Time for Reflection

Time for Reflection

As a small business owner it’s all to easy to get completely consumed by your business. I didn’t take a single holiday for at least the first five years, I worked through weekends and spent every hour I could in the office during the week just to keep things going. It’s what you do when you’re a start-up. If you’re about to start your own company and don’t like the sound of that, forget it – you’re not right for this – go and get a nice 9-5 somewhere.

There is, however, a problem with this strategy when in start-up mode – it gives you no time for reflection, and reflection is essential. This is the time you need to step back from the business and take stock of everything. You’re too close to things on a daily basis to reflect and plan properly.

So this weekend, while you have some time off here is my suggestion:

Reflect on your overall business

Reflect on your sales and sales processes

Reflect on your company’s relationships with customers

Reflect on your brand

Reflect on your staff & what they do for you

Reflect on your finances and how you can improve them

Reflect on your internal processes for getting work done / products delivered

Reflect on yourself – are you working efficiently? What could you do differently?

I find it useful when doing this kind of exercise to write things down. The danger, if you don’t, is that the ideas you have get lost again as you get busy. Mind mapping is a very useful technique to learn for visualising this kind of information.

Now here’s the thing – When you’ve done all this and you go back to work on Tuesday – action some of the things you’ve reflected on. Don’t let this list form part of your ‘never read’ pile. Make sure it’s somewhere you can see regularly and ask yourself whether you’re making the changes and trying the new things at least once a week.

Good luck and have a great Easter

Personal Branding in a ‘P2P’ World

Personal Branding in a ‘P2P’ World

After a couple of very hectic weeks and then a fantastic week’s holiday I need to get back into my regular Friday blog post. I intend to start that again today.

Just before I start, If you were confused by ‘p2p’ in the title it stands for People to People. More on that later.

I want to take a look at something that’s become very important to me recently – personal brand. In my opinion one of the biggest changes in marketing this last year or two (since social media) is the move from business brands to personal brands. There has been a lot of talk about whether you should promote your business through social media channels using a business account, or through personal accounts from staff within the company, or even a combination of the two. I’ve been sitting back studying the trends for quite a while now and have formed my own opinion on this given everything I know and have witnessed through the last year or two. I’m going to use Twitter for this post as it’s probably one of the easiest social media channels to look at.

So if you’re starting up a business or are simply just getting into Social Media how should you create your accounts? I believe there are a few good (not right or wrong) ways of doing this. My view is to research others then adapt these to my own requirements. Here are my recommendations for accounts to look at:

Take a look at the Ford US Twitter account – There is a guy called Scott Monty who heads up social media and under the Ford account, shares the responsibility for tweeting with a number of other staff there. They differentiate the tweets by using the ^ symbol followed by the initials of the staff member there. This has the immediate impact of personalising the brand. The bio clearly defines who does what so when communicating with them you feel like there is a personal touch (shown below):

“·  Bio Drive One. This account is run by @ScottMonty (^SM) & @GwenPeake (^GP), Digital Communications, @JWard35 (^JW) @MSchirmerFord (^MHS), Product Communications”

ASOS the famous online clothing retailer take this a step further and encourage staff members to have their own accounts, preceded with ASOS_ – They appear to then build their own networks while subtly promoting ASOS if there is the opportunity (but not shoving things down people’s throats). This is another great way of spreading a brand message using a personal touch.

Dell Outlet use Twitter for coupons and promo codes for their outlet store. They were famously one of the first major brands to come out in public with a true social media ROI. They have other accounts for customer service and engaging users although interestingly they appear to now be engaging much more on this Outlet account (maybe someone had a word!). There is speculation over whether a social network should be used for pure sales like this and I certainly wouldn’t advise you try this if you’re in an SME without brand power like Dell, but clearly its working for them so one to watch.

