Wednesday, April 13, 2016

why I don't bother with social media analytics

WARNING: if you're a social media manager or consultant, you should probably stop reading now.

For the rest of you (and those brave enough to remain!), here's why I personally think that the industry around analytics of our on-line activity (page views, number of likes, followers, and such like) is potentially damaging to our respective enterprises. But as with all my ideas, I also recognise that this won't be true for everyone, and that it's a biased/prejudiced view that I hold which is based on my experiences to date (but which hasn't stopped from being nominated as the lead advisor in several funded local and national enterprise support programmes on using social media...)

1) a few years back I was identified as one of the top500 most influential people on twitter, but at the time had less than 1,000 followers (out of over 300 million users) and also (horror of horrors), didn't even have a smartphone to tweet from on the move! (I've also become a hashtag on twitter on several occasions!)
Conclusion: the engagement and relationships I try and nurture through twitter via conversations, etc, is what's important. Not the number of people who follow me (although it's always nice to have more to reassure my ego ;-)

2) I have a lovely website supported by Smart Bear, with google analytics running in the back of it. However the site's there not as a sales tool, but as part of my personal brand, and also as part of meeting clients and markets expectations of me. I know from conversations with clients and others that most people don't look at it (although that have are always complementary)

3) I've an active profile across 13 different social media channels (far too many to list here - but just got started on Vine!), because I recognise that not everyone likes twitter (but 300 million do!), not everyone gets on with facebook, some people are into slideshares, and others into hipster photos - as the work I do and support I offer sees in a wide variety of communities and sectors, I think it's important to show some respect where possible by engaging with clients through their preferred on-line channel (see point 2).

4) But ultimately, all the analytic reports I see always leave me asking "so what?". 
What's the point of thousands of sign ups if none of them want to actually talk with you or buy your product. What's the point of having more followers on twitter if you never get to meet them in person to find out what they like and how you can support each others endeavours in the future?

Of course, all of this is a very biased view drawn from my own experience and business model - I'm not an on-line retailer for whom I recognise such analytics are crucial in understanding where effort is being wasted in reaching customers and where to invest more time and resource.

So I'm writing this as a cautionary note, as I see too many entrepreneurs and enterprises getting caught up in the hype of analytics, when at best it's only a distraction to their business model.

I also like the way the vooza summed it all up in one of their typically excellent short vids debunking hype around trends and fashions in enterprise: 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

does anyone really care how far we're open and transparent in how we do business?

In recent news, there's been a furore of activity over leaked papers about tax havens and money laundering by an international finance firm on behalf of the rich and famous, (allegedly). 
This comes on the back of various campaigns and calls for big business to be more responsible in paying tax and treating employees and people in their supply chain with dignity and respect.
And all of this comes on the back of previous movements around fairtrade, environmental impact, sustainability, and such like.

You would think that all of the media coverage of these themes means that as consumers we've a keen interest in how responsible the businesses we spend our money with are acting, and calling them to ever greater account through demanding that they're more open in how they work.
And yet, anecdotally despite petitions and campaigns, most people I know still shop with the likes of Amazon, buy coffee from Starbucks, and similar... so my question is that while we're outraged when we hear of such unethical corporate behaviour, if it doesn't change our own personal behaviours, actions, and shopping choices, do we really care that much?

Because if we don't, then why should firms strive to be more open and transparent in how they do business?

Many of the businesses I support are social and charitable enterprises, and there's been various encouragements to them over the years to show such openness through reporting on their social impact. And yet researches and surveys show that increasingly, when they do, it's making less of a difference to their customers in influencing their purchasing from them.
For myself - as the only freelance consultant globally (to my knowledge) to openly publish an impact report on myself with openness about my supply chain and other business activities, I know that doing so has never made any difference to my clients and customers final decisions about engaging and commissioning me (I know this, because I ask them!).

So with all the calls for more openness and transparency, I'd like to start another call - this time to start a conversation about what we as consumers really would like those businesses and firms to be open and transparent about, and if they start to, if we'll actually read and act on them...

Monday, March 14, 2016

why spin the bottle beats psychometrics in getting Boards to perform better

I often find myself working with the Boards of various social enterprises, charities, and other types of businesses as part of wider packages of support - my time with them is usually spent helping them reflect on how well they're collectively performing in supporting their respective ventures to further pursue their mission, and that can take all sorts of forms...

Case in point: I recently completed several months of working with the Board of an up and coming social enterprise as part of supporting the venture explore and pursue social investment - any venture seeking investment will find it's Board coming under scrutiny sooner or later as part of the due diligence process of any financing body, so I was concerned to make sure that it was fully 'fit for purpose': not just for now, but also for future scenarios it may face.

I agreed with them how we'd approach this and over the space of 4 months developed codes of governance, terms of reference, formalised a range of procedures and practices, and also did some psychometrics (group and individual) with them to help Directors reflect on their individual role and how well they supported each other's performance. And at the end of this process, the only outstanding decision to be taken was who should take on the role of the Board's Chair. 

