I'm Certified - not certifiable!

I am absolutely delighted to have achieved Xero Certified Partner status, but what does this mean for you?

It means I’ve been trained and tested by Xero to enable me to give my customers confidence about my ability to make Xero work to the best advantage for them.)

So what is Xero?
Xero is an online accounting system where your important financial data is stored securely in one central place – meaning there is only one version and with automated bank feeds it is always up to date. With Xero you can choose to invite us to work with you online – in real time. No more cumbersome transfer of data that can be corrupted or is out-of-date.

I recommend Xero for small businesses. Designed from the ground up with small businesses in mind, Xero is an easy to use online accounting system that gives you access to your financial information anytime, anywhere. Xero allows you to monitor financial performance in real-time - so you always know the state of your cashflow. It lets you share information online and collaborate with trusted advisors such as your accountant or ourselves.

As a result of becoming certified we’ve been able to extend our client services to include the following functions, which are exclusive to Xero Partners:
  • Xero Cashbook. Manage your cashflow online with Xero, but leave the rest of your account management in our hands. Contact us any time using the “Ask My Accountant” button on the Help menu in Xero Cashbook if you have any queries.
  • Managed Client Role. If you don’t have time or feel uncomfortable about managing every aspect of your accounts, but still want to have visibility of your cashflow then the Xero Managed Client function is for you. This lets you make comments about your bank reconciliation whilst we manage it.
  • No VAT Cashbooks. We can offer reduced rates for businesses that are not GST registered. This is perfect if you are just starting out or a non-profit organisation.

We also work closely with a Xero Certified Accountant and a Xero Certified Trainer to ensure that you get the best service possible.

So check out our website today for more information on Xero or contact us for a demonstration.

A force to be reckoned with!

Since I started my VA business just over a year ago I have had an amazing success. I started just one day a week, six months later I went full time and six months after that I now work with a great team of Associates.

This could so easily not have been the case if back in the early days I had fallen into the trap that awaits unsuspecting VA wannabes.

I researched the subject and I asked lots of questions, not least because I am a canny Northern Lass and very tight with my money (not that I had any when I started up), but because I am a cautious girl as well.

I came across a multitude of sites that offered me qualifications, directory listings, training and more, all in exchange for my hard earned cash. If I hadn’t been so canny I could seriously have spent thousands at the outset thinking that was the only way to get my VA business up and running.

Then I made an amazing discovery. Delving deeper into the world of VAs and you will find this huge community. They don’t compete against each other in the way that a standard industry would and they have the vision and the foresight to collaborate with each other. Working as a team makes the individual suddenly a much stronger force. You only have to look at the humble ant for example; on his own he can’t do much, but by working together look at the incredible weight they can carry.

I first came across SVA – The Society of Virtual Assistants, founded by Caroline Melville. Their forum was full of people doing what I wanted to do and helping others along the path. I had never come across this sort of help and support before, especially so freely given.

I then met the lovely @DeeVAS on Twitter and she took pity on me and invited me to join this amazing group called VASG on Skype. The difference this made to me was astronomical. All of a sudden there was this instant support by a complete group of strangers all of whom had something in common and believed that in order to achieve their goals, you had to collaborate. By being given access to a fantastic group of VA’s at all stages of their business from Start Up to many years of experience, my business has gone from strength to strength because we love to talk! A lot!

We talk about the latest software, the most efficient way to do things, answer tech questions and introduce each other to great ideas whether we are in start up phase, growing a business to get out of the rat race or being a full time VA with many years of experience.

You know how I feel about collaboration and this is a huge part of why the VA industry is so strong and growing. VAs are not targets to make other people money; they are smart, savvy, switched on Entrepreneurs in their own right. We ask questions, we make demands, and always ask for more than we have, and we like to test things to destruction. It’s in our nature. That’s way when we recommend a product or service to our Clients they know they can trust our recommendation.

I have been working with three companies lately in order to take some existing excellent products and to enhance them for the VA industry. They have listened to our feedback and responded accordingly, some things they have been able to do for us instantly and others will take longer, but what shines out is their eagerness to work WITH US. They understand that by collaborating with us it will enhance their products, make our lives easier, more efficient and allow us to share their great products with our Clients and make them more efficient and effective as well.

The support and feedback they have given us has been outstanding, their customer service has exceeded our expectations and they are genuinely a pleasure to work with.

I would like to publicly thank Xero, CapsuleCRM and MinuteDock for their efforts and support over these past few weeks. We aren’t always the easiest bunch to please that is for sure, but between us we have some great collaborative integrated solutions to look forward to over the coming months.

