A few questions for you before you start a business

Everyone has a few good ideas for a business before they actually start one but do they really think about it clearly?

I was wondering how many people really prepare the other day and how many actually think about what they are letting themselves in for. Entrepreneurship at times of financial crisis actually seems to blossom and that is because for many of us it is the only time when getting a new job seems fraught with difficulty or impossible.

It may be that we are made redundant and now is the best time to take that leap of faith and do what we really want to; it may be that our work is turning into a nightmare because of pressure and so we want to jump ship before it sinks with us on it; it might just be that we are tired of being unemployed and want to really put our talents to work.

So here are a few things to consider.

1. Is this something that you are passionate about? The great Steve Jobs talks about his passion becoming his job and how he found this so rewarding in his Stanford address which everyone ought to see at least once. He describes pursuing dreams and seeing opportunity in adversity here is the link.

2. Will you need start up capital? How will you survive financially and have you done some outline plans to ensure you have some money to actually live on whilst your business is set up. Are there any things you need capital for such as equipment, infrastructure?

3. Who are your main competitors and why are you any better? Understanding how you will win customers and what your unique selling point will be is key to actually winning business.

4. How will you get customers? It seems rather silly but recently someone contacted a friend of mine by email from a new business she had set up using data from her old organisation. This is a complete no no and falls foul of the data protection act. Getting clients is key to making your business profitable and you need to consider whether you will need marketing or how you will market yourself, network and find clients.

5. Do you need an office? It seems silly but I ran one business which would have been profitable much sooner if we had dispensed with an office and run it out of hotel lobbies (great meeting places) and home.

6. Will I need an accountant? It may seem silly but I have often thought about sorting my spreadsheets and expenses after I got on with the job in hand and then spent fruitless hours sorting out my cash flow projections and expense claims.

7. What insurance do I need? Have a look at this previous blog and see what I mean about taking risks when you start a business.

8. Ensure you have a support system in place. Sounds self explanatory but running your own business can be a lonely place so look for networks and see this previous blog for ideas on the kinds of support which CBPartners offer free.

9. Try to keep learning. Again it sounds simple but if you are paying for education make sure you learn what you need to and broaden your skill set. You can keep costs down by doing more yourself.

10. Lastly enjoy  the experience of being your own boss. I suspect you will never work harder in your life but actually you will also gain the most, learn the most and follow your dreams and how many of us can say we do that every day?

Phone us on 01254 505050 to talk to use about our networking events and mentoring and coaching support.

Social media – what does it add to your business?

I am meeting increasing numbers of business people who say “yes I must do social media”, with an emphasis on the must. Other words which are used are should and ought or need. I have yet to meet anyone who says they really want to do something with social media and their company or organisation or explore this new communication channel.

So what is putting people into a frenzy and why do people feel it is such a tough one?

My first thought is that it involves technology. Many women I meet in particular and some men, are scared of technology and this is not new. Having worked in the field of e-learning I know that when technology offers a solution people will learn quickly how to use it. The real key to making technology friendly is firstly what’s in it for me and secondly it being user friendly and easy.

Too many user solutions appear over complicated and when social media people get together their language can put people off. It seems like another world of apps, integration and plug ins. I often hear people say things like oh I use hoot suite for that or social oomph or tweet deck. It often makes it sound far more complicated than it really is and social media people should watch how they sell the media.

Twitter, facebook, linkedin involve very little effort to get going but once there then what? For many they have created profiles which just sit there a little like a policy on a shelf which doesnt really get used or read. It niggles in the back of their heads and they feel they should do something to make it live but actually dont know where to start.

Many business people are scared of losing face and so dont join in conversations and many tread into things without thought so that they make a faux pas and wonder why no one responds. There are thousands of blogs out there which tell you about social media manners but most of them are really simple and apply as much in the world of the internet as they do anywhere else. At a network meeting if someone asks you something or says hello do you turn around and walk away? Of course not, you are there to meet people and the same is true of social media. Not replying on line is rude and is as rude as ignoring someone at a networking event.

If someone does something for you or your business do you thank them? Of course and therefore when someone re tweets you or highlights a blog you have written do the same thing.   When you meet someone and they make it obvious they want something from you or all they are interested in is selling what happens? Yes it puts your back up so dont use social media as another leafletting exercise.

So what do you say? The same things you would if you were networking it is really that simple. Join in and chat make people laugh, tell stories, make small talk and take an interest. If you blog make sure they are informative.

