Tuesday, November 8, 2016

statistically speaking, turns out I really am "better than your average consultant"!

As someone who’s self-employed with no line management, one of my challenges is trying to figure out just how good I really am – client testimonials are great feedback (and always appreciated), but I recognise they’re also very subjective. For example, not everyone likes marmite – and I’m aware that not everyone appreciates my approach at times (as evidenced by the rare occasions when my bendy people[1] have been thrown back at me during training courses I’ve delivered…)

And this desire to reflect truly on my ability isn’t just for vanity’s sake – as a freelancer I need to know how I can best pitch myself to clients, and I also need to know where I should focus the investments I’m able to make in myself, to further enhance the service I can offer to said clients.

That’s why I’m always keen to find ways to benchmark myself against my peers and others. Earlier this year, this saw me publicly share the results of my having my approach to reporting my impact compared against the internationally agreed principles of social accounting[2] – pleased report that compared with other consultants, and enterprises of a similar size to me, I seem to be well ahead of most others out there doing work around impact reporting.

It’s also why I try and offer my services through third parties and funded programmes – having an impartial project manager or broker between myself and a client can offer a more objective view of my services and performance. This is because they’ll have similar pieces of work to that I’ve undertaken to compare me against. One such programme is Big Potential[3] – offering awards to social enterprises to allow them to ‘buy in’ specialist support from the likes of me, in their ambitions for growth and in exploring the relevance of social investment as part of those aspirations.
Unusually for such funded programmes, Big Potential annually publish a ‘performance table’[4] of all us consultants who it engages with, in supporting social enterprises. While this is a relatively simplistic table of measures (the number of our clients we’ve support to apply for awards from the programme vs. the number of those clients they’ve agreed should be supported by their chosen provider), it’s nonetheless a useful reference in offering another of the types of benchmarks that I’m looking for.
And the latest table reveals a few interesting themes when I looked at the figures – I seem to be the only active freelance consultant on the approved provider list (the others being larger firms), and there’s no correlation between how many clients a provider supports the applications of, and the likelihood of them being awarded support for them:



Oh – and running the numbers to create some simple averages, it seems that I’ve supported more than the typical average number of clients to apply to this programme, and they’ve had a greater than average success rate when I have!

So – as well as (most of) my clients saying nice things about how much they enjoy my working with them, there’s also a growing body of statistical data that shows I’ve better than the average consultant.

My mum will be pleased.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Todmorden time capsules

I've always been a strong advocate of story telling as a great means to help share ideas and learning, and also of local networking - local businesses supporting each other. So the recent meeting of the Todmorden Business Network was doubly exciting for me, as a range of businesses based in and around Todmorden came together to share their stories of what they've learned in running their businesses that they wish they could go back and tell their younger selves about.

The Futuro House in Todmorden, 1971
I thought it would be useful to capture these as a snapshot of the wisdom of the local business community I'm part of. Sharing it here hopefully means that others will be encouraged and supported, but it's also something that the Network can revisit in future years to see if the lessons we're learning are changing, or if despite the new management theories that always seem to be coming out form some university or other, the way we do business together, and the issues we face remains consistent.

So - our advice to our younger selves:

  • listen to your gut more - be bold!
  • you don't need a business plan (I've always argued this one too) - it's OK to make it up as you go along
  • it's a roller coaster (and will make you feel sick at times...) - dare to be brave!
  • don't be afraid to ask for advice - don't let your pride get in the way of letting other people help you
  • you'll have more bosses that you did before in the form of all your customers
  • don't be too cheap - don't undervalue yourself, and recognise the full extent of the time you're spending on making your products and running your business
  • don't waste your money on consultants - pick and choose who to spend your money on, and what's important to you (rather than them)
  • understanding basic bookkeeping and accounting is far more important that you realise
  • just because you have a passion for it doesn't automatically mean other people will pay for it
  • your friends won't tell you the truth - they're there to encourage you, not to be your customers
  • always be kind - compromising isn't a sign of weakness
  • success doesn't come overnight
  • don't believe what letting agents and landlords tell you - if you're taking on retail premises, check the local footfall for yourself
And what we'd tell our younger selves to avoid doing at all costs:

