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Safe job in a bank?

We all have money, and we need somewhere to take care of it. In the good old days, if you wanted a job for life, where better way than a safe job in a bank?

Yesterday, RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) shocked the market announcing it was shutting branches. Alot of branches. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43964273

Basically, it’s’ our fault. We’re not using the branches, we’re banking on-line, it’s time to cut out the waste and downsize. Gone is the safe job in the bank.

How will it feel for any bank teller in any bank now? To know that in one day, nearly two hundred branches and eight hundred staff are no longer needed. Will this catch on? Are more closures on their way?

Many of these bank staff will have years of experience. The problem is who will employ them? Will there be another bank to go to? I doubt it.

Planning where to spend our post forces days is getting harder. The ‘job for life’ days are almost over. The skills we need as we leave are no longer just an approved course. As we move our lives on-line, a whole job sector dies. If we choose to work in retail (as I do), we should all be ready for the change that’s coming.

 

 

Plastic-free coffee

The plastic-free movement is gathering steam. Last year’s introduction of the 5p charge for a supermarket plastic bag changed everything within months. It’s led to shoppers looking like they are on ‘Crackerjack’, balancing items to win prizes, trying not to spread the coleslaw all over Asda car park.

This week there’s news on the reduction of plastic in every field. India closing factories as it pledges to be plastic-free.

Vending machines spit out ‘once only’ cups all over the globe. The leading chains of Starbucks and Costa sell millions of disposable cups every week. It seems the industry has disposable cups at it’s heart. However, this week, a coffee chain took the lead and announced it wouldn’t sell coffee in disposable plastic cups. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43879019

The ‘Boston Tea Party’ have twenty-one coffee shops in the UK and have pledged customers must change their habits. The choice is either bring their own plastic mug, or buy one. This is a massive, brave step from a business point of view. It’s also a perfect example of how a business is reaching out to a niche audience, separating itself from the masses.

Plastic-free Tribes

Want to take our coffee away? Show me the money. Want to be a member of our plastic-free club? You’ll need to carry around a plastic coffee cup all day, to be a member of this Tribe. (Watch this fascinating TED talk to hear more about Tribes https://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_the_tribes_we_lead

Concerned about the environment? Come and get your coffee from us, we also care.

Will they sell more, or less coffee? This will be fascinating to watch. Is there a way that we can all follow this in business? It has my attention. I’m already wondering whether we can go plastic-free?

 

 

It’s just a Wobbly Handle

One of my oldest and best customers has a vehicle hire business. He started trading the same time I started and has built something  imprtruly impressive. From just a few vans, he now has many hundreds, spread across five depots all over Lincolnshire. On top of all that, he’s also a really nice guy.

We do spare keys for his vans and are always impressed with how new and clean they are when customers hire them. On top of this, his staff wear uniforms, are professional and helpful. I gush about this because it’s rare, and his company stand out by a mile.

However, there’s a problem that every customer see’s, feels, experiences, that really let’s the business down.

His main depot in Lincoln has a standard UPVC door, that’s looks in good condition, but it’s been well used. It’s the original door from when he started out, used by many thousands of people. When you turn the handle, it gives way, as if broken. This sloppy,  wobbly handle has been like it for two years. Every customer experiences this, it’s one of the initial contact points, even before meeting the staff.

Does a wobbly handle really matter?

Well, yes I believe it does. I noticed this because the rest is so professional. However, this wobbly handle stands out every time I visit.

We all have wobbly handles is our business, I certainly have them in mine and not just the one. Our reception has seats for customers to sit and wait. The chairs rub on the plaster board wall leaving a gouge along the wall. I see this every day and it would take nothing for me to sort this out. However, I’m blind to it. Likewise, the van has a piece if side skirting missing, the unit door needs painting, but again, I don’t see these anymore.

When you start your business, try and think what your customer will see and hear on contact with you. Will it impress them? Will it make them question whether you care at all about how they see you?