Social media is something which we all do off line in business,  it is simply online networking. It may not get direct sales but it can add immeasurably to your business.

Here are some of the reasons to use social media in business:

1. Getting others to see you or your business as experts
2. Generating leads
3. Targeting specific companies, industries or demographics
4. Market research
5. Finding out what is going on in your industry
6. Engaging online customers and customer service improvements
7. Recommendations and endorsements

Your customers, potential customers and competition are online and communication is changing dont get left behind.

The power of community organisations

Everybody wants to feel part of a community no matter where we find it. For some community is about their local area whilst for others it may be about a group of people online who have never actually met.

Building strong local communities can have extremely positive effects on things like crime rates, education and health.

In Blackburn, the Roman Road area has had a reputation for violence and poverty for some time so having a centre where the community comes together in a really positive way is incredibly important.

The Energy Zone and SAMS (link to my earlier blog on recycling) provide a hub for recycling, healthy living, nurturing and empowering their local community. From breakfast clubs, craft clubs for kids and a fresh fruit, vegetables and food co-operative twice a week to hosting third sector enterprises the centre exudes energy and creativity.

Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone (link to book on Amazon) has described  this as building Social Capital and the work which goes on with CBPartners at the Energy Zone and SAMS is just that getting people together to build a more civil, trustworthy and collectively caring community.

This is about creating and sustaining improvements in lives and working together to improve lives.  This is social energy at its very best and although there is still frustration around cuts to public funding there is a spirit of optimism and ambition still alive here in Blackburn.

Support from volunteers is clearly a must for this kind of community programme and there is always a need for more people to help especially when they are successful. As a scheme grows more people are needed to help and run it.

There are many reasons to volunteer it can also be a chance to try something new or to continue to feel of value when you have been made unemployed or redundant, gaining new skills in the process. You can develop existing skills and enhance your CV helping to improve your employment prospects. It is also a great way to meet new people and make new friends whilst getting to know your local community.

Many people volunteer to give something back and to make a difference to their local community or help the environment. The power of a centre which is run by a combination of staff and volunteers for the benefit of a community is thus further strengthened by using volunteer help and giving time to supporting local people.

As an example of good practice the Energy Zone and SAMS which I visited today in Blackburn is unparalleled.

If you want to volunteer or donate scrap materials (which are not rubbish but are no longer of any value but may be of use for crafts) please contact charities@cbpartners.org or sams@cbpartners.org There is currently a new appeal for Christmas Wishes  which is a positive way for employers and residents to put something back. We are looking for chocolate, selection boxes, toys, toiletries and money to distribute to charities & organisations which support vulnerable people in the area. 01254 291273

Does everyone understand their contribution to customer value?

We had a great masterclass last night talking about LEAN and one of the things that stood out for me was the question about whether or not everyone in the company understands how they contribute to customer value.

Having worked in many sectors I have some great stories to illustrate both sides of this and thought I would use today to share them.

Running a development programme in the public sector I once talked to a porter who when asked what his job was did not give the answer everyone expected. We had all thought he would say taking things or people from one place to another but he didnt. Here is his answer, “I make the journey a patient takes more comfortable, informative and enjoyable by taking care of the people I am looking after. “


This was someone who had thought about his contribution to ensuring that when people are really scared on trolleys or in chairs they are given the best attention and really looked after so that it is not about the journey but about the experience. This porter is the kind of person we all want working for us and whilst some would see the consultant as the most important person perhaps thinking about it differently and realising that people need care at every stage of admission should be central to great healthcare.

In a  business I worked with which fitted kitchens when I asked what someone did they answered “I fit Kitchens”. Yes, that is what they actually do but how is that adding value to the customer? Perhaps a better answer would have been I put in kitchens which make people really happy and ensure that they have minimum issues and mess whilst I do it.

Which of those two people would you want to have putting in your new kitchen?

Take some time and consider your job and what you do and think about how you add value to the customer. Next time someone asks you what you do try to answer in terms of adding value to customers rather than the nuts and bolts of your job description.

This is a great exercise to do with employees as well and thier answers can surprise you. When people really understand how they add value to the customer and what their contribution is it can make a real difference to their attitude to work as well.

Let me know if you have any great experiences you want to share.

What is an elevator pitch?

An elevator pitch sounds a little silly but is a really useful tool.

