Keeping the business engine running

Slightly bristly but not so much to show.

Slightly bristly but not so much to show.

A personal note

Life has not been simple at On Our Bikes Towers the past few weeks. We planned a holiday, and then my wife was taken ill the day before we went away and she ended up in hospital. Thankfully she was sorted out by the doctors just about in time to go away on our re-arranged holiday two weeks later. So we have had to take time off rather unexpectedly.

While we were away there was a terrible storm at home and two trees in our garden came down, plus about half of a very large ash tree. We have had to sort out the mess and the tree people have been to tidy up and clear away all the excess wood.

Meanwhile my wife and I caught dreadful colds while we were away so have both been slowed down by being unwell. All-in-all it has been a  pretty awful month for us.

Why am I telling you this ?

To keep the business running well, I have concentrated on the core part, that which earns the best revenue, and I have relied on support from those around us, both family and my contractors and other business supporters. They were invaluable to me during my own medical treatment earlier in the year. Because we have great support all round, and because we have had contingency plans in place, business is fine and the engine is running smoothly.

Just the same I have had to turn my attention away from some of my favourite activities, which has included blogging my thoughts. That has been a pity because as well as good marketing, I find writing relaxing and recreational. However, now normal service will be resumed.


Following my treatment earlier this year, in November I am growing a moustache for charity in November as are many other men around the world, and yes, some women too. Good luck to Sarah, and I would appreciate your support myself please.

Here is my Movember page.

Thank you, and I will be in touch again soon.

View from Sorrel Point, Jersey on our holiday last week

View from Sorrel Point, Jersey on our holiday last week


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Taking our business network leaders for granted

A Breakfast venue

A Breakfast venue

Getting the boot

I belong to a monthly networking group that has recently been unceremoniously ousted by the venue which has hosted us for a couple of years. It was not that we were a rowdy bunch. They just didn’t think they were making enough money out of us for the room we hired. No doubt they conveniently overlooked the amount we were spending in their pricey bar and café.

Our chairman had to find a new venue at rather short notice. His first attempt (and where we had our February meeting) was not a huge success. Not his fault. It turned out that other visitors made a considerable noise next door so that we were hardly able to hear each other. This is the sort of venue issue which only comes to light when you actually try it out rather than visit in the middle of a quiet morning.

Anyway, apparently we have a new venue for March and our leader thinks it will be a success. Let us hope so, but remember that he has spent a considerable amount of time researching and visiting potential meeting places. We owe him a vote of thanks.

Not a sausage

I have until recently been a long-time member of business breakfast clubs. I led one for a couple of years. The first venue went out of business and didn’t tell me or anyone else in the group. We turned up at 7 one Tuesday morning with the temperature at -4 Celsius (not a detail one forgets) and waited in the cold for about half an hour while we tried to find out what was going on.

In the glasshouse

I then had to find a new venue who would let us meet, serve breakfast and leave us alone for our meeting. It was difficult and I spent a lot of time on the telephone and then visiting possible meeting places. We stayed at the first place I chose for about three months.

We got great personal service but the room was noisy due to being rather open to other people coming in and out, and also because when it rained on the glass roof, no one could have much conversation without shouting. It seemed we would have to move again.

Out of the frying pan

I moved, partly at the request of a couple of members, to a posh new hotel on the seafront. The environment was better, but the service was corporate and therefore less personal except when one particular young lady was on duty, and who took the meaning of customer service seriously. We soldiered on until circumstances meant I had to quit as leader.

It would have been great to be thanked by everyone for all the hard work I put in in dealing with the venues, collecting the money and paying them, leading the meetings, thinking what was topical and canvassing members, keeping the records and generally contributing much more time than the weekly hour and a half. Yet when I stopped, only a couple of members took the time, and I had absolutely no thanks whatever from the group brand owners.

I did my best. I could not have done better in the circumstances, I don’t think. I made no real money from my efforts but that was never my intention. I am not complaining. It was an interesting experience. I would have just liked a bit more appreciation.

Do remember to thank your network group leaders for their efforts. They deserve it. They do it for you so that you can get more business. They are certainly not in it for the money that you pay each week, nearly all of which goes to pay for the meeting room and catering.

You would not want to deny someone that nice warm feeling one gets from being appreciated and thanked, would you?

