Fishing for exports? The world’s your lobster*

ImageForum_ArticleBuilding the SimVenture brand has involved little hitchhiking but much globe-trotting over the last 8 years. In this time exporting has become a key revenue stream. So what’s been learnt and how can you develop your own export expertise and thus build your business? Here are my top 10 tips…

1. Work with your national export agency

The UKTI provides an invaluable service that starts with the Passport to Export scheme. Over the last 7 years this agency has offered excellent & ongoing advice, information, training and leads abroad – virtually all for free. We have also benefited from several grants to support  trips overseas (up to 50% of costs) which has made it much easier to justify time and effort spent travelling. If you’re not based in the UK, find out which government department supports export and discover what help is available.

2. Pull is much easier than push

Not long after our website went live in 2006 we started to receive inquiries from around the world. People were downloading our software and requesting quotes months before a member of the team set foot on foreign soil. This ‘pull’ from abroad made it much easier to justify plans to export and the level of interest only increased when the first trip was made.

3. Book flights and accommodation direct

There are 2 key websites we use for booking hotels and flights. Not only do we get great rates but the direct booking systems provide a complete overview of the market as well as control over purchases. Skyscanner shows all flights and prices and you can take your pick in terms of airline and airport. Booking.com provides access to accommodation all over the world – all in a clear and easy to understand manner. Critically, if your plans change you have the option to cancel booked accommodation – at very late notice and at no charge.

4. Finding good agents and distributors is crucial

Whilst the ability to book hotels and flights direct is recommended, it’s almost essential that you work through local agents and distributors to build up leads and sales. Typically, these people work on commission and the better the % rate the more work you might expect from them. I could write a whole post about finding, working with and managing agents but my one piece of advice is to find people who are genuinely interested in your product and have the skills and background to work with customers in their respective territory. Those seeking a fast buck are almost always only with you for a short time.

5. Use time abroad wisely

Opportunities to market and sell abroad can be boundless. Working with UKTI you can find out about conferences and exhibitions for your market sector and these events may act as a trip hub with which to arrange other meetings. Having learnt from mistakes we only exhibit at events where a high proportion of visitors fit our customer profile. With regards to face-to-face meetings I aim to have at least 3 a day and these are all organised in advance by email. Use the advanced settings on LinkedIn to find people who you might want to meet. It is a very targeted, efficient and effective marketing channel.

6. Which airline?

If budgets are tight then use Skyscanner to find the cheapest available airline. But if you’re travelling long haul and like a bit of style then try an Airbus 380. Singapore Airlines (always recommended) and Emirates both have them in their fleet (online booking is straightforward) and the extra seat room, quietness and screen entertainment makes travel much easier. Business Class may be an indulgence but no one does it as well as Emirates. If you travel regularly with an airline then collect miles for free flights or upgrades later. Virgin Atlantic is one example of a company allowing you to accumulate miles through flying and with a credit card but read the terms and conditions carefully! Finally, I highly recommend Virgin Australia, Air Asia and Virgin America when flying within the respective countries. All easy to use, reliable and inexpensive if you book ahead.

7. Sound relationships take time

Trust is everything in business and it’s a rare thing to strike a deal at a first meeting. You have to put time and energy into relationships and this means return visits are almost essential. If agents and potential customers can see that you are committed to working together they will put more effort in too. Lead times for us are typically 12 months and more but once the process has started, all time and effort is a worthwhile investment.

8. Dealing with money

For me, a little currency and a healthy credit card go a long way when abroad especially if flights, hotels and airport taxis have been booked in advance. Buying currency at the Post Office rather than the airport gets you a better exchange rate but it will take longer to complete. We buy our currency at airports because time is often at a premium.

When it comes to billing clients abroad, all our invoices are in sterling. We also insist that bank charges must be met by the customer and thus add £12 to each bill. For international transactions to be completed, ensure your invoices include all the relevant information including: bank account details, Swift number, IBAN number and a BIC number.

9. Invaluable gadgets and accessories

Having a laptop and access to the internet is vital when travelling. When I book accommodation I always check to see that free wireless provision is available in the room. Likewise, power is essential and a multi-purpose plug like the ‘Swiss Gear‘ adaptor is an invaluable travelling companion. A bag padlock (for airline baggage) as well as lightweight quality headphones are always with me – the latter so I can escape the world especially in busy places (and don’t have to use crappy headsets supplied by airlines). Finally, take a bottle opener and a spare phone charger cable.

10. Prepare your paperwork

Prior to departure ensure you have relevant insurance, printed e-tickets for all pre-booked trains, flights and accommodation, a passport (not within 6 months of expiry) as well as necessary business visa documents to enter the countries you intend to visit. Most countries simply require you to fill out a visa card (free) on the flight but places like the US (see ESTA) and Australia require pre-registration and authorisation on-line. If you plan to travel on business to places such as India and Nigeria purchasing a visa can take a few months; so plan well ahead and consider using a professional and trustworthy agency to help with your application.

