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Five ways to make your small business more productive

November 09, 2015 by Guest contributor

Five ways to make your small business more productive{{}}There are a number of strategies you can employ to make your small business more productive.

1 Productivity apps

Productivity apps – many free – can help you streamline processes, remember tasks and assign projects. Be careful though – while they can dramatically increase productivity, it can be easy to get distracted by the various options – trial a few and pick a favourite.

  • Tracking apps work either automatically or with your input, to track which programs and websites you visit. Examples: Rescue Time, Toggl, Timely.
  • Apps that you can use to block yourself from social media and other distracting sites. Examples: Focus, SelfControl and Strict Workflow
  • To-do list apps, which offer simple task management, the equivalent of a paper diary, only you can often schedule deadlines and reminders. Examples: Todoist, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk.
  • Project management apps can help you organise work for a team or yourself, and are suitable for more complex work. Examples: Basecamp, Asana, Teamwork PM.

2 Remember loyal customers

Never forget your existing customers in the pursuit of new business. A Kissmetrics survey discovered that 71% of consumers have cancelled due to poor customer service. Around 40% of businesses focus more on acquisition than retention. This is despite the fact that customer acquisition typically costs five times that of customer retention. Loyal clients can be your best source of referral leads and for many companies, repeat business. Particularly for service-based and independent contractors, reputation is currency, and devaluing that is a recipe for disaster.

3 Noise reduction

A simple way to improve employee morale and increase productivity – simply reduce noise. The majority of offices now are open plan, which many employees find distracting and stressful. A recent Ipsos/Steelcase survey found that “office workers are losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions.” While collaboration is improved, and costs are reduced, the productivity lost may well cancel out the benefit of open office space. Consider letting staff who don’t need to answer the phone listen to their own music. For customer-facing staff, quality office headsets can reduce ambient noise, help keep staff focused and reduce the detrimental physical effects of traditional handset telephones.

4 Outsource

Time management and efficiency guru Laura Vanderkam has extolled the virtues of outsourcing, from the personal to the professional. She believes that we all have core competencies we should focus on, and that everything else can and should be outsourced. Hiring skilled professionals helps you create a more efficient workplace. For example, an accountant is likely to complete your taxes more quickly and accurately than you would yourself. This frees up your time and enables you to focus on your core competencies - growing and developing your business.

5 Flexible working

Not every employee has the right temperament for flexible working. However, for those who do, it can be a way to reduce your costs and dramatically improve productivity. Employers who offer flexible working have reported higher engagement, output and loyalty from their staff. One company called CTrip found that flexible working increased productivity by 30%, and an RSA/Vodafone study found that it could contribute £8.1bn to the UK economy each year.

Flexible working, outsourcing, customer retention, productivity apps and noise reduction are all effective productivity boosters.

Do you have any tips for improving small business productivity?

Copyright © 2015, Darren Page, Co-Owner of Headsets4Business.

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The hidden cause of start-up failure: co-founder conflicts

October 29, 2015 by Guest contributor

The hidden cause of start-up failure: co-founder conflicts{{}}Last year alone saw the birth of almost 500,000 new businesses in the UK. Starting up is one thing, but staying alive is even harder, with half of new businesses dying within five years.

Over the years I've founded my own start-ups and as a former lawyer helped entrepreneurs wind up their businesses. And after watching the good, the bad and the ugly, I've realised that a key reason why many start-ups fail is co-founder conflict.

The view is echoed by Y Combinator, arguably the world's most famous accelerator. Former Y Combinator partner Harjeet Taggar described fights between founders as "certainly the most common reason for failure we see at YC."

And serial investor Jeremie Berrebi said that after 13 years investing in more 200 companies he'd "finally discovered one of the main reasons that start-ups fail – conflict between founders."

Types of conflict varies from equity splits to clashing egos. There's an inexhaustible list of ways a working relationship can turn sour, but over years we've identified the top seven rules co-founders should follow.

