Scammers and traps for start ups

Starting your own business is a big step and one that often isn’t thought through. “Business plan? Goodness me, no I haven’t got one.” However, other difficulties that arise in the first couple of years arise from being too trusting and assuming that everyone with whom you deal is acting in good faith.

I freely admit I was caught out once or twice in the early years. Working for someone else, we are often insulated from outsiders trying to screw us out of a couple of bob or quarters or whatever currency we deal in. When we own the business we are in the front line. So it is that when someone telephones and asks to speak to the person who looks after the marketing and advertising, we will often say quite proudly “you are speaking to that person”. We will then take what the caller has to say at face value.

In my first year or so on my own, I had a call from someone who said he was selling advertising in a magazine which would be in all the local doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, and which was sent out on a quarterly basis. Would I like an ad? When you start out you are often a bit short of business, so I said I would like to try an advert. They sent me a proof of the ad after we had agreed its content over the telephone, I had an invoice and I paid it by cheque. Guess what? The magazine was fictitious. I don’t mean it was an anthology of stories. I mean that it didn’t exist, and I had been taken for £100 I could ill afford, and of course by the time I realised that the fraudsters were long gone.

I learned a serious lesson from that, and it has stood me in good stead.

Another favourite in the UK and I am sure it has its equivalent in other countries is the Data Protection Agency Fraud. If in the course of your business you hold personal data for your customers or clients you must register with the Information Commissioners and pay an annual renewable license fee of currently £35. However, there are scammers who will write to you and offer to register your business for a much higher sum. They send official looking and quite threatening letters in brown envelopes, and there is an example here.

When I received the first of many such letters, fortunately my alarm bells rang and I checked on the internet where there is a great deal of information about this scam. I am pleased to say that people have been jailed over this racket but usually when the raids take place the criminals are long gone. They use PO Boxes and mail forwarding services and are very clever. If you need to register under the Data Protection Act do it directly to the Information Commissioners after downloading their form online.

Then again there is a charity scam which is quite common. I expect it is intended to be targeted at businesses just larger than micro-businesses, but even if there is just you and you are busy with other things you might get caught out. Anyway, someone calls, and the ploy is clever. They tell you that someone in your office, perhaps you, agreed some months ago when they called before that your business would either make a donation to a charity, or you would take an advert in a charity magazine. They will say something along the lines of “the money will go to a charity to help the disabled children” of your town, which they will name. Now, when they name my village, it is transparently obvious that they are blagging, because I would have heard of any special charity, and our village probably is not large enough to have such a charity of its own. However, if you are in a larger town, say Bradford or Canterbury, it is quite possible that there might be such a charity and a busy person or someone in a larger office could fall for it and give the company credit card number to the caller.

The scam works on credibility. If the caller says someone in your office was called and agreed to the payment some weeks ago your instinct might be not to go against this. Of course no one called before, but the lie is simply to suck you in.

It is stating the obvious, but never, never give a credit card number to someone you don’t know who has made contact with you by telephone. You would not if you had such a call on your private line, but if you get a call on your business line from someone purporting to represent another business or a charity it really would be all to easy to be drawn in. I haven’t done it myself, but have been led to the water from which I refused to drink. I think I know better, but people fall for these and the very credible online phishing scams. The crooks are out to get us. Be careful out there!

The excitement of independence

In my previous article I referred to Penny Power and her recent blog, and she and subsequent contributors including her husband and co-founder of Ecademy referred to the different attitudes we need as small business owners to those we are required to have as employees, particularly in a larger corporate environment. I started my first job in a bank, and whilst it was no ordinary bank, it was a large institution. When I finally left it was because I felt I was an under-rewarded number as opposed to a real person with aspirations and needs.

My next job, in which I lasted a good few years, was a smallish firm with one office. Whilst life was not always happy there, with occasionally difficult bosses with alcohol and mental problems, we had some great times too and the firm felt like a large family. Many of the problems are those which one might have in an extended family, but at the same time we had fun as well as doing some good work. Also, in those inflationary times, the partners did their best to pay us properly and to keep up with market rates. That, combined with the fact that the work was challenging, technically difficult and challenging in a geekish sort of way kept me pretty happy work-wise until my boss’s declining mental health (as I realised only later) forced me to move on.