 - Don't pay for (online) advertising; use networking, social media, and PR instead
 - Don't try and work from home: there are far too many distractions
 - Don't waste time trying to get government funded support: the best advice you'll get is from other businesses
 - Don't be afraid to stand your ground with larger customers who want to start to change agreed terms
 - Don't try and do it all yourself
 - Don't go anywhere without a spare pair of trousers/skirt (that one's mine...)
 - Don't work with family or friends
 - Don't put off having tough conversations with people


The Network currently meets the first Tuesday of every month from 6pm at the Fielden Centre in Todmorden, and thanks to sponsorship from others has no charge for membership or attending its events - 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

why your business should try and pay more suppliers by cheque

I'm aware that this blog's title is likely to make most people think that I've definitely lost the plot when it comes to business sense, but bear with me and I'll see if I can suggest a few ideas that will make you at least pause to reconsider...

As with some of my other posts here that I'm inspired to write, this one started with something that someone else posted on their blog about why as businesses we should all stop paying by cheque. When I questioned them on twitter, they threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to come up with why we should, in fact, stick with this old fashioned payment mechanism.

So, Ed Goodman, here are the reasons why I always try and continue to pay my suppliers by cheque. I've offered them as response to each of your arguments on your blog, so our readers can follow our debates more easily:


1 - it can hurt cashflow
Ed's right to say that if we pay by cheque we've no control over when/if the supplier will cash it, and that might mean our cashflow hits some very tight moments if cheques aren't paid in quickly. 
However... if we're on top of our business' finances, we should always have at least a rough idea of what our available bank balance is (which would include any uncashed payments), what we're owed, what we owe other people. 
As such, we should have some idea of any suppliers who don't seem to have drawn on our payment which can offer us an excuse to ring them up. And such a conversation would surely rekindle and strengthen our relationship with them - after all, how many of your customers do you know who take an interest in your financial health?

2 - it still costs money to pay
Again, Ed's on the money with this point. Most business bank accounts charge for you to write a cheque and stamps aren't getting any cheaper.
However, any business should always be striving for a good, close relationship with their bank, so you can likely 'renegotiate' (haggle) some of the charges that your bank would otherwise be applying to your account.
As for the price of a stamp - everyone would agree that the royal mail is a vital part of our local communities and home lives, so why should we try and avoid using it to help maintain the service for the wider good of all through making sure posties wages can be paid and sorting offices kept open?

3 - think of your supplier
Receiving a cheque means a trip to the bank to pay it in. It's an excuse to visit the high street, offer some passing trade to fellow local enterprises while we're there, and to help make sure that our local bank branches stay open by keeping them in use.
However, just as it's important to try and engage with customers on their preferred terms, we also need to try and maintain good relationships with our suppliers. To that end, I always ask them how they'd like to be paid, rather than make assumptions about them.

and one more thing (maybe two)...
And my reason number 4 as to why I like to keep writing cheques - it's an elegant tradition, like the meeting for coffee or introducing contacts to each other at networking events. In an increasingly ever changing world, it seems to offer some familiarity and custom that we can all agree on, and traditions are important to maintain as part of our shared identify and values.

Finally... when was the last time you got an envelope through the post that wasn't a bill? It's always a little exciting to get a cheque with our name of it!



Ultimately, this will come down to personal choice for everyone running their own business as to how they choose to manage and administer it. People like Ed and I can offer our views and ideas, drawing upon our own experiences and insights, but ultimately it's your business, not ours. What I try and hope to do through posts like this is to help offer some debate and alternative perspective to help you make better informed decisions.


Monday, October 24, 2016

accidentally becoming a 'specialist masseur'...

Over the last few weeks, I've been slowly moving bits of furniture, crates of files, and boxes of books by hand across Todmorden's town centre - not (just) for the exercise, but because I've recently taken on an 'office suite'!
My "working office" is now not only 2 rooms, but also a corridor and exclusive toilet (up to now, I was renting a single room on a 3rd floor with no lift and shared everything...). 