At Optix Solutions we have a number of accounts – The main Optix account is used to promote client websites, site launches and news from the business. It’s definitely been harder to build followers on this account but we do see it as another strand to the businesses marketing mix. We also do our best to show our business personality promoting things like new staff, goals, achievements and events that we put on – like #optixhatday (where all the staff had to wear a hat) and #optixhawaainday (where we dressed in colourful clothing because of the rubbish summer we had). We then encourage our staff to create their own accounts and build their own networks. This is really important as a business because of the power in numbers. The more people we are talking to locally, the more know us, the more likely we are to pick up the opportunity to quote on work as and when it happens. None of these accounts directly sell, they simply build relationships.

Olivier Blanchard (The Brand Builder) wrote a fantastic post on a new classification of business p2p (person to person).

I completely agree with Olivier’s post and am really looking forward to doing business in a new ‘p2p world’ but for these companies to exist and flourish it’s vital that some of the more old school way of thinking is put aside and staff are empowered to concentrate on their personal brands.

Aren Grimshaw of Tonick Media summed this up for me at the recent Likeminds event in Exeter. He said, ‘The simple way of describing the use of social media in businesses is to draw the analogy with the traditional village shop where you walked in and the owner knew your name, what you bought each time and probably asked how your partner and kids were at the same time’. It’s all about personal service and personal connections. Nail this and you’ll nail social media channels like Twitter :)

These maybe basic, but for the starters amongst you here are my ‘Banksy’s top 5 tips’ for working on your personal brand online:

1). Use a picture of your face on social networks – where possible use the same picture across the networks for consistency. Some people like to show themselves doing something they enjoy (like sport) – This is fine if you can see the face too. It’s important to personalise a medium which could be seen as fairly impersonal. Don’t hide behind a silly avatar. I like to recognise who I’m talking too and then when I meet them in real life I know instantly who they are.

2). Be likeable – This goes for all walks of life – on and offline but is so important. Consider what people say about you when you’re not in the room – if you’re not sure or are worried about this, you may just need to think about your attitude a bit and work on it.

3). Be Helpful – Don’t spend all day talking about yourself or trolling other people. No one likes listening to someone else go on about themselves all day or belittling others. Consider what you can do to help your friends, family and colleagues now. Go and do something memorable for them this minute. Give value without expecting anything in return – it’s a philosophy that will stand you in good stead. On social media platforms like Twitter you need to make sure you’re retweeting people, thanking them when they retweet you and point your followers in the direction of information they would find useful.

4). Mix it up – Business and Pleasure – In my opinion it’s much easier to relate to someone if they are a mixture of business and pleasure. It’s far easier to get on with someone if you can uncover things that they like to do outside work and perhaps common interests.

5). Attitude – Ok, so maybe this is covered by some of the points above but it’s just so important to everything you do and how far you’ll go. Do you wake up in the morning full of life, go to work and love what you do? Attitude is catching – make sure you surround yourself with positive people where possible, they will rub off on you and help you succeed. In the same way, negative people will drain you – rid your life of these people.

So if you’re going to be a p2p company as Olivier’s blog sets out, you need to make sure you and all your staff (if you have them) adopt these values early and make sure they are ingrained in the fabric of your organisation.

Bonjour

P.S. We’ve partnered with the forward-thinking team at Like Minds to produce a White Paper on how businesses are (or aren’t!) using Social Media and we would love for you to be a part of it! All you need to do is take a few minutes to fill out the survey here: http://bit.ly/9FUt8W.

p.p.s. If you like what you’ve read here then you should sign up to my RSS feed and every time I update this site the post will be sent to your reader automatically

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.

Social Media in Business

Even by the internet’s rapid standards, the rise of Social Media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Stumbeupon has been nothing short of meteoric.

With hundreds of millions of people worldwide using social networks regularly (Facebook now has 200 million active users) and their popularity continuing to grow on a daily basis, they represent a massive marketing opportunity to switched-on business.

