Scammers and traps for start ups

Starting your own business is a big step and one that often isn’t thought through. “Business plan? Goodness me, no I haven’t got one.” However, other difficulties that arise in the first couple of years arise from being too trusting and assuming that everyone with whom you deal is acting in good faith.

I freely admit I was caught out once or twice in the early years. Working for someone else, we are often insulated from outsiders trying to screw us out of a couple of bob or quarters or whatever currency we deal in. When we own the business we are in the front line. So it is that when someone telephones and asks to speak to the person who looks after the marketing and advertising, we will often say quite proudly “you are speaking to that person”. We will then take what the caller has to say at face value.

In my first year or so on my own, I had a call from someone who said he was selling advertising in a magazine which would be in all the local doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, and which was sent out on a quarterly basis. Would I like an ad? When you start out you are often a bit short of business, so I said I would like to try an advert. They sent me a proof of the ad after we had agreed its content over the telephone, I had an invoice and I paid it by cheque. Guess what? The magazine was fictitious. I don’t mean it was an anthology of stories. I mean that it didn’t exist, and I had been taken for £100 I could ill afford, and of course by the time I realised that the fraudsters were long gone.

I learned a serious lesson from that, and it has stood me in good stead.

Another favourite in the UK and I am sure it has its equivalent in other countries is the Data Protection Agency Fraud. If in the course of your business you hold personal data for your customers or clients you must register with the Information Commissioners and pay an annual renewable license fee of currently £35. However, there are scammers who will write to you and offer to register your business for a much higher sum. They send official looking and quite threatening letters in brown envelopes, and there is an example here.

When I received the first of many such letters, fortunately my alarm bells rang and I checked on the internet where there is a great deal of information about this scam. I am pleased to say that people have been jailed over this racket but usually when the raids take place the criminals are long gone. They use PO Boxes and mail forwarding services and are very clever. If you need to register under the Data Protection Act do it directly to the Information Commissioners after downloading their form online.

Then again there is a charity scam which is quite common. I expect it is intended to be targeted at businesses just larger than micro-businesses, but even if there is just you and you are busy with other things you might get caught out. Anyway, someone calls, and the ploy is clever. They tell you that someone in your office, perhaps you, agreed some months ago when they called before that your business would either make a donation to a charity, or you would take an advert in a charity magazine. They will say something along the lines of “the money will go to a charity to help the disabled children” of your town, which they will name. Now, when they name my village, it is transparently obvious that they are blagging, because I would have heard of any special charity, and our village probably is not large enough to have such a charity of its own. However, if you are in a larger town, say Bradford or Canterbury, it is quite possible that there might be such a charity and a busy person or someone in a larger office could fall for it and give the company credit card number to the caller.

The scam works on credibility. If the caller says someone in your office was called and agreed to the payment some weeks ago your instinct might be not to go against this. Of course no one called before, but the lie is simply to suck you in.

It is stating the obvious, but never, never give a credit card number to someone you don’t know who has made contact with you by telephone. You would not if you had such a call on your private line, but if you get a call on your business line from someone purporting to represent another business or a charity it really would be all to easy to be drawn in. I haven’t done it myself, but have been led to the water from which I refused to drink. I think I know better, but people fall for these and the very credible online phishing scams. The crooks are out to get us. Be careful out there!

The excitement of independence

In my previous article I referred to Penny Power and her recent blog, and she and subsequent contributors including her husband and co-founder of Ecademy referred to the different attitudes we need as small business owners to those we are required to have as employees, particularly in a larger corporate environment. I started my first job in a bank, and whilst it was no ordinary bank, it was a large institution. When I finally left it was because I felt I was an under-rewarded number as opposed to a real person with aspirations and needs.

