Snake oil and the knitted woollen cat

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. Before 1920.

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In my early days in business I was offered, at the price of a considerable investment, an opportunity to have a very successful business. At the time it really seemed the way to go and I borrowed what was a lot of money to me to pay to have the opportunity.

Guess what! It tuned out not to be the money-spinner I had hoped for. Subsequently I found out that it was not just a failure on my part to grasp an opportunity. I know many who invested their time and money and none who had the success that was held out as a near certainty if we worked hard. And we did work hard!

Ultimately the investment was not a total disaster. I did make some money out of it and in fact still do, though it has not been without considerable application. It is one of the tools I use but was not the get-rich-quick deal I fell for in those days of extreme naivety as an ex-employee trying to survive on his own in the business world. If I had known then…

Context

Of course I had no context when I went for the deal. I believed that I was being told the absolute truth about the opportunity. With the benefit of hindsight that was particularly stupid of me. The joke is that the same “salesman” is now offering a similar great deal to his past “customers”. However, there is an old saying “Once bitten , twice shy”. I doubt there will be many sales this time.

Lesson

The lesson is that there are many offers out there, and particularly on-line which promise great wealth, sometimes for only working six hours a week. They sound tempting, but may well be snake oil with no substance. If you have a great offer or see one, always speak to others who have tried it. Find your own and don’t rely on testimonials from stooges of the sales person and especially not from those on the get-rich-quick website. You need proper context.

The cat

What about the cat in the title? Well, I had a dream in which our cats were playing with a green-and-white knitted woollen cat which was every bit as lively as they were. It was ridiculous, but it was a dream where of course I could place no context or knowledge that the concept was impossible.

Snake oil

If you are offered a dream, check the context and the facts behind the offer, and do proper research before committing. There are a lot of people with redundancy money wondering what to do with their lives and how to earn a living. The sharks are circling. Beware!

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Cut off from the world

We have been travelling recently and within the past week unexpectedly I have been completely cut off from any broadband or internet connection. As I run several small businesses, at first I felt complete withdrawal symptoms.

It is strange not being in touch with the world of business, and yet I guess had I been in business for myself fifteen or twenty years ago I would have thought nothing of it or at least would simply have relied on the phone to stay in touch. Now of course we are accustomed to having a continuous stream of information 24/7 if we want it.

Having re-established connection with the world, of course nothing is awry. It shouldn’t be, because I have arrangements to make sure that all important matters are dealt with in my absence, my phones are answered and there is really nothing that should go wrong.

I will be away for a while yet. I don’t need to worry about business, because although it doesn’t actually take care of itself, I have provided for it to be taken care of.

It really is important to take a step back and relax sometimes. I knew that already, but am pleased to have had the timely reminder. Have a good holiday now if it is your vacation time, or have one when you have time off. Make sure you do have time off, though, because you will be better for it.

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Monitoring help from afar

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Recently I bought a couple of computer monitors for the office. I inserted the word “computer” in that last sentence to distinguish it from the other sort of monitor, which is someone who keeps an eye out. When I was ten I was the classroom door monitor, which meant I stood by to open and shut the classroom door and could also warn the other kids when teacher was coming for the next class.

Stupid message

Anyway, I digress. The first monitor I plugged into my main machine should have plugged and played, but it didn’t. I tried running the set-up CD, but set-up failed with a stupid message “incorrect parameters”. What was that supposed to mean? I couldn’t get the proper resolution satisfactorily by setting it myself. I called the vendor of the monitor and they referred me to the manufacturer, a Korean company. Their agent was not very polite, couldn’t offer an explanation, and issued a return number so that I could sent the monitor back to the retailer.

Solution

I had purchased a second monitor from another South Korean company, which worked with my other machine. I transferred it over to the main machine, and this didn’t plug and play either. Their set up routine also failed. If I were a real computer geek I suppose I might have started to think, but having failed to find a useful helpline to phone I contacted the customer agent through the chat facility on their website. After being interrogated for five minutes by the agent I was told that the problem was with Intel’s graphics driver, which was faulty. I was directed to the updated driver, and Hey Presto, the monitor plugged and played upon a reboot. Magic indeed!

Satisfaction

So, the larger South Korean company rather let me down with their attitude when surely they could have diagnosed the problem. The smaller one (though not that small) actually came up trumps. I will probably buy my next bit of computer gear from them and not from the first lot. They found a problem which wasn’t their fault and helped me out. I didn’t even need to send back the other company’s monitor.

