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Book Review: The Way I See It by Alan Sugar

I’ve been reading a few business books of late, so I thought it might prove interesting to to others out there to hear my take on some of them.  Normally I’d put my review on amazon.co.uk but their penchant for avoiding taxes is leading me to posting my review here instead.  Regardless of the fact that my audience is around 0.1% of theirs! This instalment is Alan Sugar’s “The Way I See It”.  An easy book to read, albeit difficult to put down once you get going.   29976204_300x300_1 The writing is fairly easy to follow (I’ve tested this in the field – my early morning commutes greatly reduce my attention span) and has a great layout to follow. You could say it’s a book of curmudgeonly rants, but they’re entertaining nonetheless.  It follows various trains of Sugar’s thought but they all seem to follow a logical track. I have absolutely no interest in football, yet his commentary of his time as chairman of Tottenham Hotspur was both enlightening and entertaining.  For a change I can now get into a conversation with Jo Blogs about why football clubs are bankrupt yet football player salaries are getting more and more outrageous over time. I love how Sugar’s curmudgeonly approach leads him to say it like it is, with very little sugar coating – excuse the horrific pun!  My top-3 include:

  1.  Addressing the House of Lords, and taking the mick out of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who’s never been in business!
  2. His annoyance at being pitched to by business people on acronym overload. I particularly found it amusing because the advertising industry is rife with this.
  3. His annoyance at business people that complain about the banks not lending to them.  His point was that banks would more likely lend to a business where an owner has a stake in the company i.e. has lent some of their own money  rather than borrowing everything from the bank.

There’ll be more book reviews now that my commute is 1hr+ each way these days, so stay tuned!

Can I go back and see what the page was like?

It’s happened to all of us.  We’ve pushed a site live and someone (the client/content administrator/member of public etc) ask what was on a particular page.

If you’re organized, you’ll have a backup to refer to.  If you don’t, or if the backup is a pain to set up, then you can just use the wayback machine.  It’s simple and straightforward, just type in the URL of your recently deployed website in the appropriate field and bam – you can see how it used to look before your deployment.

If that doesn’t work for whatever reason, a second option is to try using Google’s “Cached” version.  Just look up your website within Google and hit the “Cached” link underneath your listing.  Simples!

 

A Google Reader replacement that allows for ‘exporting’?

So most of you may have heard that Google Reader is now on the way out, as Google have decided to kill the service for various reasons.  This is a bit of a pain, as firstly I love consuming data via RSS, and secondly Google Reader was actually a really good, basic product.

On the plus side, it’s great to see that Google have an open policy whereby you can export your data very easily.  I’ve been looking at the different options that exist out there and there’s quite a large landscape to choose from, especially for my Android-based tablet where I read my feeds.  There are some pretty stylish products out there such as feedly, pulse, flipboard etc. but they all seem to sadly lack one very critical and important detail – none of them at present support some kind of export data function.

Think of it this way – you spend a good chunk of time investing in a product or service online.  You add photos, comments, info etc to the point where the product/service really works for you, is useful to you, is entertaining.. whatever.  Then said product/service goes bust/is discontinued etc.  All your info, your data, your investment of time goes out the door.  Lost.  That’s it!  Frustrating isn’t it?

Currently, the online/mobile landscape is filled with free products that actually do provide a premium service.  But this concept of ‘free’ does come at a cost, as any marketer will tell you.  Your data, what you submit, the way you interact with a site constitutes valuable insights that would otherwise be paid for, which you’re parting with.

Personally, I’d be happy to pay for a service that’s as good as the cutting-edge ‘free’ products out there, as long as it allows me to export the data that I provide.  If anyone knows of a good RSS reader for Android tablets that allows for data exporting, free or not, let me know!

Website builder templates – don’t just take what’s handed to you.

A lot of new websites will be built from website builder templates.  It’s true.  A lot of sites out there will look similar, if not the same. Not everyone can afford to employ an agency, or a team of developers and designers to put something together bespoke – its a given.

