Archives for August 2012

Do you really have a business? Part 2

The country pub

Out in the country

Last time I discussed the problems for a catering-type business in town, in part limited by the premises and the high rents. At least if they had proper footfall they could make money with the right sort of products.

Some businesses which provide food or entertainment to the public may be considerably out of town. Life isn’t easy out there without good planning. Of course there are some excellent pubs serving fine food. You know them by their reputation and their marketing (you have to know they are there) and because you have been to sampled their excellent cuisine.

That is the point, though. They have to be really good to survive and to have the added attractions of a good chef. I cannot think of an established out-of-town public house which just serves alcohol plus peanuts and crisps. That model doesn’t work any more. The public is more keen to avoid drinking and driving than in the past, and attitudes and family values have changed. There is a need for places where you can take the kids or leave them with granny and granddad for an hour or so so that you can enjoy a pleasant dinner. Life is different.

Adapt or die

The carnage amongst pubs over the past decade had been appalling. So many have closed down altogether. Many landlords have found themselves unable to move fast enough or have been unable to get finance to make changes to their pub businesses before their dwindling trade left them with nowhere to go.

I try to help businesses that are in trouble and therefore have in recent years looked out for those that have County Court Judgements against them for debts unpaid. They are potential clients although many are bankrupt before you get to them. At one time three or four years ago about a third of all on the monthly lists were pubs and their owners.

The survivors amongst the country pubs are those who have turned themselves into good family restaurants and some are doing very well.

Implementing Plan B

We all have to change our businesses sometimes. If our model isn’t working any more, we have to get a new business plan; a real one and not one just to convince the bank about lending money, which we can hardly count on these days anyway.

Have you reinvented your business?

Photo courtesy of  Twin Peaks

Do you really have a business?

What shall I do?

Leaving jobs

I see many small business owners during the course of a year. Some are ongoing clients and others need advice but not a continuing service.

In the current economic climate there are many people who have been made redundant. Some have received quite substantial redundancy payments in recognition of long service, or they have been able to draw down a considerable amount of cash from their pension pots. Many recognise they will not be able to get another job if they are over 45, or at least they will not get another job they will feel comfortable taking.

Fields of dreams

So many of us, and I include myself, have had dreams of running our own business. We may have some cash from our former employer. Now must be the time to start a business, surely, if we have just finished employment? Even with a recession, there must be an opportunity to realise those dreams?

Often there is a niche if we can just find it. Perhaps it is something which has not been done before. It may be something which can be done from home, such as drop-shipping in a particular specialised product. Such a business is capable of expanding considerably to the extent that it may need premises, but the business will not be limited by the premises themselves. If we have the knowledge and skill, we can make a lot of money.

Confined spaces

However, some businesses are limited by the premises; that is the shop or retail outlets they have. In particular, catering businesses have particular challenges. If a café is in a busy thoroughfare, the rent is likely to be high and the competition fairly fierce.

I was once consulted by the owners of a sit-down diner in a seaside town, but with many other cafés in the immediate area. There were very obvious problems:

  • The rent was considerable because of the location and the size of the unit.
  • The heating bills in the winter were large because of the size; they were on two floors.
  • They were not getting in enough people because of the competition and because they were not better or different from the others.
  • They had to employ a number of staff because of the requirements to wait on tables.

The café was losing money fast and their current model couldn’t survive. The solution I offered was to sub-let their first floor as an office for which there was already planning permission in place, and to get rid of most of the tables and (unfortunately) their waiting staff. They needed to run as a fast food and sandwich bar for the many people walking past. There was only one potential competitor doing that.

Train wreck

Sadly the café proprietors ran out of money before they could follow my recommendations and they went out of business. They lost their life savings. It need not have been that way if they had thought in advance about their business model. They didn’t need a sophisticated plan. All they had to do was to add up their outgoings and do some research as to what sort of café would have been most lucrative with a higher margin. In busy business and seaside streets that is generally sandwich bars and hot food takeaways. At the seaside you can combine the two if you do it right.