Key learning points: We live in a global market and opportunities to export abound. However, executing a successful export strategy takes time as well as money so plan ahead and consider all details. Business travel is a great way to see the world. 

 

*No oysters, lobsters or any other shellfish were harmed in the writing of this post. Article title inspired by the wonderful word-smith and long-time friend, Kay Wright. 

Romance your audience

John Keats

John Keats

John Keats, the famous 19th century poet, became part of the Italian family holiday this summer.

Dragging hefty luggage up to our 3rd floor apartment in central Rome’s searing heat, we eventually recovered to learn ’26 Piazza di Spagna’ (next to the Spanish Steps) was also Keats’ place of rest. In-fact, the floor below us was a museum dedicated to the great man.

Curiosity sparked (be assured, my literary knowledge wouldn’t fill a postcard) I selected one of the many biographies made available in our apartment. His life fascinated me.

Born in 1795, Keats discovered his poetic ability as a teenager and then worked tirelessly to fulfil his talent. He gave up his studies (to be a surgeon) so he could focus solely on writing; his first work was published in the Examiner when he was 20 (1816). Even though the death of his parents led to a life of poverty he never wavered from his passion. His poetry is now world-renowned but it was decades after his death before his work was really recognised. Tuberculosis cut his life tragically short and he died in Rome aged 25.

Entrepreneurial traits

Absorbed in 200 year-old history I instinctively sensed a strong weave of entrepreneurial fabric in Keats’ character. Even though his life was difficult, his poetry is centred around creative imagination as well as beauty and typically possesses an optimistic view of the world. Living at a time of the industrial revolution his ‘romantic‘ writing helped forge a new brand of poetry that veered from the status quo. And Keats found that just like today, if you’re going to be different, you have to be thick skinned.

The critics of the time were often savage with their reviews of his work. For example, when the now famous Endymion was published in the Examiner in 1818, Keats’ poetry was condemned. But in a letter to a friend, he demonstrates real resilience in his philosophical outlook as well as deep strength of character:

“In Endymion I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe and took tea and comfortable advice – I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest…”

Seeking an audience

By choosing to earn his living as a poet Keats had to publish his work to make money. And just like the start-up who must develop and sell a new service or product, he had to connect with an audience.

As entrepreneurs know only too well, the journey to the point where a relationship with an audience is sustainable can be fraught with difficulty and setback. Fear of rejection and failure as well as criticism from others (the journey’s ‘rocks’ and ‘quicksands’) unfortunately prevent many ideas from leaving the ‘harbour’. Having faith and being prepared to ‘leap headlong into the sea’ requires bravery and a measure of self-belief.

It seems to me that the poet and entrepreneur share a similar space. Creating something completely new requires skill, imagination and a certain talent. Being prepared and able to share the new creation publicly opens up a world of new experience and invokes a common suite of positive and negative feelings that all need to be understood and harnessed.

So how can you use poetry to connect with and reach your audience?

Inspirational poetry

There’s a ‘library’ of poems out there which have all been written to inspire people to make the most of their lives. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem entitled ‘If’ (which Andy Murray will have read part of on his walk out to win Wimbledon in 2013) is a famous example. Less well known is the beautifully written ‘How do you tackle your work’ by Edgar Guest and I’m grateful to Acme Printing for helping me find the wonderfully apt second verse:

“You can do as much as you think you can,
But you’ll never accomplish more;
If you’re afraid of yourself, young man,
There’s little for you in store.
For failure comes from the inside first,
It’s there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you’re going to do it.”

You’ll also find several suitable references to Dead Poets Society on the web; but if you’re serious about including or embedding the use of poems more widely within your own work, I thoroughly recommend the Poetry Foundation as an excellent source of great material.

Professorial approval

And of course, if you are seeking someone who is a seasoned user of poetry in teaching and training circles, I suggest you make contact with the highly engaging Alistair Fee – a well renowned thought leader and Professor of Innovation at Queens University Belfast. Professor Fee is convinced that poetry adds real value in class.

“The joy of poetry” says Alistair “is enjoying clever use of language in which meaning is squeezed into a few words and where the reader has to use imagination to ferret out the deep significance. And innovators and entrepreneurs must work like poets because they require patience, tenacity, determination, vision and commitment in order to succeed.”

Professor Fee also says that poems such as ‘Rough Country’ (Dana Gioia) really work with students because the words encourage a sense of risk and ‘true grit’.

“Students want to be released,” says Alistair. “They want to be told that one is allowed to be bold and daring, that we need explorers and tough guys who dare to think differently and do things that many will not attempt…”

Whether an Italian holiday counts as exploration I’m not sure. But homeward bound and gazing from my window seat aboard the plane, I considered how best to reference poetry and hitchhiking. With the Italian Dolomites beneath me and only the occasional wisp of cloud between us the answer appeared quite naturally and I felt compelled to write.

