Slightly different Follow Friday Blog 29th January 2010

I've never cried while writing a blog before.  Mind you, I’ve never written a Follow Friday blog like this before either. I need to ask you for a Follow this week that is slightly different.  The person I want you to follow isn’t even on Twitter for a start.

I have a friend who has been there for me over the past few months, offering moral support, good advice and friendship, while I have been juggling everything to set up my business.  She’s a very good friend. I’ve just found out that her beautiful, brave daughter, Carrie, has days left to live.  She is 14, and has a rare form of cancer called T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.  Despite having a bone marrow transplant in 2007, she was told before Christmas she would have to endure more Chemo, have operations on her knees, and so much more. She’s a very poorly little girl, and through it all she has always thought of others before herself, never feeling sorry for herself, or allowing others to feel sorry for her.  To put this in perspective, for nearly half of her short life she has suffered. Life stinks sometimes, it truly does.

I have cried, sworn, shouted and stamped my feet, but it hasn’t helped (It hasn’t made me feel any better either).  I have given my own daughter extra hugs; she is only 7 and I can’t imagine a child that young having to go through any of this.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for her mum, either.

As Carrie doesn’t have a Twitter page you can’t follow her so I’d like you to consider joining the British Bone Marrow Register

It’s easy to do, you just let them know next time you donate blood. It’s as simple as that.  Both my husband and I have been on the register for years.  There’s a chance that you could be a match for someone who is seriously ill.  By joining the register you have the chance to save a life.  It’s too late to help Carrie, but there’ll be someone else’s daughter or son, wife or husband out there who desperately needs your help.

If you would like to support Carrie, I have set up a JustGiving page in her name in support of one of her chosen charities, Clic Sargent, with all money donated in Carrie’s name, in an effort to help other children and families suffering from cancer.

So please, I know I have great followers, this week, I would deem it a great personal favour if you would consider joining the Bone Marrow register or make a donation to Carrie’s charity, or even both.

Thank you.

What is networking? Guest blog from Confident Ladies

I would like to thank Jane from Confident Ladies for writing our guest blog this week.

Claire Young a Finalist in The TV series ‘The Apprentice’ was asked by a journalist recently, “If she had one piece of advice for someone starting in business what would it be?”  Her answer was, “To get 50 free business cards printed, go off to a networking event and talk to people”

So what are the advantages, what is ‘Networking’ and how do you actually go about it?

Did you know that up to 70% of new business is gained through recommendation and word of mouth.  The power of networking comes from the fact that behind every person you meet at an event there are hundreds of potential contacts that they know and may introduce you to. Most will only do this, regardless of how fabulous your business is, if a. They like you and b. They trust you.

As the old saying goes ‘It's not what you know, but who you know.’

The thought, for some, of going into a room full of people and talking to strangers is daunting to say the least but a good Networking group will make you feel comfortable and included. The other members attending will have had the same fears (guaranteed) on their first visit. I always feel it is a good idea to have a few questions ‘up your sleeve’ to ask if and when you find yourself having to speak to someone else. Questions such as ‘What type of business do you run? How far have you come to get here? What made you decide to start your own business?  These types of question let other tell you about themselves; which is the key to networking!

Just like friendships, networking is a mid to long term strategy that requires commitment and patience. Don’t just go along to a couple of events and expect to walk away with a small handful of clients from them. You need to get to know others and show more of an interest in them than ‘sell’ yourself to be effective. Networking is all about building relationships so that others feel comfortable either hiring you themselves or recommending you to their network of contacts. Always wait to be asked to tell people what you do.  Some networking groups even have a space in their timetable for everyone to do what’s called their ‘Elevator pitch’ if this is the case then use this time to tell others about you and let them ask you about it later.

I can hear you saying, “What is an Elevator Pitch” well imagine you’re in a lift with one more or more people and one of them says, “What is it you do?” You need to answer him or her before the lift stops and so that they get out of the lift knowing exactly what it is your offering. Its takes work and practice to perfect.

This might help to start you off - The five W's- The first step is to develop answers to the following questions:

What does your company do? (For example, begin your answer with "We provide.")

Whom does your company do it for? (For example, begin your answer with "For small and midsized healthcare providers.")

Why do they care? Or, what’s in it for them? (For example, include in your answer "so that they can," "who can no longer afford," or "who are tired of.")

Why is your company different? (For example, begin your answer with "As opposed to" or "Unlike.")