Planning is everything, isn’t it?

Photo credit: seq Jehane

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Sometimes losing customers is not our fault

Unhappy passage?

We have all lost patrons of our business, or, if we have only just started, we will lose customers in the future.

When someone leaves us, it is always important to get feedback. Has something one wrong in our delivery? Do they think they can get a better service elsewhere? Is it a question of seeing price over value?  Do they just not have the need for us any more? We need to ask, because we can learn.

Sometimes we will have done nothing wrong that we can see. In fact we will have given the best service anyone could. We are dealing with people. All our customers are people. People are all different, and while we hope we can read them and understand them, now and again we will be taken by surprise. Clients just go.

I had a client I helped from the beginning with her start-up business. I sat with her and gave her all sorts of tips about being in business, what to aim for, managing her bank accounts, trying and testing her marketing and looking out for pitfalls and scammers.

Her business grew. It became successful and profitable. I spoke to her often. She called me for advice. I kept in touch. Yet one day I found out through a third party that she was leaving me, or at least taking her custom elsewhere

Within the last couple of months before hearing the bad news, I had spent an hour at her premises and had a long chat with her. Three weeks later I delivered personally some papers she needed. She was friendly and gave no clue our business relationship would be at an end. Yet a few weeks after that I found that she was going, and she didn’t even tell me herself.

I did ask why my business services were no longer required. My now ex-client said that a “friend” had recommended her to go elsewhere. That was it. No proper explanation.

We have to accept set-backs. I am sure our service was exemplary; indeed I know it was as it had my personal attention. We have to get over it and move on.

Accidents will happen. Have you lost a customer for no logical reason? Have you been taken by surprise like that?

Photo credit TheeErin Creative Commons license via Photo Pin



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Why consistency and continuity of service is important


Castries, St. Lucia, where the people rely on our Fair Trade

Shopping for essentials

As consumers, when we are out shopping we have an expectation of what we can buy. We do not like to be disappointed to find that what we want we can no longer get.

At our local supermarket I have had some disappointments recently. I rather liked their own-brand baked beans, but they have obviously changed their supplier and now although the label and packaging look the same, the product is different and inferior. However the price is the same.

At the same supermarket, I rather liked their Fair Trade tea. We try to support Fair Trade in our household as do so many.  The supermarket, the one owned by Walmart, seems to have stopped stocking their own-label Fair Trade tea or indeed anyone else’s. I have to go elsewhere to “do my bit” with regard to tea.

Retiring iGoogle

Then again I really find iGoogle useful. It aggregates so much of my stuff, and yet iGoogle is being retired next year. From their comment we can see that they are not really offering anything else as a proper substitute. I do not pay Google anything currently, but maybe they could make iGoogle subscription based and keep it on. I do give them the use of my stuff in return for the use of theirs.

Maybe I could use an assortment of Google’s other products, but it is a bit like being told you must wear a digital watch rather than an analogue one. So many people prefer analogue, and so many people might want all their web-based stuff in one place, which is not on their phone. And yes, I like my Android phone, but I am not alone in feeling abandoned


Choices spoiled

People like choice, and having made a choice they do not like to be told they cannot have their preferred offering any more.

Of course commercial decisions have to be made and if there is a fall in demand we cannot expect to always get what we like. Perhaps the supermarket and Google felt they had to make changes on commercial grounds, but it is important to offer customers a viable alternative.

Be consistent

As long as a product or service is popular, our customers and clients should have a reasonable expectation that we will carry on supplying it. We must take into account their preferences and cater for minor differences as far as we can. We should not chop-and-change because it confuses our customers and our audience prospects. Chopping-and-changing would make us look unreliable.

If I like to buy something regularly and rely on a supplier, I don’t like to find that I cannot get it any more, or to have to go elsewhere, because I may take all my custom to that other place.

Do you miss being able to buy something you always liked in the past?