Hitch

Life that meanders on even keel
Suffers usual mists n’ wasteful feel
So seize it now, head up, alone
Step out to failure, and test unknown

Be brave, accept rejection’s wrath
In patience, sense the strength you have
For fortune’s arrows will be drawn
Rejoice the time of distance worn

Engage the giving, discover new
Beliefs, perspectives and what’s true
And as each odyssey finds its end
Stand proud once more and go again.

Like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur travels a different path and thus gains new perspectives. Self-reliance and the ability to deal with uncertainty are important traits; the ongoing pursuit of goals requires strength of character, resilience and the acceptance that failure and rejection are constant companions. Every journey offers up fresh opportunities to meet new people, learn and discover personal ‘highs’ (and lows) that were otherwise untouchable. Ultimately, each journey must end – and the process starts again.

Key Learning Points: Poetry is a powerful vehicle with which to engage people who seek enterprise and entrepreneurship skills. Poems may not be in vogue, but leaders of an audience must be brave, different and able to rise above failure as well as the critics.

 

 

Flavour of the Umph!

UmphTrophyBeing 25 years’ self-employed I feel I’ve developed a ‘nose’ for judging whether a business or project might work.

The personal journey over the last quarter century has had its mix of success and failure; critical experience informing the senses as to whether something new can progress sufficiently so it bears fruit in the longer-term.

Sustainability is critical

For me, the issue of sustainability is a key ingredient. Moving from recession to real economic recovery is going to take time and short-term thinking doesn’t really help.

People and organisations that over-spice their work with ill-thought through ideas and quick gains play a dangerous game; just look at banks and the bad taste they’ve left.

That said, enterprising people who create new projects or businesses must draw on huge levels of energy and resilience from the outset. They must also possess the ability to adapt quickly because economic uncertainty mixed with market fragility/volatility means even the best made plans and forecasts quickly become round-file fodder.

So turning the ‘new’ into something ‘sustainable’ is a fine balancing act fraught with challenge and risk.

Now, this is the juncture where I typically tender a hitchhiking analogy; but my mind’s blank. But what springs to mind is a rocket using vast fuel reserves to counter earth’s gravitational pull, and then accessing a separate energy source and sophisticated engineering to fulfil its space journey. A galaxy hitchhiking guide. Now that’s a thought…

Umph! leading by example

One new and innovative project that made it ‘off the ground’ in 2010 (and is now attracting increasing amounts of regional and national attention) is Umph!; an innovative event held annually at Huddersfield Town Football Club.

Brainchild of Grant Thornton’s ‘Educate to Innovate‘ programme, Umph! gives students aged 16-19 an opportunity to develop enterprise, employability and entrepreneurial skills as well as participate in a SimVenture business simulation competition.

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

And this month a record number of schools & colleges from throughout Yorkshire gathered again to participate in the third event of its kind. In addition, 10 speakers including renowned polar explorer, Mark Wood, X Factor’s Executive Producer Siobhan Greene and football club Chairman and entrepreneur Dean Hoyle each gave of their time to share their wisdom and experience with participants.

But how and why has Umph! become such a success and what can be learnt from the process?

Secrets of success

From the very outset the organising team focused tightly on providing for schools, colleges and their students. Everyone involved gave of their time and/or resources which meant many traditional event costs were waived. The collective unselfish attitude and reduced financial risk created a powerful trust-based partnership which lasts to this day.

One of the biggest early hurdles was securing participant interest in the first Umph! event. Academic institutions receive numerous off-site invitations, so competition for time was always going to be tough. And in 2010/11 cuts to education budgets were widespread and increased government legislation made it more difficult for students to travel off-site.

The 16 month lead-in time for the first event in 2011 proved crucial and ultimately attracted 14 schools and colleges (in 2013, 29+ signed up). Even though event entry was free and each of the 4 members within the winning team were promised the latest iPad (thank you sponsors), huge effort was needed to attract the early ‘pioneers’.

Common purpose unites

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Two years on and everyone who attends Umph! talks about how much they have enjoyed and benefited from the event. Lead teachers are keen to sign up immediately for the following year and organisers, speakers and sponsors are visibly moved by the impact the day has had on 100+ young people.

Umph! is sustainable because the organisers never sought short-term rewards and prioritised giving over what could be gained. This philosophy united stakeholders who have then collectively offered time, energy and absolute commitment to a clear and common purpose.

The richness and diversity of all the people involved with Umph! means every participant that takes part benefits in their own unique way. Creating such a dynamic is crucial because the individual as well as collective sense of involvement, achievement and success generates the necessary momentum for future years.

And since people want to be involved again, positive word of mouth promotion spreads quickly; meaning far less energy is required to persuade others to participate.

Grant Thornton deserve huge praise for making Umph! a reality. Sandra O’Neill and her highly professional team based in Leeds are already looking to organise an even bigger and better day in Huddersfield in 2014.