1 A working (not social) history works best

Co-founders come together most commonly through social circles. While working with people you know and trust has appeal, it's likely to cloud your judgement about the skills and competence required. Professional acquaintances, such as former work colleagues, work best. You know what they're good at and over the years you've seen how they operate in good times and bad.

2 Find common goals and define your success

Too many co-founders dive into business together without defining and sharing what success would look like on a personal level. Talk openly about through your priorities, ambitions, insecurities and family commitments – and agree on an exit strategy.

3 "I do this, you do that"

Go beyond job titles or merely splitting up roles. Dive into all the jobs that need doing and look for gaps that either no one wants to fill, or where the required skills are lacking. Decide who'll take on (or learn) what, then set a future date to assess how it's working out.

4 Two is the magic number

Or 2.09 to be exact, even if it's statistic drawn from a small, rather dated (but regularly cited) sample. While three can be handy for breaking deadlocks, it also allows two to gang up on one. There's also less chance for skills and responsibilities to overlap when there are two or even three co-founders.

5 Beware of the 50/50 split

Splitting shares equally between two or three co-founders makes intuitive sense, but the distribution should be based on the contributions or sacrifice each makes. Here's a handy tool to help you get to a number, drawing from a solid list of variables.

6 Vest your shares

Once you've agreed the share split, instead of issuing shares upfront, the smarter way is to earn your shares over time using a 'vesting schedule'. A typical schedule works like this: after one year (the 'cliff') you'll each earn 25% of your shares, followed by a further 2% each month for the next four years. If someone leaves in the first year, they get zero. It's a great incentive.

And this means...

7 Get it in writing

Don't rely on handshake deals. Get things down in writing, whether it's basic one-pager or a 40-page shareholders agreement (with vesting of course!). Signing up to commitments has a way of flushing out issues that otherwise might be left unsaid. And if you can't agree on the rules, perhaps it's time to rethink who you're about to do business with.

Final word

Running a start-up alone can be, for the most part, hard. Finding that special someone or forming a small team at least gives you a fighting chance of success. It's a relationship that will be tested many times and will (on occasion) need repair, but it should always be nurtured.

Copyright © 2015 David Bushby, COO at Lexoo ("a service that handpicks specialist lawyers to give businesses multiple, fixed-fee quotes based on your legal needs"). He tweets at @DavidBushby and connects on LinkedIn.

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Five apps to help run your small business on your smartphone

October 19, 2015 by Guest contributor

Five apps to help run your small business on your smartphone{{}}Running a small business with cloud services and a smartphone is easier than ever, and many services have truly stepped up in ambition and quality. With these five popular apps, you’ll have some of the tools you need to succeed in a cost-efficient and lean manner.

For internal communication

Evernote – collect, connect, share and present

With Evernote, you can sync all your notes, keep track of your ideas and collaborate with your colleagues on many different projects. The premium version allows you to turn notes into presentations with just one click, as well as scan and digitize all the business cards that are lying around your office. 

To manage your business

Xero – do the books on the go

With Xero, you can do bookkeeping, accounting, send out invoices, manage payroll and produce inventory reports. And you don’t have to be stuck with Excel or ugly interface ERP systems or accounting software. With Xero’s simple and clever design features you can save a lot of precious time.

iZettle − a complete point of sale in your pocket

Originally an easy way to accept credit cards on a street market or vintage sale, iZettle has become a real one-stop-shop for small businesses when it comes to payment solutions. The real beauty of iZettle lies in the point-of-sale system, which allows you to digitize receipts, collect valuable customer information and gather sales data into helpful reports.

For external communication

Hootsuite − all your social media channels in one place

If you manage more than one social media account, you know it can be a hassle. With Hootsuite you can add three accounts, and if you upgrade to premium, you get a hundred. You can schedule your posts to optimize the impact. Now you can even include Instagram in your Hootsuite streams, to monitor and comment from multiple accounts.

