A Mentor: Your Business Buddy?

Teacher We often need a helping hand when facing the challenges of life. Cast your mind back to your school days. Remember your favourite teacher? The one who made learning fun, listened to your opinions, guided you through what was required to understand a subject and ultimately succeed. (Thank you Mr Fuller, I was a lost cause until you helped me!)

Now, as adults, we face different challenges but still need that same kind of person in our business life. The majority of owner-managed businesses are built on personal knowledge and although it may have brought a degree of success, how much more could be achieved with some one-on-one ‘tutoring’ and guidance from someone with complimentary skills and knowledge?

So, how do you go about finding the right person to help grow your business?

Mentors, Business Coaches or Business Consultants ?

In the way that ‘entrepreneur’ seems to have replaced ‘business owner’ as a description; ‘Mentor’ is now the buzz word of the moment. Don’t confuse mentors with coaches or consultants.

Business Coaches tend to help you see the big picture but don’t necessarily offer the solutions. Many business coaches don’t have any coaching qualifications but have expertise in a specific area, although not always in business. There are some great business coaches in the UK but beware of those simply offering motivational or ideological guidance. (Confusingly many of the business advisors at the Enterprise Agencies refer to themselves as business coaches yet offer far more than motivational support.) Coaches mainly enable you to ask the right questions then encourage you to find your own solutions. If you do find a coach that interests you, get several references from people you trust or establish their business experience and history first.

Business Consultants tend to be more hands on than a coach. They usually come from a clear business background and have specialist skill sets eg: export strategies, logistical expertise, sales and marketing or finance. A good business consultant should also have a good ‘all-round’ understanding of business processes and strategy. When considering a consultant it is advisable to ask about experience in your sector, industry or type of business. This is not always essential however, they are more likely to offer valuable insights on competitors, potential USP’s and help you develop a clearer understanding of what works and does not work in your industry.

Business Mentors are harder to define and are almost a hybrid of a business consultant, coach and business partner. A good mentor offers personal and professional development whilst providing assistance in other skill areas by sharing expertise and knowledge. A good mentor will provide some of the strategic and analytical expertise that a business consultant offers but will help to facilitate a broader understanding of growing the business and yourself. Ideally you should also look for a mentor who has experience in your sector.

Hand HoldUK Business Mentors – Where To Start?

MentorsMe – In July 2011 the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) in conjunction with the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) launched Mentorsme.co.uk to help UK companies find mentoring organisations and individuals. The Government’s aim was to have a network of 26,000 mentors by September 2012. A bold initiative with mixed success.

Now in 2014 Mentorsme provides basic information on 115 organisations offering both free and paid-for mentoring across the UK and apparently represents a national network of 27,000 mentors. This is obviously a great start however we at YBM had some doubts on these figures. We conducted test searches on their website (using ‘mentors for a growing company’) in each UK region. The results tended to only highlight one or two providers for each region and links only highlighted paid-for services. There was no evidence that there is even 1,000 mentors involved (nevermind 20,000) and contary to Government statements on mentoring networks; none were free.

IoEE – More transparent is The Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs which is a not-for-profit company run by SFEDI who originally ran the qualification process for the GetMentoring campaign. The transparency again is not about the numbers of mentors available but the fact that their mentors must have at least a Level 2 qualification in enterprise support. You need to sign–up as a member to access the service and pay £50 per annum to be an Associate Member, although they are currently offering Affiliate Membership which is free for the first 12 months.

National Enterprise Network – Previously the Federation for Enterprise Agencies, NEN represent 72 of the UK’s non-for-profit enterprise agencies. Not to be confused with LEPs these are limited companies, often financed by local partnerships of councils, chambers of commerce and local business. They provide help and support for small and growing businesses plus start-ups and most have been locally established for many years. The vast majority employ permanent enterprise coaches/advisors as well as offer training, events and in some cases access to finance. Although few of the agencies use the phrase ‘mentors’ they offer business advice services that provide the same function and are quite often free for a certain period of time. Speaking with their Chief Executive recently they have a target to offer 1,000 free mentors by 2018.

Nesta – the independent charity for innovation and investment have developed the Creative Business Mentor Network which provides access to a large number of commercially successful, experienced business mentors who help creative companies build business success in a short time. They mainly help established creative UK companies who have a minimum of three years trading and a minimum turnover of £1m. Not for everyone but it is not just start-ups or sole traders who need mentors.