One of the attractions of the next firm I joined was that it was small and I was in charge of a whole department, such as it was. I had had a brief encounter at my previous job with modern technology in the form of computerization of the department of which I was an assistant manager, and my brief in the new firm was to run it more efficiently and preside over the introduction of information technology. As it happened I also thought that it would be good to acquire wider computer skills with both hardware and software so that I was more adaptable in case I lost my job in the recession of the nineties. What actually happened was that I was not only running my department but also IT troubleshooter for the whole firm, from dealing with dodgy cables to “undeleting” what the secretaries had accidentally deleted. Such faux pas were all too easy then and I earned the gratitude of ladies who had inadvertently deleted entire reports which their bosses had spent hours dictating. It was easy stuff, we had a family atmosphere in the firm and I could more or less do what I liked within my domain without interference as long as nothing went wrong, and it didn’t, I am pleased to say.

Came the time when the firm’s useful client base was bought out by an international firm, along with the staff, and I found myself in a huge corporate environment in which one could hardly wipe one’s nose without logging it, where there were rules, a compulsory conference, and “bonding” days spoiled by people being so competitive. What was worse was that as a guy with a small firm background I was never given any decent technical work; the partners were prejudiced against all of us “hicks” whom they felt had been dumped on them and worse, these partners had no idea about commercial realities and economics.

That is why I thank the heavens every day that through whatever circumstance, I am an independent business owner in charge of my own destiny. I make all the decisions (well, I consult my wife often) but the buck stops with me, and that is fine. Also, I can do whatever I like as long as it is legal and ethical in order to make some money.

I have been trying to explain this to a small start-up business client that he needs to get out of a mindset that he only does one thing. Of course he did only one thing when he worked for someone else. Now he needs to be more flexible for his family’s sake.

I explained a while back that my wife and I needed to be open to running any sort of business for which there might be a demand. That is why we have several businesses. I love my independence, and am looking forward to starting the fifth business venture my wife and I have between us, which has come to me through networking. Those two words in that last sentence, independence and networking, illustrate why having one or more of one’s own businesses is so much fun and is so rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2009

Disrespect – what you do not want from your colleagues and network

My last blog in this thread contained the word “respect” in the title. I did not plan to follow it up with one about disrespect (incidentally a word which can only be a noun, and not a verb, in my view) but something has happened to prompt me to write it.

I belong to an international network of business advisers, and we have regional monthly meetings for those who wish to turn up. It is useful networking at a nice country pub and we also have speakers, internal and external to update us on various topics which amount to good CPD.

At the most recent meeting we had a guest speaker, who happens to be a friend of mine through networking elsewhere and who is a thoroughly nice guy. He was speaking on a particular discipline which is a major issue in business, and he has a radical alternative and refreshing approach. I will not expand on the discipline; that is not the point of this piece and I do not want the players to be too easily identified.

Anyway our guest, I stress “guest”, gave a very enjoyable and interesting talk for about three quarters of an hour and received impressively lengthy applause at the end. Our group is not usually quite so evidently appreciative, so this was significant. He then took some questions, and the chairman of the meeting started to thank him when a newcomer to our group professing to practice the same discipline, whom none of us had met before the day, started to tear into the premise of our guest’s talk with a ten minute talk of his own. He derided the common sense approach of our guest and said that rules and regulations were there to be followed (I do not think our speaker said they were to be disregarded) but the premise of his long critical statement was that our guest was wrong in almost everything he said, and that the best approach was a by-rote following of the rules; that in itself is material for another blog.

Our guest came back and comfortably rebutted the critic’s arguments. As a professional speaker also, he can look after himself, but I was severely embarrassed at the turn of events, and I know that many other members of the group there were as well. Our speaker had given up his time to speak to us – we were not paying him. I also believe it is disrespectful to criticise a speaker too much whether you know the person or not. One might ask for amplification or clarification of a certain point, but if one really does not agree then it is best to bite one’s tongue and keep quiet, and perhaps try to get a date to address the same audience at another time.

Before the meeting we had welcomed the newcomer whilst some of us were enjoying our pub lunch. Presumably the new guy would like to work with us and be involved in members’ contracts or projects. I would rate his chances of getting future work from or through those present at nil. He had alienated the entire group, and of course people do not forget.

If we are to get on in business or indeed enjoy a full social life, it behoves us not to go round upsetting people. I have many friends with whose views on various subjects I would disagree, but there is no point in going there. It is better to enjoy their pleasant company and work with them if in a business environment. This is obvious to the un-blinkered networking community and to most in our society. This rude troublemaker was the equivalent of an online troll.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Respect – being what our clients look for.

I don’t know what other people do, but I do try to match my manner and behaviour according to the client I am seeing, especially when visiting them in their own environment. My clients come from a lot of different backgrounds and vary in age from their early twenties to late eighties.

So how I deal with them depends on their expectations, and I try to keep them comfortable with me. Of course, if I am seeing a prospect for the first time I have to make a judgement based on experience, but if I know a client I already know what suits him or her.

