Automate

Automate To Save Time, Be More Efficient & Improve Your Decision Making Ability

I often find myself blogging on the subject of saving time.  Hardly surprising when for many of us small business owners there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to cover the multitude of tasks we all have to deal with throughout the working day.  Most of these tasks are in addition to our core business.  We can end up spending hours every week on fulfilling some of these tasks.  For a business to grow you need to be able to spend time working on your business rather than in the business.

So once again I will find myself attempting to answer the question of how we can save time.

One thing I am a big believer in is automation. Automation is one of the biggest things you can do to save time during the week.  But there are additional benefits as well as saving time which give you even more reason to do it.

 

Why should you automate?

  • First and foremost it saves time.  Why spend hours doing something yourself manually if a piece of software can automatically do it for you?
  • It saves money if you are paying for people to carry out some of these tasks for you.
  • Eliminates user error – the more times something is redone manually by another person the greater the risk of an error being made.
  • As everyone has a capacity to make a finite number of decisions in a day, it improves your decision-making ability as you don’t have to waste brain power thinking about minor decisions.

 

What should you automate?

In short, as much as possible!  Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Social Media. Using a tool such as Hootsuite enables you to write multiple social media posts in one go, in one place and then schedule them. This enables you to write your posts in bulk and then save time logging in to social media on other occasions and getting distracted.
  2. Invoicing/Credit Control. Many accounting systems such as Kashflow or Xero will allow you to create invoices in bulk and create recurring invoices for regular clients in one go. You can also set up the automated credit control so that not only do the invoices go out on time, but your clients are sent reminders too.  This not only has the benefit of saving time, but ensures that the credit control process is followed to the letter and nothing is overlooked which will certainly help to reduce your time to get paid.
  3. Sending automated emails. Using the automation function within Mailchimp you can drip feed a series of emails to your mailing list.  Once it’s set up all you need to do is add the new person’s email address and it will do it in the background for you.
  4. Email templates. You probably find that you receive a lot of very similar email enquiries about your products or services.  If you haven’t already, automate this process by preparing some templates which can be tweaked accordingly and then sent in response.
  5. PC Backups. Instead of running these manually automate them.  If you are thinking that this wouldn’t save you any time as you don’t back up, then you need to put this in place now.  Losing your files would be a nightmare for most businesses, not to mention a complete waste of time, so make sure it doesn’t happen to you and put an automated system in place asap.
  6. Reporting. It’s always a good idea to check reports to keep a track of how your business is going, but all too often it’s the case that businesses are spending time manipulating one set of data getting it added in to another spreadsheet and changing the formatting.  See what you can do to automate this process.
  7. Blogging. If you have a WordPress blog they have a facility to schedule your posts for whenever you want.  This gives you the option to write multiple posts in one go and then publish them all in regular intervals.  This not only saves time, but also works well during times when you may be on holiday for example but want to keep a post going out each week.
  8. Frequently Asked Questions. If you find that you get certain questions about your products or services asked regularly one way to minimise the time you spend on dealing with these enquiries can be to create a Frequently Asked Questions page on your website.  This won’t eliminate all your queries, but will cut them down. The other advantage of having such a page on your website is that you can turn it in to an opportunity to further sell the benefits of your product or service so it may help to generate more business.
  9. File sharing. Having to email files between colleagues internally is a complete waste of time when you can use a service such as Dropbox to give everyone access to the information they need.
  10. Project Management. A lot of time can be wasted through communicating the same information to people at different times. Using a tool such as Trello or Freedcamp means everyone gets updated automatically on the status of a project.  So for example if Jane is waiting for Richard to finish his stage of the project before she is able to progress to the next stage with hers, she will automatically be notified.  Also is means that all the files and information is in one place, which can save a lot of time in back and forth email communication.
  11. Sales tracking. Using a CRM such as Infusionsoft or Salesforce will automatically remind you of what you need to do to keep moving your leads through the sales funnel.
  12. Website Traffic Tracking. If you have Google Analytics installed on your website you can request reports to be sent to you daily, weekly or monthly.  This is useful as it sends the information to you without you needing to go in and then spend ages looking around the website.
  13. Share calendars. I’m not sure if you would really class this as an automation or not, but I’ve included it because it saves so much time checking diaries with colleagues back and forth when you can just book something in there and then.
  14. Email signatures. If you haven’t already got an email auto signature then create one.  Typing your name and title each time may only take a few seconds each time, but over the course of a day and a week these seconds add up.  Not only that, a proper autosignature looks more professional and can also be used as an opportunity to highlight a product or service that you want to promote.
  15. Pay Bills. If you have bills that you pay regularly setting up regular standing orders or direct debits saves so much time each month making the transactions.  Ensure that you record all of these in your P&L though as it’s easy to forget you are paying something when you don’t actually see the money going out.
  16. Research. Google Alerts is a great tool.  It uses your search terms for your company, industry or competitors and monitors online mentions.  It them compiles them and sends them to you, either in real time or as a daily or weekly report.  This saves countless hours of trawling the internet yourself looking for information and ensures you are kept up to date with relevant information.
  17. Take payments. GoCardless will enable you to take direct debit payments from your clients. This saves a lot of time on credit control and ensures you get paid promptly.  It will also integrate with several online accounting systems saving further time.

