Jam tomorrow?

A problem we get quite often in business, and which matters more to small businesses is when we see a prospect, or potential customer or client who makes a promise to you without actually signing a contract. He or she may say “yes, we will definitely need you in the Spring” or “I just need to get this rubber stamped by my co-director / wife / husband and we’ll start in a couple of months”. This creates a problem for us, and especially in trading in a weak economy. Do we plan to be ready for the work, do we look at getting any extra resources needed, and what about our marketing? If we got another major piece of business in addition to that promised, could we cope, or would we struggle in terms of resources?

The answer is, if we sit down and think about it, that it is no use preparing to work for a prospect if you have not got a contract in writing. The work may not come, the person may want to take you on but may be in such financial straits that he or she can’t, or it may not be solely that person’s decision. The client may never sign up; it might be always jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Do not plan for work you do not have beyond knowing that you could do it, and never stop marketing to make space for work you do not have yet; in fact, never stop marketing. When you get more clients who have signed on the dotted line, then you can resource the work. Otherwise you will end up as Lewis Carroll envisaged in “Through the looking Glass”, waiting for something you will never get when you could be getting yourself something else.

‘I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. ‘Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, ‘I don’t want you to hire ME – and I don’t care for jam.’
‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
‘Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.’
‘You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’
‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

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Business card spammers

Like many small business owners I go to a fair number of networking meetings. I go to meet people with whom I may work in the future, and the purpose of attending is to build relationships and expand connections – in other words to get to know people, which can ideally be achieved by talking face to face.

Being a polite person who does not like to offend, I will if requested hand over a business card. Some meetings require that everyone has everyone else’s.

So, just to say that because you have obtained my business card, I do not expect to receive a sales or marketing email from you. If I have just met you, and especially if I have not even had a chance to have a conversation with you, I have certainly not given you permission to bombard me with sales messages, or even to send me just one. You may send me an email saying how nice it was to meet me and you look forward to talking further, or mentioning that you were sorry we did not get a chance to chat, and perhaps next time we can find out a little more about each other.

I want to be able to refer businesses, but only when I know them. I am not a lead in myself, so please have a little respect, and change the attitude you have when you meet new people, which should start with referring others, helping people, and building trust. If you look after relationships first, you will gain pleasure from that, and if you have a mindset of referring the businesses you trust, you will find business comes to you. Most of us know that, don’t we?

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Dispatches from the front – age discrimination

Some of you may have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches episode this week about age discrimination, mainly not in the workplace (which is covered by Government legislation) but discrimination preventing more mature workers from being taken on in the first place. The whole thing was pretty educational, but the first few minutes concentrated on a qualified accountant in his fifties and his trainee accountant daughter. They both applied to specialist recruitment agencies. Despite the chap in his fifties having vast experience the agencies just tended to lose his records and CV, and did not bother to interview him whilst his daughter was invited in for meetings and had emails from agencies with which she had not even registered. In putting older candidates off, they are told that the role is “dynamic”, that they would be bored because they have too much experience, or they would not be suitable for such a junior role.

None of this surprises me in the slightest, of course, as it reflects my experience, though I am now very happy to work for myself and have my own business. I was turned down for HMRC’s tax legislation re-write project a while back because I did not have a university degree. I was surprised as I would have been ideal. As an eleven year old I won a free place at a “posh” school where learning the strict rules of English Grammar was considered essential and I also have an ‘O’ Level in Latin to remind me of the importance of grammar and the origin and structure of our language. This may be a surprise to those of you who think I write in a quite casual way but I would have been an ideal candidate given my technical background too. I realise that this was only one of a number of possible excuses for not putting forward such a mature candidate.

However, I will mention that when I started work for the first time a good while ago I was eighteen. Most new recruits joined banks, insurance companies and accountants straight from school between thirty and forty years ago; some even joined their employers in these sectors at sixteen. That was the “baby boomer” way and to require a university degree is a pretty good age filter for those whose parents could not afford to put them through university. Not having a degree from thirty-five years ago is hardly an indication of unsuitability, especially with a long and respectable track record in between.

In these hard times it will be easier for employers to discriminate and use younger trainees in accountancy etc. to provide cheaper labour than that perhaps thought to be expected by more experienced job candidates. The tragedy is that the trainees will get older, qualify and have a few good years. Then their careers will founder on the “Rock of Ages” in the same way.

For the present, there will be more older candidates seeking positions due to the economic downturn and the huge losses to their pensions pots, and they will have to compete against much younger qualified people who have also lost their jobs.

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Realism, job seeking and cats

I heard a feature on BBC Radio Five Live this morning which related to the newly unemployed. There was a lady made redundant from the the Findus factory in Newcastle which closed down a few weeks ago, Christine Tinling, who was talking with Katja Hall of the CBI and Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Now I can understand that Ms. Tinling is still in shock, so she was resistant to being put forward for jobs worth £13-14K per annum when she was earning a lot more prior to losing her job. However, she was advised by Ms. Veal that she was quite right to hold out for more because employers would be looking to get labour on the cheap. So on the one side, Ms. Veal was overlooking the fact that cash-strapped employers might be having difficulty in keeping their businesses afloat and on the other hand she was encouraging someone to scrape along on benefit, which she had said she could not afford to do, in the hope of getting something else. At the same time she contradicted herself in a way by saying what we all know: that the longer you are out of a job the lower your prospects of getting another one, let alone a decent one.

