Wednesday 25 May 2011

Start building your Ark before it rains - a practical view of business planning

Business success is all about preparation.

If a business plan is so important, why do so few people actually do it?

I see many small business owners and ask them about their business plans. 9 out of 10 admit that either they haven’t got one, or they had one somewhere, but it’s in a cupboard and they haven’t seen it since it was written a few years ago. But would you set off on a journey without at least thinking where am I going and how am I going to get there?

They usually come out with a standard range of reasons why they don’t use this essential business tool.

“I’m too busy.”
“I don’t need to borrow any money so I’ve never thought about it.”
“My business changes too quickly to plan ahead.”
“I don’t want to grow my business; everything’s fine the way it is.”
 “I can’t imagine where we’ll be in six months time, never mind 5 years!”
“I’ll be lucky to be in business in six months time, never mind 5 years!”

These business owners are usually talking to me because they need help in some part of their business. I meet a fair few ‘busy fools’ who, although working over 80 hours a week, don’t see that this isn’t helping their business grow. The usual problems involve cash flow, expanding the business but retaining control, finding a work/life balance, managing performance or production issues, wondering how to retire, wondering how to get started, falling revenues and reducing numbers of customers, or rapid growth and too many customers. Or it may be a combination of all of these things! 

Well, with a bit of forward thinking, a lot of these problems could have been anticipated, planned for, acted upon and wouldn’t be problems at all.

In ‘Business Plans for Dummies’, by Paul Tiffany, a study states that companies with just the strategic section of a business plan have 50% more profits and revenue than non-planning businesses. And another survey found that those companies who build their business plan into their everyday working lives enjoy 63% higher revenue growth and 100% more profit.

6 important functions of a business plan:

  1. It’s a route plan, or blueprint, to a realistic idea of where you want your business to go. For start up businesses, this is more than just deciding on the name and the colour of your logo!
  2. To clarify your ideas and ask questions about your business, market and customers. Really think about your vision, your values and your mission. Identify your customers, analyse their needs and purchasing or decision making processes. What is happening in your area, industry and the marketplace.
  3. An operational tool to help you manage your work, your team and your business. Put it into action – don’t put it in a drawer.
  4. A financial essential – not just for lenders or banks, but to determine how much money you need to start up, pay yourself and your team, invest for the future, and remain in business during hard times. Anticipating cash flow and capital requirements allow ensure you’re ready for that big tax bill in time, or for that great opportunity that comes your way.
  5. A benchmark to measure your success against, and organise future activities to move the business forward. Objectively consider your company’s strengths and weaknesses, and look at your competitors and the overall economy.
  6. For future growth and success you need a detailed guide of what you’re going to do. Break down objectives into annual milestones, look at your product or service life cycle, and investigate new products or new markets. And, yes, allowing for flexibility, a five year plan really is a good idea.

And, as the story below illustrates, a business plan can ensure your success and profitability for the future. After all, it wasn’t raining when Noah started building his ark…

An unusual business plan for future sales growth…
A new shift manager was being shown around the Latex factor where he had just started work. The plant manufactures various latex products, and has a reputation for using cutting edge technology in their manufacturing process.
On one side of the building, the factory makes baby bottle nipples. The machine makes a loud "hiss-pop" noise, and the shift manager asks his tour guide what it's doing. "As the rubber is being injected into the mould, it makes a hiss noise." he says "The popping sound is from needle poking a hole in the end of the nipple."
On the other side of the building, the two men look at the condom making machine. This machine makes a "hiss.. hiss... hiss-pop" sound during the manufacturing process. "Wait a second," the future shift manager says, "I know what the hiss, hiss is... but what's with the 'pop' noise every once in a while?"
"Oh, that, ha ha... It's the same as the baby bottle nipple process." says the guide... "It pokes a hole in every third condom."
"But that can't be good for the condoms!" the observant shift manager replied.
"Nah, but it's really good for the baby bottle nipple business!"
If you would like help in writing or reviewing a business plan, contact Blue Box Management Consultants for a free face to face appointment to discuss your needs.

Contact us on or call  084 3289 3288
See our website on

Thursday 3 March 2011

Why companies should consider bringing in outside help to solve internal problems

Why should a company bring in outside help?

In his best selling satirical book, “The Dilbert Principle”, Scott Adams provides a view of consultants as seen from the inside of an office cubicle:

  • Consultants have credibility because they are not dumb enough to be regular employees of your company.

  • Consultants eventually leave, which makes them scapegoats for major management blunders.

