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I blame Simon Cowell

July 06, 2010 by Mark Williams

So the new series of Dragons’ Den starts on 14 July on BBC2. Well, let me tell you where I am… I’m out, if I’m honest.

For those who don’t know – and if my Wikipedia serves me well – this will be the eighth series of the Evan Davis-hosted show, which was first broadcast on 4 January 2005. The Sony-owned format is based on the original Japanese series and it has proved a hit around the world.

Contestants who lack funding, yet believe they have a good business idea, get the chance to present to five successful entrepreneurs (the “Dragons”), in the hope they will invest their money, time and expertise. If contestants don’t raise the money they require from one or more Dragons, they leave empty-handed. In exchange for investment, the Dragons receive equity, the percentage of which is open to negotiation (they usually want much more).

Obviously, part of the Dragons’ role is to expose non-viable ideas and shortcomings (great and small) in the entrepreneurs’ thinking. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. If done properly, it gives someone with a badly thought-out idea the chance to go away and reconsider. Better to save money or not waste any more on an idea that’s doomed to failure.

My problem is – to the great detriment of the show – more recent series of the Dragons’ Den have seen some of the Dragons take ridiculing of the entrepreneurs to new depths. I used to enjoy watching earlier series, but why now is there the need to be so aggressive and insulting – even if ideas aren’t viable? What purpose does it serve?

The answer? Well, it makes for good TV – or at least it’s supposed to. It’s the type of thing you see every week on X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent (sic), where TV audiences are treated to the modern day freak show spectacle of the talentless and deluded being encouraged to humiliate themselves for ‘our’ entertainment. Then, of course, they suffer further ridicule at the tongue of Simon Cowell and others, before finally being booted off back into obscurity.

Restricted as it is, is this really the type of thing we want from business programming? Go down this route too much and the value of Dragons’ Den and other entrepreneurial programmes is severely diminished.

There’s no doubt that successful people, such as those who sit in judgement on Dragons’ Den, have much to teach other would-be entrepreneurs. So why relegate their role to little more than pantomime villain? Let’s have more insight and less sarcasm. Let’s not allow the balance to tip too much in the favour of ‘entertainment’ at the expense of education.

And I’m not just taking a cheap pop at the BBC. At least the Beeb is making programmes for the small-business community. The recent series of Mary Queen of Shops has been excellent – and you don’t have to run a small retail business to benefit from the knowledge Ms Portas shares while trying to help ailing small firms to get out of the ‘brown sticky stuff’.

Famously, of course, she is credited with successfully transforming the fortunes of Harvey Nichols during the recession of the early Nineties. Mary certainly displays the patience of a saint while trying to convince others – from bakers to hairdressers – to follow her recommendations. Rarely, if ever, has she lost her rag or resorted to ridicule.

In May I was similarly impressed by High Street Dreams (another Beeb production), in which hugely successful fragrance entrepreneur Jo Malone gave the benefit of her experience to small-scale producers looking to make it big. Once again, the tone was advisory rather than antagonistic, which made for a much more valuable and enjoyable viewing experience.

I care little for so-called ‘talent’ programmes or for those who appear or sit in judgement on them. I know these things are popular and they attract ratings. But please, when it comes to business advice programmes, let’s focus on advice and ease off on the mockery. Cowell’s already won the ratings war hands down.

Mark Williams, Start Up Donut editor

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Is passion for your products enough?

July 05, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

Marcela has never read a sales book. She has never learned about sales techniques. So can her passion for her product alone be enough to sell?

With her confidence in her product and her ability to answer any questions about it, Marcela feels well equipped to sell Rico Mexican Kitchen's products to anyone. What do you think of her sales technique (as seen in the video)?

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

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Ten applications to connect your home office to the world

July 05, 2010 by Emma Jones

Here are my top ten software applications that can enable you to connect your home office to customers, contacts and partners in the world beyond.