What am I going on about? Well, I do not wish anyone to feel uncomfortable with me, so I think about my general demeanour, the manner in which I speak and the way I dress. I expect others do the same, whether consciously or otherwise.

Twenty-five years ago (it scarcely seems possible) I worked with a guy who provided bookkeeping services to a rock group and often worked in the office run by the band. My friend always wore his suit and tie when in our accountants’ office, but when he was at the band’s establishment he dressed down to very casual attire, because the staff were very laid back and living in the rock life environment. They would have been uncomfortable with a stuffed shirt and my colleague would have felt uncomfortable too.

It is all about managing expectations. My rule is (and you may laugh if you wish) that if I visit a business office I wear a suit and a tie, and of course a shirt as well. If I see a client who is younger who does not work in an office, so anyone from a drama teacher to a brickie, then maybe a jacket but definitely no tie. You get the picture. Then again these are the people with whom I am on first name terms; I have known them for a while.

There is then the older group, the over-seventies. They expect a tax practitioner not only to where a suit, shirt and tie, but to stay away from familiarity because that is the way they were taught to deal with their elders; they feel entitled to the same treatment and etiquette and that is what they get. I stick to “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Brown” etc. unless given permission to use their first names, though I do not get out of my own comfort zone by addressing anyone as Sir or Madam. I am a professional, not a servant!

I have cringed when visiting older people in hospital or seeing on television the elderly spoken to by medical staff using first names. People are stripped of a great deal of dignity by being in hospital or in having difficulty looking after themselves. They deserve to be treated with proper respect as it is better for their morale.

I guess the way I deal with each client is to make me feel more comfortable too; there is a selfish element. I learned from my rock band colleague how to make clients feel at ease with dress code and manner, but he also left a lesson not to get too much into character. I heard he died a sad rock star death at an early age and never had the fame to go with it. That was a hard lesson.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Taking responsibility

I wrote back in January about owning our mistakes and there seems to be considerable avoidance of blame in our culture. We know where the buck stops if we are running a business, and it is on our desks and no one else’s. Also, if we have customers or clients and employees, we have responsibility to both groups, the first to provide a good quality of product or service, and to the second to pay properly, treat with respect and not risk their futures, though of course accidents happen.

I find The Apprentice difficult to watch, because the participants are constantly blaming each other for team failures. I would respect those who say “I am sorry, Sir Alan, it is my fault” (a rarity) but blaming others is no way to go about life. Some people do not have the need to be liked and will tread roughshod over all others in their path, and Sir Alan Sugar probably pays hardball most of the time, but he knows the value of his workforce and of his brand name, so he has to take into account what other people think to command any respect.

Amongst business people we often hear the lament that modern politicians have no experience in business, many having started straight from university into political research work for some other politician. There are few who have graduated through business now, and also few who have come through the ranks of trade unions, so most have no idea what it is to be responsible for others or to others. It is all about ego and climbing the ladder.

This brings me to the political situation in Britain, though I am not playing politics in this piece. The head of the service provider, the Prime Minister, is treating his customers with total disregard. HM Revenue & Customs refers to taxpayers as customers and we are all users of Government services so we must all be customers. In many ways we are shareholders. He does not seem to care that he does not have the support of the electorate and that they (we) have no confidence in sorting out the mess the economy is in. What is worse in some respects is that he is sacrificing his immediate staff such as Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears. I am no supporter of Ms Blears, but she has been a most loyal supporter of Gordon Brown and he hung her out to dry by describing her behavior in the MPs expenses row as unacceptable. She had done nothing illegal or fraudulent as some other MPs may have done, even if she pushed her luck a bit with her capital gains tax property-flipping.

Mr. Brown’s ego prevents him from seeing that his customers or shareholders have no confidence in him and he is not the right man for the job. He has failed, and even if he had not, if he had been in business and lost the confidence of all surrounding him, he would still have to go, even if his name was Sugar or Branson. It is purely ego that prevents Mr. Brown from going to see the Queen to hand in his resignation, and whilst he staggers on we are all suffering. We all know this, because we understand how business should be, and Government is big business.

Hearing is not listening

One of the ways I like to relax after a day’s work or at weekends is to go for a walk. In common with many people, it helps me unwind and relax, and often I will have new ideas or know the solution to a problem I have been wrestling with. Sometimes I know the answer with such clarity that it seems obvious, and then I wonder why I had not thought of it before. Probably this is because once you know something it is just obvious to you.

When I am off on one of my walks, I do not think about work too much with my conscious mind. It is the subconscious which comes up with the ideas, but I do not worry if I do not get inspired. There is always another day and another walk.