 

The best way to tackle automation.

 

So there are some generic ideas, to implement and perhaps there could be others relevant to your industry.  The thing to remember is not to get fazed by looking at a list like this.  You can’t do everything at once. Concentrate on one thing at a time.  Automatation saves an incredible amount of time, but sometimes the set up process for an automation can be time consuming. Don’t be put off by this as in the long term this will reap benefits, but at the same time you can’t expect to get everything in place overnight.

Factoring in time each week to work on setting up each of these processes is a good place to start and work through your list.  As time goes on and you achieve more on the list you will find that you have more tasks automated you are saving time each day which can then be used to start other automation processes, work on growing your business, or simply take a well earned rest.

Do you have other ideas for automating processes in your business?  We’re always keen to hear of time saving suggestions so let us know your thoughts and ideas so what we can share them.

If you know anyone else who could be interested in reading this or any other blog posts please do share.

 

Improve Your Negotiation Skills

Improve Your Negotiation Skills To Get The Best Outcomes For You And Your Clients

Negotiation Skills

Inevitably in business you will need to develop strong negotiation skills.  As a small business owner it’s often the case that you can be perceived to be more flexible on price that perhaps a larger company would be. Sometimes this can be frustrating, but with a bit of practice this can become a good opportunity to demonstrate your value, secure the price you want and make your client happy to pay it.

  1. As with a lot of things in business, the old adage of fail to prepare or prepare to fail holds true.  Gather as much information as you can before the negotiation, this could include gathering benchmark data and thinking clearly about what you want to achieve from the negotiation.
  2. Think of how you can increase your value. It’s not always just about price.  What else can you offer that would increase the value to the client of what you do?
  3. Be confident. Know your worth and the value you can bring to your clients.  Never feel that you are in a less confident bargaining position.
  4. Expect compromise but know your limits. In a negotiation situation you can usually expect some compromise on both sides, but be prepared to walk away from a deal if it’s below your bottom line.  Really you should be looking for a win-win situation where you are both happy with the outcome and will therefore commit to it.
  5. Before you quote any price always provide a justification. Sell the benefits of what you offer and explain something of what goes in to producing it. This helps to counter any ridiculously low offers.
  6. Make the first offer. This is a controversial point but Adam Grant in his book Give And Take, argues that “every dollar higher in the first offer translates to 50 cents higher in the final agreement.” The reasons are that the first offer creates an anchor around which all future prices are based.  It also increases your perceived value.
  7. Never accept the first price you are offered. Not only does this mean you secure a better price or terms for yourself, but research has shown that the other party will also be more satisfied with the outcome if they have had to negotiate.  If you accept the first price they may believe they could have secured it for less and therefore not feel they have reached a fair deal.
  8. Give benefits in stages. Imagine finding £20 as you walked down the street.  This would no doubt make you happy.  Now imagine you find £10 and then later the same day you found another £10.  The outcome is the same, but research has shown that the second scenario makes people happier.  Therefore, in a negotiating situation separate out your benefits to increase the number of benefits and raise your perceived value.
  9. At the end of the negotiation ensure you have discussed and agreed on all terms.  Recap, make sure all parties are happy.  Give your commitment and recap on the next stages.
  10. Follow up. After the negotiation, it’s always important to follow up with an email confirming all the details of the agreement.  Make it friendly and reiterate that you are looking forward to doing business with them.

Put these in place.  This may take a bit of practice to perfect these skills, but working on your negotiation skills will not only stand you in good stead in business but in many other life situations.  As your confidence in your negotiating skills increases you will find your outcomes of negotiation becoming increasingly successful.

Let us know what you think and if you know anyone who would benefit from reading this please share.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique: Tackle Difficult Tasks With Ease, Speed & Efficiency

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management and productivity technique, it was developed in the 90s by software developer and entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo.  Cirillo named the technique after the tomato shaped timer that he used.  The idea of the Pomodoro Technique is simple; take a large task and break it down into small tasks, or Pomodoros.  The method encourages you to work in short sprints, focusing your attention intensely for short bursts whilst taking regular breaks.

