Keeping upbeat

Any business enterprise is bound to have challenges.  In fact the moments when everything is running smoothly, work in is enough to keep the wolf from the door, but not overwhelming, everyone in the office is fit, well and cheerful, and our clients are happy with us must be treasured – they are rare.

As the leader of a business, it is your role to keep the enterprise moving forward in a positive way even when things are tough.

I can sometimes feel overwhelmed, but I have to pull myself together, rally the troops and keep us moving forward.

Yet again, the latest example was with the dreaded BT.  Here in the country we suffer from dire internet speeds.  I am a natural technophobe so I have to force myself to get this stuff.

Recently, our internet died a death, with occasional sputters into life, when we thought maybe, just maybe it was all going to be OK.  The effect on all of us working here was dire.  Not only was our productivity cut dramatically, but it was really lowering.  It was very frustrating for all of us.

I had to rally myself, make a plan, arrange for people to work from home and generally decide how to resolve the problem, ideally without bankrupting the business by paying for a massively expensive bespoke solution.

I’m glad to say that eventually the problem was found and put right.

The moral for me is that this need to stay positive and moving forward – even if we aren’t naturally positive and optimistic – is really useful.  It does us no good to get miserable and low, so if we are able to keep ourselves up, that is beneficial for our own state of mind, as well as that of the business.

 

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The perils and advantages of living and working in the country.

This morning I was at a breakfast meeting.  The breakfast was nice, but arrived very slowly.  I made a (fortunately gentle) comment to my breakfast neighbour.  It turned out the cook and waitress were his daughter and ex-wife.  Thank goodness I wasn’t rude about them.

This is one of the things about living and working in the country.  The chances are you will not be anonymous, and there are unexpected connections.  Someone will know you and be able to report on your bad behaviour wherever you go.  It’s a great restraining force.  You really do not want people to be talking about how you lost your temper, or were rude.

I have come to the view that this is entirely positive thing.  Feeling we may be in hearing distance of someone who knows we are is a great restraining force.  It makes us behave responsibly and well.  Of course there are circumstances where we would not feel so relaxed – in other words, if we are misbehaving in any way.  My life is busy enough without any extra complications like that!

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Retiring – make an exit plan

By definition, if you are an Oldpreneur you need to have an exit plan.  This is very much easier said than done.

How do you know when to stop?  And how do you stop?

You have set up a business in later life because you enjoy working, being busy.  But there will come a time when you can’t be bothered with the unrelenting challenges, you just don’t have the same energy to keep bouncing back, and learning new ways.  You may even be come a liability to the organisation you have created.

I hear myself repeating the same version of my exit plan to different people, my problem is that I don’t really believe it.  Time I started to plan in earnest.  More to follow..

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Business Plans

When you start a business you will be told you must do a business plan, and I agree. The reason is that it focusses the mind and forces you to work through the nuts and bolts of your business.

For example, what do you need to do to get going?  Do you need a website?  If so, what will it cost?  That leads you to think about who you might ask to do it.

Do you need staff? What will you pay them?  Where will you find them?

Will you advertise, if so, where?

There are lots of much smaller things you will have to do, such as installing a phone line and getting broadband.  Just make sure you leave plenty of time for this. I’m sure one day I will learn how to deal with BT and Openreach without blowing a gasket.

Then of course you need to take a realistic view of what your income will be, and drill down to where it will come from, and how much you will charge.

The act of making the business plan anchors your feet to the ground, making you think through what your wonderful new business will actually be like on a day to day basis.

But: your business plan will be wrong.  There is no way any of us can work out how a new business will perform, particularly when starting from scratch. My first business plan was hopelessly optimistic. After a few years, you will start to get a clearer idea.  Next year is likely to be similar to this year.  Just hopefully, and with a fair wind it will perform a bit better next year than last.

One of the things I have found exciting about running my own business is that new and unexpected opportunities emerge from left field. For me, the one that appeared from no-where, and was not in my business plan was doing foreign probate work.  This is mainly for people who are foreigners (to the UK) but have an asset in the UK, such as a bank account.  The reason we get this work is that we have a good website. Its fun, and unexpected to have clients all over the world.

So, have a business plan, but expect it to be wrong, and be ready to skip sideways when a new opportunity presents itself.

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Selling tips

Lots of people who start businesses are experts at their particular job, whether it is being a lawyer, gardening, or teaching philosophy.  We feel that our potential customers should magically know about and value our fabulous skills. Why should we have to sell them? But we really do need to tell people, in a way that they can hear.  This applies even if we are not asking to be paid.

