Could you be managing your time more efficiently?

clock2

Of all the skills required to lead and run a small business, the one that seems to be both the most crucial and least talked about is personal organisation. At best, a business school education gives some thought to time management and perhaps to prioritisation, but these leave the small business leader completely unprepared for the fire hose of emails, phone calls, and things to do that are essential in running a small business in today’s digital world.

A reality check first: there are far more things “to do” than there are hours in the day, so simply writing tasks in a list isn’t going to work: You have to be OK with the fact that some things are not going to get done – ever. There’s a lot of theory around this, for example, the 80/20 rule says that 80% of the results come from 20% of the activity, which is great if you know which 20%. There are a lot of organisational systems available too, from quick list managers to full-blown GTD (getting things done) approaches, but for many small business leaders these seem to be either too simplistic, or too demanding and costly to implement effectively.

I therefore recommend an approach based on asking three questions of absolutely everything that shows up in your life – every email, phone call, person walking by who interrupts you and every piece of mail, which are:

  • What is it?
  • Who is it for?
  • How do I feel about it?

Once you’ve answered those questions, and captured the answers in your list or organisational system, then you’re ready to decide what to do next to get your day (and business) moving.

1) What is it?

A lot of business communication today is very poorly put together and therefore not clear. When someone “just wanted to reach out” to you – are they singing a number by The Four Tops? Probably not – they’re asking for something. To understand their request, you need to ask what they are asking you to do (the task) and why they are asking you to do it (the big-picture job).

2) Who is it for?

When working with clients, colleagues or shareholders, it’s really easy to end up doing things that deliver more value to others than they do for you. A client might ask whether you can go the extra mile to deliver x, while a colleague might ask, “can you cover me while I…” You know the story. Being clear on why the other person wants you to do something as well as what’s in it for you is essential. If you’re doing something for a client and you don’t know why, then things are likely to come off the rails pretty soon!

3) How does it make you feel?

Good leaders have their own vision and values and are able to shape businesses and teams with clear direction about what should be done. In my experience, the way many leaders communicate with others can be through a clear mission and vision statement, but just as important is how they respond to what comes across their desk. The standards that you set with your colleagues don’t come from motivational posters on the wall, but from how you interact with them and understand what’s “OK” and what’s not.

When you get into the practice of asking these three questions, I’ll hope that you’ll find, as I have, that you’re able to use the framework to describe what your vision is, what it delivers for everyone concerned, and how it’s something that you can all feel good about.

3 lessons I’ve learnt from 20 years in Small Business

lessons

It would be easy to think – amid today’s hype about digital products and Software as a Service’s disruption of so many industries by startups – that the business world has changed a lot over the 20 years that have elapsed since I penned my first proposal in response to the tentative phone call: “We’ve heard about the world wide web and we think we need one, can you help?” With so much ink spilled over what’s changed over those two decades, I’m surprised at how often I’m reminded of how much has stayed the same. Over my time as a small business leader, there have been three lessons which I learned early, but then had to learn again and again. I set them out here to remind you too.

Lesson 1: The customer isn’t buying your product or service. In startup circles it’s very fashionable to talk about how the customer is paying to solve a problem, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. There are so many ways a customer could solve a given problem, that when they choose to do so by buying your solution, it’s crucial to understand why. It’s almost certain that your product or service wasn’t the only option, so what made them buy from you? Was it the safety and security they get from your reputation, or was it the reputation for innovation that they get from buying “the next big thing”? Are they really buying the product? Or are they trialling it for one of their departments should the rest of the organisation go a different way? Getting to the heart of why customers buy from you is absolutely essential for effective selling.

Lesson 2: You’re not selling your product or service. Depending on how you pitch and deliver your product, you might be selling the promise of repeating the experience that another customer had, or you might be selling something that you are confident you can deliver but that’s not 100 per cent rock solid yet. Or maybe you’re selling the value that you built on the foundations provided by someone else. Whichever it is, your business success depends on understanding how your view matches (or doesn’t match) your customers’, and how your business really works.

