Why we need to have the right business in the right place

Driving back from breakfast networking I passed through an area generally populated by stores and shops run by small businesses. There are many specialist goods stores including chinaware and dress shops, and restaurants as well as a baker and a bank. It is a place I know quite well passing through, but not somewhere I have lingered very often recently.

I stopped the car near a newsagent’s shop where I used to buy a morning newspaper if in the area. I found that the shop had closed down. I was surprised, but remembered that there had been at least two more within five minutes’ walk in this quite densely populated town. I discovered that both the other shops had also gone. I had been pre-occupied but now began to wonder why all these shops had apparently gone out of business. Soon I spotted the answer. Two well-known supermarket chains had opened stores close by. They are small by comparison with the huge stores they have out of town, but nevertheless they carry a wide range of food and other convenient supplies as well as the newspapers, magazines and confectionery that the newsagents sold.

It was clear why the newsagents had gone; they simply could not compete with the supermarkets’ wider offerings and lower prices due to the latter’s greater purchasing power. Of course one could criticize the local authorities for allowing the supermarkets to damage small businesses, but the reality is that change is inevitable. The newsagents in larger towns cannot adapt even though in smaller towns and villages they still provide a focus for local communities. I am sorry for the families who have lost their businesses, but there are also very few viable businesses delivering milk or making bespoke furniture; they have had their day.

Nevertheless, people still want to start businesses, and who would deny that it can be far more rewarding than working for someone else? Being in business means that we benefit directly from our own endeavours rather than relying on a fixed agreed payment from someone else and not having a final say in how things should be done. Many of us find it hugely rewarding and enjoyable.

Of course being in business for oneself carries greater risk too, both financial and in terms of pressure to succeed, which some people find too stressful.

However, we must have the right business in the right place in terms of physical location if we have a shop, and the right place in terms of the market and services we provide whether directly with our clients and customers or through our website. We must ask ourselves whether people will want what we are offering and look beyond whether we think we will enjoy running a particular type of business. Even if our business fulfills our dream to start with, it will become a nightmare if it fails because we chose the wrong path or the wrong place.

If we have a restaurant, will we offer what the potential customers need? Are we looking for passing trade, or are we in a niche which will draw customers more widely? Are we up-market with gourmet food which will attract those with more money to spend? Market position is everything, both in terms of location for a restaurant or shop, and in terms of need and demand for every sort of business.

Do we need to adapt to a known demand? Once upon a time if we needed our horses shod we went to the village blacksmith. Now the farrier usually goes to his or her customers, driving a van to the stable. I try to visit all my clients at least once a year. It makes them feel comfortable and it is good for our business relationships. Decades ago, people in my business sat in their offices and expected clients to come to them and preferably not too often.

If you want to start a business, think whether others of its type are successful and whether they will continue to be. Twenty years ago having a shop renting or selling videotapes was a great idea, but now DVDs can be bought or rented by post and movies and TV mini-series can be downloaded to your computer or TV set-top box.

If you have a novel idea, ask friends you can trust whether they see a demand. Try out your idea on a small scale without committing to large overheads and paying rents. Have a plan, put your toe in the water perhaps with a small website and a PayPal button and see what happens. Do sit down and think it all through first.

What do you think? Do you agree? I would welcome your comments.

© Jon Stow 2010

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On-line reputations and why we should avoid politics

In Britain we are fast coming up on a General Election. This is leading to some people getting animated about policy, criticizing politicians they don’t like, and generally displaying their views on-line for all to see. Frankly some of us would rather not see it, especially in the more instant stuff such as Twitter.

In my view it is very unwise to flaunt one’s politics in public. I will admit freely that my business, taxation, is highly political, but if I do talk about the political element it is in the context of the reason for introducing a measure and not about the political philosophy.

It is very easy to get upset about someone’s political views. It may happen that we respect someone and that person’s skills and abilities and would trust them to do a job, so theoretically we should be willing to refer business. However, we are human beings who are sometimes influenced more by emotion than by logic. If we don’t like someone’s politics we may not refer him or her.

In the height of the last US Presidential campaign I un-followed on Twitter quite a number of the more strident individuals whom I thought had it wrong or whose views I found simply distasteful.

Some of you may know that I am a licensed radio amateur, a radio ham if you like. One thing we were all taught when we were studying for our Radio Amateur’s Examination (RAE), was that we should never talk on-air about religion or politics. I think that the on-line business environment is very similar. Those two subjects can upset people more than any other and falling out with our friends over these subjects can do no one any good..