So why the move and commitment to additional costs at a time when according to various surveys business confidence is low, owners are looking to cut costs, and the general scene is gloomy for most small businesses - especially in my home town where many enterprises are still struggling to recover from the floods that hit us 10 months ago?

Well, there's a few reasons I thought it was important to invest in larger premises at this time:

1 - the room I was renting was getting a 'bit full'...

2 - if other businesses are struggling its because people aren't spending money. And people aren't spending money because they see other businesses struggling... by making a public show of 'moving up', I can hopefully help instil a little more confidence in the wider business community

3 - the premises had been vacant since the start of the year. In being based in the middle of the town, empty properties make for unappealing vistas for people and visitors, which makes it a less enjoyable place to live, work, and visit (see point 2)

4 - it's an excuse to hold an office warming party (invites going out soon...): a reason for some impromptu networking and unashamed self-publicity

5 - I have an idea that these particular offices also enhance my brand of being "not your typical consultant": the previous tenants used the rooms to offer specialist massage therapies, and the windows are largely still signed to reflect this... there was something about being named as one the of the UK's top enterprise advisors and apparently working out of a massage parlour that seemed too good an opportunity not to pass on...

There's also a 6th reason, which I suspect only some of you will get if you can spot the reference from what my 'new address' is... 

Monday, September 26, 2016

debt, decommissioning, and death - the dark side of social entrepreneurship...

As a sector, social enterprise always seems to be talking about upbeat and positive stories - you never really hear about chief execs running off with pension funds, administrators foreclosing the business causing the loss of hundreds of jobs, or things like the government having to bail them out...

And I've an idea that that's because as a sector, there's a lot of political agenda being acted out, and that's led to a sense that we can't talk about failure or difficulty - because that would go against the narrative that the sector is trying to present to the wider world.

But that's surely a dangerous thing? If we're not open about the 'tough stuff" that goes on - the failures, the losses, the pain, then how can we hope to develop a generation of social entrepreneurs who are truly realistic about the marketplaces that they're leading their ventures into, and what may be asked of them personally if they're to be able to make a success of it all?

There are signs of hope though - the rise of "FuckUp nights", a model of support to help entrepreneurs recover from failure, that we've imported from our American cousins. And I was also greatly encouraged from recently being able to participate in part of a 12 month national programme of support for social entrepreneurs: all the ventures being supported through the programme meet together once a month and the first thing they do is share what they've been struggling with - not as a ploy to gain faux sympathies, but as a powerful model to build supportive relationships through showing vulnerability, and allowing opportunities for their peers to reciprocate by sharing in turn when they've faced similar and how they tried to deal with it.

And the struggles people share aren't what you might expect based on the messages and stories usually coming out of the sector - it's a hard shock to some to hear about:

  • how fellow entrepreneurs have found themselves taking on debt that they now can't repay; 
  • how despite the push for us all to pursue public sector contracts, those services we win and deliver are being increasingly decommissioned, leaving ventures with a business model that no longer works and no obvious way to continue the support they've been able to offer; 
  • and the loneliness of being an entrepreneur when a close family member dies - working the grief and pain that's felt, while at the same time trying to also keep a fledgling venture running and support its staff and clients...


Social enterprise, like any other form of business, is tough. And we're surely only setting up future social entrepreneurs to fail if we don't encourage each other to be more open and honest about how tough it can really be sometimes?

Monday, September 5, 2016

How far is my social impact reporting really 'fit for purpose'...?

Most people may be aware that to my knowledge I’m the only freelance consultant globally to openly and annually publish a social impact report on myself. And while it attracts widespread interest and applause every time I do, I always struggle to make sense of how well the framework I’ve developed is ‘fit for purpose’ (there is no reporting standard for sole traders), and how far I should take pride in my ‘results’ (no other freelance consultants’ generate impact reports to hold mine against).

