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The Apprentice: Stuart bags a place in the final five

December 13, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the tenth episode? Catch up here.

The task

And then there were five. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel — characters keep getting bumped off left, right and centre. But before we get to this week’s boardroom firing, the remaining six have to set up tours around London and sell tickets to tourists. Stella and Liz are in team Apollo with Stuart at the helm while Synergy’s Jamie and Chris are lead by Joanna.

Apollo chooses to run a cockney tour while Synergy plumps for a ghouls and ghosts experience. Both team get the chance to pitch to the London Visitors Centre who are willing to sell tickets on behalf of one team – for the right deal.

This task allows Stuart Baggs to say lots of disturbing things like — “Tourists are just juicy money bags. I’m going to dip my hands into their pockets.”

The best bits

No-one handles the negotiation with the London Visitors Centre well. They don’t have a plan and their negotiation skills are poor. Stuart pitches his prices far too high. But the manager of the Centre is rubbing his hands in glee when Chris inadvertently offers the Centre 20 per cent of the entire takings — rather than just a cut of the Centre’s ticket sales. Synergy even has to hand over 20 per cent of Jamie’s hard-earned tips! Collected in his very own hat!

But it turns out that this deal is, in fact, a stroke of genius. The partnership with the Centre ensures they sell way more tickets than Apollo.

The worst bits

The tours are terrible. It’s amazing that the passengers don’t simply get off the bus when it stops at traffic lights. Jamie’s commentary is endearing but wildly inaccurate — “The Thames is the second biggest river in London”. Nick Hewer is on board and his face is a picture.

Stella’s tour includes a lot of time spent wandering around the East End looking for a jellied eels stall (and never finding it) and having a lovely sing-song on the top deck of the bus. Karren Brady also looks less than impressed.

It’s getting pretty tense too as the competition reaches its final stages. Chris and Stuart have a turf war in Trafalgar Square and after a good deal of swearing, Stuart challenges Chris to an actual flight. It reminds us that Stuart is young enough to behave as if he’s still back in the playground.

The winners and losers

So Synergy wins and Liz, Stella and Stuart are left in the boardroom. Stuart quickly takes the offensive, making crazy financial promises and pleading for another chance. The substance of what he says does not impress Lord Sugar. “One day you’ll look back and cringe,” he tells Stuart. Lord Sugar also highlights Stuart’s childishness and wonders if it’s time for “beddybyes”. But Stuart’s spirit has made an impact and, amazingly, Lord Sugar points his finger at Liz.

The ones to watch

Stella, Joanna and Chris still look strong but after this week’s bombshell, who knows?

Quote of the week

“I’m not a one trick pony, I’m not a ten trick pony. I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this.” Part of Stuart’s impassioned speech that persuaded Lord Sugar to keep him in the contest.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Should I focus purely on online?

December 13, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

Having spent the past two weeks carrying out research into potential retail stockists, I was starting to think much of it had been wasted, when I came to the realisation that perhaps the high street is not quite right for my business, Mama Jewels, at this time.

Following some sound expert advice, my aim has been to steer clear of the bigger retailers for now and slowly build up capacity and turnover, approaching smaller stockists at a slower pace. This is a wise but difficult decision, because I’m quite impatient and would like to see results much faster.

My research has been aimed at finding smaller high street stores that stock products that would complement mine. With a couple of dates in my diary, I set about making appointments, firstly at local businesses I could easily visit and get a feeling for their interest without making long journeys to other parts of the country. A great plan – or so I thought – until I started to make appointments and came across an overwhelming response that these shops were closing down premises and moving purely online.

I quizzed one of the shop owners, in the midst of a closing down sale, why a lovely shop based in one of the most affluent areas of Nottingham would be closing down. Their response did not entirely surprise me: they could not make it work offline; competition from the web meant that they too were planning to become purely web-based.

After contacting two more shops, another based in the city centre and one more towards Leicester (facing the same issues) it was time for a rethink. I’d already been successfully approaching online boutiques; maybe this was now where I needed to focus. Yes the World Wide Web is potentially a black whole, but if that is where shoppers are specially looking for my type of products, together with those associated with maternity and nursing – then that is where I need to focus my very limited time and resources.

At the time of speaking to store owners, I had a sinking feeling, but actually this research has given me clarity and spurred me on to explore online marketing in much more detail.

