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Does 'business' have a serious image problem?

October 16, 2014 by Mark Williams

Business image{{}}The Apprentice is back for its tenth series and up for grabs is investment worth £250k and the chance to go into business with Lord (formerly ‘S’ralan’) Sugar.

The most likely question on many viewers’ lips during the first few minutes of the first programme might have been which of the 20 candidates is the most annoying and immediately dislikeable.

As usual, the first programme began with the candidates’ frankly laughable summaries of their skills and suitability for the role, which are intended to impress, but leave many of us cringing on our couches. “I get the job done. I walk the walk. I talk the talk. I dance the dance,” said one wannabe.

“There’s no ‘i’ in team, but there are five in individual brilliance,” stated another, this from someone who somewhat bizarrely describes himself as a “mix between Gandhi and the Wolf of Wall Street”. One female candidate opined: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. Yuck.

You’re fired

As expected, many of the candidates couldn’t in fact “walk the walk”, after being tasked with selling hotdogs, T-shirts, potatoes and lemons on the streets of London, with company director Chiles (yep, Chiles) Cartwright the first to be fired.

Upping the ante this year, when Lord Sugar welcomed the candidates to the boardroom, he warned: “Now, this is the tenth year, so I’m going to start things off a little bit differently. What I’ve decided to do is to kick off with 20 candidates – 10 boys and 10 girls. That’s the good news. Here’s possibly not such good news. The process will still last 12 weeks. That means that I may decide to dispose of more than one candidate at a time. Be prepared.”

There’s no doubt that The Apprentice is mostly sheer pantomime bordering on farce, with the editing encouraging us to see the characters in a certain light. It’s intended primarily to entertain and hook us so we become willing travellers on a 12-week journey, during which time we’ll laugh, get angry, embarrassed and experience many other emotions. Whether we learn much about running a business is debatable, but who knows, we might even get to like some of the candidates.

Self-obsessed egomaniacs

But The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den could both be accused of perpetuating the ultra macho, hard-nosed, somewhat 1980s myth of business that encourages us to believe that the only way to get ahead is to trample over others in ruthless pursuit of profit and success at all costs. It also seems that everyone is or should aspire to be “an entrepreneur”, even if, in reality – they’re just someone who runs their own small business (nothing wrong with that, of course).

Many people have become totally turned off by the idea of “business”. Much of business reality TV would have you believe it’s a world inhabited entirely by cold, hard, self-obsessed egomaniacs. This seems to be supported by a recent YouGov poll into attitudes towards “the world of business”. Commissioned by business growth consultancy, Caffeine On Demand, the poll is based on responses from more than 2,000 members of the UK public.

Just 7% of respondents wanted their children to “go into business”, with 20% describing it as “corrupt and dishonest” and only 3% saying “it attracts nice people”. Almost half (47%) of respondents described “the world of business” as “dog eat dog”, with just 3% believing it to be “caring and responsible”. Almost a third were “singing from the same hymn sheet” when they described it as “full of jargon” too.

Force for evil?

Apparently, Welsh people are most likely (60%) to view the world of business as “dog eat dog”. Scots were four times (12%) more likely to describe it as “a force for evil” than people in the South East (3%), with 19% of full-time students agreeing with the “force for evil” tag, compared with the national average of 6%, and 3% of 55-and-overs.

David Kean of Caffeine On Demand comments: “The results send a clear message to us as a nation. We need to revive a national belief that ‘good’ business is good business. For only 3% to believe business attracts nice people is extremely worrying – it means that the very thing that feeds the national purse is despised.

“We have all, but particularly younger people, been ravaged by Dragons and soured by Sugar. A generation of bright, decent people has been put off going into business because they believe you have to be a ruthless, fictitious stereotype.”

Blog written by Start Up Donut editor and freelance start up and SME content writer Mark Williams.

Further reading 

 

Are your customers paying you what you're worth?

October 15, 2014 by Guest contributor

Are your customers paying you what you’re worth?{{}}When you’re feeling the pinch and money is tight it’s easy to assume that everyone is feeling the same way. You transfer your money beliefs over to your potential customers, by thinking: “Surely they won’t pay that” or “They can’t afford those prices”.

And your mind reinforces these beliefs by adding little comments such as: “Who do you think you are, charging those prices?” and “They’ll see through me and realise I’m not as good as they think”. This is what happened to someone I was chatting to recently. Instead of positioning herself as the true expert and brilliant coach she is, she made it into a money issue.

There are loads of business owners who feel uneasy when they’re discussing price and who subsequently charge a fraction of what they’re really worth. And assuming their customers have the same money beliefs as themselves is just the start.

They don’t know who their ideal customers are and, as a result, don’t understand the huge value they bring to them. They have a “spray and pray” approach to marketing, where any customer will do, and then they end up competing on price. Bad place to be.

Let’s face it, when you get into the “competing on price” game you’re always focused on being the cheapest. If you only attract people who want the cheapest, you will always have to offer more for less, just to keep up. It’s a hard way to make a living.