My next job, in which I lasted a good few years, was a smallish firm with one office. Whilst life was not always happy there, with occasionally difficult bosses with alcohol and mental problems, we had some great times too and the firm felt like a large family. Many of the problems are those which one might have in an extended family, but at the same time we had fun as well as doing some good work. Also, in those inflationary times, the partners did their best to pay us properly and to keep up with market rates. That, combined with the fact that the work was challenging, technically difficult and challenging in a geekish sort of way kept me pretty happy work-wise until my boss’s declining mental health (as I realised only later) forced me to move on.

One of the attractions of the next firm I joined was that it was small and I was in charge of a whole department, such as it was. I had had a brief encounter at my previous job with modern technology in the form of computerization of the department of which I was an assistant manager, and my brief in the new firm was to run it more efficiently and preside over the introduction of information technology. As it happened I also thought that it would be good to acquire wider computer skills with both hardware and software so that I was more adaptable in case I lost my job in the recession of the nineties. What actually happened was that I was not only running my department but also IT troubleshooter for the whole firm, from dealing with dodgy cables to “undeleting” what the secretaries had accidentally deleted. Such faux pas were all too easy then and I earned the gratitude of ladies who had inadvertently deleted entire reports which their bosses had spent hours dictating. It was easy stuff, we had a family atmosphere in the firm and I could more or less do what I liked within my domain without interference as long as nothing went wrong, and it didn’t, I am pleased to say.

Came the time when the firm’s useful client base was bought out by an international firm, along with the staff, and I found myself in a huge corporate environment in which one could hardly wipe one’s nose without logging it, where there were rules, a compulsory conference, and “bonding” days spoiled by people being so competitive. What was worse was that as a guy with a small firm background I was never given any decent technical work; the partners were prejudiced against all of us “hicks” whom they felt had been dumped on them and worse, these partners had no idea about commercial realities and economics.

That is why I thank the heavens every day that through whatever circumstance, I am an independent business owner in charge of my own destiny. I make all the decisions (well, I consult my wife often) but the buck stops with me, and that is fine. Also, I can do whatever I like as long as it is legal and ethical in order to make some money.

I have been trying to explain this to a small start-up business client that he needs to get out of a mindset that he only does one thing. Of course he did only one thing when he worked for someone else. Now he needs to be more flexible for his family’s sake.

I explained a while back that my wife and I needed to be open to running any sort of business for which there might be a demand. That is why we have several businesses. I love my independence, and am looking forward to starting the fifth business venture my wife and I have between us, which has come to me through networking. Those two words in that last sentence, independence and networking, illustrate why having one or more of one’s own businesses is so much fun and is so rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2009

Social networking and a testimonial

I had been going to write another piece about the person who insulted a guest and embarrassed his potential project colleagues, but it occurred to me that I could not do better than refer to my friend Penny Power’s excellent recent article Why Your Social Networking may not be working which shows how we need to move away from a closed and selfish attitude in a social networking environment and to be open and giving. It is a change which many coming out of a corporate environment are unable to make without adopting a completely different mindset. Some never do.

I was lucky enough to first meet Penny five or six years ago and whilst I am far from perfect I got a head start in better understanding the fundamentals of networking, coming on top of my initial BNI training of course. Get to know Penny. You will be pleased you have!

Read the article and enjoy.

Business cards, letters and first impressions

In my last post I talked about an embarrassing scene in which a miscreant alienated the entire meeting with his rude treatment of a guest. At the same meeting I was given a business card which might even have been passed round by the same person. At least, the card was not passed round but was put where I was sitting at the table, together with further cards in the other fifteen or twenty places.

The business card in question obviously showed the consultant’s name, and it was followed by five sets of letters relating to his qualifications, and there was at the bottom of the card a reference to a further accreditation. The trouble was that I have never heard of any of the (presumably) professional bodies to which they refer. I could not tell you what they are about except that I suppose they must relate to the practitioner’s particular discipline. I have counted up my qualifications too, and I have only four sets of letters plus one accreditation to my name, so the other guy is one up if we are counting. How many letters of qualification do I put on my business card? Precisely none and the reason is because they would be absolutely meaningless to anyone outside my business, in other words to my target market.