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Why we need mutual respect between managers and their staff

A winning team (choir) I was once in. We all pulled together.

Such is life with football (soccer) managers that we can be quickly overtaken by events, or in other words, sackings. That is unfortunate in the context that the two most successful English clubs over the last fifteen years or so have had the same manager, albeit one is struggling at the time of writing.

Generally in management in any business, continuity is very important. But it is not the only thing that is essential. The other is the support and loyalty of your staff, and particularly those that earn the profits. It doesn’t matter how much your workers are paid, even when they are paid large and silly amounts. They have to want to work with you. They are not ciphers. They are human beings with emotions, and emotions have a lot to do with best performance.

So when the Chelsea football manager, Andre Villas Boas, says “it doesn’t matter if the players back my project” he is 100% wrong. What naivety, probably as a result of lack of experience. Having the support of his players is essential.

So many companies and businesses have foundered on strife and having a workforce who are not in tune with the management has been the cause of so much failure and chaos in industrial relations. Even if the manager has the support of the owner or managing director of a business he will fail if he cannot carry and motivate the staff and have them share a vision.

As we know, if there is mutual respect between a manager and her team, the sense of belonging to that team and an eagerness to please and be successful will bring about that success, and with that, profits.

It really is that simple. I have been junior staff and I have been a manager, so have seen it from both ends. The greatest business achievements are rooted in a sense of belonging to the team. A team is people who enjoy working together, not a list of people you pin on a board.

Don’t you love team work?

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Hard times and worse horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Business gym cracker

Business on the treadmill?

Recently I have been getting back into the routine of going to the gym. I am quite an “old hand” at the gym, but having been “injured” a while back I got out of the habit. Still, I am going well now and I am pleased how my fitness has returned quite rapidly.

What has this got to do with business? Well, it has a bit in that it got me thinking.

There is this guy I see quite often and you get to chat to familiar faces. He is pleasant and because he has coached me helpfully with the odd suggestion I am even prepared to overlook the Tottenham Hotspur shirt he quite often wears.

The other day he said to me after staggering off the treadmill “it never gets any easier does it?” Well, I suppose it doesn’t in terms of getting maximum fitness because for the hour or so we are in the gym we need to push ourselves. Otherwise either we never get as fit as we should be or we lose the best level of fitness we can attain.

A lot of people running small businesses work themselves full-tilt 100% all the time. I am all for commitment, but it strikes me that we train in the gym so that we can cope with any activity we have to do and we want to feel better. Maybe we want to stay lean or get lean. It is not because we live life at a constant high speed when we are not in the gym. We need time to ourselves to take stock and plan.

In business, if we work our fingers to the bone and it never gets any easier, we are not doing it right. We need to train ourselves to be more efficient and to delegate. Or we need to ask someone to train us so that we get better results without working so hard.

It’s not difficult. It just needs a bit of commitment to help ourselves and to put aside a little time to be better. Just like going to the gym.

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Running your business in the dark

Too close to see the context?

There is a lot to be said for ploughing (plowing) your own furrow in business. Many great and successful business people have been famous for doing that, whether we are talking about Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.

Do you think, though that they achieved greatness all on their own? Well of course they didn’t. They knew when they needed help. They bought in the support and services they needed, manufacturing bases in other countries and advisers who knew where to look. They wouldn’t have pretended to themselves that they knew everything.

Sometimes we need help. Often we know just what we want. At other times it is useful to have an outsider in to look at what we are doing and advise us because we are just too close to see our issues in context. Now and again we just need to get practical support and let someone else manage a part of the business on a temporary or even semi-permanent basis.

I help other businesses as you know. I also ask for help myself and currently have two people involved in projects quite apart from the work I sub-contract, so you see I do take my own advice.

Seeing the bigger picture

There is a natural tendency for some small business people to think they are saving money by doing everything themselves. Actually unless they are perfect all-rounders (and who is?) they will save money and make money by buying in the support they need. Sometimes it is easier to ask someone who is a few steps back from your business to tell you what they see.

Don’t you agree?

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Booing from the sidelines


New business

I was rather disappointed last week at the reaction in much of the press and from politicians who should know better to the launch of StartUp Britain.  I am sure they do not mind my quoting their “About Us”:

“StartUp Britain is a new campaign by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, launched on 28th March 2011. Designed to celebrate, inspire and accelerate enterprise in the UK, it has the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government.

