Networking

Networking.

The very word sends shivers down some people’s spines.

Some greasy person in your face, shooting their mouth off about something you’re not really interested in, pushing a business card into your hand, not letting you leave as you desperately search the room for someone, anyone, to rescue you.

No, you don’t want to go to events like that.

I’m a member of a BNI group. A lot of people hate BNI too – it’s very formal, it’s very structured and it’s quite rigid in how it does things. But our group is big, very very positive and we put a lot of effort into welcoming visitors to the group without selling to them.

Because the single best thing you can do when you meet someone new is not push your products or services on them – instead, stand and listen to them and figure out what it is you can do to help them. It may be nothing, it may be something tiny, it could be something huge. But by starting out by helping them, you immediately set yourself apart from everyone other networker out there.

Creating standard operating procedures

You often see small businesses that have been there for years. They provide their owners with a good living. They do a fantastic job. But they stay the same, day in, day out, year in, year out.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But you do wonder what happens if the owner gets ill. Or even dies. What happens to the business? More importantly, what happens to the staff?

Can it keep going without the main protagonist? Are those jobs lost? Is that pillar of the local community gone?

I want my business to be able to work without me. Not just so I can lie on a beach, sipping a cold drink without worrying (although that would be nice). But also, because I want it to have a reach that’s slightly bigger than me. Not much, just a bit.

Which is why I need to write out our procedures. A handbook. This is how we do things. There are many ways to get things done, but this is ours. It’s not perfect, but it’s the way it is here. We’ll revise it every now and then, but the processes described in this book are the business, whether it’s me running things, or someone else.

Brown M&Ms

I’m old enough to remember the 80s. The Miner’s Strike. The shoulder-pads. The casual racism. And the hair metal bands.

There was always a rumour going around that van Halen used to have champagne, cocaine and hookers on their rider. Plus a clause that specified that they wanted a bowl of M&Ms – but if they found a brown one in there, the gig was off.

They were a hair-metal band. Big hair-dos. Bigger egos. Of course they would insist on no brown M&Ms. That’s the sort of things that over-the-top rock stars do isn’t it?

Well, a few years ago, their manager revealed that it was true – their contracts did have a “no brown M&Ms” clause in it. But it wasn’t because they were overblown prima donnas.

Van Halen had big hair. And an even bigger lighting rig. The engineering to assemble and disassemble it in one night was quite a feat. And get it wrong and the whole thing could collapse, causing injury and probably death.

So they used to include the brown M&M clause, buried away in the middle of the contract, as a sign that the promoter had actually read the thing. If they hadn’t, if they didn’t question the clause, if they found a brown M&M, then van Halen knew that they could not trust that the promoter had read the precise instructions about setting up the rig. And if they hadn’t read that, the gig really was off.

Making time for creativity

I like to think that my job is quite a creative one. Yeah, computers are dull robot machines that aren't capable of intelligent thought (well, not yet, anyway). But the act of programming that computer – telling it (or increasingly, nowadays, teaching it) how to perform tasks that are useful to human beings – is a very creative endeavour.

Unfortunately, creativity is all too often elusive.

The pressure of work, the client emergency, fire-fighting, shopping, your boiler exploding – they all get in the way.

So you have to make time for it.

I now start earlier and work later – but keep a couple of hours in the middle of the day just to myself. Walk the dog, have a slow lunch, sit around. The extra space makes all the difference and when I go back to work in the afternoon, I find I get more done – and the solutions I come up with are better and slicker.

Because, if it's important, you have to make the time for it.

Cost, Price and Value

How much do you charge for your products or services?

Pricing is really difficult. Everyone has a different opinion.

But there are three numbers that are really important – cost, price and value.

The cost is how much it costs you to deliver the product or service. Raw materials, labour, time, delivery charges, taxes. All that kind of thing.

The value is how much it is worth to the buyer. This is where things get really complicated, because, actually, the value is different for everyone. That item that you sell for £50 might be worthless to someone who doesn't need it but invaluable to someone else. That's why so many people just revert to "cost+something" when calculating their pricing. But, while that's simple, it means you could be leaving money on the table – if you can target those people for whom you are invaluable.

And once you know how much your product cost for you to build (its cost) and you've got an idea of how much your product is worth to someone (its value), you should be able to safely set your price somewhere in-between those two values. Higher than cost means you make money on it. Lower than value means your customer thinks it's a bargain.