So, if you are a supplier out there and think the VA community may be able to further your company's interest please do get in touch, we will be happy to test your products and services to destruction. We are not for the faint hearted and we don’t endorse products from every company that comes our way. However, we will offer constructive feedback, to let you know whether we think it worthy of our Clients, to tell you what works and what doesn’t, we will even introduce you to our existing suppliers so you can talk collaboration and integration.

Feel free to get in touch, or leave your comments below on how collaboration has worked for you.

Follow Friday Recommendations 21st May 2010

This week I am starting my Follow Friday blog with one of my newer Twitter friends, he just butted into a conversation I was having one night with @Totally4B about Xero and I have never looked back!

As well as being a fellow Xero fan @BriCallAssist is a fantastic find.  He has been a great source of information, and we share so many ideas and values that at times it can be quite spooky.  He has also freely shared his advice and knowledge in areas where our two businesses offer similar services.

He has entered his business in the Barclays One Small Step awards and he really does deserve your vote.  It’s so refreshing to come across someone so passionate about customer service and the product that they offer.  He has really thought about the service that he offers, and what his customers need.  He is hard working, energetic, dynamic and an absolute professional.  He certainly isn’t one to blow his own trumpet, he’s actually very quiet and reserved when talking about his business but he cannot hide that enthusiasm in his voice, he is so excited about his business and that really shines through.

Please follow @BriCallAssist and support his Barclays One Small Step entry here: https://www.takeonesmallstep.co.uk/Entry/View/5925

And while we are on the subject of Xero (my favourite piece of software ever I believe) huge thanks go to @DazGlanville this week for his amazing stamina when faced by hordes of VA’s eager to sign up to  Xero and for the insightful webinars and support he has shown us.  He has a great sense of humour, always good when dealing with us VA’s, and has been fantastic to work with.  Obviously @TeamXero are excellent at support but @DazGlanville really has gone out of his way to help us.  I look forward to getting to meet him in person next week.

My next Follow is for @Totally4B who, before I even knew she shared my passion for Xero, jumped in to help me out one day on a bookkeeping issue I had.  Since that day she has been a great friend, an invaluable source of knowledge, and one of the twitter friends who keeps me sane and grounded and tells me off when I don’t take care of myself.  She is also a Certified Xero Partner now which means she really knows her stuff, congratulations on being one of the first to achieve that status in the country!  (Plus I get to meet her next week as well!)

Another Xero convert, thanks to our 1am Skype chat one Saturday morning, is @justsimplyacc one of the nicest people you could ever tweet with, I laughed far too much for such an obscenely early time and even managed to forego watching my beloved Rocky Horror Picture Show that I had stayed up to watch. She has also achieved her Xero Certified Partner status this week, and I am thinking I am going to have to hurry up and catch up with her and @Totally4B now.

And lastly, no Xero Follow Friday blog would be complete without mentioning @LucyWhittington, who even though she is enjoying far sunnier climes than me right now will kill me if I forget to mention that it’s all down to her that I am such a Xero fan, without her recommendation I would never have signed up, probably going with a competitor instead.   I will be forever grateful to her. Not only did she introduce me to a fantastic product but the people I have met as a result of it are truly remarkable and really brighten my day.  Also she is a truly excellent author of http://www.hotelsuccesshandbook.com and with her hubby Andy creates some amazing Venda and Wordpress websites.

Have a great day! If you want to know more about Xero you can find more information here: http://hlsbs.eu/Xero.aspx and don’t forget to support @BriCallAssist here https://www.takeonesmallstep.co.uk/Entry/View/5925

It's all about me...

I am guessing that for a lot of of you who are self employed then 'Me' time is something you consider to be a luxury or an interruption that you don't have time for.

Do you get run down? Are you always tired? Do you wish there were more hours in each day? Do your friends compare you to a super hero?

Take a moment here to consider what utilising that 'Me' time could do for your business.

I put in a ridiculous amount of hours last year, firstly to get my business off the ground and then to move it from 5 to 9 to full time. Do I regret the hours or effort? Not at all, but I do wish I had taken better care of me.

As a busy working mum it's all too easy to come up with reasons why you can't afford to have precious 'Me' time. Kids swimming, dance, sports, play dates and parties not to mention cooking and cleaning and demands on your time from other family members.

But give, give, give is a recipe for disaster. You become run down, jaded, in my case it increased my weight even more, and also led to me sometimes not making the right decision for my fledgling business. It will be different for each of you, but I am sure you understand what I mean.

