Monthly Archives: November 2017

Trade secrets – social media isn’t free publicity

What they don’t tell you about starting a business

Social media is amazing – it has turned us all into publishers with an audience for our words that is potentially worldwide. It has considerably levelled the playing field for business start-ups of all sizes wanting to establish their online presence and, hopefully, to build a following of supporters and potential customers.

The ease of going online and getting out there may deceive users into thinking the whole process is easy and free of costs to the would-be business. Don’t be deceived – if you’re thinking like a business rather than a user of social media, you need to cost your time online and make sure it’s well spent.  You’ll need to invest some of your time to find out which social media communication channels do the job you want them to. You need to set marketing objectives and be able to measure the effectiveness of your online efforts to achieve them – and then focus your time accordingly.

On the cost side, also be aware of the damage you can do to your professional and personal reputation if you get your online presence wrong. It may be a cliché, but remember “A happy customer tells a friend; an unhappy one tells the world.” And, through social media, they’ll do it much, much faster!

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets/

Trade secrets – no competition means no market

What they don’t tell you about starting a business

“If you are genuinely ground-breaking there may be no competition, but if you think that then probably you’re either looking at product and not demand, or there is no demand.” Source unknown

When someone says they have a unique business idea, they probably haven’t done enough research. It’s very unlikely that a business idea has not been thought of by someone else, but that’s not a problem in itself.

New entrepreneurs often feel they have to be original to be successful – they take the marketing phrase ‘unique selling point’ literally. But a business set up in a competitive field – a coffee shop for example – at least knows there’s a market for the products on offer.

Coffee shop promotion by the biggest brands is also promotion for coffee retailers everywhere. This means the independents don’t need to establish demand and, while creating brand recognition and winning customers from the big players is harder, creating a better offer than other providers is the same for most start-ups.

How the independents are taking on the chain coffee shops  https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/nov/14/move-over-starbucks-the-indie-coffee-shops-battling-it-out-on-the-high-street

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Trade secrets – innovation is overrated

What they don’t tell you about starting a business

In the search for things that are ‘new and exciting’ there’s pressure to do things differently. Being creative, cutting edge or, as they say these days, ‘disruptive’, is seen to be in itself a good thing. We talk about taking ourselves out of our proverbial comfort zones as being good for us – to stretch ourselves, take risks and learn from failure.

But in business, sometimes doing the same old thing, the tried-tested-and-trusted methods can be the right way to go. So long as you do it as a conscious plan rather than by default (because it’s easier than doing something that takes more effort).

There’s another a much-quoted saying “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got” Many people attribute this quote to Anthony Robbins and before him to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and even Mark Twain. Whoever said it, and however well-respected the originator, it doesn’t mean that change and innovation is necessarily good for business.

The trick is to know the difference between business development and growth, between viability and sustainability and knowing, in card-playing terms, whether to twist or stick.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Repairing the world

Who said “Waste isn’t waste until we waste it”?

Learning of this clever quote was one of many pleasing things I gained from an event in Cambridge yesterday which could legitimately be said to have a global significance. It’s not every day you can say that about spending nine hours in a church on a wet Saturday in November.

The man associated with the quote is Will.I.Am – someone I associate with a name which I regard as, er… unusual, and whose performances on ‘The Voice’ leaves me cold. In contrast, I’m impressed by his behind-the-scenes activities; the music-man-come- style-celebrity gives his name, time and money to many worthy causes. This includes an international campaign – Fashion Revolution – which aims to sew social, ethical and environmental responsibility into the fabric of the fashion industry.

The essence of the campaign is ‘telling the story’ behind the clothing items that arrive on our high streets and sell at rock bottom prices with, in many cases, scant regard for the people and processes behind their production.

For me, the story behind the product was also at the heart of my uplifting day in Cambridge. It was at an attempt on the record for the World’s Biggest Repair Café – a mass fix of pre-loved and still-wanted broken items – bikes, clothes, electricals, toys, high and low tech kitchen gadgets, gardening equipment, ornaments, phones, laptops, even an umbrella. We were seeking to mend more than 150 items – a record set in France in 2013.

