gone. Nowadays, people use their PCs or their smartphones to see who is local – and what other people have been saying about them. Would you buy anything from Ebay if the seller had 100 per cent negative feedback? Exactly. The same is true of any business today. People will want to know who you are and the first place they will go to find out is online.

So, setting up a website is complicated, time consuming and expensive right? Not at all. Anyone can build a website now, thanks to simple tools available freely online. 

Organisations such as Wordpress and Blogger mean you can have an attractive website up and running in minutes. And get this: it’s free of charge, too. 

Every business should have a website, even if it’s a simple one-pager saying who you are, what you do and how people can contact you, it’s a start. Your website is your most vital employee, one that can work for you 24/7, 365 days a year, across the globe. It’s your virtual shop, one where you can communicate to your potential clients and they can communicate back with you.

So where do you start? Well, getting a domain name is your most important step. A simple domain name check will give you the answers to what is available. And for as little as £4.99 per annum you can take the first step in protecting your burgeoning brand online.

Remember, domain names are unique, which means once you have it, no one else can.  So immediately you have a competitive advantage and you can start thinking about how you will take over the world. Well, maybe just your town or city for starters…

Stuart Fuller is the Business Manager for Nordic Region & Online Markets (UK & Denmark) at Easily.co.uk. He is an expert on websites and Internet services.

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Plan properly to avoid pitfalls and potholes

October 04, 2010 by Emma Wimhurst

Would you ever consider setting off on a long, unfamiliar journey without your SatNav or road map and only a dribble of fuel in your tank? 

You might make good progress for a while, but before too long the roads will narrow, your fuel gauge will hit zero and your mobile will show no signal. HELP! Oh, if only you’d bothered to plan ahead!

Funnily enough, business planning is just like going on a journey. You know your destination, that fine place called Success. But knowing where you want to end up isn’t enough because you need to plan your route, too. And you must be vigilant, watch out for obstacles and steer clear of roadworks – not to mention bad weather and mile-long traffic jams.

If you’re serious about starting a business, you need to be serious about planning. You must focus on your ultimate goal – fabulous success – and determine your route towards it. This ranges from the grand plan right down to what might seem like insignificant details. If you plan for all eventualities – however small – you’ll know exactly how to deal with them when they, inevitably, crop up.

I took this approach in starting and running Diva Cosmetics and it quickly brought me success and wealth. Now, having moved on, I feel that passing on my knowledge called Seven Business Disciplines to budding entrepreneurs like you will bring you success. If strategic planning (my first discipline) is about visualising your destination, then business planning (discipline two) is how to plan your route to get there.

Let’s look at planning basics. What is a business plan? In a printed form, it’s a surprisingly slim document. Only 25 or 30 pages with a front cover carrying the business name and logo. Inside, the business idea is thoroughly investigated and includes supporting facts, figures and research. The writing style is easily readable within bite-sized paragraphs and technical jargon and waffle are banned. Titles and headings are concise with the overall structure being simple, focussed and well-organised and there are, of course, no errors (whether spellings, grammar or figures).

If the thought of sorting out your business planning sounds daunting, long-drawn out and too demanding of your scarce time, you should take comfort in the fact that this initial burst of effort will pay real dividends. This one document – and all the research that you’ll need to carry out for it – will help you decide whether or not the idea will fly. It will signal your chances of success and how to go about achieving it.

What are the key elements you need to include?

  1. The Business Background
  2. The Product/Service
  3. The Market
  4. Marketing/Sales Strategy
  5. Regulatory
  6. Risks
  7. Financials

Once you’ve dealt with these elements you’ll be in a position to write an executive summary, a two-page summing up of your start-up. It should be convincing enough to excite potential investors, as well as boost your own confidence. Although this is written last, your summary should be at the front of the plan, where it needs to pack a powerfully persuasive punch.

When you’ve finished that first draft, you need to step away from the process. Return to it a couple of weeks later and read it several times. Make notes, gather more data and rework parts that don’t read well. Double check your facts, especially your figures, because they need to stack up and be impressive. Make sure the tone of the document shouts the right message. Does it ignite your passion? If not, revisit the words you’ve used and choose more dynamic, proactive, positive language.

Ask a business colleague, mentor or supporter to review it. This must be someone you trust, who has good judgement, knows you professionally and has an insight into your industry. Ask them to be honest and use their comments to hone what you’ve already done. After all that hard work, don’t allow it to languish on your desk. Instead, actively use your plan for reference, it will help you make good business decisions, take fewer risks and keep customers in the front of your mind.

At Diva Cosmetics, right from start-up, I updated my business plan regularly and used it to keep ahead of the competition. By focussing on the business, I was able to make decisions about staff requirements, how to expand the team and in what areas. I was able to review costs, check suppliers and understand the implications on the business should anything go wrong. I would undertake a full competitive review each year and adapt the marketing strategy on the basis of it.