I took a long hard look at things recently and decided it had to stop. I now have a team of associates to help shoulder the work load, to cover while I take a well earned holiday and to look after my clients should I get ill again. I also reviewed my existing clients and services and made some changes there as well, now I can move forward in a much more positive, efficient and productive manner.

Then I realised that reviewing the business wasn't enough, I had to review me as well. I finally listened to my coach and realised that spending time with the family is important but so is having time for me, it's something quite different to family time and equally as important.

I took a day off, I know, heresy to some of you!, and I spent it with a friend, had my nails done, went for lunch and shopped. Really simple pleasures that had been missing for so long. And did I regret that missed day in the office? Not at all, granted the work was still there to be done but that day off re-charged my batteries. I felt so much better for it that I came back into the business refreshed and eager to get on.

Can I say the same for the weeks where I worked morning to night, fitted work around family stuff and housework in what little time was left? No.

So just take a moment and try and remember the last time you had some 'Me' time. Not family time, not doing a favour time, not housework time, not doing your duty time but time for you. Can you even remember?

Do me a favour, this coming week do something for YOU then come back and share it with us by commenting below, it doesn't have to be all day, can be anything you like as long as it's for you!

Don't feel you are being selfish, I am sure if you try it you will find it actually changes the way you feel for the better.

So come on, what have you done for YOU this week?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Follow Friday Recommendations Friday 30th April 2010

I can't believe it is Friday again already, and certainly not the end of April! Wow, how time flies when you enjoy your work, that is for sure.

This week my follow fridays are VA's who have been a great help and support and just some of my fantastic clients. (I only mention the ones who admit to working with me on Twitter! If you are a client and want a mention do let me know, otherwise your secret is safe with me).

Huge huge thanks go to @sjabradley who has been a rock these past few months and is now chief assistant at Team HLSBS. Her work this past couple of weeks has been fantastic and invaluable.  She has even taught me a few tricks as well, much to the delight of some clients.

My other fantastic VA friends who have been a real support this year are @ArborVS and @officestuff - they talk common sense and make me look at what is important to me, they also keep me grounded.  Sometimes the solution to a problem is so simple you can't see it and it takes a friend to point it out. That's where these guys come in, and yes guys I do listen to you. They have been an incredible force in helping me take HLS Business Solutions to the next level and helping me choose my Team HLSBS members.

The whole gang at @callteam are fantastic and look after my calls and my clients calls brilliantly, sometimes going above and beyond the call of duty in order to help their clients.  I don't answer as many of the calls on there as I should but am so grateful for the teams support.

And now for some of my lovely clients.

@LucyWhittington is now a published author, her book Hotel Success Handbook is a great read, I was lucky enough to do a small part of the proof reading and I have to say a lot of the marketing advice in there applies to many other businesses, not just Hotels and Guest Houses.  Apart from being a hotel marketing guru she and Andy do the most amazing websites on Venda and WordPress platforms.  If you are looking for a bespoke site do give them a call,  they will be doing my new website later this year and I really cant wait!  She is also winding me up right now with talk of her upcoming Australian venture and yes I am a tad jealous but at least I know I can keep adding to her to do list for her return lol.

@NikkiPilkington is a social media goddess, and yes, I have said it before, you can blame her for me getting my head round Twitter.  She is the lady to go to for SEO, Google Adwords, blogging advice (she has a new blogging course about to start that I have subscribed to), facebook pages and is just the best person to go to for advice in all these areas.

@theefficiencycoach is more than just a client, she is a great friend and she is also my personal coach.  She helps people who are looking for a new career, people who are starting out in business and people who are in business and wanting to make more out of their business, so I guess that is pretty much everyone. She offers loads of advice in her blogs, newsletters and teleseminars on a regular basis and also knows a lot of really cool people on Twitter.  She is now offering social media training and has just started writing her book on networking as well. Not sure how she fits it all in!

I have only mentioned a few of my clients here today, my policy is I never shout about who my clients are.  The people mentioned above have all tweeted about working with me previously.  If you are working with me and are happy to be featured in a future #FF blog just give me a shout, and if you would like to work with me then just give me a call or drop me an email :-)

Do consider following the people above, even if you aren't looking for their particular services their tweets are useful and funny and informative, and they will introduce you to other great tweeters you would like to follow as well.

I hope you find some of this weeks follow friday recommendations useful, let me know if you take up any of my suggestions using the comments box below.

What's the difference between Call Answering and Call Handling?

One of the tweets I sometimes post on Twitter is about having your calls handled and not just answered, one of my Twitter friends suggested that it would make an interesting blog topic. So what is the difference between call answering and call handling?

