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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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10 important steps to take when you’re setting up an online shop

August 03, 2010 by Alex Astell

There are millions of online shops, and whether they’re selling clothes, books, tools, gifts, homeware or camping equipment they all had to take the first steps towards getting their store online.

Setting up an e-commerce shop might seem daunting, but by reading these tips and following them up you can make the process smooth and hassle free.

1 Decide on a name for your shop and buy your domain name

It should be memorable and not too long. You can buy domains at Go Daddy, 1 & 1 Internet and Easyspace plus hundreds of other sites. Make a note of your username and password – this is essential as your web developer will need these details.

You could also look into buying domains that are related to the products you're selling and then point them towards your primary domain.

2 Talk to your bank about setting up an Internet Merchant account

You can then link this to SagePay and/or Streamline (secure card payment service). This can take time, so it's best to start the process early.

3 Work out your budget

This is crucial as it will help you focus on what you actually need at the moment and what would be nice to implement in the future. It will also help you choose who will build it (see point 5). Be realistic and remember that the more you invest in your new website at this stage, the less time and money you'll have to spend in the future developing the site.

4 Think about the branding, pages, content and functionality you’ll want

This will enable you to give a clear brief to your potential design agencies. It’ll also save time in the long run if you have a clear picture in your mind of what you’re aiming for.

5 Start researching web design providers - both agencies and freelancers

Look at e-commerce websites that you like and find out who built them or search online for agencies that can help. If you can look at testimonials from their customers or even speak to people who’ve used their services, you’ll be able to make a decision on who you feel most comfortable with.

6 Prepare your product list and images

You’ll probably find that this takes most of your time. Your web designers will give you advice on what they need from you, but if you want to get a head start you can create the product list on an Excel spreadsheet. The column headings would be along these lines (depending on what you will be retailing):

  • Unique product code
  • Category
  • Sub category (if applicable)
  • Product name
  • Image file name (this should be the exact file name for the relevant main image – e.g. “rolling-stones-tshirt-lips.jpg” or it could be labelled by the product ID code, e.g. “100233.jpg”
  • Product description (remember to make it informative and use your keywords for the search engines)
  • Sizes available
  • Colour
  • Price
  • In stock (1) or out of stock (0)
  • Quantity in stock

7 Prepare your images

PLEASE don’t snap away with that disposable camera you stole from a wedding two years ago! There’s nothing worse than seeing a well-designed website with poor, fuzzy pictures. You may already have professional photographs from the manufacturer or you may need to book a photographer. The crucial point here is that your images must be crisp and clear.

Label them well and file them in an organised way so they will be easy to find and sift through as and when needed. Your web design provider may need to crop, cut out or alter the images for your new website and the better the quality of the photographs, the easier and more effective this will be.

8 Make sure you’re completely happy with the visuals from your website designer

Any tweaks to colours, layout, typefaces, etc should be requested now as it would be very difficult (and expensive) to change these further down the line.

You would be wise to steer clear of anything that's too "of the moment" and fashionable when it comes to design and colour - this will date very quickly. Neutral tones will ensure your website remains a contemporary classic and it will need little future investment when it comes to design.

9 While your website is being built, make yourself available for any queries from the web developer

The faster you can come back with the answers, the sooner your website will be ready to launch.

You’ll also need to test, test, test. Think of every possible scenario, try out the payment system and ask your friends to do the same. Their comments will be invaluable as you don’t want your customers to come across too many glitches in the system. There are bound to be a few teething problems and the aim here is to reduce them as much as possible before you launch to the general public.

  • Is all text free from spelling errors?
  • Has content been placed consistently?
  • Have enquiry or shopping cart forms been tested and processed correctly?
  • Have the compulsory question and answer fields been tested?
  • Do your enquiry and order forms send to the correct recipient?
  • Has your website been fully optimised for search engines?
  • Does your website display correctly on all browsers
  • Is your Web Statistics package (e.g. Google Analytics) installed and operational?