My advice to you is to make your business plan a “living” document that evolves and adapts as you progress on your journey.  Remember that planning is a necessity and if you want success you can’t afford to ignore it. So, I hope your journey into business is a smooth one – no collapsed drains or muddy old tractors up ahead for you – and do make sure you check your fuel gauge!

Emma Wimhurst is a motivational business speaker, mentor and author

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Seven PR tips for small businesses

September 30, 2010 by Hearing Direct

PR is essentially about developing your business by raising its media profile. For a small business, effective PR can be the difference between success and failure. At HearingDirect.com we recognise the value PR brings to our business. Here are our top tips for generating PR coverage:

1 Know your audience

Who is your product/service aimed at? Successful PR works because you reach the right audience with a clear message that is relevant to them.

2 Target specific media

Knowing and understanding the media outlets your target audience consumes will help you target your audience. This will enable you to get an idea for the types of stories you need to pitch to maximise coverage.

3 Offer something new

Your story must tell your audience something they haven’t heard before and fit the profile of your target publication. For example, a local newspaper is more likely to cover a human-interest story, while a trade publication is more likely to focus on industry issues. In both cases, however, editors want a relevant, interesting “hook” to the story. Make sure you have created a good plan with a clear message.

4 Devise a clear and succinct message

Many journalists/editors are too busy to read all of the emails they receive, so always identify the right person you need to speak to and call them before sending your story. Always call them at the beginning of the day. When speaking to them, and in the follow up email, your message should be clear and concise – you should be able to sum it up in a few sentences. If it sounds too complicated, it’s likely to put people off. Anticipate and clearly label all materials editors need, explaining why your story is worth covering. Mark the email you send with the words “Press Release”.

5 Provide good images

A good photograph can be the difference between a story being published or not, because editors like to illustrate stories with images that draw in readers. However, nothing is more amateur than using passport or home photos for publicity shots. Spend a couple of hundred pounds getting some professional single and group shots of your staff. Buy the copyright to the images and make sure they’re supplied on disk. This means you can offer journalists high-quality photos via email at no cost.

6 Build good relationships with the media

You need to build good relationships with journalists because this is the basis of your interaction with the media. These take time to develop and should be viewed as a long-term investment.

7 Remember these important points

Everything you say to a journalist is ‘on the record’ and can be referenced unless you are specifically promised otherwise in advance. Journalists don’t have to show you their story before it goes to print. Always ask a journalist what their deadline is and send them everything they need within that timescale and be aware your story may not appear in the next issue – or even at all.

Digital hearing aid sellers HearingDirect.com was recently voted the UK’s 59th most promising start-up for 2010.

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Lessons learned about social media marketing (part two)

September 27, 2010 by Alex Astell

Recently, I spoke to Claudia Kapp of Deadly is the Female, a customer of my business, to learn about her experiences of social media marketing.

Deadly is the Female is a Frome-based boutique and web shop specialising in fabulous quality faux vintage fashion from head to toe. Both in store and online, the shopping experience is designed to make their customers feel like old-time Hollywood starlets.

Claudia has been using social networking websites since opening her shop in November 2008.

We started out with a MySpace page,” she remembers, “which was the site with which I was most familiar, but I soon realised many of our followers were more focused on Facebook. We now mainly use Facebook and Blogger with some Twitter on the side.

We try to find a balance between updating regularly and bombarding people to the point of irritation. Generally, we post something on Facebook every day and on Twitter a couple of times a week.”

Do she have any good social media tips? “I find it useful to follow other people with similar businesses and learn from them. This is easiest when they do things that are annoying. I hate getting slight variations of the same picture posted again and again, so don’t do that. Try to keep things fresh and don’t focus on selling all the time, a little bit of personal stuff is a good thing, too.”

Claudia recently started using Google Analytics, to find out more about site usage. “You wouldn’t ever guess some of the keywords that lead people to your site. Occasionally, we’ll run Facebook exclusive sales, too - which is a great way to see if people are paying attention.

“Social networking is a great way to connect directly with your customers. You can ask opinions or for help and advertise events. It’s also useful for keeping an eye on trends and gauging popular opinion, which even in a niche market has an impact.”

She says her favourite thing about Facebook is the variety of ways it can be used and how visible everything is. “You can make people feel involved by tagging them. Twitter is great for short, sharp information sharing. I feel less comfortable with Twitter, but I’m still learning.

 “Social networking can be quite time-consuming but it’s worthwhile. The instant feedback and volume of information shared is like nothing else and it can help with making important day-to-day business decisions. I sometimes still feel a bit silly typing my thoughts out and sending them out into the unknown, but it’s worth it.”

And if Claudia could only use one social networking site? “It would be Facebook,” she replies. “It’s so easy to add attractive links to specific pages of the website as well as endless photos, videos and just about anything you can think of. You can have your own identity without the clutter of some MySpace pages and you can make people feel part of your brand. Using social media for business marketing takes time and practice to find out what works, but my advice is stick with it and stay positive,” she concludes.

Alex Astell of Manage My Website

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