I worked on eight items and was pleased with the result, though many of the fixes where a lot more straight forward than those of my fellow repairers working on more technical problems on either side of me.

There were two garden forks with broken wooden handles (with a combined age of 140 years!) and both deserved more TLC than I could give them in the time I had to work on fixing them. The older of the two was 100 years old – originally owned by the great grandmother of the little girl who attended the Repair Café with her mum. As the current owner said to me “I could get a new fork or replace the wooden handle, but it’s my mother and her mother’s hands that worked the soil with this particular handle – that’s what matters to me.”

Or the 40-year old binoculars case – a wedding present I think – the leather hinge between body and lid worn torn in two from regular use. This is now replaced with some new leather in a cack-handed repair which, while certainly not beautiful, will hopefully keep those binoculars protected for another 40 years.

Or the 25 year-old hand-crafted ornamental wooden horse and carriage from Russia. A cherished memento that needed some refurbishment – new reins for the horse, re-fixing the carriage harness, reconstructing the passenger’s parasol – it’s journey to be recalled and treasured, I hope, for generations to come.

Then there were the little food related highlights – the edible nuts and screws on some lovely biscuits, the wonderful free three-course meals served up from surplus food by Cambridge Foodcycle.

Most important for me is that yesterday was about keeping so many things in use for longer. The eight items I worked on had a combined age of over 227 years. “But did you set a new world record?” I hear you ask. It doesn’t really matter but, yes, we did – with over 200 items fixed – we well and truly broke it and so, of course, we now need to repair it…

Further photos at  https://www.facebook.com/roystonrepaircafe/photos/a.709787542553843.1073741847.168583403340929/709787559220508/?type=3&theater

Fashion Revolution http://fashionrevolution.org

Trade secrets – selling at rock bottom prices can be good business

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

As a rule of thumb for start-up businesses, they should compete on quality not price. A price war with bigger, more established competitors is rarely won. Discounting should only be used with great care and as part of a marketing strategy, not as an act of desperation.

That said, most high street supermarkets discount food products as they come close to their sell-by dates. For them this makes absolute business sense – it reduces food waste (a tick in the corporate social responsibility box) and it costs much less to sell the product at high discount than have the cost of disposing of it themselves. It also generates good word-of-mouth publicity in the locality, and the bargain-hunter may also buy full-priced products while bargain-hunting around the supermarket aisles

The general lesson for entrepreneurs is that, in negotiating terms with suppliers, you may be in a much stronger position than you think; a quoted first price is rarely fixed.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Trade secrets – you can impose whatever payment terms you like

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

Other than terms and conditions for supply of goods and services dictated by law, you can publish whatever terms and conditions you like.

And make sure these are clear and easy to find and read; ‘the small print’ is often used as a euphemism for something which, while legal, is not within the spirit of the law

There’s a temptation to look at others operating in the same business sector and replicate their terms and conditions, particularly in a competitive industry sector. This can be dangerous when the cost-base for different businesses in the same market differs widely. The current trend in online trading in fashion – to offer free delivery and returns, no questions asked – is causing havoc to the viability of smaller operators, unable to compete with the industry giants.

Sometimes it’s possible to challenge traditional practices with success. In the low-budget hotel and Bed and Breakfast sector, you may be expected to pay on arrival (to reduce the risk of guests disappearing leaving unpaid bills). This is unusual in more upmarket guest houses, but a successful luxury B & B in Sussex does things differently.