This is a response from the private sector to the Government’s call for an ‘enterprise-led’ recovery. We believe that many of the important functions and services necessary to foster and champion new enterprise can be open-sourced, instead of provided by government directly. We aim to do this by creating a living market-place online for the wide range of enterprise support that is already available.

As a private sector organisation we aim to shoulder some of this responsibility for enterprise promotion with the government, re-modelling existing cost centres, and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

I suppose the Prime Minister’s launch of StartUp Britain got up the noses of his opponents, but surely support by Richard Branson as well as the involvement of many admirable business people (go and have a look) should show that this is a really serious campaign with great potential which we should hope will be fulfilled.

New resources

There are a lot of resources on the StartUp Britain website. There is a pooling of useful resources and reading and some major companies have special offers available. The initiative differs from StartUp America (also a good idea) because that is White House driven. StartUp Britain is supported by the Government but not publicly funded. However successful or otherwise, there really is no downside to StartUp Britain, so surely it should be embraced by:

Not everyone has the nous or capability to work for themselves but by supporting StartUp Britain the business community and the country has more opportunity to help those who would be always prefer to be employed. At “On our bikes” we got on and started our businesses with no help from anyone at a time when there had been a previous dip in the market. It can be done with good planning and guidance. New entrepreneurs need to understand that it is always good to seek help and advice along the way, and learn to listen to the market. In other words to understand what people want in terms of goods and services.


I am not a life coach. I am not someone who tells you uplifting feel-better things to inspire you. I know and you know that success in business is largely in our own hands. However, success in business is about belief. It is about market sentiment. The more positive people feel about the business environment and the economy in general, the better it actually is.

Of course there is an issue of what people can afford and external pressures on the greater economy from abroad. In the end, business and our lives are as good as we believe they are. If we believe we are on the up, we ARE on the up and we take others with us. That’s not coach stuff (I love coaches and count several as my friends). Positive market sentiment makes for a positive market.

Let us not have the naysayers and those who wish to receive but have nothing to give get us down. Let’s get on our bikes and pedal hard (or even peddle our wares) for a great future is in our gift.

What do you think?

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Why starting a business is hard work for the brain

Holiday times are when we have space to think about the future, and for some it will be to seek new opportunities in starting a business.

When we go back to first principles to start a new business we need a business plan, and not just one for the bank. We need to think whether:

  • There is room in the marketplace for our business
  • We can stand out from the competition.
  • We have enough money to spend and to survive on before we get into profit.
  • If we borrow money we can pay it back
  • We know how to market and have done our research
  • We have support from our family and friends

We need to think hard about each of these things. We need to spend time going through each aspect. We need to think about lifestyle changes and the effect on our families and ourselves.

Getting on our bikes is never easy but it can be very fulfilling. It is not wrong to accept help along the way and even to hire someone else’s expertise or their bike of course. Just do it!

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Social media experts

The word “expert” is not a word I am comfortable with. One of the sites to which I am contributor, and for which I am grateful because of the additional exposure does describe me as an expert author. Whilst this is a sort of compliment, I write about what I know through experience. After all, I write this blog about small business life because I have a small business of my own (well, three actually), I help other small businesses, and I have formal training in addition to my experience to assist me in finding resources which I cannot supply myself for the businesses I help. I am not a salesman, though I have learned a lot about marketing, I do not sell quality control marks or broker finance, and I do not provide support on health and safety (or risk and safety as I understand is more appropriate). However, I know people who can do this. So, I am not an expert on all aspects of running a small business, or indeed a big business.

I have a tax practice too. I advise people on taxation issues; I advise both businesses and individuals. I am the first port of call for many who have problems with direct taxation or simply need compliance. I know my stuff, I do my CPD religiously and I enjoy it. However, ask me about customs duties, petroleum revenue tax, landfill tax or even some of the finer points of VAT, and I will find you a specialist. I am not a tax expert because that is too general a term. I am very strong on most day-to-day direct tax issues and I advise other tax practitioners and accountants, but I do not profess to know everything about taxation, and actually no one does. I am a facilitator or conduit for provisions of services outside my own area. You would not expect a biologist to be a whiz on particle physics or an astrophysicist to know all about plastics production, but the specialists in these areas are all scientists, aren’t they? Some of them may even have trained in the same basic disciplines once upon a time.

