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.

Scott Gould vs Alastair Banks – A Case Study

Ok – back to me again! I have to warn you I’m feeling a bit mischievous today, hence the title!

I realise that this blog will be read by people that don’t know either Scott or I so before I go on, I just want to give you a quick heads-up on who Scott is. He runs a relatively new (2008) ‘Experience Marketing Company’ in Exeter called Aaron & Gould. You don’t need to know us either – what underlies is an important message for new business owners or people trying to make a name for themselves.  That’s probably all you need to know. Let’s move on….

Did you know that most business owners (SMES) are more often than not, sales people? They have to be in order for their businesses to succeed. They normally can’t afford to pay someone to go out and sell for them so they have to sell themselves (this is why some of my networking/sales posts are so critical if you’re starting up). There is nothing wrong with this – it’s how I started and it forms the basis for my post – you see times have changed in business and it wasn’t until I met my new pal Scott Gould that I realised quite how much (Well I realised but this really brought it home).

When I started Optix Solutions I shamelessly gave out my business card to everyone I met – The way I saw it, the more people that knew about Optix the better. In certain circles I was known as the networking king – visiting every meeting I could, wherever it might be and giving away more and more business cards. In fact this got to the point where even my best friends, who didn’t know me through work circles, lovingly gave me the nickname of ‘business card’ :) Happy Days! To be honest, I still live by this mantra – you never know who someone might know, so what are you waiting for, exchange contact details and see where it goes. In fact, only last week I sat on the buffet service on the train back from London and met a senior partner from Deloitte, a guy from Reuters and a product designer. The guy from Deloitte asked for my card and the chap from Reuters and I exchanged details – all over a meal and a two hour train journey from London to Exeter – The point is, that might not go anywhere – but equally I may well have my biggest sale next month from it. If I hadn’t exchanged cards, it certainly wouldn’t have given me any chance at all.

Back in 1999, Social Media certainly wasn’t around – in fact, Google wasn’t even around (well, only just). Man, I’m starting to worry that I sound old writing this now. :) I should mention at this point that it took me years to become well known – even in a small town like Exeter. I would guess that it was a good 5 years before I was trusted on the networking circuit.

Now roll on 10 years and I meet this chap, Scott, through our mutual love of Social Media and especially Twitter – I think I’m right in saying that from one of my first tweets about Exeter he popped up with a friendly ‘hello’ and said if I needed any help that I could contact him’ – What a gent! We’ve since become friends and Scott and I have done some work together. Optix also sponsored the fantastic event that he put on a month or so ago – Like Minds.

I’m pretty sure that by his own admittance he would say that at the start of this year, his name was not very well known in Exeter. He was a true start-up, had a few clients and was looking around for work. Through use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter he was able to connect with quite literally hundreds of people in the Exeter area in a very short space of time. I watched this process for months with great interest. He was essentially doing what I did when I started, but using new technologies and platforms to achieve it – and doing very well at it. For the first part of the year very few people had actually met Scott but many new his name – they’d connected on Twitter and other platforms, but slowly and surely people soon started to meet him at tweet ups and events and then of course he blew everyone away by organising Like Minds entirely using social media (read my article on that here). Now he’s known all over the town – in fact some might say it’s the Scott Gould show at the mo ;) (He will love that one!)

Scott has successfully used modern tools to network the area, gain trust and reputation and he now stands in a great place to capitalise on that and take Exeter, Devon and possibly the World by storm – All in less than a year. I take my hat off to him, I really do. What took me years to achieve, Scott has done in a far shorter period of time. I wish him well.

So to summarise, in case anyone missed the point of this post – Use social media to build your networks locally, gain trust and reputation. Make sure you network online and offline and as much as possible and you’ll reap the rewards in business. To help you along the way I’ve picked out a few of the tactics Scott would have used to achieve what he has – you too can use these, starting today:

  • Follow your local town/city name – Setup a search for the town/city in any of the major tools such as tweetdeck and actively engage with people mentioning the name  – There are also directories like twellow that you can use to find people and now twitter has its ‘lists’ feature, many people have setup local lists which make it really easy to find local ‘tweeps’ – For those of you in Exeter – Here is the search for Exeter on Twitter done for you already.
  • Use social media as an ‘Enabler and Extender’ – Try and take your contact through the following process – tweet/email/call/meetup – You may be lucky enough to do business as a direct result of SM but its more likely that you’ll need to meet up, so use the tools to gently take people more quickly through this processes which might have taken months or years in ‘olden days’ – circa <2007 ;)
  • Have a clear result – Who do you want to attract/connect with?  Have a strategy, even if  its as basic as ‘I want to talk to business leaders/influencers in my town’ – Filter out what you’re not interested in and have a strategy in place.