The only tool you will need to use the Pomodoro Technique is a timer.  There are numerous free apps and online Pomodoro timers, though Cirillo himself preferred to manually set a timer, believing that manually setting a timer showed a determination to get a task completed.

Firstly, break your larger task down into smaller Pomodoros.

Set your timer for 25 minutes.

Work on the task until the timer rings.

Tick off your Pomodoro.

At the end of this take a 5 minute break.

Every 4 pomodoros take a longer 15-30 minute break.

Each Pomodoro is an indivisible work task therefore, if you are distracted midway through, perhaps by a colleague, you will need to either save your work and postpone until later to complete that Pomodoro, or postpone the distraction.  If the distraction is in the form of another person Cirillo claims you need to “inform, negotiate and call back”.

Inform the other person that you are busy at the moment.

Negotiate when you will call them back and schedule this straight away.

Call back after the Pomodoro is complete.

It should be noted that a 5 minute break passes by pretty quickly so don’t do anything too absorbing or relaxing as you need to be ready to start again straight away afterwards. It’s a good idea to move away from your desk or work area, perhaps take a brisk walk or make a drink or check your social media.  Don’t do anything too mentally stimulating, it’s important that your brain gets the break to encourage creativity

Why the Pomodoro Technique works

The Pomodoro technique works because it enables you to address two key problems, namely task sizer and Parkinsons law.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with a big task, but it’s not too difficult to motivate yourself to concentrate on a particular short task for 25 minutes. It therefore ensures you are taking steps and making progress towards the overall task.  Secondly Parkinsons Law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion.”  In other words, you may have set aside a day to complete a particular task, but when broken down into short steps and making every effort to complete each in 25 minutes could mean that a task you would otherwise have spent all day on, could be completed in 3 or 4 hours, thereby increasing your productivity.

Benefits of using the Pomordoro Technique

There are numerous benefits of using the Pomodoro technique:

  • Increasing Productivity. A short burst enables you to get an individual task completed quickly.
  • Drastically cut down your interruptions.  By scheduling regular short breaks you are ensuring you are getting the breaks you need, but at the same time are still keeping disciplined. You become more aware of distractions and learn to manage them better.
  • It enables you to see clearly how much effort an activity requires by the number of pomodoros used.  This helps build a greater understanding of how long tasks take which helps to improve estimating of the length of time future tasks will take and therefore improves planning skills.
  • It’s very useful for working towards a larger objective and getting it completed more efficiently.
  • Ticking off each promodoro gives you a visual record of what you have achieved that day. This helps motivation, knowing that you have had a productive day.
  • Having a clear end time helps to delineate work time from free time and enables you to enjoy your time off more.

Try giving the Pomodoro Technique a go and see what effect it has on your productivity.  Remember to download our FREE Printable Pomodoro Planner to help you along your way.

Let us know how you get on.  If this is of interest you might like to read more on Time Management.

Please do share this if on social media, or with anyone you know who might find it useful.

Keep your focus when you work from home

How to stay focused when you work from home.

Working from home can seem like a dream come true, you choose your own hours, you don’t have to travel, you can be in comfortable surroundings. But sometimes the reality can be very different to how you imagine; distraction, isolation and either not doing enough work, or not knowing when to stop can all be components that turn the dream into a nightmare. Keeping your focus when working from home can be a challenge, but with a few simple steps it’s easy to stay on track.

Here are our ideas for how to make working from home a productive, stress free experience where you really do gain the work life balance you want.

