Category Archives: Sustaining the business

Is agile working the answer?

In our ever-changing world of work, management theories have had trouble keeping up with the speed of that change, and the ways of coping with the impact of these changes for workers. The ‘new’ solutions are often nothing more than a re-hash of old ideas (that may or may not have worked in the past) which is not in itself a criticism – most change is cyclical and re-inventing the wheel isn’t always a bad thing.

The idea of ‘flexible working’ has underpinned discussions about working practices for decades. Traditionally, standardisation with workers being treated as ‘units of production’ – a conveyor belt mentality – was seen as the panacea for running efficient and cost-effective organisations. Since then the pendulum has swung the other way. Flexitime – flexible start and finish times covering certain ‘core’ hours – has been part of the management speak lexicon for at least the past four decades; the concept was actually trademarked in 1971. Hotdesking may be seen as a more recent idea, but its origins date back to the 16th Century and the naval practice of ‘hot-racking’ where one sailor would vacate a bunk bed for use by another (so sleeping and working in shifts).

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, one of my heroes, Charles Handy, popularised the phrase ‘portfolio working’ – being employed by different businesses at the same time, often on a freelance basis. Handy’s book The Empty Raincoat was some brilliant crystal-ball-gazing into the future of work.

Behind all these concepts is the theory of making the best use of time and space.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007 at least, I’ve noted the rise of management-speak, business bullshit – call it what you like – that tends to put the focus on the individual worker’s behaviour, rather than that of the employer, as the potential remedy for inefficiency and under-use of resources in organisations of all shapes and sizes. This may be dressed up with words like ‘empowerment’ but, not surprisingly in the age of austerity, it’s more about cost-cutting than anything else.

We see increased use of phrases like ‘mobile working’. With the advent of technological advances, and the mobile phone in particular, not only can we work anytime, but we can work anywhere – at home, in our cars, in cafés. And if someone else is picking up the cost of heat, light and rent so much the better. In the name of increased efficiency and cost-savings in the wake of the financial crisis, a decade ago I also noticed the introduction of the phrase ‘smart working’. It was easy to say, sounded good but, in my experience, no one ever really defined what it meant (perhaps because we all already knew it was about getting people to do more for less).

And coupled with the idea of doing more for less, if that endangers out mental wellbeing we can now learn to be resilient – to bounce back whatever life and work throws at us. Resilience in technical circles is a measure of what stress it takes to break something… The NHS is awash with resilience training for staff which at least acknowledges that the service and the people who work in it are at breaking point.

This focus on the individual continues with ‘agile working’ which seems to differ from flexible working in that the latter is about what primarily suits the employer, which agile working is intended to (also) meet the needs of the employee. This is a 2013 definition…

Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver “best in class” value and customer service. It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways, which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed.

Asking ‘Is agile working the answer?’ – the title of this blog post –  begs the question, what is it meant to achieve?

Cost-saving? Almost certainly, transferring core costs away from the centre and having them absorbed by others, often the employees (and owners of public meeting spaces such as cafes and bars).

Time-saving? Agile working, like home-working, implies less unproductive time spent travelling made ever more possible by technology. But I fear the reduction in face-to-contact with colleagues and customers may bring new costs (in terms of effectiveness) down the line.

Increasing productivity? More time ‘on the job’ – in your pyjamas at home late at night, on a laptop or mobile phone in your car (a mobile office) – is certainly more possible in theory but relies on the commitment of workers that will be increasingly managed at arm’s length. It also increasing blurs the line between work and play.

A happier workforce?  Being empowered and in greater control of our working conditions are objectively ‘good things’. But everyone is different, and many employees are happier working regular hours in a structured environment alongside colleagues they can see and bounce ideas off, rather than working alone with the freedom to decide when and where the job gets done.

At the heart of the debate about different ways of working is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, about balancing short and long-term gains, and the importance of the health of the individual relative to the health of the organisation (the two may not always go hand in hand).

Efficiency is about the relationship between inputs and outputs, effectiveness is about inputs and outcomes. In a service-based business, the first tends to be about quantity and profit, while the second – effectiveness – tends to be about quality and people. As is the case in politics, when budgets are squeezed short-term decisions may be made for financial expediency without due regard for long term cost (and potential future savings). Witness pressure on the NHS to treat symptoms of ill health rather than the causes.

Employees across the UK are being asked to accept unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions for the greater good – sustaining services, making sacrifices now for jam tomorrow. This is all about changing cultures and mindsets and the best ways to do this will be as various as the organisations needing to make those changes.

