Saturday, May 29, 2010

Why Bother With Federation of Small Businesses?

My Membership Certificate for the Federation of Small Businesses arrived today.

Delivered in a stiff A4 envelope that protected the precious document from creases and corruptions, it's now begging to be hung proudly on my office wall. Here it'll be enjoyed by me, the bookkeeper (with whom I share the house) and my teenage children, who'll probably take it as further evidence that their father's dabbling in self-employment has its roots in mid-life insecurity.

So, other than a shiny new certificate, what has membership of the FSB done for me?

On the face of it, absolutely nothing.

But that's a little unfair, because for the last month I've been under the invisible protective wing of their various support services.

True, I haven't needed them, but if I'd run into a tricky problem with a client I could have rung their free 24/7 legal helpline. I know a friend who justifies their FSB subscription on this service alone, because they've found it invaluable when resolving potentially difficult staffing issues.

If I'd have fallen seriously ill I could have benefited from free access to a personal nurse advisor, including home visits. I've heard of a newcomer to the FSB, with a pre-existing condition, who was able to use this service from day one and found it very useful.

Should I be bothered to go online I can get into the FSB library of legal and tax information, including downloadable documents I can use in my own business. At the same time (well, during the same visit to the website) I can add myself to the free online directory of businesses which is, apparently, visited several hundred times a day by potential customers.

One more freebie that I could take up is a free VoIP phone line, which apparently gives me a unique phone number for my business. As I work from home this might be a useful tool.

A significant, but hard to quantify, benefit of FSB membership is their research and lobbying of government. It's difficult to know exactly what difference organisations like the FSB make to government policy, but there's no doubting that they are an influencing force and they're promoting actions that benefit people like me - owners and managers of small businesses.

In addition to my certificate of membership I've received a stack of other paperwork from the FSB offering me all sorts of special deals that are unique or tailored to FSB members. How many of them I'll use I don't know yet. I intend to get along to some of their networking events to make new contacts.

The letter that accompanied the certificate closes with the exhortation, "Do not allow your membership to lapse thereby losing your protection." It'll be interesting to see whether, in 11 months time, I've decided that the benefits offered to me by the FSB are enough to entice me into paying for another year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I Didn't 'Get' Ecademy

If you network online you've probably bumped into Ecademy by now.

And if your initial experience was anything like mine, you're not sure what to make of it. Some elements feel very familiar to users of LinkedIn or Facebook: create a profile; make contacts; send invitations and messages. But there are less comfortable components that threaten to send the casual visitor scurrying back to  their usual networks.

One of these minor challenges is the navigation, which isn't as crisply intuitive as other sites. Then there's the arcane terminology: BlackStars, boardrooms, and iMA colour codings. If these doesn't put you off, the annoyingly repetitive free trial pop-up just might.

A brief exposure to Ecademy also introduced me to something called Penny Power. I initially assumed this was a device for separating me from my cash while almost promising a road to personal wealth. Also known as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Having wrestled with the site a few times in a bid to make sense of it, I was surprised and pleased to be invited to a training course. What surprised me was the price - a mere £20 for a day introducing me to social media and Ecademy's place in the ecosystem. I was pleased because the training was to be led by Penny Power herself, who by now I'd almost come to believe was a real person, indeed almost a neighbour, living in nearby Farnham.

I made a snap decision, paid up, and spent the next two weeks wondering whether I'd committed to a high-pressure time-share style presentation, from which it would take all my will-power to escape with my wallet unopened.

The training took place last Friday in the smart City offices of an accounting firm, a coin toss from the Bank of England. Around seventy people turned up to hear what Penny, and each other, had to say about business, social media and, inevitably, Ecademy.

I left with my attitudes transformed. Penny Power truly is a real person - a genuine, open woman who, with her husband Thomas, founded Ecademy twelve years ago. Driven by her need to build an open, random and supportive community, she's passionate about the place of social media in our future. She's also humble enough to accept that she's now a social media expert only because that's a label other people give her.

I encountered a random sample of the Ecademy community - as diverse, interesting and helpful a group as any other networking body I've met. They're owners or key players in small businesses with a common interest in better understanding the potential of social media.

I also discovered that Ecademy's business model is unashamedly based on charging users for advanced services. This makes sense when you realise it pre-dates Facebook and LinkedIn by years and even today it has only five employees, no office and no massive investment from venture capitalists (not for lack of offers, apparently).

Finally - my personal take on Ecademy's quirky look and feel is again the result of it being twelve years old; it was designed before we all got used to the conventions adopted  by the newer, more popular sites.

My day out in London has given me the confidence that the site's founders are genuinely interested in fostering a supportive environment for mutual benefit. They want its users to succeed, not because they're after our money, but because they love to see others doing well. After all, each of us wants customers to buy from us and we all believe that our products will, in some small way, transform the lives of their users.

Is it ironic that it took a real-world or offline networking event to persuade me of the merits of this particular online networking tool? Perhaps, but it worked and I'm now going to use Ecademy to build an open, random and supportive network of contacts who may benefit my business, or I theirs, in ways I can't currently imagine.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Step Up Your Health & Safety Assessments

It's estimated that about 100,000 people injure themselves on stairs in the workplace every year.

That's a lot of people falling down stairs. Fortunately, most of these accidents only result in minor injuries but a significant number have a long-term impact on the lives of those who slip or trip.

Angela Hurcomb, 55, from Hereford, is one of those whose life has been changed forever by a stair accident. She's had to give up horse riding and can't drive a car for more than half-an-hour at a time. She's still in pain after falling down a spiral staircase at her place of work in January 2008.

The incident cost her employer £5,000 in compensation, not to mention all the staff time and resources given over to dealing with the personal injury claim. While the retail chain she worked for could probably absorb these expenses relatively easily, a smaller business may have struggled.

Your firm probably has a staircase or two about the place and it's almost certain to see regular use. Your staff don't give it a moment's thought - most of us frequently go up and down stairs at home, at work or when we're out shopping.

But if one of them were to slip and fall their view of the stairs could change, literally and legally. You would be exposed to the risk of personal injury claim that could suck precious time and money from your business. You might also lose a valuable employee, possibly forever. Angela Hurcomb now works for someone else.

Have any of your staff complained about a possible risk on one of your staircases? A loose step, a slippery tread or a poor handrail? You should follow it up straight away, even if it's an informal observation. Angela Hurcomb complained to her employer about the staircase she eventually fell down and they failed to act.

Don't trust to luck or to the goodwill of your staff - even the most accommodating employee can become remarkably litigious when there's the possibility of a pay-off.

Health and safety is a perpetual source of frustration for small businesses. There's almost always more that could be done and it's a distraction from the real work that earns the money. But that doesn't mean it should be constantly ignored or put off. Investing a little time now could save you a lot later on.