Archives for February 2010

Why we need to be courageous in business

Sometimes we need to be brave in business. A week or so ago I wrote about how we sometimes need to show courage in our business and take some hard decisions.

We all have fears of the unknown, of measures we have not taken before. Sometimes we need to spend a little money as an investment to take our businesses forward. It is hard in this environment to spend money on the unknown, so the answer must be to spend it with experts in their field about whom we have heard good things. Then we will have more certainty that advice and services we buy in will be effective and increase our revenue stream and perhaps reduce our costs. The need is to increase our margins.

I woke up the other morning determined to take action, and indeed I have by asking for an outside opinion on what I am doing; taking my own advice. I am taking my own medicine as promised and ignoring the voices at the back with their shrill warnings.

A more illustrious commentator than I is recommending we all take the plunge and I was pleased to see that I am in good company.

Spring is coming in the Northern Hemisphere. It is time for a clean out to make our businesses spick and span. If you live south of the equator you can probably find another reason to launch yourself into action.

Family cooking trouble in your business?

Last night my wife happened to switch the TV over to an edition of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares”, featuring a restaurant in New Jersey. I didn’t take too much notice at first, thinking it was just another cooking programme. Whilst I am interested in food and cooking, we have an awful lot of shows involving food and chefs. However not many minutes passed before the TV had my full attention.

The restaurant was run like many other tired family businesses where one dominant personality makes all the decisions, and typically is resistant to change. In a sense there is one with the power of a decision maker who simply doesn’t make decisions. It was the old story of “if you do what you’ve always done…”

The restaurant was in the sort of place where they could expect many drop-in patrons. It was not a gourmet restaurant, yet it had a very extensive menu. The whole place needed a cosmetic makeover too. It was simply not delivering what the customers would want, and with its tawdry decoration looked distinctly unattractive. Therefore it wasn’t making any money.

To cut a long story short, Mr. Ramsay gave the restaurant owners the medicine he has had to take for his own restaurants which he has managed to keep open (some have closed). Apart from having the place painted, he simplified the menu drastically, reducing the number of dishes available and bringing back more basic dishes such as the sidelined husband’s meatloaf (his wife is the non-decision-maker in question).

If we try to do too much in a small business we fail many of our customers and clients. In the restaurant they were cooking a large number of dishes badly, because there were too many to watch all the time and properly cook to order. By having fewer dishes, they could prepare them more quickly and watch them better, they reduced waste and above all they put the dishes in front of the customers more quickly. Not only was the food fresher and better, but they had improved customer service at a stroke.

So often, small businesses try to be all things to all men and women and fall short. It is much better to deliver what we are good at quickly. Customers and clients will appreciate that, and if we have a good network then we can reach out and find most products and services we cannot offer but our network can. Our clientele will thank us and respect us for that too, and they may even refer and recommend us.

This is a world of instant gratification. People do not like to wait when they lead such busy lives. If we are small we deliver what we are best at doing. If we were Amazon or Walmart we could deliver everything from a plasma TV to a microwaveable hot water bottle, without the friendly personal touch, but as we can offer a personalised service to order we should concentrate on that.

Whilst Gordon Ramsay’s show is a sort of reality TV, he should be congratulated on his insight and from having learned from his own mistakes. He sets an example for others in his acumen if not in politeness. Of course sometimes we do need to get our point over forcefully.

Well done, Gordon! You teach a good business lesson.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we should not always take the easy way in business

If you are as lucky as I am, you will enjoy your work and running your own business. We have at least some control of our destiny even given the trials and tribulations of the economic downturn. However, I was reminded the other day by a non-business story I heard that because we are happy with something we do or want to do, that does not mean that we have the right approach.

A couple I know have a perceived issue with the husband’s elderly parents who live in a rural village a couple of hundred miles from our friends. The son and daughter-in-law both work full-time in the Big City and live during the working week in their apartment in town. They have a house in the country which they use at weekends. They do not often manage to make time to visit the needy pensioners; maybe only three or four times a year.

Because the senior citizens have slight mobility problems and poor health, our busy pair suggested that they sell up and move to somewhere near their own country home so that they could be “on call” in case they were needed. Of course they would only be able to visit for an hour or so at weekends because work commitments in the City would keep them away from Monday to Friday.

The whole problem with this plan is that it is not a solution. What the old couple need is to have proper support provided at home through the social services or “meals on wheels” and at least someone dropping in every day to see they were all right. They need to feel they still have their independence. They do not need to be uprooted from the village they have lived in for so many years and taken away from their friends and neighbours. The plan is just to make the slightly younger generation feel better in that they have done something, but it would be the wrong thing and inadequate in terms of support even if the seniors agreed to the move.