An elevator pitch is an overview of an idea for a product, service, or project. The name reflects the fact that it can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride ( for example 30 seconds or 100 – 150 words). Wikipedia

Do you have something short and succinct ready and prepared for when you are networking or phoning a client? Are you satisfied with it? If you are not quite clear what you are really about or what your business does for others how can people understand what your business does?

For some businesses it is easy, I sell mid century furniture and am the only retailer in the North West, is pretty clear. The client knows not to ask you for a Victorian Chaise Longue.

For others it can be confusing especially when starting out and not entirely sure of the concept. So people do get in a muddle and leave the person they are talking to a little confused. This is particularly hard at a networking meeting where the purpose is to make contacts which are useful or inspiring.

In developing an elevator pitch consider some of the following:

1. What do you most want the listener to remember about you? Are you the cheapest, best, certified, approved? Do you have an award? Are you the newest or the only one on the market? Consider any of the above and more. 

2. How can you add value to your listener? Think about why someone would buy your product, your key results or the impact of your services. What will be their return on any investment they make with you or your product? Don’t stretch the truth here or make vast claims, you want to be credible. 

3. Your unique selling point. How are you different from others in the market? What do you give which is better or has a unique benefit to your listener? Are you different to any other product or service and in what way? Think about the conceptual aspect of what you are saying and concentrate on bringing that to life. 

4. What is it you want from your listener? Are you there to sell? What are your immediate goals? What is the time frame for the conversation? Your listener should understand what it is you want and how to take the conversation forward. Remember this is the start fo the conversation.

Finally practice your pitch out loud and make sure it is refined where needed. Time it and get feedback from friends, family or a mentor. Make sure that people understand it and that you are clear. Write it down and analyse it, consider any repetition and the word count, look for jargon and make sure you are really clear.

Here is an example:

SalesLogix is a software company and has developed a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that is both easier to use and more powerful than existing solutions like Act and Siebel.
Existing CRM solutions fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you have Contact managers like Act that salespeople love but that do not allow people to share information across a large organization. On the other hand you have high-end CRM systems like Siebel that scale to support the needs of hundreds or thousands of users but that salespeople refuse to use. The result is that too many organizations are unable to…

Coordinate their sales and customer service teams 
Obtain a holistic picture of the customer 
Maximize the revenue gained from each customer

In contrast, SalesLogix delivers the best of both worlds…
The affordability and ease of use of a contact manager The scalability, database synchronization, and reporting capabilities of a high-end CRM system
The SalesLogix team has over 75 years of combined experience in the industry and is led by Pat Sullivan, the co-founder and former CEO of Contact Software International, the original developer of Act.
SalesLogix is seeking $5 million to finance the continued development and marketing of SalesLogix 1.0, which is scheduled to be released in April 1997.

This could be subbed down into one sentence for certain occasions:

SalesLogix is a software company and has developed a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that is both easier to use and more powerful than existing solutions like Act and Siebel. 

Then to a tagline:

SalesLogix is the first true CRM solution that’s as easy to use as Act. 

Many thanks to Chris O’Leary and his great book Elevator Pitch Essentials.

Business training – what is the ROI?

Having worked in both the private and in the public sector I know that spending money on development and training is both crucial and sometimes hard to measure.

There are some questions which should be asked before any training scheme is put in place and one of them is what will the Return on Investment or ROI be?

Many people pay for focussed networking events such as Pink Link Ladies or the Business Network  but there are also opportunities to network free which is something we at CBPartners promote and facilitate. If a networking event generates one potential customer is it worth the time, effort, travel cost and sometimes payment to join?

This is a question which every business should ask itself. No business should invest time, effort, energy, travel costs or even fees to something which will not generate new business.

So what is ROI?

It is one of the several commonly used financial metrics for evaluating the consequences of business investments, decisions or actions. ROI compares the magnitude and timing of investment gains directly with the magnitude and timing of investment costs. A high ROI means that investment gains compare favourably to the investment costs.

One of the issues of using ROI on its own is that is says nothing about the risk attached to an investment or conversely the risk of not investing and sometimes training comes into this category. It is therefore necessary not just to measure ROI but also to investigate risks associated with it.

With training and development programmes the first thing a business needs to consider are what will the gains be for the company of investing the time and money into the scheme and what will the risk be of not investing time and money.

All the monetary values should be assessed, including time from employees, travel to venues, cost of facilitating training and venue hire where necessary. An organisation is not just putting the cost of the programme into training and development but also the employees time away from a job. This is why more and more companies are investing in an online training offering.