What is your company? (For example, begin your answer with "My Company is insurance.") 

At any networking event big or small you will meet people; some groups even give you a list of attendees and their contacts. Don’t waste this opportunity, keep in touch and if you say you are going to do something for someone do it as soon as is possible. Remember, you are trying to build a good relationship, letting someone down isn’t the way to go about it.

Working for yourself can be isolating particularly if, like me, you have been used to having lots of colleagues around you day to day. Networking can fill the social gap of working for yourself too and what better way than to socialise within a positive environment with a group of talented and supportive people a great way to combat that feeling of isolation. 

Kind Regards

Jayne Twiddle (Director)

     Twitter: @confidentladies

VA's, Beauty and The Beast by Barry James

Around ten years ago a dream died for me. From it's very earliest days I believed that the Internet could release people all over the world from work drudgery to do the kind of things they loved and were good at. That the resulting massive surge of creativity and energy could benefit everyone everywhere - and change the way the world works forever. I even put my money, company and career at the time were my mouth was. That's a story for another time.

I studied Psychology when I was at Uni and I know that factories are not a natural environment for people. Neither is the office (originally modelled on factories) or school for that matter. Nor is the 'traditional' company. For most people work is like hobbling around in painfully tight ill fitting shoes - at best. You just get used to it because you have to. Farm and village life were more natural - from a human and psychological point of view - based around neighbours friends and the extended family.

Eventually I reluctantly concluded that my vision - that the Internet could release our individuality and creativity - was a pipe-dream. That the monopolists were winning and the web was going to be (mostly) about branding and manipulating the masses after all.

Now I'm beginning to wonder again. The dream seemed to go 'pop' with the bubble, then nothing. Until now.

Sometimes even 'safe' assumptions are completely wrong. Just about everyone seems to think that the economy has a settled structure based around corporate culture (and SMEs - smaller businesses - trying to grow and become like corporates). Also that to become a corporation is success - anything else is failure, in some degree. 

Really small, human scale, businesses have tended to be dismissed as 'lifestyle-businesses' or just 'micro-businesses'. This has tended to be perpetuated by governments - who find large corporate entities easier to deal with (you can ring up the Chairman).

Meanwhile the forces of globalisation (on everything from a global to a local scale) care nothing for such models. Their power is a brutal evolutionary one which thrives on creativity and efficiency.

Ultimately a hundred happy, creative, focussed, entrepreneurial people can achieve far far more than the same people herded into an office block every day, controlled from the top and made to toe-the-line, with all the misery that often results. Provided they have a way to network, collaborate and interwork. From this point of view the corporate culture (which took over the world only in the last couple hundred years we mostly seem to forget) works, but is strikingly inefficient.

But I've never seen a group of people (with one possible exception) really get this working in a new way. Using Internet tools as the glue to constantly connect, reconnect and combine everyone's efforts, skills and creativity in a constantly sifting landscape of projects to everyone's benefit. Until now.

(The one exception is the open source software community which has, so far, proved to be incredibly and unexpectedly powerful - but is more like an underground movement held in check by corporate forces - and probably self limiting - than the germ of a new model).

There has been a growing acknowledgement of the importance of SMEs and 'supply chains' for some time now - as a part of globalisation and the Internet. Some examples of this are bad. Many are expressions of corporate culture preying on smaller companies.

What I now seen developing and growing in the UK VA sphere is quite different. It's a vibrant community of skilful, inherently interdependent and cooperative (mostly single handed) entrepreneurs working together to great effect and with amazing efficiency. (This is not difficult to proove - just compare the costs of employing someone to getting the same job done this way and it speak for itself).

The range of skills are such that it seems to me that almost any function - back or front office - can be taken on in this community in a way that is many times more efficient than in the existing corporate / employee style. A kind of crowd-sourced business model. It's different to the 'open source' community because it is irrevocable intertwined with the 'old' economy - but is more efficient than it's host. 

It's no coincidence that this phenomenon has mushroomed in a recession - when evolutionary forces slam into gear and deliver their brutal verdicts. It's a clear indication that this is a pioneering culture - and the shape of things to come.

I thought my dream had died. I mourned it a very long time indeed. I begin to suspect that 'Beauty' was only 'Sleeping' after all. Those evolutionary forces are hardly Prince Charming - and a recession is a rather brutal kind of kiss. But maybe - just maybe...

(C) Copyright Barry E James BSc(Hons) 2010.

