Business cards for new start-ups

Business cards for new start-ups

In the interest of full transparency, today see’s a sponsored post from Leslie Harding who approached me a while ago to write about a topic I feel is important to you guys. When starting Optix Solutions, 13 years ago I quickly gained the nickname ‘business card’ with my peer group. At almost every opportunity I gave a card to anyone who would have one. It was a necessity back then to get the business off the ground. When Leslie sent me this post I was delighted as its a topic I’ve not written much about before. Enjoy…

Author Bio:
Leslie Harding an Events Management graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University who has a keen interest in entrepreneurship and business development.

Many people argue that business cards have become somewhat obsolete since the 1990’s. Are they a worthwhile investment for start-ups?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were used to signal the arrival of someone important to your home or town. Today they are used as a way of self-advertisement much as they were previously but nowadays it is a less grandiose gesture, and more of a common attribute in business meetings. Which is why it is important to understand why they are a solid investment for any new business start-up.

Business etiquette
Etiquette, seemingly an old and outdated formality can have a surprising effect on our modern lives and business. Business cards are very much about business etiquette.  It is very much part of the corporate custom to swap business cards with people you meets at trade shows, conferences and such like. It is the first point of call for anyone you meet on a professional level and offers an extended first impression of you and your business.
You should also consider having double sided cards printed if you plan on working or expanding into different countries. Make sure your business cards are suitable for the foreign market and have them printed with the language of the country on one side. If you personally hand someone a card make sure you hand them it with their spoken language upwards.

Up close and personal
It is suggested that business cards help to increase personal relationships in the business world. They are important for this reason. Business is arguably all about contacts, people buy from people and connections are important. Business cards help promote personal relationships in the working world. Your business card is an extension of you and the first impression you give, the two should go hand in hand. Make it personal and professional at the same time, many people suggest a photograph of you helps to enforce this idea and also helps people put a face to a name, literally.

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Business cards as mentioned are an extension of you. They are the second, “first” impression people are given of you. They should reflect you and what you do purely and simply. They are a way of self-promotion and advertisement and you should make sure you have more than enough when attending conferences and meetings with potential suppliers or business partners etc. Make them simple but effective.

Design
Your cards should express you and what you do. They should be eye catching and have relevant information on them only.  You should stick to the simple, “who, what, where, when and how to contact you” layout, your contact section should include your social media and website information. Keep your design clean and not too over the top, although a little personality won’t hurt covering your business cards in Hello Kitty is not relevant unless you’re running a fan club.

Cheap cost not cheap quality
You do not have to pay through the roof for marketing materials. Starting a new business is expensive and where possible you shouldn’t cut corners especially with your marketing materials as these are what your investors and customers see. This doesn’t mean you need to re-mortgage your house.  There are plenty of options out there it’s just about shopping around and finding the best deals, companies offer free online personalisation and often free sample bundles. This is a great way to test the water and a cheap but professional quality source. Business cards are still widely used and for new business start-ups they are a great way of selling your company to potential investors, partners and your clients and customers. They are by no means the only reason you will succeed but if forgotten about can reduce your impact in meetings, imagine going to an interview without having prepared or leaving your CV at home.

From a stable job to a start-up business

This week I spent some time interviewing friend and now supplier of my firms book-keeping services, Ben Didier about starting his own business earlier this year.

Why did you choose to go it alone?

I have always wanted my own business, ever since I was young.  For me it was the plan from the start – College then Uni then business and management experience – then my own business!  It has been far from plain sailing but that is near enough the route I have taken.  I actually wrote down the reasons for taking the step when I started, as I knew there would be tough days ahead and I needed to be clear about why I was doing it. Here they are:

1.       Create something of my own that I can build and develop.  I get a real sense of achievement from that and hopefully, eventually it will produce a strong income.

2.       Set my own terms of working.  I want the freedom to choose my own projects and working methods.  On the other side the responsibility and risk that comes with this it is not for everyone and not all circumstances – sometimes you can’t afford to take the risk.

3.       Direct risk and reward.  I want to get the direct benefit of my actions and decisions, and am also prepared to accept the consequences of those when it doesn’t work out.  Employment can shield you from both sides of this, to an extent.

What attitude do you think you need to go it alone?

The single most important part of starting out on your own is – Wanting itResilience is the first quality of business – because if you give up before you have had chance to make it – then you wont.   People outside of business often focus on their service or product when thinking about starting up, rather than about winning work.  This can prove a shock when starting out, as business is primarily driven by winning customers – and looking after them!  Winning the work requires determination as it takes time, people aren’t always ready for what you offer at the time you offer it, and there are always many set-backs.  If you can’t get beyond those mentally, then business may not be for you.  As a bookkeeper I would always say you need to be interested enough in the figures to ensure that more money is coming in then going out!