The risk of not pursuing the programme should also be measured. Some health and safety training is mandatory and therefore the company directors can risk fines and even imprisonment if they are not carried out. Giving people the skills to do their jobs is something which is non negotiable but sometimes can be forgotten in some businesses where on the job training is not enough to really equip employees; if this is not done properly an employee can take action if disciplined or sacked for not doing their job properly.

A more difficult line to draw can be on things such as leadership development or management training. What will be the risk if managers are not au fait with their role or the company values and mission? There are many things which can be measured to prove the value of such training such as retention and recruitment, sickness and absence and productivity improvements. Alongside that could also go a decrease in poor performance amongst staff on the shop floor and less allegations of bullying or intimidation. A happier workforce will produce better results.

If the training and development is for you as a Boss or Director do you always measure its value? What do you do better at the end of a course? Do you know more about your customers, products, HR, business planning and development? These are things which may well get a great ROI because they will improve your effectiveness and performance.

As an example training should lead to reducing the effort required to make something work, increased skills leading to improved performance and higher levels of motivation leading to increased effort. Training can also lead to a higher success rate in winning competitive tenders, sales referrals made by non sales staff and new product ideas.

All training should be throughly assessed to validate it as a business tool, justify the costs incurred, to help improve the design of the training and to help in selecting training methods. If it is worth the cost and will lead to better results in a difficult market it is worth the investment.

Starting a new business – online help

Even though we are facing difficult economic times I guess we are a Nation of optimists because here in Blackburn we are seeing more and more start ups seeking advice and help from our Guardian Angels mentoring scheme.

One of the places I think is great for advice is the business link site and whilst the people and offices no longer exist as the service has gone fully onlineI hope the site stays up forever. It contains advice and help clearly labelled and easy to click on links so that you can search for exactly what it is you need. I do not think there is an aspect of business which is not covered on this site.

Another useful site is The Start Up Donut. Again this is a very comprehensive site which is easy to navigate and contains all the information anyone can require including a focus on finance. It has a start up blog which is informative and fun and you can find your local enterprise agency here and your local chamber of commerce to get further advice and help.

HM Revenue & Customs is also a site you should visit as a start up. It contains advice, information and guides on taxation and national insurance which are invaluable. There are also links to helplines and leaflets. H&M Revenue & Customs Advice Teams run free workshops which can help to put you in the picture about what is required being self employed or running a company and the contact details are on the site.

At smallbusiness.co.uk  you can get advice on government grants, raising money and business loans. There is also advice on business banking with a list of the best business banks and opening an account. The site has a Q&A section where you can ask a panel of experts any question you like and a section on creating a business from a hobby or following redundancy. There are some great links to blogs as well.

smallbusinesssuccess  is a little psychedelic at first with links to the side in bright blue so wear your sunglasses but also contains valuable snippets of information in easy to read chunks. It is particularly aimed at small businesses and has links to daily business articles and ideas and tips for those running a small business.

For business planning many banks offer free advice and tools to customers. Many of the tools are interactive and  if you have a business account make sure you utilise the free seminars, consultations with accountants and  legal guidance alongside business manager support which is part of the package you are probably paying for after the first year of banking. Bplans offer free business planning templates and advice on business planning and a blog to help you along.

As you can see there are fabulous online information sites out there and they are all free so get online and see what support and information you can glean and go into your next meetings with accountants and the banks armed and prepared. if you cant find all the information available from these sites or want to give us all some of your top sites leave us a comment and we will try to help or share your thoughts on online support.

Enterprise week

We are gearing up for a great week here at Blackburn Enterprise Centre supporting business and enterprise in our community.

We are running two free events for businesses, one a drop in centre where you can literally just appear and have a mentoring session with one of our top mentors. This is aimed at those who are looking to start a new business or grow an existing one. The last one was very well attended and people came from a variety of businesses to get free support. The drop in day runs from 11am till 3pm and is held once a month this week on Friday.

Tomorrow we are holding our first business surgery which are meetings which will be held twice a year and will allow business owners to meet the key members of the Blackburn with Darwen Borough council regeneration team. This is your opportunity to discuss the local economy, council strategy and policy and business issues with the people who influence and make decisions. Whilst this is invite only it does give business the opportunities and support and will be held from 10am till 12 pm.

We also support business in Blackburn with Darwen through our Guardian Angels programme which has been running for some time and offers free mentorship to businesses. The stories of how mentoring has turned around some of the businesses are incredible and the success of the scheme rests largely on our pool of experienced business mentors.