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Never assume

Happy customers

Once upon a time, my first job was with an international and mainly Far-Eastern bank. I wrote a nice letter of application in my best handwriting and was placed in the “Income Tax Department”. We only dealt with personal tax. Most of the bank customers we looked after had share portfolios, which were a lot more popular then than they are now.

I was taught the basics of dividend listing for tax returns. I remember with one of the early cases I was given I had compiled my dividend list in part from a book called Moody’s Dividends because some of the customer’s dividend vouchers were missing. I was quite proud of my initiative in looking up these dividends, having been shown how by another junior; the one next up the pecking order from me. I had replaced her as the tea-maker.

When I thought I had finished my dividend list I took my work to be checked by one of the more experienced clerks (remember we worked for a bank). I had to sit next to him while he went through my work.

His first question was “Why have you put in the list dividends for which you haven’t got vouchers?”

I said “I assumed they must have been paid” to which he responded “Never assume!”

Of course he was right. The shares might have been sold. Perhaps they were and there was a possible capital gain to declare. I should have asked questions. Of course that was my inexperience showing, but “Never assume” really should be our motto in business and maybe in our personal lives too.

  • Never assume our prospect knows what she wants
  • Never assume our prospect knows what we do and how we can help.
  • When we are working for our client, never assume any fact if there is any possibility we are wrong, for the job can then go wrong.
  • Never assume our client has told us everything. Ask those questions as I should gave done as a teenage junior.
  • Never assume our customer is happy with what we have done. Ask her if she is happy. Ask her if we could have done anything better.
  • Never assume our customer will keep coming back. Stay in touch with him. Make a telephone call if we have not heard from him for a while. Customer relationships are so important.
  • In fact, never assume.

That more experienced clerk who taught me a great lesson has been retired quite a while. I saw him at one of those staff reunions a few months back. Of course he doesn’t remember giving that lesson but I have never forgotten it. Facts are what we know. Everything else needs to be checked to ensure business runs smoothly, we make money, and customers keep coming back.

I try never to assume. Have you ever made an assumption which got you into trouble?

Showing us the way with enthusiasms


English: Radio Caroline bus

English: Radio Caroline bus (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Courtesy of Sarah Darling

The long and winding road

Do you sometimes look over your shoulder and wonder how you got where you are? In terms of learning our personal and working lives become inter-twined. Always along the way there are people whose enthusiasms permeate our souls and set us in certain directions. We carry the knowledge and excitement and interest which they instil in us and even if we don’t do things their way, their influence is what sets us in the direction we have gone.

Of course the adults around us as children build the foundation of our morality and beliefs before we start to think for ourselves, but our interests are rubbed off from people we come across, whether they are famous, or colleagues, or acquaintances.

Reaching for the stars

I have always had an interest in astronomy; at least since I saw Patrick Moore in a black-and-white Sky at Night. His infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on me and turned on my awareness of the Universe out there. I started to read science fiction at a young age starting with Angus McVicar.  I read Fred Hoyle‘s book about the “steady state” theory of the Universe, now superseded by a very different model.

Then there was pirate radio. My hero disc jockey on Radio Caroline was Johnny Walker. I thought he was really cool, and yes, we did say “cool” even in those days. It inspired an interest in pirate radio to the extent I was a pirate myself. Later I became a legal radio “ham” because I acquired an interest in the science of radio.


Then when I started working in tax, there was a guy whose first name was Tom. He had a very comprehensive knowledge of tax and was seen as the oracle. He showed me what was possible. Sadly our relationship somehow soured. I never really knew what put him off me. It was that way round. Yes, he became a block to my career, but the ball was in my court to move on. It wasn’t his problem and I was sad that I could not stay in touch. I am still grateful for my time with him.

After I left that firm, my career took off,which is what I had intended.

I went a few years without another major influence. I made some dear friends with the national firm I joined who are still my friends today.