Yelp − put your business on the map

Encouraging digital reviews of your business and engaging with your customers may be the single most cost-efficient way of strengthening your market presence. Just make sure you put some effort into updating your Yelp profile with all the possible information and contact details. Engage with customers – especially the disatisfied.

Now you have light versions of the many different systems that large organizations pay millions for − systems that often are old, messy and difficult to use. Use the small start-up size to your advantage and keep your business truly scalable. And remember: all these apps are developed for multiple platforms, so you can use iPads and laptops as well. You have to put your phone down once in a while.

Copyright © 2015 Erwan Derlyn of iZettle (@iZettleUK)

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Posted in Business IT | Tagged IT, Apps | 0 comments

The Apprentice 2015: a fishy business

October 15, 2015 by Rachel Miller

The Apprentice 2015: a fishy business{{}}If you met some of the latest bunch of candidates on the new series of The Apprentice – say at a networking event or a job interview – you’d be forgiven for running a mile.

"I'm disgustingly ambitious" says Elle with a sneer. "I'm the captain at the front of a cavalry," says Richard. Joseph says he wants the cars, the girls and the power. And, to the sound of deafening alarm bells, Dan says he has made every mistake in the book with his business, including almost losing his parents' pension.

But this is classic Apprentice. Nothing much has changed. And, anyway, Lord Sugar and his henchfolk, Claude Littner and Baroness "call me Karren" Brady, don’t give two hoots about this kind of talk. Actions speak louder than words, as Lord Sugar says himself.

And so we have the first task. It is, as one of the candidates astutely says in the boardroom, a "margins" task. Not that you’d know it from the way the two teams run at it like bulls in a china shop.

The day starts bright and early at Billingsgate market where the candidates have to buy fish to make two dishes and then sell them to the lunch crowd in London's Camden Lock and the City.

Both teams look pretty incompetent but Connexus (Latin for unite apparently) just keeps making one mistake after another. Dishes are selected with no apparent regard for potential profit. Team leader April won’t even discuss it — they’re making tuna nicoise and fishcakes and that's that. There's no discussion, no number-crunching, no analysis of what people actually want to eat.

And, for a food blog writer, April really doesn’t have her finger on the culinary pulse. What about a fish taco or an asian fish curry? Something that's cheap to make and which will sell all day long.

But this is just the start of their problems. At the market, April completely fails to negotiate; she just buys from the very first person she meets. Mind you, team Versatile's approach to shopping around results in their stocking up on some seriously iffy squid. When it comes to food, there is such a thing as a false economy.

April's team, which includes the hapless Dan, then proceeds to stuff up the preparation. Instead of making 300 fishcakes - upon which their profits projections are undoubtedly based – they only manage to knock up 89. But April is not deterred. She plans to charge crazy prices; that is if they ever get to their destination. Missing the lunch-hour rush is yet another rookie mistake.

Out in the field, Dan sells precisely nothing. April, meanwhile, is still insisting on charging astronomic prices. The rest of the team only sell anything by totally ignoring her price points.

Back in the boardroom, the results speak for themselves. Team Versatile, with its calamari and fish finger sandwiches, has made a not-too-shabby £200 profit. Team Connexus has made £1.87. Yikes…

April selects "desperate Dan" and sous-chef Brett to face the firing line with her. Lord Sugar clearly wants to sack April and tells her so but Dan's performance is just so bad - he says he can’t sell to the public as if that's just a small detail - and so it's goodbye Dan as he mutters "thanks for the opportunity" less than graciously.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Claude this week. He is the man for whom the phrase "if looks could kill" was invented. And yet even he appears to looks proud when it emerges that his team did something right. It's almost a Bake Off moment.

And so begins another series of the show that buries its business lessons fairly deeply as a shower of wannabe's run around making fools of themselves. That said, I'll probably be watching next week.

Copyright © 2015 Rachel Miller, editor of Marketing Donut.