Attend meetings

Say ‘hello’ and talk business with contacts by using these online tools and services:

  • Dimdim – enables you to attend live meetings, demonstrations and webinars
  • Ketchup – enables you to share and record meeting notes
  • Pow Wow Now – free conference calling at ‘Open Access’ level. Priced packages also available
  • Skype – free and easy to use conference calls for Skype users
  • Tinychat – group video conferencing, for free
  • GoToWebinar – host a meeting of many and present to potential customers by inviting them to join you for an interactive webinar   

Manage projects  

Stay on top of projects and in touch with partners via one of these project management tools:

  • Basecamp – allows you to create projects, invite people to view them, upload files and make comments. It’s effective online project management that can be accessed from anywhere
  • GoogleDocs – share documents via Google with GoogleDocs. You can edit on the move, choose who accesses documents and share changes in real-time 
  • Glasscubes – this tool offers project management, collaboration and CRM (customer relationship management) all in one package
  • Huddle – offers simple and secure online workspaces. Huddle is hosted, so there’s no software to download and it’s free to get started

There are also technologies you can adopt to ensure your business travels with you. These include: webmail systems that enable access to your emails from anywhere; a remote desktop offering files and folders on the go; or web-based office systems such as Google Apps or Open Office, so your entire business is stored online and in easy reach. I’ll cover these in detail in a future piece. Until then, happy homeworking and connecting with the globe.

Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation the home business website and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’ and ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’.

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Five things Mark Prisk should (re)learn about small firms

July 02, 2010 by Kate Horstead

Business and enterprise minister, Mark Prisk, carried out his first day of “work experience” at small firms this week. This is possibly just a PR stunt, as he has already run his own business and surely knows the score, but his knowledge may be rusty and there are some vital lessons he should learn.

Here are five things he should remind himself of during his time with small firms:

1 Time is precious. Small firms are often run by one or two people, who, alongside keeping the business afloat, clearly don’t have time to battle their way through reams of admin and study the small print of new legislation. Hopefully Mr Prisk will be reminded to keep red tape to a minimum during this Parliament, and make sure any new requirements are accessible and clear.

2 Every business is different. There is no ‘typical’ small business and so the new coalition Government should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. An MOT garage may have very different needs to a social enterprise caring for disadvantaged children, but both are important to society and neither should be ignored when decisions are made at the top.

3 Small businesses create jobs. If given the environment in which to flourish, for example access to finance and low taxes, many viable start-ups will soon grow and play their part in stamping out unemployment. At a time when we are witnessing record unemployment levels, it makes sense to help small businesses become growing businesses, by ensuring the support is there if they need it.

4 Innovation flourishes in smaller firms. As they aren’t as tied down by bureaucracy and hierarchy, most small firms tend to be more innovative than their larger counterparts. While creative people must be self-motivated, the coalition Government should do all it can to encourage investment in, and the development of, new ideas.

5 There’s no rest for the small business owner. Running a small business is like working on a never-ending election campaign. Particularly in the early stages, small business owners think about their work 24/7, and once they have pleased all the customers, negotiated with suppliers, and got all their books up to date, an early night is a rarity. Mark Prisk and his team should recognise the role played by these dedicated people, small business owners and employees alike, in keeping the UK economy going. 

What essential lessons do you think Mark Prisk could learn while he’s making the tea?

Kate Horstead, business writer and member of the Start Up Donut team

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Marketing lessons from a successful networking group launch

July 01, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

I’ve got to be honest, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. You see the Horsley Network that three friends (Jonathan, Liz and Claire) and I set up was launched earlier this year and we had more than 30 guests on our first night.

Having been to plenty of more established groups that have struggled to break 15 guests, I think we can pat ourselves on the back for having marketed the event effectively.

So how did we do it?

We focused. I’m a huge believer in “niching” your offering, and this networking group was no different. We’ve set up the Horsley Business Network for business owners who live in Horsley, as well as people who run businesses in nearby villages in Surrey. By having that focus, there’s a stronger pull for people who actually engage with the group’s aims.

We created a plan. We thought carefully about the structure of the evenings and how much it would be fair to charge. And we were realistic about how much we needed to invest in marketing – which clearly paid off. Too many people try to start businesses up on pennies because they want to be earning money before they put anything in. Prudent perhaps, but I seriously believe we would not have received the response we did had I sent round some photocopied “Word Art” flyers.