The discussion was not taken a great deal forward by Ms. Hall suggesting that Job Seeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week was enough for basic living whilst one is looking for work. Living on another planet?

I have been along the path. I found myself unemployed with no warning whatever. It takes a while to realise that the ideal job is hard to come by when you do not already have one.

This blog is not called “On Our Bikes” for nothing. There comes a point quite soon where you have to have some earnings coming in even if you had some savings, and believe me they evaporate quite quickly with a mortgage, council tax, utilities and food to pay for. So my wife and I did things we would not have considered. We were prepared to do anything, and did. We started a cat-sitting business to allow people to leave their cats at home whilst they were on holiday. The money wasn’t great, but it was a help whilst we were getting on our feet with other businesses, and we were so appreciated that my wife and I still have loyal customers so the business still lives and is seen as a valuable service. If you live locally to us and need your cats cared for in their own home, you know where to come.

Everyone newly unemployed might all have plans to get back into “their” sort of work or build a business, but in the interim and to keep active and committed, take or do anything you can get. Anyway, if you are out and about meeting people that is natural networking which might lead to more rewarding work. Don’t just sit at home and think this or that job is beneath you. You will be more admired for making the effort.

Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!

Workplace tribalism

In the week that we learn from the CBI that 38% of small businesses have laid off staff in the last quarter of 2008. Workplace tribalism many of us will feel uncomfortable over the strikes at the oil terminals and elsewhere over the employment of foreign labour. At times when the economy is weak and there are job losses, workers of larger organisations tend to blame the foreigners for their problems, whether or not the local labour force is qualified to do it; indeed as we know in more recent and prosperous times foreigners have been doing low paid jobs that resident workers (not just British workers) have not been prepared to do because the pay was not good enough. At the Lincolnshire oil refinery where the recent wave of strikes started the workers brought in are from an Italian contractor. I suppose it is pointless to mention that these workers have freedom of movement within the EU and British citizens are entitled to work in Italy if they wish. There would be arguments over the effect on family life but no doubt these issues have already been addressed by the Italian families providing the contractors at the Lindsey plant.

I do not want to get into the issue of prejudice. That is a touchy subject and one on which I am hardly an expert, though I was once shouted at in racist terms (no, twice, come to think of it) and it is pretty unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

What the whole business of apparent xenophobia in the workplace does bring into focus is the tribalistic “we are all in it together attitude”. In a large business the workplace camaraderie is often a great asset in ensuring that all workers pull in the right direction. In the same way that the print industry skiving which existed up to the seventies was proliferated by its own culture, it is also true to say that such sticking together can make for better and greater productivity and less shirking on the basis that the lazy let everyone down. At the same time an unsatisfactory work culture can lead to a lowering of morale and lower productivity due to a loss of respect and loyalty for management. I have seem both ends of this spectrum when an employee.

Anyway, a workforce that sticks together is admirable, but because employees become used to a stable environment, when something goes wrong there is a need to apportion blame. I have written recently about those in charge taking responsibility. We in our own businesses know that we are largely responsible for our success and avoiding failure. However, sometimes accidents happen; at least events over which we have no control even if we think Governments or regulatory bodies ought to have had. I do not think we could quite have imagined in 2005 or 2006 (2007 perhaps) that a steel producer providing material for ships, cars and particularly construction would suddenly find itself short of orders. It is no good blaming the company or its orders. They had a niche in the economy producing materials that were needed and they were hostages to fortune. It is not their fault if they have to lay off workers any more than it is the car manufacturers fault if they have to close for months because no one is buying new cars. In as much as these companies and their workers can be, they are victims of an accident. It is human nature to blame those closest but if there are culprits they are further away.

The point is that as employees we are paid weekly or monthly. We know that the money will appear and while we might do our work diligently we only have responsibility to ourselves and our comrades. The fear over the potential or actual loss of a job is terrifying. How can we survive? You need someone to blame close at hand. I know, I have been there, but lashing out and soft targets is not the way.

Small business owners are making hard decisions over job cuts and have to face the music and their workers. Some businesses could not be viable with less than a certain number of workers if the work is hands-on. I saw an example on television this morning of a small bakery down to a core of five staff. For many there is just a minimum number of workers without whose output the business cannot pay the rent and make any money. It is even harder for small business owners to make tough decisions because they are close enough to their workers to be part of the “tribe”. However when out of a job you are out of the tribe which is a terrible shock, and an owner letting an employee go is at risk of being out of the tribe or family too depending how the other employees take the loss of their comrade.

Despite my comments about taking responsibility, I am not going to say that laid off workers should all start their own small businesses. That would be absurd, especially given the current economic climate. Some may and I wish them all the best. Doing something for yourself rebuilds self-esteem which is the biggest loss when you lose your job. Nor is this a “be positive” pep-talk though It does help to be happy with what we have. As a population we will not be as badly off ever as in the only two Third World countries I have visited where the level of poverty and especially poor sanitary conditions was shocking for me even though I thought I was prepared. No, we have to stick it out, help families who have no incomes through taxation of our own and future incomes as we can. This is not a sermon, so I will not say we should be thankful; just remember that we are better off than many, no matter how long the recovery takes.

Just look past the tribal culture and be tolerant. Almost the whole world is in this economic mire and we will not solve anything by using our valuable workplace tribal culture to bash foreigners. If we have to let people go, handle the matter as kindly as possible and if we do know of any niches with our friends, businesses, see if we can facilitate a move through our network.

© Jon Stow 2009