The Prince’s Trust – If you are between the ages of 18-30 then one of the longest standing mentoring schemes (30 years) is obviously The Prince’s Trust. Enrolement for their support has strict guidelines but each mentor has committed to a minimum of four to six hours per month for two years and there are no costs attached. This is one of the truelly alteuristic schemes available.

Virgin StartUp – One of the newer schemes comes from Virgin StartUp who specialize in start-up finance but crucially have a mentorship network to provide support and advice to those who have registered. We have not found many details on this so far as it is a new service but in the words of Sir Richard “Whenever I am asked what is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one, mentoring comes to mind. If you are looking to make your way in business, try to find a mentor.

Finally, The Association of Business Mentors is an independent, not-for-profit organisation who aims to inspire and champion excellence in business mentoring. Whilst aiming to champion standards in the business mentoring profession the interesting point is that they also aim to “Unite the mentoring industry by promoting collaboration and build a network of strategic alliances and relationships”. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction as the marketplace is currently very fragmented. As a fledgling organisation there are some issues which hopefully they will iron out as the website is mainly geared towards the mentors rather than the people who would need their services although they have recently upgraded their mentor search facility with a basic geographic search and a handful of industry sector queeries. Possibly one organisation to keep an eye on but currently appears to be more of a trade association format rather than trying to serve small business owners.

Do You Need A Mentor?

Just about every business at some point in it’s development cycle needs external advice. If major corporates employ consultants, strategists and team development companies then the answer for small business owners has to be “Yes”. The dividing line between a consultant and a mentor seems to be about emotion. Someone who knows what is best for your business but cares about you and your future, rather than just taking a fee and walking away.

Part of the issue at the moment is that there is a lot of pre-election hype about mentors offering their services for free. To some extent this is true as there are a handful of alteuristic individuals who will do this however, the majority will give a free consultation but if you need their services over a long period of time you will need to pay. Finding the right person who respects your business and who you respect could make the difference between growth and stagnation.

Mentors … the new description of business consultants with a heart ?

Need Sales To Grow But Lack Resources or Experience?

surprisedFew businesses start out because the owner is a great salesperson. Most owners will have a specific skill or passion that makes the business a sound proposition … if only they could convince people to buy from them. Alternatively, they may have a sales team but need to temporarily boost activity to cover a new market, launch a new product or simply to cover prospects outside your normal working hours (eg: selling to international markets.)

Recruiting permanent sales staff can be expensive (although it is cheaper than it used to be) and the process takes time, particularly if after the interview process your chosen hire has to work notice with an existing employer. Finally, sometimes sales people just do not ‘work out’ and then you have to go through the whole process again, spend more money and lose valuable time instead of selling your service or product.

Bring In A Professional Mercenary

So, you are looking for immediacy, flexibility, scalability and above all, sales professionalism. Time to call in an A-Team of quality commission-only sales agents. The ‘pay-on-performance’ sales industry has been around for well over a hundred years and is popular across many industries as a cost-effective alternative to hiring in-house sales staff.

There are many reasons why you should consider using independent sales agents.

  • Lower overheads and financial risk associated than taking on employees
  • Enter new or broader markets with someone who already has experience in the marketplace
  • You can employ more than one agent at a time and build a whole new team with specific skills
  • You can quickly replace under-performing sales people or those that do not fit in with your company ethos
  • You can manage cash-flow more effectively as you are only paying on what they actually sell

As Steven Hamm from Bloomberg’s Businessweek righty noted, “Companies are willing to outsource their back office operations. So, why not the salesforce?”

External Sales Is About Outsourcing Expertise

Outsourcing your sales is no different to more commonplace outsourcing activities such as accounting, legal services or HR. Ryan Mattock, co-founder of CommissionCrowd, suggests that businesses can make the mistake of “hiring” and “managing” sales agents in the way they would an in-house employee. “Wise companies approach commission-only sales partnerships in the same way they would any other relationship with an external contractor who is paid upon completion of services, an accountant or lawyer for example.”

Experienced sales agents tend to already have many contacts within particular markets and industries. Essentially this means you can tap into a sales rep’s existing network and expand your reach very quickly. An example of this in action was when Intel bought Digital Equipment Corp’s semiconductor business – they used outside sales professionals to sell three lines of products in markets where its normal salesforce had no experience or contacts.

Bob Alesio, sales director of AMCI (a global manufacturer of industrial control systems) outsources his entire sales function: “Contracting independent manufacturer’s reps allows us to manage our salesforce costs in relationship to growth vs significant upfront costs associated with employed sales representatives”.

