Archive for Business Tips

How far can you see?

Can you imagine a better world? A vision is not a sales target or set of positive statistics, it’s a long-term, big-picture imagining of the future. There’s no harm in thinking big. The giant tech companies set themselves goals they admit are beyond their own capabilities to push themselves and their innovators as far as they can. How big can you dream?

  • Do you have a vision for your business? Can you picture what success will look like?

A vision is important. We like to focus on the here and now, we like quick wins because the achievement is tangible and we like collecting small victories because of the morale boost. But what’s it all for though? Where is it going?

Without a vision to tie together all your efforts, any victory can seem rather empty. All the small victory morale boosts in the world won’t counteract the morale drain of feeling directionless. Get thinking – where would you like to be, what world would you like to see?

Deciding upon your own vision is also one of the key perks of starting your own business. In the corporate world, very few people get to decide on a vision and they tend to be sat very high up. At best you might control the destiny of the silo you’re responsible for. With your own company comes the freedom to think and dream for yourself.

  • Can you back up your vision with the belief that you can turn it into a reality?

A key part of backing up your vision with belief is reminding yourself that you are making progress – reassuring yourself that your vision is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but a reality that grows more possible all the time. Ask yourself each day what you are doing that day to realise your vision.

The answer might be a tenuous link. You might be earning money to pay your bills today so that you can address your vision directly tomorrow, or the day after that. Hopefully your answer is more direct, but even the ‘cop-out answer’ means you’ve taken time out of your day to link your activities with a bigger goal, keeps you on track and helps build belief.

  • Are you determined to give your business idea your best shot? You may not realise the vision if you don’t.

Realising a vision is not something which happens easily or quickly. It requires determination to stay on track, not just when times get tough but in the good times too. It’s easy to envisage someone losing sight of their objectives whilst being overwhelmed with firefighting duties and emergencies. However, opportunities can lead you away as well.

An opportunity can seem great – and may well be so – but might be leading you away from the vision. It’s never easy to turn down work but it’s always important to consider if a project might compromise or hinder your long-term goals. Keep yourself the question from point two – what have you done today to realise your vision? Does this opportunity take you a step closer?

We all need Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound objectives to keep us moving forward and ensure day-to-day success, but don’t neglect drawing up and filling in the overall picture of success. Think big, create a vision, believe you can do it and stick with it.

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Managing People Risk

Successful owners know how to recruit and retain people. Failing to recruit, recruiting the wrong individual or failing to retain the best talent are situations which can set a new business back for months, stifle or even end its growth.

For a new business, recruiting new people is a challenge as you are not necessarily known, represent something of a risk on the employee’s part and are unlikely to have a huge purse to tempt people on-board.

This challenge can also be something of a blessing in disguise, though. If you’re not offering prospective employees fame and fortune (at least, not immediately) you’re effectively ‘weeding out’ some of those who might be self-seeking ‘wrong’ types.

Creating a company that does something interesting is a realistic and successful incentive that new businesses can employ to attract the ‘right’ sort. If you’re doing something new, big, different, exciting or all of the above, other people should want to be a part of it.

Creating an incentive for them to want to join is an incentive for you to think about the nature of your business – not just what you do but how you do it. In order to recruit the ‘right’ people for you, you have to be clear about the values and culture of your business from day one.

This focus on culture should be retained throughout the recruitment process. Some businesses conduct ‘blind’ interviews, assessing the person before looking at their CV. Great if you’re looking for a flexible, adaptable new pair of hands’; less useful if your culture is built around subject matter experts.

As for retaining talent, it is important to provide employees with ownership, engagement and opportunities. Some feel that it’s something of a catch-22, as by investing in employees you may bolster their CV and increase the chances of them looing to work elsewhere, but not involving them can be equally likely to lead to their departure. There is also the third possibility, summed up by the maxim – what if we invest in employees and they leave – what if we don’t and they stay?

Open communication is essential for integrating employees into a business and helping them to ‘buy in’ to the culture and framework, as is providing them with opportunities for growth and development. Training is another expense, but it’s less expensive than ignorance or the empty space left should they choose to depart.