  1. Create a conducive work space. If you don’t have the luxury of a separate office in your home then do at least work from a desk or a table, rather than the sofa.  It’s important that you have a space where you can sit up straight, set out everything that you need in an uncluttered environment.  Make it a pleasant environment to work in, clutter free, with perhaps a couple of pictures or personal items to make it an enjoyable space to work.  If you’re working from the table that your family will be eating around later that day, you also need some storage to be able to pack away at the end of the day neatly.
  2. Make others around you aware that you are working from home. It’s all very well having good intentions about working from home, but if others around you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing what should be a day at work can soon end up as just a day at home.  If you share your home with others it’s crucial they understand and are supportive of you working from home.  When you select your workspace you need to consider if the space you want to work at is a shared space which other people may want to use, if it is, you will need to get buy in, not only to use the space, but also that others around will respect the fact that you are working and not disturb you.  It’s not just the people you share your home with too, you may need to consider other neighbours and friends nearby who could see that you are at home and want to call in for a chat.  DON’T feel bad about explaining to them that although you are at home you are working but DO arrange a time to meet them for coffee so that you can take a break as well as fit in some social time.
  3. Stick to a schedule. Although this is something everyone should do, when you work from home it’s more important than ever.  If you don’t have a clear plan for your day it’s all too easy to find yourself putting on a load of washing, doing some dusting or tackling a DIY project that you’ve been putting off for months, not to mention being distracted by the TV, the dog etc.  Have a clear plan for what you want to achieve that day and properly plan the day.  Click here to get more ideas for writing effective daily plans.
  4. Take regular breaks and don’t overdo it. When you create your schedule it is important that you build breaks in to it. One of the nice things about working from home is that you can use your lunch break to watch the TV show that you recorded last night or to take the dog for a walk, so long as you keep disciplined on time.  Taking regular breaks actually helps you to become more productive, so don’t fall in to the other trap of working too hard as you will be less effective.  It’s also important to know when to stop at the end of the day.  In fact, whilst it’s a popular opinion that working from home is an easy option, the reality is often that you end up working harder, not knowing when to stop and never really getting away from work.  If you have a separate room in the house to use as an office that you can close the door on at the end of the day that’s ideal, but wherever you work, when you put together your schedule for the day decide when you are finishing and stick to it.  When you do finish if you’re not in a separate room, pack your things away out of sight so that whilst you are using your home as a relaxing home space you are not being nagged at by reminders of the working day.
  5. Try to fit exercise in to the working day. Exercise isn’t just about losing weight, studies have proven that regular exercise does improve work performance through a whole range of benefits which include elevating mood, improved concentration, sharper memory, enhanced creativity and lower stress.  Half an hour a day of exercise can give your performance a significant edge, and one of the benefits of working from home is that it’s very easy to fit in.  You could do anything from some stretches, a lunchtime jog, or even a brisk walk to help boost your mental energy for a challenging task ahead.
  6. Build in regular people time. The downside to working from home is that it can feel quite isolating at times.  Social media is both a blessing and a curse; it can be great to have that contact with people, but at the same time a quick chat on social media can quickly turn into an unproductive hour.  Better to arrange to have a phone chat or meet up with friends for a coffee at regular intervals to have real people contact.  Perhaps research if there are local small business networking events that you could go along to and meet people at and perhaps do some business.  Alternatively it can be good to meet up with someone else you know who is also working from home so you can talk about what is working well for you and if you are finding any challenges with working from home.
  7. Get dressed. Another myth about working from home is that you can spend the whole day working in your pyjamas.  I suppose in theory you could do this, but I would absolutely not recommend it.  The clothes you wear have an impact on your attitude and if you are sat there in your pyjamas you will definitely not be in the right frame of mind to achieve much.  You need to be dressed for work.  Although, you don’t need be dressed in a suit, make sure you are at least presentable to walk down the road and meet someone for a coffee.
  8. Keep your To Do List visible. Whether you write your to do list on paper or keep it electronically, make sure you can see it all the time.  Seeing what you still need to do before the end of the day spurs you on and it’s also motivating to see what you have crossed off the list too.
  9. Have water and healthy snacks close by. One of the distractions of working from home can be the kitchen.  Whilst you do obviously need to eat and drink regularly throughout the day   repeatedly getting up to the fridge can be a distraction.  At the beginning of the day get a large bottle or jug of water so that you can keep topping up throughout the day and a fruit bowl to help yourself from.  This saves you having to get up unnecessarily, also, if healthy food is in sight you are more likely to help yourself to this rather than be tempted by the biscuit barrel, which although you may get an initial burst of energy from, will certainly make you feel sluggish later on.  One of the other benefits of working from home is you can make your own lunch, which not only gives you a more varied range of options but is also cheaper.
  10. Focus on what you want to achieve. If you’re just starting out working from home, perhaps having come from a larger company environment, one thing you can miss is the buzz of the office and the motivational effect of this shouldn’t be overlooked. When you work from home, there won’t be other people around you to motivate you, you will need to do it yourself.  The good news is, when you run your own business and work from home there is a lot to feel positive and motivated about, but you will need to make sure that you regularly remind yourself of this.  At the start of the day, and at regular intervals throughout the day think about your long term business goals and why you want to achieve them.  Understand how what you’re doing that day fits in to the bigger picture and know that the end of the day you will be a little bit closer to achieving that dream.  Don’t just think about the buinsess goals themselves, but what they mean to you and your life, perhaps more time with your family or that house with the extra bedroom.  Thinking about these things and knowing why you’re working, gives you so much more focus and determination.
  11. Review at the end of the day. At the end of the day, look back at your to do list, see what you have crossed off and evaluate what you have done.  Congratulate yourself, you have worked hard, be pleased with what you have achieved and be pleased that you enjoy your working lifestyle.

Do you have any other tips to share with others about working from home? Perhaps you are finding particular challenges, please comment and I will reply.  Feel free to share this with anyone else who would find it useful.

