How do I compete?

“How do I compete?”

That was a question recently put by an accountant who has another 125 accountants within a five mile radius. The easy answer might be “don’t”. Give in and do something else.

Then again, there is a lot of demand for accountancy services, but clearly plenty of supply.

The answer might be here:

  • The other accountants are not competitors but colleagues.
  • Do you have specialist areas in which you are strong and others might not be?
  • Can you sell your services to the others and outsource some of the work you are not good at or don’t like to them?
  • Can you concentrate on marketing your strong specialist areas to the public, making it clear you are different from the rest?

I am a tax guy, but I do not work in all areas of taxation. I specialise in landlord tax, capital gains on property, non-residents and a couple of other niches. Anything I do not like and am not good at, I simply do not do.

Do you stick to what you are good at? It is more enjoyable and more profitable too.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Marketing, networking and evolution

A dozen or so years ago when I set up my own businesses, they were local. I joined various networking groups and met a lot of people. I belonged to on-line business networking sites and went to off-line meetings facilitated by those sites and their owners. In those days, I gained business from doing this, in return for doing my bit in referral networking. I recommended those businesses and their owners whom I felt could help my clients and contacts. That was the way it worked, and possibly still works for some.

Recent local networking has really not brought me any business. Of course I have had referrals from happy local clients, but I cannot remember the last local network referral I have had, and that is despite having referred many of my contacts to other people.

It does not matter in the sense that I get business from all over the world through marketing on-line, and advertising still works for me locally. I just wonder if local breakfast and lunch groups have had their day except maybe for start-ups. What do you think?

Was it small business or the internet that changed my life?

Seafront bikes

Seafront bikes

It is no secret that I started my own business after the world of employment left me, and I could not get another job. There was no grand plan. I just got “on my bike” to get some money coming in.

Back then, 2002, the main way of getting business (I thought) was advertising. I have written before about the money spent on directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local. They were a waste of time and that was because they really said nothing about my business apart from listing it under a category, but also because customers were actually talking to each other, exchanging information on-line, and yes, getting out of the door and networking.

I did not have much idea about social media in those days, but they were early days. I wonder how much I would have become involved if it had not been for business needs. Would I ever have “done” Twitter and Facebook? I suppose it was the other way round as Facebook was first, but I “do” Twitter a lot more.

It is not as though I ever was exactly afraid of computers. I am a techy sort of guy. I had a Sinclair ZX81, a BBC computer and an IBM AT PC running DOS. I programmed in Sinclair BASIC and in MS BASIC, not very well, but I had the enthusiasm. I frequented bulletin boards. It did not make me social.

In 2003 I had realised that face-to-face networking might be a good idea. I had a business coach who thought it was, though he had not tried it. I went to the local Ecademy group, and three days later met Thomas Power at a seminar in London. He and Ecademy taught me so much about networking, on-line and off-line that it is hard to imagine a business or personal life without it.

I have become a very social person, and social media and on-line marketing are how I get most of my business. Of course the biggest benefit is in making so many new friends; real friends who have helped me as I hope I might now and again have helped them.

I know a lot of employee techies who do not really “get” social media. They may mess around on Facebook but I wonder if they have really made new friends as I have, or whether they just interact with the old ones. Some techies view all social media with disdain and are paranoid about personal security and identity theft. They know how everything works, but they cannot see the purpose or the potential, only the low-risk threat.

For myself and my business there is a great world out there, I have made a lot of real friends I could not have found in any other way, and I am grateful. I think I am a totally different person from the one I would have been, stuck in a job in town. I feel I am happier and more at ease with myself as an independent player, and have been set free by the tools I first found through Ecademy. Being in business brought me to social and business networking. Would the second have happened without the first? I don’t know.

Has your life been changed in the same way?

Promoting your start-up business – Part 5 – Networking

 

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Don’t be a networking butterfly (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

What is networking?

What do we mean by networking? It means getting to know people. We are a social species, and of course some are more social than others. I am quite a shy person by nature, and really had to push myself to get out and meet people when I started my own businesses. Other people, such as my wife, are natural networkers and real social animals, knowing large numbers of people in the local community without thinking about it.

Of course what I am concentrating on here is business networking rather than general social networking.

It is not possible to categorize or talk about every sort of business networking opportunity. Meeting any other person in business, or who is a potential client, is business networking. However, I will discuss the different types of organized meetings which are available in most towns and cities.

  • The one category of business per group / chapter.
  • The several category of business per group type.
  • Networking lunches usually with a talk from a business person.
  • General gatherings organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, representative and lobby groups.