And such is the flavour of Umph! there is now a hunger for the event to be replicated in other parts of the country. If it whets your appetite, get in touch with Sandra.

Key Learning Points: Developing the momentum to make a new project or business work over the long-term needs to involve people who buy into a common purpose. Hard work, patience, giving first and ongoing collaboration are other key ingredients. 

 

 

Death of a telephone salesman*

TelephoneMost people who try to sell to me over the phone are crap at their job. What’s worse is the fact you can tell in seconds that they’ve received some god-awful training which might as well be called ‘How to shaft the customer’.

For me, sales shouldn’t have such a bad name. But when you are repeatedly treated like a moron by people who seemingly don’t care about the customer, then the profession perhaps deserves its woeful status.

However, from my experience of working in the industry, some quality training and appreciation of the customer can transform the performance of any salesperson. But before highlighting my thoughts, here are three examples of recent bad experiences I’ve had of people selling to me over the phone.

Bad selling in practice

A car dealership (think German and 5 linked rings) rang in response to a car inquiry I made. When I took the call, the handset at the other end rattled noisily in my ear as it was picked up; Surprised by his apparent laziness I was then subjected to a barrage of warp-speed waffle. The opening was a disaster and it went quickly downhill as a further onslaught of non-requested technical jargon was hurled my way. No sale.

A claims company rang about an ‘accident’ I had apparently experienced. “And when was this?” I enquired, simultaneously counting my body parts just in case I had inadvertently suffered a health mishap as well as a dose of amnesia. “We don’t know, but we can help you claim,” he replied, lying through his teeth. I told him he was talking bollocks and the call ended. No one wants to deal with liars. No sale.

And finally, an investment company salesman called and used a fast-paced, arrogant tone and a script which screamed ‘control the customer’.

“Hello Mr Harrington, my name’s ‘BlahBlah Posh’ calling from ‘Flipperty’ Investments. How are you today? There’s nothing nice about this approach and certainly no question as to whether the timing of the call was convenient. So I ignored the inquiry after my welfare and asked why he was calling. Apparently he wanted to post a brochure about exciting new investment opportunities with nanotechnology. I suggested the information be emailed but I was told he had no email access. Really!?? So being busy and disinterested I said it wasn’t for me. But instead of listening he simply changed tack because that’s what the script said. Suffice to say that any kind of trust vanished up the phone wire; I wasn’t about to consider giving this complete stranger my hard-earned wonga. No sale.

Top 10 tips for telephone selling

In my opinion, the application of good sales practice can help any business flourish. Here are my thoughts on what you should do:

1                    Train and practice

Whilst the goal for all salespeople is to make sales, no one will ever buy from you if they don’t like you or don’t trust you. Since people only ever hear the words you use and your tone of voice, it’s vital you develop communication skills through good training and repeatedly practising the questions you want to ask and the statements you want to make (alongside someone who can offer objective feedback).

2                    Become a problem solver

People typically enjoy buying but they don’t like being sold to. As an effective salesperson you need to develop the ability to solve problems which necessarily means asking good questions first and listening before presenting solutions. Don’t be tempted into lengthy product descriptions just because it’s easier than asking questions of the customer. When you do solve a problem and thus meet or exceed expectations, people will be more inclined to like you and repeat purchase.

3                    Take your time

Slow down -don’t rush the sales process. Speaking quickly makes you sound nervous and unnerves the other person. Another point, pressuring people to make a decision when they really don’t want to either results in tension or people back off completely.

4                    Build relationships and trust over time

Relationships take time to build and so don’t seek big decisions too quickly. If you’re calling a potential customer for the first time, keep the call and any requests simple. To build trust make sure you are honest, fulfil any promises and then get back in touch at the agreed time. Always expect sales to take multiple calls – if they don’t, it’s a bonus.

5                    Take responsibility

Don’t expect the customer to work for you. If the person with whom you want to speak is not available then take responsibility for calling back and update your written records accordingly. Don’t leave messages asking to be called back.

6                    Be a great listener

Listening is perhaps the most important skill for a salesperson to master. Take notes when listening, never interrupt and let the other person finish their sentence before talking; these are all small skills that once combined, demonstrate that you value the customer. You can also ask ‘Confirm’ and ‘Clarify’ questions to check what you’ve heard. All of this helps to build rapport between the buyer and seller.

7                    Expect rejection

Expect to be rejected. No one sells every time even if your product is fantastic.  Rejection is not personal so keep it in context; if you’ve done your job professionally there should be an opportunity to ask to call back at a future date to see if circumstances have changed.

8                    Be positive

Use a positive tone of voice but also be you. People don’t enjoy monotonic sludge but at the same time salespeople who are overly cheery can come across as insincere and thus untrustworthy.