What was the scariest thing about doing it?

The unknown market –“ is there the appetite for the services I want to provide in the area?”  You never really know until you actually start.  I had planned to get a part time job if the clients did not materialise quickly enough, and had cut my personal outgoings to the bone, so I had considered the risks carefully.  I knew sales may takes some time and wanted to survive long enough to be able to build a reputation and client base – the low overheads were crucial to this.

How you are getting on?

Fantastically!  Having started in January this year, after 8 months I now have 8 clients I provide services for every month and have worked on some other interesting projects.  I am independent and self-sufficient which is great.  One good thing about bookkeeping is the regularity of the work, this reduces pressure to get new sales all the time, so I can focus more on looking after the clients I have.  A commercial perspective on internal finance in producing the figures is really helping the owners I work with to make more informed decisions – so there the feeling of delivering something of value which I also get a great deal out of.

Now Your Thoughts

Have you made the leap from a stable job to a startup? Want to add anything to the post that you’ve learnt along the way?

You can find out more about Ben and his services on his website: http://www.bookkeepingssw.co.uk/ or follow him on Twitter: @bookkeepingben – I can’t recommend him highly enough :)

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

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.

Web Design Company in Exeter – Early Optix

A lot of people have asked me how Optix Solutions came to be, so I thought I’d write a quick post on how it happened.

The year was 1999 and myself, James and two friends were all studying computer science at Exeter University. The course didn’t actually include web design although one of our lectures did look at web technologies and  of course we used the net for much of our research. Now bear in mind these were pre-google days! I know, hard to imagine isn’t it! I think Google may have been invented but it was all about AltaVista in those days. Its funny because QXL seemed bigger in the auction world than Ebay then as well. How times have changed! :)

I find it hard to remember back to how the conversations about starting a business began but with a father who is a business mentor/coach by trade I wouldn’t mind betting that I had something to do with the idea! Originally four of us discussed the idea of starting a web design business but we were in our second year at the time and I think the fact we had exams and lectures to worry about meant that one of the guys wasn’t really ever going to committ. The three of us that did take it more seriously did everything we could to tap up family and friends for business and started to build a portfolio. We owe so much to these clients who gave us a chance and allowed us to build a reputation in order that we could go out and start showing other businesses what we could do. As we progressed through our 3rd year we had some big decisions to make. As IT graduates, 20k+ starting salaries in London and other places around the UK called and by this time we had realised just how hard this ‘business malarky’ was going to be. When we started out, it was around the time of the dot com bubble and we all thought we could make a lot of money out of web design. Very naively we hadn’t quite taken into account just how hard a business is to run.

Why Exeter? I’m originally from Chelmsford in Essex, James is from the Isle of White and our third director hailed from Oxford so there was no particular place to go back and start up and so we decided to stay in Exeter. By this time we were also being supported by Exeter University and in particular the business division in the Innovation Centre on the main campus. They were really behind us and again we owe a lot to their support.

Pretty much the day after we graduated and all our friends were still celebrating their degree results we started Optix proper. The three of us managed to rent a largish house in central Exeter near the Imperial with four bedrooms  – one each and one that we setup as an office. We had three desks in triangle shape with a printer in the middle perched on a set of drawers. There was barely enough room to get to each of the desks to sit down! Now this was the days of dial-up and as we had no money we could only afford to get one phoneline in which meant we had to share this between the phone (used for incoming and outgoing sales calls), the fax (yes they were used quite a bit in those days) and the dialup for all three of our computers! As a web design company this was really quite tricky :) I remember constant battles for the line as someone wanted to upload a a new design, another needed to research something and I wanted to make calls to try and get some business in. It all seems quite comical now but I remember just how stressful it could get.

We stayed at that house for about 6 months and were then forced to move. We went into the serviced offices in Exeter Queensgate House – The South West Business Centre. I remember that day fondly as Mike Purton took a punt on us and gave us the office in the attick (about 4 floors up). I don’t think Mike and his team really thought we were going to be there long but we ended up being there (in two different offices) for about 8 years :) As a startup business with very little money it’s hard to comitt to long leases so look for these kind of serviced offices in your town (you just pay one bill every month to include your rent/rates/electricity/water etc) It’s also a case of ‘easy in/easy out’ where you only have to give 30 days notice if you need to move – a must for cash strapped businesses.

So thats the story of ‘early Optix days’ folks. I hope that if you’re reading this at University or school and thinking about starting your own business it gives you the inspiration to give it a go and of course if I can help you in any way please drop me a line.