BNI and others

What do I mean by “one category of business per group”? This is the model started really by Ivan Misner with Business Network International (BNI) in the Eighties. The format is that in every “Chapter” each type of business is represented by one member. There are no duplications of businesses.

Originally all the meetings were over breakfast, although some are over lunch now. The emphasis is on the networking, not the meal. During the meeting, and often during the meal, each member has perhaps one minute to talk about her / his business and the types of referrals wanted. The talk-time is strictly managed and the whole meeting is very much to a format.

Members often take turns on a rota basis to have a whole ten minutes every few months to talk about their business in more detail. Towards the end of the meeting, each member has an opportunity to pass referrals from their referral pad, and all referrals are monitored for quality and success by the Membership Co-ordinator (I have been one, as well as run such meetings myself).

When I first started out with a business no one knew about, and the Internet was less advanced, my coach suggested I tried BNI.  I am very glad I did. It gave me confidence to speak in front of other people and to present my ideas, and most importantly I got to know other local business owners almost immediately. I gained some business and referred quite a lot to the accountant, the solicitor, the carpenter, the web designer, the heating engineer and the financial adviser.

BNI was not hugely successful for me at the time in terms of business gained, but the confidence gained was invaluable. Long after I left I got a huge amount of business from another ex-member.

BNI is great when you start out. I think my BNI “life” of about three years was typical, but some still benefit hugely after a decade or so.

Non-exclusive groups

There are some membership organizations which run breakfast or lunch meetings, like BNI require a significant joining fee and membership subs, and also like BNI are franchised to local organizers. Unlike BNI they permit any number of people in the same business to go to the meetings and indeed to go to multiple meetings in different towns. Whether this works very well is hard to tell. It helps you meet others in your own business as well as many others, but may produce conflicts in terms of getting referrals. 4N is typical of such organizations in the UK. There will be many varieties around the world. Try them out and see how successful they seem. Many will allow trial membership.

Business lunches

I mentioned networking lunches, usually with a talk from a business person. These groups are also often part of a franchise. They have an advantage in that they are focused on networking and you will get good opportunities to talk to the people around you at length. You never know who you might meet who could be an ideal referrer (you might be theirs) or even the perfect person for a joint venture.

The general gatherings I mentioned, organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, tend to be less focused, in that there is no real format. You may be fortunate to find and gain business at one of these, but especially if they are free at the door or there is simply an entrance fee and no on-going membership required, people turn up to sell. They tend to go to every meeting of this type so that you keep on bumping into them, when you really do not want to see them. I call these people who turn up at every meeting to sell networking butterflies. They never settle and probably never get or receive business, so they waste their time..

It is most important in business networking not to sell, but to be interested in other people and listen to what they have to say. That way you will get more respect and more referrals.

Less useful lunches

As for Chambers of Commerce lunches, I guess it is worth trying one or two, but you may be out of luck if the primary stated object is not networking. I have nothing against pensioners. I am related to pensioners and am going to be one myself one day, but I have found Chamber lunches to be the domain of the retired. If they are not in business any more they are not likely to be able to help you, and are unlikely to think about referring you to their friends.

Get out there

I enjoy getting out to network. I like meeting people, which BNI trained me to do. I have since run a “BNI clone” group. I have tried different sorts of groups, and you should try various types too, to see which you like and which might work for you.

Do not be disappointed if results in terms of business gained are slow to start with. You have to persevere, get known, gain the confidence of other business owners, and show that you really do a great job for your customers and clients. Remember not to sell. Business will come from networking, and maybe years afterwards as it did for me from an ex-BNI colleague.

I would wish you good luck with your networking, but you should not need luck if you work on it and give it time.

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The trouble with referral networking

Where do I start?

A colder climate

Given that there are so many groups, not just the breakfast meetings, referral networking is hard work. As we said, there is a lot of dilution with people being torn several ways.

The recession has brought more difficulties into the referral networking arena, because there are lots of people who have started new businesses having come out of employment. That is absolutely brilliant is some ways, or should I say admirable? It was what I did ten years ago. However, ten years ago there were not crowds of people suddenly in the market and looking to sell their skills.

As a new business, if you are really struggling to get work, you have no track record. That means you have few or no recommendations and I don’t know whether you are any good. It also means I would be wary of referring you because when I refer anyone, I am putting my own reputation at stake. I may know other businesses who do the same thing you do, and because they are established I know whether they are worthy of recommendation.