 

Six Simple Steps To Realise Your Business Goals

Six Simple Ideas To Ensure You Realise Your Business Goals.

Happy New Year!

Have you made goals for your business this year?  If you have fantastic, you’re already on your way to achieving them. If not,  it’s never too late to make some.  You don’t have to make them at the start of the year but there is something about starting a fresh year with a new set of goals and outlook that feels really positive.

If you haven’t already made any you might like to read my last blog post on planning the year ahead to give you some pointers.

So now you’ve made them you need to stick to them.  Here are my ideas for how to realise your business goals.

  1. First of all make sure all of your goals are SMART. (Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic, Time Based).  There’s no point making a goal if it’s not something that is practically achievable, also there is no way of knowing if you have actually hit it or how far off you are so make sure you’ve got this right first of all.
  2. Once you have your goal you then need to work backwards and break it down into measurable steps. This has several benefits. Firstly, it enables you to see clearly the path to achieving your goal. It also makes the goal feel more achievable if you look at it one step at a time.  Make sure you add a time frame to each stage.  This can help you evaluate if your ultimate time goal is realistic when you see how long each stage is likely to take.  It’s important that you make it realistic otherwise if you try to overstretch yourself to achieve the steps you will begin to fall behind and this can be demoralising.
  3. Find someone to be accountable to. Choose someone you can trust to be honest with you, whilst at the same time being quite non-judgemental and fair.  Ideally someone who also wants you to realise your business goals. Sit down with this person at key intervals, set out what you are to have accomplished by your next meeting and where you are today. Having someone you have to regularly check in with on the progress towards your goal is a good way of making you stick to it.  Telling someone that you have achieved everything you had planned to is extremely positive and spurs you on to achieve more.  Conversely, if it hasn’t been fulfilled, then having to verbalise it to someone else can help you understand why that may have been and if you could have done anything better.  If you have a colleague or business partner, then you could work together on this.  If you work by yourself perhaps you may know another business owner who you may like to work together with this on and each coach each other through achieving goals.  Alternatively, trusted friends, family members or partners can also be a good choice.  Another person may also have valuable input and an outside perspective is often a good thing.
  4. Create key milestones and celebrate when you achieve them. On the way to your ultimate goal there will be a number of milestones, each to be broken down into their own stages.  When you hit each of these milestones it’s important to reward yourself.  Decide whatever you think is appropriate, it could be a drink with those you have worked with to achieve the goal, perhaps an afternoon off indulging in a favourite activity.  Know what these celebrations are going to be at the start, as incentivising yourself to keep working through the milestones is leading you along the path to realising your business goal.
  5. Use a tool or an app to track your progress, there are a number out there but Trello and Freedcamp are a couple of free, easy to use solutions that will help you list tasks in one place, assign to tasks to different people and allow you to monitor your progress. It’s a simple way of keeping everything organised in one place and on track.
  6. Review your progress regularly, ideally every day. Make sure you fully understand the situation, what have you done to move forward and what still needs to be done?  Setting some time aside each day to look at this really helps you to stay focussed on your goals and trains your mind to start seeing other activities in terms of how they relate to your overall goal.

Putting these actionable steps in place will help you to stay focussed on your goal, motivated to achieve it and keep you moving forward constantly in the right direction.  You will realise your goal if you work in this way.

Let me know how you’re getting on with your goals and if you have any other ideas to help keep yourself on track I’d love to hear them.

Plan 2017 Now!

Plan 2017 effectively. Arguably the best use of your time between now and January.

Many of you reading this will be by now caught up in the madness of Christmas preparations, working through Christmas shopping lists, trying not to forget anyone.  Yet how many will actually be thinking ahead to Christmas 2017?  This might sound crazy, but put this in place and this gift to your business, will actually come back to benefit you too.  A well-considered and executed plan to be achieved within 12 months will not only push your business on to where you want it to be, but will also start to give you the rewards for your hard work.

To plan 2017 properly, first of all write down your goal for where you want your business to be by Christmas 2017.  Yes, this is one present you need to start searching for now.

You need to write this down somewhere and not just consider it. If your plan for 2017 is going to work is should be SMART.

If you’ve never heard of SMART objectives it stands for

Specific. (Well defined and clear to anyone who has a knowledge of the project)

Measurable. You should be able to tell how far away from completion you are and it should be obvious when you have achieved your goal

Agreed Upon. Everyone involved in the project must know this.  If this is just you by yourself, but you need to make a firm commitment to yourself to achieve this.

Realistic. Within the availability of knowledge, resources and time

Time Based. There should be enough time to complete the project, but not too much that you then slow down the pace.

When you have your goal decided upon and written down you then need to make a plan of how to achieve this.  You need to come up with a series of steps to break down what you need to do.