I would recommend that if business people care about their on-line reputations they stay away from politics and do not make provocative comments about politicians, past or present. That way they keep on-side with their network. If they respect our privacy by not inflicting their politics on us, we can respect their private right to their views without anyone getting upset.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Is networking not for everyone?

It is the strangest thing, but there must be a lot of small business owners who simply do not get out to networking meetings. People do not like to get out of their comfort zones, but it seems an awful waste.

I went to an event this morning. It was not too early, so no one had to get up at the crack of dawn. It was a pleasure to meet one or two people whom I had not met before; new people to me and new people to the local networks. The majority of those there I had met before and some of them are in my quite close trusted network. They would be people I would be happy to help or whom I already have helped, or people who have helped me. A couple have become very good friends and I would never have met them in the ordinary course of business or social events. I know them because we have all made the effort to get out and meet new people.

All this is fine and proves that networking works and we can all get great rewards. However, the puzzle is that in a digital age and with so many people working from home or running small businesses on our high streets or industrial or business parks, there are not more. I do not suppose that the “missing” potential networkers simply do not go to the events I go to. We networkers go to quite a cross-section and in fact at one time or another have been to most of the networking groups around, whether they be BNI, the local Chamber of Commerce or one of our home-grown groups of which I run one.

My conclusion is that there are many people whom we are somehow missing who would be valuable resources for us, in that we could refer our network friends to them; they could benefit so much. I remember that when I was in BNI, a fine organisation, I took a lot of trouble to try to find people to come along to our visitors’ day. It was such hard work though and so few could be persuaded to come along. Those who visit my own group and join do it on their own initiative, though they may originally learn about the group from current members. The visitors understand the deal from meeting the excellent networkers I am fortunate to have. However, there must be a huge number of people sitting on their own working in their business and hoping for their best without tapping into the huge resources that networking brings. They may fail on their own. There is strength in numbers.

Some admittedly somewhat out-of-date figures (2004) said that

• 2,200,000 businesses had no employees (about 61% of SMEs).
• 1,450,000 businesses had an annual turnover of less than £50,000.
• 1,350,000 businesses had less than £10,000 worth of assets.

I believe there may be about 10% fewer businesses now, but plenty to go round.

Where are all these business owners? I love meeting my “same old faces”, my trusted network, but I am sure that we would all like to meet new people, expand our networks and tap into them as a resource, from which they would benefit. How can we get the message over? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

Why some people don’t want help

When we are out networking we tend to offer our help where we think it’s needed. I don’t mean by trying to sell; most of us know better than that. However generally we try to connect people, to make suggestions, to offer an introduction if we see that person’s business might have a synergy with another. We will not be turned down. Even if the suggestion does not come to fruition, most open networkers will give it a go.

It is difficult to switch off our general helpful natures, and if we meet business people who are not experienced networkers, or in our leisure time, we will still offer help where we can. As networkers we tend to know more people, so we are in a position to do so; we ourselves may even be able to help.

The strange thing is that sometimes we will just be turned down flat. Some people will not want their territory invaded; many people are private, both about their business and their personal lives.

We do not need our enthusiasm to get in the way and stop us feeling their emotion. We need to learn to back off and let them deal with their affairs in their own way, and we must not take it personally. It may be their loss, but it takes all sorts. We must respect their wishes.

© Jon Stow 2010

Networking and knowing when to say “thank you”

My grandfather always said giving was a selfish act, because we took pleasure in making the gift or helping someone else. I am sure he was right. Giving does give me a nice warm feeling inside as it must for most people

We all know that to be successful networkers we should give, and give unconditionally, and in business networking we give in order to build trust. We benefit later on from referrals and recommendations, sometimes years later. In the meantime we take pleasure in the giving.

None of that is new. We know all that. So if someone asks for help, we spend time in helping and take quite a lot of trouble, and we get not even the most perfunctory thanks from the recipient, how do we feel? We gave unconditionally. We expected nothing, did we? Well, we would like to know that we had been of assistance, but if we receive no thanks it is harder for us to trust the person we helped. Perhaps that person just uses and takes from people. We hate to judge the person but we are left not knowing,

Saying “thank you” is so important.

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Economists with the truth

I went to an interesting meeting last night. Two out of the three speakers were economists. It is often said that there are as many opinions of economic issues as there are economists. There were two opinions of the economy from the two speakers, but really it was all about a difference in attitude.