There is no universal approach to recruiting and retaining people, but successful owners achieve it by being absolutely clear about their own approach and communicating this approach right from the start. When it comes to finding and keeping people, clarity, openness and honesty are the best policies.

What if we train them and they leave? What if we don’t train them and they stay?

Training is Expensive – How much more expensive is ignorance?


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What are you really worth?

One of the common motivators for starting up your own business is financial control. It goes without saying that this is a double-edged sword as you’re not only getting the reward; you’re also responsible for taking the risk.

That paragraph doesn’t really do the situation justice. Being your own paymaster is a huge incentive for people who feel they are not currently being paid what they feel their skills are worth or earning enough to justify the crazy hours working for a large corporation can require.

The risk is also a big deal. Anyone taking on financial control of a business should be aware that the top three reasons new businesses fail are lack of cash, lack of cash and lack of cash.

So is the answer simply to adopt a bit of modesty and humility and not to pay yourself too much? Well, not exactly. Conscious of the cash flow issue, many people seriously underpay themselves in order to ‘get by’. This is understandable in the early days and we have talked about survival budgets in the past, but you will have to start paying yourself an appropriate salary eventually.

Without allowing yourself a salary/dividend based on your worth your financial assessment of your business could become skewed. Adjusting your earnings to prop up the company for too long does your business a disservice.

When you’re in a position to pay yourself a set amount you have a clear, objective view of how your start-up is faring. This is also of great importance to anyone else viewing your business. Look at the situation from a potential investor’s point of view. If the seemingly healthy company they are looking at only appears successful because the owner isn’t paying themselves (or not paying themselves the appropriate, comparable reward for the job they perform) then the company is something of a mirage. Equally, an investor would be reluctant to support financially the growth of your business if he or she thought that you were funding an extravagant lifestyle and not contributing yourself to the growth, so finessing the balance between these two extremes becomes critical.

Yes, survival budgets – real bare minimum survival budgets – are a reality for many, but you need to try to remove yourself from that situation as soon as possible; as alluded to above it’s not a move to wasting or spending money flamboyantly, but in order to move forward and grow – if you’re paying yourself well below market rate then it will be difficult to attract any staff (who will probably have less “upside” than you, by way of compensation) when the time comes to expand.

Hopefully your initial investigating will have informed you what others working in your sector are earning. Whatever approximate figure that is (which needn’t be at the higher end of the scale) should really fit into your financial estimates as viable. If not, you may need to revisit your business plan and in particular your financial model.

Paying yourself appropriately also reminds us of the other side to this coin and where I began this article. You deserve a reward. Starting a business is one of the most stressful and difficult things you can choose to do with your life. If you’re paying yourself to relax or even eat enough then the strain only increases. Reward yourself and rest yourself. You will benefit and so will your business.

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And did those feet….?

And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark, Satanic Mills?’ Blake’s 1808 poem references a concern felt across Britain in the early 19th century. Many who lived through the Industrial Revolution possessed a deep fear of new technology.

Not only could the new technologies be physically dangerous to operate, they rearranged the social and family structure, thrust mankind out of circadian rhythm and represented a threat to employment and livelihood. The smoke and fire from the steam engines were also reminiscent of the ‘satanic’ images of hell described from the church pulpit.

Today’s issues regarding technology might be slightly different, but they still exist. Data and identity theft, surveillance, trolling and cybercrime are all very real concerns. Though Google’s motto is ‘don’t be evil’ one has to ask why they assumed we thought they might be – ‘the lady doth protest too much’? It certainly reminds us they have the capacity to be evil.

The moral debate over technological progress will forever be with us. However, for SMEs and start-ups, technology can be your friend – not something to be afraid of.

New technology has helped to level the playing field – allowing small businesses to compete with larger, established ones. Consider the smartphone. With the device in your pocket you have direct connectivity with clients, collaborators and potential customers. You may not have a PA, client managers, marketing or customer service departments but you can control all those aspects of your organisation from your location.

