Would you do it all again?

Do you remember the day you started your own business – that feeling of anything is possible, coupled with a ‘school’s out’ freedom maybe?

Do you still feel like that when you’re a few years in? or is it maybe the case that you’re quite alarmed as to where the next job is coming from, or (hopefully) you’re overwhelmed with work and wondering how to get through it alive. Either way I expect that your plans have changed a great deal since you first set up.

The ability to duck and dive in business and deal with the unexpected is a key business strength for small business owners. I know quite a few who are now doing something completely different to what they started out doing – and often relishing the variety and the new challenges that a change of direction brings. However there are times when a regular wage, sick pay and paid holidays can look like a very good thing.

The other thing we can miss out on is self-development, something that an employer will often take care of for us. Without a formal programme to tap into, how do you learn, how do you grow? what keeps you in touch with the latest business thinking? There’s tried and trusted favourite routes – seminars, books, websites – and some people will have coaches or other business owners who they see and hold themselves responsible to.

But I suspect that the rest of us probably leave it to the bottom of the heap of a long list of worries and concerns of a much more pressing nature. How about you?

Of course you could always attend the Skillfair consultants conference to get yourselves up to speed and connect with your peers….early bird rate still available.

Skillfair Conference 2011

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What’s on your business bookshelf?

I’m soon to be going on holiday and for the first time will be taking my trusty Kindle with me, chock-full of exciting reading matter, instead of a suitcase full of books. I’ve been a booklover all my life – indeed, one of my first jobs was working in a library – and making the switch to ebooks was a bit of a wrench. However I’m also a gadget-loving geek and I love my Kindle.

I’ve got plenty of business books on there too which leads me on to asking you what you think of the business book genre as whole – there’s quite a strong cross-over with self-help too, I find. Do you swear by Getting Things Done? Build your business on Good To Great principles? Polish up your Seven Habits on a regular basis? I feel irresistably drawn to some of the titles (just started reading “Ideation – the Birth and Death of Ideas” by Douglas Graham and Thomas T Bachman) but I often feel a bit disappointed by the content itself. What gets called a book is often just one idea which has been massaged into filling many chapters of repetition and long-winded case study. I find myself bored and a few days later finding it hard to recall even the simplest thing from the chapters I’ve read.

We had a lot of value out of Business Model Generation (http://www.businessmodelgeneration.com/book) earlier in the year. Written by a team of 470 co-authors across 45 countries,  the book is beautifully designed with lots of white space and cartoon style delivery. It is full of ideas to spark innovation and help you to describe and define your business. You can download a good chunk of it as a preview here http://www.businessmodelgeneration.com/downloads/businessmodelgeneration_preview.pdf . Useful to both start-ups and existing businesses the book invites and encourages you to get stuck in and at the end of a session with it you are bound to have had some new thoughts and ideas.

I’d love to know which business books you’ve enjoyed and which you consider over-rated – we could put together a short list. Let me know either by email – awilde@skillfair.co.uk or by commenting on the blog.

Finally can I just remind you that we’re now taking bookings for the Skillfair Annual Conference – early bird tickets now available at http://www.skillfair.co.uk/content/1429/Skillfair-2011-Conference.aspx

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The Bad Fit

Today I bought two sofas from Ebay – I haven’t seen them in the flesh (so to speak) – I have photos and dimensions and I’m trusting they’ll be fine. They look like that kind of sumptuous lovely squashy sofa that you might find in a hotel foyer – and I live in a falling down cottage with tiny rooms. My greatest fear is that once the sofas are in the living room, we’ll only be able to admire them from the doorway, as there won’t be space for a single family member to squeeze in with them.

Customers – or jobs – can be like sofas (bear with me). Days of hunting finally brings home the big one and you are thrilled. It’s exciting to discuss the new acquisition, plan exactly what you are going to do, impress competitors with the very size of the prize and possibly name-drop like mad. Then reality bites when you realise that for a number of reasons, the customer/job is actually wrong for you and instead of landing an animal that you can live on comfortably, you’ve actually killed an elephant that you have to eat before it goes bad. (Plenty of metaphor-mixing this week then). The weeks turn into months and you find that all your resources have been consumed, the project is over-running and what looked like a great budget is actually dwindling away to nothing.