But there really isn’t any excuse to just build a website from a template, and to not bother modifying it somewhat for your business or charity.  Templates often have some standard ‘filler’ text which is there to populate the site.  What happens when you built a website from a site template, and not bother to change any of the text?  Well, then EVERYONE that uses the same site template has a website which looks and sounds the same, with the only difference being the company logo.

Let me give you an example:  Type in the following words into the Google search box and hit [Enter]:
“Our firm’s reputation for providing quality service reflects the high standards we demand of ourselves. Our high standards, responsive service and specialized staff spell the difference between our firm and the rest”

Lo and behold, Google results show tens of businesses having exactly the same wording in their website. How did this happen?  All of these businesses use a site template created by a company called http://www.cpasitesolutions.com/.

Perhaps you’re on a shoe-string budget.  Perhaps you’re short of time.  Remember that you do want to stand apart from others and appear prominantly in the marketplace.  To do that, when building a website, you’ve got to make sure you don’t just take what’s handed to you..

A new type of currency for small businesses

Big corporations tend to bend over backwards in attempts to portray themselves as ‘ethical‘.  Displaying this responsible side, the altruism is strategic; studies suggest that they gain greater returns from their charitable efforts – especially in the area of selling direct to the consumer (B2C).

For a small to medium business, this kind of ethical investment might seem a little too expensive to put together and kick off.  But it really doesn’t need to be so, and you certainly don’t need to implement it in the same way as the big corps do.

Fist - from the Occupy Wall Street logoOn a separate, but related note – we’re living in incredible times.  There are protests happening across the globe in over 1,500 cities, kicked off by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  People are taking a stand against corporate greed, corrupt politics, and the hypocrisy that large corporations portray.  Hypocrisies such as corporate advertising depicting a people-friendly, altruistic face yet ruthlessly ensuring that the workmanship and materials sourced for their products are coming from tax-free zones in countries where labour rights are notoriously rotten and pay is minuscule.

But why am I bringing these two seemingly unrelated areas up?  Allow me to make the connections here before you think I’m off my rocker.  Capitalism is fast-becoming unpopular as a term, yet we still need to survive and thrive in these current times – we’re not going to change a global economic system overnight.  But what we can do as small businesses is to move ahead of the pack and implement a new way of doing business, that benefits our society as a whole.

I’m talking about turning the ‘ethical corporation’ model on it’s head.  By portraying yourself as more ethical, and motivating your consumers to be more ethically responsible, you can then stand to reap the rewards.  Let me give you a couple of examples of this.  I could come up with more, but this is a good starting point:

  • People who make a direct debit to a charity could receive a price discount.
  • Those who volunteer a certain number of hours each month to a select list of charities will get an extra month’s subscription (if you had a subscription in your business model).
But what are the benefits of this to your business?
  • Increased ‘buzz’ on the social networks.  People will talk about you more.  Consider this as free advertising.
  • More people talking about you does equal a potentially larger customer base.
  • You’re directly improving the world we live in.
If this article is striking a chord with you, feel free to investigate new currencies such as the MetaCurrency project – whereby you can trade products/services for other currency ‘flows’.  Or look into the BitCoin project, to see the shape of things to come.  A handy guide to bitcoin exists here.
Taking this direction, you’re then not just selling your product or service – you’re helping shape a better tomorrow.  And you stand to profit from all this good too.

What are the processes in your business/charity?

Another alternative title for this post is “how efficiently does your business/charity run?”.  There are many factors that constitute the sound running of an efficient business, but one thing stands out amongst others and that is the processes that run your business.  Sure, you could say that it’s the passion that’s injected in the business by everyone involved.  Perhaps you could say that it’s the people themselves, but if you want a consistently efficient service, you need to have good processes in place.

Everything a business does typically get’s repeated over time.  Whether it’s Harry doing it today, or Jane doing it next week, your customers/recipients/etc will be expecting from you a particular product or service which will be of the same high quality or better.  If you’re going to secure that, you’re going to have to make sure that you put steps in place (or ‘processes’) that will ensure that your product or service is repeatable.

One of the hallmarks of successful businesses are identifying and isolating their processes.  This is about working out what your processes are and how they make your business tick.  Once you have that incredible wisdom, it’s about improving those processes.  The three i’s.  I really should copyright that one!  The three i’s!