For a growing business, when you no longer have sole control, technology is still a boon. Cloud computing, software and apps allow your team to operate with synchronicity – maintaining the slicker, more efficient edge over businesses weighed down by bureaucracy.

The main perceived drawbacks – where the fear of technology creeps back in – are cost and training. How expensive are these advantages and how difficult will it be for my team and I to get to grips with using them?

The answers are ‘not very’ and ‘not very long’. Take social media technology as an example. The major platforms are free, with an option to pay for a premium service or promote your content if you so choose. This allows you to familiarise yourself with the platform, measure the impact your engagement is having and decide whether it is worth paying for.

You will also notice that all social media operates in a similar way. Once you have familiarised yourself with one platform you can understand and utilise most of them. Terminology may be specific – likes may become favourites – but the concept remains essentially the same.

The same is true for many business apps. They are often free, with an option to upgrade and work in such a way that mastering one will allow you access to many. The key thing to remember for a growing business (which may have a ‘bring your own device’ policy rather than issuing staff phones, tablets and laptops) is to look for apps and software that work across operating systems.

If you’re looking to start your own business and build your own Jerusalem, technology is not a dark satanic mill to be afraid of but a valuable construction tool which can help you punch above your weight and operate with efficiency and fluency.

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Good business habits and how to stop bad ones creeping in

Do you drive today like you did on the day you passed your driving test? Do you read terms and conditions with the same scrutiny that you did the first time you made an online purchase? As we become familiar with something, we don’t necessarily approach it with the same diligence we once did.

That said, how do you ensure that client 100 receives the same level of service as client 1?

Bad habits can creep in. They might not be terrible habits – though they can be! It is often a case of an outstanding service being reduced to merely a good one, which is bad enough. To return to the driving analogy, you don’t have to have become a menace on the road before you realise that you’re not operating to the same standards you once did.

The key to ensuring a consistently outstanding level of service is to establish a clear process. This is not about treating each client the same; this is about ensuring you respond to each client’s unique needs with the same level of attention and dedication. You’re not making them jump through generic hoops; you’re holding yourself accountable to a set of rigorous checks.

There are many aspects to the driving test, but if you remember one thing it is most likely the process – ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’. Required facts, such as stopping distances, are only applicable in one specific situation and gradually fade from memory. You are far more likely to remember a process, mainly because it works – it is applicable for every junction, roundabout, and lane change.

Whatever may have slid from your memory, you probably still check mirrors and indicate because the process has become habitual. It doesn’t involve treating every situation the same but ensures you run through the same checks in order to treat each situation appropriately.

To ensure that client 100 receives the same treatment as client 1, you need to be very clear about the process you put in place on that first occasion and endeavour to replicate it every time. To form a new habit such as taking up exercise takes roughly a month to become habitual if done every day. Given you may not be meeting clients each day this process may take longer to become embedded but over time it will.

Building your business around good habits is the best way of preventing bad habits. Your process needs to be firmly built around your goals and your responsibilities and flexible enough to incorporate new, beneficial habits you develop along the way. It needs to be rigorous enough to hold you to your own initial high standards but simple enough to teach and export, as others will need to learn the process if your business is to grow…

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How agile are you and your business?

Strategy and tactics are not interchangeable terms. As you probably know, your strategy is your answer to the big question ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ It relates to your vision for your business and your long-term goal. Tactics relate the smaller scale operations which achieve your objectives along the route to that goal.

Perhaps routes towards your goal would be more accurate. The world is complex and constantly changing. Whilst your long-term strategy needs to remain fixed, there may be various means of getting there and you may have to adapt your tactics accordingly.

If your goal is to provide poached eggs for breakfast, the strategy of poaching needs to remain unchanged. You can’t start frying or scrambling. However, the day-to-day tactics employed may vary. You might try adding vinegar to the water, creating a vortex in the water to crack the eggs into or invest in a specialist poaching pan.

