If you ran your business off a whiteboard, what would it look like?

So I spend my time thinking about ways of making small businesses work better. Saving the owners time and stress, saving them money.

Because of my background, most of the time, that means using software. Automating things. Digital information, workflows, things like that.

But often, that’s not the best place to start.

Imagine running your business without computers, without mobile phones.

It would probably have lots of information on bits of paper. And you would probably have one or more great big whiteboards, with your summaries, jobs, sales figures and so on, up there for all to see.

What would that whiteboard look like? What information does it contain?

If you start from there, figure out how to run the business that way, then think about the technology, you’re going to get a better result. Something that does the job, no matter how the landscape changes.

Personal Trainers

I had a personal trainer session the other day. I’ve never had one before. I tell you what, I’ve never ached like I did after that. He had me doing push-ups until I fell face down into the floor. It was really hard but I absolutely enjoyed it.

But, if I’d been for that same session a year ago, I would have hated it. I would have despised the guy for pushing me so hard, I would have not put much effort in and I would have just walked away at the end of it, cursing myself for having done it.

Because sometimes, we’re not ready to take on the stuff that others are teaching us.

Doing things differently on an iPad

I’m Baz and I design and deliver software that unlocks cost savings for businesses.

I’ve mentioned before about how an iPad (especially the Pro variant) can probably become your primary computer.

The advantages are that it is significantly lighter and easier to carry around with you, the battery lasts all day, you can buy a model with a SIM card so you’re always connected and you can sketch and draw to your heart’s content.

But some things you need to do differently.

Excel is the example everyone cites when it comes to using an iPad for “real work”. And true, spreadsheets, especially big ones, are a pain on an iPad (although Numbers is better than Excel).

However, what exactly are you doing on Excel?

If you’re doing lists, Trello’s probably a better bet. If you’re doing calculations, take a look at Soulver. And if you’re generating your weekly sales report, how about getting your IT people to build you a live sales dashboard? Instead of updating your team with the latest figures once a week, there’s nothing stopping you from having a big screen in the office showing your statistics in real-time.

Weekly updates are so 20th Century.

Weekly Goals

Something new that I’ve started doing is a set of “weekly goals”.

Every week I start a new set of notes. When I’m working, I write out quick notes on what I’m doing – so I can look back on it in the future – but more importantly, it helps me focus.

But, at the start of the week, I’ve taken to writing out three goals.

Now I do a quarterly plan – this is what I want to do in the next three months, and to achieve that, I need to get X done by month 1, Y done by month 2 and Z in month 3. These weekly goals are based on those, but sometimes they’re also in addition to that.

It means that on Wednesday, after I’ve had some emergencies to deal with, I can refocus. Look at the top of that week’s notes – what did I think was important for this week? Oh yes, better spend some time on that task then.

By Friday, I’ve generally missed at least one of these goals, because other stuff has got in the way. But as a way of reorientating myself and making sure I keep moving in the right direction, it’s invaluable.

Why we have an Action Plan Meeting

One of the things that I do for a lot of our prospective clients is run a meeting that we call the “Action Plan Meeting”. Sometimes, our customers are shocked to learn that, before we can go any further, they need to pay me a decent wedge of money (currently £500) just so that you can have the pleasure of my company (note – our Express service doesn’t require an Action Plan meeting, only our Premium service).

But it’s an absolutely vital part of the way that we do business, and it helps to ensure that our projects run smoothly.

You see, the Action Plan Meeting does three things.

It sets aside an important block of time where we think through the issues that our work together is trying to solve. What are we building? Why are we building it? How is it going to work? These aren’t questions that can be answered in isolation, so it’s important that we spend the time together answering them.

It results in a Detailed Specification. This is the blueprint for our solution. It’s detailed enough that you can take the Detailed Specification to any half-decent software development company and they should be able to build the system. You don’t need to stay with us. There’s no lock-in.

It also weeds out the time-wasters. Frankly, if you’re not prepared to spend £500 on getting the work done properly, are you really prepared to invest in improving your business at all? The work we do is often long-term and it requires a close relationship. And, I’ll be honest, it can be expensive (but always good value). If you’re worried about paying for the meeting, and working that closely with us, we’re probably not a very good fit together.

That Action Plan Meeting sets the foundations for our future relationship. It helps you learn more about how we work, it helps us understand more about what you need.

The basics of Search Engine Optimisation

Although I work with online software a lot, Search Engine Optimisation isn’t really something I get involved in. In fact, I’ve been on record as describing SEOs as “snake oil salesmen and charlatans”. A bit harsh, but I’ve met too many that just weren’t trustworthy.

SEO is also a very fast moving industry. I’ve not studied it for a few years so lots of the details I know are probably out of date.

But what I can say is that there are two major factors for your SEO. On-Page and Off-Page.