There is a risk in business that we take what seems the easy way out in a similar vein. We avoid some marketing which makes us uncomfortable, some allow their fears of networking to prevent them from getting out, and many of us keep picking up and servicing the same sort of unprofitable clients and customers because we are used to doing it and we do not have to get out of our comfort zone. We may even be tempted by these “Get Rich Quick” schemes with which we are assailed via email and the post.

Well, sometimes what may make us feel better in the short-term is simply not good for us. By gritting our teeth now and maybe doing something which goes against the grain (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else) we can be happier in the longer term. If we make the changes we have feared to make our business better, we will be happier down the line.

When I was a small boy (this dates me) the doctor sometimes prescribed some horrible pink medicine which came in a bottle with a cork. It tasted nasty but it made me better. Have you got that pink stuff in a bottle on your business shelf? Find a spoon and take the medicine. You won’t regret it.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Managing our online reputation – a personal view

This is a popular subject for bloggers, and we know that our online reputation is important, but somehow human nature seems to mean that many of us are as casual about it as with our offline reputation.

Most of us away from our computers do not say unpleasant things about others and whilst there is always gossip and tittle-tattle, by the time it is passed on, if it is, it is often taken with a pinch of salt. The recipient of the information often clouds the issue in their mind by thinking about the teller’s motives for passing on the information and anyway much of what is said soon fades in the memory. Gossip and even things we have witnessed are forgotten in time and in the light of later events.

However, our online behaviour is there for all to see. Everything we say may be taken down and used in evidence against us. Of course we manage our professional websites, but our blogs and other web material can be seen by anyone at any time. A comment I make to someone on Twitter about our weekend plans is in my Google Alerts, sometimes within a couple of hours, so quite apart from giving information to my followers, anyone can find out anything I have divulged at any time. I cannot retract remarks I have made on Twitter, and if I delete anything from my blog, it could still be seen through Google cache for sometime to come, and anyway it might have been re-blogged or copied somewhere else.

At this point one might say that “what you see is what you should get” but really we do not want to reveal all our foibles even through Facebook, because if we are careless, we could give away a lot of information people do not need to have. We could even become victims of identity fraud or simple impersonation, further damaging our reputations. Whilst we may want to be as open with our friends as we would in an off-line environment we do not know who is watching with evil intent, or who might simple misconstrue a remark taken out of context.

When I am going to meet anyone new in a business context, including a new client, I do a web search. I am sure most other people do too. That is not to pry, but often because we need to make our new acquaintances feel we are interested and to be prepared for our meeting and for what issues might be raised. It is simple due diligence, but who knows what impression an ill thought-out remark might give in the wrong virtual ears or hands?

I try to show enough of my personality online to give readers an idea of my interests, of what I do for a living and for recreation and of course family. Those readers need something to which to relate, so I have pretty much stopped the boring stuff like Twitter advertising, or promoting myself directly through my blogs. Of course many may still think I am boring. Someone more or less told me so before “un-following” me on Twitter. However, I think I would rather be boring than have every cuss word I might have thought broadcast on Twitter, or every detail of our family life known to the world.

What is your approach? I would love to hear your views.

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Why you should define your offering as a freelancer or consultant

In these challenging times with regard to the state of the economy there are a lot more people without full-time employment who find themselves looking for freelance work and who are seeking to offer one form or another of business consultancy. In my world I meet quite a lot of such people, many of whom are new to the fold of the independent worker, having run a business or been in a settled job for many years.

One of the expressions I do not want to hear when a freelancer introduces himself or herself is “I am a generalist”. Why? Because it is important to take into account what the singular or multiple audience hears, and what they hear is “I am not really good at any one thing”. The corollary of “Jack or Jill of all trades” is “Master of none”.

If someone has been the owner of a business or a senior director or partner or whatever, that person tends to think they know all about business because they think they have seen and done everything. That may be true in terms of having a grasp of a business, but it really will not impress a potential buyer of services, who wants to hear what the freelance consultant can do to satisfy their immediate business need.

Everyone is good at something and can offer a special knowledge. If you have been an owner of a business or an employee, that business specialised in something, whether it was engineering, manufacturing, food processing, importing toys, plastic moulding or accountancy. There must be an area the freelancer is most comfortable in. That is going to be the way to get in to sign a decent contract to help. Once in, you can offer your other skills on the back of your perceived competence in what you have achieved so far. However it is important to get in, so do not ever call yourself a generalist, and concentrate on what makes you happiest and is most financially rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2010

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