My primary concern about this, borne out in part by personal experience, is that short term sacrifice is rarely rewarded in the long term. This is not just for individuals that feel the pain most personally, but also for the organisations and causes that are the reason we get out of bed in the morning. The health of well-run organisations is intrinsically tied up with the health of those running them; if staff get burnt out and leave, I fear for the future.

Further reading on agile working http://www.nhsemployers.org/~/media/Employers/Documents/SiteCollectionDocuments/Agile%20Working%20Guide.pdf

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Business support – what matters?

On the same day this week that I learnt, with surprise and delight, that I’d been listed as a Top 50 Adviser 2018 by Enterprise Nation, I was reminded by my employer how badly I’d missed my target for business starts. Working with a charity supporting young people with complicated lives I appreciate that, for the funders, entrepreneurial success is best measured in tangibles – loans made (and repaid!) businesses started, jobs created etc.

This is understandable – ‘soft outcomes’ like increased self-confidence and improved mental health, better relations with money and family, are harder to quantify. But it risks giving the impression, to which I’ve referred in past blogs, that only what can be easily counted counts.

A work colleague recently asked me how I would define success in my job. I explained the hard versus soft outcomes debate and then described the progress of a young woman I’ve worked with who will probably never set up her own business but has made massive strides in her personal development. I’ve only played a small part in that young woman’s achievements, but I know she’s not the only one who has benefited from my start-up guidance.

When I was first encouraged to throw my hat in the ring with the Enterprise Nation Top 50 Adviser competition, I decided I’d only do so if I got ten endorsements from the young people with whom I’ve worked over the past 20 months. With only 24 hours to the entry deadline, I had three independent nominations and ten endorsements with some truly heart-warming comments from the young entrepreneurs. See above.

Which is how I come to be in the national Top 50 listing with the possibility of being voted top in the ‘Branding and Design’ category https://enterprisenation.com/top50 If you’re considering voting and you want to get an insight into my work with young people, click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/learning-about-earning

As you can imagine, I value that expression of support from those thirteen young people far more than any pay packet at the end of the month, but I do understand that I’m employed to keep other customers happy as well.

So, I must dash – there are businesses to be launched.

When customer care doesn’t have to costa lot

coffe-mugIn 2002, I visited a community café in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire – I was helping to set up something similar in the Cambridgeshire Fens at the time.  The entrepreneurial organisers of the café – Arena – had recently paid £2,000 for an Italian coffee maker (a machine, not a barista) and I’m not sure they didn’t have to import it direct from Italy.

I use their purchase – a bold and costly investment at that time – in marketing courses as an example of a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) that differentiated Arena from the other two cafes in the town – a greasy spoon and a teashop with doyleys. (If you’re too young to know what doyleys or greasy spoons are, look them up).  They made excellent coffee at a time when that was hard to find, particularly in a market town, and people used to travel from far and wide for Arena’s continental offering. But that wasn’t all; the baristas taught their customers how to use the machine and had them judge each other’s brews. ‘Barista of the Week’ posters adorned the walls of the café.

I’m sorry to report that the Arena Café closed in 2009 after the best part of a decade, so it looks like their USP had a limited shelf-life.

Of course, excellent coffee wouldn’t be such a strong USP these days with coffee shops on every corner. The theory goes that everybody now has to make great coffee because customers expect it, right? And all the competition means cafes have to look after their customers or they close, right? And the best coffee shops are local and independent, right?

Well, no – not in my experience.

All I want from a high street coffee shop is decent coffee (but I’m easy to please…) and somewhere I can relax with no hassle from staff – so passive, reactive customer care does me fine. Which is not easy to find in many popular coffee and cake outlets where they want to get you out as quickly as possible once you’ve stopped spending. I once heard that a famous burger chain tilted their seats forward slightly to discourage customers from staying too long, but that may be an urban myth.

we-dont-rush-our-coffeeSo, I’m happy to commend a chain of coffee shops – Costa – for treating their customers like adults, and for being friendly and laid back. My day-job means I meet enterprising young people for 1-2-1 advice sessions on a regular basis. A coffee shop is ideal – a public place where they can relax, stay out of the cold, and get a hot drink. Costa coffee shops are particularly suitable because they’re ubiquitous, accessible, usually have enough space and, above all, the staff are relaxed about me staying all day to meet a steady stream of visitors.

