School’s out

The last bell

When I was at school, back in the mists of time, even when the last bell rang we could not pack up and leave the classroom until we were dismissed by the teacher. It might be different now of course. However, a desperate rush for the door would not seem to indicate much enthusiasm for the subject we were being taught.

Not far down the road is the main office of a local vocational training centre. At 5pm there is a veritable stream of employees and possibly some students out of the door and down of the road, many lighting cigarettes or on their phones as soon as they step out of the door. I find that very surprising. I would guess that there is not much job satisfaction there if everyone is so eager to get away, but it seems these people are not alone. The Cabinet Office has apparently found that there is a huge variation in job satisfaction.

Getting satisfaction

Of course I am not surprised that those in authority have more satisfaction than those that do not, and clergy as top dogs work mainly at their discretion, helping people, which must be rewarding. However, farmers come pretty high despite lower incomes, and I suspect that is not so much because they are in charge of others, but because they are actually self-employed and more in control of their own destinies unless weather takes its toll.

We small business owners do have a considerable advantage in having job satisfaction, don’t we? We make our own decisions, do not have reason to resent the boss (unless we really hate ourselves), take time off when we decide to, and should anyway be running a business we enjoy.

I did not originally choose to start my own businesses, but I am so glad that it happened. After all, as referenced in the BBC article, while we should make good profits, our social well-being and life satisfaction are the main elements in being happy in our work. That stems from our independence rather than dependence on less considerate employers. Aren’t we lucky?

Do keep up!

Has your business changed in the past few years? Mine has. In fact, since I first started working in my profession as a young lad, the entire nature of what people like me do has changed beyond recognition.

My first proper job involved using a pen all day. On my first day I was given a pile of dividend counterfoils relating to the income of a recently deceased gentleman, shown the format in which I had to list his dividends for the year, and left alone to get on with it. This chap had had maybe a hundred shareholdings. It actually took me more than a day to write them out and to do some of the sheets again because I had not got it quite right. When the dividend schedules were finished, they were copy-typed.

Nowadays, if I had dealt with a client last year, his dividend list this year would be automatically generated by my software, and my only task would be to check for changes in shareholdings. Except of course that in modern times, far fewer investor-taxpayers have large portfolios of shares, loan stock or gilts. How I miss “3½% War Stock 1952 or after”!

The point is that we have to invest in new technology and we have to give our market what it wants – or rather something that they want, as our market consists of people. In my case the value is still there for my clients and the costs are in the software and in my knowledge and training rather than in handwriting schedules to be typed out.

We have to adapt constantly and I take no pleasure from a business failing because it makes a product no one wants any more.

Very few people have milk deliveries these days, no one buys meat for their cats from a street seller as they did before the First World War, and sadly no one buys sheepskin coats, cosy as they were.

If we cannot adapt our businesses we must invest in new ones before the old ones fail. I try to keep my eye on the ball. Do you?

Getting advice for free

Last time I mentioned those time-wasters who call or email on the pretext of getting a quote, or sometimes even without the pretext, just to get free information. It is so annoying.

However, we can understand that not everyone wants to pay. Many do want a free ride. The downside for them is that even if they do get free information from one of us in an unguarded moment, it is probably of little value.

Think about it. No telephone call or brief interaction will entail a proper exchange of information for the free provider to give any useful advice. Vital facts will get left out, context will be missed and comments will be misunderstood.

If your free-loader has not paid for something, he has no comeback if the advice he got was wrong, whether based on a correct understanding or a wrong one. He has no one to turn to if there is a hitch, even if the free advice is correct. He is floundering in the darkness rather than having paid for advice, help and support which should be of real value. There is no friendly ear to listen to the problems and no helping hand to steady the ship.

Free advice is useless unless it is from a friend. Then it is paid for in another way and given by someone who cares and is committed. You give benefit through your friendship, and you get pleasure from giving too.

If you need free advice from a stranger, make sure you pay for it and have a proper agreement of the terms. Then you know you have something of value.

Turning the business around

Sometimes business declines because there is a lack of demand for the product or service and no amount of clever marketing is ever going to increase sales.

Recently I saw a feature on a news programme about a firm making sheepskin coats that would have to close if a buyer for the business was not found. Apparently sales had been in decline for a couple of decades.

I would have thought twenty years was long enough for the owner to see that diversification or a complete change was what was needed to save the business, and the jobs of the skilled workers who surely could adapt to tailoring another product. Also, while everyone wanted a sheepskin coat thirty years ago (yes, I had one) hardly anyone can afford to spend £800 or US $1,340 for a premium coat to keep warm.

I sympathise with those who wish to carry on the tradition of a company a century-and-a-half old but in the end all business owners have to think about preserving their income and that of their loyal employees.

If our business is not working we have to accept that there is something the matter. We must make the change. If we are stumped as to what to do, we must get help.

We all need help at times, otherwise we might be out on our uppers. That would be a real shame, wouldn’t it?

Are you making up the numbers?

Not just a number

Not just a number

Just because I do not like to be seen as a commodity does not mean that I can influence the thoughts of everyone who sees my business offerings in that light. Unfortunately there will always be people, whom we may regard as prospects who will waste our time.

Recently I gave up an evening to visit someone who clearly needed my help. I was able to give him some reassurance that matters were not as bad as he thought, and we agreed a fee. All well and good, I thought, and we seemed to get on very well.

A few days later, after I had sent my engagement letter stating the terms and my fee which we had agreed, I received a letter from the prospect saying that he had changed his mind. He did not have the grace to pick up the telephone to tell me.

I could not be bothered to try to call him because the only reason he would have gone back on his agreement with me (we had shaken hands) was that he had found another firm who was more than £5 cheaper than me.