And that's when everyone suddenly found they needed to check their phones, shoelaces, and bottoms of mugs... formal and professional governance development practices and psychometrics could only take them so far, so I resolved to break this sudden impasse by taking a relatively unconventional process which everyone was surprisingly excited about and wholeheartedly agreed to abide by the outcome of: spin the bottle! (they don't call me #notyourtypicalconsultant for nothing!).

Moral of the story?
It's your venture, not your consultants - if you don't like the approaches being used and suggested, use your own, however 'unprofessional' they may appear as it'll mean you can continue to enjoy working on what you're creating rather than having to compromise yourself into fitting into someone else's expectations of you.

Friday, February 12, 2016

just because you didn't get wet, doesn't mean your business won't be killed by floods...

We're fast approaching 2 months since Todmorden and the rest of the Calder Valley got hard hit by the floods that washed out last year's Christmas.

It's a good time to pause and reflect on not just how far we've come in our recovery, but also how far we've still to go - some businesses are now admitting that they were perhaps a little optimistic in initial estimates of how long it would take to re-open, and many are also starting to feel the wider knock-on impacts, realising that the damage the floods have wrought continue long after the waters have subsided, houses dried out, and stock replaced...

While many businesses were fortunate not to be directly flooded, those that were have had mixed fortunes in their recovery - the local Council has recently extended its criteria for business recovery grants to now recognise home-based businesses, and there have been a number of successful crowd-funding campaigns, but others have found the cost of recovery just too great a burden to manage and have sadly shut up shop for good leaving us poorer as a valley in terms of our diversity of employment, industry, and character.

And it's that knock-on effect that people are now starting to feel able to talk about - although their premises weren't flooded, they've still lost trade and income from losing their suppliers to floods, or there being far less trade along the valley as consumers start to shop elsewhere, believing that nowhere will be open after seeing the widespread images of devastation broadcast by the media of the area.
And it's only now that they're starting to talking about it, because of feeling guilty that they weren't flooded so they don't have the same right to complain as those of us who did - yet their livelihoods (and those of their employees) are suffering nonetheless.

Although there are support packages being made available for businesses affected by floods, (and they all have different criteria), one thing they share universally is that your business has to have had water enter your premises. But as we're starting to see as people increasingly come forward and start to speak out, flooding can destroy any business without having to come anywhere near your building...

But as before, when I profiled what local businesses responses have been in the initial aftermath, the community is once again rallying to support its employment and livelihoods - Hebden Bridge is becoming the 'North Pole' of the Valley at the end of June when we're re-staging the Christmas we lost: festive lights are being put up, a big tree in the square, snow machines, carol singing,... a great opportunity to remind the rest of the world (and its consumers!) that the Calder Valley is rising to greatness again! So please feel free to come and share some of your spending power in supporting those businesses for whom you're the only source of support..

Monday, January 18, 2016

on being 'washed out' by floods and becoming a homeless entrepreneur...

Along with thousands of others across the North of England at Christmas last year, my home was 'washed out' by the worst floods on record - and I suspect that a significant proportion of my fellow flood victims will, like me, also be self-employed and based from home as well, so hit with the 'double-whammy' of the floods not only having displaced us (and our families) from our homes, but also impacting on our livelihoods too (as if running your own business wasn't already stressful enough at the best of times...)

And while the initial rallying of community spirit has been fantastic in dealing with the immediate aftermath of the waters, there are growing concerns amongst local business communities as to how well people will be able to restore their livelihoods - an initial survey of businesses in my local area found nearly half believe it may be up to 6 months before they can recommence trading. And as great as public donations are, these can only go to affected households, to replace lost clothes, furniture, and such like, and not to businesses to help maintain the lives of the same local people and their communities;

The local Council, Calderdale, has made a great initial response to support local businesses, but it too is limited by criteria and eligibility checks which means that hundreds of micro-businesses, freelancers, and sole traders who are otherwise 'below the radar' in not having dedicated business premises, paying rates, or being VAT-registered, will have to find their own sources of recovery support.

So just as we did as householders, we therefore turn to ourselves again as businesses to offer each other a helping hand: I've been working with the relatively new Todmorden Business Network to try and map and collate what support there might be for local business to make sure people don't miss out; a number of businesses have come together to form the world's first crowdfunding campaign for a collection of businesses; and I've also been trying to encourage the development of other forms of support - such as the Hit The Rocks fund from Enterprise Rockers.

But all of these things take time - time that we would normally be spending running our businesses and with our families.

The nature of works our home needs to be restored means that we can't live in it for potentially up to 6 months - as a family we're physically displaced until then.
Thankfully we have relatives along the valley who have been able to not only offer us spare beds, but also temporarily rearrange their rooms and own lives to offer us space and support over this period. As for working, I'm having to develop a new mindset of being more of a digital nomad and needing to factor in having less time that I'm used to owing to having to plan more carefully about where I can work from, travel arrangements, and such like. 