  • Consultants can schedule time on the boss's calendar because they don't have your reputation as a whiney little troublemaker who constantly brings up unsolvable issues.

  • Consultants will return your boss's calls because it's all billable time.

  • Consultants work preposterously long hours, thus making the regular employees feel like worthless toads for working only 60 hours a week.

  • And finally, Consultants will rarely deal with the root cause of your company's problems, since it's probably the person that hired them.

The book is a cynical and hilarious view of business theory. But there are plenty of good reasons to bring in outside help for your business that provide tangible benefits to the company, your team and your customers.

Specialist skills: I feel quite smug that I understand the theory of the combustion engine, well, sort of… and I’ve been driving cars since I was a teenager, but I know that if I took a spanner to my engine, only doom and disaster would follow. Realistically, I wouldn’t service my own car and I respect the superior knowledge, skills and speed of a trained mechanic. Yet why do so many company leaders think that they are experts in all aspects of business?

The classic errors I see on a regular basis are SME owner managers who have done well for many years, and then some unexpected misfortune clobbers their turnover. As cashflow disintegrates the manager, believing, ‘I’ve been driving this thing for over 20 years, surely I can fix it?’ descends into a maelstrom of spiralling debt, stress and confusion. If, at an early stage in this sorry tale, a professional financial consultant or business advisor had been brought in, they could have swiftly guided the poor fellow through the quicksand to a safe place.

And the examples could go on and on… Bringing in a consultant gives you access to a specific skill set, that can’t be found within your business to the same degree. Even though daily rates are higher than your regular employees (and don’t we all gasp when we see the hourly rate of garage mechanics?) but looking at what is at stake, and what could be saved, they can bring immense value to your company.

External viewpoint: And precisely because the consultant is not part of your business, he or she brings an objectivity and detachment to the problems you face. Being independent of internal politics and having no historical frame of reference can actually be a positive and liberating place to be. Where difficult situations have been tiptoed around due to cliques, personality clashes or ancient history, a consultant can provide unbiased opinions and implement the changes needed without anyone feeling there were any personal motivations.

A fresh look from an outsider can be very enlightening for a business. A successful engineering firm I met recently, with an excellent technical ability in their field, found themselves at a loss to understand why they could not break in to supply contracts for larger national companies. They thought their prices were too high, their location too distant, their salesperson was ineffective, but couldn’t pin down the problem. But the answer was very simple. They had overlooked the importance of their company image, the need for well written sales literature and a professional website, and, despite all their potential, they gave the impression of being a back-street fabricating workshop. They hadn’t stood outside their business, and looked at it from a customer’s point of view.

Temporary services for a limited time: A consultant comes to the business with the benefit of having worked in many other organisations, and having years of experience in the business world.  Exploiting their knowledge for a short time can have a lasting positive impact on your company. This is what you’re paying for.

Even developing a long running programme of business improvement may only need the input of a consultant for a limited number of hours or days per month. Their physical presence in your business is unlikely to be needed for 40 hours a week. What you get is their knowledge, skills, creativity and experience. They will motivate you and your team to achieve your goals through guidance and advice, and let you implement the ideas yourselves.

Engaging a consultant is nearly always less expensive in the long run than hiring managers or staff with similar skills and experience. And you don’t have to keep paying for them, or wonder what to do with them, when the project is over.

What is the role of a consultant in your business?

Qualified resource: when you bring in a qualified specialist, in addition to legal compliancy requirements (HR law or Health and Safety, for example) benefits can be felt in all parts of your business. Outside specialist knowledge inevitably produces a rise in standards internally, and adds credibility and cachet for your company in its external dealings.

Professional adviser and counsellor: sometimes it’s just good to talk to someone who is not part of your business or close to you personally. A consultant understands your position, and can give you confidential advice, support and make you feel you are not on your own. I am part of a group of business consultants called Northern Business Advisers (NBA) - see - who have, as their strapline, ‘We’ve walked in your shoes.’ I think that sums it up? Having a reassuring presence in your business, who has been through many similar situations before can give you confidence and optimism when times are tough.

Catalyst for change: here is an old definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. I can’t think of any improvements that are brought about by doing nothing? Change is essential to growth and development, but it can be painful. Bringing in a consultant can speed up this process as they do not have other obligations in the company, or a day job to attend to. You can set them clear deliverables and timelines, and allow them to apply their skills and experience to benefit your business.