First of all you need to come up with a list of tasks and activities that will need to be accomplished to achieve your SMART objective.

You need to create a sequence for each of these activities.  You might find that some items on the list will obviously flow from one item to the next but others may be a little trickier to order.  Try to group similar tasks and activities together.  This makes sense anyway from a time management point of view.

You should find that when you have done this you have come up with a series of phases.

Use a project management tool such as Freedcamp or Trello to plan out your project.

Create milestones at the end of each phase.  Sometimes working towards a goal which is 12 months away can seem daunting, so if you have milestones along the way it helps you to know that you are on track and to celebrate your achievements along the way.

Each stage of the project must have a time estimate next to it.  This is where project management tools are very useful.

It’s useful to sometimes factor in a couple of extra days here and there for each stage.  Sometimes you will be dependent on other people fulfilling certain tasks and they may not react as quickly as you.

Plan this out carefully and make sure that each week at least, you are doing some small activity which is taking you towards your ultimate goal.

Then you have to do it.  It’s amazing how many well written and considered plans never actually get completed.  This is largely because people get overwhelmed with the scale of a project and sometimes they don’t feel that they are getting anywhere.

This is why it’s important to break the ultimate goal down in to small manageable chunks. That way each stage feels achievable. And when you complete a stage it’s satisfying to tick it off your list.  It’s satisfying to see the progress being made and that motivates you to continue.

Keep going.  Keep going until you have ticked everything off your list and you have achieved your ultimate goal for Christmas 2017.  If by next Christmas your work hasn’t already started paying dividends it soon will.  Do this one right and this is one Christmas present that you will be repaid for over and over.

Where do you plan on being with your business by Christmas 2017?  Please comment and let me know and feel free to keep me posted on how you’re getting on with working towards it.

Free Small Business Tools

10 Amazing FREE small business tools to help you work smarter.

For small business owners probably more than anyone else there is a never ending quest to find ways of working smarter and more efficiently.  Often as the business owner you find yourself squeezed on time and spread too thinly. How do you manage to remember to do everything, to find the time to do it and to do it well with the time constraints and resources that you have?  Fortunately there are a number of tools out there to help, and even better many of them are free.  Often you can pay to upgrade your service to get additional features but all of these that I have listed below are tools that you can use the free version of to still add real value to your business.

These are my 10 favourites, in no particular order.