There is good reason with certain qualifications to put them on a business card, but only if they tell the recipient something about the person whose card it is. I have no problem with FCA or ACA for a Chartered Accountant, FRICS or ARICS for a Chartered Surveyor, or FRCS for a surgeon. Even here with the latter two examples you can see how all this can become confusing. However, if we already know what these letters stand for we have a start in understanding what these people do.

Even if someone is a Chartered Surveyor, it would be helpful to have on the card what the person actually does having gained the qualification. More to the point it should say what the card owner can do for his clients for customers; in other words, not talk about the offering but what service or help the client gets. To put it in sales talk, tell us the benefits and not the features.

My respective business cards (I have more than one business and more than one card) have my name, my business / company name and my position in it. On the reverse are the reasons why my clients need me and the benefits they will receive from engaging my firms’ services. The cards are nice thick ones you can get a grip on. I am not a business card expert; I have learned from others and I am sure my cards could be further improved.

So one of my first impressions of the business card placed around the table last week was that the owner was something of a peacock showing off all his letters, but that it told me nothing about what he could do for me or for my clients. Then again, “business card” was perhaps the wrong description of this scrap of what was little more than thick paper, and which was probably printed at home. My other immediate impressions were that the person was cheapskate and unprofessional, and certainly not very giving.

© Jon Stow 2009

Disrespect – what you do not want from your colleagues and network

My last blog in this thread contained the word “respect” in the title. I did not plan to follow it up with one about disrespect (incidentally a word which can only be a noun, and not a verb, in my view) but something has happened to prompt me to write it.

I belong to an international network of business advisers, and we have regional monthly meetings for those who wish to turn up. It is useful networking at a nice country pub and we also have speakers, internal and external to update us on various topics which amount to good CPD.

At the most recent meeting we had a guest speaker, who happens to be a friend of mine through networking elsewhere and who is a thoroughly nice guy. He was speaking on a particular discipline which is a major issue in business, and he has a radical alternative and refreshing approach. I will not expand on the discipline; that is not the point of this piece and I do not want the players to be too easily identified.

Anyway our guest, I stress “guest”, gave a very enjoyable and interesting talk for about three quarters of an hour and received impressively lengthy applause at the end. Our group is not usually quite so evidently appreciative, so this was significant. He then took some questions, and the chairman of the meeting started to thank him when a newcomer to our group professing to practice the same discipline, whom none of us had met before the day, started to tear into the premise of our guest’s talk with a ten minute talk of his own. He derided the common sense approach of our guest and said that rules and regulations were there to be followed (I do not think our speaker said they were to be disregarded) but the premise of his long critical statement was that our guest was wrong in almost everything he said, and that the best approach was a by-rote following of the rules; that in itself is material for another blog.

Our guest came back and comfortably rebutted the critic’s arguments. As a professional speaker also, he can look after himself, but I was severely embarrassed at the turn of events, and I know that many other members of the group there were as well. Our speaker had given up his time to speak to us – we were not paying him. I also believe it is disrespectful to criticise a speaker too much whether you know the person or not. One might ask for amplification or clarification of a certain point, but if one really does not agree then it is best to bite one’s tongue and keep quiet, and perhaps try to get a date to address the same audience at another time.

Before the meeting we had welcomed the newcomer whilst some of us were enjoying our pub lunch. Presumably the new guy would like to work with us and be involved in members’ contracts or projects. I would rate his chances of getting future work from or through those present at nil. He had alienated the entire group, and of course people do not forget.

If we are to get on in business or indeed enjoy a full social life, it behoves us not to go round upsetting people. I have many friends with whose views on various subjects I would disagree, but there is no point in going there. It is better to enjoy their pleasant company and work with them if in a business environment. This is obvious to the un-blinkered networking community and to most in our society. This rude troublemaker was the equivalent of an online troll.

© Jon Stow 2009

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