Does watching TV dull our business brains?

Old televisionThere is a school of thought that watching TV is a waste of time and I understand that view.  I can see that for soap addicts in the UK there is a potential to waste fifteen hours a week watching unlikely story-lines without straying from the first five channels on the programme menu. That is time down the drain as far as I am concerned and the equivalent of almost a couple of days at work a week for some so-called full-time employees; perhaps not for small business owners.

It seems to me there is so much useless rubbish to watch. There are apparently many reality shows including the “talent” ones, bizarre artificial ones with strangers being forced to live together, and business shows involving strangers thrown together. None of these seems useful, educational or even simply relaxing after a hard day’s work. Does this dumbed-down nonsense fog people’s brains?

I do not claim to have virtue in watching TV for only a couple of hours a day. I do like to see the news and especially business news in the morning. It is important to know what is going on in the world. I like programmes where I can learn new things. I like natural history and astronomy. Those subjects are fascinating to me.

Yes, I do watch the occasional escapist fiction because I think it has the same effect on my brain as reading a good book, and because it is important to share the experience while relaxing and spending quality time with my wife.

Am I a TV snob? Maybe, but I do like to use my time profitably both in the business and figurative senses. Do you think TV is a waste of time or are those soaps a safe haven which help you unwind after the business day?

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Hard work and small businesses

blog picsnov 10 010It seems obvious that you have to work hard to make your small business successful. Of course it is true that you have to apply yourself to the essential tasks needed to keep the business running smoothly. What you need to remember is that if you are working 24/7 all the time, or it seems like it, you are probably doing something wrong.

I cannot deny that when you start a business you are often trying to meet a deadline when you want to open your doors for business, physically or metaphorically. You might then “work all hours”, but if time passes and you still have no time for other things, you have a problem.

  • Are you making a profit?
  • Have you priced your offerings correctly with a decent margin?
  • Are there really potential customers for what you offer?
  • Is your marketing targeted properly?
  • Are you wasting time on office chores which someone else could do for you?

Ask yourself those questions if you realise you have hardly any time to yourself, and ask other questions too. If you think you are too busy even for that, you cannot deny you have private time to think if only it is just in the bathroom.

If you have made yourself a slave to your business, even a minute or two’s thought should show you what changes you need to make. Why don’t you try it?

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What do you stand for?


Delivering satisfaction (and fish and chips)

You know what they sell and it’s not pizza

Supermarket blues and reds

Big business or small business – we all have to have a type of offering our public understands. What do we represent? Whom do we represent?

Even the best most experienced businesses can get confused. In the UK, our biggest supermarket, Tesco, has lost sales. Their appeal may have declined because they cannot decide whether to emphasise their quality or their cheaper offerings.

One of their rivals, Sainsburys, has done well as a known purveyor of quality. They have not tried to be so cheap, though they do try to represent value. That does not mean that in supermarket-land there is anything wrong with cheap. The big discounters are doing well too. People know what they stand for and what to expect when they go to their shops.

My bigger pictures (or photo albums)

I like to take photographs and I like Flickr. That does not mean I am any good as a photographer (probably not) but I like a good place to share and especially to learn from others. I know what Flickr stands for.

Recently I thought I would look at Google’s Picasa as I had heard good things two or three years ago. However everything has been moved to Google+ Photos  and while I am on Google+ it all seems a disorganised mess. Google changed the offering, and while I appreciate that Google is innovative and keen on evolution of its products, Picasa web is no good to me.

Credit is due to Yahoo for creating a platform in Flickr where everyone understands why they are there and can share their photos and network with those whose work they like. Of course there are complaints about any changes to the site’s appearance and presentation, but Flickr developers do ask for feedback for beta changes, so we feel we belong.

Confused? You will be

Too often I see professional firms saying for example that they specialise in e.g. Accountancy, Corporate Tax, Corporate Recovery, Financial Services, Human Resources, Office Support etc.. You see what I mean? They do not actually specialise in anything, and do not seem an obvious choice if you need one of those services. You would rather go to the firm which concentrates on the service you want, or at least had some provenance in that particular area.