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The seven benefits of having an online accountant

October 15, 2015 by Guest contributor

The seven benefits of having an online accountant{{}}When setting up your new business, there will be a number of responsibilities and paperwork to take care of if you are to get off to the best possible start.

Tax can be complicated and just learning some of the basics can take up many hours of your precious time. Some start-ups try to do their own accounts, others pay a high street accountant to look after their books, returns and associated admin, but this can be expensive for a new business.

Another solution is to use an online fixed-fee accountant. There are no hidden costs and usually you have your own dedicated contact, so help is always at hand. Business owners can easily find out about their revenue, cash flow, payroll or invoices and manage their financial information from a secure online portal. Some online accounting services will even set up your business for you, just to make things even easier.

So, why else should you choose an online accountant?

1 Easy to use

Online accounting software is easy to learn and use, making it a time-effective way to keep your accounts up to date with just a few regular data entries. Business owners usually need to provide information from bank statements, expenses and invoices. There is no need to worry about or understand advanced accounting concepts, just enter the relevant data and let the software do the rest.

2 Direct invoicing

Creating invoices through an online accounting offering saves time and prevents losses caused by human error. You can send invoices direct to your clients, monitor your invoices and be alerted when invoices are overdue.

3 Cost

Online accounting software is a cost-effective option for any business. If you are a start-up on a tight budget, hiring an accountant can be more expensive. Online accounting software usually comes at a fixed monthly cost, so you know what you are expected to pay and only have to pay a small monthly fee, instead of one larger lump sum.

4 Payroll and cash flow

Online accounting software makes it easy to fill out employer forms and manage your cash flow, cutting down on paperwork and save your business money. Additionally, you can view forecasts for profit and loss and cash flow, which can help when you’re making important decisions or planning ahead.

5 Accuracy

Simple calculation mistakes can lead to big problems. Online accounting software can prevent such errors by helping you to track trends and financial information far better than if you try to go it alone. This could also help you to discover new opportunities to improve your revenue, because online accounting software builds up a detailed picture of your business’s financial wellbeing.

6 Productivity

Paperwork can be boring and time-consuming, causing employees and business owners to get distracted and become less productive. Online accounting software is a more efficient option than filling out paperwork because the system is automated, so half the work is already done.

7 Flexibility

The beauty of online accounting software is the flexibility it gives to run your business from work, home or on the go. You have an up-to-date picture of how your business is doing, no matter where you are. Software updates can be developed and delivered so you will get access to new features instantly. You can run your business remotely, from anywhere in the world with online accounting software. And when information is fluid and accessible, the possibilities are endless.

Copyright © 2015 Rachel Smith, technical writer at Nixon Williams’s Vantage Online Accounting.

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A very different version of success

October 05, 2015 by Robert Craven

A very different version of success{{}}When your fast-growing business is on a winning streak, life is great. When things go wrong - it doesn't feel so good.

There's also another place we can end up – partly as a result of the stress and partly as a result of a lack of clarity. Put simply, it's 'losing your Mojo'.

Everything goes flat. From the outside, you appear to have everything and yet you know there's something missing. Many of us have been there. And I am afraid the results can be catastrophic. It is just that we tend not to talk about these things, because they don't happen to people like us. But they do.

It seems that we have all fallen into a trap that we have set ourselves. Within the business we often forget our 'why?' - our purpose - what we're really trying to achieve rather than just making 'loadsa money'. And this trickles into every aspect of our lives.

What I am seeing is more and more MDs and CEOs who feel they earn more than enough. Yet they are somehow dissatisfied.

They still want to work but now they want to create something of value (in whatever terms): they want to create a legacy. More importantly, this breed of MD and CEO wants to create their own version of success. And this may not simply be about maximising earnings at the expense of exploiting whatever needs to be squeezed dry.

Copyright © 2015 Robert Craven (@robert_craven), business speaker, author, consultant and owner of The Directors' Centre, a consulting and training company, which helps owner-directors. His latest book, Grow Your Digital Agency, "provides the business fundamentals that every growing agency needs to address".

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