But do you really want to be the cheapest? People looking for “the cheapest” probably won’t be loyal. They don’t really care about you. They just want a commodity at the lowest possible price. Which is fine if you’re selling baked beans or toilet rolls.

But you’re a small business. Your business is a huge part of your life, filled with your passion, energy and time. So it’s better to find those ideal customers – people who really value you, love what you do, for whom you make a real difference. They aren’t looking for cheap. They’re looking for the best fit for them. There’s a big difference. Leave cheap to the others.

Value what you do. Price it so you make a decent profit. Get clear on how you make a difference to your ideal customers. Then, only market yourself to your ideal customers, not people looking for “cheap”. It will make a huge difference to both your bottom line and brand value.

Copyright © 2014 Claire Mitchell. Marketing expert Claire Mitchell runs The Girls Mean Business, a 60,000 strong global coaching community of women business owners, where she shares marketing and business advice.

Further reading

Five top tips for business growth

October 13, 2014 by Guest contributor

My five top tips for business growth{{}}1 Create, create, create…

Never sit back and admire what you’ve achieved – always look forward to what’s next. Innovation is progress and progress leads to further success, so don’t put a lid on your ideas and goals – however successful your current business. Continually evolve your offering, responding to clients’ needs and aspirations to keep clear water between you and your competitors. Regularly step back to view your business from your customers’ perspective and always seek to exceed their expectations.

2 Don’t take no for an answer…

In the early days, cashflow was a major issue for us and we felt like we were hitting brick walls, one after the other, in our search for a bank to allow us BACS and direct debit capabilities. We knew we needed them for the development and scalability of the business and were determined not to give up. We finally found a bank to say ‘yes’ when all the advice around us urged caution. If you believe in something and know it’s right for you – stick to your guns.

3 Recruit on attitude, not aptitude…

Any business is only as good as the people in it, so you need to get your recruitment right. Recruit on attitude not qualifications on a piece of paper; have fun together; introduce a strong culture of reward and recognition; and – importantly – pay more to attract the very best.

4 Have the courage of your convictions…

When we started out in 2000, a time when outsourcing was seen as the preserve of larger businesses, we were considered to be bucking the trend by providing our service almost exclusively to start-ups and small firms. At that time, for larger businesses to even think about outsourcing their telephone answering function was virtually unheard of, so we faced many sceptics.

5 Communicate well and nurture relationships…

Listen to your clients, communicate well and think about what you need to do to reach new markets. Pre-empt. Don’t be afraid to be different. Stand out, so that it’s easier for prospects to make a choice. Get your name out there; get people talking about you and build fantastic relationships. Don’t just concentrate on new acquisitions; look after the ones you already have, too.

Copyright © 2014 Ed Reeves. Ed is co-founder and director of telephone answering specialist Moneypenny and sister product Penelope.

Further reading

Posted in Business planning | Tagged growth | 0 comments

Five money-saving tips for start-ups

October 08, 2014 by Guest contributor

Five money-saving tips for start-ups{{}}As a business owner, I constantly remind myself of the age-old adage: “Turnover is vanity; profit is sanity; cash is reality.” At my start-up, whether we’re riding a wave or encountering a turbulent period in our growth, one question is always raised whenever a management meeting takes place: “How can we tighten our belt and cut out unnecessary expenditure?”. Here are my tips:

Share space and costs

When starting out, be very modest with your workspace. Share space with other new and established businesses to keep your costs down. A shared workspace enables you to explore ways of sharing costs beyond rent. You can consider things such as promotional initiatives. We’ve enjoyed great success with sharing stationery, printers, secretarial support and we’ve even produced co-branded press releases with complementary businesses, sharing knowledge and the results of surveys, etc.

Employ interns

It’s a competitive job market out there. As a business owner, you can use this to your advantage by welcoming smart students and recent graduates into your fledgling empire. It costs a little, and the benefits are tremendous. Many organisations can help you find talented and ambitious candidates who can give your business extra bandwidth.

From past experience, I’d recommend being as specific as possible when writing out a person/job specification. Define the role as clearly as possible and take the time to train your ambitious upstart properly. Pay your interns well, it improves the experience for all parties and creates confidence in the relationship.

Avoid hit and miss advertising

Leverage as much as possible from your first 100 customers. It’ll prevent spending a lot of money on hit and miss advertising. We were a firm believer in making all our early adopters feel a part of our journey. The benefits are endless: word-of-mouth referrals, feedback on product and creating a loyal army of brand advocates.

Likewise, always try to share value and knowledge where possible. Start a blog, dive into relevant social media conversations, contribute to other like-minded websites and become a thought leader in your industry. These are low-cost routes to building buzz and attention for your business.

Shop around for best value

Whether you need stationery, office space, foreign exchange or help with your website or marketing, run a competitive process and seek at least three bids. Not only will you get better product, but you’ll also make significant savings. Always distinguish between purchases that are nice to have versus those you must have.