10 Launch date!

Tell as many people as possible about your new website. If you already have a customer database, send them an email to let them know that their shopping experience is about to improve beyond measure.

If you have a Facebook account, set up a business page too and invite all your friends to “like” it. Join Twitter to promote your website and try out using Google AdWords if you have the budget.

Check that your web design providers have submitted your site to Google, and register with as many relevant online directories as possible such as FreeIndex and let the universe know about your new site. Make sure your web address is on all your stationery and business cards, and make good use of them.

Alex Astell of Manage My Website

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Happy birthday to us!

July 29, 2010 by Anna Mullinder

Three colourful donuts in a rowThis week we're celebrating the Start Up Donut’s first birthday - and what a year it has been! With a new roster of great sponsors, popular content, a much-improved blog and some 30 enterprise agency partners now on board as syndicators, the site continues to go from strength to strength.

My personal highlights are:

Successful use of social media and blogging

Our followers on Twitter continue to grow but, more importantly, we’re having more and more conversations with start-ups and more established small businesses. By being able to speak to you directly, we can find out what information is most useful to you and tailor the site accordingly.

We’ve recently improved our Facebook page, too, so there’s more interaction with and between our users. Recently we asked what your favourite things about being a small business are and we got some excellent responses ― come and join the conversation.

A few months ago we integrated our blog into the main site (it used to be hosted on Wordpress), which has fuelled growth in visitor numbers and boosted content on the Start Up Donut. We now have a larger number of blog contributors including many of our experts. We add a new post every day or so, keep checking back regularly to see what’s been added. If you’ve got something you’d like to share or get off your chest then send us your blogs.

A large number of case studies

What better way to learn about starting and running a business than from people who have been there and done it? We’ve added a large number of case studies covering topics from “How I set up a business in my 50s” to “How I attract customers”.

More recently, we’ve been adding sector-specific studies, which provide a step-by-step account of how to set up everything from a café or restaurant to beauty business.

The Business StartUp Show

In May we took a stand at the Business StartUp Show in Excel, London. It was great to be able to meet our website users and Twitter followers face-to-face, as well as get the opportunity to tell even more people about the Donut project.

“Mumpreneur” week

In the week leading up to Mothers’ Day we celebrated mums in business. We discussed the term “mumpreneur”, looked at the issues surrounding running a business when you have children and posted a range of interesting guest blog posts. The week was really interesting and we learnt a lot about the different challenges young women face when starting up. My summary blog post captured the highlights.

What have I learnt?

The main thing I’ve learnt is that a project manager’s work is never done! There are always ways to improve the site, different types of article to add, forum posts to reply to, blogs to write and people to speak to on Twitter.

I’ve also learnt that there is such a vast range of start-ups and small businesses out there that are looking for need-to-know information and advice that can help them to start and run their own business more successfully. Please let us know if there’s anything we should be doing to make www.startupdonut.co.uk even better. Here’s to the next 12 months.

  • What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in the last year? What have your biggest business successes been? Please add your comments.

Spend wisely at the start

July 28, 2010 by Chris Barling

When starting a new business, the way that you spend your limited resources is critical to your chances of success. There are places where you can’t afford to scrimp, and there are places where you simply must not waste. You need to keep the chance of failure down by spending what you have very wisely.