9                    Deliver on promises

Always deal in the truth, do what you say you are going to do and when an order results ensure you thank the customer. This behaviour builds rapport, sustains the relationship and enhances your chances of future sales and referrals.

10                Reward and review

Schedule time for sales and when the target number of calls you want to make are done on any given day, reward yourself (chocolate is good) and reflect on your work. Don’t hide mistakes by pretending what went wrong didn’t happen. To improve, discuss all learning with someone who can offer an objective constructive viewpoint.

Key Learning Points: Telephone sales work is not easy. However, if you treat people as you would want to be treated, then here’s an inexpensive opportunity to build long-term sustainable relationships that will help your business grow. 

 

*With acknowledgement to the great American playwright, Arthur Miller.

 

Show off when the show’s on

Attention Bullhorn Megaphone Sends Warning MessageExhibiting at events and shows can be a highly effective way for small businesses to promote their products and services.

Just like the hitchhiker, you put yourself right in front of passing potential customers, waiting for someone to take interest and stop by.

Attending exhibitions is fun – and if you get it all right, it can also be highly profitable; over the past 25 years I’ve spent thousands of hours on stands around the world. But it’s not always a bag of laughs and just like all other promotional activities you have to accept you may not recoup your costs.

So if you want to exhibit what should you do to maximise the marketing opportunity, make best use of time and minimise the financial risk? Here are my top ten tips:

Top 10 Tips for exhibiting

1. Profile attendees

Before making the decision to exhibit anywhere find out about the audience being promised by the organiser. Ideally you need to know both the profile and volume of attendees, so request details. Then ask yourself what proportion of the delegates fit your target customer profile? In my experience, I’ve found small events (100 – 250 delegates) offering a high proportion of people who fit my market to be more effective than large events that offer a small proportion of the people I am targeting.

2. Cost the risk

As part of your preparation, work out the full event cost (include promotional materials, travel, accommodation, equipment hire and all stand costs). To calculate the ‘risk’, consider how many sales (at an average sales value) you need to make in order to breakeven. However, also bear in mind that there is typically a lead time for sales to be concluded so don’t plan for people to necessarily order at your stand. If your gut tells you the costs outweigh the benefits be cautious about committing.

3. One simple message works best

When creating stand promotional material, keep everything simple and easy for people passing the stand to understand. Whilst you should make your stand attractive, it’s a common mistake for exhibitors to overdress their space and fill every inch with information that conveys different messages. If people passing your stand are confused by what you offer, they will continue walking and no inquiries or sales will result.

4. Provide incentives for stand visitors

Give people an incentive to visit your stand. You can either provide an inexpensive ‘giveaway’ such as pens/sweets, a product trial or a free entry raffle draw and/or offer discount for orders placed during the show. By rewarding visitors with a special offer (exclusive to the event) you increase the goodwill between you and the customer and improve the chances of an order being placed there and then.

For reference, in my experience, the average order time can be several months after a show taking place yet all the costs have to be met in advance. Offers that lead to quick sales are great for cashflow.

5. Create movement and interaction

Stands that look dull and boring don’t attract visitors. But if you can create movement or include an activity that creates curiosity and interest, people are far more likely to stop by. And nothing pulls in people like a crowd. By way of example, the SimVenture team has exhibited at the annual IEEC event for a number of years and in 2012 the team felt an interactive element was needed to maintain interest levels.

Cards used for 'SimVenture Play your Cards Right'

Cards used for ‘SimVenture Play your Cards Right’

A game based on the theme of ‘Play Your Cards Right’ was created and throughout the event’s 3 days we were inundated with requests to participate. The show was a great success on all levels.

6. Build rapport with people

Treat people who pass or visit your stand as you would like to be treated. A common mistake (and a pet hate) is the exhibitor who asks one question of the innocent passer-by to get their attention and then spends the next 10 minutes telling them all about their wonderful gizmo. Give the poor souls who take interest in you a chance to talk about themselves by asking questions and listening to the answers. Building rapport with people through questioning and listening creates confidence and helps you understand how your product/service fits with the customer’s needs.

7. Gather contact information

Ensure you collect the contact details of everyone who takes an interest in your products and services at an event. Without the data you can’t follow the inquiry up at a later date or inform people of future offers. Record the information electronically or use a pad and pen – if you know your stand is going to be particularly busy create a simple system so stand visitors can record their contact details for you!

8. Wifi

Since event attendance means you are out of the office it’s almost inevitable that you will need to access your website or email whilst away. If you rely on email or website access then check with the event organisers that they offer free Wifi as part of the package. If the organisers want to charge an exorbitant fee (and some do) consider investing in a mobile phone with Personal Hotspot access.

9. Follow-up

When the event finishes and everyone goes home, it’s time for you to go to work and follow-up all inquiries. It’s important not to be too pushy and certainly don’t pressure people into anything; but a short personal email to thank people for their interest is a good place to start.