So, my business continues to grow slowly, week by week. Sales are rising via our own website, auction sites and online boutiques. The feelings of panic and the enormity of not knowing whether I’m pitching enough or at the right people have subsided for now and I am so glad that I spent those two weeks in research rather than blindly pitching to any shop that would see me.

Amanda Waring, Mama Jewels

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

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Facing hard facts on the route to success

December 10, 2010 by Chris Barling

When you start a business, you need to be a raging optimist. That’s because, frankly, it’s hard and many people don’t succeed. So to stand a chance, you really need to have a sunny view of the future.

However, you also need to be a realist. A friend of mine was working in a new start up. He asked me if I was interested in investing, so I took home a sample of his product. In the meantime, he had managed to place it with a couple of major high street chains. I tried it with my wife and daughter who were in the target market. Neither of them liked it, so I declined to invest.

The business in the meantime continued. A while later they were back to the drawing board, because the product hadn’t sold through the retail channel at all and had been dropped by the retailers. Fortunately they have now completely changed the offering and are doing okay, albeit on a much smaller scale. My friend is no longer involved.

Another business planned to sell a website monitoring service to small companies. After a few months of selling, it was clear there wasn’t much of a market. The management team changed direction and started selling to big corporate sites instead. This was a raging success and several years later they still have a razor focus on the same market. I was happy and this time invested in the company when they changed direction.

What are the lessons from these stories? It’s about realism and facing the facts. The lesson isn’t to chop and change, as the second company had to stay their new course for several years. However, the quicker you face difficult facts the better, particularly when it comes to customers.

The most important thing any start-up can do is to get some happy, paying customers. If the prospects won’t buy or don’t like the product after they do, don’t try to tell them how they’re wrong. Instead, change direction and provide something that they want. Then press on. A dose of realism is worth a ton of investment. In fact, having the money to continue backing a losing strategy can be the biggest disaster.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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Is HMRC failing to follow its own rules?

December 07, 2010 by Julian Shaw

After winning a case on behalf of a client in which HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) was forced to back down and write-off more than £2,000 of previously demanded tax, Elaine Clark of CheapAccounting.co.uk has accused the tax office of not applying its own rules correctly.

“This is a terrible case. [The taxpayer] receives incapacity benefit as well as an NHS pension,” Elaine said. “HMRC was informed of the two sources of income by the Benefits Agency and the NHS, but did not act on the information provided.”

Elaine claimed under the provisions of Extra Statutory Concession A19. The full version of the concession is quite lengthy, but basically it says the tax office must waive tax owed in certain circumstances if it makes a mistake. You could claim if:

  • HMRC failed to act on information it had
  • that failure lead to a tax underpayment
  • it did not say how much was owed by the end of the tax year after the mistake was made 
  • it was reasonable for you to think everything was in order.

(If the tax office made more than one error, the time limit may not apply.)

If you have been sent a bill and you feel this applies to you, then you may wish to seek further advice. Alternatively, there are a number of draft letters available online. (Search for “Sample letter ESC A19”.)

HMRC correctly said it could not comment on individual cases and that the concession would in all likelihood apply only to a small number of cases.

The problem arises because our tax laws place the onus squarely with the individual. Basically, if your tax is wrong, it’s your fault – even if you were not aware of the situation or if the tax office made mistakes. This is clearly ludicrous, especially given the complexities of our tax laws.

Which is why we have ESC A19. It is an incredibly powerful clause – without it HMRC would be almost unaccountable. Six million people could be affected by recent mistakes by the tax office, through no fault of their own, so the usual rules should not apply. Television programmes such as Panorama and cases such as this have highlighted the problem.

Elaine is right – HMRC is failing to instigate the concession when it could do. It is an Extra Statutory Concession that is being debated, so surely it is not beyond HMRC’s remit to introduce a temporary measure – something as simple as sending out a slip inviting a claim, with space for the relevant details perhaps.

Ethically, this would be the right thing to do, but it would of course cost HMRC and by default the government. 

Julian Shaw, Founder of The Practice Hub

The Apprentice: Stella’s halo slips

December 07, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the ninth episode? Catch up here.

The task

Another pre-dawn start and this time they are meeting in Tower 42 in the city of London. As the sun comes up over the London skyline, Lord Sugar rises up to meet them in a great glass elevator. So what has he got in store for them this week? It’s a treasure hunt — the treasure being an eclectic list of hard-to-find items — including Indian gold, chickens’ feet, white truffles, a four-foot length of kitchen worktop (rarer than you might think), a special length of tartan, an antique sewing machine and the Bluebook (a set of four handbooks teaching London cabbies “the knowledge”).