To employ a more relevant example, you may well have a sound social media strategy in place. Perhaps you are using Twitter and LinkedIn to connect with potential clients and uploading content designed to draw them towards your website.

By making changes and experimenting with new methods (in this case perhaps altering the frequency of posts, the timing of posts or the key words and hashtags used) you are adapting the tactics within the strategy. Switching to directly selling your product or service through Facebook would be an entirely new strategy – a ‘back to the drawing board’ type situation.

Strategies should be fixed and tactics should be flexible. In reverse, this can spell disaster – a business with a fluid strategy is one with no sense of direction and a business with fixed tactics is unimaginative and constrained. Assuming you have your strategy and tactics in the right order, you also need to ensure that your business is structured to accommodate their different characteristics.

Anything aspects of your business structure which relate to your strategy need to be appropriately fixed or formal. Formal structures are laid out methods of operating and conducting business both internally and externally. They define the relationships between yourself, your staff and your clients and should clearly address the goal you are trying to achieve.

As tactics can be changed and adapted, a more flexible structure needs to be in place for relevant areas of your business. Flexible structures, by their very nature develop over time. New ways of doing things are tried out and new tactics formulated to take advantage of new technology.

If connecting with people is central to your business, direct human contact may be a key aspect of fixed company strategy. Perhaps research and surveys have suggested that your target clients feel more comfortable, relaxed and engaged when conversing with a flesh and blood human and you feel you can offer a better service when able to assess a client’s reactions whilst in their physical presence.

Rather than Skype sessions or conference calls, you want to ensure that meetings with clients are always conducted in the real world. Whilst no employee should deviate from this strategy, the tactics might vary. Depending on the client, this meeting might take place in an office, a meeting room or a coffee shop. The freedom to adapt this is critical as a client might not be equally comfortable in all three locations.

What are you doing? Meeting with people to assess and address their business needs. How are you doing it? The tactics will vary, depending on the individual. Strategic and tactical planning is essential in building a road map for your business. Creating the correct structure for strategic and tactical operations provides you with the vehicle to travel.

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If at first you don’t succeed

Transforming a good idea into a commercial success requires determination – this is a universally accepted point. However, the amount of determination required is still sometimes underestimated. A quick look at the literary world makes this abundantly clear.

Agatha Christie (the most widely read author of fiction after Shakespeare) endured five years of publishing rejections, and J.K. Rowling (whose eventual combined sales were over £450 million) had her initial book rejected twelve times in a row. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down so many times that she eventually decided to self-publish.

You might consider your business to exist in a very different world from that of authors and literature, but the frustrations encountered and determination required transcend the specific situation.

All of these books were clearly good ideas. Though they might not be on your personal reading list, time and experience has shown that the writers were on to something. There was nothing wrong with their thinking – they had written stories that there was a huge market for. However, the process of bringing that idea to the market was long and challenging.

Perhaps it is the culture of Dragons Den, X Factor and instant success that we are surrounded by which tricks people into thinking that, for them, it will be different – that their particular business idea is so innovative and wonderful they will fast track through the hard graft.

Whilst some individuals might get scooped up into instant success, the stories of these authors make clear that there is no direct correlation between the quality of your idea and the speed with which it gets noticed, accepted, appreciated and becomes a commercially viable product or service.

To depart from literature, both Richard Branson and James Dyson tell similar stories about the need for determination. They both credit their success more to being able to stick out the tough times and persevere with their plans rather than their initial innovations. Interestingly they both agree that a determined attitude is a quality which can be learnt and developed, not an innate ability.

Of course, your initial idea does have to make sense. However, if you have surrounded yourself with the right people, sought guidance and advice from trusted individuals rather than sycophantic yes-men and thoroughly thought through the detail then you can be assured that your course is worth pursuing.

The trick is to hold that course. If you have a business idea that makes sense, and enough determination, you can make things happen. If you keep working hard and are doing the right things you will create opportunities.

Perhaps it’s easy for people like Branson and Dyson to look back at their initial hard times as instrumental in developing a sense of urgency and determined work ethic now that they’ve established their empires, but if you read the biographies of successful entrepreneurs (and authors) across a wide variety of disciplines you will hear very similar stories across the board.