This month is for spring cleaning. I’ll be looking at wobbly handles in every part of my business, it’s the little things that people notice.

 

There’s no course training course on Loneliness

When you go seaching for start-up advice, you’ll find plenty on finance, marketing, and of course, business plans. These are all really important of course. However, in all the business advice I’ve found over thirteen years, loneliness isn’t a popular thing to talk about.

Whether it’s simply that business advisors haven’t been in that position, or that no-one wants to discuss it, I’m not sure. But, of all the challenges I’ve faced, loneliness has been the hardest to deal with…

Now before you suggest a networking group, please hear me out. I know of the many benefits of spending time with like minded people, I get that. Please, stop for a moment and cast your mind back.

loneliness

Does anyone else recognise the feeling of lying wide awake in the early hours? The clock ticking, lying next to your partner who is also laying awake? You both know how bad it is. The cash is gone, the phone isn’t ringing and staying in that well paid job makes so much sense. How can you even speak the words ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake’ ?

Or how about the loneliness of being stuck at a customers address. They’re relying on you to fix the problem, but you’ve no-one to ask for advice. How are you going to explain to your partner, that you left the job and didn’t get paid. You couldn’t fix it, because you couldn’t find out the answer, you had no-one to ask. It’s a pretty lonely feeling.

Loneliness in a crowd

Worse than that is being lonely in a group, say a networking group. Full of aspiring, positive speaking, go-getters. Talking about uncertainty, doubt and fear isn’t going to get people making a beeline for you next week. Even amongst that support group, it can feel pretty lonely.

I’ve been in that place. It’s not part of anyones business plan and you won’t find a chapter in the ‘Ten Steps to Success’ book or Youtube video. However, loneliness is a real emotion that start-ups should know about and be encouraged to talk about. Just a few years before going alone, I was flying with a crew, surrounded by people that knew me through and through. There was banter, and respect and expectation, but never loneliness. Within four years, I was a man in a van. The difference was brutal and completely unexpected. Of all the challenges in my career, loneliness has left the biggest impression on me.

Oh and it’s not reserved for start-ups…when you’ve been around for a while and you’ve got employees and suppliers who look to you for payment, and you’re pushing close to the overdraft limit, who are you going to tell? Your partner? The bank? Your peer group who respect you ‘making a go of it all alone’. What do you mean you’re terrified of failure? Who on earth wants to hear all that?

For me, I was lucky. A chance meeting with a business coach allowed me to spend five years in ‘business therapy’. Pouring my soul out in the early hours, telling the truth to someone who wouldn’t judge me and being honest about where I really was. It saved me. Maybe I’m being dramatic, maybe it’s a state of mind, or, quite possiblly, I was just out of my depth. Whatever the explanation, one of my ‘Important Steps to Success’ , is to find someone, anyone you trust, who’ll listen, just listen. If you’re lucky, they’ll help you put things into context over a coffee, and loneliness will keep at bay.

 

 

Family or Work ?

We’ve all been there. Your boss needs you to work, you family needs you at home. When you’re self-employed, this is magnified ten-fold.

I still remember the frantic efforts to pick the door lock of a BMW, the light fading, my wife calling, my customer pacing. I’d promised her I’d be home in time, him I’d get his car open and neither was happening.

I’d struggled to earn anything all day then finally the job came in, a new BMW. It was a tough job, I’d never done one and they were difficult to pick. It was winter, the weather was bad, and the light was fading.

This was over ten years ago, at a time when my kids were just seven and three years old, my business was just getting going. I’d still have days with little work, so when a job came in I’d have to take it. In parallel, I’d have times I’d need to be home , to have the kids, so my wife could go to work. Just like yourself, we had no family about to help us, it was tough.

I know many of us go through leaving the forces and settling miles from our place of birth. We made our home in the beautiful city of Lincoln, our families were 200 miles away. We had to work well together, managing this constant juggle.