What I do consciously when out is listen. It is fairly rural around where I live and I listen to the birds singing and calling, I listen to the trees and grass rustling, and to other background sounds such as a woodpecker hammering away. Of course I look also, and may see an interesting bird or a fox or a rabbit or a squirrel or two. The May blossom has been spectacular too, and well before the month of May and there is a new badger excavation only a hundred yards or so from home.

I always think it a shame that so many people out walking or jogging have their iPods or other music devices plugged in their ears. Not only are they missing the sounds of the country and surroundings, but somehow they do not seem to see either. Many almost walk or run into me with their concentration elsewhere, and they are missing (to my mind) the joy of their independent existence in a world full of life, of sound and of colour.

Sometimes it does not take too much adjustment to listen. If I have company on my walks (my best thinking is during solitary walks) I will say to a companion “Can you hear that bird calling or woodpecker drumming and isn’t that flower in the hedgerow pretty?” and then my friend (or my stepdaughter the other day) will notice, and then start listening and observing. That’s important, because the sounds are there all the time, but listening is the key to observing and learning, and I am happy to learn all the time.

I was at a networking meeting this morning, and though I have some reservations about the format, its USP is that it is very informal, though as with any networking group, one does need to be there every week. What I noticed today was that rather than everyone thinking about his or her one-minute sales message whilst others were giving theirs, there was comment and feedback. For once, attendees really were listening and learning from the others at the meeting, which is so often not the case. If we listen, we can help our fellow networkers find what they are looking for, and that is better than just saying when the opportunity arises “I know a bookkeeper or a builder or an insurance broker”. If you listen, you can learn and help others. If you just hear you are wasting your own and everyone else’s time.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Business card spammers

Like many small business owners I go to a fair number of networking meetings. I go to meet people with whom I may work in the future, and the purpose of attending is to build relationships and expand connections – in other words to get to know people, which can ideally be achieved by talking face to face.

Being a polite person who does not like to offend, I will if requested hand over a business card. Some meetings require that everyone has everyone else’s.

So, just to say that because you have obtained my business card, I do not expect to receive a sales or marketing email from you. If I have just met you, and especially if I have not even had a chance to have a conversation with you, I have certainly not given you permission to bombard me with sales messages, or even to send me just one. You may send me an email saying how nice it was to meet me and you look forward to talking further, or mentioning that you were sorry we did not get a chance to chat, and perhaps next time we can find out a little more about each other.

I want to be able to refer businesses, but only when I know them. I am not a lead in myself, so please have a little respect, and change the attitude you have when you meet new people, which should start with referring others, helping people, and building trust. If you look after relationships first, you will gain pleasure from that, and if you have a mindset of referring the businesses you trust, you will find business comes to you. Most of us know that, don’t we?

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Dispatches from the front – age discrimination

Some of you may have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches episode this week about age discrimination, mainly not in the workplace (which is covered by Government legislation) but discrimination preventing more mature workers from being taken on in the first place. The whole thing was pretty educational, but the first few minutes concentrated on a qualified accountant in his fifties and his trainee accountant daughter. They both applied to specialist recruitment agencies. Despite the chap in his fifties having vast experience the agencies just tended to lose his records and CV, and did not bother to interview him whilst his daughter was invited in for meetings and had emails from agencies with which she had not even registered. In putting older candidates off, they are told that the role is “dynamic”, that they would be bored because they have too much experience, or they would not be suitable for such a junior role.

None of this surprises me in the slightest, of course, as it reflects my experience, though I am now very happy to work for myself and have my own business. I was turned down for HMRC’s tax legislation re-write project a while back because I did not have a university degree. I was surprised as I would have been ideal. As an eleven year old I won a free place at a “posh” school where learning the strict rules of English Grammar was considered essential and I also have an ‘O’ Level in Latin to remind me of the importance of grammar and the origin and structure of our language. This may be a surprise to those of you who think I write in a quite casual way but I would have been an ideal candidate given my technical background too. I realise that this was only one of a number of possible excuses for not putting forward such a mature candidate.

However, I will mention that when I started work for the first time a good while ago I was eighteen. Most new recruits joined banks, insurance companies and accountants straight from school between thirty and forty years ago; some even joined their employers in these sectors at sixteen. That was the “baby boomer” way and to require a university degree is a pretty good age filter for those whose parents could not afford to put them through university. Not having a degree from thirty-five years ago is hardly an indication of unsuitability, especially with a long and respectable track record in between.