  1. Mailchimp.com is an email marketing platform that enables you to manage your mailing lists and then send beautifully designed HTML emails and track the results.  There are a whole host of different templates to use, so even if you’re like me and not creative in the slightest it’s just a case of dragging and dropping images and text into the relevant boxes so it’s very easy to use.  You can have up to 2,000 subscribers on your mailing list and send up to 12,000 completely for free.  Once you exceed that level you will need to pay, based on the number of subscribers to your list, but it’s still pretty reasonable and starts from $10 per month.
  2. Canva.com is another marketing tool which makes it easy for non creatives to come up with unique professional standard designs to use in various forms of marketing.  Use Canva to design email headers, postcards, invitations, social media banners and posts all sized correctly.  Canva have a database of thousands of images that you can use as backgrounds for your posts, a large proportion of which are free to use, or insert your own unique photos or images, then drag and drop your text in your chosen font in.  There are also images that you can pay for, which are typically a dollar a time.  There are extra features if you upgrade, though to be honest the free version is so good I’ve never felt the need to use them.
  3. Google Analytics. Every business these days needs a website and if you’re not already using Google Analytics then you should be.  Google Analytics essentially helps you to track the performance of your website.  There is a whole raft of information available on there, which admittedly can be a little overwhelming the first time you look at it, but this can help you find out various useful pieces of information which can really help you assess what is working on your website and what is not.  If you’ve never used Google Analytics before on the main dashboard one of the key facts to stand out is the number of sessions/users. This tells you how many times and by how many unique users your website has been viewed within a particular timeframe. You will see how engaged these users are on your website, for example, the number of pages they visited, how long they spent on the website and what the bounce rate is. (Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors who click through to your site and then click away straight away without interacting at all with the page) Delve a little deeper and you can start to find out a bit more about these users, for example where they accessed your site from, this can be broken down by country and then by city, this is particularly interesting if you are trying to target a particular geographic area.  Some of the most useful information I feel is under the Acquisition heading, this enables you to see how users ended up on your site, whether from a referral, an organic search, a paid search, direct, from an email or from social media.  This is enables you to see which marketing methods are driving traffic to your website.  Another thing you are able to track is User Flow, or in other words showing the way users navigate around your website.  You can see the page at which visitors arrive on your site and where they go from there.  This gives valuable insight into where visitors are looking on your website and crucially, where you are losing them, allowing you to consider making appropriate changes.  There are many many more features, but if you’ve never used it before that should give you a good starting point.
  4. Toggl.com is a simple but very effective means of tracking the amount of time spent on particular projects. This is markedly useful for anyone who charges for their service by time, but is also useful for anyone who would like to improve their time management.  (If time management is of interest you might also like to read my blog post on Time Management Tips For Small Business Owners here). Essentially there is a timer which you start and stop as and when you need.  It allows you to track multiple projects and clients and produce daily, weekly and monthly reports of how much time has been spent on each.
  5. One Note. This one is a phone app not a website.  It’s very basic but I use this one a lot.  It’s simply a place to keep notes and lists.  I find I live my life by lists.  Running a small business you might have a lot of to do lists, some business, some personal. One Note enables me to write notes of ideas that I might have whilst I’m on the move. I keep lists of anything and everything from blog post ideas, projects I’m working on, people to call to Christmas present ideas and home DIY projects.  Writing things down means I then don’t need to waste time thinking about these things again but I won’t forget anything.  Evernote is pretty much the same, but I’ve always used One Note.
  6. Freedcamp.com is a free online project management tool which also allows you to collaborate with others.  In it you can keep track of multiple projects, within each have task lists and due dates.  Each task can either be assigned to yourself or to a collaborator.  Freedcamp is entirely free, no upgrade to access additional features.  It can be useful for keeping track of smaller projects as well as looking at longer term business goals and breaking them down into smaller milestones that need to be met along the way, therefore helping you keep moving towards future goals.
  7. Hootsuite.  Social media may be a brilliant way to promote your business, but if you’re not careful it can take up huge amounts of time, both in terms of logging in to the different platforms and posting as well as getting sidetracked.  Hootsuite gives you a dashboard where you can manage multiple social media accounts in one place.  It enables you to schedule posts, so in other words you can go in once a week and schedule a week’s worth of content to go out.  It will also tell you if you’re mentioned in any posts by others, saving you having to log in to your other platforms and check.  You can also get some basic analytics to track your social media performance.
  8. Hubspot. A database is arguably a business’s most valuable asset, yet I’m always amazed by how what many small business owners refer to as a database can actually be simply an Excel spreadsheet, or sometimes even just a box of business cards. Your contacts can be worth a surprising amount with proper organisation and management.  Hubspot.com offers a completely free CRM, for however many users you need and for up to a million contacts.  Unlike other CRMs who charge for the CRM once you get above a certain level of contacts, Hubspot make their money from selling marketing software so the database will always be completely free.
  9. Whatsapp.  Although this app may be more known for its social use it’s certainly useful in a business context as well.  Download this app and benefit from free messaging and sharing photos and videos.  Whatsapp can be useful to aid collaboration between individuals and groups and is a useful way of sharing on the move.
  10. Dropbox.com offers free cloud based storage and sharing.  I use this every day to share files with colleagues and clients and to enable me to pick up my documents from wherever I am so long as I have an internet connection.  You get 2GB of storage space with a basic free Dropbox account.

So what have I missed?  These are my favourite free small business tools but what are yours?  Please comment with any other tips that you may have, and please share this post if you know think anyone else might find this useful.

Business Centre

What is the difference between a business centre and a virtual office?

There are so many options for workspace these days, it’s no longer a case of just a straightforward office let.  Whether you choose to work from your kitchen table and use a virtual office, you may also choose to base yourself from an office, a serviced office, a business centre, a co-working space or choose to hotdesk in different locations when on the move.  As the way we work has evolved so have the terms we use to describe the different services now on offer.  It’s no wonder that I find a lot of people don’t even know these services exist, let alone what to call them.

Quite often I find I hear people using the term business centre when they mean virtual office and vice versa.  It is possible that the two services can be offered by the same place, but each of the services independently is very different so it’s important to understand exactly what you would be getting from each before signing up.

If you’re at that point when you’re deciding whether to work from home or too look at other physical options, you might like to start by reading our earlier blog post Working From Home Or An Office which highlights some of the factors you may need to consider when making your decision of what you actually need before you look at the different physical options available.

A virtual office, quite simply is an office that you don’t actually base yourself from.  You give the outside world the impression of being based at a physical location and have all the associated benefits of it, such as gaining credibility by appearing more established than you actually are, maintaining your privacy, perhaps appearing to be based in more than one geographic location.  You can receive post as a virtual office, which, depending on the virtual office you choose, could either collect the mail from there yourself or choose to have forwarded on to you.  A virtual office will also offer a telephone answering service, which means that calls to your business would be answered in your company name by a team of receptionists who would answer your calls as you wish, then send your messages to you directly, meaning that you don’t miss any business calls and that you again give an impression of being a professional business who takes customer care seriously.  Typically you will either pay by the minute for calls, or choose a package with a number of inclusive minutes.  A virtual office is the cheapest option.