Today I had a similar, unusual choice. I was booked onto a training course, one hundred miles from home. I’d previously promised to take my daughter to the train station mid-day, to go back to university, and on top of that, my son to school. It was a tough one. I wanted to do it all, my business was once again making life difficult all round.

On this occasion, I booked a Taxi for her to get to the train station, and my wife did the school run. I had the most amazing day, getting an education. It would’ve been easier for all of us if hadn’t gone on the course, I felt bad, even though they all told me to do it.

These are the choices we face when we don’t have a boss. Family or work. There’s no-one to make the choice for you.

Carpet or Chocolate ?

Something is happening in Lincoln, maybe around the UK. Today we had further news from the high street that another big name is in trouble. Carpetright, one of the UKs biggest carpet chains is in trouble. It’s been on the cards for a while, and now the mountain of debt has caught up with them. It also seems we have a taste for chocolate, instead of Carpets.

Lincoln is an up and coming city. In a short time, many of the leading brands are opening up here, and with good reason. Firstly there’s the massive investment in the university and the associated technology park. Next, Lincolnshire is the fastest growing county in the UK, property rich southerners are selling up and snapping up bargains throughout the county. So cash is pouring in.

So why are traditional shops such as Carpetright struggling and closing stores? A victim of our change in habits?

The BBC reported last week http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43541990 that the frequency we move house has cut down by a half. We’re staying put, extending our houses instead of moving, and so I’m guessing we just need less carpet in our lives.

However, the good things in life, we still send our money on, including chocolate.

carpet

Hotel Chocolat is on it’s way. Despite the closure of Toys R us, Maplin, and now Carpetright, it seems we have spare cash for finest chocolate. This luxury brand is opening soon, and it seems our taste in Lincoln is changing. How long will it last ? Lets wait and see.

This Week-What brave feels like

I was right to feel stressed with our new software. Last week I wrote about how using the new software made me feel under pressure. My heart pounding, my feeling out of control. Well, just a week on, the software has bitten us and we have a dead van. I’d heard about the problems it can cause and chose to be brave, but this is what brave feels like.

brave

I always believed that brave was summoning up courage, ignoring the ‘fight or flight’ impulse and doing it anyway. These feelings describe the run-up, sure. However, the aftermath of brave is where we are today. A van that was working, which is now dead, cannot be driven and will need money spent on it.

The impulse is to look for someone to blame. The software, the van, Simon, who was programming the key. However, thankfully I feel remarkably calm, now I feel brave. Today is going to be tough, with some awkward decisions and how we behave when it all goes wrong, will say so much more than 1000 good days.

This has happened before, it will again. This will happen to you. How you deal with it will define your business. For us it’s a dead van. For you it will be something different, but we’re here because we were brave, now we must bravely sort it out, take the flak, spend the money, feel vulnerable. Watch this space.

My Pounding Heart

When we’re at work, we shouldn’t be scared, it’s not a healthy way to earn a living. However yesterday, for twenty minutes, my pounding heart was racing away. I was fearful of what was happening.

It goes back to my first ever, key programming job, fourteen years ago. I had only just recieved the shiney computer, cutting edge technology that was going to take my business forward. I had staked my whole new career on this hand held programmer but at first try, I’d had a problem.

The van I plugged into, on that fateful day in 2005, was doomed before I even plugged into it. I didn’t know that as it ran perfectly, being just six years old. It had a cutting edge fly-by-wire technology fitted, that Ford had tried out a few years earlier. Well ahead of its time, it has a serious bug which caused a problem when anyone programmed a new key. Even the Ford dealers had problems  programming them.

Once I’d attempted to programme that van, all those years ago, it was dead, on the customers drive. My heart was pounding as the customer watched me struggle.  It must have been obvious I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Technical help drove 100 miles immediately to help me, but it was all for nothing, the van was dead.

Two weeks, much stress, and £800 later, the van ran again, but I was never the same. For many years, I would sweat about programming keys, not the start you want in a new career.