Take a stand

What do you stand for? My “High Street” tax help offering is for landlords and let property even though I could help you with other things if you asked.

What is your speciality? What convinces your new customers to come to you rather than someone else?

Monday, Monday, so good to me

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanThe Mamas and The Papas sang:

“Monday Monday, so good to me,
Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be”

It seems the rest of their Monday did not work out so well, but I look forward to Monday mornings because I have my own businesses and I am in control of my destiny.

Like many I remember when I was an employee, perhaps with a long commute, to a job I did not enjoy. Sometimes the work was not satisfying, or it was boring, or I simply did not have enough to do.

When I was under-worked I was under pressure to deliver to the firm more fees when I had spare time and no money made available to do my own marketing. There were several people in the same position and I went to find a more challenging position.

Sometimes I had an unsympathetic boss. When I was with a firm that had been taken over, the new partner in charge felt lumbered with staff he did not want. He gave the quality clients to his own people. I was then supposed to report to someone who had no confidence in me and also had that same problem of not enough work.

Then there was the bully boss, the rude man who shouted and swore at his staff. Come to think of it, I had two of those a dozen years apart.

In the end I started my own businesses because I had to in the absence of employment, but if everyone knew what I know now, no one would want to report to someone else if they had any go in them.

Isn’t being in business on your own account so satisfying, and yes, so much fun?

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help in your business

iStock_000005618867XSmallWe have all seen how having too many customers coming in at once can ruin the reputation we have built. We have to take tough decisions to turn away business and if we handle ourselves well then we may even encourage those we have had to turn away to come back to us. After all we are so popular, doing business with us must be a really great experience.

Sometimes it is difficult to cope with unforeseen events. We all hope that many customers might turn up at once, in which case we need to have a policy to handle this. That might be to turn them away very politely or it might be to call on staff or subcontractors if we can.

How would you deal with the unexpected?

If you were ill it might be difficult to cope with the business you already have. Do you have people you can rely on? Do you have a deputy or manager who could carry the load? If you are a sole trader, do you have a trusted business friend who could take care of your clients while you could not? Do you have insurance to pay someone qualified by experience to look after your customers?

I have had health issues this year. I have been fortunate that I have had personal great support from family and friends, but it was not good fortune that I knew I had people who I could rely on to keep my businesses in good shape. That was down to pre-planning.

Have you organised a safety net for yourself? Have you enlisted support from a trusted friend or colleague to take care of business for you? You should.

Taking time off from your small business

Break-time walk

Break-time walk

We all need a break. We know that. Sometimes we let ourselves be tied to the mill.

In the early days when we started, we learned that businesses do not run themselves. It might have seemed that the more we worked, the more money we made, and the less we worked, the less money we made. So we might have got into the habit of working all hours of the day, six or seven days a week.

I have learned, and perhaps you have too, that working every hour God sends is not good for our health, and actually not good for our business because we become tired and jaded and less efficient. We may forget things and make mistakes. We have to go back and re-do tasks that should have been easy.

Most of us work to our own schedule. After all, it is our business so we can organize our own schedule. It is vital not only to manage our work time, but also our time off; our time to relax.

Actually it is important for everyone to have time off and not to work long hours for any period. When I worked for a large firm of accountants way back, there was a culture of getting in early and staying late. It was expected of everyone, whether they actually had anything to do while they sat at their desks. Latterly because of poor organization by my bosses I actually did not have enough to do and said so. Eventually I decided to leave the office when I had done my work and my contractual hours were fulfilled. I had much more satisfaction in the gym or at the cinema in the hours I was no longer wasting.

In one of those sorts of work cultures it is easy to be locked into a treadmill and be worn out and be far less effective. I was interested to read in Forbes an article advocating a four-day week for employees. Of course the employees would be expected to work longer hours as a price for getting an extra day off a week. However, both mentally and physically it seems to me the extra downtime could make a person much more effective at work when they were doing their four days on.

So it is with we who run our own businesses. Yes, we should be flexible in the way we run our affairs in order to suit our customers and clients. However I know that I work much better when I am making sure I do take time off, and that I make time for important family stuff. And as I have mentioned, when I am out for a walk, which is every day, I have my best ideas for my business and for my writing, because relaxing my mind makes those ideas pop into my head without any effort.