Scott and I have recently co-founded TAGS Tweetup in Exeter with Dave Thomas – If you’re interested in finding out more then please take a look at our new Tags blog for information about the next event.

Now go and put a brew on and come back ready to use your new found tactics to build your network and of course, as always, please let me know about your success.

Interview with Banksy and James

This post was done last year for our ninth birthday at Optix. As we turn ten next Monday I thought I’d revisit the interview for those that missed it.

Interview with James Dawkins and Alastair Banks of Optix Solutions:
It’s hard to believe that Alastair and James were merely 20 years old when they joined forces to start Optix Solutions in 1999. Since then, their strong business acumen and un-reserved commitment to exceeding customer expectations has helped develop Optix Solutions into a professional Web Design and Internet Services Company with a dedicated team of Business Development Managers, Web Designers, Web Developers and Search Engine Optimisation Consultants – working with some of the UK’s leading organisations!

In this interview we look back at how together, Alastair and James, have achieved their success.

Q. What inspired you to start Optix Solutions?

James: Quite simply – not wanting to work for someone else!

Alastair: I’d agree with James here – we felt there was a gap in the market and didn’t want to work for anyone else after finishing University.

Q. What’s the most rewarding part of running Optix?

Alastair: There are so many! I still get a massive buzz from developing relationships and helping clients – but seeing a team develop around James and me is also very rewarding.

James: Seeing all of the hard work we devote to our clients pay off! Like winning the award for Best Franchise Website Design with Urban Planters last year was fantastic, and being nominated for the Business Enterprise Award by the Federation of Small Business this year demonstrates recognition for our continuous progression as a company.

Q. What has been the most significant change on the web since Optix was founded in 1999?

Alastair: Firstly we went through the ‘Dot Com Bubble’ in 1999/2000; we saw e-Commerce start to take off through the early noughties and now Social Media is off the scale… It’s quite amazing! Have I mentioned TravellersConnected.com? (TravellersConnected.com is a Social Networking site dedicated to helping Travellers find a Travel Companion and all other Travel related advice and information. Both Alastair and James are founding members of the site which was established in 2004 and is today recognised as one of the 100 Best Travel Sites by the Times Online!)

Q. How have you been able to succeed in such a competitive market?

James: Selecting a hard-working team, trying to stay ahead of the game and looking after our clients as best as possible!

Alastair: As James said, developing a great team, looking after our clients and regularly consulting with an experienced Business Adviser have definitely helped us succeed.

Q. How do you hope Optix will develop over the next 9 years?

Alastair: We’d both like to see another office and perhaps more spin-offs like TravellersConnected.com to get our teeth into. I think when you’re entrepreneurial you’re always looking for the next opportunity.

James: An Optix sponsored race car!

Q. What do you look forward to most at the start of a work day?

James: The truth is no day is ever the same, but it’s always great hearing from our clients – so I guess we look forward to embracing the unknown and pushing the boundaries.

Alastair: Definitely, couldn’t have said it better myself James.  I knew there was a reason I went into business with you.

Q. Any last words?

Both: Watch this space!

Start by Selling Yourself

Well once again I find myself apologising for the time taken to write this post – At least I’m now settled in my new pad and have a computer at home so no excuses anymore :)

If you’re starting a business then I’m sure that like me, you’ll probably be selling something – either a product or a service. The majority of start-up owners have to be sales people (whether they like it or not) purely because they are often the only people in the business.

Now let’s put aside this theory that you are selling a product or a service – you’re not, you’re selling yourself!!! *Queue dramatic music*

‘People buy People’ – It maybe an over-used saying but it’s very true. So my advice is this, think about who you are and how you present yourself both physically and through your personality. You may need to do some soul searching for this. Consider how people perceive you, maybe even ask for feedback from clients and be ready to take the constructive criticism. If you’re willing to invest in this process selling will become easier.

There are many types of sales people – from those who are in more direct hard sales, to the other end of the scale who are slightly more fluffy – Some organisations may class these as ‘Hunters and Farmers’. A hunter typically drives for sale after sale, moving on after each one while a farmer, ‘farms’ their relationship with people for long term gain. My own personality is quite fluffy and I’m definitely a farmer (I even have a flat cap now but that’s another story!) but I do try where possible to match my personality to whomever I’m speaking to.

