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Do small firms really need bank finance as much as we're led to believe?

June 16, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Do small firms really need bank finance as much as we're led to believe?/English money{{}}I have a Room 101 nomination. It’s media headlines and political comment telling us that 'businesses are unable to access funding from banks, we have to get the banks lending again, we need to make alternative funding available'.

This has been so noisy since the 2008 sub-prime bubble burst that I’m convinced it’s merely a default utterance when political parties sense that 'business' hasn't been in the headlines of late. The tone sounds so desperate at times as to imply an imminent hiatus if this matter isn't addressed. I’m not convinced that the need for bank funding is as important as we’re led to believe.

We accept as fact that since 2008 the banks have reined in their lending, as a response to previous over-lending. A good entrepreneur will secure investment from other sources, because they will perceive the banks’ reluctance to lend merely as a challenge to overcome. Other sources of funding may even be more appropriate, because some can bring additional commitment and proven commercial expertise.

Interestingly, among my local business community there is no issue around borrowing from banks, it's a message that you mainly hear in the media and from politicians – but why?

Historically we’ve been programmed to approach banks for finance. 2008 caused a paradigm shift and while those of us running our own businesses on the frontline are comfortable with this, the banks and politicians haven't caught up yet. There are two reasons – ego and economics. The banks and the City have always been thought of as the 'big boys' to whom us small firms should turn for support. They’re used to being in control – to dominating us.

However, 2008 showed that they aren't that great at managing their own businesses. Their validity to dominate has been undermined, but their ego has not been humbled yet. I’m not an economics expert, but I’d guess that the banks and the State are used to profiting from failing SMEs. Finding money from elsewhere takes away income from the 'big boys'. These are the real reasons for SMEs needing financing from the 'big boys' being in the headlines, it is their income streams that are being affected.

Our UK DNA as a nation of shopkeepers has prevailed and revealed its talent for resourcefulness and diversification. We don't need the 'big boys'. Question is – how long will it take them to adjust to their new relationship with us? Maybe we'll start asking for their investment once more when they’ve grown up and proved that they can run their businesses as well as they have expected us to run ours in the past.

Blog provided by Samantha Acton, who founded Domestic Angels in 2002, which provides home cleaning services across the Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch areas.

Further reading

Recipe for start-up success: five key ingredients

June 12, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Recipe for start-up success: five key ingredients/Spices and herbs in bowls{{}}There's no doubt that as a start-up you live on the entrepreneur diet of hard work and dedication. However, over the years I've also identified five other essentials that have been vital to our success…

1 Work from the ‘front line’

My role is to direct the strategic growth of the company and leave the day-to-day management to senior staff. However, from day one I've maintained a keen eye on the 'front line'. Each morning I spend 25-30 minutes reviewing our customer service enquiries to understand what the complaints are, what's being returned, etc. I even listen into recorded conversations for greater detail.

Spending time at the customer-facing side of the business allows me to spot trends I might miss if I were to be removed from the heart of the business. Often trends are only understandable if you have insight into what customers want here and now.

2 Taking a scientific approach to marketing

This ethos has been essential to driving our growth. Now, all the decisions we make are based on cold, hard facts rather than instinct. As a result, we take an obsessive approach to data. We trial and test everything to finality, exploring each and every variable to develop the best possible system for all our services.

This means we evaluate all that we do, from comparing our competitor's prices to analysing our customer's feedback to one product over another. Furthermore, we define short-, medium- and long-term goals. With goals in place it's easy to work backwards to identify the stepping-stones needed to reach that success - and therefore all the elements we need to trial and test to get there.

All our analysis is done in-house, we never outsource. The ability to harness data is something all business owners should learn. If you can interpret figures, you can determine your business's strategy. And you don't want to put that power in the hands of someone else.

3 Know when to outsource

You can feel compelled to manage everything in-house to try to save money. In our experience, though, it can be a false economy. In your quest to cut overheads, you spend time you don't have striving to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, often leaving yourself vulnerable to mistakes. Outsourcing has been one of the best things we've ever done. It allows us to employ agencies, such as recruitment and PR, to deliver on our goals, achieving what we want, but don't have the time or experience to afford.

4 Reward your staff

Recruiting the very best is great, but ensuring you can offer an ongoing, rewarding experience is crucial. We reward staff in a way that motivates. We have found that if you pay your employees market or above-market rate and offer them praise them when deserved, your staff will meet their targets. People are driven to do well and if you make sure you pay them enough so money is not a distraction, their focus will be that purpose.