10. Evaluate

Finally, wait two or three months to fully evaluate the success of any event. Whatever you do, don’t sign up to exhibit again until you have completed the review. Waiting a couple of months allows you to be completely objective and means you can properly assess the overall financial position of the show. It’s quite possible that your costs outweigh sales at first-time events so be careful not to judge matters purely on financial performance.

Key Learning Points Use exhibitions to promote your business and reach new customers. Plan and prepare carefully and think through the whole experience from the customer’s viewpoint in order to maximise your chances of event success.

Great ways to sharpen your writing

Pencils2Several years ago I co-wrote and published an on-line book.

Entitled ‘Dexter Bentley: My first million’ the story follows the entrepreneurial journey of a young man whose academic failures prove to be the catalyst for his business success.

The first draft was completed in a matter of months. But it was only when I asked a literary specialist and friend (David Harris) to review my efforts that I discovered the hard work had only just begun.

Working diligently through each page, Dave repeatedly demonstrated that by following some key writing principles I could improve the impact of the text and the whole story.

The experience taught me much about the power of the written word. Importantly, the principles I acquired also had a strong influence on the way I wrote for business.

Principles for effective business writing

1. Search and strip

Time is precious. Readers (be they customers, suppliers and/or staff) are increasingly impatient and want you (the writer) to get to the point quickly.

Much like a chef reduces a sauce to create a richer flavour, the writer should strive to remove all unnecessary words that add nothing to or mask the message.

In his superb book ‘Perfect Pitch’ Jon Steel uses Picasso’s love of sculpture to demonstrate the importance of only saying what needs to be said. Picasso, Steel tells us, declares to a studio visitor that he will “Sculpt a lion from a piece of rock”. When asked how, Picasso replies “I will remove every bit of stone that is not lion.” For more on this point, read Paul Graham’s ‘Writing Briefly’.

By applying this principle, written materials perform better. The trick is to ‘write for the reader’ so people receive relevant information quickly and in a manner that is easy to digest and act upon.

Hitchhiking provides an excellent example of this principle at work. The following sign communicates a message to the passing driver.

Hitchingsign1

 

 

 

 

 

The second sign demonstrates how the same message can be conveyed with greater clarity and impact.

Hitchingsign2

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Simple and clear

Simplifying the message through removal of unnecessary text is crucial. But there are other ways to keep writing simple.

Unlike academic essays, there is no need to use flowery language and/or complex terms. Short, punchy sentences are typically more user-friendly and the reader is also attracted to bulleted lists rather than lengthy paragraphs.

Headlines and sub-headlines also break up the text and make it easier for the reader to scan and digest what is important to them. Easy-to-read fonts (point 11 and above) such as Ariel are also kinder on the eye.

3. Think about your language

It’s easy as a writer to fall into the trap of writing for yourself. And when the reader picks up on this (consciously and/or subconsciously) your work has less influence and impact.

For example, if you repeatedly start sentences with the words ‘I’ or ‘We’ then the reader senses the communication is about you rather than them. Far better to turn sentences around so they start with words like ‘You’ or ‘Your’; this way the reader is made to feel important.

Words at the end of a sentence are also well remembered; so wherever possible say something here that resonates with the reader. You’ll have probably guessed that the stuff about yourself goes to the middle of the sentence. This is called the 1.3.2 rule and here is an example of rewriting a sentence so that it has greatest impact on the reader:

“We thought you would like to know about our groundbreaking product that we have launched this week…”

Is better presented as…

“You’ll be pleased to hear that this week we launched our latest groundbreaking product…”

4. Unpacking

Another important issue is the manner in which a written message is conveyed to the reader. It’s not uncommon for people writing about their own products or services to lose their focus during the task. So always ask yourself, what is the objective of the piece you are writing and what do you want people to do as a result? Then stay focused.

If you’re creating marketing materials it’s critical to make the benefits of what you are offering very clear. For people to be persuaded by your writing they have to grasp quickly what is in it for them.

On that note, it’s important not to confuse features with benefits. Features simply highlight aspects of a product or service. Benefits communicate what a service or product does for the person reading the information.

5. Keep it personal

Finally, when writing, imagine the person that will read your work.

By writing for the individual (rather than a mass market) the text is able to convey greater empathy and understanding of the reader’s needs. Writing convincingly may require market research, but if you do your background work properly you are more likely to be able to write with authority and confidence.

A good example of personal writing that fully resonates with the reader is the postcard. The text which is typically written for one person is succinct, unstuffy and personal; most importantly perhaps, the reader enjoys receiving the information.

Key Learning Points: Entrepreneurs who are able to communicate effectively using the written word are more able to persuade and influence others. Use the tips presented in this post to advance your own writing.

How not to gamble on the horses

TruthSupermarket ‘thoroughbred’ Tesco had a nightmare over the horsemeat scandal.