With a little help from your friends…

Someone who has had no business yet has to rely on longer term friends to get work, be able to give a reference from a former employer, or has to take a punt with advertising. I cannot recommend an accountant I don’t know to be good, or a printer or a plumber or an HR specialist. I may meet a web designer when out networking, but I know lots of those and I already know good ones because their work is out there for all to see..

Much more than it was ten years ago, the future of networking is more distinctly on-line, or it seems to be. In some ways it is easier to build relationships there. Quite often one “sees” people more often there. I have referred people on Twitter and have been referred, leading to some decent business.

Has the world changed?

Local referral networking seems too hit-and -miss now, by which I mean that there are more worried people without business bouncing between one networking group and another, and who don’t understand how you have to give first in order to receive. Referral networking works through genuine relationships. There are too many networking butterflies.

Do you get business through networking? Is it through on-line social media or is it though old-fashioned meetings? Is it a mixture of the two?

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The trouble with breakfast networking

An English breakfast

An English breakfast (Photo credit: Riggwelter via Wikipedia). Hold the beans, please!

Sleepy time

A few days ago I went to breakfast networking meeting. It is several months since I last went to one and I wondered how I used to get up every week at such an unearthly hour to get to my breakfast networking group. I now seem to have a job staying awake if I have to get up at crack of dawn or even before.

Just the same I have a long history of breakfast networking. Nearly a decade ago when I first started out with my own business I joined BNI. There were very few breakfast networking groups then.

Halcyon days

I enjoyed BNI and although in my sort of business I didn’t get dozens of referrals unlike the florist who benefited from the “desperation referrals”, I did pick up some useful business, and most importantly one great referral which kept my wife and me out of the poor house.

BNI was good for me. Most of the members were fairly new business owners, but one of the important rules was that we were supposed to refer a particular type of business to a member of BNI rather than a business owner we knew elsewhere. We were not supposed to belong to any “rival” group. There was also some quality control via the membership committee in that they followed up on referrals and made sure that if we got business we delivered the best service we could. I am sure we did in the group, being mindful of our own reputations.

Being a member of BNI was not cheap in terms of upfront outlay. With joining fees, annual membership and the meeting costs including breakfasts we paid out about £1,400 (S2,200 in today’s money) or so in our first year and £1,000 annually thereafter. It was worth it though in terms of business.

Falling from grace

I enjoyed BNI while it lasted for me. However even an easy-going chap like me ultimately fell out with the franchise owner. Never mind.

In more recent years I enjoyed other breakfast groups. I have been a serial (not cereal) breakfast networker. I even ran a group for a while, but nowadays there are so many groups meeting at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning. Unlike the group I ran, most are not run on the BNI principle of exclusivity where there is only one of each type of business in the same group.

There are also many “free” groups which do not even have formal membership. This means that people tend to belong to a number of groups and are torn between members of different ones when it comes to referrals. Maybe they are so confused they never give any and forget the important tenet of networking, which is helping others.

In my most recent breakfast networking I did not find it very profitable. I met some nice people, but because of the sheer number of groups and divided loyalties, I think the age of profitable breakfast networking is over. Except maybe for those who swallow hard and stump up for BNI.

I would love to know what your experience is as a current or former breakfast networker? Does it still work for you?

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Reputations, referrals and let-downs

If we get a referral from a colleague or fellow business person, it is very satisfying of course, but we have to live up to the recommendation. If we run our businesses as efficiently as we can and offer a great service that distinguishes us from the rest then we have no need to worry about letting anybody down. We have a duty to the referrer as well as to our new customer. After all, the person who has referred the work has put her reputation on the line by recommending us.

I have had a good and reliable service from one of my suppliers over about eight years. I thought nothing of recommending that supplier to one of my favourite colleagues in my network. Apparently my supplier has let her down. I feel bad about this because it is as though I have let her down. I gave the referral in good faith. My reputation was potentially at stake.

My friend is philosophical about it and says I shouldn’t worry. I still feel let down, and I would hesitate to refer the supplier again.

Reputations are precious. Mine is. I refer people I think are good, but I will be even more sparing with my referrals in future.

Have you been let down like this by someone in your network? What did you do?

Being aware of our surroundings

I always like to think I am a fairly tolerant kind of guy, but I guess we all have our Achilles Heels. Even on-line I am irritated by people who constantly sell rather than engage. Of course we all have the ability to un-follow or block or simply ignore, depending through which medium we encounter them.

It is not always quite so easy with face-to-face networking. There is this chap I bump into now and again who goes on his merry way leaving in his wake rather bruised networkers he has battered with his sales talk and confused by his various business offerings. He doesn’t listen for a moment to what others have to say, and he doesn’t seem interested in what they have to offer or whether he could help them.