Determination is a required characteristic. In the same way that running not only gets you to your destination but improves your fitness while you get there, determination is not only needed in order for your idea to be realised but its implementation allows you to learn more about yourself and improve the way you work. Keep working, keep believing and good things will happen.

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Don’t Panic!

‘Don’t Panic’ reads the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in large, friendly letters. Not only is this the most helpful or intelligible thing anyone has said to Arthur Dent all day during the worst day of his life, it is useful advice in general.

Operating in a state of panic is never a good idea. However a sense of urgency is vital and the line between the two can become blurred – especially from an external perspective. There are times when you need to display a contagious sense of urgency to those around you without giving the impression that you are panicky or unintentionally inspiring panic.

Making the leap from a large organisation to working for yourself imbues most people with an essential sense of urgency. Firstly you (hopefully) have a real passion for what you do. Secondly, you realise that you and you alone are responsible for getting things done. Thirdly you are aware that, by leaving behind the ponderous bureaucracy of a large institution, speed and efficiency are now key advantages.

These factors combine to generate positive urgency. However, when you’re successful enough to begin to grow your business and begin recruiting new staff you can discover that not everyone shares your sense of urgency. Let’s not forget that to be in a situation where your business is expanding is a good thing. The need to instil a sense of urgency is one of the normal ‘growing pains’ people experience.

To inspire this urgency in others it’s important to set an example. However, you can’t expect your positive dynamism to simply ‘rub off’ on those around you. You need to actively model your behaviour. Not just performing with pace and efficiency, but making sure those around you understand what you are doing and why. It is a failure to do this which can often lead to others misconstruing your urgency for panic.

For example, when dealing with your own team, simply providing someone with a swift response might go unnoticed. Promising a swift response and then delivering it clearly communicates your method and ethos. Keep messages and meetings brief, be succinct and concise in conversation and ensure that you or your inactions are never someone else’s excuse for not completing their work.

Ensuring your purpose is clear demonstrates that you are not reacting to situations in a state of panic but working urgently to a well-defined plan. Declaring and sharing your intentions, decisions and targets makes examples of your own behaviour and providing goals and outcomes for your team can help this behaviour to spread.

Whilst it’s essential to have a long-term plan and a vision for the future, short term targets and objectives for the here and now can help prevent inertia from taking hold. You need to be sure your business is moving in the right direction towards a clearly defined goal, but if that goal is months or years away it can be hard to generate urgency today.

When it comes to igniting that spark of motivation and urgency in your team, you need to be mindful of the individuals it is comprised of. Individual targets need to be tailored to individual people, capitalising on their behaviours and preferences. Emotional intelligence is a key asset when encouraging and enthusing people, as is flexibility. People are complicated and you may have to adapt and change tactics in order to incentivise everyone.

It can be hard work, but building a workforce who share your passion, drive and urgency is a valuable endeavour. Keep working at it and don’t panic.

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Client Acquisition – Maintaining an equilibrium

One of the biggest surprises for people setting up their own business is how hard it is to get paid. It’s therefore well worth investing some time on how you can best identify prospects who are likely to be timewasters, bad debts or just inappropriate.

The obvious problem here is the fact that most start-ups don’t feel they are in any position to turn down business. However, though it may seem counter intuitive, accepting a ‘bad client’ cannot only have a detrimental effect on your business as the time but can adversely affect your business in the future.

To understand this and to work up the courage to say ‘no’ it is worth investigating exactly what constitutes a ‘bad client’. In short, a bad client represents a mismatch. This mismatch can be practical in nature or it can be ethical.

A practical mismatch is easier to turn down. It is not uncommon to be approached by a potential client whose problem does not match the solution you are providing. They may require someone with skills very similar to yours or have an issue that is appears to be very close to your area of expertise. However, if it is not what you do then it can be a dangerous road to go down.