Follow Friday Recommendations January 15th 2010

What a week this has been for me. It’s been so full of phone calls, Skype calls and Skype messages and emails.  They all revolve around people starting new ventures or new projects and wow is all I can say. There have been some great ideas in there, lots of opportunities for bringing people together and collaborating with each other to make their businesses better. I love it when things come together.  The future is looking bright and rosy so ignore the doom mongerers, 2010 is looking like a great year if you are prepared to put the hard work in as always.

I have to start my Follow Friday’s this week with an amazing company @ReceiptAngel, what a fantastic product they have released, I can’t believe no one has released something like this in the UK before.  Read my last blog for more information on this (and a discount code), but do please follow them, I think they are really a company that is going to be going places this year.

I have had some great chats on Twitter and email this past week with @paula6thlevel, @shoegalsedgwick, and @kevWr8

@izzibag has given me the inspiration I needed to try and get back in size 12 jeans J and she is jetting off to New York today for an awards ceremony, help me out here and vote for her please (please note that votes wont count if you don’t put a comment on them)

@emmawarren1 has joined us on our Twitter charity run/walk 2010 challenge this week, , please do join us if you can. It’s all about setting yourself a small challenge and raising money for charity at the same time, and yes, it can be a walking challenge if you like! (Full marks have to go to @elizabethwells who took the opportunity to try and sell us all sports bras!!)

I am starting to feel like I am part of a little gang on twitter as several of us seem to end up tweeting conversations between ourselves, amazing what you can do in 140 characters, especially considering the length of some of these twitter names! Love goes out to @maximattitude, @creditmandotnet @tweetsbyskeet @rsarchery @kipfxdesign and special love to @katieforshaw for that amazing snow angel picture (I still say it was a picture of her collapsed in a drunken state but she says it’s a snow angel so who am I to disagree). These guys brighten my days and bring a smile to my face.

My twitter week has been so full and amazing I don’t feel I can do justice to everyone.  I would like to mention some good causes that deserve a follow this week, and then apologise to everyone I haven’t mentioned.(You might well be on one of the lists I created this week though) @project65 @honourourforces and @kickcancer.  

I reached over 1000 followers this week and 8000 tweets. Both milestones I thought I would never see. So thank you to all my followers and to all the people who interact with me on Twitter. You rock!

No more box of receipts...

Last month I was introduced to Kay from Receipt Angel, who told me about a new service that they have launched.  I found it a really interesting concept but didn’t really give it my full attention as Christmas was around the corner.

Anyway, we got together on the phone this week and had a good chat and I wanted to share Receipt Angel with you, it’s a solution for clients like my “box of receipts” man, which if any of you have seen my tweets regarding that project, will understand.

I also thought it was particularly apt that I mentioned it at this time of year, as some people frantically try and submit their Self Assessment in time for the end of January deadline.

Now I know that not everyone is like “box of receipts” man, some of you don’t throw your receipts in a box or a carrier bag and expect them to magically sort themselves out at the last minute and turn into information you can use for your self assessment.  But you don’t have to be to benefit.

Receipt Angel has taken an age old problem and come up with a unique solution, I am not aware of another company offering this service in the UK at this time.

Using their special hand held scanner you scan your receipts, hit the send button and that’s it!  At the end of the month you get an email from them with links to download the neatly sorted images (which are accepted by the VAT man and HMRC as if they were the originals) and importantly everything you need for your accountant, or to fill in your VAT form.  They can even email the form straight to your accountant if you need. It’s so simple you can do it while you watch TV! 

The more I thought about it, the more uses I could think of.  For example how many sales consultants pile up receipts each month and need to submit expense claims? Do you really want to spend time finding them, writing it up, and filing it all?  Receipt Angel could do all this for you.

As you will have seen from my previous blogs I am always talking about keeping an eye on your expenses, not wasting money, and making the best use of your time.  This to me is a perfect solution for those people who don’t have the knowledge or even the inclination to do the task themselves; I mean how many of you out there really enjoy doing your books? I accept that I am an exception in actually enjoying it!  You may not want to employ a bookkeeper to do it for you, or be able to afford an accountant, this way you do it yourself. 

And because I am such a caring person I am going to give you a gift, a code that will allow you to save £99 on a 6 or 12 month subscription with Receipt Angel!  Just click here to visit their online store and remember to enter the code AngelHS to get your £99 discount. 

If you would like to read more information on their service it can be found here.