Agents are obviously not only the preserve of small and micro-enterprises.

Commission-Only Sales Agents

“Commission-only” can conjure up images of someone who’s desperate to get work, where in reality the reverse is true. Many are self-employed professionals with many years experience and are so confident of their ability to close sales that a salary is not their priority. They enjoy the flexibility of freelancing, the opportunity to pick & choose their clients and earning money on every sale they close.

Ryan Mattock and Laura McGregor believe they have also solved the problematic issues of  finding quality commission-only sales agents, managing their activity in remote locations and helping businesses attract the best sales agents. “We’ve solved all these issues with CommissionCrowd by simplifying the process for both the sales agents and the employer. However, some businesses will need to understand that they are trying to appeal to professional sales people who know their worth and will not just work for anyone. They can be very discerning about what they sell and who they are working for because they only make money from successful sales.”

Attracting Quality Commission-Only Sales Agents

Keith Crispin, a self-employed sales agent for over 30 years, explains the main reason for deciding to become self-employed was “the desire to use my professional contacts to earn more, but also I like the freedom to be in charge of my own destiny”.

Understanding how to work effectively with an independent sales rep is one of the key things sales agents look for when considering your company’s opportunity, explains Laura McGregor, “We’ve spent a lot of time talking with self-employed sales agents and one of the most consistent messages we hear is that they want to work with companies who understand how to do business with them.”

Following extensive research of CommissionCrowd’s registered users they have put together a useful guide to understanding commission-only sales agents and how to attract them to your business. Download your free Guide To Working With Sales Agents here.


Finale of #BusinessPlanningWeek – Your Executive Summary

BPW Logo SmallWhat a week ! 931 people registered for #BusinessPlanningWeek (as of 15th Feb) and 4,452 templates have been downloaded, the bulk of which were on Saturday. We would have liked more involvement in the Planning Forums but as these are staying open you can continue to ask questions throughout the year. So .. what comes next?

This week was about disecting your business, understanding it’s potential and ultimately providing a roadmap for you to follow and others to understand. Your business plan is a communication tool, which is why today is so important. This is where you develop an Action Plan so your staff understand their responsibilities and goals. This is also where you finally write your Executive Summary which will help you communicate with investors and financial organisations (including applying for development grants.)

JOIN IN NOW – Login/Register for free access to the planning templates, on-line Q&A’s, shared planning forum plus qualify for a free trial of Liveplan. Download final planning template from the “Pull It Together
” forum.

About the Final Planning Template

exec summExecutive Summary This is potentially the most important section of your business plan and will take some time to craft as you need to review all the work you’ve done on your plan so far. It should be no more than 2 pages long (ideally 1 page) and summarise the key points of your plan in consise statements.

When communicating with investors or business finance companies this will be the first section of your business plan that they read: if it is poorly written it could also be the last section they read!

There is plenty of guidance on the planning template but we like this guidance document from Rob McLeod at The Scottish Institute for Enterprise.

Action Plan – The whole process of planning will have identified a number of new opportunities or other actions that need to be followed up or may need more work. Without an action plan essential parts of the plan will go astray as you and your team become absorbed in the day-to-day running of your business.

If you do not follow through with an action plan either time or budget will suffer and you will not meet your objectives. Use the template to make a list of what needs doing, by whom and by when. Constantly review and revise.

Keep Your Plan Safe, Accessible & Share With Colleagues

Liveplan_logo_black1You can transfer the detail from you Word-based business plan into LivePlan free of charge. Your planning templates should fully integrate with LivePlans cloud-based application and then you can download a copy of the completed plan. NB: LivePlan are offering this services as a free account for one month without ANY obligation for a subscription. You will also be able to access and modify your plan at anytime and share with colleagues. The service also helps track and manage your financial forecasting and create a ‘pitch summary’ for potential investors. Start your free one month trial here.

Join our Guest Experts on-line for live Q&A’s in the Planning Forum today between 12-2pm GMT. You can post questions on any aspect of your business plan and they will offer advice, ideas and recomendations to help you develop the best possible plan.

If you found #BusinessPlanningWeek useful then please Tweet your comments to @YBMHQ and tell others in your business network that they can also develop a business plan.

Day 6 of #BusinessPlanningWeek – Staffing & Skills

BPW Logo SmallOwning a business is a lot like parenting. You will find it easier if you have a great partner who brings complimentary knowledge, experience and skills into the relationship. You can then build a solid family unit that grows together. Sure, you still worry and face good times and bad but you are not facing the challenges on your own.