In practice I introduce myself when I arrive and explain what I’m doing. They seem to be genuinely interested – one manager wanted me to take a look at his business plan (part of my job) for a new venture, another offered commiserations when two young people failed to turn up. In every location I’ve been to, the staff have let me set up a tab and I pay for all the drinks when I leave. They haven’t learnt my name yet or started making my regular drink (medium Americano in a takeaway cup since you ask…) as I walk through the door, but that might come with time.

Another way to build your reputation is through consistently good service (assuming you have a winning formula). A recent return to a Costa coffee shop was just as I’d hoped – the manager welcomed me; said he remembered me from last time (I bet he says that to everyone) then left me well alone until it was time to pay.

Afterword: Yes, I know the chain is run by a hospitality conglomerate, I know that their coffee shops are franchises, but I still want to drink to their continued success.

 

Your Own Place – seeking security

Latest in the new ‘More Expert by Experience’ series

Rebecca croppedI am re-discovering a social enterprise and Community Interest Company – Your Own Place (YOP) in Norfolk – which works with young people aged 16-25. I first interviewed Rebecca White, YOP’s Director and Founder, in December 2013 when we were both at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich. Two years on, I wanted to find out how Your Own Place had developed and, in particular, Rebecca’s experience of ‘going it alone’ as a social entrepreneur now working more-than-full-time on the enterprise.

To quote YOP’s own publicity ‘We aim to prevent youth homelessness through a number of interventions.  At the core of Your Own Place is our delivery of Tenancy and Independent Living Skills (TILS) training.  Our principle outcome is successfully sustained tenancies for first-time tenants who may need a bit of support along the way.’

Ultimately a social enterprise stands or falls by its income-generating capacity. YOP’s first year trading achieved an impressive 36% of total income; the year two figure is slightly down because of the need to focus on raising development funding.

Like all business start-ups, subsidies are important for social enterprises in the early years (unless you have the support of those traditional small business investors – friends, family and fools). I was interested to know about Rebecca’s success with a crowdfunding campaign.

Understandably, she was very happy with the outcome – £7,000 raised (I’d been advised to aim for £1500 – £2000 for a first campaign). Reflecting on the experience, Rebecca has some advice for others thinking about crowdfunding. “You need to prepare well and it’s a lot of hard work to maintain momentum during the campaign. Success depends on having access to [online] networks. I think we did well for a first effort with a fund-raising technique which is quite new to Norfolk.”   

YourOwnPlace logoMore recently YOP has been successful with an application to the Tudor Trust for £56,000. This development is significant for bringing stability and security to the organisation, helping planning and, importantly, taking some of the pressure off Rebecca who is now able to recruit a Peer Training Coordinator.

But how Rebecca would find ‘letting go’ a little, surrendering some control to another employee? Her response was typically honest. “Obviously this is ‘my baby’ and I’m a control freak. But on balance I’m excited more than fearful as I enjoy managing people; we had an employability support worker last year.”

Looking back over the past 12 months, Rebecca’s sees it as a reputation-building period for Your Own Place. “We’re building credibility with funders and commissioners, getting coverage on radio and in the press is easier, and people are coming to us for our expertise. It’s a slow pay-off for all the early work upfront. We’re gathering momentum, making useful contacts (after kissing a lot of frogs…) taking us in sometimes unexpected but exciting directions. 

YOP Peer researchers (4)It would be deceptive to pretend that the past 12 months has all been positive and Rebecca acknowledges that there have been some young people who haven’t benefited as much as she would have hoped. “We’re working with challenging, often hard to reach, young people so, despite our best efforts, some will fall by the way. But I remember some wise words from a supervisor when I worked in London. ‘Don’t take it personally as a failure – it doesn’t mean they haven’t taken something away from the experience. You’ve planted a seed and there may be a pay-off later.’ We had one trainee who ditched a summer course on day one, but later came back and asked for a meeting to find a mentor.”

Rebecca is clear that Your Own Place’s vision remains unchanged – that the destination is the same even if the route has changed a bit. The comment reflects her advice to others to take opportunities and make the most of all the pro-bono support that’s available. For Rebecca, this means returning to the School for Social Entrepreneurs for their ‘scale-up’ programme in London (which also means getting a mentor).

“Don’t be too proud to admit you need help – take all the support that’s going” advises Rebecca. Wise words from someone who oozes self-confidence and authority, but isn’t afraid to ask.