Here are a few of the things about selling that I have learnt:

  • Givers gain.  Be willing to give free advice without expecting anything in return.  People will remember, and may well come back to you later.  These days I am getting a bit bolder.  I say that I am very happy to help, I don’t want to be paid but I ask them to tell their friends about me.  Its always worth asking.
  • Classic advice is that potential customers need to hear about you from several angles and several times before they are likely to instruct you.  I think that is partly true,  unless they happen at that moment to need your particular services. For example, I find that for my business parish magazine advertisements  work, particularly after they have been in the magazine for several months.  The customer has seen the ad several times, and is reassured that you are not a fly by night.  It is even better if they have seen the ad, and heard about you from a friend.
  • Following on this theme, we advertised in a magazine in Bath.  Very little happened.  As part of the package we were allowed to put one article (very dull stuff about inheritance tax) in the magazine.  The impact was dramatic.  We suddenly had several new instructions.  I don’t believe the article was properly read by many of the clients, but they liked the tone and feel of it, which was intended to be helpful, rather than a sales pitch.
  • Keep listening.  People usually like to talk, and they dislike being talked at, particularly if it feels like a sales pitch.  You can then offer helpful advice.  One of the sales person’s clichés is “two ears, one mouth”
  • don’t rush people, be willing to wait.  This is a great luxury us Oldpreneurs tend to have, particularly if we don’t have a mortgage to pay.  In some fields selling is by nature pressurised: “sign up today for a discount” so I am not speaking for every business here, but I would think for a majority.  You should never sound desperate to make a sale.
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Starting your business

 

 

Here are a few reflections on do’s and don’ts of starting a business:

 

  • Try to make decisions, even if you don’t feel you have every last bit of information you need. Otherwise you will get stuck.  A lot of those decisions seem tiny in retrospect, once they have been made.  For example, there can be very few businesses that don’t need a website. Who do you ask to help you with this?  How much should you budget?  The process will force a whole load of other decisions such as your colour scheme, your logo, and what you do.  Sounds obvious, but often at the start you haven’t really decided what you will and wont do.  Your core values will shine through what you say on the website, so you need to have thought about them. Don’t underestimate the amount of time this will take.
  • I found it useful to join a networking group.  Most of these groups introduce you to a range of other small businesses which you may choose to use for various services. Even though I left the group some time ago I still use many of the people I met there, and they use me. You are normally expected to give 1 minute pitches for your business, so it fine tunes your selling skills and how you want to talk about the business.  Also, when you start there is little structure in your life, and it can be comforting, if nothing else, to have a weekly fixture in your diary.
  • You are very lucky if you start with some customers: maybe you bring them with you from your previous job.  Lots of us start with no customers at all.  That is fine. At the beginning most of your energies are spent on marketing.  Over time you hope that more and more time is spent doing the work and less on marketing.  The classic conundrum is that you get so busy you forget to spend any time marketing.  Then you finish the work in hand and start to panic.
  • You will make mistakes.  Don’t worry!  For example, I got lots of unsolicited calls (I think that the phone numbers of start-ups must be sold) particularly offering cut price ads in papers on condition you sign up that day.  The price will tumble as you show reluctance. Don’t do it; although I fell for these ads, they never worked for me.  Over time you will work out what works, and what doesn’t.
  • The feeling of getting paid for work you have done is really great – quite different to receiving a salary.  I still remember banking the first cheque.
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How to deal with difficult customers

 

 

It’s not just in business but in life generally that we all, unfortunately have to deal with tricky customers.

The first rule is to try not to rise to the bait.  Getting cross back almost never helps.

If the person is a bully, stand up to them if you can.   For example, I was approached by someone recently who wanted us to deal with his uncle’s probate.  He rang at 5 in the evening when I was on holiday and spoke to my lovely colleague for over an hour.  He was so rude to her that she was in tears by the time he let her go home. In his defence I doubt he was aware he was causing such upset. He then tried to negotiate a favourable rate with us.  I really don’t want to have clients like this, so I kept saying no, and would have been quite happy to lose this piece of work. But to my surprise he did instruct us and it seems to have worked out OK in the end, possibly because I was able to stand up to him.

Many other self-employed people I know say that when they have a customer they know will be difficult, they quote an absurdly high price, hoping they will go away.  If they dont go away, at least they will have been well paid.

In our line of business we deal with people who have been bereaved.  I recognise that they are under a lot of pressure, and sometimes their emotions need an outlet.  Its fine with us if they want a good cry, much harder if they get angry especially if it is with us.  But if they do, and if we have made a mistake, then our rule is to apologise and do what we can to put things right.  Research shows that a disappointed customer whose complaint is dealt with thoroughly and well is much more likely to recommend you than someone who never had a problem in the first place.