Four day weeks may not suit everyone. Sometimes I have a four-day working week. Sometimes I have a holiday and therefore a “no-day week”. Sometimes I just take an afternoon off. If our businesses are well-run and efficient we should all be able to do that. We are not slaves to our businesses or ourselves, because that would be no fun, and business should be fun, shouldn’t it?

Are you afraid to take time off? You shouldn’t be.


Business software magic in the Cloud?

Looking to the Cloud

Looking to the Cloud


Predicting the future is a fool’s pastime, especially when discussing technology of any sort. Yet we all have to try to anticipate our hardware and software needs in running a small business because we do not want to buy anything which will be obsolete the day after tomorrow.

Ten years ago, or even five, it would have been hard to predict the devices we use today to stay in touch and on-line. If you like gadgets, and I do, there are tablets from the iPad to a huge choice of Android devices, and items that we thought really cool three or four years ago, such as netbooks, are really old hat. I bought a netbook which frankly was seriously underpowered but gimmicky and that was my mistake; it has been saved from the scrap heap by installing extra memory and had to practically be dismantled to do it. That is an example of the price of getting it wrong.

Magic wands

Today I have three desktops, an older laptop and the netbook. Do I use these exclusively to stay in touch? Well, no, I have a smart phone and I have a cheap Android tablet on which I can do all sorts of clever or magic things. Yet what will be in vogue in terms of hardware in another five years? I do not know, and if I did, I would be a billionaire within the five years.

Of course what makes all these different devices almost interchangeable in accessing our stuff is that nearly everything happens in the Cloud, and probably soon everything else which is not in the Cloud will be available up there too.  Those who are paranoid about security, and I know some, will have to be provided for or satisfied that their data really is as safe up there as down here.

Past wizard

If it is difficult for us to predict the technology market, how much more difficult is it for the software companies? Some of the giants have not reacted as quickly as they might

The large players in accounting payroll and general business software, certainly for the UK domestic market, such as Sage and Intuit / QuickBooks, have historically filled in for Microsoft’s failure ever to produce decent accounting software for Windows. Very effective and popular these packages have been.

Apple has never seemed interested in producing decent accounting software, especially not country-specific, so there has been comparatively little choice but for Apple fans to go with the suppliers who dominated the Windows market, and either using Windows emulation or outsourcing.

The point about accounting and payroll software is that every business needs it or otherwise has to outsource, which incurs a certain additional cost. Many small businesses in the UK need accounting software which will handle VAT. A simple generic package will not do. There are really no short cuts. In the past so many small businesses have relied on the big independent software suppliers, the aforementioned Sage and Intuit. While they have served us all well, there has been a distinct lack of choice.

Sunny outlook with Clouds

The Cloud brings us so many choices. Because there are more devices available for getting on-line, we have more operating systems too. There are Windows and Mac, there are the most popular Linux OS choices, Ubuntu and Mint, and those are just for the “big” devices, the desktops and laptops etc.. Then there are the iPad and Android tablets, small Windows tablets, and we expect soon for tablets and phones both Ubuntu (maybe) and the Firefox OS from the open source Mozilla Foundation.

It is all a kind of evolution. All these devices will be able to access the Cloud through their browsers. Is the Cloud the driver for the diversification of devices and operating systems, or is it the other way round? It does not matter; the Cloud is the future, at least for the next few years.

The home patch

I use the Cloud for storing non-confidential files and personal stuff, and it has become a habit. I use Evernote plus Dropbox and Google Drive. We have Microsoft’s Sky Drive, and Ubuntu One. I have recently heard of Cubby so we are overwhelmed with mostly free document storage. I get one terabyte of space on Flickr for my photos. Good grief!

Like everyone else, I have now been conditioned to regarding Cloud software as normal.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that far-sighted geek-entrepreneurs have seized the Cloud-based accounting and business software opportunities rather quicker than some of the major players. The upstarts in on-line accounts include Kashflow, Xero, FreeAgent etc.