A business centre is a building which houses multiple offices for smaller businesses.  A business centre will usually have broadband throughout the building.  Typically each room would also be equipped with a phone line and may or may not include a handset.  There will be a receptionist based within the building and often there may be other services that could also be used within the building, for instance meeting room hire, photocopying, faxing or printing.  Sometimes these additional services may be included within the monthly rent and sometimes there could be an additional cost.

Some business centres do also offer a virtual office service and sometimes taking up a virtual office service within a business centre gives virtual office clients access to business centre services, allowing the option of greater flexibility within a lower cost option.  For example, you could take up a virtual office service, be based from home the majority of the time, but then if you needed to meet a client you could utilise the meeting room service, which you would usually hire by the hour.  You could find that if you wanted to hold meetings a couple of times a week but didn’t need to be there all the time, a virtual office within a business centre could be a good solution for you.

The key with the small business market growing ever stronger, working solutions are changing and adapting all the time and you should be able to choose pretty much the ideal office, be that physical or virtual for the way you want to work.

Dormant Company

This Week – A Registered Office Address For A Dormant Company

Usually the clients that I blog about are active companies, but this week I thought I would write about one of the dormant company clients that we have.

What is a dormant company?

A dormant company is a limited company that is registered with Companies House, but is not actively trading or receiving any income.

A company may become dormant for a number of reasons, it could be that the director wanted to reserve the name with Companies House before beginning to trade, it could be that a company which has been trading becomes dormant due to restructuring, ill health, a sabbatical or any other reason why they may not be trading.

A company can be dormant for any amount of time, however, during this time the directors will still need to file dormant company accounts and company directors are legally required to inform HMRC and Companies House in writing as soon as the company becomes dormant.

If a company is dormant they will not need a trading address, but they will still need a registered office address.  This is the address that you provide to HMRC and Companies House for all your statutory legal notices to be sent to.

If your company is not trading many directors will not wish to link it to home address or a trading address of another business for reasons of privacy.

It is possible however to use a registered office address service from a virtual office provider to help keep home and work separate and to maintain privacy for the business owner.

The client that I am talking about here is a multiple business owner, he has several active businesses but has one which has been active but is no longer trading and he is now keeping dormant for a while.  Why not just close down the company and start up again when he is ready?  Well, for one thing it reduces the costs of administration – to close a company down and then open another at a later date does have costs attached.  Making the company dormant is both a more straightforward administrative process and also reduces costs.  It will then be simple for him to start up again when the time is right with a company that already has a trading history.  Read here about restarting a dormant company.

A registered office address service is quite simple.  The address of the virtual office is provided as the registered office address to both Companies House and HMRC.  All the correspondence will be sent to the registered office address provider who will then forward the mail on to the company director at their home address.

Making a company dormant many not exactly be the entrepreneurs dream, but it is a useful and practical solution which is frequently used by business owners as a stop gap to moving forward.

If you know any business owners who may be looking to take a break for a while please do share this with them.

Networking Tips

Networking Tips

It’s been an exciting week for me.  My book, 101 Networking Tips was finally completed and went on to Amazon last week.

Writing a book is something I have always wanted to do but I never really knew what I wanted to write about. I had always imagined that I would write fiction but after several years of waiting for a fantastically witty and inventive story to come to me I decided to take the non-fiction route instead.

Networking is something I have been a passionate advocate of  myself for years and since we started running the Office Drinks networking events 5 years ago, it’s something that I have been asked about a lot.

Clearly on the part of the first time networker there are a lot of nerves to overcome.  Many people are apprehensive about networking because they see it as selling, rather than relationship building.  I wanted to write something which would first of all make first time networkers feel less intimidated about attending these events, partly by making it clear that it’s not about selling and partly by providing a step by step guide to researching, attending and following up after events.

Networking is important for small business owners.  Not only is it about promoting products and services, but it’s also about finding suppliers you can trust, bouncing ideas of people, being supported and generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in the business community.

Many small businesses will start up with just one person, or just one director anyway and trying to do it all by yourself can be lonely and you can wonder if you’re heading in the right direction.  Networking helps.  It makes you get out there and meet people.  It keeps you focussed on what you are doing and it does bring in business.

Whether or not you have read the book I urge you to give networking a go. (If you’d like to take a look inside the book click here). There is everything to gain and nothing to lose.

I’d be interested to hear what your experiences of networking have been.  Have you got some advice you’d like to pass on to our readers?  What do you think has been the greatest benefit of networking?  Please leave a comment below.