7 Things a Startup Company Should Think About

7 Things a Startup Company Should Think About

This morning I was thinking back to when I started my web design business in Exeter and how much both the business and I had changed. Back then, there were three of us, all very wet behind the ears (that’s a really odd saying isn’t it!). We were at University at the time (Exeter) and all studying computer science. We had made a conscious decision to start a business but to be honest not really thought much about how or who we needed to talk to. We were lucky to have my Dad around who acted as a mentor and pointed us in the right direction but it got me thinking about other people not lucky enough to find good, trustworthy advice, so easily. There must be lots and lots of people in the same position as we were, at University or leaving school, thinking about starting up and having great ideas but not knowing where to start. I’m sure there are many great fledgling businesses stifled at this point which is a real shame. In this post I’m going to skirt over a few things we did when we started up – I’m hoping this will be useful to some of you out there in a similar position to me, 10 years ago. In future posts I may well delve deeper into certain areas but if you know of anyone thinking about starting a business from University or School then please send them in the direction of this post. :)

1). Come up with a company name – Might sound obvious but when you make a success of it then this will stick and be quite difficult to change. A lot of people ask me where the name Optix Solutions comes from and to be perfectly honest here is the answer:

  • 4 guys sitting in a university bedroom chatting about setting up in business
  • Probably a few beers had been sunk (we were students after all)
  • One said, ‘Web Design is quite visual’
  • Another said ‘Optical – that’s visual’
  • ‘Optical Solutions’ someone shouted out
  • ‘How about Optix Solutions – that’s a bit more street!’

So there you have it – easy as that! Now as it happens I quite like our name and its worked well for us but given the chance again I probably would have put some more thought into it and considered the future when it started to become a known name in our town – I’d urge anyone going through this process to do the same.

2). Register your domain name – I pondered over which should come first – this point or the next. I decided on domain names because of the difficulty of getting good ones these days. In an ideal world your domain name would:

  • Be Short(ish) – although almost every permutation of 3 and 4 letters have been taken
  • Protect your brand – register .com / .co.uk / .net and any other relevant endings for your type of business
  • Try and avoid hyphens where possible – they are difficult to spell out over a phone and confuse people
  • Not point traffic at competitors or unsavoury sites – If you can’t get all the endings for a domain you want, make sure you check what is on the ending that’s already registered. Users make mistakes and you want to see what site you’ll be sending traffic too – I’ve seen some terrible examples of this happen to people I know

If you’re not sure on domains then take advice and talk to people that know about them. At Optix we regularly advise on domains and register on our clients behalf. Give our office a call on 01392 667766 if you want some friendly help.

3). Register your company name – Once you have the name you should probably do a few things based on where you want to take the business. I’m a firm believer in starting by creating a limited company where you’re protected as the business owner. You probably don’t know if you’re going to make a success of it, so the more protection the better. If you’re on a shoestring, then you might not be able to afford to speak to Solicitors at this stage, but in an ideal world you’d want to check there are no trademarks or other legal issues you could come up against later, when you become well known. A solicitor will be able to run quick checks on names to let you know whether this is likely to be an issue. As a startup I never saw the importance of this but as I’ve become more business savvy and seen examples of people having to change brand and company names that they’ve poured thousands and thousands of pounds into, because they never made these checks, I now understand the need for it. Registering a company name is something you need to do at Companies house – there are plenty of agents out there that will do it all for you for about a hundred quid – We used a company called Jordans who were excellent.

4). Find a good Accountant/Bookkeeper – The number of small business owners that I meet that try and do their own books and accounts is unbelievable! Why would you do that? It’s hard enough running a business as it is without then having to work out a whole new world of numbers that go with it. Oh, and then there’s the small point about getting it wrong as well. You don’t want that to happen or you could end up with all sorts of problems to deal with. There are plenty of fantastic bookkeepers and accountants around who are setup to help start-ups. You won’t need someone in full time, you’ll probably only need that person one or two days every week/month at first, to enter data and help with things like Tax and VAT. For under £20 an hour (bookkeeper) that is money well spent in my opinion and one I truly feel any small business needs to budget for. Accountants are more expensive and I would advise trying to find one you can pay for monthly rather than getting lumbered with a large bill when accounts come round each year – this will help cash flow and save you from a yearly heart attack each time you file your accounts.

5). Find a good Solicitor – Like Accountants, Solicitors are a necessity for some things. You can probably word your own terms and conditions and contracts if you want but you’ll be on thin ice if anything happens and you need representation. When you get into the world of leasing or buying, you’ll have to employ a solicitor to assist you anyway. My advice is get in with a firm early. There are lots of firms out there who will offer you 30mins to an hour free and my advice would be to go and speak to a few and choose someone you like and has a good reputation. We work with a firm call Ashford’s whose head office is in Exeter but they work all around the world. The guys at Ashford’s are fantastic and I can recommend them wholeheartedly – They’ve acted for me on a number of things, all business related.

6). Talk to local business advisors – Some love em, some loathe them, but my experience of organisations like Business Link has been relatively positive. Find a good advisor at this organisation and they will really help you succeed in business and here’s the best thing for you start-ups – its FREE! Yes the magic word! Because of the fact its free they are usually stacked out which is why I always recommend you find yourself  mentor as well and pay them (See this post about mentoring). Give Business Link a call and they will help signpost you if they can’t answer questions themselves.

7). Find a good Bank Manager – Notice how I say Bank Manager and not just Bank? Your relationship with your bank manager will be critical to your success. You never know when you’ll want that overdraft extended or perhaps the limits on your card increased, or even just a better rate on something. Well this will almost certainly come down to your relationship with your bank manager. Go to each bank and spend some time with the commercial managers there and choose on relationship and gut feel (throw in some sense on what they are offering too of course). We love our bank manager at Optix (bet you don’t hear that said very often!) – If you’re in Exeter then I would be delighted to make the introduction to him should you so wish.

It’s funny how things flow back to you when you start writing about the past. Start-up can be a really exciting time – just make sure you’re not too proud to get as much advice as possible and soak it all in. As ever, I wish you the best of luck.

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 :)