Matters lurched south in January 2013 when the company took out full-page national ads apologising for its home-brand burger containing a reported 30% horsemeat. Then the public had to stomach the notion that consuming a ‘Spaghetti Western’ didn’t necessarily involve watching horses on the telly. And when Tesco thought the PR couldn’t get any worse, well it did.

On February 18th last year a Tesco delivery driver ran over and killed a horse in Warwickshire.

Why the stew?

Making Tesco the single mule for the hippophagy (horse-eating) mess is unfair. Organisations such as Findus and Birds Eye were implicated too; and according to BBC’s Panorama, less well-known distribution and food production companies spread right across Europe were entangled in what may have ultimately turned out to be a real health scare, and possibly worse.

But whilst eating horsemeat is taboo in the UK, it is an accepted part of the diet in many cultures. Britain’s ‘pedigree chums’, the French seemingly have more of an appetite for a ‘stable’ diet. Food historian Dr Annie Gray, who lived in France for 3 years, says for her it was completely natural to eat horsemeat since it was sold by her local butcher.

“I am far more concerned with where the food is from. I would far rather eat ethically sourced, well-cared for horse, than battery chicken, for example,” she says.

The source is critical

Dr Gray’s point demonstrates why the scandal’s impact was so widespread. It’s not that people are eating horse, it’s the fact suppliers misled consumers about the ingredients and their origins. As a consequence, the fundamental issue of trust took a whipping and people said ‘nay’ to meat.

According to a February 2013 poll of 2,200 adults (conducted by Consumer Intelligence research company), the presence of horse (sold as beef) led British consumers to buy less meat. Products were pulled from supermarket shelves as one in five adults said they were changing their shopping habits. Over 65% of respondents said they trusted food labels less.

From field to fork

In our highly connected world people have far greater access to information and are able to make much more informed purchasing decisions. Food retail is now about both low price and high quality and I’m informed by an industry specialist that there is no headroom in a competitive market to trade off one against the other. Critically, the customer wants both.

To build reputation food retailers have focused more on the issue of provenance to generate confidence and trust between buyer and seller. Provenance gives the retailer better quality control with individual products traceable from field to fork; among other things the customer gets a nice photo of the smiling farmer on the packaging.

But whether it’s economic pressure, plain greed or both, deceitful food producers have managed to hide unwelcome ingredients within processed foods. And once disguised in a branded wrapper oozing trust, food of dubious origin smuggles its way onto our supermarket shelves.

Digesting the lessons

This scandal still has a distance to go and it would not surprise me if we didn’t see more well-known food labels fall from grace, or even further.

However, this event whilst having greatest impact on large organisations, relays several important messages to people starting out in or running a small business.

Trust & Openness

It takes time, money and effort to create a trusted sustainable brand. But the horsemeat saga demonstrates brilliantly how trust can be lost in no time at all. All that hard work goes to the wall. For more on this issue I recommend Stephen Covey’s ‘Speed of Trust’ – page 237 also summarises the key issues underpinning organisational trust.

Being open with customers as well as suppliers fosters a culture of trust. Increasingly consumers expect and enjoy being more involved with an organisation. One example of this is the restaurant chain ‘Leon’ where customers are encouraged to actively participate with the business. The food is great too – wholeheartedly recommend their ‘Porridge of the Gods’.

Values verses cash

Every business experiences problems with cashflow and the issue is typically most acute in the early years. When financial pressures arise there can be a temptation to cut corners with the service or product delivery in order to protect or save money.

However, as the horsemeat scandal has demonstrated, the consequences of prioritising money over core values can lead you quickly down to the knackers yard. This short audio story featuring entrepreneurial guru Seth Godin highlights the importance of being true to yourself and the fact that ‘what you stand for is more important than the month’s revenue’.

Adversity brings opportunity

As this post hopefully demonstrates, horsemeat is not bad. However, the public reaction and outcry has revealed much about the British psyche and as the research demonstrated, has changed buying behaviour too.

Where there is new information and when people change habits, there are opportunities for clever entrepreneurial minds.  Just like the hitchhiker, headway is often made when you’re prepared to think differently and tackle rather than run from adversity.

And speaking publicly today (the first time since the crisis took hold) Tesco CEO Philip Clarke, said his supermarket is now looking to source more locally and work closely with farmers and in greater partnership with suppliers. I bet other supermarkets will follow suit. And if you want to supply this market, this may be the right time to back yourself.

Key Learning Points: Learn from the mistakes of organisations embroiled in the horsemeat scandal and work closely with suppliers and foster relationships with customers. People want to work with suppliers that are truthful and honest.     

Top 10 websites for entrepreneurs

ToptenFor the past 2 months I’ve conducted some basic research to establish the best websites that help people start and stay in business in the UK. Over 500 individuals (who work in an advisory and business support capacity in academia, public as well as the private sector as well as people running businesses) were asked to provide feedback on the single question ‘What are the really good websites you recommend people use?’.