I’ve had experience of this and I suspect a few of you will also have – it’s a nightmare. But I’ve also experienced successfully working for some of the biggest corporates – and also some of the smallest micro-businesses – where they have grasped exactly what they are – and aren’t – buying, they understand that if they need extra work doing it will cost more and that everyone’s time equals money. It comes down to the terms and conditions of the contract, and many is the time I’ve been glad that I can point to something in writing that proves what’s covered and what’s not.

But from time to time you have to face the fact that you aren’t always a good fit with some of your customers and you decide to part company. The first time this happened to me, I thought of it as a huge fail and kept wondering what I could have done differently. Actually though, it can be hugely liberating – why keep clients who take 6 months to pay you. I’ve also come to trust my gut instinct about people and accept that if I get a bad feeling about them or the project, it saves a lot of grief to either turn it down or be completely honest from the start as to their expectations versus yours.

I well remember the horror of finally agreeing (against my will) to do a cut-price, bargain-basement job for a client who, at the next meeting, unveiled ten sheets of hand-drawn A1 diagrams and asked to share his ‘vision’ with me…. I had to tell him that what he thought he was buying was not what I was selling him (and yes, he had had a written contract from us which he had ‘agreed’ to and later said he hadn’t read). I explained that, at the budget he had available, he would inevitably be disappointed with the results as his ‘vision’ was rather large and our quote was for an off-the-peg solution – he listened carefully and we parted on good terms which was a lot better than taking the job on and later regretting it. I think that’s one of those lessons that only experience can properly teach.

I shall be collecting my sofas next week and we will see whether they can get through the front door – I’ll let you know.

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The Experience of Work Experience

Like a lot of small businesses at this time of year, we’ve just had a week-long visit from a work experience student. Typically around 15 years old, we’ve had a few candidates over the years – with variable success I have to say.

The trouble with our business (and I suspect many small businesses) is we’re too busy at the coalface of doing the daily work to initiate others into the secrets of the workplace. So this year when we were approached by Tom we initially refused as we hadn’t got a lot of time to spend with him. However, he didn’t take no for an answer and sent back a very polite email saying that he was keen to find a local office-based placement – we liked his attitude, he came and worked with us and he has proved to be very good. As far as we’re concerned his main asset is that he quickly comprehends the job at hand and gets on with it without asking for help every five minutes (more than I can say for other employees I’ve had). He’s also bright and articulate, two things which can get you a long way. We’re quite a relaxed bunch and we don’t stand on ceremony, so I expect that Tom found it easier to fit in here than in a more traditional corporate type environment. Hopefully he’s learned one or two useful things from us too and we’ll give him a few quid to take home so that he feels it’s been worth his while.

This leads me on to the modern practice of internship. Recent reports show that 17% of UK businesses use interns as a cheap source of labour, while 84% of people who knew about internships in general didn’t know that unpaid or expenses only internships can be illegal. The recent introduction of a National Internship program in the Republic of Ireland aims to offer 5000 placements to unemployed people, who will get an extra fifty euros a week benefit for participating, with placements lasting either 6 or 9 months. Meanwhile Lyn Brown, Labour MP for West Ham has been criticised for seeking a voluntary worker to help her in her House of Commons office – especially as she has campaigned for a living wage in the past (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13932474)

I’ve been reading the blog at Interns Anonymous and one employer has a lot to say on the morality – or lack of – in taking on an intern http://internsanonymous.co.uk/2009/04/08/christopher-try-an-employers-view/ . He expresses some very strong views on exploitation and calls the process ‘an embarrassment to any proper business’.

So – useful and ultimately helpful or shaming and exploiting? I’d sit on the fence and say it depends on the circumstances and the individual concerned. I’ve had staff who should be paying ME to have them working for me (and actually my dad was an articled clerk where his parents did pay the employer 2 shillings and sixpence a week) – but I do think interning is something which needs careful policing to avoid misuse. What do you say?

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Free advice – worth what you pay?