So yesterday I took a trip back to the bad old days as I programmed a new vehicle, with new cutting edge software (that cost us £2500). The money isn’t important, it’s part of what we do. However, the only way to programme the van is to put into a disabled state, change some settings and then reload its operating system. The whole van is fly-by-wire now, so for twenty minutes, with my pounding heart and my customer nearby, I watched the progress bar move along, bit by bit. All I could think about was that Ford Transit, all those years ago.

It was fine, it worked perfectly and we added a new vehicle to the long list that we can programme. Now relieved and elated, because the unprogrammable van, that we kept turning down, is now one we can say yes to (even if it is with some trepidation).

I’m hoping my pounding heart will slow down abit next time. Business is full of firsts, the first time you pick up the phone, gain a special new customer, come across a new problem and deal with that business crisis. As long as we plan for them, expect them and accept we can’t change them, they help us grow. In fact if were not feeling this sometimes, we’re not growing at all.

When to get Business Help

If you go it alone, there’s going to be a time, when you need business help. There’s so much to do, it can be overwhelming.

Take this week. We’re approaching my VAT quater, which means that all the invoices we’ve sent and all the bills we’ve received have to be totted up. Then we have to work out how much VAT is due.

Value Added Tax (VAT) is a levy that’s added on by the government, through HMRC. Once you get over a certain turnover, around £80,000, you have to add on tax at the current rate and at the moment that is 20% ( Nice easy maths). When it was 17.5% it was a nightmare!

So this is added on automatically with our software, but then is passed to our accountant. Now VAT and accounts is one area that has to be done correctly. This is the first area I’d recommend you get business help. The penalty for getting it wrong is much more than financial pain. For the first eight years, whenever a brown envelope dropped onto my doormat, my heart sank. I knew it was from the Her Majestys Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and it was normally a demand for unpaid money. When I reached the point where I didn’t want to open them anymore, I knew there was a problem. This is when I decided to get some business help generally.

Now, it’s going to cost money to get help, and this is one of the hardest things to learn when you’re self-employed. Paying someone to do something like book work or accounts or marketing etc, feels like a waste of money. Let’s face it, money is scarce when you start out. But if you’re starting to avoid doing something important, it’s a warning sign.

That’s where we’re up to this month. After trying out so many new things in the business over the last eight years, I realised this weekend, enough is enough. I need some business help. The warning signs were longer days and missing out on things that make me happy. These inclued my family, the pub quiz and Scouts. So if you’re not enjoying it anymore, or overwhelmed, or even scared to even look at something like tax, or accounts, maybe you need help. Go on, stop putting it off, get some help in your business.

Elon Musk and Rocket Fuel

 

If you love space (and I do), you have to admire Elon Musk. Despite being told it would never work, so many times, he has done what any boy dreams of. Making rockets and playing with them like toys.

Being able to strap a Tesla car, including Dummy pilot, and playing David Bowie en-route to Mars surely tells us something. He’s earnt the right to do what he wants, not needing permission or blessing from anyone.

This got me thinking about business, and how much it’s like his reusable rocket that he’s developed. The stages that a rocket goes through are very similar to your journey.  Leaving the safety of Her Majesties Armed Forces and start a business on civvy street is will take you on a journey.  If you’re thinking about being your own boss, you need to keep one important thing in mind.

Do you have enough rocket fuel?

Elon Musk knows about rocket fuel, having enough and what happens when things go wrong. he’s had so many failures that he acknowledges he was very close to bankruptcy. He used us all his spare cash and was bailed out by a billionaire to carry on the project. So how much rocket fuel, or in the case of business, do you need?

Let’s look at the stages

Building a Rocket

This starts as exciting, but soon becomes frustrating, simply because you just want to get going. You’re going to need money to set-up. How much depends on what you want to do. However, whatever the amount you have in mind, my advice is to double it. The bills have a habit of adding up, little things creep in, and accessories haven’t been allowed for. When I set up my car key business, I estimated I’d need to spend £15,000 on equipment. However, to trade, I needed stock, a software licence, Yellow pages, etc. So, my initial costs were in fact £25,000. Straight away, I’m £10,000 over budget! Who knows the total cost that Elon Musk invested into SpaceX?