The new dawn

Later, after my career in employment ceased in a rather unplanned fashion, I tried to reorientate myself for the self-employed world. I went on sales courses, but they always made me rather uncomfortable. Then someone said I should read Zig Ziglar. I saw how easy selling could be. I saw that selling was about giving comfort to the prospect at the same time as giving comfort to me. Previously I had always worried that the prospect would end up not wanting my services and would hold this against me. Zig’s way is to make sure your prospect has what she wants, and that is what you want. Later, I read Dale Carnegie and saw where so much of these ideas might have come from. Everyone should read Zig and Dale Carnegie if they want to get on in business.

Marketing was hard at the beginning. In 2003 I joined Ecademy. Within a couple of weeks I met Thomas Power. I am very glad I did. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but tea is a matter of taste. I met Penny Power too very soon, but Thomas’s knowledge of and enthusiasm about everything we should be doing on-line to market our businesses was hugely influential for me. I learned so much so quickly. 2003 was 1BF (Before Facebook). So thank you, Thomas and Penny, for the last nine years, and thank you Andrew Widgery for bringing us together.

Of course I met my wife in August 2000 and she is a lovely influence at home and keeps me calm and focussed and on the rails. I am very lucky.

Thank you Patrick and Johnny and Tom and Zig. Anyone would think I had won an Oscar with all this thanking. I would not have what I have without all those people though. I might have had something else, but I like what I have. Of course I have missed a few “thank yous”. I will catch up one day.

Who has influenced you to achieve, and excited you with their ideas?

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Redundancy at 50 or even 45 – Part 2

The man who fell to earth

We discussed the other day our accountant who has been unemployed for three years and is now 50. We have heard about the dramatic drop in income, about living on cheap food, the problem with one of the two teenage sons (not a happy thought), the selling of cars, and living off benefits including the £400 a month from JobSeekers Allowance. That’s a lot and must be because both husband and wife are getting it.

Ritual humiliation

When I was first unemployed the Jobseekers allowance was an insult and a humiliation; turning up at the Jobcentre every fortnight, going through a hopeless ritual with someone sitting behind a desk who checked you had filled in your card correctly. Both of you knew it was a farce. They had nothing to offer.

I dutifully recorded every job application I had made, and every enquiry over the telephone cold-calling for an interview. The longer it went on, the more soul destroying it was. Psychologically I got through it by thinking in my old charge-out rate terms. I got £60 a week for twenty minutes humiliation every fortnight, which if I thought about it was £360 per hour. That as a pretty good pay rate. The trouble was it was only £60 a week at the end of it.

At the beginning of my unemployment my lovely wife of only a few months was still working. I was prepared to do anything and my only consolation was that when I was made redundant I still had most of a year’s gym membership paid for. I spent a fair amount of time in the gym which kept me sane.


In the end it sunk in that I was not going to get a job without having worked at something since my last job. Also. I needed some money urgently. I was not getting anything more from the State. I wonder if for people like the Daily Mail accountant, there is a benefit trap which discouraged him from doing some sort of work even if it wasn’t accountancy? I had no such disincentive to work. I had no money coming in, my wife was finding her work more difficult physically, and I hardly married her to live off her earnings. I was the big breadwinner when we met. She might have thought she had “bought a pup” if she had been a less lovely person than she is. Of course she has supported me every step of the way, including financially at one stage.

As you know, I started a business and the rest is history. Except of course it is a complicated history in that firstly I thought it would help get me a job working for someone else, and then I realised that I never wanted to work for someone else again.

My advice to the unemployed accountant and to anyone in that situation is to make an effort to start some sort of business he can do from home. It is all very well complaining about eating cheap food (but the accountant’s chicken casserole to last three days sounds fine and a bit of curry powder will vary it by day three) but what about doing something? That something may be the current experience that gets him a job if he still wants one. Otherwise the business will bring some self-respect, provide some income he can say he earned rather than drew from the State, and may help him plan his future even if that future isn’t the one he was planning just over three years ago.