So, I am a tax specialist. If you had asked me twenty years ago where taxation in the UK or internationally would be today, how it would have been structured, and about inter-government cooperation against tax avoidance and evasion, I would not have had a clue and I doubt anyone else would. Ask me today where taxation will be in twenty years time and I will decline to answer, because I do not know.

Ask an economist where taxation or indeed the economy will be in twenty years time and you may get an answer, but I doubt it would prove very accurate. One of the reasons it would not be accurate is that such predictions are modelled on what has happened previously. In the current recession and following the banking crash, people tend to look at the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. That was a another time though. One of the knock-on effects of the poverty and difficulties in Europe coupled with events in the USA led to the rise of European dictators and eventually the Second World War.

The situation is different now, and part of what has changed the world is the media explosion of mass instant communication which started with the much greater availability of the telephone, through to the internet. It is more difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the public even in modern totalitarian regimes. How many media “experts” of twenty years ago predicted the internet as it is today? Some might have forecast the real-time communication element but not the vast heaving chatter of Twitter or even that (nearly) every serious business should have a website.

We have specialists in media technology, those geeks and early adopters who try every new gizmo and gadget, and who are currently trialling Google Wave. I read their reviews avidly and and appreciate their technical knowledge and insight. They are specialists but do not know what will happen in twenty years time or even five. Twitter was founded only just over three years ago and even the guys who started it cannot have known where it would lead in so short a time.

So what about social media? Are there any experts? I think there are specialists, but nobody knows where we will go, inextricably linked with the technology. The most successful networkers are those who understand about people. That is nothing new. A few are trained in psychology, which is about understanding behaviour. Most are just natural networkers. They understand human nature and that giving should always come first, but that idea pre-dates all technology and was reinforced by Dale Carnegie and others in the thirties and since.

I am not knocking the leading social media networkers. There are several I would count as dear friends and many I know well enough to trust implicitly. However, they are not futurologists any more than I am, and those who write or make a living talking about social media or even just Twitter are advising from their own experience and knowledge as I do in my fields. Even then some social media environments are so new that we need to form a view based on a basket of opinions, because some may be wrong. In the end we are engaging with human beings on-line, and are acquainted with far more individuals than we could have dreamed about only a few years ago. As long as we remember they are people and treat them as we would our traditionally-acquired friends and good neighbours, we shouldn’t go far wrong.

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
Have you submitted your Tax Return yet?
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Responsibility in leading

In my last piece I talked about getting the best out of our employees and co-workers, and including giving them some responsibility for their work. Delegation is great, and as long as people do not feel out of their depth they should feel more energized. We will have more time to run and further the interests of the business and think where we are going, knowing that work is getting done on our behalf.

However, just because we have given our workers responsibility does not mean that we have given up our responsibility. It can be difficult working on one’s own as an employee in a larger organization especially, because bosses and senior managers will want something done in a certain way. It is important to check that those responsible to us are happy in what they are doing, and understand what is required of them. In particular, if they come to us and ask, we must listen and help them. It is no good waiting until they have finished the task as they see it, and then telling them we did not want it done that way, or they had misunderstood what was needed. If they have got it wrong, it is our fault, not theirs, and our responsibility for cutting them adrift.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked to undertake a local project for a client with a particular brand, and I ended up on the wrong end of a poor relationship. Yes, I could and have completed the task in hand, and it will run quite effectively as it is. The frustrating part is, I can see ways of making it better, providing a better service to customers and giving them added satisfaction through feeling wanted, so increasing loyalty and reducing churn. The only cost will be in terms of my time, and I can get my reward directly through increasing my share of the revenue. The trouble is getting the brand owner’s permission to tweak as it will make the service slightly different but better than in the other areas in which the business operates. Of course if my idea were to be rolled out more widely, it would in my opinion make the whole brand better. However, unfortunately despite my best efforts I get no feedback, which is very frustrating.

So, do not leave your employees, workers or contractors high and dry after giving them that initial responsibility for their task. Listen to them and seek their feedback if you are not getting it. Otherwise you may be disappointed, and worse, may not allow them to improve on your original idea.

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
Have you submitted your Tax Return yet?
Follow me on Twitter