Asking for help

I was having a chat the other day with the chairman of our local Chamber of Trade. He said that many businesses are struggling around our way. I guess he would be in a good position to know, albeit his business is a notable success.

It struck me that when we meet other local business owners socially or at networking meetings, few people admit to their difficulties. It is polite to ask “How’s business?” but apparently so many are actually ashamed to admit that maybe business is not so good.

There are cynics who believe that many networkers do not care about their fellow business owners. It is true that there are certain types who just wish to sell to you and if you do not want to buy they lose interest in you. We have a local guy just like that, but no names, no pack drill. Just the same, there are many who can help and it is there for the asking.

Often someone in your network may not know they can help you, but the help they could give might be of mutual benefit. You might have bought a load of widgets and do not know how to sell them now. They might have a market or a contact, and there could be profit in it for both of you.  You might be bogged down with a contract that will cost you too much time and money to do now. They might be able to take the work off you with a much lower base cost to do. Again passing on or subcontracting could leave profit for both of you. You do not know if you don’t talk. I subcontract some work permanently to others I met through networking. We all make money out of it; decent money too.

Sometimes we need help we should pay for, such as marketing of anything which involves the other party doing all the work. Just the same, our businesses can be improved considerably through mutual cooperation. Ask for help, and if the first people you ask cannot assist you, they may know someone who can.

Don’t be shy. Ask.

Turning the business around

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovation, sacrifice and the job trap

 

It’s cold out there!

Employee blues

I was in the tax business a long time as an employee, and in the corporate world we were also in the “business advisory” sector. As someone who has run businesses for some time, I realise how fundamentally useless the so called “business adviser” employees were, because really you don’t understand small business life until you have run a small business. And by small business I don’t mean one within the SME broad brush. I mean one with just a few employees, or with no employees and a few contractors, or one which is essentially just a self-employment.

I know that one-person bands are sometimes described as not real businesses (I think that is unfair) but one-person bands up to businesses with twenty to fifty employees face many of the same challenges. Yes, there is always a danger of generalising but most of those face the same sort of market.

Over the Christmas period I was able to chat with some of my former colleagues who still work for larger organizations, though some are in the same market as my rather smaller businesses. I know that some years ago a few thought about going independent, but in the current economic climate they say that they will hang on to their jobs. I think that is wise.

It’s cold out there

Starting your own business is at the best of times challenging. You need:

  • Some money for essentials
  • A plan of action (different from a business plan for the bank)
  • Marketing (where most ex-employees fall down whether former “business advisers”or not)
  • A good accounting system
  • The drive to succeed
  • Room for you in the market

The last is so important. So many established and formerly very successful businesses are under pressure. People are not buying new kitchens and bathrooms. They are not having their gardens landscaped. They are not visiting High Street gift shops or hot food takeaways in the numbers they did five years ago. Actually they are not visiting High Streets so much at all, economizing on fuel and price by buying essentials in big supermarkets; one-stop shops. Retail has moved on-line anyway.

Realism is sensible

Much as I love to encourage start-ups, room for you in the marketplace is the most important consideration right now. If you have a job you should hang on to it unless you have a really Big Idea. It would need to be an innovation where you can make your own space in the market, or you should be confident you have special expertise and know there is a shortage of it. It is no good trying to do what many others are already doing.

If you have a start-up, I will be pleased to help you. If you have lost your job and would like me to put my thinking cap on for you, give me a call. If you have had the Big Idea you know where I am.

Advice, logic, principles and beliefs

On our bikes, or at least Boris's bikes. There is no excuse!

Yes, business is tough at the moment, so it is hard to believe that some owners are making more obstacles for themselves rather than trying to make running their business more profitable and less stressful. Somehow people get ideas in their minds which prevent their taking action. For example:

  • Social media marketing wouldn’t suit my business.
  • Email marketing would never work.
  • I don’t believe in cold calling.
  • Networking is futile because you just see the same people.
  • Advertising is pointless now.
  • A proper customer database is a waste of time (really!).