Further reading:

Close to homelessness https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/close-to-homelessness (December 2013)

Follow Rebecca and Your Own Place at www.yourownplace.org.uk http://www.facebook.com/yourownplacecic  www.twitter.com/yourownplace

Purepallets – more than a family affair

Latest in the More Expert by Experience series

Purepallets 2 photosIn February 2015, Dawn Taylor – founder of Purepallets – was enjoying a service break from her visual merchandising role with a major high street store. After falling into a possible career change, Dawn wanted to see if she could make a business out of upcycling wooden pallets into unique products for homes and gardens.

A year later I was intrigued to find out whether, after the gestation period, she had cut the umbilical cord or returned to her more secure and financially rewarding role in mainstream retailing.

“I handed in my notice at the end of October” says Dawn. “I’m now self-employed and it’s quite scary. But I knew that if I survived the first 9 months it would be OK. So far, so good.”

Like many other entrepreneurs, Dawn enjoys the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. She can combine home life with work in her workshop, help her son before and after school and, if she doesn’t think she’s put in enough hours, paint her pallet products in the evening.

“It’s a lot of hours if I include time on social media, but some days I might only work in the evening. And it doesn’t feel like work; I get up in the morning and I never have that feeling I used to get – ‘oh no, another day at work’. I’ve always got a new product to make so yes, I’m loving it.”

But can she keep work and home-life separated when she has a kitchen that doubles as a paint-shop, and what about weekends?

Family means I try to keep weekends free, but in the run up to Christmas I was very busy, so… But I do make a conscious effort not to work weekends. I’m in control – I can always say ‘no’, although a lot of the time I don’t!” Clearly Dawn is addicted to pallets in the nicest possible way.

Young Purepallet customersAttending events at weekends can be very time-consuming and is not always rewarding; Dawn is learning which ones are worth the effort. She points out that face-to-face contact with would-be customers personalises the business, which is the selling point of her bespoke creations – they’re individually made for individual people. And then there’s the reaction when people see her pallet products. “It gives people ideas, sparks their imagination, and I usually get commissions off the back of an event”. Over the past 12 months, commissions have continued to grow, through word-of-mouth and Facebook, to a point where they’re now up to 80% of sales income.

You’d think that the success of Purepallets would be enough to convince Dawn that she has a winning formula. But, like a mother nervously waiting for her child’s school report, she says she’s always anxious when she hands over a commissioned item. “Everything still feels so new that when I make a new item for someone and come to deliver it, I’m nervous they won’t like it. But then they say ‘it’s just what I wanted’ and that puts my mind at rest.” 

Purepallets is not so much a family business as a business that’s part of the family. Dawn’s pallet-dismantling husband and young son are, she says, ‘supportive’ and even the family’s small car doesn’t complain about doubling up as a van.

So how is the new member of the family settling in?  Like a rapidly growing teenager, it thinks in might be time to leave home! From sales at local events in and around York a year ago with mixed success, Purepallets products can now be found in retails outlets in Selby, Darlington, Halifax and, until recently, Wetherby.

Alongside possible re-location to an off-site workshop, storage space and retail outlet, what does 2016 have in store for Purepallets?

The list of events at which Dawn plans to display her products in the next 12 months sounds both impressive and exhausting. April means Living North exhibitions at Newcastle and York Racecourses. A return to the Festival of Thift in Darlington in September follows a successful visit in 2015 with Remade in Britain, and the York Christmas Markets will mean more pressure on precious weekends.

I finish our conversation delighted that Dawn loves pallets as much as she did when I first interviewed her in 2015 – on Valentine’s Day.

Further information:

Purepallets  http://on.fb.me/1ZLc701

Remade in Britain http://www.remadeinbritain.com/purepallets

A passion for pallets http://bit.ly/1QsPsVq  (February 2015)

Festival of Thrift 2016 http://www.festivalofthrift.co.uk

 

Value, cost and price

Tractor-For-Sale-Tinsign“Pricing based on cost makes no sense whatsoever. Cost isn’t abstract, but value is.”  Seth Godin

My Dad’s family business – the only company in the world to make hand-embroidered tapestries for the international market – liquidated around 1970. It was just about the time I might have gone into the family firm but for my father the closure was a relief; as Financial Director he’d foreseen the beginning of the end – the Equal Pay Act – a number of years earlier.

The tapestries were high quality and hand-crafted and, even before equal pay, labour costs were high. The women weavers and embroiderers, 90% of the workforce, were highly trained and the work was labour-intensive. The tapestries had to sell for increasingly high prices and people preferred to spend their money on fast cars and big houses.