Lesson 3: Business relationships are complicated. It’s easy as a small business to work simply: we provide a service, you buy a service, the service gets delivered, the bill gets paid. If you’re selling buns in a market, you might just have a business which is that simple (though it’s not as simple as it sounds!), but if you’re selling to businesses, then it’s more likely that your customer needs your product for a number of reasons, and has various individuals with different political outlooks and different objectives. Your own team will also have various strengths, weaknesses and disagreements about how best to deliver, though various factors can change, like the economy, circumstances and requirements from your relationships. On top of this, your customer’s finance department may seem to be working to some sort of 19th Century timetable, where they have until next harvest to pay your bill! So how do you learn the lessons? Clear brands, product descriptions and contracts are hard work to create, but worth every penny because your customers can understand you better. Clear internal procedures and industry standard roles help your team to move fast and do the right thing even when the unexpected happens (come on – you know it will!).

Finally, trust that everything’s going to be OK, and then make sure that it is – monitor your customers’ credit scores and payment performances and don’t accept any excuses for late payment!

Does your budget reflect your business goals? ‘Big’ Budget Day blog…

budgetday

It’s worth remembering among all the hype and hurried analysis of the Government’s budget that the most important budget for your business hasn’t just been pulled out of that famous briefcase: it’s the one that’s setting your spending priorities day to day. A great practice for any small business is to take a full and proper look at the whole budget – not just the tweaks and headlines. To do this, you’ll need to ensure that you’ve covered each of the following five areas:

1) Know what you’re spending, and on what. It’s easy to keep a track of spending on big ticket items like salaries, and rent and bills with key suppliers, but while those transactions might be clearly visible,  it’s important to keep tabs on other spending in the business, such as travelling, entertaining, telecoms and IT. These are all costs that are easy to take on without really realising the impact on the big picture and it’s crucial that you have a clear and up-to-date picture of where things are. For most small businesses, keeping management accounts can and should be a simple operation. It might be achievable with a spreadsheet, but more often than not, one of the many bookkeeping software tools around can act as your point of reference for tracking spending and can join up your payroll, invoicing and staff expenses activity in one place.

2) It’s then essential to classify your spending – to know where the money is really going. Rather than just accepting generic categories, make sure that you pick what is right for your business. Sales and marketing might be one budget or might be separate activities needing their own budgets. Team members might originally be allocated to one area of the business but then move to work somewhere else. Ensure that you have the right labels on all your expenditure and be prepared to make judgement calls to represent things correctly. For example, your phone bill might be an admin cost, but if 80percent of charges are from outbound marketing calls, that’s how the cost should be accounted for.

3) Before looking at the results of 1 and 2, you need to look at strategy – what activities and numbers are important for your business? Are you focussed on growing your turnover as quickly as possible, or on maximising profit from your most important product or service? It’s worth thinking about this in budget terms and considering what percentage of your effort you feel you should be pushing to a particular area, whether this be marketing, sales, operations, support or admin.

4) Now comes the moment of truth, where you bring together your priorities and your strategy with where your money is going. The chances are that they won’t line up. All businesses evolve over time as markets change and products and organisations mature. Businesses that can adapt and spend their resources in a way that aligns with their strategy will outperform those that don’t every time.

5) Finally, you have to follow through on all of the findings. Your budget might show that you need to spend less in one area and more in another to ensure the health of the company, but it’s not as simple as waving your briefcase like a magic wand. You will need to engage your colleagues with changes in how the business operates – perhaps quite major ones – and it can be just as intimidating to have ones budget trebled as it can to have it slashed. Your budget might require that team members are assigned to different roles in order for the business to improve its performance, so once you’ve set out your own budget, that’s when the work really begins.

