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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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Start-up lessons from the World Cup Bid failure

December 03, 2010 by Chris Barling

So England has lost the bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As soon as the result was announced, someone on my company (SellerDeck) forum posted that they were really pleased. As a result of the failed bid, a new stadium and 2,500 houses wouldn’t be built a couple of miles from their front door.

It did get me to thinking about some of the lessons start-ups can learn from this whole tale of woe. Often what is a disaster for one person is a blessing for another, and things aren’t always what they seem.

Firstly, going for a big win is a dangerous strategy. Think of the bid team. There were years of work and further years of excitement. Then suddenly it’s all over and they are out of a job. It’s the same way if you focus on landing one big contract when you’re starting up. Generally, it’s best to aim lower first, then you can gather some momentum before finally going after the bigger fish.

While there will be howls for several months to come – and no doubt the FIFA voters can look forward to many years of entrapment and hassle from the British media – there’s probably a big lesson about messing in the political field. It’s certainly the case that some decisions in business are not made for rational reasons. It’s important that when you’re starting a business you ensure you understand the area you are targeting. If connections are critical and you haven’t got any – leave the field to others.

Sometimes the loser is the winner. Certainly for years, winning the Olympics was almost the kiss of death for a nation’s economy. In the same way, there will be contracts that we lose that turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s important that when we lose, we can pick ourselves up, quickly get over the disappointment and move on to better things. In fact, if you don’t have this kind of resilience, maybe you’re not cut out for starting a business. On the other hand, if you know that this is a feature of your character, then congratulations, you already have one of the critical success factors in place.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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All you need to know about the VAT increase

December 01, 2010 by Justin Randall - Accountant London

There is now just over a month remaining before the standard rate of VAT climbs from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent. VAT-registered businesses are being urged to prepare themselves for the change.

Any sales of standard-rated goods or services made on or after 4 January 2011 must carry a VAT charge of 20 per cent. All VAT invoices must charge the 20 per cent on bills raised on or after 4 January.

Retail businesses do not have to pass the increase on to customers, but they will have to pay HMRC the additional VAT.

If a customer pays on or after 4 January for an item that has been collected or delivered prior to the 4 January, the sale is normally deemed to have occurred before the changeover and the old 17.5 per cent rate applies.

Where the supply of services is continuous (ie a consultancy service), a business must charge VAT at 20 per cent on invoices issued and payments received on or after 4 January. It can, however, apply the 17.5 per cent rate for the services that have been supplied up to 3 January and the 20 per cent rate thereafter.

Moreover, from 4 January 2011 there will be a new list of flat rate percentages. The threshold for joining the scheme will remain at £150,000 in respect of income in the next 12 months and the exit threshold will increase from £225,000 to £230,000.

Non VAT-registered businesses should consider making any large purchases prior to 4 January and expect the cost of standard rated supplies to increase by 2.5 per cent. The VAT registration threshold of £70,000 remains the same.

VAT registered businesses that have questions about the time of supply and the tax point for any VAT transaction should contact their accountant to make sure the relationship between the two is correct. Zero-rated (0 per cent) and reduced-rated sales (5 per cent) will see no change.

You can visit the Jeffreys Henry LLP website at www.jeffreyshenry.com

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The world of print: looking back and forward

November 30, 2010 by Matt Bird

2010 was a strange year for the printing world. At time of writing we are 11 months into the year, and while the market has grown and there have been enhancements in printer technology that benefit small offices, there has been no real advance that’s blown the market open.

So what benefits emerged in 2010, and what can you look forward to in the next year?

A market of independence – printers without computers

USB... Ethernet... Pictbridge...Card readers... Wireless support... Internet-ready... The connectivity of printers has gone through the roof, with most of these features now expected as standard for the printer to even sit in our offices.

Full access to the printer’s settings is now available on LCD screens (some of which are now detachable like a tablet PC). With huge attention being paid to usability and functionality of these menus, soon you won’t need anything other than your printer for your entire image and document printing demands.   

A market of choice - Ink and laser boundaries are gone (…ish)!

Start-ups can rejoice. You are no longer trapped between choosing a low-volume laser printer or medium-volume inkjet machine, both with equally high costs-per-page.

A fantastic range of higher volume ink cartridges and inkjet printers hit the market throughout 2010, providing competitive choice for those who print around 500 pages a month. With some ink cartridges printing up to 1,000 pages a pop, for a much lower start-up cost than similar-sized laser printers, the market is well set for even bigger ink cartridges in 2011.

A market of ... stagnation?

Whether induced by the recession, or manufacturers hiring less inspirational folk, 2010 was a bit of a disappointment.

In the home printing market manufacturers continue to push model after model of identical specifications, with only a few printers being worthy of increasingly demanding consumers. Not particularly inspiring stuff. But the laser printer market was the real disappointment.

“New smallest machine”, “New even smaller laser printer”, “New tiniest-ever colour laser”. Manufacturers seem obsessed with ergonomics and aesthetics, when the market is crying out for a financially viable, low-to-medium volume laser printer. If the printer is good enough, the office will make it fit. Ignore the size and appearance and put some work into performance boys, 2010 was not good enough.

A market of the future

But what of 2011 for the small and medium office environment?

Be prepared for value-per-page to increase as competition and market saturation pushes costs down. Expect a complete redesign of the appearance of small business printers, making them visually appealing and less of an eye sore in the home office. Look out for the rise and evolution of internet-ready printers, opening up your office to a whole host of printing features and possibilities that are simply too numerous to talk about here. With huge implications – not just for internal documents but also how you communicate and present yourself to customers – I would definitely advise you to do your research and watch this space.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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