Scamming small businesses and individuals

On two successive working days, I have experienced attempts to obtain bank details via cold calls.

The first call purported to relate to a renewal of insurance for an appliance. We did have such insurance but I thought it was up to date. I was suspicious and thought that if it needed to be renewed we would have received a paper schedule via the post. The caller assured me they were trying to save trees. I told them they could send an email, but they were not interested in my email address and rang off.

The second call was from someone claiming to represent the “Call Prevention Service”. They would prevent cold calls from abroad for a fee of £1.99 per month on a four year contract. Again I was suspicious. I asked “Surely my telephone provider would offer such a service if available?” I was told they worked with all telephone providers.

I asked for a number to call back and was provided with one before they rang off. My research on this number led me to this link, so it seems the police are aware. Whether they do anything about it is another matter, but do be careful with these callers. If anyone else in your business is authorised to deal with purchasing, banking and payment matters, do make sure they are aware too.

Turning down work – really?

One of the mistakes many start-up businesses make is taking every project or job, no matter what. I made it myself.  It is very tempting to accept anything which comes along, but the new business owner needs to consider:

  • Is it within our expertise?
  • Will it be profitable?
  • Have we the capacity to do it?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then we should decline politely.

Sometimes even more experienced business people can get this wrong too, and accept work which cannot be delivered satisfactorily. That may lead to damage to reputations. Never be afraid to say no. Feel able to refer another business for the work if you think they will be able to do it. That will make more friends too.

What does not make for a good reputation is a business owner saying “I will get back to you with an estimate or a quote” and then not doing that because they do not fancy doing the job. That is a good way of losing friends and again damaging reputation.

Never leave a prospect hanging. They will think more of you if you decline and tell them why.

Don’t be afraid to ask

When I started out on my own in business, I thought I knew a lot and in fact I knew very little.

Why did I think I knew a lot? Well, for a good few years I had worked with small businesses as clients, and my employers had called themselves “accountants and business advisers”. So, yes, I understood the mechanics of being in business. I had advised clients about their tax issues, how much they owed in tax and how much they could save.

So what was the problem? Well, I had never tried to visualise myself in their shoes. I did not understand the day-to-day challenges of sales and cash flow. I did not appreciate the responsibilities to employees and workers engaged. I did not realise that everything a business owner does has an impact on family, both financially and time-wise, far more than for an employee.

It is difficult at the beginning of our business. We need a new mind-set. We need to understand about being found by customers, making sales, managing our finances without a guaranteed monthly or weekly income, and in organising our time.

We need to ask our friends in business when we don’t know something. We need to call in help from the outset.

Running a business is hard at the outset. It will be worth it and it will be very rewarding to succeed through our own efforts, knowledge and dedication. But don’t be afraid to ask.

Verbal understandings are not contracts


coppersIn my business I think it is important to have agreements in writing with my clients so that they know exactly what I will be doing for them in conducting their affairs (and what I will not be doing). I have always said that verbal agreements are no use especially when the parties fall out or one side has a perceived issue.

Many of us look after family members or agree financial arrangements with them, and somehow it seems less comfortable to ask them to enter into a written agreement. Yet why should they be any different? They are people who may have ideas you have not fathomed.

So I confess. My wife and I entered into a financial and verbal understanding with a family member ten years ago, and when it came to the crunch last year, he reneged on the agreement. That has cost us a lot of money. That is the point: where money is involved, people may have an eye for the main chance when greed, and other motives unknown us, kick in.

If you are relying on a family member to repay you or at some stage meet certain financial obligations, have it all in writing no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. That is an insurance we all need.

As for us, we have again learned from experience. Trust no one where money is concerned, and get it in writing when you need to. Onwards and upwards!


Was it small business or the internet that changed my life?

Seafront bikes

Seafront bikes

It is no secret that I started my own business after the world of employment left me, and I could not get another job. There was no grand plan. I just got “on my bike” to get some money coming in.