Being from ‘outside’ the business means they can focus on the objectives, not the day to day tasks. Their position of authority can be used to communicate changes to the affected employees, customers or suppliers, and handle objections and difficult situations in a professional way, with more detachment. This reduces the emotional struggle many small business owners go through when handling things on their own, but which gets the job done quickly, effectively and profitably.

If you think you could benefit from the advice of an external consultant, Blue Box Management Consultants, contact us. We will be delighted to give you a free appointment to talk through any issues that face your business.

Tel 084 3289 3288
See our website on

Friday 21 January 2011

If you’re miserable, quit and do something else. If you’re still miserable, it’s you.

‘If you’re miserable, quit and do something else. If you’re still miserable, it’s you.’

I received a fun email the other day with a list of humorous, yet insightful business missives which included this one. It got me thinking about the inevitable questions that most people have about career happiness and job satisfaction that arise around New Year; a time of year which somehow never fails to make us consider the past year’s achievements and future plans. A couple of dark, dreary morning commutes in January can really bring all your misery to the forefront and make it seem like it’s time for a new start.

It’s not the easiest time to change jobs though, The public sector alone is planning to shed 600,000 jobs by 2015, and the online HR forum, Personnel Today, predict up to half of all UK employees plan to change jobs this year. It’s a well documented fact that most employment changes happen in the first three months of the year, so it pays to be prepared for a competitive job market.

But how do you give yourself the best chance of finding a new job? Here are some tips to get prepared:

First steps:
Think about what you’re good at, and what would make you happy.
It’s easy to do yourself down, and think, after years on the same treadmill, that you’re not talented. Have a long hard think about yourself. Are you an ideas person? Do you enjoy explaining things to others? What really motivates you? Is there an industry sector, or even certain companies that you’d love to work for? Make a list of your skills, experience and values. Look at how these fit the needs of your target employer.

Do your research, and make sure that you also know the downsides to that ‘dream job’ too. If you have to take a salary drop, you need additional training to make yourself qualified or you simply need to find out what’s boring and frustrating about your ideal role (every job has them!) so you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for.

Writing your CV:
A sharp, professional CV is an essential, but it can be hard to know what will impress a potential employer. If you need help, here at Blue Box Recruitment, we offer a tailored CV writing service that could give your application the edge. Otherwise ask advice from trusted friends and really think about what your future employer would want to know about you. Make it clear, logical, positive and use strong words for impact, not glitz and gimmicks.

And don’t forget the cover letter, tailored to your reader, which gives you another opportunity to sell your skills.

Where to look:
Online is most people’s first port of call now. Look for job title, industry sector and geographical area. Register with reputable recruitment sites and agencies, but beware of those scams that ask for payment for ‘job lists’. The local papers can sometimes reap fruit as many smaller businesses do not advertise online, and casting your net widely, often in unconventional areas, may yield surprising results. All industry sectors use admin, HR, IT and some sort of customer service and communications, to some extent. Just because you’ve spent your life in the NHS doesn’t mean you don’t have transferrable skills for manufacturing or retail, for example.

Use the internet to your advantage:
Making your CV available online is a great start. Use succinct language that is rich in keywords. Try the Google tool, Adwords, to see what popular terms refer to your job description, personal specification or industry.

Building your online profile through networks such as LinkedIn, Xing or on industry associations’ websites spreads the word about your skills. If you use more social media such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, be very careful to show yourself in the most professional light. Make sure casual viewers don’t have access to your drunken party photos or risqué jokes. Think what you’d be happy for your future boss to see about your private life.

Use your network:
Asking friends and business acquaintances to keep an ear to the ground for you, or even refer you to others is an excellent way to raise your profile and put in a good word for you. Former employers and colleagues may also have information that could help in your job search.

And ensure you are easy to get hold of. Check your mobile has voicemail turned on, monitor your emails daily and always reply to messages promptly.

Be prepared for your interview:
See our website for top tips in interview techniques, but make sure you are well prepared. Anticipate questions, and have positive answers ready; know your strengths and have your ‘elevator pitch’ well rehearsed.

Look the part in dress code and body language. Be nice to everyone you meet, just because the girl on reception greets you and offers you coffee, doesn’t mean she isn’t the boss who then interviews you. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Take the long view:
Times are hard, and you may not be successful straight away, but treat your search for a new job professionally. Do something every day towards achieving your goals even if it’s just reading the business pages online.

Sign up for courses or extra training that will help in your long term future; look at the world and imagine how it will be post-recession. Some industry sectors, like renewable energy, customer services and medical research are in a boom. Where will your skills fit into a changed economy?

Or would starting your own business be the answer to your future happiness?