Not only do the owners expect customers to pay for their accommodation on arrival, but they also ask for payment in cash. In three years of trading there had never been any push-back from visitors who come from all over Europe. The terms are clearly spelt out in all publicity and Tripadvisor commendations and repeat visits are testimony to customer satisfaction.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Back to school – no man’s land #8 part 1   

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

Birkenhead, September 1969

They [the products of the British public school] go forth into the world with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts. An undeveloped heart – not a cold one. The difference is important”                               E M Forster

If you’d asked me on leaving boarding school after seven years what I’d got out of my schooling, I’d have said (and I can actually remember saying it at the time) it was self-confidence and independence. Following a ‘year off’ after leaving school, I felt I was well prepared for further education. The maturity that came from a privileged education, followed by work in Handsworth Birmingham and the south of France was confirmed in my first term at university when I was astonished by the number of people who guessed I’d been to public school. “You just have an air of self-confidence about you” they’d say.

Yes – I had a very privileged education – public school (I’ve never worked out how private schools came to be called ‘public’) followed by university in London in the days before loans. In my defence I would say that, even then, I was well aware of the exclusivity of the education and I made every effort to invest in that education for the benefit of wider society in the years that followed – grand ambitions indeed!

It’s taken the best part of my adult life since leaving secondary school to understand the impact of that period – my formative years. Unbelievably perhaps, it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve really found out about its impact on others with whom I shared those school years. This probably speaks volumes about my own and other contemporaries’ reluctance to think, let alone talk, about it. I know I’ve found writing this blog post the most difficult to date.

If you ask me now – 50 years after starting at secondary school aged 11 – what I feel about my boarding school experience, I focus more on the downsides. It robbed me of an important part of my childhood – the emotional development associated with puberty – I couldn’t be myself. Until my years in the sixth form I was living two lives – at school in term time and at home in the holidays. A school friend came home one holiday and he was amazed to see ‘my other side’; he recently confirmed this observation of my double identity. “I remember thinking that you had two personas – school and home. At school I recall that you were well behaved and rule-bound and somewhat the opposite in your home environment (nothing extreme though)”.

As I mentioned in the previous blog in this ‘No man’s land’ series, it was a single sex school. There was an equivalent girls’ school on the other side of the city and relations between the two (and the school students within them) were carefully controlled. It was almost as if, until the sixth form, we were ‘let out’ at different times by design. But if love does really conquer all, it gave me that tingling-down-the-spine sensation as my mind wandered to thoughts of my first ‘true’ love. When the relationship ended I was devastated. I went into a slump that, looking back, was something more than just feeling unhappy. I seem to remember the girl of my dreams got some sort of pastoral support from her school over the breakup while I was probably expected to man-up. But the love story has a happy ending – we’re still friends, in touch, and happily married (just not to each other).

Did you know there’s a website for ‘survivors’ of Boarding Schools? I learnt this many years ago when helping to organise some of our annual school reunions. I say ‘organise’ but apart from some major gatherings (25 years was the first big one) they organised themselves around the official school reunion weekend. Our gatherings continue to run alongside it and a hard core are regular returners coming back to complain about their time at school – being on tranquilizers in their final year, surviving only because of their love of sport, and other such revelations that have come out over the years. This might seem like a contradiction – returning to the scene of unhappy experiences – but maybe it’s something like criminals returning to the scene of their crimes?

Guardian journalist George Monbiot, who himself boarded from the age of eight, is vociferous in his condemnation of boarding schools for young children brandishing it as ‘child abuse’. He says “We end up with a [boarding school educated] elite, of people in positions of power, who are emotionally damaged. That’s a very dangerous place to be because children who are taught to deny their own feelings, also learn to deny other people’s feelings…

I’ve kept in touch with a good number of my former school mates through our re-unions, but only recently have I made it my business to share experiences of those distant but potentially still influential years. A number have contributed their views, but I’ve assured them their anonymity – we still live in mysterious times when unguarded or misinterpreted remarks can come back to bite us.

So, what have I learnt about inter-actions in the school – in particular antisemitism, bullying, sexual discovery – and being away from home?  To be continued…

Further reading:

For earlier blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

George Monbiot and Alex Renton on the abuse that is boarding school education https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/08/school-boarding-secrets-crimes-alex-renton-kipling-rowling-dahl-churchill

The Boarding School Survivor’s website http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk