8 things that changed my life this year

With the end of the year in touching distance, I thought I’d give you a run down of 8 things that happened to me in 2009 that have changed my life positively. The reason for writing this list is that almost all of it is open to you to get involved with too. If I’ve benefited so much from these things, I hope that at least one person reading this takes action to investigate one or two items on the list and see’s their own life positively impacted. (Admittedly a few are a little jokey but that’s just the way I roll) :)

So lets get on – here are 8 things that have positively changed my life in 2009 (in no particular order :)):

1) iPhone – So I’ve gone on quite a bit about this recently and I do understand it splits opinion with Android lovers so I’m just going to tell you a few quick reasons why this has had such a profound affect on my life/business. First of all, it’s not possible to deny this is a sexy piece of kit and pretty much everything on it has been well thought out from a usability point of view. The phone has made a huge difference to the way I interact with email outside the office as well as social media. A huge amount of the buzz surrounding iPhones is the gimmicky apps that you download and hardly ever use, but if you look carefully you can find ones that really do make your life easier and more efficient. I now do at least 75% of my social media work from my phone, on the move, using dead time that I wouldn’t have used before. Here are a couple of examples of apps that have made a differences to me – Tube Deluxe helped me around London recently giving me more time to catch up on other bits of work. The National Rail app tracks GPS on the trains themselves meaning you can see where the train is at any time on the line – genius. TV Guide gets rid of the need for paper based guides. Natwest now have an app that lets me track my money on the move at anytime. Skype lets me phone other Skype users for free and AroundMe has helped me find cabs/hotels and garages a number of times on the move. CoPilot is better than the inbuilt Sat Nav I have in my own car and Google Maps has walked me to a few places I would have got lost trying to find ‘pre-iPhone’. Remember the Milk helps me with GTD (see later)….I could go on and I know I’ve only touched the surface! If you’re in the market for a new phone and think the iPhone is expensive then (compared to other phones) I would agree, but its so much more than a phone and I know its been worth every penny and much much more. This, for me, is an absolute must have gadget.

2) Jeffrey Gitomer – Sales/Positivity Guru. I was lucky enough to be invited to see Jeffrey earlier this year by owner of TheBestOf – Nigel Botterill. I didn’t know who Jeffrey was at the time but trusted Nigel’s opinion and boy am I glad I did. ANYONE in sales or marketing (yes that means you business owners) MUST go and see Jeffrey if possible. He really is a sales legend. I wrote more about him in this post I wrote earlier in the year. I can honestly say that Jeffrey’s one seminar has made a profound difference to the way I treat the sales process now and the way I teach my sales team to treat it too. His Little Gold Book of Yes! Attitude book is also a kick up the backside in the way we view our lives and other people. New staff members in my team will now be given one of these books and asked to read it during their first few months with us. I’ve bought every single one of his books now and strongly suggest you consider doing so too. A complete list of Gitomer books can be found on Amazon by clicking the link in this sentence.

3) Social Media – I don’t really know where to start with this. I was dabbling without knowing it for the last couple of years with sites like Facebook/YouTube and LinkedIn but then in Jan of 09 I found Twitter and my life changed (as well as that of our businesses). The clever integration of Social Media has lead to many new services from Optix Solutions, ending up in new work, new joint ventures and alliances, new friends and a very good ROI (yes we’ve been monitoring it). As anyone who knows me personally knows, I love Social Media – I love the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the new exciting possibilities it brings to businesses willing to get started with it. Much like the buzz of ecommerce when I started out with my web business back in 1999, Social Media has given me a new lust for the Internet and what’s possible for clever, forward thinking businesses. If you’d like further information of Social Media or would like to contract my services in this area, please drop me an email or connect with me on Twitter (@banksy6)

4) White Tea – Alright so maybe this is a bit of a jokey one but I was getting really hacked off with other teas and my friend David Thomas suggested I got involved with White Tea! I didn’t even know this existed! Now a morning doesn’t start properly without a refreshing cup of this amazing drink! (p.s. don’t boil it for more than 1 minute – it ruins it :))

5) GTD – Getting Things Done is a global phenomenon and I never knew about it – until this year. I hold my hands up to the fact that in the past I have struggled hugely to keep all the balls in the air. As a multi-business owner, at any one point I have literally hundreds of things on my to-do list and I’d tried just about every time scheduling/work practice known to man – all to no avail. I had the messiest desk in the office (a source of constant banter for my employees). I never understood how anyone could have a clean desk if they were busy – it escaped me. Then in early 2009 two people I have a lot of respect for in Exeter – Scott Gould and Adam Stone recommended I read Getting Things Done by David Allen. Wow – what a fantastic book/system. It’s given me the tools to operate (most of the time at max efficiency and with a ‘mind like water’ – so I’m at my most creative) This is a very important thing to master as a business owner or you get dragged down in the minutiae of everyday life. I now have a clean (ish) desk and a system that allows me to keep on top of the hundreds of things I have on my plate at any one time. Every business owner should buy this book now.

6) Lizz – Lizz is my girlfriend and one of the points in this list which I hope you won’t be able to take advantage of :) I was a proper bachelor, living the high life for the last 10 years, since leaving university. While busy building a business, I had a lot of fun outside work with friends and family. A couple of years ago my present girlfriend Lizz came along and this year we moved into our first house together. I’ll admit, I was quite apprehensive about losing my independence but moving in with the love of my life (get your puke buckets ready) was the single best thing I did this year. Having a strong support network around you in life when you run a business is one of the most important things you can build. Someone you can share the hard and good times with…find yourself a Lizz if you haven’t already.

7) Apple Mac Shop – This year I got involved in the Apple brand for the first time. I bought an iPhone, we got a Mac Book Pro at work and through this I started to spend some time in the Apple shop in Exeter. I love the place so much so I wrote an article about the experience I had in another blog post.

8 ) Beacon Breakthrough – This one applies to those of you starting up/setup in the South West in the UK. This year, James my business partner and I found out about a new scheme for businesses aiming at becoming Beacon companies for the SW, the turnover threshold of which is £1.5million. For more information on the Beacon scheme check out their website. The Beacon breakthrough forums are aimed at companies that wish to take that next step and learn how already successful companies operate in every area from board setup to marketing to goal setting and planning. It’s a fantastic course and offers amazing value to participant companies. If you’re based in the SW, I would strongly suggest that you put yourself on this course next year as the differences it’s made to my web business are nothing short of phenomenal.

That concludes my line up for 2009. If there is one thing I’m going to be concentrating on next year it’s acting on things (minimising procrastination). I’ve learnt a huge amount this last year and changed my business in many ways because of the things I’ve learnt, books I’ve read and courses I’ve been on – I’d urge you to look down the list again and see if there is anything you can get involved in yourself and please let me know if you do and of course, how it worked for you :)

See you in 2010

Cash Flow is King! Guide to setting up a Cash Flow Forecast

Cash Flow is King! Guide to setting up a Cash Flow Forecast

Right now – Here’s my first post on Finance. To be honest with you, it probably should have been earlier because of the importance of it, but hey lets face it, finance isn’t the easiest/most enjoyable subject to blog about. :)

OK, in any business there are lots of different things you need to consider about your finances – most importantly your ‘cash flow’, ‘profit and loss’ and ‘balance sheets’. In my opinion, especially as a fledgling business there is no more important metric than cash flow. Why I hear you ask? Quite simply because if your business has no cash flow, then you cannot survive for very long. As the recession looms on its very difficult to loan money from traditional places like the Banks, so cash really is vital to how long you can stick around for. You could have the best product, with the best profit margins, but if you are not getting the money in then you may as well forget it. I think I’ll deal with getting money in on a separate post as that’s pretty important too – lets save that one for another day.

OK so cash flow is, as you would expect, the measure of cash coming into and out of your business. It will help you forecast your performance and assist in making important decisions over whether you need to or even can invest in certain things to push your business forward. Any business owner without a healthy understanding of cash flow or how to keep track of your own is, in my opinion destined for problems.

So lets break down how to measure your cash flow. If you haven’t set up a cash flow forecast then I strongly suggest you open up a spreadsheet now and create one with me. I’m now going to help you do this step by step. Obviously you can go into a lot of detail breaking down income and outgoings to suit your business type, but I will give you the basics so that you have a good base to expand on. At this stage I would also like to dedicate this post to Jamie our business mentor who taught me everything I know about cash flow and forecasting. :)

So now you have your spreadsheet open the first thing to do is to make a note of the year and horizontally across the top of the page put the months of that year. I measure our cash flow on our financial year (in our case its August to July) as this helps us work out averages for the year when we have completed that fiscal period. Down the left hand side of the months, (in a separate column) you can then set up invoiced values and perhaps break this down by services or products you offer. Under the month you’re currently in, you can then start to record details on money you’ve actually invoiced (Important *This is money invoiced NOT received). Add in a row at the bottom of this that sums the values above it to give you total invoiced value for that month (Sales Delivered). Now below that create a row called ‘Cash Inflows’. While you’re forecasting (i.e. the data is not real yet) I advise that you create a cell equation that automatically puts the SUM of the sales values for the current month in 2 whole months later for the cash inflows row (when forecasting this allows for the time difference between invoicing and people actually paying you). This is important because as I mention earlier in the post it doesn’t matter how much you invoice, if you don’t get the money in quickly enough. Obviously when you complete an actual month you can put real values into this ‘cash inflows’ column.

So you’ve now got rows of sales values and cash inflow. You may wish to separate these easily with a heading, in a way that suits you, such as INCOMINGS.

Now we’re onto OUTGOINGS which again you might wish to title.

I find it handy to break down our outgoings by Variable and Fixed costs. So for variables I would have rows for things like (you may have more than these):

  • Wages
  • Tax and NI
  • Project Costs (Costs that are only there IF you sell something)

Then list your overheads or fixed costs – This will include things like:

  • Rent
  • Rates
  • Electricity
  • Gas
  • Phone
  • Office Consumables
  • Marketing Material
  • Accounts and Bookkeeping
  • External Services (consultancy/mentoring etc)

Again, consider your business and which costs are important to you. I find it helpful to have a few more rows at the bottom of the spreadsheet for other costs such as:

  • Capital Expenditure
  • Corporation Tax
  • VAT payments (only applicable if you’ve included VAT in other areas of your spreadsheet)
  • Bank Costs
  • Sundries

It is probably wise to have a contingency row as well which i generally set between 1-5% of all costs above.

At the very bottom of the spreadsheet you should then sum the OUTGOINGS. Finally, create a row which subtracts the outgoings from the in-comings to give you your cash flow for that month.

You should also sum up the accumulation of the years INCOMINGS and OUTGOINGS down the right hand side of the spreadsheet, so you can get a grasp on how the year as a whole looks. This is especially useful when you have a good amount of actual data and want to see a snapshot of your business in any one year. Having a row at the bottom of the cash flow, with actual bank balance figures, will allow you to predict, based on changes in in-comings and outgoings, what effect decisions will have on your available cash. For example, you can easily put in another persons wages and see how this affects the coming year, or perhaps plan what would happen if you were able to increase your sales by 10%. THIS IS THE REAL POWER OF A WELL STRUCTURED CASH FLOW FORECAST.

As you move through the year, make sure you update the cash flow from budget (forecasting) figures to actual figures. I find that when forecasting you can use averages for the rest of the year. The more actual data you have, the easier this will be.

Now you have your cash flow setup you need to make sure you review it regularly. We review ours monthly, so we have a really good idea where we are at all times. Please make sure you update and review this as regularly as possible or there is no point doing it. You’ll probably find that if you are the one updating it (as I was in the early days of our business) it helps you have a fantastic grasp on your finances, but you may have other people to show and account to and this is a great way of doing this.

I cannot tell you just how important cash flow is and although not the most interesting of posts, I’d urge you to do this today if you haven’t done so already and get a better grasp on your business.

I have uploaded a sample cash flow forecast for you to look at and check whether you’ve followed the instructions above correctly. If you click on the image below it will load a larger version of this sample. Have Fun :)

Sample Cashflow Forecast

Sample Cash flow Forecast

click me

Business Mentoring and its Importance

Apologies for the time its taken me to write this post. Moving house has been my priority this last couple of weeks and left me very little time to sit down and think about this important subject.

This post deals with the role business mentoring plays in successful businesses. It can be lonely at the top! :) OK so maybe that’s a bit dramatic but in all honesty when you are at the top of your business there is often no one to turn to, no one to ask whether you’re doing the right thing and if like me, you’ve not worked for anyone else (I started my business at University and am still running it 10 years later), no precedent has been set for most of the situations you come across. The learning curve is unbelievably steep, especially at the beginning and a big factor for why something like four out of five start-ups fail. This, in my opinion is why its so important to find yourself a business coach/mentor.

In Optix (my web design business), I’m lucky that I have my business partner James to bounce off. I’m sure that many of you reading this will not have anyone else because you’re running things yourself. If you’re in that position then I’d suggest a mentor is probably even more important for you.

James and I are extremely lucky that my father Jamie doubles up as our business mentor. Having run businesses with more that 150+ staff and now running his own consultancy in Essex, he is perfectly placed to offer advice to James and I as and when we need it. I’m big enough (well actually if you know me you’ll know I’m quite small!) to say that without Jamie’s help I don’t think James and I would be here today.

So what do you need to look to a mentor to help you with and why? When you find someone you get on with, trust and respect (this is critical), the sort of things you might want to talk to them about include:

  • Regularly looking at cash flow (the lifeblood of any business)
  • Profit and loss
  • Contracts (both ones you’ve been asked to sign and ones you need to draft for other companies)
  • Personnel issues
  • Financial decisions
  • Company strategy and Goal Planning

We have a regular monthly board meeting with Jamie and stick to a structured agenda with many of the points shown above discussed as a matter of course, even if there is nothing to note that month. It’s great practice to get into this routine so you always have a grasp on where the business is at that moment in time and where its going. It’s also a good time to report back to the board on issues that only you have been dealing with.

One thing I see a lot of is people who act as business coaches. Business coaching is a different kettle fish. Many coaches have developed their own models which can help you focus on your business goals and not get sidetracked by the day to day runnings of your business.

So if you’re reading this and saying to yourself, ‘yes but I don’t need a mentor/coach because I know my business and am successful in it’ then let me make a quick parallel for you:

Just think about sport at the top level – If you’re a premiership football club at the top of your game you have coaches, similarly if you’re a top ATP tennis player you will have a coach. Sportsmen and women all over the world have coaches and I believe in the business world its sensible to do the same.

Quite often as a director you’ll find yourself too ‘inside your business’. By this I mean you’re blinkered by the day to day goings on. Someone with experience of business outside can often break things down for you and help you make the best decisions for your business. A good mentor/coach in my opinion doesn’t make decisions for you, they merely pose the right questions that help you get to the right conclusions. You may find that these ‘answers’ often seem obvious but it’s this kind of mentoring which is fantastic for any business which wants to grow and go places.

I’ve met a lot of directors that have said they don’t need mentors/coaches and in my opinion some of these have let thier egos get in the way of good solid business sense.

If you’re wondering now how you can find a mentor, I’d suggest networking your local area and asking around – make sure you get recommendations for the person you’re thinking of getting in and of course, it goes without saying that if you’d like to talk to my father Jamie about what he can offer your business (anywhere in the UK), please contact me and I will happily put you in touch. I can put my hand on my heart and say that he is one of the biggest reasons that Optix is still around now, ten years after our incorporation and doing so well. :) Thanks Jamie!

Building Relationships with Suppliers

Howdy folks, another post and this time I want to deal with suppliers.

Much is written about building relationships with clients and customers but in my opinion not enough is said about the importance of relationships with suppliers. This surprises me because more often than not, your suppliers are propping up your business with their services and products. In many cases, businesses are selling on those services to others. If your relationship with a supplier breaks down it can lead to all sorts of problems.

I class suppliers into two categories – ‘essentials’ and ‘nice to haves’. An example of an ‘essential’ supplier for my business (web design) might be my Internet service provider or perhaps the company we use to run our customers online payment solutions. A ‘nice to have’ could be the water cooler company or coffee supplier. I focus primarily on essential suppliers in this post because they have the biggest effect on your business.

Some people try and drive cost down at every opportunity. In my opinion it’s important to pay the right price for goods and services. If you drive down a supplier to the point where there is no margin in a job for them they are less likely to provide as good a service to you as others might. Although you might get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve got their lowest cost, the knock on implications later may come back to haunt you. When you’re talking about a physical product, clearly it’s important to make sure you aren’t paying over the odds for it – if someone else provides the same product then shop around but be very careful to make sure you are getting like for like. This is even more true when it’s a service you’re buying – something intangible is far harder to judge on a like for like basis (this is a problem we suffer with in the web industry a lot). I have made a conscious decision as a business to make sure suppliers are paid on or as near to their terms as possible. If a supplier is in your ‘network sphere’, ie. they mix in the same business circles as you then be careful as word travels fast and you don’t want others not wishing to supply you due to your late payments or treatment of other suppliers.

If I can sum up my view on relationships with essential suppliers in one sentence it would be: “look after those that look after you”. I make it my business in these relationships to build up a rapport with as many members of staff through all areas of these supplier’s businesses. Make it your goal to know everyone from the person on first line support (these guys could become your most important friends in business) through to the management, through to accounts department. Let’s break that down a bit more:

Support Department – If you need help with the service or product you’re being supplied then you are probably going to talk to someone in the support department on the phone/email as the first port of call. Make it your business to show an interest in these people, find out about their personal lives/their interests etc…These are the guys that if something goes wrong, you want on your side. If this happens, then you want to know that these folk are going to look after you and prioritise you over perhaps other people suffering from the same issues. I want to know that if i need help I’m going to get it. Another thing I truly believe and recommend to any business owners out there is to reward these people when a good job is done and at certain times of the year (Christmas etc..). If they go out of their way to help you then make sure you thank them, even if it’s just a card or box of chocolates. We always send our main suppliers drinks and chocolates at Christmas and if they do a good job for us. Do you thank your suppliers enough?

Management – Sometimes you don’t get to meet your supplier’s management teams but where possible make it your business to do so. If you need something done at a high level then these are the people who will hopefully be able to make it happen for you. They are generally the guys that will be setting prices and deciding who to deal with and where their business is going – as a main supplier this all has a knock on effect on you and your business.

Accounts – The person that raises invoices to your company is well worth spending some time on. If you need a few extra days to pay you need to have a good relationship with this person/team. If you get on well with them they are more likely to be good to your business and let you have some leniency on payments. In my start-up days this was especially important.

OK, for fear of boring you too much, I’m keeping my ‘Banksy’s top tips’ short and sweet on this one:

1). Find out the first names of your suppliers and use them where possible in conversation (works well on the phone)
2). People will move jobs so make sure you try and get to know as many people doing the same job as possible
3). Don’t drive price down so much your suppliers can’t give you their complete attention
4). Pay your suppliers regularly and preferably before they have to chase you for payment
5). Send suppliers gifts at key times of the year and when they go beyond the call of duty for you

As a small business owner, think carefully about how you treat your suppliers because you never know when you’ll need them…oh and if I ever become a supplier to you then please treat me well too :)

Nothing Here?

If there is nothing in this category yet then im sorry,  i probably havent got round to writing about this topic yet.  Keep checking back…