The new business may be different from the work he did as an employee. If not very different at the start, it might evolve. Mine has.

No more sob stories

I wouldn’t say it isn’t tough finding that employers don’t want us with all our skills. It

All that choice…

is their loss, though. If we sit at home and mope we won’t improve our situation. That is a reality, not some sort of pep talk.

Cheap food? Been there and done it and you can live very well on cheap food, and even have a better diet. Old car? Yes, so what? Forget about the status statement and be practical like the rest of us.

Our 50-year-old accountant was featured on a TV programme which I missed and which is no longer available on-line. I hope his writing a book will bring him some money. Has he started a business? He should. I just hope he gets on his bike. We have, haven’t we? What did you do?

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Redundancy at 50 or even 45 – Part 1


Goodbye to all that?

Hard times

There was a story published recently in the Daily Mail about an unemployed accountant who has fallen on hard times. He seems to have lost his employment in his late forties. That is an all too familiar story. It has happened to lots of people in the professions; accountants and lawyers and architects. It has happened to financial services professionals. It has happened to engineers. It has happened to so many skilled workers.

In the Daily Mail story we hear of all those job applications, the financial problems with the income disappearing. The accountant has a professional qualification; a well respected one. The problem for forty-plus applicants seeking a job is that qualifications matter rather less than they did when they were in their twenties.

Recruiters’ insecurity

Every employer is eager to take on newly qualified staff in their twenties. The fact that someone has passed exams is at least an indication that they have some ability to understand how to do the work. It is an indication of potential and of intelligence.

For an older applicant, the employer is more interested in their experience most recently, and generally the sort of work they have been doing, and the level of difficulty of that work. Often someone has become specialised in a particular area, which is no bad thing because niche workers are invaluable if that specialism is a requirement. It is also a difficulty in persuading an employer that someone can adapt to a different role.

The experience of an older job applicant can work against her or him in other ways. Many interviewing business owners of managers may be younger. They may feel uncomfortable at the thought of taking on someone older than themselves. They may worry how an older worker will fit into their team. They may worry that an older worker will know more than they do and embarrass them; “show them up”. So the older job applicant is really up against it in getting new employment.

Cut adrift

Just the same, if someone has been unemployed for a while, they have no recent experience to impress recruiters and that will be a major negative factor for their job prospects. Being seen as being out of the loop is even worse than being seen as a threat to that younger manager.

What would you do in that situation? Should our unemployed 50-year old accountant get on his bike?  I will leave that on until next time.


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On-line networking when you don’t see the wood for the trees

Seeing the wood

The numbers

The other day I saw in my Twitter stream a conversation between two people I know moderately well, and like too. I don’t want to offend them if they read this, but one said she had increased her Klout score, and the other said he needed to work on raising his. Of course they might have been joking, but it isn’t always easy to detect irony in 140 characters.

Now, I am not going to have a go at Klout. It has its place in the world of social media, but really, it is a measure of activity. It is not a measure of useful activity. It cannot tell the difference. There are people with much lower scores than I have (yes, I looked :)) whom I consider more influential than I am.

Never mind the quality

What Klout mostly does is count the number of posts on Twitter and elsewhere, and presumably their algorithm looks at followers. However, what it doesn’t seem to do is distinguish between those who post only famous quotations, only sales messages, only stupid jokes etc. and those who have conversations and post useful information for followers.

People need people

To put it another way, on-line networking involves remembering you are talking to people who are your friends or may become friends. Perhaps you may recommend them and endorse their businesses as a happy customer. They may do the same for you if you deserve it. The most important aspect of any networking is being helpful, either in general or in particular. The more you help others, (and try to be altruistic) the more they may help you and if (no, when) you get business back, that’s all the better.

I am not quite saying Klout has no value. It may encourage you to drive your marketing as long as you are not making all the mistakes. Klout is really a game. On-line networking is not about the number of trees, but the actual wood and what is in it. It is not about the crowd but each individual person.

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