Answering a call is really just about picking up a ringing phone, taking a message and passing it on in its simplest form. 

Call Handling is about knowing as much as possible about the business or person that the call is intended for, so that the person answering the call can manage it in as informed and effective way as possible.  If it’s a simple enquiry quite often the call handler can supply the information requested, be it an email address, postal address, opening hours or even information on a particular product, without having to pass the call on.

Call handling is not about misrepresenting your business or implying you are bigger than you are, it’s about enhancing the service that you currently offer; call handling can be a very effective addition in terms of customer service.

Busy professionals have many demands on their time; is it really an effective use of time for them to be answering the phone themselves to every enquiry no matter how trivial?  It’s no different to outsourcing other elements of the business such as accounts or admin.

By using efficient call handlers your sales orders can be taken for you, your delegates can be booked onto training courses, appointments can be booked directly into your diary, brochure requests can be taken and posted out direct with no involvement from you, initial sales enquiries can be taken when you run your new sales campaign – the list is endless.

Do you ever find that you cannot finish a project or report because the phone keeps ringing? Divert your calls to a call handler instead.  Do you have the children at home due to teacher training days or unplanned illness? Divert your calls.

Your caller will probably be happier talking to a person rather than an answering machine; a call handler can put your caller at ease because they have knowledge of your company and/or service.  Rather than just taking a name and number your call handler will take a detailed message, ensuring that when you are returning the call you have all the information you need to hand, you are not returning a call blindly, you have had chance to research the answers that your caller needs, making you appear more professional and saving both you and your caller time.

One of my Twitter friends had a great description of call handling, its more information driven, and answers are the voice of your business.

So next time you are thinking of switching on the answerphone to allow you to get some work done, think about using a professional call handling service instead.

So what are your thoughts on the difference between call handling and call answering and your experiences? Please feel free to comment below.

It's more than 140 characters

As some of you will know I have had a particularly bad week this past week, between being ill and finding out my cat had cancer I wasn’t having a great time of it. It culminated yesterday in having to make the awful decision to have my gorgeous 17yr old cat put to sleep.  Just over a week ago she had been fine.

I was absolutely overwhelmed yesterday by the sheer volume of well wishes, love and support I received from my Twitter friends. 

But, I shouldn’t have been.  Ever since I got into Twitter I have been one of it’s most vocal advocates, ask anyone how my face lights up when I am asked to discuss Twitter.

So what is so special about it?  Yes Twitter is a great tool for business, but let’s focus on one of the words used to describe it – Social.  It’s not all about business; it’s about building relationships, and also friendships.

I have made some great friends on Twitter over the past few months, these are people who I love to talk to about anything and everything, I am not pitching my business at them, I am genuinely interested in what they are doing and how they are feeling, and I am really fortunate to have been able to meet some of these people offline.

There are some great conversations that have been carried out just in those 140 characters, and many a fun Saturday night had by several of us chatting about something totally business free.

Twitter has examples everyday of people using it to share, the most recent example was that of Sartoti, a young girl undergoing a horrible operation, and Twitterers from around the world who have never met her sent her postcards to cheer her up after her surgery.

Sadly, most days on Twitter there is bad news, someone has lost a baby, a child, a loved one or yet another soldier has been lost and another family is suffering. It put's your own imagined problems into perspective.

But also there are the days where the good news is being shared, engagements announced, babies born and weddings taking place.

Twitter also recently helped one guy back into work after being made redundant, thanks to the support of Twitter he ended up with two job offers in just a few weeks, granted he got the jobs on his own merits, but would the opportunities have been there if it hadn’t been for Twitter.

Twitter is what you choose to make of it.  Yes I use it for business, but more importantly and much more frequently I use it for Social as well.  People love people, just be yourself on Twitter and you will be amazed at the new friendships and relationships that come out of it.

So thank you to those wonderful people who choose to interact with me on Twitter, you really do make a difference to each and every day.

Record-keeping by Amy Taylor, BSc (Hons), ACA (aka @amyaccountant)

So you have just started up in business. Do you need to go out and buy an enormous filing cabinet to keep all the mountain of paperwork you are likely to be inundated with? Not necessarily.

HMRC guidance stipulates that you should keep your financial records for 6 years in case they ever come to investigate your tax return. In such circumstances, they would want to see the original records that went into the figures on your tax return. If you do not keep the records for the amount of time stipulated, you may have to pay a penalty.