There are ten items in all. But the critical thing is not just to source the items but to buy them at the lowest price possible. Failure to buy incurs a fine of £50 plus the list price. This task has got Lord Sugar’s name all over it — it’s all about wheeling and dealing. He chops and changes the teams once more and this time, all the girls are in team Apollo while the three remaining boys are in Synergy. This week’s team leaders are Liz and Jamie.

The best bits

Once again, it’s fascinating to compare the different approaches. The girls are well-organised, taking a full two hours to phone around and source the items before they hit the road. The planning pays off and they get all the items on the list. The boys, meanwhile, are strong negotiators and get some of the items at incredibly low prices. It’s all thanks to Jamie’s inspired approach — to come up with stories to support their bargaining. A taxi driving brother, a Scottish wedding — there are no limits to the tales they can spin in a bid to get a bargain. The tall stories work — not because they are believed (they are not) but because the sellers have to offer a rock-bottom price to get shot of these strange people.

The worst bits

So both teams have strengths but who has the edge? Athough the girls look like a crack buying team and the boys are disorganised, the bottom line is price. While the girls enjoy the treasure hunt, the boys rightly see it as a bargain hunt and negotiate accordingly. The biggest disaster occurs when the girls go to a Knightsbridge restaurant to buy their truffles. Not only are they shopping in the worst possible place for a bargain, they get their maths all wrong and manage to pay twice the going rate.

The winners and losers

The girls lose. Everyone is shocked, especially the boys. Talk in the boardroom is all about Trufflegate. Laura and Stella were the ones who did the deal so they come in for a lot of flak. In fact Stella is really in the spotlight this week and not in a good way. All the girls accuse her of being a poor negotiator. Karren Brady says she’s too “corporate”. Perhaps what they really mean is that she is too full of herself. Suddenly, everyone is keen to bring her down and peg or two. But Lord Sugar acknowledges her past strengths and eventually tells Laura she is fired.

The ones to watch

Stella’s halo has well and truly slipped. Judging by the frosty atmosphere between her and Liz back at the house, the gloves are off between these two strong contenders. Joanna, though, is quietly looking like a possible winner. But the boys will have to lift their game if any of them want to stand a chance. Then again, as Stuart says, “even when we’re s**t, we win”!

Quote of the week

“We’ve negotiated well, we’ve got every single product, we’ve come back here feeling confident, everybody’s done a good job and I can’t wait to hear the results.” Laura Moore, shortly before she is fired.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The pros and cons of self-employment

December 06, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

This week has been very ‘up and down’ for me and my jewellery business, Mama Jewels, but it ended positively, which has made me better appreciate the flexibility self-employment offers.

At its low point this week, my young son was admitted to hospital with an infection in his foot after treading on a metal pin. Fortunately, my husband is on holiday so that made life a whole lot easier. Being self-employed also meant I was able drop everything and look after our baby and be at the hospital.

The upside of being self-employed is that you can just take that time off whenever you need to without anyone questioning what or how much time off you take. This is a huge plus for any parent with two small children.

The down side is nobody is paying you while you do this; nobody is standing in for the appointments missed and orders still need to be processed. I had quite a busy schedule set up for the past two days and I had to cancel or postpone most appointments, which only adds to my workload in the weeks to come.

This is something you need to be prepared for when you start your own business. It can be a world away from receiving a regular monthly income, paid holidays and sick pay, as well as having other people to step in and pick up your work in times of crisis.

Before I became self-employed I attended a six-week course run by Business Link. During the first session I realised the course was not going to tell me how to become self-employed or what I needed to do, instead it explored whether I was in the right situation or state of mind – was I really ready for such unpredictability. It was incredibly helpful and confirmed my readiness to start my business.

I was semi-prepared for the rollercoaster world of self-employment, because my parents ran their own business. As a child, I remember the early days when money was very tight, but later I also remember the fabulous foreign holidays and nice family cars.

I remember our financial advisor warning my husband and I, when I told him of my plans to start a business that we needed to be prepared to live on one salary, which is what we’re now doing. Don’t let this put you off, necessarily: I’m just sharing my thoughts, but it’s just worth thinking and planning for this when considering starting your own business.

Our online sales are up slightly on last week and I’ve secured another online stockist, who also has a retail shop, so it isn’t all bad news this week.

Amanda Waring, Mama Jewels

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

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