5 Focus on one business and one business alone

It can be very instinctive to run from one great idea to the next. A short attention span seems to be the DNA of an entrepreneur. We soon learned, though, that it's best to focus on one business to the nth degree. We initially set up a number of sister companies alongside Cartridge Save. All were online retailers, built upon a similar model, so in theory, should run like one another. The reality was they were all equally demanding and we spread ourselves too thinly. So, we decided to focus on the cartridge ink business and operate in a market in which we knew we could really make difference.

Blog supplied by Sean Blanks, managing director of express online printer cartridge supplier Cartridge Save.

Further reading

Hiring interns: top tips

June 10, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Hiring interns: Dos and Don'ts/Work experience{{}}I co-founded the cleaner-booking platform Mopp in April 2013. For us, hiring interns (ie a student or trainee who works in order to gain experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification) has been a great way to help grow the business while staying lean. But how do you find great candidates and motivate them to really contribute to your business?

DO

  • Write a standout job ad. Show you’re offering an opportunity to shine, not just do the grunt work. We’ve made statements such as: “This is an awesome opportunity to really make a difference. You will not just be a cog in the machine, we really want you to show us what you can do.”
  • Try different sites. We’ve used Workinstartups, Internwise, and UKStartupJobs, which were great. Inspiring Interns, a specialist agency, is another option, but you'll need to pay them as well as the intern.
  • Set them a test. Before we hire an intern we always ask them to submit a piece of written work (if it’s for a content role) or test their phone skills if we need them to be confident on the phone. At the end of the day they will also play a role in representing your business, so you need to be sure they are up to the job.
  • Consider apprentices. Depending on your business, this is a low-cost option that could be great, as long as you have the time to train them. We’ve used JustIT and have some great young apprentices on our team.
  • Set targets. Give your interns real projects to own and set them targets. We track our interns’ results weekly, from PR leads generated, to blog posts written, to social media traffic generated. It helps them focus and feel motivated to excel.
  • Involve them. Make them feel a part of the business you’re building. Our interns are involved in everything – from company socials, to team presentations, to planning the new office design.  
  • Teach them. Taking the time to teach your interns new skills will motivate them, while taking the burden off your staff. We do a one-hour training session once a week on topics from Google Analytics to search engine optimisation.

DON’T

  • Be too busy to manage them. If nobody has time to manage your interns, they won’t grow in skills or confidence – and they won’t be able to bring value to your business.
  • Expect them to know everything. Hire people with the ability to do the job, but teach them the skills so they can develop into an indispensible team member.
  • Micro-manage. Allow your interns the room to solve their own problems. It’s the best way to learn – otherwise you will end up doing all their work yourself.
  • Undervalue them. This is an obvious, but important, one. You can get some really bright, enthusiastic candidates that in the right environment can be real assets to your business. Just make sure they don’t feel like all they’re doing is making the teas and coffees.

Blog written by Pete Dowds, co-founder of cleaner-booking platform Mopp.

Further reading

 

Surge in UK self-employment - despite average earnings plummeting by 20%

June 09, 2014 by Mark Williams

Surge in UK self-employment - despite average earnings plummeting by 20%/ Self employed Entrepreneur pyramid{{}}The recent publication of Just the job – or a working compromise? The changing nature of self-employment in the UK by the Resolution Foundation (RF) offered a revealing glimpse into the world of self-employment in post-recession Britain.

RF is an independent think-tank that seeks to “improve living standards for the 15m people in Britain on low and middle incomes”. The findings of its report will prove less than inspiring for those considering self-employment, with the startling revelation that self-employed workers, on average, earn a measly 60p for every pound earned by employed people (in other words, 40% less).

Falling income

Despite ever-increasing living costs, average self-employed earnings have fallen by a punitive 20% since 2007, compared to 6% for other employees. And, of course, many self-employed people don’t get sick pay, nor paid holidays or days off, despite taking responsibility for generating their own incomes.

So, why have self-employed incomes fallen so dramatically? Well, because of uncertainty and austerity since 2007/08, many self-employed people have probably thought it unwise to increase their prices, despite their own rising costs. Another reason is a reduction in work hours, a consequence of reduced demand and greater competition (ie more self-employed people).

Perhaps interestingly, it seems that many more ‘sisters’ and now choosing to ‘do it for themselves’. There has been a marked increase in the number of self-employed women in the UK, having risen from 27% (or 970,000) in 2005 to 30% (or 1.29m) in 2013.

Go figure

Office for National Statistics figures show that between Q1 2013 and Q1 2014, the UK’s self-employed army increased by 375,000 to reach 4.55m (15% of the total workforce). But according to RF, self-employment has been growing steadily since the early 2000s, it’s not simply a consequence of recession and redundancy, but a matter of choice for many. 

A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the RF report suggests that 73% of those who’ve become self-employed in the past five years have done so mainly or partly out of personal preference.

More people are now choosing self-employment, with fewer people heading in the opposite direction (including many more older people who can’t afford to retire completely). One-third of the part-time self-employed are aged 60-plus.

Interestingly, RF’s research suggests that the self-employed are now much better educated as a group, with many operating in service sectors, rather than manual trades, as previously.

Matter of policy

RF chief executive Gavin Kelly, says: “Self-employment is often a highly precarious existence, which isn’t that well supported by public policy. High levels of self-employment seem likely to be here to stay and policy-makers have some catching up to do.”

Only 30% of self-employed people contribute to a pension, compared to 51% of employees. And, according to RF, a minority of self-employed people are “experiencing difficulties getting mortgages, tenancies and accessing personal credit and loans, due to being self-employed”.

According to RF: “For too many self-employed people, [housing and credit] are difficult to access, with many poorly positioned to cope with unexpected financial demands and retirement. Reform of the mortgage market, the pensions system and the introduction of Universal Credit should take into account the needs of this ever-growing group.”

Blog written by Start Up Donut editor Mark Williams.

Further reading

Why starting and investing in Community Interest Companies is about to become even more viable

June 04, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Why starting and investing in Community Interest Companies is about to become even more viable{{}}CIC Regulator Sara Burgess explains a key regulatory change due for introduction in October 2014 that will come as welcome news to good causes, Community Interest Companies (CICs) and their investors.

In 2015, the Community Interest Company (CIC) model will be ten years old. It has proved to be one of the fastest-growing structures in many years, in spite of some early reservations, hesitation and fears.

CICs have slotted very successfully into the mix of options for meeting social need and delivering social purpose. They have weathered the economic crash and the numbers continue to increase. By the time we get to the 10th anniversary in June next year, there will be well over 10,000 CICs across the UK and we are likely to see more growth following some key recent initiatives.

CICs limited by shares have always been able to distribute some of their profits in share dividends to private investors. Over the years it has become evident that the regulations around this created barriers to setting up a CIC limited by shares and to investment into them. We made some changes in 2010, but when we consulted on it again in 2013 it was clear there was more to do. 

In October 2014, the regulations will change to remove the 20% cap on share dividends and as a result of this remove the peg to the paid-up value of the share, which amongst other things was making CIC shares of little interest to investors.

CIC shares will have greater value, but CICs will still only be able to distribute 35% of post-tax profit in dividends, everything else is kept in the company. The more profit the company makes, the more it can pay in dividends (within the 35% distribution cap).

If a CIC has sufficiently more profit to pay its shareholders, it is making sufficiently more profit to put back into the purpose of the company, to meet its community interest. If the CIC is paying millions in share dividends, imagine how much it will be putting back into its community interest! Shareholders will get a return on their investment and see a return on the social impact of the company. Once it is set up, the CIC will always be a CIC, unless it winds up so it won't be taken over by shareholders who want to take all of the profit.

  • For information about how to set up a CIC (including converting an existing company into a CIC) and to download the relevant forms visit the gov.uk website.

Further reading

Why more graduates are choosing self-employment

June 02, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Why more graduates are choosing self-employment/ Male university graduate{{}}Recently there has been a surge in the number of graduates choosing to work for themselves as soon as they leave university. Rather than becoming employees they are choosing self-employment. Armed with their entrepreneurial skills they are turning their talents and passions into businesses, the most popular of which being website design and mobile app development.

It seems graduates are plagued by gloomy thoughts of leaving higher education to compete for the restricted number of jobs available. The latest graduate unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that around 9% of recent graduates were out of work, while a significant 47% were forced to take ‘non-graduate’ jobs after leaving university.

So, with this in mind it’s no wonder start-ups are on the increase, after all, who wants to job hunt when you can be your own boss so easily, especially with advancements in mobile and online technology, which allows you to start and run businesses from anywhere.

Small-business owners can now tap into a global marketplace of highly skilled freelancers and run a flexible workforce, with flexibility to hire more staff on a temporary or one-off project basis without the overheads or office space requirements that come with taking on employees.

With that in mind there really has never been a better time to start a business, and it seems Britain’s young graduates are doing just that with the number of recent graduates registering as freelancers or micro-business owners increasing by 97% in the last twelve months. The number of male graduate entrepreneurs was up 110% and female graduates up 94%.

Considering the average cost to start a business from scratch is £632*, for a graduate leaving university with little or no start-up funds, the prospect of going it alone doesn’t feel as daunting as the days when you had to ask your local bank manager for a business loan. With low start-up costs and armed with all of the tools to get a business off the ground, the graduate entrepreneur is here to stay.

* Statistic from a recent survey of 1,000 start-ups by PeoplePerHour

Blog supplied by Xenios Thrasyvoulou, founder and CEO at PeoplePerHour (@PeoplePerHour)

Further reading

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