Turning your hand to a similar line of work to your own can seem well within your grasp but if your client requires a service that you do not there is ample space for a divergence in expectations. An unsatisfactory conclusion cannot only lead to problems getting paid for the work at hand but can damage your reputation in the long term. People will not necessarily pick through the backstory to discover that the client had unrealistic expectations with regards to the service you provide, they will just see an arrangement that ended badly.

Whilst you may only have yourself to blame for accepting work for a mismatched job, whether or not to accept work from a client with mismatched personal standards is a trickier question. We have discussed at length the importance of setting your own high standards of professionalism, honesty and trustworthiness. If the standards you’ve set yourself are conspicuously absent from a potential client (say their communication or organisation is not near the level you would accept from yourself) then alarm bells should ring.

This is when rational thought is required as opposed to emotional reaction. It is perfectly understandable that a start-up may need to work with clients who are not ideal in order to pay the bills and make ends meet. However, fear is a strong emotion and when it kicks in we humans are often keen to lower our standards sooner than we would if we thought the situation through. The situation is not always as desperate as our initial fear leads us to believe and a timewaster or bad debt is no way out.

If, however, you do need to lower your standards or increase your tolerance, keep two things in mind. Firstly never forget that you are making ends meet. Don’t let a temporary arrangement come to represent a permanent lowering of standards or ‘the shape of things to come’. Approach each new prospective client with your original, high expectations. Secondly, ensure you don’t operate without the safety net of a contract.

When a prospective client is sending out all the wrong signals, explaining that you’re not in the same place and eventually saying no can seem like an incredibly tough ordeal. The experience of selling out your principles to work with a client who lives up to your expectations as potential trouble is far, far tougher.

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What does your iceberg look like?

‘Don’t let go, Jack’ implores Kate Winslet’s character in the closing scenes of Titanic. Sensible advice for people clinging to wreckage after an unfavourable encounter with an iceberg. However, there are times when letting go is important and essential. The founder of a growing business will eventually need to delegate and let go of certain aspects. The question is how do you decide which aspects?

Perhaps the iceberg can help. Icebergs are handy metaphors thanks to their famous characteristic of being roughly only 10% visible. Due to this seen/unseen nature, icebergs have inspired and visually supported many theories, including ones relating to culture, content marketing and change management. The earliest ‘Iceberg Theory’ derives from literature though.

Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory is also known as the Theory of Omission. In his reporting and storytelling he would use a minimalist style, focussing on key elements and allowing the deeper meaning and detail to be inferred.

Very crudely put, the reader’s imagination is better than any writer’s prose and so the more blanks that are left for the reader to fill in themselves, the better the story. Knowing that a better alternative exists is a useful indicator of where you should delegate.

Many business owners employ IT specialists right from the beginning – they have let go of this aspect without necessarily realising it. Perhaps this isn’t you; IT could be your strong suit, but most people have a skills area they are more than happy to offload. They are well aware that experts exist who are better at it than they are. Honesty and self-awareness can help identify other areas which you could delegate.

Letting go is not necessarily tied to capability though. Returning to the iceberg, it may be visibility which dictates what and how you delegate. If your business is built on your reputation and expertise there will be certain aspects clients will expect you to carry out personally. Depending on how your personal brand is linked to your business brand, you may find it impossible to delegate visible tasks, and so should look to the ‘below the waterline’ areas.

However, for some, it could be more straightforward to let go of the tip of the business iceberg. Sales and marketing are visible (that’s the idea!) and as such they are more easily measured, defined and linked to a timeline. Whilst you can delegate the role, you are still able to keep tabs on progress. Letting go of the more abstract work that goes on below the waterline can be more nerve wracking for the precise reason that it is less visible.

In short, once you’ve realised the need to let go there’s no simple formula for how or where to do so. There are however, several logical ways to decide. Snowflakes are unique but businesses are more like icebergs – each one different but with common characteristics and structure. This allows for rational assessment, whether it’s based on capability, enjoyment, or visibility. A thorough understanding of your own iceberg clarifies the decision and thoughtfully allocating the tasks enables continued success.

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