If you could improve on the weaker processes of your business, you would then be providing a far better offering to your end-audience. 

This is one of the things that consultants like myself do: we help isolate the processes of businesses and in my case I point out ways that IT can help.  I have a very techno-centric slant to this because of my passion with technology and my lengthy IT experience, but I’ll be the first to admit that not every process improvement can be addressed by a computer.  The point I’m making here is that unless there’s a clear picture of what the processes are, not even the greatest business minds, or the most cutting-edge software can help your business.

CRM for Small Businesses and Charities – keeping track of your customers/donors

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’re probably finding it really hard to keep track of your customers. Maybe you’ve got them all written down somewhere, in a little exercise book. Or perhaps you’re a little more techno-savvy and you’ve got a spreadsheet, or a Microsoft Access database nicely setup which keeps track of them.
Over time, you then realize that your system in place for keeping track of your customers is too unwieldy because you’ve got so many of them.
If you’re lucky, you’ve probably had a conversation with “someone in the know” who’s told you about CRM, and that it would make your life easier. You tried asking about exactly what that would entail, but you got lost in the jargon of it all. Well, this post will hopefully make your life a little easier.

So what is CRM?

CRM is a piece of software which manages your customers or donors, hence the name. For the sake of this argument here, I’ll use ‘customer’ and ‘donor’ interchangeably here. Provided that it’s implemented appropriately, it keeps a track of all your customers, and keeps tabs on all conversations that have been made with them. It creates a nice little picture for each customer; whereby you can see all kinds of useful information such as:

  • what you’ve sent that customer in the past
  • what marketing campaigns you’ve bombarded them with (if any)
  • how often they’ve purchased goods/services from you (if any at all)
  • how often they’ve donated
  • how likely they are to purchase from you/donate to you in future
  • when was the last time you spoke with them, and what the outcome was
This is all well and good, but these so-called CRM systems cost a bit of money to set up.  What exactly are the benefits?  Ok, on to the next section:

What are the benefits here for my small business/charity?

  • For starters, it’s an elegant place to keep track of all your customers and their history, all in one place.
  • Your administrative work would be shortened, yet more effective.
  • You could use the information to better ‘predict’ when would be a good time to communicate with a customer/donor to increase the likelihood of a purchase/donation.
  • You then have the ability to make your communications to your customers more personalized/tailored for them.
  • If you want to get extra savvy, you could use the information that’s kept in the CRM system to communicate with other software/systems you might have.  These could be a marketing activity (i.e. sending automatic emails after a user has contacted the company about something specific); a stock fulfilment system (if there’s a potential rise in purchases predicted at a particular point in time), an HR system (if there are lots of communications and there’s a need for more staff to manage the workload).
  • There are plenty of benefits here, the list goes on.

So what are the options?

There are plenty of different software options, which vary widely in their price and feature ranges. Below are some of the more known contenders:

SalesForce.com
The market leader, salesforce.com was one of the first companies that revolutionized how business is done online – by running their software product purely off a website. Once upon a time, software was something you bought and the installed on your computer or servers that you rented/purchased outright. Salesforce introduced to the world the idea of “working in the cloud”, or basically using software that someone else is hosting online. SalesForce.com is a very scalable solution and has a version tailored for non-profits as well as small businesses.

SugarCRM
SugarCRM is completely open-source. By this, I mean that the source code that powers the software is freely available to anyone who wants to use it, under various flexible licensing restrictions. It’s a very comprehensive product that gets updated very frequently. They have some great resources available on their website, in terms of a CRM intro, product demos, white papers, even educational videos.

CiviCRM
Ok, so this option is purely for charities, but it really needs to be mentioned here. It’s free, it’s popular, and the product is constantly evolving.

So now that I know my options, what should be my next step?

You’ve then got a few options. It’s worth either assigning the task of vendor selection to someone on your team, or speaking to a consultant about which would be best serving your company’s/charity’s interests.