Of course Sage and their historical competitors are there too. They have their fans from their desk-top and server-based packages, and if those packages look familiar to their long-term customers and historical data can easily be uploaded to ensure continuity, those customers will remain loyal. The big difference from the past is that on-line software can be accessed from any browser running in any OS. It is inevitable that the market will be fragmented, which means that the customers have more choice, and also the actual subscription costs will be kept down because of the competition.

The future is bright

To me, the future in business software is:

  • In the Cloud
  • More choice in market players and packages
  • Low costs
  • Accessible from more devices
  • Freedom from our desks

So I have stuck my neck out and predicted at least the near future in business software, which is a risky thing to do. If I get carried away and next try to predict the future in social media, shoot me. Well, not literally; just shoot me down on-line.

Do you have your head in the clouds concerning business software, or do you run your business systems in the Cloud?

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 5 – Networking



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

What is networking?

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

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

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

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

BNI and others

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-exclusive groups

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

Business lunches

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

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

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

Less useful lunches

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

Get out there

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

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

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

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Payment issues and being the door mat

Pay for this before paying us?

Pay for this before paying us?

Everyone we meet in business is different; they have different visions, different ideals, different lifestyles and different ideas about paying their providers.

It is the different ideas about paying that concern us here.

My business is different from most accountancy firms, because it isn’t strictly an accounting firm. My business undertakes quite a few one-off projects. Normally I agree the fee in advance, the work is done, it is billed and the bill is paid, usually quite quickly. That should not be surprising. Generally you expect to pay for something when you have had it, whether it is a carton of milk, a car or a service such as mine.

However, one thing I have in common with accountancy firms is annual clients, or one might say perennials. We have them every year. With these clients, again their fees should be reviewed and agreed annually in advance. However, should they pay in advance?

Many firms have a monthly standing order so that their clients make easy payments towards their fees. A lot of clients are happy to do this. Some are not.

Yet what do we say to clients who know six months in advance what their fee will be and when it will be due, and then fail to provide for it? In the meantime they go away on holiday when you need to speak to them about something, and they put paying for their holiday in front of paying us. Should we press them for payment at the risk of having a frostier relationship?

I think we do have to press them and maybe appeal to any element of conscience they have. We need to stress that they are not the only ones with cash flow problems. Even if we do not have one ourselves (I hope we don’t) it is a perfectly true statement that they are not the only ones.

In the end, though, we have to say that we will not hang on for months every year waiting to be paid. Most will pull their socks up. Some will not, and we will need to show them the door politely.

I think that if a client does not think it honourable to pay on time, they are either unreliable or they are bullies, treating us like their doormat. Except in the face of their business being about to fail, that behaviour is unacceptable, and even then they might have warned us before commissioning more work.

How do you feel when your client doesn’t pay you promptly?

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Selling our services through others

Photoxpress_10909891 calculatorPart of my business is to facilitate services to other businesses which they may provide to their end-client. I am good at selling services to my own clients ( though I say it myself) because I know the value of what my business provides, and I can help my clients and prospects to see that value and buy into it. That will be because they receive great comfort and very likely substantial financial benefit from “buying me”.

Many of my potential clients are small firms of accountants who do not have the tax expertise that businesses like mine can provide. Of course we never steal other people’s clients, but just the same there is a reluctance as well as a lack of ability for the intermediary accountants to sell our services, and that means that their clients do not get the service and expertise they really need.

The blocking factors are:

  • Many accountants do not charge their clients enough for what they do.
  • Their clients expect to be only a low fixed fee whatever services they require each year.
  • Accountants are quite often hopeless at selling, and especially at selling value.
  • They join the race to the bottom in terms of fees for selling generic services such as accounts and tax returns and have no room for manoeuvre on fees.

How do we get round this, and sell more through those other businesses who themselves should be “making a turn” on the fees we charge them?

  • Firstly, we need to convince the intermediary business of the value of what we offer.
  • We should ask to draft any proposal they send to their client, emphasising the value if we honestly think we can deliver the value for that client, or
  • We should ask to speak to the client direct, reassuring the intermediary that we will not steal their business.

Of course this is not just a problem in my profession, but in so many where we need our services to be sold through others.

Do you get frustrated when someone else ends up selling you short to their customer?

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