Back then, 2002, the main way of getting business (I thought) was advertising. I have written before about the money spent on directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local. They were a waste of time and that was because they really said nothing about my business apart from listing it under a category, but also because customers were actually talking to each other, exchanging information on-line, and yes, getting out of the door and networking.

I did not have much idea about social media in those days, but they were early days. I wonder how much I would have become involved if it had not been for business needs. Would I ever have “done” Twitter and Facebook? I suppose it was the other way round as Facebook was first, but I “do” Twitter a lot more.

It is not as though I ever was exactly afraid of computers. I am a techy sort of guy. I had a Sinclair ZX81, a BBC computer and an IBM AT PC running DOS. I programmed in Sinclair BASIC and in MS BASIC, not very well, but I had the enthusiasm. I frequented bulletin boards. It did not make me social.

In 2003 I had realised that face-to-face networking might be a good idea. I had a business coach who thought it was, though he had not tried it. I went to the local Ecademy group, and three days later met Thomas Power at a seminar in London. He and Ecademy taught me so much about networking, on-line and off-line that it is hard to imagine a business or personal life without it.

I have become a very social person, and social media and on-line marketing are how I get most of my business. Of course the biggest benefit is in making so many new friends; real friends who have helped me as I hope I might now and again have helped them.

I know a lot of employee techies who do not really “get” social media. They may mess around on Facebook but I wonder if they have really made new friends as I have, or whether they just interact with the old ones. Some techies view all social media with disdain and are paranoid about personal security and identity theft. They know how everything works, but they cannot see the purpose or the potential, only the low-risk threat.

For myself and my business there is a great world out there, I have made a lot of real friends I could not have found in any other way, and I am grateful. I think I am a totally different person from the one I would have been, stuck in a job in town. I feel I am happier and more at ease with myself as an independent player, and have been set free by the tools I first found through Ecademy. Being in business brought me to social and business networking. Would the second have happened without the first? I don’t know.

Has your life been changed in the same way?

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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Business partnerships and collaborations – Part 1


It can be lonely being in business on our own. We might want to work with someone else. Maybe we have met someone and dreamed up a great idea for a business, or perhaps a great product. We have that excitement that comes with the beginning of a relationship. We want to go into partnership. It all sounds like a budding romance, doesn’t it?

I am talking about a business partnership in the usual context, and also about working together through a company. Whatever the strict legal status, the working environment is the same.

A business partnership, especially a small business partnership, is just like any relationship. If we commit to it, it is just like a marriage. So in many ways, the rules of the relationship are the same. We have to live with our partner and be happy that when the initial thrill of meeting someone exciting is over, we still are happy together. After all, there is money involved on both sides otherwise why would we be in business at all?

  • Is the great idea behind our relationship likely to be sustainable?
  • Have we known our partner long enough to know we can work (and be) with them long term?
  • Can we live with their work habits?
  • Are we sure they are reliable and will be where they say they will be and do what they said they will do?
  • Do we know enough about their past?
  • How good are they with money?

You might think that all sounds rather mercenary especially when I compare a business relationship to a marriage. Although all marriages whether business or personal are exciting, they are also about willing compromise and working round each other in a happy way. If we can do that, it’s bliss, isn’t it?

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Can small businesses live off referrals?

Mountains don't travel well!

In my work I talk to many small business owners, and on a daily basis. Some in professional services are doing pretty well without making any effort to market. This is because they provide their clients with reliable, dependable support, and in return their clients recommend them to others. That way they have a steady stream of new business to replace the natural wastage, which is often due to other clients retiring and very often selling up.

These established businesses living off recommendations generally are not looking to grow too much, but their owners find themselves able to live a comfortable living. That’s great, isn’t it, in a time when the general business is difficult?

The whole world of small business isn’t like that though. I was talking to the owner of a start-up business two years old, and he told me that business was really very poor. They had hardly any clients coming to them. I commented that they did not seem to have a website and that they were almost invisible in the search engines. The owner said “But in our line we get all our business through word of mouth”; in other words through referrals. Except they aren’t getting any. This is two years down the line.

