Rare weekend off

Not so rare weekend off

Someone in my line of business tweeted the other day “I am having a rare weekend off. I hope the weather stays fine”. Well, I think the weather probably held up and delivered, but what a statement, or should I say admission?

Of course the world has changed. Because of technology, many people like me work partly or wholly from home, but we can work almost anywhere we can get on-line, which is actually really literally almost anywhere. Whether or not our work is that mobile, it doesn’t mean that we should work all the time. We need down-time with our families, and to pursue interests which put no pressure on us otherwise we are bound to get stale and perform less well. There are studies that support this and even that not taking a lunch break makes us less productive during the day.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and the same would apply to make Jill dull too.

Then again, consider the treadmill of having to work most weekends. What is likely to be wrong here? Probably the Tweeter likes to do everything himself. I guess that makes him truly self-employed in that he works like an employee rather than someone who runs a business. Anyway, he can’t be good at everything. He can’t enjoy all the work he does. Why can’t he subcontract the work he doesn’t like or isn’t good at and still make money on it?

Running a small independent business I can choose to work when I like, though I try to be accessible to clients at reasonable times, which do not include evenings and weekends except by prior arrangement. I can take time off when family members need to be taken for medical appointments. I can go on a midweek picnic, though not in mid-December. I have people to answer my telephone.

I have most weekends off. I take time off during the week. I work when it suits me, often early in the morning. I spend time with my wife. I go for walks. My business doesn’t run me. I run it and I have help. I don’t have all the answers, but I have some of them.

Do you have help, or are you a slave to yourself 24/7?

Never mind the quality?

Eeyore being sad.
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I love being in business, and not being an employee and part of someone else’s business. Many of you have heard that from me before. Just the same it is not all plain sailing and that is partly because we are dealing with other human beings.

Eeyore

Over the years I have had many lovely people as clients and who have appreciated the service they have received. Happy clients are those who are prepared to pay for what they get because of the benefit they perceive. However, there are some who are not very often of a cheerful nature and no matter what they get, try to pay as little as possible for it. These are the glass-half-empty people, the pessimists and the generally grumpy who want to pay as little as possible and never want add-on services. They are the people who can get you down if you let them. This is the Eeyore view of life.

Weeding

As we have said before, start-up businesses take on as many customers and clients they can get, and that’s only natural. As the business grows and develops, an owner, particularly of a service business, can afford to weed out the ungrateful and low coupon clients and concentrate on the higher value and generally more appreciative clients, and at the same time have more enjoyment in dealing with the higher coupon work which is generally more interesting.

If you haven’t got to the point of being really choosy who you work with, at least sack the miserable cheapskate customers because all you will get from them is grief; you certainly won’t get a decent profit.

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Networking, hunting and butterflies

As someone who runs a breakfast referral group, I follow-up visitors who have attended the occasional meeting in the past but who have not become regulars and signed on the dotted line as members. It is fascinating to hear the different responses, such as the person who obviously didn’t get networking because he was worried about just meeting the same people every week when he joined us for breakfast.

I caught up with another guy this week, and asked him why he hadn’t been to see us. He said “I already go to two networking groups and I don’t want to dilute my referrals too much”.

While I was disappointed as I had hoped he could be a valuable member of the group, I thought this was a great answer from someone who really understands networking and the importance of building trust in his inner circle of business friends. He has earned my respect.

The problem with the networking butterflies, those who flit from group to group and probably cover quite a few miles, is that they are in reality hunters. They have to be because they spread themselves too thinly to be capable of giving referrals to many people they meet.

What they hope for is a great and fortunate referral or at least a good lead in a conversation they may have with someone they hardly know. Of course it happens and it has its place in the business world in that such people are salesmen or saleswomen; let us settle for sales people. However they are not good networkers and are not expecting to be able to give anything back. Networking success usually involves giving first and receiving later.

Our hunting butterflies may protest that their larger business network may benefit from referrals. They may suggest that they can maintain relationships with one or two hundred people in a referral networking environment. They may refer to Dunbar’s number but the reality is that if they know ten printers and eight graphic designers, only one of those is up for each referral in those categories and that is the one they know best.

Do you agree? Have you seen these people fluttering around?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Networking butterflies

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Ten Reasons I Won’t Follow Back On Twitter

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We all have our prejudices, and I guess mine are reflected in my approach to social media and indeed networking on and off-line. Here are some turn-offs as regards Twitter users – I won’t say the Twitterati, because I reserve that expression for those who seem to me to know what they are doing. At least I am for the purpose of this post. Others may disagree, but I won’t follow people:

  1. Who only sell.. “Have you seen our new luxury greenhouse?” “Look at our summer offers on greenhouses.” “25% off small greenhouses.” “Look at our greenhouse website”
  2. Who tweet about the minutiae of their day with nothing else. A bit of “time for elevenses” mixed in with some good content makes for a rounded reputation or profile.
  3. Who use bad language. If you are talking the odd swear word might slip out, but if you actually have to type it?
  4. Who just post recycled quotations from various well-known people, alive or dead. Do they have no original thought of their own?
  5. Who never take part in the Twitter conversation, the broadcasters.
  6. Who criticize other people in their network.
  7. Who do not re-tweet good comments and interesting links.
  8. Who are professional internet marketers with tens of thousands of followers gathered by some auto-follow site.
  9. Who tweet links to get-rich-quick websites you have difficulty navigating out of.
  10. Who just auto-feed links to websites they have nothing to do with in the hope they will raise their own profile on the search engines.