We will probably purchase our next fridge from LG because Life’s Good and they won out on customer service. There is a lesson and we know what it is.

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Networking, nepotism and family values

Nick Clegg with his wife, Miriam González Durá...

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A couple of weeks back now, the British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said “it was “wrong” that his own career had been boosted by parental connections when he was starting out, getting him time at a bank and his first job in politics.”  I thought I should let the predictable press nonsense die down before adding my two-pennyworth.

I don’t write directly about politics and I am sure Mr. Clegg means well and is embarrassed at having had certain advantages from having a successful businessman as a father, and having gone to “posh” Westminster School. However I don’t think he should be embarrassed that his Dad got him an unpaid internship (aka work experience) with a Finnish Bank. It happens all the time. We do our best for our family and we cannot sacrifice them on the altar of political ideals.

Closer to home

My wife’s granddaughter is going to have some work experience with a solicitor soon. The offer has come through a family friend and seems ideal. That has nothing to do with privilege. It is just how society works and has always worked and throughout the strata even when we had distinct social classes. It has always been possible to “have a word” to get a young lad an apprenticeship, to get a poor Victorian girl a post as a housemaid (OK, probably not a great life when women were treated as second class citizens), young Billy help in joining the Army or the Church, and young Lottie into Girton College or the like. I cannot see anything wrong in that even in modern society.

Nepotism or networking?

Why do we network? It is to find people we trust and can very likely work with, or to whom we can make recommendations when they need help. An employer will always want a recommendation when taking someone on, so if there is an offer of an employee they already know something about , that is an added comfort. It is no different from taking up a really good reference which employers would always ask for when engaging a new employee. Should we employ people without knowing anything about them?

I think that these days people can largely get on though their own merit, and that includes using their network, or, shock horror, their family’s network. Someone without ability is unlikely to get a job this way, or if he or she does, is not likely to keep it. Education is given more people more opportunity since the mid twentieth century (disclosure: I went to a posh school as a scholarship boy with a free place as my parents couldn’t have afforded to pay). Modern networks do not amount to nepotism but helping people work with those they feel comfortable with.

I realise not everyone will agree, especially given the fuss over Mr. Clegg’s comments, but let us get over the hair-shirt complex, use our network and move on. What do you think?

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Loneliness is such a sad affair

It is a lonely affair being in business on your own or just in a small business of a few people. There is also the question of fear of other businesses in the same line, seeing them as competitors. I don’t think that is the right attitude.

Since I have been in business I have got to know many business owners who work in the same areas as I do, especially through networking, but also because I have sought them out at conferences and seminars. Of these people nine out of ten are friendly and we try to help each other with ideas. There is always the odd one who is afraid to give anything away. That is their loss.

Cooperation

It is incredibly useful to have others around us. I work with others in allied businesses such as bookkeepers and accountants, and this means I can provide services which I could not otherwise do, and also have more satisfied clients who get a more rounded service.

So, cooperation can lead to the big project. We always need to use our judgement as to financial risk if something goes wrong, but we do that anyway. If we are comfortable working with other business people we can manage much bigger and more profitable projects than we could on our own. It doesn’t mean we have to make long term commitments to joint ventures, though we might. It does mean we can enter into larger and more profitable projects.

Some people are afraid they will give too much away about their way of working, but that is a bit silly. Unless we have a unique piece of intellectual property, how can it matter? Do you remember those kids at your school who shielded what they were writing from supposedly prying eyes, and even from the teacher pacing around the room. I have no problem showing people what I do and how I do it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can get to do it as well as I can, but even if they do, there is plenty of business out there. Really there is.

Working efficiently

Working with others is satisfying. It can be very efficient too. My builder friend (he knows who he is, don’t you Trevor?) said that with many jobs it is better to send two people because one might take three days to do it whereas two might well do it in a day. Two heads are better than one as are four hands better than two, and it provides variety as well as profit.

If you get a project you think might be too big for your business, phone a friend before you turn it down. There may be a lot of satisfaction to be had as well as a lot of profit and a happy customer. Do you work that way sometimes?

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Customer service Aunt Sallys

A game of Aunt Sally from the 1911 edition of ...

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Dealing with problems

It has to be said that quite a few posts here are about customer service, good or bad.  I guess we tend not to talk too much about indifferent service. Only a few days ago I mentioned a certain hotel which I think could have done better. Obviously I know the name of the hotel and you don’t. That is because I have chosen not to tell you.

