Why we should deal with the present to look after the future of our business

We are coming to the end of another year, and of course all the predictions for 2010 and beyond are already upon us. As with the social media “experts’” forecasts, most of these will be wrong or else they will be stating the blindingly obvious. We really do not know what will happen in six months’ time or on a micro-management scale, even tomorrow. However the pundits earn their living doing this sort of thing and I have no more faith in them than I do in Mystic Meg (sorry, Meg!).

We hear forecasts that the economy will improve at the beginning / middle / end of 2010 or by 2011. One of these might be right, but it is akin to saying during a period of rainy weather that the sun will come out soon. Of course it will, but if you have a leaky roof or are under threat of flooding you should be prepared and take necessary measures.

In terms of your business, you may have a damaging cash flow problem. It needs to be dealt with now before you get swept away. Tighter and more forceful credit control (I don’t mean sending the boys round) may be the answer, or perhaps talk to your bank or a proper hands-on business adviser about short term help.

Marketing people will tell you that you should do just as much marketing or even more than you did when times were better. That is absolutely true, and they will also tell you to keep testing new ways of marketing and know what works and what doesn’t so that you do not waste your valuable time and worse, your money. Depending on your business, it may be online marketing, off line activities or networking. Take advice if you are not sure.

Make sure that your business is efficient as it can be. Cut your overheads including utility bills, and if you do not know anyone who can help you do this, then ask me or any business adviser with whom you feel comfortable.

The point of this piece is not to lecture about specific issues. You have enough on your plate, as we all do, to have to put up with someone going through the basics.

Relying on the economy improving is akin to Mr. Micawber saying “something will turn up ”. He went to debtors’ prison. We have to look after ourselves and our businesses now. The economic sunshine will come out, but we need to be there to enjoy it when it does.

© Jon Stow 2009

Why we need to assess the risk in our business assignments and projects

In my last piece I talked about the danger of adapting business agreements and contracts when we do not have the specialist knowledge as lawyers, or indeed as (in my case) a tax practitioner. I suspect that those who are driven to do this are either out to impress their clients or are motivated by the prospect of getting a larger fee than if the work is shared with a professional in the relevant field.

However, even for those who may be very well qualified in terms of understanding what is required in an agreement or contract or other project of any description, the risk in undertaking some assignments may simply be too great. It is sometimes best to pass on a project, and, I believe, take a commission as long as we are up front with our client as to what we are doing.

Let me give you an example. When I was in the larger corporate world the sort of work I did included devising share plans for companies to reward their staff. The idea was that the employees would receive bonuses in the form of shares in their employer, and at the same time the company would save a great deal of money, particularly in terms of tax, in doing so. One project I did took me about three weeks working exclusively, and I remember that my employer’s fee was about £50,000. During the period I was developing the share plan, whilst I knew what I was doing, I had the benefit of peer review and also checked with lawyers that I was on the right lines and that the plan was “watertight” and that it would work.

The client company was looking to save millions, so their Financial Director was not worried about the fee they were paying, and my employer stood to make a tidy profit.

Now I am a principal of a small business. I still have the expertise to do a similar project. What I lack is the opportunity for sufficient peer review and the backing of a large corporate employer. I would not undertake such an assignment and would pass it on to a bigger player, of whom I know a few. After all, it is not just when we mess up that we might get sued. If other things outside our control go wrong it is human nature (and all businesses are run by humans) to look for someone to blame, and even being on the wrong end of misdirected litigation can be very expensive and very worrying. We are also unlikely to have a sufficiently large professional indemnity policy to save ourselves or our company and reputation from ruin.

My message is that not only should we not undertake business activities outside our professional competency, even if we believe that we can rise to the challenge intellectually, we cannot afford to take the risk if there is a lot of money at stake. With a small business it is better to refer on to a larger provider with a more considerable financial clout and be happy with a commission. Our clients will respect us more for our professional approach and we do not need to let our pride line us up for a fall.

© Jon Stow 2009

Why we SHOULD reinvent the wheel – business agreements and contracts

One of the most irritating cliches I hear is “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel”.

It is a favourite refrain amongst many well-meaning business owners and business advisers who will typically ask for a template for a sale agreement, partnership agreement, shareholders’ agreement or some such thing. One of the worst which gets me upset is a request for a template share option agreement.

Why am I concerned? Well, all of these documents are legal agreements. They are contracts. People fall out and resort to lawyers. An amateur document may not mean what it is supposed to mean or may not fulfil its desired purpose. Indeed it may not be fit for purpose at all and will give lawyers a field day, and an expensive one at that.

Something that is also not considered is that these documents which are legal agreements do not travel well internationally. The law is not the same everywhere. There are different laws of succession, different family laws,and of course different commercial laws and different tax laws The last is why share option agreements which are tax-efficient and beneficial in one jurisdiction may be disastrous in tax terms in another.

I guess this is returning to one of my favourite recurring themes which is that there is no substitute for paid advice from qualified professionals. Some people might think this would be expensive for their clients or themselves, but professional advice up front has great value in being cheaper by far than expensive litigation. Do not be tempted to re-hash someone else’s document for your own purpose. Invest in a bespoke agreement from a specialist backed by someone else’s professional indemnity insurance rather than yours. Sleep easily at night.

© Jon Stow 2009

Why arrogance has no place in business

I have been reflecting recently about the danger of arrogance in our business lives. I think it can come to some people through complacency. They feel that they know what they are doing, they have been doing it a fair time, and they know best. An attitude like that may lead to bullying too.

An arrogant person may indeed know his or her subject very well, and be very good at teasing out the finer points in their analysis of problems they seek to solve, but an arrogant person is also someone who does not communicate properly with the people who most need their help. An arrogant person ultimately is someone facing the risk of failure, because without being able to talk to or persuade people, any solution proposed will not be heeded.

Some of you may be familiar with the TV series “House” starring Hugh Laurie as a brilliant doctor and diagnostician. The premise of this very good programme originating from Fox in the US is that Dr House hardly ever sees patients because he in not interested in them, only in the diagnosis of their illness. He is very self-centred and very rude to almost everyone, but he is protected by his team of doctors who deal with and talk to the patients as well as carrying out any necessary tests. Dr House is also a bully, though he always thinks that his bullying is for the victim’s own good. Of course this is entertainment, and one needs to see a few episodes to enjoy the in-jokes and characters, and like many beers the series is an acquired taste.

In fact the premise of the progamme is not so absurd. I understand many doctors do become very arrogant, though perhaps not usually quite to the degree of the Dr. House character.

I am sure most of us have known arrogant but clever people in our working lives, including some who were bullies too. Imagine if we small business owners and employees adopted this attitude with our clients and customers. We cannot rely on our team to protect us. Imagine we believed we knew everything there is to know, and our clients were wrong and did not know what was good for them. Suppose we did not listen to them. We might understand their problem and make a diagnosis, and we may know how to fix it and provide a solution, but if we just told them – barked it out – they would feel intimidated and shy away. We would lose business that we should have gained and our clients would not get their solution unless they found someone more amenable who was as capable as we of delivering it.

Arrogance can be the price of experience and of knowledge but a little humility can go a long way in engaging our clients both in the formal way and in helping to solve their problems.

© Jon Stow 2009

“House”