I would love to hear your comments on this and also for you to share your stories about “box of receipts” moments, and your ideas on who else can benefit from this service. Feel free to ask questions and if I can’t answer them I am sure the guys at Receipt Angel will jump in and do it for me.

Look after the pennies...

...I know it's an old wives tale or some such but you have to admit there is a lot of truth in this old adage.

I was looking at a Client's bank charges yesterday and suddenly realised how much it cost him to write a cheque - his bank charges him 79p for every cheque he writes, add the cost of the envelope and the postage stamp and the remittance advice on top and you are well over £1.00.

May not sound a lot to you, but consider the alternative, an on-line bank payment is free of charge, an emailed remittance costs nothing.  In just one transaction you have saved £1.00.

When was the last time you reviewed your bank's charging tariff?

Personally I use a bank that offers two years free banking, and will review it at the end of the two years.  Mind you, I currently have no lending and don't anticipate the need, if you did then you would have to consider staying with your bank and building your relationship with the bank in the hope that when you did need them they would be there for you.  Obviously this is something you would discuss with your Accountant or Bank Manager.

The point that I am trying to make is that too many companies fail to look at the little things.  I have lost count of the number of companies I worked for who's stationery policy was decided by one person, who always ordered enough of something to get the latest free gift be it biscuits or a teddy bear, regardless of whether it was actually needed or cost efficient.  One company I worked at had enough Tippex to last a decade!

Now some people may say it is my Yorkshire side, but I like to think I am a canny lass, I take my time deciding what I want to buy then I buy it from whoever gives me the best value.  I don't buy toilet rolls and coffee from the stationers because they are cheaper from the Supermarket and I used to drive past on the way to work.

How long is it since you last reviewed your outgoings? Do you look at how much you pay for your phone, broadband and utilities? Or do you just stick with the same people for convenience?

I did a stationery review, okay it took me an hour to do, but the end result was a saving to my old company of over £350 year just on stationery.

Just spend a bit of time, sit down, look at what you are paying out each month, and why, its surprising how many companies aren't aware of all the small things that go out, and those odd £5 and £10 debits soon add up.  Have a quick look, there are plenty of comparison sites out there, can you save money, and is switching going to be advantageous, sometimes the extra you pay is worth it if they offer fantastic customer service or something similar, but sometimes you could be saving money.

It's a new year, consider adopting this new approach, and hopefully you will end up better off financially, and with the satisfaction that you have moved your business forward.

Comments welcomed.

New Year, New You?

It’s at this time of year that most people sit and make resolutions. It’s not something that I do these days, more to do with the fact I can never make them last, but I do think that there is a need to set goals for your business.

A year ago my business wasn’t even a dream; I was employed in a full time role, so asking me to make resolutions wouldn’t have made the slightest difference.

You have to set yourself goals or ideals but remain flexible enough to adapt and grow with them.

Set yourself a challenge that is going to take effort to achieve, it’s no fun if it’s easy, and the harder it is to achieve the more satisfaction you will gain from reaching it.

A New Year is a great time to review things, it’s a fresh start, I think that is why New Year is such a popular holiday, and it’s a chance to put mistakes behind you, to start again, another chance to possibly achieve that dream.  Just look at how many people go back to work in January determined to look for a new job, or the divorce rate in January, the Xmas and New Year break seems to focus people much more than any other holiday.

So have I set my business goals yet? Nope, I have a rough idea of what I want to achieve, I need to put it down in writing though, I need to make sure that it is enough of a challenge but also achievable and realistic. It’s on my to do list!
I have acted on a couple of items though, I have booked my summer holiday, after all, it’s probably the only week of sun I will see all year, so I have something to look forward to and to work towards.  I have also booked my place at the VA conference as well, a chance to meet my fellow Virtual Assistants and to learn how to improve and grow my business.

I have set myself a personal challenge of getting back on track with my running, I’ve already booked a 10k race to work towards, but as that’s not till August will find something a little sooner to motivate me for now.  I am not going to diet, but I will try and be more sensible in my eating choices, I need a long term plan not a quick fix.

So have a think, be it personal or business related, set yourself goals, call them resolutions if you will, but ensure that they are realistic and achievable, it’s great for your morale if you can achieve them, and a downer if you can’t.  Consider sharing them with someone else, it’s more of an incentive to achieve it.

Here’s hoping your 2010 brings you what you would wish for, may all your problems be small ones, and may all your achievements bring you rewards.