  1. For a business with any risk, forming a limited liability company is a must. Then if the business goes down, loans and debts owed by the company won’t follow you. So set up a company by searching for “Company formation” on Google. It’s unbelievably cheap.
  2. There are other things to consider too. You need to keep all of your paperwork, including sales invoices and supplier charges, so that you will be able to do accounts and tax returns. But this doesn’t mean setting up a complex and expensive accounting system. It means employing a cheap book keeper for a few hours a week, or even keeping all of the paperwork in one tidy pile, so you or an accountant will be able to do the accounts when the time comes around.
  3. Registering for VAT, the Data Protection Act and possibly other specialist health and safety laws are other start up activities. Do these at the minimum possible cost and effort. These are overheads, not keys to your business success. You can nearly always find out everything you need to know with a few hours of research online. Everything possible like this should wait if it can.
  4. Don’t spend money on things that you don’t need yet. In a start up situation, tomorrow can take care of itself. The critical thing is to concentrate your money on getting your product right, making sure that your customers are happy, then selling like crazy. This is much more important than a slick operation. I’ve seen a number of people spend precious resources on preparing for massive success, only to have that success elude them because not enough attention was paid to sales growth.
  5. When you have a growing business with satisfied customers, then it’s the time to get better organised. As you grow, you will need to invest in systems to maintain quality, and you should also be able to drive down costs as a proportion of your sales. But all of that is for later.

It sounds easy, which it isn’t. However, following these tips will increase your chances of success. Good luck.

In summary:

  • Spend the minimum on being legal and decent
  • Focus on getting something customers want, and make sure that they are happy
  • With that core in place, sell, sell, sell
  • With sales growing strongly, invest in operations to maintain service and reduce costs

Chris Barling is CEO of ecommerce software supplier Actinic

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How to commission a website designer

July 26, 2010 by Brian Copeland

The first thing a potential customer is likely to do after meeting you, or hearing about your business, is look at your website.

If it makes the right impression, hopefully, you can move onto making your first sale and build the relationship from there. If your website falls short of the mark, it’s likely to put them off and they will go elsewhere.

So where do you start? If this is the first time you’ve needed a website, it can seem overwhelming. But, if you get a good designer onboard, it shouldn’t cause you any problems. You can benefit from their knowledge and experience, providing you commission them effectively. But how?

Your website must reflect your brand. It should be a tool that enables you to achieve your marketing goals. So before you even think about commissioning a web designer, you must know what your brand stands for and how your website fits into your marketing strategy, otherwise, you’ll waste precious money.

What’s your brand?

So what’s your brand? Think of it as your business’s personality – how it speaks, looks and behaves. It’s something far greater than a logo, typeface or a few colours.

The essence of a brand is voice, look and behaviour. Often, these are defined by brand values, so take time to work out what these are. Before you ask a web designer to start work on your behalf, be clear in your mind about your brand values. Draw up a list of five or six brand values, if necessary, seek advice from those with knowledge of your professional or commercial values.

Now think about your marketing strategy – how you will sell your products or services. Your website will be part of this, even if you don’t intend to sell online. Your website must seamlessly complement your other sales efforts, whether that’s cold calling, distributing leaflets, direct mail, newspaper adverts, using online social media such as Twitter or quite possibly a mixture of these.

Be clear about the contribution your website needs to make. Do you need it to sell, generate sales leads/enquiries, capture information or simply tell people more about your business and its wares?

Choosing a web designer

Your choice of web designer will depend on several factors – and budget will be a key. Big agencies don’t work for small fees, while a self-employed web designer could create just as good a website for your business anyway.

Decide on your budget and stick to it. You could search online for web developers, but I’d recommend seeking recommendations from other businesses you trust. Give them a call and ask about how happy they are with the service and value for money they received. Ask whether they encountered any problems.

Shortlist at least three potential designers/agencies; check out their work and ask what solution they recommend for your business. One of the important questions, of course, is price. That’s not to say go with the cheapest – it’s more a question of value for money. Negotiate a set price before any work commences and get all work set out in black and white. There should be no unexpected additional charges. Most web designers often offer ready-made packages, so make sure your website will meet your individual needs.

Briefing your designer

Once you’ve decided on a supplier, you’ll need to brief them properly. A good brief is the cornerstone of any successful design project. They don’t have to be wordy, multi-page documents; aim for concise and clear guidance on the form, look and content of the site you want, totally in step with your brand and marketing strategy.

