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...

Saturday, October 10, 2015

crystal ball or disco ball?

One of the tough things about being an entrepreneur is however hard you try, you can never fully predict the future.

One of the other things about being an entrepreneur is that when you look back, you realise you've usually a lot of achievement to celebrate.

So which is more important to focus on having? - a crystal ball to try and second guess what everyone else is going to do next so we can sidestep the coming poop and make sure we're in the right place at the right time, or having a disco ball to remind us to celebrate our successes and renew our excitement for taking on whatever comes next?

Of course - it's not really an either/or question: we need to have both in whatever enterprises we create or are part of. The tricky part is not only reminding ourselves that we have them, but also to get them out from time to time.

(for the record - I take a disco ball to every startup I support as a gift to their first office warming party)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

turns out being one of the UK's top10 business advisors isn't as impressive as you might think...

One of the things that makes me a little unusual as a consultant is that wherever possible, I don't give my clients a bill - instead I prefer to work as an associate of other agencies who hold contracts with various funding bodies and can cover my fee on their behalf (a very equitable arrangement: groups can access the support they need, funders get their boxes ticked, and I get to keep the cats fed!).

And one of the bodies who I've been working with through this arrangement with for about 10 years now is the Plunkett Foundation - a body built on knowledge (rather than money), and who believe that democratic ownership and accountability of rural enterprises to/within their local communities makes them not only more sustainable, but more successful in addressing the social issues those communities face.

And although I've always had a good working relationship with them, I've never actually had any formal induction to 'the Plunkett way' - at least, not until now!
As part of their refreshing of their associate list and expanding this family of advisors who can be deployed throughout the country to support rural co-operative enterprises, they're having a roadshow to allow us to all start to meet each other (and get to grips with their new reporting systems!).

I was able to get to one of these events earlier this week, and (despite the lack of cake at lunchtime), found it a really enjoyable experience to be able to spend time with some of my peers and also reflect on the proud history and role Plunkett is committed to making today in improving rural lives together. It was also great to finally find out exactly what 'the Plunkett way' of doing this is, and to also realise that this family of Plunkett advisors I find myself being part of are a very exciting bunch. After all, where else would you find people who are:
- descendants of kings,
- tv celebrities,
- best selling authors,
- castle owners,
- vampire bat handlers,
- professional revolutionaries,
- football club club owners,
- supporters of Rochdale FC (the team my dad used to play for!),
- accidental train drivers,
- dog sitters for political party leaders, and
- speciality pig breeders?

I used to think that my opening professional introduction of being named as one of the UK's top10 business advisors was pretty impressive, but in light of the above, realise that there are far more exciting vocations and credits that get us excited. Thank goodness people are still calling me a 'social enterprise sex god' on twitter...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"we're going to sack our accountant and swear more..."

I had the pleasure this afternoon of spending time with the soon-to-be-graduating cohort of the School for Social Entrepreneurs North West's #scaleup programme - over the last year, this group of social entrepreneurs and social enterprise leaders have been exploring how they might best grow their respective ventures to create even more transformative impact in their local communities.

I'd structured my session with them to be largely open so as to offer anything that they might still need to learn with regards to specific pieces of information, contacts, and suggesting approaches to issues that they might not have considered before (including encouraging them all to watch Yes, Minister!). But principally I wanted to help them to formally reflect with each other on what they'd got out of being part of #scaleup, and what they'd be taking from it as they entered the next stages of their respective journeys, both personally and as an enterprise.

Many took the time to personally thank me as they left the session (always a good sign!), but what I felt was most useful from the session from my perspective was asking them all to share what one thing they'd now learnt that they didn't know when they woke up this morning, or one thing that they'd now do as a result of the day. This helps me understand the impact I've had, and while some of their responses were encouraging, I can't help wondering if I may have (accidentally) gone too far with some of them...

  • we're going to find a social investor
  • we're going to apply to Power to Change
  • I'm going to start claiming more allowable expenses from HMRC (specially in relation to mileage rates for bicycles)
  • we're going to change our accountant
  • we're going to apply for Social Enterprise Investment Scheme tax relief
  • we're going to apply for membership of Locality
  • we're going to make changes to our financial management
  • I'm going to eat more salad
  • I'm going to go 'back to basics'
  • I'm going to swear more

What social entrepreneurs personally gained from being part of the programme

How social enterprises have benefitted from being part of the programme