In Exeter, Social Media is taking off with a large group of users networking regularly together. Next month sees the first social media conference in Devon organised by my friend @scottgould. Optix Solutions are amongst the sponsors and are very excited about hearing and meeting @treypennington and @thebrandbuilder who are both flying over from America especially for the event. Tickets by the way can be bought here: http://alikeminds.org/

The big question for me, is still whether or not a brand can embrace Social Media as well as a person can. I believe there is room for both and there is no question that many high profile businesses have done extremely well from Social Media. Dell, Starbucks and Google all use Twitter well but is there a case for smaller SME’s to make it work for them?

My Opinion: YES! MOST DEFINATELY and I’ve experienced this with my own business. However, whether you run a business or a personal account there are certain ways to go about things and certain etiquette you need to get used to. Within Optix, we encourage our staff to have their own blogs/twitter accounts/social media pages and without a question of doubt this has lead to stronger relationships with our clients who are also using social media and to new work and relationships with people we would almost certainly never have come across without it.

Here are the twitter feeds of some of the guys in Optix (oh and Optix own one is @optixsolutions – we use this for info on our business, special offers, news and site launches):

My Own Twitter Account: @banksy6
Al Gleave (Bus Dev): @alpenwest
Kris Sousa (Sales/Support): @kristensousa
Nick Watson: (Developer) @nickizzle

There is so much I could say about Social Media and Twitter in particular but I’m aiming this at new business owners and entrepreneurs so lets just set you along the right path with some good solid advice on why you need to start thinking about Social Media in your business.

Here are Banksy’s top 5 tips for making social media work for you.

1). Allow people to share your business successes and stories with others – FOR FREE! You can do this by adding a tool to pages on your website that allow anyone surfing, to very quickly share your content with others. Popular tools include Share This and Add This both of which do the job more than adequately. If you’re not sure what I mean by this then take a look at the Devon Air Ambulance website that my company Optix Solutions have just launched and scroll right down to the bottom of the page. You will see a green icon with ‘share this’ written next to it. Click it and see how easy it is to share that website on Facebook/Twitter and many, many other websites out there. Think now of the power of just one or two users sharing that website with potentially hundreds or maybe even thousands of trusted contacts and friends that they have on their own networks. Its almost a no-brainer to have this added to your website these days. If you don’t know how to add it or need help then drop me a line :)

2). Build contacts, relationships and networks online – I’m sure if you’re starting a business, in your early years as a business or an entrepreneur of any kind, you are probably networking offline? Am I right? Well Twitter and other social networks allow you to find people with similar interests and values and then connect with them. The rest is up to you as it would be offline. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a short-term gain, its not. Invest in social media and you’ll reap the rewards later.

3). Leverage social media for your other forms of marketing – Social Media is a great way of generating traffic for your blog or website. Users may then go on and look around other services you have to offer on these websites. In fact, although this blog is starting to get a good reputation with the search engines, the largest referrer of traffic to it each time I post is Twitter. This is because I put the word out to my network each time I post and people visit….which is great:)!

4). Become known as a ‘thought leader’ – This is really about building authenticity in your brand – be it personal or business. It’s a brave/stupid person that tries to sell directly from social media – it just doesn’t work. You need to show others that your posts/tweets/content can be thought provoking and hopefully interesting  so they will engage with you if they feel it’s right to do so. Don’t push marketing material out to them too much or you’ll simply lose followers and contacts.

5). Even if you don’t believe in social media yourself, others do and they could be talking about you or asking for help. There are a myriad of tools out there which allow you to monitor mentions of phrases, including your own brand. I for example, have tools set up to monitor mentions of my company name as well as my own name. Our company monitors local tweets, and anything to do with people looking for web design work.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this is not meant to be, in anyway a full break down of social media and what it can do for you, its merely a teaser. I do hope in the future to focus on the individual networks and go into a bit more depth for you on how to get the best from each of these, however in the mean time I recommend reading the Chris Brogan’s blog post on social media here for some great tips:

http://www.chrisbrogan.com/50-ways-marketers-can-use-social-media-to-improve-their-marketing/

Consider today what you want to achieve from social media, consider your audience and which sites they might be using and then put together a plan for yourself and of course, if you need help – drop us a line. Good luck.