When investigating and discussing with potential partners, you should be looking out for things like:

  • Features – All CRM products have nice features.  It’s worth choosing a product that has features that you’ll find useful.
  • SAAS option – Personally, I’d go for a ‘Software as a Service‘ option, as the costs of server hosting and management often far outweigh the benefits.
  • Scalability – Does the CRM product scale down/up to your list of requirements?
  • Price – think about the budget your willing to use, to get the benefits of the CRM product.

Hopefully, this will make the CRM world a little clearer for you.

The Elephant and the Flea

The elephant and the Flea - book imageA while back, I decided to borrow a book from a good friend of mine (yes, Alicia, it’s you) called The Elephant And The Flea: Looking Backwards to the Futureby Charles Handy. I knew it was a business book along the lines of Who Stole My Cheese?but I wasn’t completely sure if it would be as simplistic and grating as the latter.

I was pleasantly surprised to find an easy read, part autobiographical, which went into some good predictions about future business trends based on lessons from the past. The main point I was most impressed by was the title of the book; the idea being that Elephants are the corporations and the Fleas being the individuals that choose to be separate from the corporations. He predicted a trend whereby more and more individuals would choose to separate themselves from businesses and choose to work on a freelance/contractual basis. Here in the UK, contractors increased by 14% between the years of 1998 to 2008 according to some statistics.  This trend is getting mentioned more and more (I noticed it again today, this time cropping up in a bookby Jeff Jarvis too).

I have mixed thoughts about this.  I recently joined the freelance IT workforce, and was happy to find work becoming a hell of a lot more interesting due to it’s varying nature.  For the first time, I actually got to “choose” my clients instead of being handed work and feeling like a part of a production line.  I could finally specialize in any area that I was interested in, and focus on that work rather than following the often predefined corporate career structure.  At the time of writing this post, I’m actually heading off to Amsterdam for a 3-month Project Management contract for an agency called Blast Radius, which is exciting to say the least.

But it’s worth taking into account my current profile – I’m single, no kids, no mortgage or other financial responsibilities, fortunate to have a great education, some savings to see me through the more quiet times.  It suits me at this stage in my life, and I’m enjoying it no end.  This isn’t for everybody though, if I had even just a mortgage hanging over my head I would more than likely think very differently.

Flexible working has been all the rage for government policies, and it certainly works in some instances.  It’s not very everyone though, and it’s not for every industry – we should never forget the plight of the Liverpool dockers.  Bear also in mind that flexible workers aren’t generally included in unemployment stats, which skew the labor workforce picture considerably.

But back to the Elephant and Flea book… Charles Handy’s depiction of the future is becoming more and more accurate, and this is both good and bad.

Social Media? Really? For my company/charity?

Social Media landscapeYes, there’s plenty of hype around Social Media. But the fact remains, people spend more time online hanging out with their friends on Facebook et al, rather than on your website. You’ve got big players like Coca Cola and Nike running Social Media campaigns all the time.

Harnessing Social Media is like having your customers sitting in your office. They’re willing to work with you. They’re happy to chat about whether your company/charity is great, or whether it’s lame. You just need to listen.

What can I do for my small business or charity?
Well, for starters you don’t need that much investment, but you still need to dedicate some effort to it.

How much effort?
It really depends on the size of your business and how much you’d like to get out of it. There are plenty of benefits to be had from going down the Social Media route.

Where do I start?
A good place to begin would be by first listening to what people are saying about you online (if people are saying anything that is!).  You do this by entering your company name into Google and tracking what people are saying. If you want to do this the professional way, you’d use products like Nielsen’s Buzzmetrics or Alterian’s SM2, but that’s a route you’d go down if you’ve got the budget to splash for such deep level of analysis.

The next thing is to establish a ‘face’ for yourself in the Social Media universe.  This typically involves creating a Facebook page, a Twitter page etc. You would be looking to address any negative commentary made by people either directly or en-masse by updating your ‘face’.

Next on the list is drawing people to your ‘face’. That could involve putting your facebook/twitter link on your business cards. It could be about stamping it all over your products or at your events. There are plenty of ways.

Lastly, its about listening again. And responding. And listening again. And responding. Social Media is such a massive buzz word that every Marketing Exec in the land has something to say about it. There are plenty of guides to help you on your way.

Here’s another take on the above, straight from the BBC website.