The first speaker, a lady, did not want to be attributed so we will only say that she in connected to a well-known Old Lady who lives in Threadneedle Street. Her view of the current economic climate in the South East is that things haven’t been so bad, the economy is on the up and eventually everything will be all right even though the UK economy has contracted by 6.1%

All fine and dandy. She says she speaks to lots of businesses north of the Thames and that is her general impression. Funnily enough I also speak to a lot of businesses in my local area, which is specifically South Essex, so much smaller. I get a somewhat less optimistic view of the situation as it is.

I could hardly wait to be disappointed by the second economist, Mark Pragnell of the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership (TGSEP) . However I was pleasantly surprised both by his honesty and his attitude. Yes, the economy had contracted by 6.1%. He thought that South Essex had been very badly hit by losses of jobs both in London and locally, possibly worse than in the South East as a whole. He might have had a vested in talking up his view as the Old Lady’s representative had, but he didn’t. What he did say that there was a huge opportunity for growth in the area, that we had a skilled workforce ready to go, and we had attractive lower housing costs and we have industrial units and warehouses which can be rented very cheaply (poor landlords) but potentially profitable for many.

I hope I have not misquoted too much. I was not able to make notes, but my general impression after hearing the first speaker was that I was now listening to someone saying “yes, things have really been bad, but we have the chance to really make hay and bounce back quickly.” Really it is all about attitude and realism and not towing the line of officialdom notwithstanding that TGSEP is very much an institution of local government in the area. Well done, Mark!

If we wait for our businesses to improve they may eventually, but it is likely they won’t. If we are positive, proactive, make plans and exploit the opportunities that are out there our future is in our hands and we know we are not hostages to fortune. Seize the day! Carpe diem.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we need to retain our business ambition

Kennedy Space Center.
Image via Wikipedia

We have all had ambitions. We grow up with them, and in order to move our lives and businesses forward we need to keep them.

Of course I don’t mean that we need to keep the same ambitions. As we grow older we tend to recognise our particular skills and deficiencies and adjust our ideas to take these into account.

I was fairly conventional when I was a child in wanting to be either an engine driver or an astronaut. Indeed I fully expected to be going to the moon well into my teens, and might have got there as a tourist years ago if the US space program had not lost its way then as it has once again. Richard Branson might help me out yet. Still, some are more focussed than I was. I remember that my best friend when I was nine or ten wanted to be chartered accountant. I don’t think he ever qualified as one, though I believe he is a successful financial journalist. Money must have interested him in one way or another all these years.

We need one or more ambitions throughout our working lives simply as motivation. Otherwise we will simply make the old mistake of doing the same thing; I will avoid the cliché. If we do not try to change, we will not get better and our businesses will not get better.

Of course it is not sensible to be unrealistic. I will never be an astronaut, more’s the pity, and I will never travel the galaxy in a star ship, unless of course I am abducted by aliens, and that would be a poor ambition. I do need a marketing plan and I do need to implement it and ask my network on a professional basis how I can grow my business further and go to the next level.

Ambition is no bad thing even when we get old. Maybe I will join the one-hundred-year-old parachute jumpers one day, but for now, let me have a successful growing business to pay for my eventual retirement and of course the parachute school in a few decades time.

© Jon Stow 2010

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How I use Twitter

I love Twitter. Many people blog about it, but a networking friend of mine is struggling to understand how she may benefit, and this is what I have told her.

I use Twitter:

• to stay in touch with as many as possible of my on-line and off-line network with whom I had had contact already when I started a year and a half ago.
• to find new connections and interesting people.
• the above would include people in my own business or allied businesses in tax and accountancy, and across borders too.
• to keep up with the latest news, by which I mean news in general, social media news and news in my own business area
• to have a bit of fun with people I know or have met through Twitter.
• to follow the exploits of celebrities of interest to me
• to find blogs of interest from a professional point of view or of general interest including those related to social media
• to draw people to my own blogs and hope they find them interesting

I use tools to manage my contacts in groups and Twitter lists, because no one can do anything more than dip in now and again to the main “All Friends” Twitter stream. The main tools I use are TweetDeck which is desktop based and HootSuite, which is web browser based. That way I can see what my closer contacts are saying all the time and we can have conversations and help each other. In the beginning it does need a bit of work, but after that one can just dip in and out, a few minutes a day, or however long one wishes, and can use the various phone apps to stay in touch when out and about.

Twitter is the cement or glue which binds my larger network together. It has vastly increased the number of people I feel I know at least a little, and there are more people to whom I could give referrals. I have reconnected with people with whom I had lost contact.

Above all, Twitter involves conversation and being part of the conversation, and it has brought me business too. Of course, depending on your current business and situation it may not be of benefit, but I would feel that spending just a little time on Twitter was an investment for the future,

Follow me on Twitter @JonStow