The purpose of the exercise was to start work to clear the fog of information. There are hundreds if not thousands of websites claiming to provide support, information and advice to entrepreneurs. Such duplication and fragmentation is confusing and only undermines what is really credible. So what did the research uncover?

Findings summary

In total, respondents recommended nearly 100 different sites. No single site stood out completely from the crowd but the final count provided a conclusive top 10.

Whilst no locally or regionally focussed website received a high enough number of votes to make the top slots, two universities that serve thousands of students (Birmingham & Bristol) were recommended as popular portals since they provide high quality information and signpost students to external websites that add value.

One example of an external website that serves the needs of thousands of users  is run by the Northern Ireland Business Enterprise Agency ‘Advantage NI‘. From ‘Business Profiling’ and ‘Bootcamps’ through to ‘Market Synopsis’ and ‘Export Support’, this site looks comprehensive, highly applicable to a wider audience and well worth a visit.

Also of note is a new website co-founded by Peter Bailey and David Friel, both from Loughborough University. Entrepreneurhandbook is a comprehensive portal of the main UK websites that support ‘startups’ and budding entrepreneurs. A key selling point for the site is the way it references other information sources in an easy-to access manner.

Making the Top 10

Respondents noted favourites for different reasons. As you will see, the top 10 includes a mix of the creative and inspiring as well as some that simply focus on robust factual data. Of note is the fact bank websites received little more than a sniff of appreciation from respondents, although HSBC and Lloyds were complemented for their ‘Start-Up’ Guides.

Equally noteworthy was the sparsity of interest in ‘crowdsourcing’ sites and specifically ones that help people raise funds when starting in business. Seedrs for example is dedicated to helping people raise start-up capital as well as signposting investors to new businesses. The site is doing great things. Will sites like this become future favourites?

Interestingly, whilst the research asked for recommended websites, many respondents were also keen to suggest social media content and great YouTube videos. Since I received so much data on this subject I’m going to publish a separate Blog Post in a couple of weeks highlighting the great material that’s out there.

But for now, here are the top 10 sites in order of popularity. Please note this is only a top-line survey and more robust research is needed on a regular basis to help provide the definitive list; however, I hope this post kick-starts thinking and helps you to find, recommend and use credible and valuable information more quickly.

1. Startups.co.uk

Definitive website providing an array of relevant information all presented in an easy to access and digest manner. From ‘what business to start’ and an on-line forum to advice on IT purchases and franchise creation, it seems this detailed site has data on everything the entrepreneur needs to get going.

2. Entrepreneur.com

Whilst some of the information on this US portal may not be UK relevant, the interactive nature of the site combined with its powerful blog and commitment to answering ‘How to..?’ questions gets it to the No.2 slot.

3. www.gov.uk

Whether it’s information about a specific type of business to start or advice on trademarks, copyright and IP , this is the place for the facts. Don’t expect stunning graphics but the navigation is straightforward. You’ll also find links to all other relevant government sites.

4. HMRC

Surprised me that two government sites should make the top four, but clearly good things are being done to make every detail about tax (PAYE, VAT, Corporation Tax, NI, Self Assessment etc.) and finance easily available. You can even register as a user on this site.

5. Smarta

Use the site to get advice, see films of successful entrepreneurs talking about their journey and/or access the organisation’s ‘Business Builder’ (chargeable); this site combines information with highly innovative and valuable services for the entrepreneur.

6. StartupDonut

Comprehensive portal of information, advice, guidance and ideas on everything linked to business creation and management. The availability of free document templates and provision of an event diary makes this site a must for any budding entrepreneur.

7. Shell LiveWire

Linked to the Oil Giant, this site is highly credible. Annual awards event and 4 * £1,000 monthly prizes marks Shell Livewire out from others. I was a beneficiary of this organisation 20 years ago, so can only endorse all their work to date.

8. Cobweb

Cobweb researches, publishes and continually updates a range of practical publications and information services for small and micro business owners, business advisers and enterprise practitioners and small business funders.

9. StartupBritain

Organisation that seeks to unite entrepreneurs behind a single cause. Information about local events and provision of supplier offers tailored to the entrepreneur’s point on the journey makes this portal stand out and thus achieve top 10 status.

10. Stanford Technology Ventures Program

Perhaps the best global source of on-line information for educators. The ‘Entrepreneur’s Corner’ provides archive content from the STVP which includes a vast array of film content on just about every subject linked to entrepreneurship.

 

Final thoughts… 

Hopefully you can ‘hitchhike’ virtually around the recommended sites and use as well as share new-found information with the people with whom you work and support.

Thank you to everyone who took part in this simple survey; if the resultant information has brightened your day or made your life a little easier, then please let me know or leave a post below!

As I suggested earlier in the article, since there are so many websites providing information in this field, it’s really important to continually work to cut through the fog so the best stuff can be discovered and shared. So may be this is an annual task…