You must keep the original documents for anything showing tax deductions, for example P60s, and bank statements, but for most other records you can keep them filed electronically, as long as they are legible and show all the information on the front and back of the documents. Such electronic files can be stored on CD, memory stick or any other suitable storage device. Thus removing the need for that enormous filing cabinet.

Examples of the types of records you need to keep to prove your income are items such as sales invoices, till rolls and paying-in slips. For expenditure, you should retain records such as receipts, purchase invoices and cheque book stubs.

If you are VAT registered you must also keep a VAT account, showing how you calculated the VAT due to or from HMRC, as well as VAT sales and purchase invoices and import and export documentation. If you are a limited company, you will also need to be able to show accounting records proving your assets and liabilities, as well as your income and expenditure. Your accountant will be able to help you with this.

There are further requirements for record-keeping if you are an employer, and these include all PAYE records, including employee benefits and statutory payments made.

Best practice is to reference every accounting record you keep to the relevant book of entry, so for example, your first item of expenditure for the year might be numbered 001, and you would then include this reference in the line of entry into your cash book and write it on the receipt itself. File each record numerically in a lever arch file or clear plastic wallet for smaller items so that they are easy to find in case of any query by suppliers or customers, or investigation by HMRC.

The HMRC penalty regime asks that taxpayers take reasonable care over their tax affairs, and in the event that you have made an error on your tax return, a clear filing system and helpful attitude to the investigators reduces the risk of a penalty.

If you would like any advice in this area or any other areas of accounting or tax, please contact me on 01767 260282 or amy@tayloraccountancy.net, www.tayloraccountancy.net. 

Follow Amy on Twitter @amyaccountant.

Amy Taylor Accountancy takes every care in preparing material to ensure that the content is accurate and up to date. However no responsibility for loss to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of this material can be accepted by Amy Taylor Accountancy

Follow Friday Recommendation Friday 2nd April 2010

This week my follow Friday recommendations are for the people who are working with me on several new and exciting projects at the moment. All will become clear over time!

My first #FF is for @efficiencycoach, working with Heather has made so much difference to my business and to me.  The future is looking far rosier than I ever thought possible, and she is helping me make the transition from being self employed to running my own business.  She is in incredibly intelligent woman, of which I am reminded every time we have a conversation, and her humour and common sense keep me sane. I really look forward to our Skype chats each week.  If you are at or approaching a crossroads in either your career or your business don't hesitate to contact Heather, you will never look back.

My next #FF is @ReceiptAngel, working with Barry and Kay has not only introduced me to a fabulous product, but their support and friendship has meant a lot to me.  They are always eager and encouraging and again full of common sense.  Barry in particular has a habit of taking my ideas and stretching them, turning something simple into something so much more.  And of course how could I not love a couple who are so hugely supportive of the VA industry and have the same goals for it as I do!

Another #FF is @ShoegalSedgwick who is always so wonderful to talk to, it's lovely to talk to someone who is as enthusiastic about their business as I am about mine, and who sees the bigger picture and embraces collaboration as much as I do as well.  We have some interesting projects afoot with @Paula6thLevel who is such a lovely lady, and between us, working together, we are all going to have a fantastic future.  

@Paula6thLevel deserves her own #FF, my lovely friend is always cheery and full of humour, and we have such a laugh together it really doesn't feel like work.  Again she is so supportive of what I do, and when I recently got to meet her for real, was every bit as lovely as I had hoped, if not more.  I am working on some exciting new projects with her, and every time we talk we come up with yet  more ideas.

I must also give huge thanks to @sjabradley,my fellow VA, my voice of reason, my port in a storm and my buddy.  I am so lucky to be working with her, and she keeps me on the straight and narrow on those days when I really need it, and is one of the first people I call to celebrate good news.

I feel terrible for not mentioning everyone, there are so many people that I love to talk to on Twitter, who add value to my day, and make it such a wonderful place to be, but the page would go on forever if I did.  Please just know that if I interact with you on Twitter then I already feel you are worthy of a #ff of your own.  

End of Year - Guest Blog by Toni Hunter

The end of the tax year is a busy time for those administering the payroll function. There are a number of forms which need to be filed and it is a good time to check that you have been carrying out your payroll calculations correctly throughout the year and rectify any mistakes.

2009/10 is the first year that online filing is mandatory for all employers regardless of the size of the business. Paper filing of forms is no longer an option.
It has been mandatory for large employers to file their forms electronically for some time now but up to last year smaller employers still had the option to file in paper format should they choose to. Electronic filing has now become mandatory for the smaller employer too.
The deadlines which affect end of year payroll are summarised in the table below.