My Favourite Business: A hidden Gem, Berkhamsted Arts and Crafts

I have a confession, a secret love of stationary shops – well, art supplies really.  It used to be that I couldn’t get out WH Smith without raiding the bargain bin and picking up some new notepad or pen, but I’m better now – almost!  One shop that I can never walk past without ending up a few pounds lighter is BAC in Berkhamsted, Bucks.  

bac_logo

It’s one of those old family owned places that’s just chock full, floor to ceiling, with lovely goodies.  What makes it special though, is that the “family owned” thing goes well beyond a marketing slogan.  The shop’s been in Berkhamsted since about the time when I was able to reliably hold a pencil in 1977 and is now run by the lovely Jo.

In the world of chain stores and digitisation, this shop gives you a trip back to a time when not only did shops make an effort to stock everything you needed rather than expecting you to go and buy it on amazon, but when the team there are clearly having fun, welcome you back even if they’ve not seen you for a while, and are truly at the centre of a web of artists and crafts-people who use their shop.

My favourite visit is when we make use of a brilliant service they have: hosting childrens parties.  Kids get to do whatever art’s the theme of the party (my daughters have done jewellery and decopage so far) and all the proper materials are there along with people who really know what they’re doing.  Jo and the team simply treat their party guests as mini artists and seem genuinely thrilled with what the kiddies produce.

If you find yourself in Berko with a few minutes to spare, head in for a look around, but beware, you might not be able to resist, now they had some really good propelling pencils you might want to take a look at….

Martin Campbell’s Top Tip

At Ormsby Street, part of our ethos is to try and help every small business effectively manage and grow their business, which is why we created CreditHQ

Here’s our latest ‘top tip’ from our MD, Martin Campbell

www.credithq.co.uk

Addicted to Change

entrepreneur

My name is Martin and I am an Entrepreneur.  It’s been one year since I last started a company.

The anniversary of a new job is always something to celebrate, but for the entrepreneur, the focus is usually on the company rather than the individual anniversary.  After all, with 20 % of UK businesses failing before their first anniversary (and a further 50% within the first three years), it’s something of a battle scar to chalk up that tricky first year and get ready to tackle the second.

For me, the anniversary note in my calendar was a prompt to review the year just past and think on the year ahead, and whilst I won’t bore you with all of those details here, it also did cause me to reflect on what makes Entrepreneurs – people like me – do what we do?  I first founded a company nearly twenty years ago, and after growing that to a successful acquisition and a very interesting journey into larger companies and various opportunities, I opted – a year ago – to come back and start again in a different industry, with a different business model.

Many of my friends, when I started out first time, asked: “Why do you do it?” with comments like: “it must be great to be your own boss” rather outweighed by comments like “what’s it like being responsible for the livelihood of an entire team?”. This time around, I think going back to startup land has raised even more questions: “really? leaving the security of a big company to start up again from scratch”, just about sums it up!

It’s made me realise that for many of us Entrepreneurs, and certainly for me – being an Entrepreneur isn’t something that I do, it’s something that I am, and as I reflect on the last year, it really comes down to three ways that Entrepreneurs see the world differently from other folks.

Change is the norm.

Let’s take change to start with.  A few years back when I had only very limited experience working within large companies, I was very surprised when people said “oh it must be great working in a small team, it’s so easy to change things to adapt the business and make it better”  I never had an answer for that because whilst I could see that instinctively change should be easier, for small business – I never felt that I was able to make the small business I worked in respond particularly quickly.  Having spent a few years on the other side of the corporate fence, I can now see this from both perspectives, and whilst it is indeed easier to deliver change within a small team, it’s not much easier to change a small business because whilst we think of organisations as being resistant to change, it’s actually people who are resistant to change – we’re comfortable doing the thing we did yesterday – having the same breakfast cereal and sitting in the same chair – and every business has to address that no matter its scale.  The difference between large and small businesses, however, is that small businesses must change, and do so more quickly in order to survive and thrive.  I started a business because I could see a better way that organisations could use the web to communicate and I wanted to change things, and that same drive is still here today – entrepreneurs not only see the world and need to change it, but successful entrepreneurs drive change all day, every day within their own organisations.