Over the year we have supported business in a number of ways offering free programmes and support from coaching to empowering lives and giving back to our mentors through our business events including meals and speakers.

As support for new businesses and those wishing to grow gets more and more difficult to obtain we are pushing ahead with our programmes to ensure that business in our area is supported and strengthened.

Labelling people

We love to put people into boxes and categorise things to make them easier to understand but labelling can also have harmful side effects.

So let’s start with the positives. We use labels in order to identify people and create a mental file for them. It makes things easier if we have ascribed characteristics or traits we recognise to people because then we can differentiate and identify people. So we describe someone who breaks the law as a criminal or someone as a nurse because that is what they do.

All of us have plenty of labels attached to who we are. Have a think and write them down. Are you a parent, carer, sibling, employed, unemployed, socialist, conservative, atheist, muslim, etc etc?

Looking at your list does this sum up who you are? Of course not but it sometimes provides a useful framework for reference and I guess many of us introduce ourselves by using our labels.

We will walk into a business meeting and start with “I am a business owner and entrepreneur who likes working with teams” and that provides a reference point for the person you are talking to but it is not really your essence or the core of who you are.

Unfortunately labelling can also provide us with stereotypes and can lead to discrimination. So when I use the term criminal to describe someone people will conjure a mental image of a criminal and make associations which they will apply to the person concerned. That person may or may not fit the criteria but they are not a universal criminal.

When someone uses a term to describe someone else they need to be extremely careful to avoid pigeonholing and stereotypes. Labelling people with the same nationality, gender, religion can lead to prejudice and it is that which gives labels a bad name.

If someone says “women drivers” it does paint a picture which may be true of some women but not of others; it can also imply a shared perception between people and therefore be used to include you in a feeling about women groups which you do not necessarily share.  The effects of labelling are not trivial and we sometimes learn to apply labels others have given us in childhood with grave effects. I have known people who thought they were stupid simply because teachers told them so enough times and they were from the wrong area.

How often have you started a new job to be told about people on the first day so that you are not allowed to form your own opinions? Sometimes the labels get attached to managers or staff and it is what I call impression management where people try to get everyone to share their own perceptions.

When we assess our employees, meet new people and go somewhere new a positive thing to practice is to understand our own inner use of labels and to try to avoid using them. People should be allowed to express themselves as individuals and live their own lives free from the negative effect of labels and nurtured to be different and unique in their own inimitable way.

Conrad Murray – make sure you are protected

Seeing Dr Murray being convicted of involuntary manslaughter has bought home to me the point of making sure that every business and business person is protected. I am not saying we would all be in a similar position but how often as a new start up or even in business do we forget to make sure we are properly insured and protected in any situation?

Conrad Murray was working for a client and gave in to that clients demands. He put money above and before professionalism. Jackson was a star and it is easy to be star struck. Going after big deals we can easily forget to protect ourselves or even we can agree to things we wouldn’t normally do. The consequences of making the wrong decisions for that star have been grave indeed for Conrad Murray.

1. Ensure you pause and consider before putting your name to something or jumping into business with someone no matter how great the client.

Conrad Murray should have used a professional code of conduct to protect him. As a professional he should have considered himself unqualified to administer the drug as he was not an anaesthesiologist.

2. Dont agree to do things you do not have the skills or training to accomplish.

Conrad Murray faced court and had to hire lawyers and defend himself. He still may face further action from the heirs to Jackson or his family.

3. Ensure your insurance is up to date and you are fully covered for all you do. This includes things like indemnity insurance  and public liability insurance, employers’ liability if you employ staff, Property insurance and finally check to see if you need different insurance if you are using your car for business purposes. Get advice and help with the issue of insurance because it will depend on the business you are running and how big your company is. Everyone will need insurance. If your client loses money because of a mistake you have made or because your work is poor or late they can claim. Make sure you are covered.

Dont forget that some of this is a legal requirement for a business and that the consequences of not having it may be severe. Shop around and get the best deal.

Conrad Murray worked alone. It was his decisions alone which got him convicted.

4. Take advice and seek support. Working alone is isolating and can be frightening if you are used to being part of a team. Mentoring schemes can be free or available for a small fee. Having someone to chat things through with is not only good for you but really best practice overall. Business coaches are widely available and can prove extremely useful.

CBPartners works hard to support businesses and to provide excellent mentors and coaches contact us if you would like to know more. 01254 505050.