Save on foreign exchange

Many businesses lose lots of money each year unnecessarily when making international money transfers to overseas costumers or suppliers. When paying overseas suppliers, beware of the “we offer 0% commission” marketing gimmick. There is rarely a ‘free money transfer’ offer out there. The devil is in the detail and most banks and currency brokers make money by applying high profit margins to the rate of exchange. Always remember: the difference between a good and bad money transfer deal will be within the rate of exchange. Try to obtain multiple quotes on every transfer. It pays to shop around.

Copyright © 2014 Daniel Abrahams. Daniel is CEO of CurrencyTransfer.com (“the world’s first international payment marketplace”).

Further reading

The potential offered by cloud-based accounting systems

October 07, 2014 by Guest contributor

The potential offered by cloud-based accounting systems{{}}Many new businesses use Excel spreadsheets to keep financial records when they start up. And while the familiarity, ease of use and affordability of this is understandable, as small businesses grow, by launching new products, opening at other locations or otherwise expanding their geographical reach, their accounting function must become much more complex.

Using disparate solutions across different sites can make consolidating annual accounts a challenging process. Likewise, for businesses that export overseas or import, multi-currency invoicing and transactions adds another layer of complexity.

To help them grow, businesses need accounting functions that can deal with growth. Additionally, the ability to create additional reports that provide up-to-date financials and that integrate with other internal systems and software is vital.

Fortunately, cloud-based (ie online) accounting systems can help businesses to overcome the constraints of spreadsheets, to become proactive rather than reactive and ponderous. And such systems can be very easy to implement.

The cloud allows SMEs to become more efficient. The most effective cloud-based solutions automate processes, remove time-intensive and unnecessary data duplication and close the gap between input and output. Reports comparing “actuals” (ie actual earnings and expenses rather than projections), budgets and forecasts can be created in minutes and accessed anytime, anywhere by various staff members. 

Security and regulation can be more easily managed using cloud-based systems and the chances of human error become less likely. Technology will undoubtedly continue to be one of the key growth drivers for SMEs in the next decade. Therefore perhaps it’s time for businesses to move on from spreadsheets to realise the potential offered by cloud-based accounting solutions.

Barbara is managing director of online accounting provider Twinfield, part of the Wolters Kluwer tax and accounting division.

Copyright © 2014 Wolters Kluwer (UK) Limited

Further reading

Small teams require big leaders

October 06, 2014 by Guest contributor

Small teams require big leaders {{}}When we started out four years ago, leading a team wasn’t a consideration. We were a small family unit and did everything ourselves. We dreamt big but back then we couldn’t have known how things would evolve.

As our company grew, it became apparent that we had to employ staff. This was uncharted territory; now we had to become managers and leaders if we wanted to grow. Our skills had been more than adequate up to this point but we now needed an upgrade. I suspect many small firms find themselves in the same situation, when it’s crucial to embrace the next step – it’s make or break.

If you’re happy to stay small and have no real interest in growing – that’s fine. But if you want to get to the next level you must learn how to delegate and manage people. We decided it would be a good idea to hire a business coach. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know it all and we felt some guidance would surely benefit our business. Here are some points worth considering:

  1. Even if you’re not a born leader, it’s something you can improve with effort and education. When it comes to motivating and managing people, there are many approaches, but none of us wanted to be dictatorial or autocratic.  
  2. If you’ve ever been employed you will have had a lesson in management, whether you realised it or not. What was your manager like? Did they get the best out of you? Did you feel valued? Were you listened to? Many people leave their boss and not their job. Sometimes a harsh experience can teach you how it shouldn’t be done. 
  3. If you respect your boss and you love your job you’re more likely to stick around and add value to the business. Working for someone whose attitude is “my way, or the highway” is very frustrating, counterproductive and bad for morale. Do you really need to improve your leadership skills? If you care about keeping your staff happy, you should care.
  4. A member of your team is an asset – so treat them like one. Listening and communication is key. Most people don’t listen intending to understand; they listen to reply. Let your employee speak without interruption and carefully consider what they’ve said.
  5. Set realistic goals and help your employees succeed in achieving them. Delegate and empower your people to make decisions, let them know they are trusted to do so. 
  6. Management is a skill and can be improved and polished like any other. Strive to learn from your mistakes and aim to improve. Just like anyone, you’re fallible. So rather than try to deny your errors, turn them into valuable lessons.
  7. Praise is very important – but not praise for praise’s sake – it must be earned. If you shower someone with praise at every turn they could become complacent and start to think that their performance will be ‘good enough’. You must keep your employees on their toes and let them know if they’ve fallen short of agreed goals. 
  8. Knowing something to be true is one thing; putting it into practice is another. So, constantly review your own performance and strive to improve. A happy, fulfilled employee is good for business and what’s good for business is ultimately what will make you succeed.

Copyright © 2014 Sam Frith. Sam Frith is the creative director of Ski Boutique, an “international agency offering luxurious and bespoke holidays in Europe’s most breathtaking alpine destinations”.

Further reading

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