Of course not every strategy works for every business. Just the same the list above and other imagined obstacles prevent so many of us from taking action, because we don’t have open minds, because we tried something once for a short time and it didn’t seem to work, and because we are afraid to ask for help for fear of embarrassment.

Life is hard enough for so many businesses because their owners don’t take action. No strategy works if you don’t give it a fair crack. Deciding which one or ones are best is an area where you may need advice. Do you need advice? Can I help?

 

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Well, maybe next year?

A typical clown getup

Image by Rick Dikeman via Wikipedia

The title of this post reminded me when I just typed it of the song, “Send in the Clowns” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music”. Yet sending in the clowns is what you might as well do if you don’t look to the future. You may end up being one of the clowns yourself.

There is a danger in this sort of blog journal of stating the obvious and being trite. I try not to be obvious, but one thing we all know is that many of the clichés are actually true. Let ‘s indulge ourselves with three:

  • If you keep doing what you always do you will get what you always get.
  • You need to start working on your business, not in your business.
  • If you fail to plan you plan to fail.

Is anyone still awake?

The way our working years are structured generally in the western world mean that may of us are likely to take our business eyes off the ball in the last six weeks of the year, thinking about Christmas. Then there is the New Year. A lot of our clients and customers go missing for a couple of months. If we are in retail we hope that they have bought from us as Christmas approaches, but otherwise, we cannot track anyone down.

The same issue arises with our suppliers, especially of services. If we urgently need to do that course or have someone in to look at the way our business works or look at our marketing, we may have difficulty getting anyone in to make a start or to give us even that one vital bit of advice or help we need.

Now we are into October, we cannot now put off any new idea, project or business makeover until about February because we will have lost about four months in planning.

So, if you have any bright ideas, work on them now. If you need anyone in for an opinion or hands-on-help, contact them (or me) now. You don’t want to be a clown, do you?

Postscript: I really don’t like clowns at all!

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Running your business the right way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of us are very serious about our businesses. Many people work very hard but do not use their time well. It is so easy to get involved in matters which don’t make money.

  • Some people try to do all the admin themselves; all that form filling on-line and off-line.
  • Some people using marketing methods which experience should tell them isn’t working, but other people still do it.
  • Some people offer the same product or service as everyone else in their line, and wonder why they never increase their market share.

It’s just like those people in the gym who waste their time or do exercises which address their fitness needs.

In a small business:

  • You have to be different.
  • You have to be memorable
  • You need to show your personality or personal brand because your customers buy you.
  • You have to stop wasting your time.

I am a business fitness trainer. It ‘s a great advantage to have someone from outside looking in. A mentor, an extra brain, someone who will get their hands dirty on what needs to be done and who can work alongside you when you need it.

Can you count on help and advice when you need it? It’s all very well ploughing your own furrow, but sometimes you need someone to tell you that you are on the straight and narrow. Who do you ask?

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Monitoring help from afar

168478963 b84348ea49

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I bought a couple of computer monitors for the office. I inserted the word “computer” in that last sentence to distinguish it from the other sort of monitor, which is someone who keeps an eye out. When I was ten I was the classroom door monitor, which meant I stood by to open and shut the classroom door and could also warn the other kids when teacher was coming for the next class.

Stupid message

Anyway, I digress. The first monitor I plugged into my main machine should have plugged and played, but it didn’t. I tried running the set-up CD, but set-up failed with a stupid message “incorrect parameters”. What was that supposed to mean? I couldn’t get the proper resolution satisfactorily by setting it myself. I called the vendor of the monitor and they referred me to the manufacturer, a Korean company. Their agent was not very polite, couldn’t offer an explanation, and issued a return number so that I could sent the monitor back to the retailer.