Late Payment of PAYE Penalties
Late payment penalties are being introduced from May 2010 if your PAYE is paid late. Currently interest is only charged when the final PAYE payment for the tax year is received either later than 19th April for postal payments or arrives in HMRC’s bank account later than 22nd April if paid electronically.

From May 2010 your PAYE payment will need to be received on time either each month or each quarter depending upon which basis you pay.  The new late payment penalties will apply to all employers and contractors that do not pay on time.

Details of the new penalties will not be sent out until April 2011 but will apply for the whole of the 2010-11 tax year. Penalties will start at 1% of the late amount and will increase to 4% depending upon how many times you pay late. You will not have to pay a penalty if only one payment is late unless it is more than six months late. Payments that are more than six months late may attract a penalty of 5% and a further 5% if still outstanding after more than twelve months.

Businesses will have to ensure that HMRC always receive their payment on time to avoid the penalties. Postal payments will need to be received by HMRC by the 19th of the month. Electronic payments will need to be received in HMRC’s bank account by 22nd of the month.

If you have any queries regarding the preparation of your payroll our in-house payroll bureau PayScheme will be happy to help. Contact a member of the team on 01767 220199.

Follow Friday Recommendation Friday 26th March 2010

Well, yet another take on a Follow Friday blog from me this week. Instead of me writing the blog I have asked the person I am recommending to write a blog for a change.

I love tweeting with @MissRosieDay, she has a fantastic sense of humour, manages to look after an enormous family, and is just a great person to interact with, as well as being a talented writer.She is also doing some amazing charity work with Project65 as well, and is soon to undertake a mammoth walk in order to raise funds for them.

I have had the pleasure of talking to her on the phone on several occasions over the past few weeks and we have had some great conversations about our respective businesses and we have shared a lot of laughs as well.

Rosie made a comment on the phone and I couldn't help pointing her in the direction of Evernote, some software I thought would help her out. It worked excellently for her and she even managed to show me a new use for it I hadn't come across. Then I introduced her to Tungle, another piece of software which she embraced, and finally I introduced her to the joy of Capsule CRM

She was joking that I had finally got her organised so I asked her to write a blog for us on what that felt like, and here it is:

Guest Blog from @MissRosieDay

I am a writer, that's not my job title, that is who I am.  I cant remember a time when I did not write, from childhood I have recorded the world around me through stories and poetry.  I love words, I love the way that the pictures in my head become organised sentences on the page, but sadly that is where my organisation ends.  I make notes on scraps of paper and keep a track of things in my head, which on occasions gets me into trouble.  I have, until now, never let this worry me, I call it my artistic temperament!

Recently two things have hit me almost simultaneously.  The first was a change in direction and the second was meeting Helen.  So, firstly I will address the reason for a career change.  Before I left the rat race, I worked in business, where I was actually very efficient and productive, but I had staff to take care of the day to day organisation.  Then 2 years ago events in my personal life forced me to re-think my priorities.  I gave up the salary, the financial packages, the company car and became a full time writer.  I work from home and don't miss all those things, I am happy and my children are happy to see more of me.  It has taken a lot of hard work but my writing career has taken off in many directions and has given me a great many contacts.  It is sadly the case that freelance writers are finding the current market very difficult.  Commissions are hard to come by and those that are on offer are at a fee far less than those of just 18 months ago.  Therefore freelancers are all diversifying, including me and I suspect a great many people in other industries.  With the aforementioned contacts and my previous business experience, it has made sense to take a sideways step into PR & Marketing.

That's where Helen comes in, as an existing Twitter friend, she jumped on my tweets concerning my new business and lack of organisation and offered help to bring me up to date.  Her help and advice has been invaluable.  Working from home as a writer and working from home as a Professional providing a service are worlds apart.  A writers life is very solitary, working pretty much to my own deadlines.  In my new business I have to be far more polished, I have to make my clients feel special and confident in my abilities.  I have to be organised.  I am asking people to trust me and that trust has to be earned, missing a deadline or not calling at a pre-arranged time are not an option.

Organisation is not rocket science and there are so many people and online services that can help.  My advice is to be honest with yourself about the things that you are not so good at.  Seek help, a virtual PA is ideal.  By taking away the worry of these things you can concentrate on the things that you are good at, you will become more productive and your business will become more profitable, thus absorbing the cost of your help!