In fact this “networker” seems oblivious to other people feelings and to his surroundings. If he read this piece he wouldn’t recognise himself because he doesn’t stop to think. Of course he won’t read it anyway because he wouldn’t think it was about him, which it is. Yes, he is his favourite subject.

This gentleman (a term used loosely) is not even stupid in intellectual terms. He purports to offer complex legal services. One of his websites is well up the rankings in keywords which interest me. He may have a clever SEO person but I expect he does it himself. But being clever doesn’t mean he is sensitive to other people’s feelings or that he even cares. He seems to have no empathy.

I guess this serial networker (or even “cereal networker” since he likes breakfast meetings) doesn’t actually get much business from networking. That will be because he puts himself ahead of others as well as in front of them when they would dearly like to escape.

Have you met someone like this? How do we get him to reform when he doesn’t listen, or is it a lost cause? Shouldn’t we all show our fellow networkers a fair degree of respect?

Chasing the numbers or taking a gamble?

Having been networking on-line for quite a long time – eight years – I have quite a significant contact network out there. It is not the biggest network because I do not add people just to bolster my scores. I still have an issue with Dunbar’s number which is the village in my head, so I cannot “know” everyone.

I interact with quite a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook and some other on-line platforms, and also talk to bloggers through comments on their blogs and sometimes on mine. That means I think that somewhere down the end of the hall there is a revolving door where some people come into my mental village and some leave, whether they or I are aware of it or not.

The Virtual High Street and Main Drag

I am not against having a large number of contacts on Twitter or LinkedIn. Being out there with one’s “open for business” A-board on the virtual pavement outside the virtual shop means someone might see it, drop in and buy. You just never know. It’s not networking in the conventional sense though, because we have no idea who is passing by even if we have a connection which means they do pass by our shop.

The problem for people just concentrating on having a large number of contacts is that it is very hard to make sure that the right people are passing. Some sign up to follow through automated Twitter search platforms and they may be lucky in getting business for all I know, but it seems pretty aimless for the most part. Still, each to their own.

Focus

What worries me is that lots of people concentrate on actively pursuing the numbers in a completely unfocussed way thus wasting their time. It can be an addiction akin to gaming or even gambling, thinking that the next batch of contacts will really pay off. The biggest danger in business is wasting time on things that don’t work.

Have you gone for big numbers? Has it worked? If so, well done and please share your experience. If it hasn’t worked, shouldn’t you be trying a more channeled and organized approach to your on-line strategy and your marketing in general?

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Come on, rabbit, don’t be shy!

Rabbit shape

Image via Wikipedia

Quite often when I am taking my evening walk, I pass a man of about my age scurrying back from the rail station. No doubt he is a City worker. He does not meet my eye and scoots past like a frightened rabbit. Generally when I pass someone out walking, I say hello, especially if I quite often see the person. None of my attempts at greeting this guy have elicited any response, so I have given up.

The ant hill

To a degree I understand the man’s attitude. It is a sort of defence mechanism some adopt when they work in a big city, especially a capital city. There are just so many people. I know what it is like to find my way through an enormous number of people especially at a mainline rail station. One is reduced to ant status, almost climbing through and round the crowd to get where we want to.

This defence mechanism often extends to the workplace too, particularly if people are unhappy and just turn up, keep their heads down and work just because it pays the bills. I used to do that too. I stopped doing it because if you keep your head down people really do crawl all over you, and at the time it was a conscious decision. I realised I was not getting anywhere at the place I was working and that I was badly undervalued. I left and got a much better job with more responsibility, which was much more rewarding and which gained me a lot more pay.

The warren

Once we have our own business, we can’t be frightened rabbits. After all, rabbits are social animals really. We have to be seen and noticed. We have to network and build relationships in person and online. You know that already.

As an employee I DID make a conscious decision to go for better things.

When I set up my own business it was still pretty tough for a natural introvert like me. I had done a course on public speaking as an employee, mainly because I had to do a course and I had done all the others. It didn’t train me to present myself properly, because you only learn by doing it in practice. I have to thank BNI for that because it is where I cut my networking teeth. Getting business there was not all that successful because I could not get my ideal business category, but I benefited a great deal from the training.

To see me online you might not think I am a shy person, but by nature I am. We need to be ourselves when we network, but for many of us we still have to overcome our inhibitions and not hide away even when we would like to. I have got used to being “out there”, and that’s what we all have to do, but at the start it’s not easy, is it?

 

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