The Government’s much talked-about mentoring scheme was officially launched this week. Started with 2000 current and former bank managers signed up as mentors, the scheme hopes to have around 35,000 volunteer mentors signed up within the next 12 months. Mentors will need to belong to a mentoring organisation who may offer them training before they are allowed to start mentoring – the process will go on for anything from a couple of months to years. You can read more about it on the website www.mentorsme.co.uk

I’ve got mixed feelings about this, as I suspect a number of you will have. It’s certainly a good thing to be able to access help and advice and few people who run their own business haven’t taken advantage of something of this sort, be it from Business Link advisors or other small business owners. And sometimes it’s both good and useful. Often there’s a fee being paid and I know I’ve sat in on sessions where the only thing the business advisor has managed to say is the words ‘business plan’ or parroting ‘work on the business, not in the business’ followed by a self-satisfied smile – as if that will replace skill, flair or business acumen – and I’ve begrudged the money I’ve spent and thought I could do a better job myself.

On the other hand when someone I know became a consultant, he was cautioned ‘free advice is worth what you pay for it’. Which seems a bit harsh but there’s also the underlying truth that perhaps people don’t value what they get for nothing. What do you think? would you or have you volunteered to mentor another business? or do you think it devalues your expertise to offer help for nothing? Will you be signing up for the new scheme, either as a mentor or mentee?

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Is there REALLY no such thing as bad publicity?

I read yesterday that there had been a leak to the press regarding JK Rowling’s new Harry Potter website, Pottermore. The leak was in the form of a Word document attached (allegedly by mistake) to an email sent to the Press – the document was supposed to contain secret information about the new website.

A few years ago one of my staff sent a sarcastic comment in reply to a client’s email – the staff member thinking she was forwarding it to someone else to deal with. The client received the email with the sarcastic comment and was very upset and the staff member was mortified but there was no going back once it was done. I’m sure some of you will have had, or been on the receiving end of, similar mishaps as they are all too easy to do. Reputation management is becoming much more of an issue for businesses big and small, as customers find that they can vent their frustrations by posting to Twitter or Facebook, or Trip Advisor if they’ve had a bad holiday.

Bad reviews and negative feedback can happen to the best of us – mistakes do occur. But preserving your online reputation is very important – the internet doesn’t forget. There’s a growth in reputation management companies who will help you to do this, but you can take care of some of it yourself by setting up a Google alert so that you know what people are saying and can deal with it as soon as it happens. Often simply listening and apologising can defuse a potentially serious situation. However if the worst happens, make sure that there’s plenty of positive, new content out on the web about your company to help displace the not-so-good from the front page of Google.

After all – if you don’t look after your online reputation, other people will fill the gap and one day they might fill it with something you don’t like. When United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar and wouldn’t apologise, he responded with this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo&feature=player_embedded – very funny to watch but I expect United wished they had done things differently. On the other hand – it did a lot for Dave’s reputation as a singer-songwriter when it went viral on YouTube, getting 150,000 viewings in the first day – leading to Dave being in demand as a speaker and touring the USA  – leading to United Airlines losing his luggage – oh dear….

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Networking – do you or don’t you?

Seems to me sometimes that the business world is networking crazy. We all know and repeat old mantras about ‘it’s all about making connections’ but I know plenty of people who are networking at breakfast meetings, lunch meetings and evening meetings, turn up to every free seminar and event and generally are a bit like a computer virus that seems to be everywhere at once. When do they ever do any work?

With the rise of social networking it’s easy to follow people’s every movement and thought but I suspect that, as in life, quite a lot of what’s said and done isn’t very authentic – it’s more of a staged presence that puts over a particular image. After all, when did you see a business person tweeting about how they were struggling to make payroll this month? or hear someone say at a networking event that they were thinking of going out of business? it’s usually quite the opposite with business always booming, new clients coming out of the woodwork and top jobs secured with prestigious household name clients.

I think that’s what I object to, that networking can seem to lack authenticity and genuineness. My daughter is studying drama at University and we recently had an interesting conversation about how everyday events can turn into ‘performance’ and it seems to me that networking is often just that – wear smart clothes, say the right things, repeat. Of course it doesn’t have to be like that and I’ve made genuine relationships and even friends through business networking but these days I’m less inclined to show up and lose several hours of the working day to watch other people act out their business equivalent of the unicycle or fireswallowing.

I’d be a lot more interested in networking seminars that had titles like ‘The time I really messed up a sale and what I learned from it’ or ‘Why I decided that employing people was a big mistake’ or ‘What to do when it all goes horribly wrong’. Would anyone would turn up and contribute though?