While I’ve started to make some firm plans for addressing the bench-marking of results question from next year, I took the opportunity to take the Social Value Self Assessment Tool to see how well I’ve actually thought through my framework, measures, and overall approach - https://socialvalueselfassessmenttool.org

Like all ‘multiple choice quizzes’ there’s some assumptions and bias in the questions which I recognise – it assumes that you’re incorporated with staff (I’m not), that you have ongoing contact with a core group of customers (I very rarely do), and that you have a small number of activities you offer support through (I have lots…). However, it’s a useful starting point and echoes some of what I already suspected: that I’m highly transparent, but struggle to engage stakeholders over the long-term and so have access to wider data sets to help identify how far my contributions contributed to the final generated impacts clients tell me about:



So – an overall ‘score’ of 56% may not seem great. But the tool allows you to benchmark your overall result against a number of others by sector, turnover, and type of activity.

Bench-marking my result against these others in this way suddenly shows that actually 56% means I’m still showing leading practice in how I’m going about reporting my social impacts:
  • Similar aged businesses to mine = 30%
  • Private businesses in general = 31%
  • Other businesses with a similar turnover to me = 34%
  • Other businesses offering enterprise support = 21%
  • All UK based organisations = 33%


So – all in all, still room for improvement (which stops me getting complacent), but potentially ‘top of the class’?


Thursday, August 25, 2016

48 hours in London

We’ve all had the same offer from people – “it’d be great to chat some more, let me know the next time you’re in town...” But how often do we actually follow up on those invitations? And how many contacts do we have on LinkedIn and Twitter were we only know the person by the thumbnail picture in their profile? (and would you recognise those people when they subsequently grow beards or shave their hair and don’t update those same pictures… you know who you are, Ian and John ;-) And yet we’d all agree that businesses succeed or fail on the quality of the relationships that they (we) have with others.

So this summer I tried an experiment (as is the prerogative of being self-employed). I arranged to be in London for 48 hours, and started to put out word to some of those contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter to see who might be around and interested in meeting up for a chat and drink.

And just about everyone I reached out to directly replied – some to say that they were sadly away on their hols “but next time you’re in town…”, others to say that their diaries were already overflowing with other commitments, and some to suggest times and places.

I did a running commentary of each of the meetups on twitter and Instagram as I worked through my ‘dancecard’, but now I’m sitting on the train back to Todmorden to resume ‘normal service’, I’m reflecting on the experience and a few things seem to have stuck with me:

- It was cheaper to do than I thought it might have been: advance train tickets, budget hotels (which included breakfast!), and travel cards for the underground all came to about just over £200. And in being able to meet up with 9 people in that time, that seems to be a good cost ratio.

- Asking people I was meeting for their suggestions meant that I got to discover parts of London that I never knew existed (who knew that there was a ‘museum of happiness’ in Tower Hamlets?). And I never thought I’d ever find myself having lunch in Canary Wharf alongside some of the country’s ‘big city bankers’…

- It can be very isolating being a freelancer, so the opportunity to ask peers about their experiences with certain types of client or work is a useful ‘sanity checker’. However, there are some conversations that are difficult to have by phone or email unless you’re sitting with the person over a pint...

- It is possible to engineer serendipity: through ‘chewing the cud’ in general, conversations started to spark ideas and options that would otherwise never have occurred to us separately, and they in turn start to lead to new things emerging in the world that benefit far more people than myself and person I was sharing cake with at the time

- There were some surprising moments where my reputation preceded me: people I was meeting with had invited others who had heard such tales about me that they wanted to have their picture taken with me to mark the occasion! (don’t worry – I still don’t knowingly allow a serious picture of me to be taken…


- Having a backup battery pack for my phone was crucial: maps and other apps for navigating myself, snapping pics, and such like can quickly suck your phone’s battery life

- But sadly there wasn’t enough cake by a long shot…



And now it’s back to catch up with emails, messages, post, and such like, I find myself asking the question “was it worth it?”.

I think it was, and judging to some of the tweets and comments to my Instagram posts by others during the 48 hours, others seemed to think so too. 
The chance to step back from the usual day to day distractions and chat with others without an agenda was also very liberating and allowed me to reflect on some of my own ideas and approaches in ways that I wouldn’t normally have had opportunity to.

So would I do it again? 
I’m already wondering which 48 hours next year might be a good time to come back so if you missed me this time, I’m open to suggestions…