And when people did buy these works of art, I remember my Dad saying “they’re more interested in telling their friends how much they paid for the tapestry than valuing the quality of the work”.

Fast-forward 45 years and I haven’t a clue about the true value of even the most basic commodity – milk. I pay twice as much for a pint at my local shop compared with our edge-of-town supermarket. I may be stupid but I’d prefer to support the shop at the end of my road while it’s still there (and while I can afford to) rather than line the coffers of the superstore with a strap-line that says ‘very little helps’ …or something like that.

And what about books? I spent 15 years in publishing and left the industry just as the Net Book Agreement – which set a book’s price across all outlets – was withdrawn. Now the price of a book seems to have no relation to its length or format. Nor, of course, does price relate to the thing we value most – the quality of the contents. The industry now seems to treat books as just another commodity, priced at what the market (that’s you and me) will bear.

Personally, I don’t see books as a commodity, but then maybe I’m out of step with current trends (I’ve shunned an e-reader in favour of ‘the real thing’ and will do so as long as my eyesight and bookshelf space allows). And it also matters to me that my online book-buying supports high street bookshops, so I use www.hive.co.uk.

With the explosion of £ shops (I’ve even seen a 95p store), Black Friday, all-year-round sales, and 2-for-1 meal deals, I don’t know what I should be paying for even the most basic items, not just milk and books. But I like the idea of restaurants inviting diners to pay what they think their meal is worth…

Until I get too old to make my own decisions, I aim to pay a fair price for what I value – stuff that’s good quality, where possible is locally-sourced and ethically-produced, and that doesn’t screw someone in the supply chain.

This is not easy, I know. But most of us can choose how and where we spend our money. Maybe we should spend more time doing so?

For an interesting insight into the buying process, go to http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2014/02/most-of-all-money-is-a-story.html

A useful and all-embracing list of pricing strategies is at http://bit.ly/1moB0lR

 

Could your enterprise be more mindful?

Rearview mirrorWhen I was younger, I had a recurring dream that I was driving a car by looking only in the rear view mirror. It probably has some deep psychological meaning about my childhood – I never found out – but it never ended in disaster; it wasn’t a nightmare.

As regular readers of this blog will know, in developing The Repair Shed, I’ve taken many opportunities to reflect on my ‘journey’ so far – to look in the rear view mirror and use what I see to map my route ahead.

So looking back is part of business planning, what about looking forward?

Business planning has more than its fair share of clichés, quotes and supposedly-clever sayings. ‘Fail to plan and you fail to plan’ and ’Pisspoor planning prevents proper performance’ (and any number of variation on the Ps of planning) are just two. I’m in favour of creating a map for the business journey; I’ve often advocated it when advising others while sharing another home truth – the planning process is more important than the plan itself.

But what if you didn’t look too far forwards or backwards while developing your business? It may sound like heresy, but bear with me…

I’m a convert to mindfulness – something which has been around a long time but is fast becoming more mainstream to the extent that schools and MPs are now considering its benefits. My sister who teaches mindfulness graphically summed it up for me when she said “If you have one foot in the past regretting what you didn’t do, and the other foot in the future worrying about what might happen, you piss on the present.”

Mindfulness is about living more in the present, being consciously aware of the ‘here and now’ to create some calm in an increasingly frantic world. I try to practise mindfulness each day when I’m shaving (I close my eyes and shave by touch), driving to work (giving a running commentary on my driving, other road-users and the driving environment) and while I’m cross-country running (scanning my body and identifying changes in everything from my breathing to my aching joints).

Going back to my recurring dream, while it would be impossible to ‘drive your business’ by only looking where you’ve been, you only have to see a short distance ahead to make progress (just as you can when walking or running).

Given the speed of change in the working and living environment and the likelihood that whatever you plan beyond a couple of months ahead is likely to need changing, what might happen if you didn’t have a medium/ long term plan? Here are just three speculative suggestions:

  • You might save a lot of time in meetings discussing things that will never happen, giving you more time to focus on running your business right now
  • You might be more open to opportunities and more responsive to the immediate needs of your customers (who says being pro-active is better than being reactive?)
  • Workers might feel less pressured by distant targets and more focussed on getting their job done better on a day to day basis

What do you think – could your business benefit from being more focussed on the present by being more mindful? Or maybe you think not enough time is spent planning ahead?

Further reading on reflection:  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/on-reflection-building-a-shed-day-400