It follows from all this that I enjoy good conversation with my Twitter friends and like to be referred to good and useful content. It’s all good fun, or it should be, and done well it is a great way to grow our networks, and as far as many of us are concerned, grow our businesses.

What winds you up, and what makes you want to follow someone?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Manage yourself, manage your clients

In running our own businesses it is very easy to not allow ourselves enough recreation time, or time not just working. Of course we do not just keep regular working hours. Most of us attend to our tasks at odd hours, but part of the advantage of working for ourselves is that we can, now and again, take some personal time during the working week, either when we wish to or sometimes when it is thrust upon us, such as (in my case recently) helping elderly relatives.

We do need to stop ourselves from being at our clients’ or customers’ beck and call at all times. I have a quite technical business anyway, but I do not give out my mobile (cell) number unless absolutely necessary. The number is not on my business card. Usually if I am not available in the office during normal working hours it is because I am with a client or out and about seeing clients or at networking events. It is not convenient for me to take calls and probably I could not answer with confidence without my file any questions that might be asked. My assistant will take messages and I can call back when convenient.

Generally I do not do client work at weekends, except at the height of our tax season, and even then not the last weekend because I organise my clients to spare me the last-minute rush. I do write articles and blog posts at weekends because I enjoy doing it, and it is great when a sort of recreation has a useful marketing function (there, I admit it: I market; actually quite a lot).

So if my client calls on a Friday afternoon at 4.30 and asks if I can produce a document needed by first thing Monday morning, I may look askance at the request.

Firstly, I may have plans for the weekend. Secondly, I have to ask myself whether I should modify or abandon those plans and whether I have time anyway.

Thirdly, I ask myself whether this is a really good client, who has become a friend and who would not ask unless it was desperate. Alternatively is this an inconsiderate nuisance client who apparently thinks they are my only client, but does not go as far as paying me on time? This is where I manage their expectation and their presumption in deciding what to do. Of course, that is not to say that I won’t help with something I would have time to do on Monday morning. I am not cussed.

I look after all my clients well, but they do not own me or my leisure time. I will do a special favour based on its merits, but at weekends, home and family comes first.

Do you have this trouble from clients or customers? How do you deal with it?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Fear of the unknown in business

I wrote a little about being courageous in business a while back and was reminded that FEAR can stand for False Evidence Appearing Real (thank you Martin). Now we may often be worried about doing something that is a complete leap in the dark especially if there is a serious financial risk. We all have to be realistic, which is why I am not starting a bakery. I have no experience of baking bread (well, not much) and would not know anything about making fancy cakes, which I think I would need even if I brought in specialist bakers. The problem is I know nothing about the trade and would have to learn from scratch.

What does surprise me is when there would be no downside in trying something new. I thought of this yesterday as I was out walking and passed the long jump area on a school playing field. In the long jump, even if we think we are not great jumpers, we might as well have a go even if we shut our eyes at the moment of the big leap. After all, we are going to land in a nice soft sandpit, and you never know, we might just have performed a great jump.

As far as I am concerned, anything is worth a go if it might improve my business and it would not even cost me money. If there is a cost, we still should try it if we can weigh up and perceive a good chance of success.

What is the problem for many? Self doubt. People find excuses. “I have never tried it.” “I don’t think I can do it.” I have heard it this week from computer literate business people of my vintage. “I am too old to try Twitter.” Well, try it. Ask someone to point you in the right direction. If you don’t get it after a few weeks then give up, but in the meantime you do know how to have a conversation, don’t you?
Rain forest lizard
It’s the old instinctive reaction, the knee-jerk, the lizard brain which Seth Godin often talks about and which stops people doing what they know intellectually they should. Even very intelligent people may resist an unfamiliar experience.

My father is in his late eighties and manages to order my parents’ supermarket deliveries on-line. If he can do that, why can’t we try all the new opportunities and tools available to improve our businesses? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Some things start-up businesses need to know about

When we start our business, most of us have a good idea and a plan to carry it out. Everyone should have a plan, but we need to be flexible enough to alter it according to circumstances. What no one tells us if we don’t ask is about all the mistakes we might make which can cost us money. It is always useful to be armed with a few tips, so here are some things I have learned.

1. When thinking about advertising and marketing, consider the best strategy to promote your business. What do others in your area of business do, and does it work for them? I thought that it would be useful to be in Yellow Pages (or the on-line equivalent, Yell.com). It cost me a fair amount of money until I worked out that these sorts of directories are really only effective for tradesman and specialist retailers. This leads me to:

2. You may find that one of the best ways to find new business is to go out networking. This involves getting out of your comfort zone a little, especially if you have been an employee and you are an introvert.. There is plenty on this site about networking and vast amounts of information available on-line, so look at BNI and other breakfast groups, and think what most suits you in terms of networking: formal, less formal, morning, lunchtime and evening.

3. Do not be afraid to ask for advice. If you have a problem, it is not a failure, just a learning process. Most people will be happy to make a suggestion.

4. Going on from item 3, many of those who can help are in your business. Do not look on them as competitors. They are colleagues who have the same issues.

5. There are quite a lot of nuisance telephone callers. I do not mean the cold callers in general. They have a job to do. However, deal firmly with the really pushy ones, because they will often try to sell you something you don’t need. If the product or service sounds useful, do some research and call back.

6. Never give your credit or debit card number to a cold caller. It sounds obvious, but it is an easy thing to do in a weak moment.

7. Some cold callers are out-and-out scammers, or crooks. They will try to sell you advertising in a police or fire service magazine or in a magazine of a charity, or ask for a donation to help the poor children in your area. Any of these is a red flag. The magazines probably don’t exist or if they do, they have nothing to do with the scammer. The charity for children will be a fiction too and someone has your card number if you are not careful. If you are suspicious, ask for a number to telephone back, or ask for the name and address of the company calling and the name of the owner. Any resistance to this and you know you were right to be suspicious. I fell foul of this trap once, too.

8. Do not borrow money against your house, and if you do borrow make sure that the payment terms are reasonable and your plan really supports the repayment schedule. Don’t chance it because the worry isn’t worth it.

9. If you are not up to keeping your accounts in apple-pie order, get someone else to help. Do not leave it to your accountant at the year-end because completing a year’s accounts from scratch can be costly. A good bookkeeper is well worth the investment.

10. Make sure you have all the insurance you could possibly need. Of course things shouldn’t go wrong if we are careful, but sometimes they do. If we are insured it should not be a problem, at least in financial terms.

None of us gets everything right. We learn and move on, and we ask for help when we need it.

One thing we can say is that running a business is never dull. What pitfalls have you seen along the way?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Need a service? Get recommendations

A couple of people I know had a little success selling items on eBay, and not wishing to be wage slaves all their lives invested a considerable amount of money setting up a shopping website serving a niche market they know well. I am all for enterprise, and would always wish them good luck. However, usually we need more than good luck, because we need to do proper research.

Our shopping site owners realised that they needed traffic to their website, for which they had paid quite a lot of money. They settled on a company which promised to get them up to the top of the search engines. As most of us know, this service is called Search Engine Optimization, SEO for short. They paid £3,000 over the first year, which is just over US$4,600 at the time of writing. Was their site easily found for the top key words a year later? No, it was nowhere to be seen.

The SEO company owned up to the failure and promised to work for free until they had got a result, which would be to get the site up the search rankings. Even if they are successful, at least another six months will have been lost, and there had been very few sales after the first year. My worry would be that if they failed once, they may well fail gain.

I know several SEO experts who really can deliver results. One or two may even read this post. To you I say that I have recommended you, but unfortunately pride gets in the way of making a judgment about spending even more money.

Sixteen months on, the site is still nowhere to be seen. I have tried several searches on key words I would use, one even using a word which is part of their URL, but I cannot find them unless by typing in the name of the business, which of course no one will do if they are just looking for a particular product.

I have not pressed the business owners again with my recommendations. I feel reluctant to intrude on private grief, but if either of them comments again on their poor sales I will bring the matter up. In a way I am pleased for them they have not given up their day jobs, but that very fact may explain why they lack business focus.

As most of us know, when buying in a service, do not go for advertising hype. Get a recommendation or two or go to someone you already know and trust. That way, apart from knowing about that provider’s ability to deliver,.they will have an added incentive not to let you down.

What is your experience? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Networking breakdowns

I went to someone else’s breakfast networking event the other day. It is not a weekly event like my regular one, but takes place monthly. I guess there were about thirty people there and some of them were certainly present with the intention of talking to other business people and meeting new faces.

I have to say that unfortunately the event was a bit of a shambles. The organisers had booked a speaker who didn’t turn up. This was not their fault entirely although had I invited an outside speaker I would have given him or her a call the day before to make sure they were still up for it.

Still, the event would still have been a success in my book if, given we were only there for ninety minutes, the participators had each had a minute to introduce themselves. Then we would have had an opportunity to buttonhole those who might have been of particular interest on the day. As it was, we did not even have the chance to mingle with all present because a number of people in groups of three or four had sat themselves down around tables, probably with people they knew. That did not in my book amount to networking; they were closed off in their cliques from the rest of the gathering.

The meeting would have been much better if there had been a proper structure in view of the limited time available. I made the most of it by talking to as many of the open and receptive people there as I could fit in, but if you are organizing a short event like this, do give everyone there a chance to give their elevator pitch or just explain what they are looking for in terms of connections. Certainly do not let them sit down unless around one big table where they have to introduce themselves to the whole gathering.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we need to retain our business ambition

Kennedy Space Center.
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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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