When it comes to key decisions (eg site structure, fonts, colours, images, etc), the designer should explain your options, which will enable you to make well-informed decisions. If you’ve picked the right one, you should have confidence in your designer’s ability and opinions, but that doesn’t meaning settling for something you don’t like. You should also be prepared to have your choices criticised where necessary, as long as this is accompanied by suggestions for better alternatives.

The process might involve having to make a few changes (hopefully minor) along the way, but soon enough, come launch you should end up with an important tool that enables you to start and grow your new business.

Brian Copeland, creative director of the multi award-winning agency, Graphic Clinic

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2020 Vision – Have you got it?

July 23, 2010 by Emma Wimhurst

Got an idea for a business? Great! What are you going to achieve with it? Let’s fast forward to 2020. Now tell me what you see....

  • Have you built a trusted brand?
  • Do you have a national, or perhaps, a global business?
  • ARE YOU A SUCCESS?

The vision of where you will be is all part of strategic planning. It’s something you must seriously consider before you take your business idea any further let alone launch it into the marketplace. BUT, what if you’re having trouble gazing into the future and planning your way? Where do you start?

Look at what you’ve done already. You should have carried out a little research, found a niche and run your idea by friends or family. Their enthusiastic reaction, combined with you ambition, will have turned it over and over in your mind, giving it an identity and inspiring you to create it.             

So let’s now look at something that will give your wonderful idea a tangible form.

  • Get a pen and notepaper and find somewhere to sit, relax and think. If you’re planning to set up in a partnership you must do this together, to make sure you share the same dream and want the same outcome. 
  • Scribble words, phrases, or short sentences that you feel sum up where you want your business to be and what success means to you.

STOP! I forgot to mention, be economical, it’s not a novel you’re writing but your vision statement and it must be wrapped up in no more than 50 words. It may only be one paragraph but it is so important and you must get it right. Within it you must encompass the essence of your business success, what you want to achieve and where you want to be in, let’s say, the year 2020. It should be exciting enough to motivate you and fire up others you want to involve in the venture.

I maintain that this single exercise – whether looking ahead for a year, five years or a decade – begins the planning you need to achieve success. This is something I believed when I set up Diva Cosmetics (as a new mother) back in 2000. I had a wealth of experience and expertise in the industry, I was focused on what I wanted, and knew exactly how I was going to get it. It was, in essence, written down in 45 words!

Running a business is challenging, decisions have to be taken and if you’re not absolutely certain where you’re heading it’s possible to stumble, lose your way and ultimately miss out on the success that should have been yours. I often referred back to Diva Cosmetics’ Vision Statement when confronted by difficult decision making. If opportunities led me away from my original strategy, I refused to be sidetracked. Establishing my goals was a priority at Diva Cosmetics. I knew from day one where I wanted the business to be and achieving £1m in the first 12 months was, of course, all part of the plan.

I made use of a planning system I call my Seven Business Disciplines to ensure I don’t deviate from the path towards success. Having sold the company, I now use this proven system to guide start-ups. Of course, there are many facets to my first discipline, strategic planning, but having a clear and considered vision statement is a very positive start.

Once finished, put it aside for a week or two. When you go back to it, review it, edit it and leave it again. Repeat this process until those 50 words mean what they say. Now you have your vision for success. Success doesn’t just happen it takes enormous effort and hard work. It also takes thorough planning, specifically strategic planning as a foundation to build everything else on, so now you see just how vital it is.

A lack of research and planning is often blames for business failure, so do make sure your business planning is watertight. If you’re daunted by that then consider getting advice from someone who’s already got what it is you want. Planning is crucial to your success, so take advice.

At this early stage in your business planning, make sure you set out your vision statement and be true to it. Focus on where you want to be with the clearest of 20:20 vision and then set off but never lose sight of it. Who knows where you’ll be in 2020? You do...because you’ll have planned it!

Emma Wimhurst is a motivational business speaker, mentor and author

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