In these hard times it will be easier for employers to discriminate and use younger trainees in accountancy etc. to provide cheaper labour than that perhaps thought to be expected by more experienced job candidates. The tragedy is that the trainees will get older, qualify and have a few good years. Then their careers will founder on the “Rock of Ages” in the same way.

For the present, there will be more older candidates seeking positions due to the economic downturn and the huge losses to their pensions pots, and they will have to compete against much younger qualified people who have also lost their jobs.

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Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!

Workplace tribalism

In the week that we learn from the CBI that 38% of small businesses have laid off staff in the last quarter of 2008. Workplace tribalism many of us will feel uncomfortable over the strikes at the oil terminals and elsewhere over the employment of foreign labour. At times when the economy is weak and there are job losses, workers of larger organisations tend to blame the foreigners for their problems, whether or not the local labour force is qualified to do it; indeed as we know in more recent and prosperous times foreigners have been doing low paid jobs that resident workers (not just British workers) have not been prepared to do because the pay was not good enough. At the Lincolnshire oil refinery where the recent wave of strikes started the workers brought in are from an Italian contractor. I suppose it is pointless to mention that these workers have freedom of movement within the EU and British citizens are entitled to work in Italy if they wish. There would be arguments over the effect on family life but no doubt these issues have already been addressed by the Italian families providing the contractors at the Lindsey plant.

I do not want to get into the issue of prejudice. That is a touchy subject and one on which I am hardly an expert, though I was once shouted at in racist terms (no, twice, come to think of it) and it is pretty unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

What the whole business of apparent xenophobia in the workplace does bring into focus is the tribalistic “we are all in it together attitude”. In a large business the workplace camaraderie is often a great asset in ensuring that all workers pull in the right direction. In the same way that the print industry skiving which existed up to the seventies was proliferated by its own culture, it is also true to say that such sticking together can make for better and greater productivity and less shirking on the basis that the lazy let everyone down. At the same time an unsatisfactory work culture can lead to a lowering of morale and lower productivity due to a loss of respect and loyalty for management. I have seem both ends of this spectrum when an employee.

Anyway, a workforce that sticks together is admirable, but because employees become used to a stable environment, when something goes wrong there is a need to apportion blame. I have written recently about those in charge taking responsibility. We in our own businesses know that we are largely responsible for our success and avoiding failure. However, sometimes accidents happen; at least events over which we have no control even if we think Governments or regulatory bodies ought to have had. I do not think we could quite have imagined in 2005 or 2006 (2007 perhaps) that a steel producer providing material for ships, cars and particularly construction would suddenly find itself short of orders. It is no good blaming the company or its orders. They had a niche in the economy producing materials that were needed and they were hostages to fortune. It is not their fault if they have to lay off workers any more than it is the car manufacturers fault if they have to close for months because no one is buying new cars. In as much as these companies and their workers can be, they are victims of an accident. It is human nature to blame those closest but if there are culprits they are further away.

The point is that as employees we are paid weekly or monthly. We know that the money will appear and while we might do our work diligently we only have responsibility to ourselves and our comrades. The fear over the potential or actual loss of a job is terrifying. How can we survive? You need someone to blame close at hand. I know, I have been there, but lashing out and soft targets is not the way.

Small business owners are making hard decisions over job cuts and have to face the music and their workers. Some businesses could not be viable with less than a certain number of workers if the work is hands-on. I saw an example on television this morning of a small bakery down to a core of five staff. For many there is just a minimum number of workers without whose output the business cannot pay the rent and make any money. It is even harder for small business owners to make tough decisions because they are close enough to their workers to be part of the “tribe”. However when out of a job you are out of the tribe which is a terrible shock, and an owner letting an employee go is at risk of being out of the tribe or family too depending how the other employees take the loss of their comrade.

Despite my comments about taking responsibility, I am not going to say that laid off workers should all start their own small businesses. That would be absurd, especially given the current economic climate. Some may and I wish them all the best. Doing something for yourself rebuilds self-esteem which is the biggest loss when you lose your job. Nor is this a “be positive” pep-talk though It does help to be happy with what we have. As a population we will not be as badly off ever as in the only two Third World countries I have visited where the level of poverty and especially poor sanitary conditions was shocking for me even though I thought I was prepared. No, we have to stick it out, help families who have no incomes through taxation of our own and future incomes as we can. This is not a sermon, so I will not say we should be thankful; just remember that we are better off than many, no matter how long the recovery takes.

Just look past the tribal culture and be tolerant. Almost the whole world is in this economic mire and we will not solve anything by using our valuable workplace tribal culture to bash foreigners. If we have to let people go, handle the matter as kindly as possible and if we do know of any niches with our friends, businesses, see if we can facilitate a move through our network.

© Jon Stow 2009