We took design seriously. We got some great businesses at our first event. Why? Because our flyers and website didn’t look cobbled together, they looked like we meant business, like it was worth bothering to leave a warm house and set out on a cold night to share a beer or two with some interesting people. In fact, we took the design so seriously that a couple of people thought that this was a franchised operation (it’s not – it’s strictly not-for-profit).

We created some compelling copy that focused on the reader. We thought about what their aspirations might be and what objections we’d need to overcome. And we used testimonials to add conviction.

We promoted – hard! We arranged to distribute 5,000 flyers in the local area – a combination of asking local schools and shops and some serious pavement pounding. We also left flyers on notice boards and in village halls. And I set up an email distribution list that included some of my own contacts as well as asking others to forward it on so that it “went viral”.

We used online as well as offline media. We have a professional looking website and we Tweeted about it. Next time, we’ll probably use LinkedIn to also spread the word.

We thought about tipping points. It’s all about enticing the reader to get out of their armchair and into the pub. There’s one benefit right there. For others it was the beer, perhaps the promise of support from like-minded business owners or the fabulous speaker in the form of Karen Skidmore.

I had also set up an online survey in December to find out what people really wanted, which made it much easier to deliver what they wanted.

I can’t help thinking that if many small business owners marketed their own businesses as comprehensively as this, they would also find the outcome exceeded their expectations. But all too often it’s tempting to skimp on careful market research, professional design and effective copywriting in favour of saving money and channelling everything through social networking. What do you think?

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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Handling your business expenses

June 30, 2010 by Louise Tillotson

Expenses are an unavoidable part of running a business. If you’re new to company ownership, you may be unsure what does and doesn’t constitute a business expense, and the best way to handle them. Hopefully, this brief guide will help you.

What is a business expense?

From a tax point of view, anything which benefits your business in terms of profit is an expense. This includes things like travelling to a client’s home from the office, or printing costs if you need to advertise in the local paper. This type of expense is tax-deductible, so you can disregard it from your total profits when declaring them to the tax man. Other costs, such as staff lunches or certain equipment, may not be tax-deductible but will still need to be monitored if your cashflow is to remain healthy.

Travel to and from work is not a tax deductible expense, unless the employee has to travel to a place of work they don’t usually go to. Travelling to and from places on company business is deductible, and you can claim 40p per mile if using your own car.

If you or your staff need to stay overnight in a hotel for business purposes, then you could claim this as a tax deductible expense – provided the costs are reasonable. Food, drink and accommodation are reasonable, claiming for a pub crawl around the local town is not. If it’s a place your company will use often, set up an account with the accommodation and have them send the bill directly to you.

How to keep track of expenses

The vital part of managing your expenses is to record everything. Receipts and invoices should all be kept, and ideally your costs should be tallied at the end of each working day so you know at a glance what you have spent. If you allow your employees to claim expenses, use claim forms which can then be filed alongside invoices. Business credit cards can make it somewhat easier than using expense claim forms, as the figures are all there on the statement, but you should only allow trusted staff to use these.

Keeping comprehensive records of all expenses (and any benefits your employees are given) is crucial as you will need them at the end of the tax year when filling in your P11D or P9D forms.

Recording expenses

You may have your own ideas about the best way to record your daily expenses, but if not, you can’t go wrong with an Excel spreadsheet. You could either use a blank worksheet and build up from there, or search on the internet for a template – the Microsoft Office website holds many user-created templates for you to download and start using straight away. Excel allows you to set up calculation formulae which will keep a running total for you, making it much easier to see how your cashflow is doing on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Bank accounts

It’s imperative that you have a separate bank account for any company money. Look for a bank which doesn’t charge high fees for business banking, and it’s a good idea to get an account with an optional overdraft in case of dire emergency. If you anticipate your expenses to be of a sizeable amount, you may wish to get a separate account for these, as a ‘petty cash’ account. It’s also a good idea to have an account with online facilities, which will make monitoring your expenses much easier.

Louise Tillotson is a financial author with Moneysupermarket, and has written a number of guides on finance in all areas from business to travel

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