Be Tenacious:
Use your resources, seek professional help, and be determined – many people have been in your shoes and if you asked them, they would tell you not to give up. Believe in yourself and don’t give up!

If Blue Box Recruitment can help you in your job search, contact us at or see our website,

Thursday 6 January 2011

New years Resolutions for Businesses

New Year’s Resolutions for Business:

The quieter time during the festive break offers a perfect opportunity to take stock of your business. New Year is synonymous with resolutions, usually involving some sort of exercise, healthy eating or lifestyle improvements. But why not apply some of the same fervour to your business? And as profits improve, you may even be able to maintain your promises longer than you can enjoy salad and jogging in January!

Here are a few ideas:

Dust off your business plan
Business planning lets you take stock of what worked and what didn’t work, and helps you set new directions or adjust old goals. The most successful business plans are written down and shared with everyone involved, not filed away in a cupboard or just existing in your head. If you’ve never had one, why not seek advice from a professional consultant to guide you through the process for the first time. Not only will this help you avoid costly mistakes, but you will stay on track and feel more focussed and relaxed in the year ahead.

Join a business or networking group.
Owners of small businesses can often feel like they’re on their own. There’s nothing like talking to other business people for sparking new ideas, making contacts and raising awareness of your business. Whether it’s a group designed for local networking with all types of other businesses, or it’s specific to your industry, being part of a group will revitalise you and your business.

Learn how to delegate
There are so many things to do when you’re running your own business that a common failing is to delude ourselves that we need to do all of them. Then we can’t understand why we’re tired, tetchy and have no time for anything else. If this sounds like you, it’s time to let someone else do some of the tasks for a change.

Delegation is the key to a healthy work-life balance. If you really can’t see the wood for the trees, or find it impossible to let go, you would benefit from the insight of an external consultant who can look at your business objectively and with your interests at heart. A free consultation with a business expert could be the saviour of your business, your health and your personal life.  Make 2011 the year you started to put yourself first!

Promote your business consistently
Times are hard, and during these economic dark days spending on marketing can seem like a luxury expense. But there are lots of low cost ways to promote your business creatively that can reap great returns. Think about what advertising, direct post or email, or promotions have caught your eye, and what made them successful. Look at your competitors, and what works for them. Build marketing into your business plan on a regular basis to keep the momentum going through the whole year.

Take a look at your website
Most businesses set up a website in the early days, but then it gets ignored as the daily demands of the business take up your time. Is it time it needs an overhaul? Just writing some new words for the main pages and updating the News section can give it a lift in the Google rankings. Installing free Google analytics can give you an insight into who is visiting your site, and what they are looking at. By understanding your customers you can tailor your website to meet their needs, while also optimising it for the search engines. If you need help in achieving the original objectives you had for your website, contact us. A free website review could give you some ideas for improvement in 2011.

Know when to cut your losses.
Not all products are going to be best sellers, all sales methods aren’t going to work for everyone, and all suppliers and contractors aren’t going to be ideal for your business. If a product, process or business relationship isn’t working for you, stop wasting your energy on it and move on. Don’t invest a lot of time trying to make the unworkable work. Cut your losses – something better will turn up.

Learn something new.
Most of my clients are busy people, dealing with a whole raft of different issues and challenges. However you need time to consider the bigger picture, and develop yourself as an individual. Personal development increases satisfaction and motivation, as well as having a positive impact on business. Remove yourself from the everyday ‘fire fighting’ to assess your future strategy. This could be taking up the offers of training (for example, Businesslink provide an excellent range of free one day courses) going to a trade show and actually sitting in on the seminars held by the industry experts, or simply buying a business book and reading it.

There are huge numbers of business books that could broaden your knowledge in a particular aspect of business, as well as biographies of successful entrepreneurs that can be inspiring and motivating. A wander round your local bookshop can be a joy during the holidays, and a refuge from the department store sales. Take your time to browse for a book that lifts your spirits and opens your mind to new ideas.

One thing I find common to all of my clients who have their own businesses is their perceived lack of time. Most of you are covering a huge breadth of tasks in your business, but the incessant focus on day to day issues means that you spend little time reflecting on the bigger picture. The New Year period affords you the perfect opportunity to make some changes to ensure that hum-drum management issues do not distract you from your wider business objectives.

If you would like any help in business planning, marketing or website improvements, training or personal development, Blue Box Management Consultants will be happy to help you. Why not book a free appointment to talk through your business ideas for 2011.

Tel 084 3289 3288
See our website on