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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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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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