So, if people buy people then what does this mean to you? What can you do to give yourself a better chance of making a sale and more importantly getting repeat business? Here are Banksy’s top 5 tips:

1). Emanate positivity- Lets be honest things are not always great in business. There will be days when you feel like you should of just stayed in bed. When starting up, its even harder because you have all the pressures of money as well; ‘where will the next lot of money come from to pay that bill’ etc… Unless you get really lucky, this is something we all go through. My point here, is that HOWEVER you feel, you need to emanate positivity when out and about, talking to someone on the phone, networking and at meetings etc…basically anywhere you’re interacting with people not directly involved in your business. If you turn up to a networking meeting and I come to speak to you and the you start telling me that business is slow and you’re not very happy and blah blah blah, two things are going to happen – 1). You’re going to depress me and probably everyone else you talk to that day and 2). This is highly unlikely to make me want to give you my business. If you take one thing from this post please let it be this: BE POSITIVE in public. There is one guy, who I see around Exeter regularly and every time I ask him how he is, his standard response (and its been the same for about 8 years now) is “Fantastic” – said with a huge smile. I’m certain that in those 8 years there must have been a few times when it wasn’t fantastic but he certainly knows the benefits of acting positively in public. On the same note there are people who moan about everything each time I see them out. These people don’t tend to stay in business very long or certainly don’t do very well from it.

2). Dress like the person you’re meeting/doing business with. This sounds strange and possibly a bit obvious but you’d be surprised how much of a difference it makes. If you’re meeting with an Accountant/Solicitor then make sure you’re wearing a suit and look smart and clean. If you’re meeting a plumber then a suit is probably a little OTT, maybe smart jeans and shirt are more sensible. Clearly if your business means you must wear certain threads (like a uniform) then this may not be applicable.

3). Mimic Body Language – One of the most interesting things I’ve learnt in my time in business is the importance of body language in sales. If you mimic the person you’re talking too (and I don’t mean repeat what they say or anything silly) then you’ll be surprised how much easier a meeting will run. I’m not a body language expert but I can tell you this puts people at ease and will help the sales process. I quite often find myself mirroring the person I’m talking to at business meetings instinctively, especially if  I’m getting on well with them.

4). Consider your audience – This goes for all types of sales but when selling yourself, you need to consider the person you’re selling to and adapt your persona to theirs. This might mean trying to pick up on elements of their personality, language or dress as mentioned above. To give you a really obvious example, would you act the same around a workman on a building site as you would with a solicitor or accountant? I consider it a real skill to morph yourself so that whomever approaches you, you can very quickly determine what type of person you’re dealing with and then change various aspects of yourself to suit them.

5). Build a relationship (will deal with more in future posts). A relationship will yield far better results in the long run. People will warm to you more if you spend time getting to know them and their business before telling them what you can do for them. I mentioned this in my networking post as well as I truly believe it to differentiate good sales people from poor ones. Concentrate on building relationships with everyone you know and mark my words (oh dear I sound like an old teacher), it will help you sell yourself.

I really hope this has been helpful – much of it is common sense but if you’re new to business then next time you’re due to go out to a networking event or meeting, just skim over this post first and try and implement some of it and see what results you get – I’d be keen to hear your feedback :)

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!

My first blog post – The purpose of this all

So what is the purpose of this blog then? And before some of you say its to inflate my ego, i can assure you thats only part of the reason.. ;)

While thinking about our (Optix) 10th birthday this July, i had one of those ‘moments of realisation’. People have always said how well we’ve done and seem to be amazed by the fact that i started Optix at University, without working for anyone else. I’m now 30, Optix is soon to turn 10 and has 12 staff members and a turn over of 400K+.

Lets get one thing clear first, i am not a millionaire and its probably going to be sometime before i get there so I’m not able to explain to you how to achieve a ridiculous state of wealth, nor do i claim that my life is perfect in every possible way. However, I do feel that at a very young age i have done pretty well, starting two companies and being a partner in another. If i can pass on any of the things Ive learnt along the way to budding entrepreneurs then i will be very happy. If I can inspire others to go out and build businesses in the way i have then it can only be a good thing. Being a director of a company can be an incredibly lonely place so in this blog i hope to offer a place to come and realise that you’re not alone.

Can i ask that if you know anyone starting a business, any students of business, any other entrepreneurs or anyone you feel might find it useful or interesting, that you will pass this blog address onto them. Please also share this via your social networks – Facebooks/MySpaces/Twitters etc and help me get my stories out to others…

Just so you know, I wont be blogging every single day as im really quite busy but do intend to keep it as regular as possible within reason…

Oh yes, i almost forgot – Here are the links to some of my businesses and interests:

http://www.optixsolutions.co.uk

http://www.travellersconnected.com

http://www.twitter.com/banksy6