If we have a dispute with a provider about anything because we don’t think they delivered, it is better to take it up with them and to deal with it privately. Heaven knows, I have felt on occasion that I haven’t had value for money and I have spent thousands on business opportunities that subsequently I became unhappy about.

When this has sort of thing happens, we do have to take responsibility for our own actions. Did we do our research properly? Did we ask others who had paid out for the same thing what they got for their money? Have we really been misled or are we to blame for wasting our cash?

Should we go public?

It can be rather unpleasant to take into the public domain a private dispute with a provider who is alleged to have failed to deliver. There becomes a serious dilemma for the provider, who is usually bound by confidentiality or decent ethics to feel unable to respond in a public over what is essentially a private matter. It gets to be rather unfair even if we might think we have the high moral ground. There is a risk of ceding the moral ground by attacking the defenceless even if they are guilty.

Imagine if you were being attacked. You might think you had done nothing wrong. On the other hand something might have gone wrong. It does, sometimes, for the best of us. We might think we could resolve a complaint quickly. We try to. It’s harder to think properly about a problem, let alone resolve it happily when flak is flying all around us. Imagine being an Aunt Sally.

If we make a dispute public, it causes a disproportionate amount of unpleasantness. It is bad enough for large corporations if they are praised, because the detractors will be along and unhappy people make a lot more noise than happy people.

Last year, one of my favourite bloggers, Jim Connolly, praised Dell and said what good service he had had from them. I recall I commented that I had also. Since the initial posting and a lot of favourable comments, pretty much all the comments have been negative. That is because happy people get on with their lives and unhappy people congregate to complain. It is not a pretty sight.

Quiet discretion first

I think that if we have a problem with a supplier we should try to resolve it with them. Failing that we should take legal advice. We should not wash our dirty linen in public because it damages our own reputation as well as the supplier’s (or makes them look better), and others will sling dirt as well.

Look at both sides and talk nicely. Consider whether we bought sensibly in the first place. Try to resolve the matter quietly. Learn from the experience about ourselves as well as how we should deal with others.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

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Short-sighted customer fleecing

tourism map parking or car-park symbol

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I went to a meeting at a hotel the other day, which is one where my colleagues and I quite often hire a room. On this occasion we didn’t hire a room but met in the lounge. I didn’t actually pay for anything as a friend was kind enough to treat me. As a group, we probably spent quite a lot, but on this occasion I didn’t have a bill to show for my visit.

As I quite literally did not have a bill to show the receptionist on the way out, I ended up being charged £3 for my parking for a couple of hours. Now, I appreciate that the hotel does not want commuters travelling to London from the local station using their car park, but as I was known to the hotel and had said hello to the receptionist when I came in, she knew I was only there for a short meeting. Apparently if we had hired a room (we asked but there were none available) there would have been no parking charge.

The problem is that “rules are rules”, but I would have thought that a little common sense in policy would impart more goodwill and encourage people to use the hotel, the bar and the restaurant as a rendezvous for business meetings, and therefore spend their money. It would have been sensible to make the parking charge policy clear. It’s not the £3 I am bothered about as much as the thought that being someone’s guest could actually cost money, and therefore discourage those of us with ruffled feathers from coming back.

Most of us know that a little generosity or show of hospitality almost always brings more business. Give a little for free and thou shalt receive. Big corporates and especially those in the hospitality sector ought to know that, and while having rules is OK, allowing staff to use their discretion and common sense would not do any harm. It might bring great benefit. What do you think?

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Panorama of sad tales

Fifties blues

Jobcentre at Galashiels, by Walter Baxter

Last night’s edition of Panorama on BBC1 in the UK was about the lack of job prospects for the over-fifties. There is no getting away from it. If you have reached a certain age you will be subject to age discrimination in recruitment either directly from employers or from the recruitment agencies representing them. I was talking about this only the other day.

The programme did well to highlight the difficulties, including the direct discrimination based on age, the greater difficulty in getting a job after having been out of work for a month or so. The longer someone is jobless, the more difficult it is even to get an interview. If one were forthcoming it would very likely be with someone much younger who might be uncomfortable even interviewing the older person, let alone giving them a job.

