A basic lesson in business from the Apprentice.

So the Apprentice is back on our TV screens and with it the usual lessons in how not do do business! The first episode saw the teams challenged to buy fish at Billingsgate market and to sell it at a profit, the group that made the biggest profit would win. This is a basic business principle that every would be entrepreneur should be able to master but one group failed miserably. I think there are three key lessons that every business owner needs to remember:

  • Buy at the right price
  • Control costs
  • Be where the customers are

Buy at the right price

We saw the losing team manager buy a significant amount of fish from the first supplier they spoke to at the price the vendor wanted to charge! We should always shop around or at least know the market rate and then haggle. If you know what others are charging for an equivalent product you have a good starting point for your negotiations.

Control costs

Having bought their fish at an inflated price our losers then went on to make the most enormous fishcakes ‘because that’s what the specification said’. This meant that they couldn’t keep their costs down to the level where they could make a profit. It’s a mistake I often see in start-up businesses. Every time you add a little extra this or that your profit margin is compromised unless there is scope to put up your prices to cover the additional costs.

Be where your customers are.

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There’s a time when people want to eat lunch and a time when it’s too late. Lunch has to be ready when your customers want to eat.

Probably the biggest mistake that our hapless losers made was taking too long to prepare their dishes so that they missed the lunchtime trade. You can’t make money when no-one wants to buy. Could you be guilty of taking too long to get to market with your idea because you want it to be perfect or because you aren’t prepared to invest in the help that will get your product or service out there? It’s an easy mistake to make but a good product delivered on time will make more money than a perfect product launched when the market has already been satisfied.

Did you spot any more lessons in this episode? Why not share them here?

I’m sure I’ll be returning to the Apprentice for more blog posts in the coming weeks that is if they don’t drive me to mad first!

How to make the most of your holiday to develop your business, part 2

They say travel broadens the mind. Time away from the coalface will give you a new perspective on your business and possibly on your life. A holiday gives you time to think, to read and to reflect. So here are a few more tips on using your holiday to give your business a bit of a boost.

Holidays can give us a fresh perspective on life and business.

Holidays can give us a fresh perspective on life and business.

Read a book or three

Holidays give us more chance for reading than any other time of year. I’m not suggesting reading heavy tomes or text books but business books can be entertaining. Read that biography you were thinking about, so

me of Richard Branson’s books are inspirational, I enjoyed Golden Apples by Bill Cullen (Ireland’s Alan Sugar) and am currently fascinated by Steve Harrison’s introduction to Howard Gossage. Read a classic like Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ or Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’.

Take a look on Amazon’s website for some inspiration. You might even find some free books for your I-Pad or Kindle. I’m currently ploughing my way through Napoleon Hill’s classic ‘Think & Grow Rich’ which is widely available at no cost.

The beauty about reading on holiday is that we have time to process what we are reading. We can take our time to reflect and learn.

Take time to think

Research by the University of California, San Diego says that the average American consumes 100,500 words in an average day! No wonder that information overload is said to make our thinking shallow. Holidays are a time to get away from information overload and give us space to think in more depth. They allow ideas the space to play around in our minds and to take form and shape.

There’s not a lot you can do on a flight, or sitting in traffic jams, on train journeys etc but we can use the time to think or to read (unless you are the driver). A lazy day on the beach can clear clutter from our thought processes. Use that notebook I talked about in my last post to capture your good ideas and then get on with chillaxing.

And finally…

You never know who you are going to meet on holiday so just in case you meet potential customers, joint venture partners or investors make sure you have some business cards with you. Then get on with have a relaxing time, you’ll return with recharged batteries ready to build your business with renewed vigour. Have a great time.

Is it time to shut up and listen?

This week Zeeshan Shah heard the inevitable words, ‘You’re Fired’ as he was booted off the BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’. Few disputed Lord Sugar’s decision. Shah had to go because he was the Project Manager on the losing team. His team lost because Shah knew it all and was too arrogant to listen to other people’s ideas. The episode really brought home how important listening skills are in business.

Line art of a screech owl.

A wise owl knows how to listen.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You probably know the poem:

“A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”

The wise old owl knew a thing or two about listening. Listening is such a vital skill it’s worth making an effort to perfect it. If we don’t listen effectively how will we understand our customers, our prospects, our staff or our nearest and dearest?

As American chat show host Larry King said, ‘I never learned anything whilst I was talking.’ So why do so many people think they need to talk all the time? Try talking and listening at the same time, it’s even more difficult than rubbing the tummy and patting the head in unison! What right do we have to do all the talking? I get particularly cross with those people who ask a question and then carry on talking without waiting for an answer.

Effective communication is a two way process and in most instances it requires active participation and an exchange of information by both parties. Listening effectively is hard to do. According to research we think at between 500 and 800 words per
minute and yet we speak at just 125 to 130! The natural tendency is to let our brains wander instead of listening properly. We might be contemplating what we’re going to eat or do in the evening; we may be thinking about our shopping or to do lists; we may be planning our response. We may be thinking that the speaker is an idiot! Whatever else we are doing we are not fully concentrating on the message.

We may also fail to listen because, like Zeeshan, we think we know it all, that we have nothing more to learn. Wrong! There is always something we can learn. Sometimes we need to be reminded of something we once knew but have forgotten.

If we don’t focus on our listening we can miss something really important. It might be the clue that allows us to make a big sale. It might be a cry for help. It might be our light bulb moment. But if we’re not listening we’ll miss it!