Basically, Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, AltaVista – whichever search engine you use (DuckDuckGo is my favourite, Google has the best results) is a computer programme, called a crawler. It looks at a web-page, analyses it and stores those results in an index. So when you ask the search engine for something, it can look up those results in the index and show you stuff that matches your query.

On-Page SEO is all about making sure that your site is easy for the crawler to read. Making sure that the structure of your headings, paragraphs and other on-screen elements give hints to the crawler as to what the page is about. Because if the crawler doesn’t understand the page, it’s going to put it in the wrong place in the index.

Off-Page SEO is all about ranking. So when you type in a search for “Adidas Gazelles” – the search engine is going to look into its index and find thousands, millions of pages, referencing Gazelles. Which is the one that you actually want to see?

Off-Page SEO is used to try and filter that noise. Just because a page mentions Gazelles doesn’t mean that it’s worth reading. In the olden days, Google used a system called “Page Rank” to figure out which pages were the ones to look at – if lots of other websites linked to your page, then it was probably pretty good. The issue is that when SEOs figured this out, they would just stick links to pages everywhere they could find on the web, so Google would see all these links and boost the Page Rank accordingly.

Now, things are more complicated. In fact, proper Off-Page SEO is a task about brand management. It’s about getting your keywords, phrases and brands seen in the right places. About proving that you have authority in that subject matter. Making sure that the search engine doesn’t think you’re trying to cheat the system.

In other words, On-Page SEO is pretty simple and can be done at the time that your site is built. Off-Page SEO is really complicated and is an ongoing, slow, process.

The most important technology in the world

It’s Baz here and I help businesses that send people on site-visits collect signatures and save on paperwork.

I’ve been thinking about the zombie apocalypse recently. Brains and all that.

You see, it would be really weird. I’m used to having my phone in my pocket. Every bit of information the world has ever known at a tap or swipe of my finger.

And, a couple of days after the apocalypse, all of that would be gone. Because even if you had an electricity source, who would look after the servers, who would look after the cell towers and fibre?

But that’s not the bit of technology I would miss the most.

I was born with a defect.

I’m very very short-sighted.

Without my glasses, I’m absolutely screwed.

All it takes is one frantic flee from a zombie, my glasses fall off my face and I step on them. And that’s it.

Game over man, game over.

My greatest business achievement

Someone asked me what my greatest work achievement was the other day.

I used to have an immediate answer to this. A long time ago, I was Technical Director of a company that built a resource-planning system for training providers. It was very effective, but it was big and complex software and our team worked very hard to keep our customers happy.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the sales that we needed – partly due to the fact that we were selling to local authorities and they had a very long (over a year) sales cycle. So the company folded, and the assets and part of the team, were bought by another company as a going concern.

So, we went from 15 people to 5, looking after the same number of customers as before. We still had an aggressive development schedule, but fewer developers to meet it.

I had some tough decisions to make. And make them I did. We dropped a ton of complexity in the product, made it much simpler and worked on a cut-down roadmap. The new company limped back into life. Our extremely worried customers had their minds put at ease, even if we didn’t win many new ones. And the team, who had been demoralised and unhappy, rebuilt a great relationship with each other.

So when people ask me, I always say, that’s my greatest achievement in business.

But then I realised the other day that I’ve been running my own company for ten years now. Ten whole years. Given that most small businesses fail within two years, and I’ve never had any formal business training, I think that’s an even better achievement. What do you think?

Why sales is a “numbers game”

I’m Baz and I build time-saving systems for companies that send people out on site visits.

And I hate doing sales.

Or at least I used to.

People say “sales is a numbers game” and I never understood why.

But if you think about it, how often do you see an advert? And how often do you buy because of it?

Maybe you’ve been looking for a new sofa, and you see an advert and you think “that’s the one for me” and you go and buy it. But most of the time, you’re not looking for a new sofa, so you see the advert, shrug and move on.

It’s the same for your product. Or your service. Or whatever it is that you do.

Most of the time, you talk to someone and they listen to what you’re saying, shrug and move on. It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they’re not ready to buy. That sofa isn’t front of mind.

And that’s why sales is about numbers – you need to catch people at just the right time and then make sure you don’t piss them off if, as for most people, it’s not the right time.

The most important piece of business software

So a big part of what I do is thinking through the problems a business has and then trying to put together the best solution for you. The biggest issue there is that, nowadays, there’s so much choice.

If you need a CRM, there are literally hundreds to choose from.

What about project management? It can take you weeks to wade through them all.

And there’s one piece of software, more than anything else, that you really really need. However, it’s one that I’m not really best placed to choose for you.

That’s your accounts package.

I don’t really get accounts – I understand the theory and how it all works. But accounts leaves me cold – a necessary evil.

But your accountant. They live or breath accounts. Numbers on ledgers? It’s like fast cars or pointy dogs are to me.

So ask them to choose your accounts package. It’s the single most important piece of software your business uses, it governs your invoicing, taxes and payroll – and probably your order processing and pricing too. Choose wisely and it’s the foundation for everything else.