In some ways I understand my friend’s comment. I believe that once he worked in one of those established businesses I mentioned at the beginning; one where the work just kept coming in because their good service reputation was passed on by word of mouth. In a start up business you just don’t have that. You have to take the initiative. It is no good expecting the mountain to come to Mohamed.

A small business has to market. Any professional service business must have a website, and preferably a blog or good content showing the expertise of the owners. Content marketing for goodness sake! Then once a few clients come along and sign up, rightly convinced you know what you are talking about, they will talk about you. Your best marketers are your client advocates, but you have to have a virtual shop to display your wares.

It’s no good hiding your light under a bushel, especially as we all need money to live on. It’s really not true that if you build it they will come (sorry, Kevin).  You need publicity, your potential clients need to know where to come and they need to know what great stuff they will get when they arrive.

Are you hiding or is it easy to find you?

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Franchising, redundancy money and elephant traps

The offerings

Elephant avoiding the trap. Photo by Jon Stow

If we have endured the shock of redundancy there is often a feeling that we must move on as soon as we can. Many older people in that position, by which I mean thirty-five upwards, may well have a decent pay-off of cash. I am not talking hundreds of thousands, but maybe £30 or 40K. That is often the amount of money asked to buy into a franchise.

There are some great franchises about, whether we are talking about fast food or unblocking drains. There are established brands and there are tried and tested formulae. If a model works well in one area, it may well work well in another similar location. If we buy in, we know exactly what we are getting.

The top view

I have advised clients on setting up franchises. Especially in the good times they are a great way of expanding a business without a great deal of capital outlay. You allow people to borrow your great business model and branding and you take a commission as a percentage of sales after the franchisee has bought into the idea and paid a capital sum for the privilege. Everybody can win.

Testing the strength

Not all franchises are great investments in the bad times, though. I have looked at them from both ends. Firstly if you buy in you must be absolutely sure that the business model is robust and sells a product or service for which there will continue to be a demand. That may mean that a “luxury” franchise such as jewellery or children’s dance classes may suffer when people do not have the money to spend in more difficult times.

Moving the goal posts

Some existing franchisees in the recession are coming under pressure from the franchisors too who are wanting to vary their terms; move the goal posts. The franchisors’ sales commissions may well have dropped in the poorer trading conditions. They will be looking to cut their costs by providing less support to their franchisees and maybe looking for a bigger share of a smaller pot from those who are selling their brand.

Detective work

If you are looking to start a business and are considering a franchise, ask to talk to existing franchisees and not just those nominated by the main business owner. Do your own independent research and ask around. Think about whether there is enough profit for you after paying the percentage turnover due under the franchise agreement.

Some franchise models are absolutely terrific. However, if you have cash to invest in a business whether from redundancy or otherwise, do your research thoroughly. Be a detective and find out everything you can, and enlist someone like me to help if you wish. Don’t just rely on the sales literature. Think whether you have the right skills to run your chosen franchise.

Be part of a team

Start-ups are exciting. Franchises can be great if you want to be part of a successful team. Just avoid the elephant-traps which might relieve you of your hard-earned cash and you can find true business happiness.

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Getting over telephone blues

Friendly telephone manner

You might have gathered from an earlier post that I had personal experience of running into trouble with an alleged rolling contract with the telecoms provider. I have now been advised that I have won my appeal to the OFTEL Ombudsman and the telephone company concerned has agreed to waive the penalty charge which they had sought to impose.

This just goes to show that persistence pays off if you stand up to these giants when they try to impose unfair charges, and especially when you have not agreed to their new contracts. You do have to put together your case well, though, and not to lose your temper when seemingly talking to people who are not listening.

In an act of generosity, I am not going to share with you the name of the telecoms company but will say that it is not BT.

Have you had this sort of trouble? What did you do?

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