Solution

I had purchased a second monitor from another South Korean company, which worked with my other machine. I transferred it over to the main machine, and this didn’t plug and play either. Their set up routine also failed. If I were a real computer geek I suppose I might have started to think, but having failed to find a useful helpline to phone I contacted the customer agent through the chat facility on their website. After being interrogated for five minutes by the agent I was told that the problem was with Intel’s graphics driver, which was faulty. I was directed to the updated driver, and Hey Presto, the monitor plugged and played upon a reboot. Magic indeed!

Satisfaction

So, the larger South Korean company rather let me down with their attitude when surely they could have diagnosed the problem. The smaller one (though not that small) actually came up trumps. I will probably buy my next bit of computer gear from them and not from the first lot. They found a problem which wasn’t their fault and helped me out. I didn’t even need to send back the other company’s monitor.

We will probably purchase our next fridge from LG because Life’s Good and they won out on customer service. There is a lesson and we know what it is.

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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.

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Unconditional giving

We are approaching the season for giving but while it is good to give and receive presents, the most precious thing we have to give is our time. It is precious because we all have only a limited amount of it, but in terms of value to the recipient it speaks much more than a shiny present unless that present is something they need desperately.

Back in the mid nineties before I met my wife I was rather ill and had to have a quite major operation in hospital. I lived on my own at the time and one of my neighbours collected me from the hospital in London when I was discharged and took me home, which would have been an eighty mile round trip. He then made sure I was comfortable. Over the next few weeks he let himself in my house, got me out of bed one morning when I couldn’t physically manage it myself, and did all my shopping. He drove me back to the hospital for my follow-ups with the consultant.

I couldn’t have managed without my friend. I do not know who could have helped me if he hadn’t, but he did so it wasn’t a concern. My neighbour is an example to us all. He is getting on a bit now and helping is the other way round, though because he is so kind he has no shortage of offers of help for himself.

He got me through a difficult time and helped me to recover. From my point of view the operation was a big success and I was fixed up to be, I hope, useful to others.

We should do our best to give our time, which is what my neighbour did for me, but that which we can spare, because if we are penniless we cannot help others as we should. What’s more, as my grandfather used to say, giving is a selfish act because we get pleasure out of giving.

So, what can I do for you? Am I managing to do it for you already? What would you like me to write about which would be useful to you?

Unwise business assumptions

Snow Leopard
Image via Wikipedia

I remember when I was starting out in the workplace, I took a client file I had been working on to my immediate boss for review. I remember he picked on something I had done and asked about it. I don’t remember the detail but I do know that I said that I had made an assumption about an issue. I remember he boomed at me “Never assume! Always check your facts.” Of course he was quite right and it was a lesson I learned.

In business there is another expression which can sound rather trite, which is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Of course this also applies to our general knowledge. There was a recent short series on BBC Television about the Lost Land of the Tiger which was about looking for and finding (Bengal) tigers in Bhutan, from the forest up into the high Himalayas. Now I had not ever thought much about whether there would be tigers in Bhutan, but watching the programmes I also learned that Bhutan had clouded leopards, golden cats, flying squirrels and more conventional (in my mind) spotted leopards. Now I had assumed I knew that flying squirrels were Australian marsupials and spotted leopards were only found in Africa. I suppose I had no basis for these assumptions, but I thought I knew these assumptions as facts. It turns out there are species of flying squirrel in many parts of the world.

In business there is a great danger of stumbling alone and trying to deal with difficult issues and assuming we know just what to do, or that we know there is no solution to our problem. Most of us have done it. Usually there is help at hand if only we ask for it. We should never assume that we know all the answers, because no one does know all the answers. However, collectively there will be people who between them do know practically all the answers. We only have to ask our network and someone will be there to help. Our network is part of our business team.

Apple Mac enthusiasts will have been disappointed that the Bhutan expedition did not film a snow leopard but only found the remains of a yak a snow leopard had half eaten. Just the same the series was a reminder to me not to assume anything which is outside my area of expertise. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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