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Small business finance - so where’s the money, then?

May 04, 2010 by Adam Ewart

Perhaps controversially, I believe that too much emphasis and, indeed, money is spent on encouraging people to start their own business. In my opinion, resources should be restructured to offer more help to people once they have actually taken the plunge. 

I believe people should be shown that business is a genuine career option, and I am a strong advocate of Young Enterprise. But I’ve seen too much money wasted on national campaigns encouraging Joe Bloggs to start a business while someone who has a great small business cannot get to the next stage because of unnecessary barriers.

A prime example of a product which should help but which doesn’t is the Government’s Small Firms Loan Guarantee (SFLG). The idea behind this is that the Government covers some of the risk of the loan in order to allow banks to lend more easily to small businesses.

This was re-launched last year as the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme and the Labour Party’s manifesto tells us it has helped 9,000 businesses. Writing as someone who has first-hand experience of the SFLG, I can tell you that if I was to start the process over again, I certainly wouldn’t bother. In the end we gave over so many of our own guarantees that the entire point was lost; despite whatever their PR says, the banks are simply not ready and willing to lend on this scheme.

In a nation of more than 60 million, 9,000 people on this scheme is not a claim to fame but an admission of failure. The figure should be tenfold. The Government needs to seriously and quickly address this issue and they should not be putting forward a scheme which the banks may or may not promote. They should be telling the banks that if a business comes in and meets a set of criteria, then they must allow them finance under a scheme where the risk of the loan is partially covered by the Government itself.

Adam Ewart, Karacha

  • Business regulation
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 1
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 2
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 3
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    Pop star politicians? Sorry, I’ve got a business to run…

    April 30, 2010 by Ross Campbell

    I’m not naturally a cynical type of chap, however politics seems to bring a side out of me that I don’t really like.

    While trying to decide who to vote for, I find myself muttering phrases such as

    “Well, they’ll never actually do that, will they?” This really isn’t like me at all.

    Apparently this time we are to be “helped” in our decision by the TV debate. As far as I’m concerned, this X-factor style circus only makes it more likely we’ll end up with a pretty boy/girl with lots of style and little substance.

    What I’d like to do is vote for the party whose policies are best aligned with my life and that of my family. I couldn’t give a hedgehog whether the leader smiles or can remember someone’s name, but I do want to know if they know what they’re talking about.

    I have a business to run – much like the rest of you. If I spend the required time trawling through all the information that would allow me to decide which party will make my business run better, then somebody else will no doubt be spending that time making their business run better than mine.

    So I have to guess, basically. My guess is that Brown is an economist, whilst Cameron and Clegg are basically pop stars in suits. I think that Brown will probably ultimately be seen to have dealt well with the financial upheaval of the past 18 months, and that on that basis he should be retained. That’s enough thinking for me. Back to work.

    Ross Campbell, The Exercise Club, Clifton.

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    Ingredients for a tasty business

    April 29, 2010 by www.inafishbowl.com

    It may sound a little strange, but in retrospect, I can’t think of a better time to have started my business than during the recession. I trained myself up on food safety and manufacturing, as well as on managing a business during the depths of the economic downturn. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but in reality, now I’m ready to scale up, the general atmosphere for businesses is much more positive. Now, I realise I have some ingredients for a tasty business which can succeed:

    • the sector of the market I’m operating in has had a record-breaking 12% rise last year despite the recession;
    • my never-ending, and indeed, increasing passion for cooking the best authentic Mexican food there is in the land;
    • importantly, the great, fantastic people I have met along the way who bring different experiences and skills ...

    All of this seems to be combining to create something very special. Maybe entrepreneurs are like passionate foodies in the kitchen, combining the different ingredients to create a delicious meal, where timing, quality of input, skill, and the heating element of their passion all have a part to play to create success.

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

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    Why some arguments are lovely

    April 29, 2010 by Ross Campbell

    Everybody knows that if you stand still you are, in reality, going backwards.

    My company, a Bristol gym, is fortunate to be in a location that is conveniently close to its target market, which makes advertising virtually unnecessary.