Launch

The most exciting bit. Just like Elon’s rocket, you have all this money already tied into the launch, money you’ll never get back and the moment you do launch you are now trading. You’ll have your first ever phone call, the first ever customer (I still remember mine), and the it’s up to you and you alone to get on with it.

There’s also a tremendous amount of fuel used on the launch phase, or in the case of business, cash. It’s possible that in the first few weeks and maybe months you’ll not make any profit. This is very simply because you may not have any customers, or if you do, you may be working much slower than necessary, or you may have costs to pay back in the early stages. Unlike a SpaceX, that is in space in minutes, let’s say that you’ll be a few weeks before things settle down into a rhythm. Remember, all this time you’re burning fuel, or cash.

Reaching Orbit

So, you’re off the launchpad and making some money, fantastic, you have a business. The aim now is to focus on getting into orbit. For SpaceX, the orbit will be wherever the satellite needs to be released from, and to get to this point in space, the first stage is released (more of this later). Next, there is a secondary burn and it’s the same with your business.

In fact, this is a common point that businesses fail and can be the saddest of endings for a business owner. The hard work is done, you’re up and running, but just when you can feel it’s starting to work, you’re out of fuel.  When the spare cash is all used up, and you can’t find any more funding, you never reach the point at where you reap the rewards.

For you, instead of releasing a satellite, your rewards come from reaching orbit by getting regular customers and profits, and breaking even, after paying your tax bill. Now tax bills and break-even are articles on their own. Once this money has been allowed for, and you have reached the wage that you set yourself at the very start, then your business is self-propelling. Your fuel burn is over, apart from minor course corrections and if there are no emergencies, you won’t need any more cash.

Of course, you’ll still need to invest some money into the business. If you’re a painter and decorator, you’ll need consumables and hand tools.  If you’re a plumber, you may need new power tools. For us, we allow at least £10,000 every year for new software and hardware. But if your business is performing correctly, it will generate this extra cash itself. It’s an amazing feeling.

Return to Earth, selling the business.

Remember the first stage rocket, the one that normally is lost into the ocean? Well as you’ll probably have seen, Elon Musk has taken it one stage further.  His dream was to make space travel cheaper, by re-using the parts of the rocket that would normally be lost. His very public catalogue of failures must have made the final success even sweeter.  On the 21st of December 2015, SpaceX landed its first stage, at Cape Canaveral in a perfect landing, they made history. Likewise, just four months later, they landed on an ocean barge, an amazing feat.

Why do we need to bother with this last stage? Well if you ever want to retire from your business, do something different, or start another business, the aim must be to sell it, and get some money back. Wouldn’t it be good to recoup all the money you invested in the initial rocket build and getting into orbit? Elon Musk certainly has now. By planning ahead, he has something that has real value should he ever want to sell it.

Of course, none of us have plans like SpaceX.  However, to get repaid for all the work that it took, will hopefully be your goal, it’s certainly mine. Granted it will take some more fuel, more cash. SpaceX crashed over ten of these landing stages to get the final landing right. Now, they’ve done the hard work, they can save money every time they fly, and they are market leaders in Space Travel.

Lessons from SpaceX

Whether you have plans to build a bigger business or want to build a lifestyle business where money is less important, we can still learn a valuable lesson from Elon Musk and his SpaceX team. You must keep some cash back so that you never run out of fuel. To get so close and to fail through lack of cash would be heart-breaking and devastating financially. Imagine your gratuity money burnt completely and having nothing to show for it.

But more importantly, SpaceX shows us that failure is a part your final success. You should expect it, plan for it and with some hard work and good fortune, you’ll achieve your own orbit, whatever that may be.