Patronizing

Panorama had the four people featured in the programme interviewed by Lord Digby Jones.  He is of course a successful businessman and no doubt a fine fellow, but I thought he was pretty unsympathetic, making some uncomfortable suggestions. He suggested that two of the men should consider moving across the country to find a job. That would be pretty difficult for someone with deep rooted in his local community and with his wife at least still holding down a job as one was. A suggestion of taking voluntary work might be useful in showing that someone was prepared to keep busy while looking for a job, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Lord Jones then suggested that the men should re-skill and go into business, perhaps as a plumber or a brickie or a carpenter. Obviously Digby doesn’t know anyone in the construction industry. If he did he would know that hardly anything is going on and there is not enough work even for the already skilled and experienced. Even if a newbie fifty-something plumber worked on his own it would be a big step to take his skills out and start his own business. It is the sort of occupation where it would be best to get a start working for someone else to learn the practical ropes, which would involve the employment hurdle again. It was just unrealistic and I have to say rather condescending.

Start-ups

The female victim was trying to start her own business, but had low self-esteem resulting from loss of status. If you have been “someone” in a certain sector, it is hard to come to terms with not being “anyone”.

Of course as we know here, it is great to start our own businesses, but it is not for everyone. It is very hard, and many simply do not have the life skills to do it. My view is that we need to do something allied to what we know in our start-ups, but not to be too choosy. As a friend said this morning, we should not be afraid of having bolt-on businesses. That is why I have at least three businesses and come to think of it, help out with a fourth which is not mine. They had roots in the difficult early days, and have grown and taken on lives of their own.

What the out-of -work population needs is not patronizing suggestions, but helpful information. The poorly skilled need special assistance and those with some skill need help from some organization other than the JobCentre, which is useless for skilled people.

I hope StartUp Britain will help in showing the way, and give people ideas to help themselves, but starting a new business takes planning and ideally mentoring (there’s always me for that), but let’s not pretend it’s easy. It’s hard work and not for everyone, which is why those of us who have made a success of such adversity should help those who cannot help themselves to find work.

It’s tough out there for the lonely older unemployed. How do you feel about it?

 

 

The edition of Panorama, “Finished at Fifty?” is here for the next few weeks, at least for UK viewers.

Booing from the sidelines

Criticism

New business

I was rather disappointed last week at the reaction in much of the press and from politicians who should know better to the launch of StartUp Britain.  I am sure they do not mind my quoting their “About Us”:

“StartUp Britain is a new campaign by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, launched on 28th March 2011. Designed to celebrate, inspire and accelerate enterprise in the UK, it has the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government.

This is a response from the private sector to the Government’s call for an ‘enterprise-led’ recovery. We believe that many of the important functions and services necessary to foster and champion new enterprise can be open-sourced, instead of provided by government directly. We aim to do this by creating a living market-place online for the wide range of enterprise support that is already available.

As a private sector organisation we aim to shoulder some of this responsibility for enterprise promotion with the government, re-modelling existing cost centres, and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

I suppose the Prime Minister’s launch of StartUp Britain got up the noses of his opponents, but surely support by Richard Branson as well as the involvement of many admirable business people (go and have a look) should show that this is a really serious campaign with great potential which we should hope will be fulfilled.

New resources

There are a lot of resources on the StartUp Britain website. There is a pooling of useful resources and reading and some major companies have special offers available. The initiative differs from StartUp America (also a good idea) because that is White House driven. StartUp Britain is supported by the Government but not publicly funded. However successful or otherwise, there really is no downside to StartUp Britain, so surely it should be embraced by:

Not everyone has the nous or capability to work for themselves but by supporting StartUp Britain the business community and the country has more opportunity to help those who would be always prefer to be employed. At “On our bikes” we got on and started our businesses with no help from anyone at a time when there had been a previous dip in the market. It can be done with good planning and guidance. New entrepreneurs need to understand that it is always good to seek help and advice along the way, and learn to listen to the market. In other words to understand what people want in terms of goods and services.

Sentiment

I am not a life coach. I am not someone who tells you uplifting feel-better things to inspire you. I know and you know that success in business is largely in our own hands. However, success in business is about belief. It is about market sentiment. The more positive people feel about the business environment and the economy in general, the better it actually is.

Of course there is an issue of what people can afford and external pressures on the greater economy from abroad. In the end, business and our lives are as good as we believe they are. If we believe we are on the up, we ARE on the up and we take others with us. That’s not coach stuff (I love coaches and count several as my friends). Positive market sentiment makes for a positive market.

Let us not have the naysayers and those who wish to receive but have nothing to give get us down. Let’s get on our bikes and pedal hard (or even peddle our wares) for a great future is in our gift.

What do you think?

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