    Most readers will be aware of the statistic that most gym members stop going after between one week and three months, after having paid for a year’s membership.

    It seemed clear to me from the outset that we ought to focus our time, energy and money on what we offer the member once they have joined, as opposed to the industry model which, as some of you may be aware, is to promote heavily, sign people up and then just ignore them.

    We hold about four staff meetings each year. Last Tuesday we spent one and a half hours discussing whether we should alter the number of repetitions (ie complete lifting and lowering of a weight) that we advise members to attempt, on the basis that it might be easier for them to understand what we wanted from them, if we gave a lower figure.

    It’s easy to forget how much resistance there can be to change, simply as a gut instinct. I personally find the process draining, possibly because I don’t like to tell my staff what to do, I’d rather work through some questions and examples in the hope that they will feel empowered by their decisions.

    In the initial stages, progress is slow, because people have different levels of understanding. But the best bit for me is always the passion they show for their jobs and for our customers – the members. They show this passion by arguing with each other about what’s best. I think this is lovely.

    Ross Campbell, The Exercise Club, Clifton

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    Have your say! Business support - Part 3

    April 28, 2010 by Rory MccGwire

    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    Put simply, Doug Richard has suggested that we should scrap Business Link and move government-funded business support online.

    In Part 1 of this blog I summarised the recent history of business support in the UK. I concluded that, after 20 years of heavy expenditure, one precious asset that we have is a brand that most business people recognise. Business Link is “the place to go to access whatever help is available”.

    In Part 2, I looked at who ‘the customers’ of business support are, and how they would like to receive help. I concluded that it is a very broad audience and that business novices make up a large proportion of the group. The latest research confirms that they prefer one-to-one help to online help, although I am the first to agree that online business support is extremely cost-effective and is more popular with experienced business people. (The popularity of one-to-one support should not come as a surprise to anyone, as it mirrors the way we behave in the rest of our business lives. When we have a question, we usually approach ‘someone who knows’ for the answer.)

    So the question for the final part of this three-part blog then becomes something like ‘How is this offline help best given?’, ‘Who should be doing it?’, and ‘What tools/methods can make these delivery methods more cost-effective?’.

    Let’s see; what do we already do that works well? Answer: loads of things.

    Take start-ups. In the UK we provide start-up packs, start-up seminars, start-up advisers, telephone helplines, and start-up premises (if there is a vacant premises lying around). Although the quality of business support services vary from place to place and from adviser to adviser (more on that later), the business novices who I meet tend to be pretty grateful for the support they have received and think it really has been useful.

    Start-ups need to get their hands on a lot of information very quickly, such as information on how to do basic book-keeping. But a typical question from a start-up is not “How do I sell?” but “How do I sell to Mr Smith at ABC Ltd?”. And the person asking this question is really asking for two things. Firstly, they want some suggestions on which types of approach might work best in that specific situation. And secondly, they want reassurance and encouragement from a fellow human being along the lines of “I know that this is totally outside your comfort zone, but go on, you can do it!”. Let’s face it, starting up a business is a lonely, worrying, risky thing to do, so the emotional side of business support is massively important.

    Did you notice how difficult that question was by the way, the one about selling to Mr Smith? Most people would struggle to give a good answer to that question. Which brings me on to my next point.

    With the right team, you can work out what the 100 most common questions are from start-ups on the topic of sales, and you can then find 1-5 good alternative answers to each question. You can put these questions and answers on a website, for those people who like to browse businesslink.gov. And you can also put them into a business support knowledge bank, which is exactly what clever East Midlands Development Agency has done, so that anyone in any local business support organisation can use (and contribute to) these questions and answers.

    I know this is all possible, because it is what my company does for a living. We find out what all the most common questions are, then provide the answers and keep the whole library up to date each year. Any company with our skill-set could do it.

    It is worth noting that the involvement of an outside ‘supplier’ seems to be essential. The Training and Enterprise Councils, Business Links and Regional Development Agencies have never been good at knowledge banks; hundreds of new items of “useful” information simply pile up month after month without being organised, tagged, edited, de-duplicated or later updated.