What do you think? do some networking groups work better than others? do you feel able to be your authentic self in a business setting? do you think you can do it all from your desk via LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter? I’d be interested in hearing your views (that’s GENUINELY interested….)

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Happy 40th Birthday, email

June 8th sees the 40th birthday of the first email ever sent. Apparently containing the exciting message “QWERTYUIOP”, it was sent from one computer in Massachusetts to another one right next to it. Now, each person apparently sends an average of 24 emails a day (I’ve usually sent that many before breakfast) and 42% of people haven’t sent a handwritten letter in the last 6 months according to a recent poll by YouGov on behalf of Sky Broadband.

Most of us would agree that we would be lost without email and the convenience that it provides – and the downside of spam is well known and well discussed. But what about BACN? (pronounced BACON) – it’s a bit like spam, only nicer, see? BACN is defined as ‘email that you want to read, but not now’ – so all those newsletters you signed up to (including this one), alerts from Twitter, updates from your online bank – they’re all BACN. So do you unsubscribe? or filter them into separate folders that you check, supposedly at your leisure but actually very rarely?

Indeed some well known bloggers are recommending going on an email diet or only reading email twice a day and using an auto-responder to warn people of this fact. The distraction factor of constantly checking and responding to email takes its toll on our productivity and sometimes on our mental health too, as we check our email-enabled mobile or handheld devices which accompany us everywhere, even to bed.

So – do you feel able to take on the email diet? if so, search on Google for a wealth of suggestions or take a look at this article as a starting point. But please don’t unsubscribe from all our newsletters and please do eat up the BACN we send you…even if you leave the rest. By the way, history doesn’t record whether “QWERTYUIOP” received a reply….

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Your views sought

It seems like the business landscape is in a constant shift over the last few years. With the recession and the fallout from it and now the cutbacks, we’re all having to find business and do business differently – which keeps us on our toes I suppose.

In the past, businesses had come to depend on the advice and availability of Business Link consultants – and this advice was often free or heavily subsidised. In fact, it’s still not uncommon for people starting a new business to believe that there’s grants a-plenty going begging. Obviously the Business Link face-to-face services are being wound down and moving to online and telephone help and with this in mind, we are wondering what you as consultants are finding that people are turning to when they need some business input.

Are they happy to hire a consultant and pay them the going rate? Or still seeking after funding opportunities or subsidies for this? Do you think that small business owners are confident that they can find the right person to help or are they looking for an intermediary to facilitate the process? As the people on the ground, we’d love to hear your opinions and experiences – please let us know on info@skillfair.co.uk

Most of you should have seen the announcement that Skillfair and Help-Me-Now are now being run by the UK IT Association (UKITA) .  UKITA has a consumer-facing website at The Good IT Guide which is aimed at people who are seeking IT specialist help. The interactive map is driven by icons to make this process as simple as can be.

We see http://www.Help-Me-Now.biz as being the non-IT-specific version of this – the general business focus of HMN means that we now have two sides to the coin. We’ve been talking to Local Authorities and newly-fledged LEPs about signposting businesses looking for help to The Good IT Guide and we are now going to be promoting Help Me Now and its consultants during these discussions which should help to get your profiles in front of some more eyeballs.

If you’ve got anything you’d like us to say on your behalf, or something you think we should be aware of, just drop us a line on info@skillfair.co.uk .

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BIS Research confirms helpmenow.biz approach

Research commissioned by BIS late last year confirms what I suspect many people already knew, that on the whole small businesses prefer, and get more value from, business advice supplied face to face rather than through websites or call centres. It’s not entirely clear from the research if this is just because people prefer to meet people – it may also reflect the fact that advisors carrying out face to face interviews are likely to be more experienced than those manning the phones.

This thought is borne out by an interesting observation in the research “professional advisors were more effective in helping businesses analyse the issues facing their business than Business Link advisors”  –  by professional advisors the authors mean business advisors, accountants, consultants etc. Again this is no surprise since a specialised professional practitioner is more likely to have all the right information and expertise at their fingertips than someone who is required to help a broad range of businesses.

The research really backs up the approach we’re taking at helpmenow.biz of linking SMEs up to real, qualified advisors all over the UK – which s good news for everyone who’s registered on the site and ready to help SMEs.

BTW – thanks to CobWeb Information for finding and highlighting this research – which has been quietly buried on the BIS site

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