Risk is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of risk.  I mentioned above that people had asked why I’d left the “security” of a bigger company.  As an entrepreneur I’m not a thrill seeking risk taker, I just don’t see the size of the company that I work for as the determining factor in whether it’s a secure position.  I’d rather be in a small business that I know is going in the right direction and changing in the right ways, than a big one that’s doing what it did last year or the year before but could leave my career stagnating with an outdated skill set and a struggle to find a great new role when a “restructuring” leaves me a casualty.  Entrepreneurs see risk differently from other folks and are comfortable doing the right thing even when it seems risky to others.  Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who get it right!

Opportunities to be taken.

Sometimes as an entrepreneur it comes down to whether you’re prepared to make a gut decision – one that’s not easily traceable from a logical sequence – that doesn’t fit the usual way things are done.  For me, the move out of my previous life and back into the world of a small business wasn’t about 10 point career plan, it was about an opportunity to move to a new industry, gain a new skill set, work with interesting people across the world, and build something really remarkable.  Opportunities like that are never “given” to you, they occur.  Entrepreneurs recognise opportunities for what they are.  Successful Entrepreneurs take opportunities with both hands, and apart for perhaps a brief review of the year, don’t look back.

Key Performance Metrics

Having spent some time over the last couple of days at Finovate, I’ve been thinking a lot about metrics and what they tell us. In particular, every product demoed this week came with a lovely looking dashboard with colourful graphs and lines traveling up and to the right.  Whilst the majority of the Finovate conference was focussed on assets under managment and compound growth rates, however, there was another set of indicators which really caught my eye.

Working as we do in Shoreditch, Ormsby Street is in the heart of London’s start up tech-city, just a hundred meters or so from Silicon roundabout.  Around our office, a quick study of the faces of male pedestrians can be expected to achieve a facial hair index (FHI) of around 80-85%.  Particularly noticeable is the presences of really quite striking hipster beards which cause the hipster facial hair index (HFHI) of 25-30% on some streets.  I think it’s fair to say that many consider the chin curl factor within a team to be a leading indicator of success.  

Taking this at face value, I attended Finovate with the full expectation that given that is was full of highly successful startups who have achieved significant growth and success, the face fungus quotient would be pushing well over 90% – I was fully prepared for my clean shaven chin to stick out like a sore thumb.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw a striking contrast with Shoreditch, barely two miles south, the FHI was less than 10% and the HFHI was approaching zero.  How could this be? I was confused – could it be that being so successful meant that these chaps didn’t have time to attend to their shave any more?  Keen to know more I spoke to a few delegates.  After a few conversations it became clear that there were at least two factors at work reducing the beardiness of the room.  First a lot of the delegates were from the banking, rather than the startup community where clean chins (not to mention ties) are the norm.  Also, many of the startups involved had specifically targeted the financial sector and so in order to project the image they were looking for, had gone fresh-faced in order to fit in.  However, according to my completely unscientific study, even accounting for these there should have been at least a 30% FHI in the room.  

The answer came when I spoke to one of the few bristly bankers that I found.  He pulled me to one side and said that he’d though about going the whole hog, but on reflection had decided that “well, those beards look a bit silly don’t they”.  So it seems that it’s not so much the city that’s unusual for the absence of beards, but the startup community that’s out of touch with the clean-shaven types in the rest of the finance industry!

Other interesting indexes and comparison: the Denim Index: Shoreditch 62%, Finovate 28%.  And alas the proportion of ladies present hovering between 30-40% in the startup community but dropping below 10% in the FinTech event of the year.

In the spirit of Financial Technology, I could draw some conclusions from all of this, but I though it’d be more fun to create an infographic:

Print