The advantages of developing acute listening skills are tremendous in life in general and in business. Very few people are really good at listening so an exceptional listener can give a business a competitive advantage. It is by listening carefully that we know what our customers really want and can tailor our sales pitch to show them how we can deliver. It is by listening carefully that we can hear the message our staff want us to hear and take appropriate action before a major problem develops. It is by listening carefully that we can spot business development opportunities.

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

Ernest Hemmingway

So I’m off to listen with a bit more care and attention. I wonder what new discoveries await me? What about you, will you spend just a bit more time listening?

It’s not a good idea Melody!

Did you watch week 9 of the Apprentice on BBC1? It was another pressurised task to develop, brand and pitch a new biscuit in two days. Yet again there were a number of lessons in business.

As part of the task the teams were allocated a focus group with whom to test out their ideas. Tom suggested an ’emergency biscuit’. It bombed. He dropped it. Melody suggested the new ‘popcorn’. It bombed. She said the focus group didn’t know what they were talking about!

Last week Melody pushed through her idea because four people agreed with her. This week she said 11 people didn’t know what they were talking about because they rubbished her idea.

Melody’s mistake is one we can all make. We get an idea. We think it’s great. We nurture it. We develop it. It consumes all our waking thoughts. Then we research it and people tell us it won’t work, they don’t like it, they wouldn’t buy it and we don’t want to listen. But listen we must. An idea is not a good one just because we think it is!

There’s not much point in research if we don’t listen to it. If people don’t like our idea we need to find out why. By asking questions and being open to the answers we might well find we can adapt our original idea into a much better product or business.

So Melody start listening to what people are telling you and take note or the next thing you’ll hear is, ‘Melody, You’re fired’! And if you have a great idea just make sure your target market agrees with you or you could be pouring money and time down the drain.

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The Apprentice teaches us another lesson in marketing

Week 2 of the Apprentice saw the teams challenged to design and market an app for a smart ‘phone. The winning team would be the one that got the most downloads.

To most people’s astonishment the girl’s team won. Why? Because they got the fundamental rule of marketing right, they designed a product that a big enough audience wanted.

On the face of it it was the boys who got the marketing right. Their presentation wowed the audience at a UK fair. They created a buzz and engaged with their prospects. They bribed people with doughnuts. They got two influential websites to feature their app. Their words seemed enticing.

Meanwhile the girls did a lack lustre presentation. They didn’t capture the imagination at the fair. Even they thought they’d lost. However they did get featured on the most influential ezine.

When it came to the final figures the girls’ stats blew the boys right out of the water. The girls had designed an app which had a more global appeal and their marketing copy described the benefits of the app in the first sentence. The boys on the other hand had designed an app which some saw as potentially offensive and their copy sold the name not the benefit.

So what are the lessons we can take into our own businesses?

  • Ensure a big enough market wants your product or service
  • Tell people immediately how they will benefit from that product or service. Answer the question ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • It doesn’t matter how clever your marketing is, if the product is wrong people won’t buy it
  • Look at your product or service from the customer’s point of view, what might concern them? Could it be seen as offensive, discriminatory or out of date?
  • Prospects are not interested in your name until they are interested in your product so use persuading copy to convince them first and then tell them who you are.

It will be interesting to see how this series of the Apprentice develops with its new emphasis on starting a business. I suspect there will be more lessons featured in future blog posts. If you missed this episode it is available on BBC iPlayer.

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Are you missing business right under your nose?

You know how it is, a random series of events sometimes makes you sit up and think.

I had a couple of hours to kill between meetings the other day so I popped into the Oxfam bookstore and bought a copy Bill Cullen’s book ‘Golden Apples’. (For those who don’t know, Bill is Ireland’s answer to Sir Alan Sugar. He’s one of 14 kids raised in the tenements of Dublin. He was out on the streets selling apples and more from the age of 6 and by sheer hard work and dogged determination has become a multi-millionaire) In the book Bill tells the story about going on his weekly visit to his favourite restaurant where the owner was celebrating her purchase of a new Ford car. Bill wanted to know why she hadn’t bought it from him. Answer: she didn’t know he sold Ford cars!

That struck a chord with me as, at about the same time, I was telling one of my clients about the Job Seeking skills training I had been delivering for another client. He said, ‘I didn’t know you did that.’ Now I’m sure that at some time in the dim and distant past I must have mentioned my recruitment background because it was something he might be interested in but as far as my client was concerned I deliver training for small and start up businesses.

Shortly after I was in a briefing meeting with another client, a BNI member, who said ‘The trouble is I’m not sure they really understand what I do’.

The morale of these stories is that our marketing plans need to include some regular reminders of the full range of our services and we need to tell everyone, not just our business contacts and prospects. How many of us lose out on business opportunities from family, friends and associates because they don’t really understand what we can do for people.

We can’t cram all the messages into our elevator pitches or weekly one minutes so we need another way. Newsletters online or in print and regular blogs are a great way of telling people what we do without making it a hard sell. By sharing a story about some work we’ve done for one client we allow others to identify opportunities for us to help them or their associates. The added benefit is that we can give our client some additional publicity which might help them win more business too, an added bonus.

So you might like to know that, in addition to training and business advice, I write newsletters and articles for clients. I’ve written newsletters for Skillsmart Retail, Northfields Estate Agents, Conker Consulting, South Leytonstone Business Support Team amongst others and have had articles published in a board sports magazine as well as a variety of business and community publications. So if you would like some help in increasing people’s awareness of what you do email glenda.shawley@thetrainingpack.co.uk or call Glenda on 020 8991 2767.

Incidentally Bill Cullen’s book is a really good read.

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