    In the UK we seem to have spent the last 30 years squabbling over budgets and contracts and who does what - and always with a focus on the delivery end of things. It is only since the businesslink.gov website came along that we have started to realise the value of providing excellent tools for those delivery organisations to use.

    Look at Tesco. How would they run business support in the UK? They would hire the best of the best to create (and keep up-to-date) a set of integrated ‘products’ that their network could then deliver. They would have three suppliers of each type of product at any one time, to keep the suppliers on their toes (think CRM software, training courses, brokerage system, knowledge bank, CPD, and so on). But they would pay the suppliers properly and they would enable the suppliers to build up capacity and world-class know-how in their niches (rather than stopping to re-tender the contract every five minutes like the public sector does).

    Would Tesco keep the regional Business Link offices? They could not say, until they were a lot clearer on their budget and their objectives for the next decade. But we can be sure that they would end up with a slick, branded, easy-to-access service that achieved what the customer wanted. They would use ‘invisible shopper’ market research to improve the service, as this quickly identifies the problems and the opportunities for improvement.

    Let me finish on this point of economics. Business support is not just a cost. Every time we help a good company to be brilliant, we boost employment and GDP. And, looking at the other end of the scale, every time we help a long-term unemployed no-hoper to start in self-employment (even if it is just as a gardener or window cleaner), we boost employment and GDP and reduce the welfare burden on the state.

    Last year the UK spent £80bn on education. We spent £97bn on welfare. And every year we happily dish out taxpayer-funded training to public sector employees on everything from assertiveness and teambuilding to you-name-it. These are vast sums of money and any spending on business support needs to be judged in comparison with these other budgets and what they achieve for our society.

    Just as it makes economic sense to have a workforce that is literate and numerate, it makes sense to have owner managers who know how to start-up, run and grow a business. Personally, I do not think that taxpayer-funded business support needs to be an expensive operation, but it does need to be high quality and accessible, both online and offline.

    I look forward to your comments.

    Read Doug Richard’s Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto

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    Ten sites for selling your wares

    April 28, 2010 by Emma Jones

    Whether you’re selling your knowledge or products crafted by your own hands, there are online platforms to help you reach an audience of customers and make sales. Here is my top ten:

    Business services  If you’re an IT contractor, graphic designer, business coach or expert translator, these sites might help you:

    • Peopleperhour.com – more than 45,000 freelancers use this site to source work and new clients. As the freelance, you respond to job opportunities, pitch for work and receive payment, all via www.peopleperhour.com
    • Business Smiths – companies needing anything from business plans to web design head to www.businesssmiths.co.uk to find experts who can help.
    • Wooshii – a new kid on the block, this site has been created for creatives who produce video and rich media. Companies upload their projects to www.wooshii.com and Wooshii-registered creatives respond with their best offer.
    • Lingo24.com – for linguists, Lingo24.com can become your business development tool as work is sourced on your behalf. Clients include multinational companies and government bodies and Lingo24.com services these clients with a workforce of thousands of freelance translators spread across the globe.

    Personal services If health, beauty and wellbeing is more your thing, here’s where to head:

    • Return to Glory – London’s largest home massage and mobile beauty company, the site is a displaying ground for beauticians and health experts who deliver treatments in the client’s own home. Visit www.returntoglory.co.uk
    • Wahanda – welcome to the world of therapists, stylists, practitioners and trainers. They gather at wahanda.com as customers come looking, ready to order their services.

    Handmade crafts There is a growing number of sites for the artisan and handmade community. Here are just three of them:

    • Etsy – the mother of all craft sites. Since the company launched in June 2005, more than 250,000 sellers from around the world have opened up Etsy shops.
    • Notonthehighstreet.com - this site offers personalised gifts and other delights you won’t find on the high street. At the end of 2009, the company reported 1,500 craft designers using the site with sales of £6.4m. Visit www.notonthehighstreet.com

    Manufacturing

    • Alibaba.com – through this site you can make your niche manufacturing dreams come true by sourcing production in China and then selling the finished item. Visit www.alibaba.com 

    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’. Her next book, ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’, will be published in May 2010.

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