I should be grateful that I did not waste any more time with someone who saw me as a commodity rather than a person who would hold his hand and keep him out of trouble with the authorities.

It is important for small business owners to establish a personal relationship with their clients; to have an understanding and expectation of what will be delivered, and when. It does not matter whether you are a baker, an accountant or a car mechanic. Your friendly face and your service are your greatest business tools.

Remember you are not just a number amongst many.

You are allowed to make a profit

English: PROFIT systemI have had my share of run-ins with very large service and utility providers, but we do have to recognise that like all businesses they need to make a profit for their owners and shareholders, and to have money to reinvest into their trade. In the course of some more energy company bashing we hear that their newly announced annual profits represent 5% of turnover. That seems quite modest really.

In a small business and especially in a professional environment, only 5% profit on turnover is not going to be enough unless we have a huge turnover. That is going to be difficult unless we have had a brilliant new idea in the way of say a product for drop-shipping. However, in the real world we have to sell on the value of what we provide and have our customer buy in to what we are giving them.

Do not let your prospects drive you down. Get them to commit to you as much as you commit to them to provide a great service. We all have to live and if we are not making a good profit out of each client we are wasting time and resources which could be used to make a much more profitable customer very happy.

Do not under-sell yourself and your business and never be afraid to turn a poor prospect away. You are allowed to make a good profit.

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Small business and stress

It does not matter where it comes from. Stress is bad for you. Whether you do not organise your business so that you do not have to work all hours of the day, or whether you have family problems or people are simply being nasty to you, stress will cause you trouble.

If you are stressed

  • You tire more easily
  • You probably cannot sleep well without taking pills
  • You have difficulty concentrating on business
  • You are liable to make bad decisions or you cannot make decisions at all

So how should you deal with your stress?

  • Perhaps you should ask a business friend to suggest how you should use your work time in a better way.
  • Go out for a walk for up to an hour every day – I do, come rain or shine.
  • Get a hobby or a distraction from thinking about work for your spare time – I am photography mad.
  • Read a good book.

No, I know it is not easy. I cannot make out that life is that simple. Just the same, useful relaxing distractions combined with a little help from your friends can help relieve your stress and show your path more clearly.

How do you cope with stress?

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Falling down


Looking towards Shoeburyness

Looking towards Shoeburyness (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I fell over the other day. I do not make a habit of it and I was rather surprised. My first reaction after finding myself on the ground was to check for damage. Because it was a cold windy day, I was wearing several layers of clothing. I reviewed my body and limbs and concluded I had got away with it, and without even a bruise. I was lucky.

The next stage in the process was to review why I had fallen down. In this case, it was because I was looking too far ahead (out to sea) and was not concentrating on what was in front of me. There were two steps down where I had been walking, and I missed them.

The third stage was to get up, which I did. The whole process took less than a minute. I noted to myself that I should be more careful.

All this got me to thinking about my business. Things have not always gone well. I do believe we should all have a dream as to how our business should be, and to remember it. That is looking far ahead, or perhaps not so far, but if we think only of that we will not see what is right in front of us.

Maybe our marketing stops working. Perhaps we have clients who pay us late and we are endangered by lack of cash flow. It might even be that we should have anticipated that our business client would become insolvent.

Perhaps we have allowed one customer to make up the lion’s share of our business, and now on a whim they go elsewhere. There are all sorts of accidents. If we do not look our businesses may fall down. Often we can get up and learn, but not always.

We have to keep our eye on the ball. We need to be aware what is going on around us. Our goal is there for us to aim and our dream is attainable. We just need to dodge those obstacles, avoid tripping and do our best not to fall down.

Have you stumbled? What did you do?


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Difficult people we work with

iStock_000007991360XSmall cross businesswomanEvery now and then we will come across difficult people in business. Fortunately I have generally got on well with my clients. Of course some leave me because their circumstances have changed, or because they have been lured by Sirens offering “cheap” services.

I always give great value, or believe I do, but when people leave with the prospect of a lower bill from someone else they may not realise that they will get less support. I do believe you get what you pay for.

Now and again clients expect that having agreed a fee for a certain service, they will have access to my attention on an unlimited basis. Some will grudgingly agree a further fee, but at times I have had to ask certain individuals to find someone else. It is the same if the attitude of some clients makes me uncomfortable. They need to find a new adviser, and I tell them that.

In the end we do not have to do business with anyone we do not get on with.

Does watching TV dull our business brains?

Old televisionThere is a school of thought that watching TV is a waste of time and I understand that view.  I can see that for soap addicts in the UK there is a potential to waste fifteen hours a week watching unlikely story-lines without straying from the first five channels on the programme menu. That is time down the drain as far as I am concerned and the equivalent of almost a couple of days at work a week for some so-called full-time employees; perhaps not for small business owners.

It seems to me there is so much useless rubbish to watch. There are apparently many reality shows including the “talent” ones, bizarre artificial ones with strangers being forced to live together, and business shows involving strangers thrown together. None of these seems useful, educational or even simply relaxing after a hard day’s work. Does this dumbed-down nonsense fog people’s brains?

I do not claim to have virtue in watching TV for only a couple of hours a day. I do like to see the news and especially business news in the morning. It is important to know what is going on in the world. I like programmes where I can learn new things. I like natural history and astronomy. Those subjects are fascinating to me.

Yes, I do watch the occasional escapist fiction because I think it has the same effect on my brain as reading a good book, and because it is important to share the experience while relaxing and spending quality time with my wife.

Am I a TV snob? Maybe, but I do like to use my time profitably both in the business and figurative senses. Do you think TV is a waste of time or are those soaps a safe haven which help you unwind after the business day?

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