With a little help from my friends

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Cocker died recently, and although he was a prolific recording artist, he is best remembered for his cover of the Lennon-McCartney song “With A Little Help From My Friends”, which they wrote for Ringo Starr. Joe tailored the song to his style and made a very memorable song one so good that most of us will always remember his interpretation. He was friends with the Beatles and they did help each other more than we knew back then.

In a business context, most of us have not been fortunate enough to discover a product or service that is unique, and it is a question of putting our own personal touches into our offerings to make them special to our clients. We can do that by developing ideas from others in our business. In my line, I do not look on others with the same type of offering as competitors. They are colleagues with their own take and approach.

That said, we cannot work in isolation, and I rely on others for some of the services I offer to clients. I am very good on many technical issues, but not on a few, so I turn to paid-for technical support and to my sub-contractors, who also do the sort of work I do not take pleasure from doing, but they do. We all have our strong points and our weaker ones, but if we know and use the support we need, our clients will get the very best from us, which they are entitled to expect.

Our paid supporters are also very important when we need to take time off for holidays, and also, as I have needed recently, some personal time when someone close to us is very unwell. I am so very grateful that I have a social circle too including a lovely neighbour who was incredibly supportive quite literally in my hour of need.

So what am I saying? Small businesses need to have support in place to fill in the gaps in what they are good at, and also to be there in a crisis, whether internal or external. As business owners, we also need to have good business and social circles to help us out personally when the unexpected happens. Until it does, we must help others in crisis.

We all need a little help from our friends and it is a great comfort to know that we can get it.

Hard times and worse horrors

Castries Harbour, St Lucia, whence Fair Trade bananas and cocoa are exported

Small businesses are under the cosh in the UK. Our markets are very difficult. People don’t want to buy even when we can help them save money. I don’t sell answers which are not worth a lot more than they cost, but prospective clients still take a lot of convincing.

All of Europe is struggling in business. Germany is the strongest, but needs its markets, and the uncertainty of the fate of the Euro is hampering ambition. We are told that countries such as India are booming and riding the crest of the wave. Those in the Cities are apparently doing well, yet we are told that the poor in especially those in rural areas are being abandoned, even being prevented from using agricultural machinery.   No, I don’t understand it

Sky News ran this report about the bottom having dropped out of the cotton market, leading to the ruin of Indian cotton farmers. It is really harrowing and puts in perspective our own troubles. Of course if growing cotton is not making any money, we would say in our Western way that they should grow something else, because if something we have always done isn’t working, we should change our ways. I don’t have the knowledge as to whether these farmers could grow something else such as maize or sweet potatoes, but it would need new finance and education which the Indian farmers can’t get.

If something isn’t working, it needs changing. It needs a new approach to business. We in the West have the capacity to change because we have the technology to do the research and we can easily find out, if we don’t know, the right people to help. That’s what we have to do.

None of us has all the answers, especially when it comes to business and agriculture in another land. Let us change our businesses to do what we need to make more money, and let us see how we can help subsistence farmers like those in India by donating to appropriate charities and buying Fair Trade products.

We can help, even if in a small way, even just by changing our shopping habits.  Don’t you agree we really must make the effort to help?

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First impressions


Elephants never forget

There are an awful lot of cliches. You know the sort.


  • You have thirty seconds to make an impression on a first meeting.
  • You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

Psychologists tell us that we do make judgments about the characters of the people we meet fairly instantaneously. It worries me that people do this, because we can all be wrong, and quite radically wrong. If we are out networking and therefore perhaps working our way round a room, I think we can make quite serious mistakes.

Fish out of water

When I left the corporate world and started in business on my own I carried with me all the old prejudices, and because I started meeting a greater variety of people and indeed clients, I floundered at the outset. I didn’t know how to deal with many of them.

In the world of the City, most clients were wealthy and / or high earners and most had a good educational background. By “good” I mean that they had gone to schools in better-off areas, and had gone to university or college. Perhaps they had worked their way up after starting as school-leavers. Perhaps they had been taken on by more sought-after employers because of whom they knew or more likely whom their patents knew. It was all very cosy as I now realise.

The new pond

However, there are some very smart people out there who do not speak “posh”, who didn’t get through college and who have got where they have got through hard work of course, but also because they are very bright; yes, intelligent.

It takes not just guts to build a major firm of hauliers (for example) from scratch. It takes intelligence and an ability to think on one’s feet. An ability to keep quite a few balls in the air if only in the head. An ability to adjust quickly to deal with the unexpected. Of course this is stuff we mostly don’t learn at school anyway, but it takes a clever person as opposed to just a well-educated person to run a business well.

Some people may come across as brash. They may have a questionable taste in clothes (although they may think we have). They may have hobbies we might think of as odd. They may just know what they are doing pretty well and can teach us a thing or too.

Mr Memory

It is easy to judge a book by its cover – and I am rolling out the cliches – but I remember in another context making a mistake I am glad I made because I learned from it.

A few years ago my wife and I were in South Africa staying in a hotel in the bush on the edge of the Kruger National Park. We had a waiter who was not in the first flush of youth. He was a local with a brilliant sense of humour, but obviously with no or little formal education. Because we were on a tour, we were regularly seated at a table of eight. This guy came and took the orders for the starters and main course (different every night) in one go, plus the drinks order and the wine for later. That isn’t necessarily the done thing in restaurants at home, but we weren’t at home.

The thing about our waiter was that he never wrote anything down. Sixteen food orders plus eight aperitifs and the wine, all in one go. Plainly the reason our waiter didn’t write down the orders was because he couldn’t read and write. He never got anything wrong though, and when he brought the order he remembered who was having what.

Plainly this gentleman had a fantastic memory and probably a terrific brain, but he had never had an education.

So please don’t judge a book by its cover or a person just by their appearance and the way they speak. You may be missing your next great business opportunity.

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Networking, nepotism and family values

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

Image via Wikipedia

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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Booing from the sidelines


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.


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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Fifteen ways to get unfollowed and disconnected from my network

Google Appliance as shown at RSA Expo 2008 in ...

Image via Wikipedia

Or just not followed in the first place

  1. Tweet advertising the whole time
  2. Tweet other peoples quotations
  3. Tweet religious tracts
  4. Tweet political comments and unkind comments about politicians.
  5. Tweet every meal you have (occasional food comments or pictures of dishes you are pleased with are OK).
  6. Send a request to connect on Linked In to get my email address to put me on your mailing list.
  7. Tweet on automatic from RSS feeds that have nothing to do with you just to please Google, Klout and Peer Index. Actually both Google and I will go off you.
  8. Tweet in a company name and not tell me your real one.
  9. Auto-feed absolutely every comment, tweet and link.
  10. Never RT or pass on someone else’s link.
  11. Never have a conversation or interact
  12. Swear (even with an apology)
  13. Rubbish a competitor.
  14. Be rude about anyone at all.
  15. Criticise fellow networkers even if they deserve it.

Now, everyone is entitled to their political views, and their religious beliefs. Just spare me, please. Be original, help others and don’t be lazy or disrespectful. It seems not much to ask. What do you think?

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Giving our time to our loved ones and ourselves

Braun HF 1, Germany, 1959

Image via Wikipedia

The other day I talked about giving time, but it was not a lecture for anyone, but more of an observation as to how some do and some don’t. I work hard on my business mainly because I enjoy it and get real satisfaction from having satisfied clients. I enjoy nearly very aspect.

I do think it is important to have family time, though, and to have a bit of fun, even if it is watching favourite TV programmes with my wife. I wouldn’t criticise others who don’t believe in watching TV, and surprisingly in 2011 I still know several who think it is a waste of time. They are entitled to their opinion. I like to use television as another source of learning, and even some TV fiction can be quite educational in addition to being relaxing. I can’t stand soaps, though.

Now and again it is important to relax the mind with a bit of recreation, so I read some fiction too. I think we need to step outside ourselves just a little, and into someone else’s shoes, to listen to their story. Anyway, I am not the only one who thinks we writers need to train with the best , many of whom write published fiction.

I think better and believe I write better when I remember to take time away from the computer. Surely I am not alone in that? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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Living our lives in public

A Breakfast venue

I guess all of us who use social media tools and web applications are to a degree living a public life. After all, that is the purpose, isn’t it – to raise our profiles for marketing purposes? Well, OK, it’s fun too.

Some live more public lives than others of course. They report where they are through foursquare, so we know where they are having lunch, whether posh or fast-food and perhaps they tell us every thought they have chattering on Facebook.

I have a foursquare account although I have done nothing with it. I can’t quite make my mind up about it.

Concerning Facebook, it is my choice not to “let it all hang out”. I do make social comments on my Wall and on other people’s Walls, and if you are my Facebook Friend you could probably get a general idea of my tastes, preferences and interests, without knowing a great deal about my day-to-day life. That is the way I want it.

I don’t think we need to post only business though, on Facebook, FriendFeed or Twitter. I think that we can show something of ourselves through these media, so I am quite happy to pass the time of day on Twitter. I might recommend our local baker or even admit to having a curry. As long as someone does not share the details of every meal, I am quite happy to read about their preparation of Moroccan Lamb, whether they are having a beer with it, or a glass of wine. In fact I might be interested if they can recommend their wine.

You see, I think that having a general rounded idea of someone’s lifestyle and character without the nitty-gritty detail helps build the relationship and therefore the trust, and that is what networking is about, whether on-line or off-line. I don’t need chapter-and-verse of the social life or home life of my business connections, but knowing a certain amount about their tastes helps me to see some of them as business friends, by which I mean people with whom I might do business.

What do you think?

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Measuring web influence?

Twitter logo initial
Image via Wikipedia

When some people talk about their personal relationships, we want to cry out “Too much information” but when on-line that’s what we get. It is so difficult to filter out the noise. We are constantly being urged by various web pundits and bloggers to follow certain paths. Many of these opinions may be the right ones. We have to be selective because otherwise the noise will drown out all the information we could use.


It is the same with different web tools and social media sites. There are just too many to give the time to all at once. I avoid most of the invitations I get to join new social networks and try to ascertain those that are most likely to be useful. I will dive properly into Quora and BranchOut when I have time, which for a tax practitioner certainly is not in January, no matter how I manage my time and outsource.

However, of all the tools we do use, how do we know how much on-line influence we have? We can use sites which purport to measure influence, such as Klout, but they are very crude. My Klout score as I write is 46, which according to Klout is pretty decent. “Jon Stow is a Specialist

You may not be a celebrity, but within your area of expertise your opinion is second to none. Your content is likely focused around a specific topic or industry with a focused, highly-engaged audience.”

All well and good, but I think a site such as Klout simply measures how much noise one makes. I have been very active on Twitter and Facebook in particular the last couple of weeks (as I write) but noise isn’t influence. Some people might be covering their ears as far as my noise is concerned.

How does it feel?

The only real measure of influence as far as I am concerned is the number of website and blog hits I see, the comments on the blogs and the number of conversations or (more critically) responses I have to initiate conversations on other people’s blogs, my blogs and Twitter. These are climbing steadily while my Klout score has varied between 18 and 51.

In the end social media influence must be not how other people measure it but how it feels. Pain and pleasure are subjective feelings influenced usually by multiple factors. One’s on-line influence may be measured by clinical factors such as website and blog hits, but the manifestation is the number of sales we are making through our internet influence. I am pleased to say that these are climbing well from almost nothing a couple of years ago, but on this receiving end, subjective personal measuring of new business is really the only way I can truly know. It’s as subjective as just knowing whether or not we are happy. I certainly am, but definitely not complacent. What do you think?

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Thank you for the music!

I have had a very enjoyable year writing this blog and my other ones. If the truth be known, I mainly write these days because I enjoy it and because I hope the odd nugget might be useful.

I suppose I started blogging partly to raise my profile, and for the Google effect; as a marketing tool. I soon found that I enjoyed writing, unexpectedly it was good for my ego to have a voice. I also find it useful in my general thought process and even relaxing. Although the marketing matters to me, a very welcome side effect is the therapeutic value is in crystallising my thought and getting new ideas. Seth Godin has written about this.

I have learned a huge amount from others and I am sure there is a lot more to discover. We can never know enough about anything which excites us. Apart from Seth, there are others who have helped me a great deal, whether they know it or not, although I know they all set out to help. That’s what good bloggers do; it is not about selling, though any business which comes along is very welcome. I hope I am helping too.

It is difficult knowing whom to thank because some deserving people will be left out. If you feel left out, don’t worry because I do appreciate you. So aside from thanking my wife, my family, my agent and our cats I wish to pay tribute to those from whom I have learned:

Chris Brogan, and I recommend this

Jim Connolly

Su Butcher

Andrew Lock whose video blog Help! My Business Sucks makes me laugh as well as having some useful reminders

Sarah Arrow who allowed me to guest post on Birds on the Blog

You would have been disappointed if with the title above I hadn’t given you this too so as it is so appropriate:


PS. Actually I don’t have an agent yet.