Not Just A Newsletter - Guest Blog by Matt Chatterley

Not Just a Newsletter..
Keep your eyes peeled as you navigate the web and you'll soon realise that almost every single website has a Newsletter which they'd love you to join. This cycle is self perpetuating - when creating a website for your venture, you know everyone else has one - so you have to have one too!
Before you dive right in, stop and think! There are several basic questions which are very useful in this situation (in truth there are more, but these five apply particularly well to Newsletters). If you can't answer them all satisfactorily then perhaps you should wait until you can before forging ahead.
I'll share my answers (on behalf of Mattched IT) with you - and try to give you some pointers to help you to reach your own conclusions.

WHO - do you want to subscribe to your Newsletter?
Our target audience is primarily small business owners (notionally extending to senior managers in larger enterprises) - people who are the "IT decision makers" in their organisations and to whom we can advertise and sell our products and services.

You may find you want to run a newsletter for a different demographic to your default customer base - you may even want to partition your newsletter list and send different messages to different people. Ultimately the key reasons tend to be Sales/Marketing related or to increase the level of engagement and communication which is sustained with clients.

WHY - should they sign up?
Because they've seen our website (or engaged with us via social media - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and want us to keep them updated on new products/services which we launch as well (or changes to existing services). Occasionally we also offer discounts or other promotions exclusively to Newsletter subscribers.

I often feel that the incentives for joining our newsletter are quite weak, if I am honest. Partly because of the nature of our business - which is service orientated - as well as nature of the services we offer - which very rarely change. It's likely to be very different for you, depending on what you do. If you update your products regularly then you've got a killer reason right there - they can be the first to find out when you start selling widgets in blue as well as red!

WHAT - is in it for me?
Increased engagement with the audience, and the opportunity to periodically remind them that we are here, and that we can help them should they be facing any challenges in the IT department. We also try to encourage our subscribers to forward our newsletters on to their friends and colleagues if they feel the content might be of interest.

There must be a clear benefit to your business for it to be truly worthwhile running a newsletter. If you sell a tangible product then your newsletter can be a very exciting and powerful tool - it's an opt-in list which you can market to, as long as you are sensible and courteous when doing so. Otherwise you may have to look closer to find a good reason!

WHEN - are you going to send Newsletters?
We aim to send one each month, although we do occasionally skip an edition if there is absolutely nothing to report. Mainly because I personally believe it's somewhat frivolous to use our client’s time reading a message - when really we have nothing to say to them - and certainly nothing of value to offer.
It's key that you don't send newsletters out too often. Your unsubscribe rate will tell you immediately if you're too vocal - because it'll be high! People are accustomed to once a month, but that doesn't mean you can't send them out bi-monthly or even fortnightly if it is appropriate for your audience.
Don't save up a colossal amount of information and send out a novel once a month if really you could be sending out relevant messages which have meaning and value to your subscribers on a weekly basis - there is a limit to how much information people can (and want to) absorb in one go!

HOW - are you going to manage your email list and newsletters?
We use MailChimp. It's great - and has a brilliant free trial, too. This lets us manage our lists through a handy user interface, use their API to automatically add subscribers from our website (we can easily integrate yours too, if you like) - and means that we don't have to worry as much about making sure people have opted in, legal requirements and handling bad addresses which get onto the list. The reports have just the right amount of information to help maximise performance too.

Enough of selling someone else’s product! My point is that you probably don't want to just keep a list in a text file - there are strict requirements you need to follow under various pieces of legislation (not least of all the Data Protection Act) - and if nothing else you need to exercise the same due diligence that you do in all the other areas of your business. Plus you need the tools available to work out what happens when you send a message and to help you make the most of your list.

And where does that leave us?
Put plainly, a newsletter can be an enormously powerful business tool and can be hugely beneficial to both you and your clients if used properly. But if used poorly or badly implemented/managed, it'll achieve very little apart from using up your precious time. Remember - failing to plan is planning to fail!

Matt Chatterley
Director - Mattched IT

Mattched IT offer a wide range of Web Design, Web Development and Search Engine Optimisation services tailored to meet your needs and requirements.

What did we do before Technology?

I sat and wrote this blog with good old pen and paper. Why? Because I took my lovely shiny netbook, with an 8 hour battery, along with me when I took small child for her swimming lesson last week so I could catch up on some work.  And because I failed to check that lovely shiny netbook with an 8 hour battery actually had any charge in it before I left the house!

It got me thinking, how did we ever cope without the gadgets that we have today, and have they really made my life better?

I grew up in the age of the Spectrum ZX, the BBC, the Acorn and the Commodore 64.  Printers were only found in offices and then they were the old multi-sheet lined paper feed dot matrix printers.  The first computer I used at work was Windows 386.