Attracting the right partner(s) in business is a continual concern, not just as a start-up. You need to be continually aware of the exact qualities, expertise and experience your business needs to achieve your objectives. This also applies to all your staff, from the receptionist to your finance director.

Todays planning template will help you identify where your business is lacking the skills or expertise needed to meet your objectives. Whilst going through the planning process you may have identified an opportunity that requires an enhanced sales force, maybe someone with export experience or even something as simple as ensuring your tax returns are completed on time.

JOIN IN NOW – Login/Register for free access to the planning templates, on-line Q&A’s, shared planning forum plus qualify for a free trial of Liveplan. Download the 6th planning template from the “Staffing & Skills
” forum.

About the 6th Planning Template

Staff StructureCurrent Staffing Situation If you have a HR department then it should be fairly easy to refer to staff appraisal records and see what skills already exist within your business. If your business is smaller and does not hold these records then this would be a good time to start introducing regular appraisals. These should be ‘non-threatening’ and more about helping your employees do better – you may identify skills that your staff have but are not being utilised in their current role.

Be honest about your own skills. Small and micro-businesses are often reliant on the owner trying to manage everything – none of us are experts at everything. You may be a great marketeer, engineer, software programmer but if you hate dealing with customers or selling over the phone then you have a skills gap.

Skills Gap – Having mapped the current skills available in your business you will have spotted where your weaknesses lie. You now have 2 choices:

  • Training for existing staff (great for staff retention and can be specific to your business needs.)
  • Recruitment of new people who already have the skills and experience you need

For more detail Download the 6th planning template from the “Staffing & Skills
” forum.
Also try Business Quiz: Staffing & Skills

Join our Guest Experts on-line for live Q&A’s in the Planning Forum today between 12-2pm GMT. You can post questions on any aspect of your business plan and they will offer advice, ideas and recomendations to help you develop the best possible plan.

Join us tomorrow for the FINAL part of your plan – “Executive Summary”

Day 5 of #BusinessPlanningWeek – Financials, Funding & Forecasting

BPW Logo SmallLast July we ran an article called “Credit Where Credits Due” which was in response to a lot of ‘political’ comments critising bank lending to small businesses. The crux of the article was that ALL financial organisations offering any form of business funding, or lines of credit, have understandable criteria before lending to anyone. In short, it is the business owner’s responsibility to demonstrate that their business is financially viable. This is where your business plan becomes essential: It enables you to communicate with lenders on a factual basis that makes sense.

Today’s focus on business financials is the point where you should be able to prove to yourself that the business is not only viable but also has a future that includes growth. The beauty about good forecasting is that numbers are not emotive. You may be passionate about your business, you may believe that “This time next year we’ll be millionaires” but the cold reality of spreadsheets, graphs and accounting software will tell you if the rest of your business plan is working.

Prove to yourself that the business has potential for growth and you will find it a lot easier to impress the lenders and get the funding you need.

JOIN IN NOW – Login/Register for free access to the planning templates, on-line Q&A’s, shared planning forum plus qualify for a free trial of Liveplan. Download the 5th planning template from the “Finance, Funding & Forecasting” forum.

About the 5th Planning Template

growthOverview – This template only covers the basic considerations of tracking and managing your business finances. The complexity of your finances will depend on the size of your business (in terms of transactions, staff, operational overheads etc). You will ultimately need to transfer the detail into spreadsheets (eg: excel) or some form of accounting software to keep track of your financial position as the business develops.

Forecasting – You will need to refer back to your Sales & Marketing template and yesterdays Operations & Logistics template to start populating your accounting software with projected revenues and stated overheads.

Funding Options – We will be adding a specific page on different funding options over the next week which you can refer back to once you have finished your business plan. The focus today is about getting the figures right before looking for funding.

Important – As your business grows we would strongly recommend that you employ/hire a financial services professional to manage, review and advise on your financial options. We have several experienced accountants and an export funding expert available on-line today for the live Q&A’s in the Planning Forum between 12-2pm GMT. NB: They will offer you advice but this can only be accepted as guidance and not the definitive solution for your business. Outside The Forum you are free to contact them directly if you wish to hire them on a professional basis.

You can also post questions on any other aspect of your business plan and receive advice, ideas and recomendations to help you develop the best possible plan.

Join us tomorrow for Part 6 – “Staffing & Skills”

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