You can always make another dollar, you can’t make another minute

I don't know if it is his originally, but I first heard that quote from Alan Weiss, who has written over forty books on managing a solo consulting practice.

At the heart of his method is the difference between money and wealth. Money is cash. Wealth is discretionary time. Money is worthless. Wealth is everything.

As long as you're providing your clients and customers with as much value than they need – it doesn't really matter how long it takes you to deliver it. So do everything you can to deliver as quickly as possible. Outsource, sub-contract, only work on the stuff that delivers the greatest results, cut out everything else.

In other words – focus on what really matters. Because you can't make another minute.

Workflow

Workflow isn't everyone's idea of fun.

But, I have to admit, it is mine (disclaimer, I find other things fun too – most of which are more fun than workflow).

One of my clients had a problem. Their jobs were getting lost along the way. They knew what they were doing, they had excellent staff and they had high-paying clients. They just needed some help delivering.

The solution was actually quite simple.

We defined the stages that each job go through. As it moved from one stage to another, notifications were triggered. When A happens, then make sure that B knows about it. When C happens, ask D to respond. When D responds, move to the next stage.

Add in deadlines onto each job card and a board that shows columns with all jobs in a particular state grouped together and we had a system that made it easy to keep track of jobs, make sure the right people knew what they were supposed to be doing and ensure that every job is delivered on schedule.

As an added bonus, once we had that tracking in place, it was easy to produce a weekly, monthly and quarterly report – so the management team could see where the bottlenecks were and whether the company was improving.

If you want to know more about how to set up a job-board system like this, sign up for our "Quotes Jobs and Invoices" email course, which shows use a piece of free software to keep track of your work.

What does that padlock icon in my browser mean?

At the moment, Google is promoting "secure" websites. If you look in the address bar of your browser you might see a small padlock icon. If you don't, Google is going to start flagging these sites as "insecure" – meaning your browser might show a badge warning you about this, and the site itself is going to fall down the search rankings.

But what does that padlock mean?

Websites and browsers communicate using the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for short. The browser and website send each other messages describing what the browser wants to see and what the website has to display. These messages are in plain text – if you intercept the message then you could read those contents. Including your username and password, if you need to log in.

To combat this, there's an extension to HTTP called HTTPS – the S stands for Secure. The website has an encryption certificate (called an SSL Certificate) installed – this is half of a mathematical key that it shares with the browser. This key is then used to encrypt those messages – so if you were to intercept them, you wouldn't be able to read the contents – unless you had the other half of that mathematical key. And, of course, the other half is locked away, safely, on the web-server.

So that's why the padlock is important. It prevents important information being read whilst in transit, keeping your and your customer's data safe. And, now that Google is going to be downgrading sites that don't have a certificate, it's vitally important that you ensure your site has one.

Timing

My dog Winston recently went to Dog School. And he did really well. This was a surprise.

Because he’s a rescue, we don’t know what happened to him in his former life. But we do know that he’s terrified of everything. He hates going in the car. He worries about other dogs. He’s scared of people he doesn’t know.

He’s seen trainers and behaviourists before. I’ve read loads on dog training and dog psychology (quick tip – if Cesar Milan says it’s the right thing to do, do the exact opposite). But his previous stints at Dog School were mainly unsuccessful.

Why the difference this time? The course materials were no different to before. The trainers weren’t any better than previously (although they were amazing).

I think the fact is, this time Winston was ready. He’s been with us for three years, he’s finally feeling a bit more settled, a bit safer. He’s learning that not every dog wants to attack him, he’s learning that not every stranger wants to kick him. So he can concentrate on the course and getting the biscuits.

Sometimes, you can have the best training materials in the world and it means nothing to you. Other times, you’re just ready for the knowledge and you lap it up.

I have no idea what anyone is doing!

Communication is key to a successful business. Each person needs to work effectively and efficiently, and in order to do that, there are bits of information that they have to know.

But as you grow, and spread across multiple offices, that information can sometimes be hard to come by.

What used to be an informal conversation whilst waiting for the kettle to boil now becomes a phone call that needs to be scheduled. Or an email that gets lots in the vast ocean of your inbox.

If you’re losing track of who’s doing what and when – especially when you’ve moved to multiple premises – then you need a communication system. It doesn’t have to be expensive or even complicated – you just need to decide what information is important to whom and then choose the best way to display it. Maybe on everyone’s phones. Maybe on a big screen across all your offices.

So if you need any advice on how to set something like that up, just get in touch and I’ll be happy to help.