Programmes like Word weren’t in every office, we didn’t have access to the internet, not that I am sure I had heard of it then, and I had never heard of email.

Mobile phones were only for yuppies, and came with a battery pack larger than my handbag.

Do I miss those days? Not in the slightest.  I fully embrace technology and all that it means to me. I make my living from this virtual world and I would not be without it.

I work online, I shop online and I socialise online.

Thanks to the wonders of the digital technology I have masses of photos of my beautiful daughter, and can share them online with friends and relatives around the world.  I can take two or three photos to ensure that I get the shot that is just right for me, no more waiting till the film comes back to realise that small child was sticking her tongue out, no more counting how many flashes were left on the flash bar, or how many shots were left on the film.

I can talk via Skype video with colleagues, clients and family and friends around the world.

I can use the resources of the internet to find the perfect family holiday, to figure out what small child’s maths homework actually means, and I can sit back in wonderment as my daughter researches the current topic at school, then writes up her report on Textease.

Thanks to the Nintendo Wii I have watched three generations of family laugh and play together from age 7 to 75, and have been pleasantly surprised at the interest it has re-kindled in the less active of us in exercise.  Anything that makes exercise feel like you are playing a game wins in my book, though I have to say, watch out for those wii related sports injuries, they hurt as much as the real thing!

Whilst there are things that are anti social about technology, there are many advantages as well.  Used in balance it eases workloads, improves communication, generates knowledge and makes life sweeter and easier. 

I have made friends, learned new things and broadened my horizons all thanks to the internet and the technology that allows me to use it, from my laptop, my netbook and my mobile phone.  It has also allowed me to win an argument occasionally as I googled the answer to some silly question, just to prove I was right.  Not to mention it is perfect for when small child comes out with her latest curiosity - "Mummy why do nettles sting, what makes them do it?" Good old google to the rescue.

For someone who wasn’t the first to get a mobile, a home PC or a PDA, I am now at a loss without them.  I crave access to my social network, email and internet when I am deprived of my wireless connection.  Today I sat in a broken down car for over an hour waiting for a recovery truck. Thankfully, between my laptop and my mobile broadband I didn’t waste that hour but spent it productively instead. 

So do you embrace technology or do you wish for the good old days? Your comments are welcomed.

How to successfully work from home - Guest Blog by Heather Townsend

How to successfully work from home

Whether you are a start-up business, kitchen table entrepreneur, home worker or sole practitioner, your first office space is normally situated at home. After a nearly a year of a ten second commute, I admit the novelty of working from home is starting to wear a little thin.

Here are my thoughts on how to make working from home work for you.

Create a dedicated work space.
It doesn’t need to be anything as formal as a home office – although if you can do this, then great – but a space that is dedicated to your work. A dedicated workspace helps you to separate the two halves of your life – home life and work life. If you have young children, then having a work area that you can physically shut away is a must!

Create boundaries
When you start to work from home, the boundaries of work life and home life get very blurred. From personal experience, I know it can be very hard to switch off at the end of the day, and let my work seep into my quality time with my family. It takes discipline to keep home and business life separate – but as time goes on, it becomes essential to create that boundary.

Plan your day
It’s very easy to waste time when you are working on your own at home. When you finish for the day, make a list of what you need to achieve for the next day. This will help you mentally switch off at the end of your working day, and be ready and focused for what needs to happen when you start work in the morning.

Set expectations with your family
When I first started working from home, my husband thought that I could do all the housework while I was meant to be working. He also thought that on my ‘working days’ I could look after the children while he went to the gym. We knocked those ones on the head pretty quickly! Don’t muddle up your domestic chores and your business work. Set separate times to do your housework –and gain the commitment of your family to this new regime.

Put some structure in your day
Whilst you may love not having to get up every morning to go into the office, it is important to put some structure in your day. By this I mean, a time when you intend to be at your desk and a time when you will stop working. This will help you separate your work and home life – and help the people around you get used to your new routine.

Seek out people
Particularly if you are an extrovert, you will need people around you. Balance your times in the office with the quieter times in your household. Go out networking during the week so that you can meet people.

Keep your home and office tidy
At some point you will have some work people visiting your home. Make sure you keep your workspace tidy and free of domestic clutter, so that any visitors to your home office wouldn’t be alarmed at your untidy house.

Install a business phone line
If you can afford it, use a business answering service. I have found to my cost that my husband is a lousy receptionist and tends to forget to write down messages. An answer phone is an OK solution – but 8/10 people don’t leave a message on a voicemail. Can you afford to miss a potential new business enquiry?

Heather Townsend
The Efficiency Coach

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