But life continues - it's a new lifestyle that we'll get used to eventually, and I know others are suffering far more than I.
But that doesn't stop it hurting when I'm with others who are talking about how to best support businesses and entrepreneurs affected by the flooding and I realise I'm sometimes the only one around the table that's living it...

So - this has been rather different to my usual posts here, but it isn't meant as a sob story or plea for alms, but rather a polite request to give anyone you meet over the next 6 months who's been affected by floods a little more patience and time while we resume 'normal service'.
Thank you.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

why I WILL be sending Christmas cards this year

Don’t worry – you read that title right: I AM sending real life, envelope and stamp, Christmas cards this year. And why is that a big deal? Because so many people aren’t and don’t as they’d “rather give to charity instead...

But isn’t making a gift to a charity in lieu of buying some cards and stamps is surely a good thing? Yes– any philanthropic gift to a charity is always a good idea, but why can’t you quietly get on with doing that throughout the year, instead of using it as an excuse not to send a personal greeting to clients and business partners?

I have an idea that publicly announcing your intent to make a gift to charity to everyone on your contacts email list is no more than a salve on your conscience, and a morally acceptable way of saying you can’t be bothered to take the time to organise a card to share with people how you’ve appreciated your relationship with them over the last year.

And there are many card suppliers who donate proportions of the proceeds of their sales to good causes, so you can send a card AND give to charity at the same time...

But I fully appreciate that organising cards, addressing envelopes, and such like takes time – and that our time is increasingly precious in light of the pressures we all face. But spending an hour of two sending out cards is an easy and powerful way to remind ourselves of how we’ve been blessed by, and been a source of encouragement to, others we’ve worked with over the last year. It helps us cultivate an attitude of gratefulness, and deepens our relationships.

So – I’ve stuffed my envelopes, written out the addresses, and licked the stamps... time to start sending my greetings of thanks and encouragement out across the communities and sectors I’ve walked alongside this year. 
But the question is who to send one to? There are so many people I come into contact with – so I’ve decided to base in on my having had a trading relationship with you: if money’s changed hands between us, you’re probably on the list. If not, we’ll share a drink and/or cake the next time we meet (but don’t worry – I won’t bring any mistletoe...)

updated 15 Dec - very pleased that my cards have now started to arrive with those that made it onto my list (and even more so with how excited they are to be getting them!):

Thursday, November 12, 2015

bonkers? why I'm staying as a sole trader, and not setting myself up as a limited company

Many freelancers and the self-employed are also limited companies – while this isn’t a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to go into business for themselves, many see it as an attractive option for all sorts of reasons including “tax efficiencies”, limiting personal risk, and being able to more easily engage with some procurement systems of other organisations so that they can do business with them.

But I chose a long time ago not to incorporate myself (despite the apparent benefits that doing so would offer me), and I thought it was about time as to why I ‘fessed up as to why this is:

  1. the tax question – although I don’t know of any empirical studies to back this assertion up, my perception is that most self-employed who incorporate themselves do so to take advantage of the different tax rules that apply to companies, and as such are able to reduce the extent of their earnings that are ‘lost’ to tax payments. But I actually feel quite privileged to be able to pay tax, and while I may not fully agree with how the government decides to spend it all, I like knowing that there’s money in the pot to pay for teachers at the schools my boys go to, for hospitals to be able to stay open, and for street lights to be able to stay turned on at night. It’s also a way that I can further manifest some of my Christian values – I can’t practically care for all of my neighbours in need everywhere, but through tax payments, I can know that there’s emergency help available to them when they might need it most (wherever they may be in the world).
  2. the risk question – given that in the eyes of the law, a company becomes a legal person in its own right, then if things start to go ‘pear shaped’, its the company that would take the hit not the individual person. And while this may be more appropriate for some with regards to the types of risk their business may entail, for me, I’d be concerned that it would start to make me less stringent with myself: after all, if I knew that if things didn’t work out I wouldn’t have to take legal responsibility for any fallout from clients, investors, etc, why should I try harder to make sure it works? 
  3. the ability to get work –oddly, most local authorities can’t directly commission me because of the way in which the rules they have to abide by work, yet national government departments and bodies have never had any issue with contracting with me... however, I am aware that in some instances, I can’t bid for contracts because I’m not the ‘right shape’ (i.e. not a company). But there are ways around this that I think are actually more beneficial in the long-term: I can collaborate and partner with other companies to jointly bid for these contracts, and in doing so build more mutual support and resilience into myself and other companies – better relationships all round, rather than trying to do everything by myself (and it can be lonely enough at the best of times in being a freelancer).

So there you have it – the reasons why I’ve no immediate desire to incorporate myself into a company (other than the hassle of the extra paperwork it would entail...)

But maybe I’ve missed the point somewhere? Would be very keen to hear from fellow freelancers and self-employed to know why they are/are not companies themselves...