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We’re in the news again

There’s been another rash of news about older people starting businesses, for example https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/olderpreneurs-insist-retiring-is-for-wimps-as-barclays-hires-liz-earle-to-help-senior-start-ups-w72fj7mh2
They tend to be called OldERpreneurs, but I think Oldpreneurs is more catchy. I must start blogging again, after a few months off. My excuse is that I have been too busy, but no time like the present for starting again.

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Joe Gebbia of Airbnb

 

Joe Gebbia of Airbnb has given an interesting TED talk called “Designs for Trust”.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but Airbnb relies on the concept of trusting strangers – contrary to the general thrust of society, which is one of deep suspicion.  It’s a wonderful concept, and it clearly works.  Tons of thought went into the design of the website to help this along. For example, punters are put off by too much personal information, but want a bit.  So the examples given as guidance steer the seller and buyer to saying enough, but not too much;  the space available for comment isn’t so big that people can write a whole essay on their dysfunctional family, or whatever.

Gebbia used one phrase that really resonated with me.  It was that Airbnb is about connection beyond transaction. For me it sums up beautifully what most businesses seek to achieve.  Of course there is a transaction when one entity is selling and another is buying, but the connection beyond that is what is memorable and makes you want to go back for more. It is certainly how I want my business to work.

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The importance of an outside view

 

An outside view is very valuable. My American friend Keith has very interesting ideas about how we are taxed in the UK, because he has seen things done in a different way.  Things that I take for granted, he questions.

It made me think how important it is in business to have people working for you who see things differently, and don’t all come from the same mould.  I think that is how I have been able to succeed running a specialist law firm, even though I had not worked with in private practice (the name for law firms acting for individuals) for 20 years.  I see things rather differently.

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The Government wants to destroy us

 

Why does it feel that the Government is determined to destroy us?

Did you know that probate fees are about to increase massively – from £155 today to a sliding scale depending on the size of the estate, starting at £300 and increasing to £20,000 for estates over £2m!  This is a form of stealth tax as these people will also be paying large amounts of Inheritance Tax.

I feel personally attacked.  I have engaged in the consultation but if my past experience is anything to go by “consultation” just means going through the motions and ticking a box.  I look forward to being proved wrong.

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Recruiting Again – and it doesn’t get any easier

 

We are recruiting again. We advertised on Linked In.  I have had a few time wasters – people entirely unqualified for the advertised role.  Nothing concrete or worthwhile.

But then out of the blue I got an approach from someone who hadn’t even looked at Linked In, and isn’t quite what I was looking for but actually now realise will be very helpful indeed – and she has accepted!  It’s odd how things turn out.

 

We are looking forward to welcoming Marianne into the team – as there are so few of us we will all need to adjust and change, but I feel very positive about her imminent arrival.

I’m not sure what the lesson is here – except that I have never yet successfully recruited from an advertisement.  It is way better to reach out on a personal basis – either if you need someone or if you are looking for a job.

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Art Appreciation

 

I have recently joined an Art Appreciation class.  I am not artistic or observant, so it is all rather foreign to me.  Possibly it is something I felt I should do rather than something I really wanted to do.

But – why I am writing about it is that the teacher – Tim Stewart – is extraordinary.  He has clearly spent hours researching and preparing for the 2 hour session, which is only likely to be presented once.  His enthusiasm is fantastic.  The rest of the class think – rightly – that he is amazing.  They have mainly kept coming to his class since it began 2 or 3 years ago.

It is really quite humbling – I expect he is paid very little – the class is in a horrid room in our local secondary college.  But he is a shining example of putting massive effort into something, without expecting reward, for the pleasure of sharing and learning.  And I am sure we can all benefit from giving in that same altruistic way.

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Write in simple language

 

It is so important to write in simple language

It is easy to speak with your own voice, in person and in writing if you run your own business. It is much harder if you work for someone else and need to second guess what how they want you to present yourself.

Possibly that is why some of us – particularly lawyers – are inclined to add extra words when none are needed, and make things more formal than they need to be.

It’s odd – why do we default to using 4 words where 1 will do?  It appears to be almost as addictive for lawyers as using “I mean” and “I like” in the spoken word – it earns you a bit of time while you work out what you want to say.

I have one message, particularly for lawyers – go through what you have written and see if you can’t make it shorter.

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Marketing material – what it looks like counts

The appearance of marketing material really counts.

It is worth getting help with preparing marketing material of any type.  Few of us have the design flair to do it ourselves, and a professional look is invaluable.

You also need to choose your corporate look and feel, and stick with it on all marketing materials.

After a couple of years it is likely to look out of date, and tired, so you will have look at it all again.

I am proud of my website and get lots of nice comments about it – but it was agony to put 8together.  Its 2 years old now and I dread the day – won’t be more than a year off, I guess, when I will need to do it again.

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