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Hands Holding Mentor

Monthly Mentoring – and moving forward

In March 2014 I signed up with three fellow small business owners for a monthly mentoring group. We’re all from different business sectors so there’s no clashing in terms of clients or “trade secrets” and we’re pretty much all “one man bands”, although the fourth member of the group is experiencing rapid growth in his business and has recently employed staff, after realising and accepting that he can no longer do everything himself.   The fifth member of the group is our mentor, a local business coach who facilitates the sessions and makes us think for ourselves, Mike Santopietro of Minerva Business Consultants.

We meet once a month, and at first I really didn’t know what to expect from the group sessions. After all, I’m running my business, I have clients, the invoices go out every month and thankfully I get paid for my efforts – so how could I possible need accountability or mentoring?  However, at the end of every session each of us makes approximately three commitments based on the events in the session, which we will endeavour to achieve (or at least progress) by the next monthly meeting.

Not only do I now look forward to my monthly mentoring group, I actually put time aside to do my “homework” and plan for the next meeting. In the six months that we’ve been having the monthly sessions (the get-together in March was a brain-storming exercise) I feel that my business has benefitted in terms of better planning, knowing which direction I want to head towards (and how!) and learning from the others how to resolve everyday obstacles faced by the majority of small business owners.

We’ve tackled issues head-on, come up with our personal visions, our company visions, completed a SWOT analysis and at the time of writing, we’re all trying to get our heads round Critical Success Factors – what makes our businesses tick and how do we move them forward to the next level.

On the other side of the coin, my own business confidence is growing: our round-the-table problem solving sessions give all of us an opportunity to share knowledge and advice with each other, something which until recently, I’d have been horrified at, afraid of not knowing the answer or suggesting the wrong thing.

I also love the level of accountability. As mentioned earlier, every month we commit to a number of pledges, and yes, each pledge is re-visited and reported back to the group with our progress. There’s no hiding place – something I’m really enjoying and a definite factor when it comes to moving my Tao Business Solutions forward.

For anyone thinking of joining a mentoring group, I’d say 100% Go For It – it will help you with any advice, increase your skills and help with any confidence issues you may have. It will also help you to put things into perspective – and can even be an arena in which to vent. It’s an investment in yourself, and one which is worth every penny.

If you’ve had any experience of mentoring, either being mentored or as the mentee, I’d love to hear your comments.

Thank you.

ten comandments

The 10 Commandments For Business Owners

Thou shalt not be perfect, or even try

Thou shalt not try to be all things to all people

Thou shalt leave undone things that ought to be done

Thou shalt not spread thyself too thin

Thou shalt learn to say NO!

Thou shalt schedule time to thyself

Thou shalt switch off and do nothing – regularly

Thou shalt be boring, inelegant, untidy and unattractive at times

Thou shalt not feel guilty

Thou shalt not be thine own worst enemy

 

 

gadgets

It’s A Holiday – leave the gadgets at home!

You’ve worked hard all year for your holiday and the time has finally arrived to think about the packing.  If you’re anything like me, numerous lists are compiled – the packing (suitcase and hand luggage) lists, the books I want to take list, the documentation list, the things I need to do before I go list …… you get the picture!

Going on holiday can raise as many stresses as a bad day in the office, until you get on the plane and finally feel able to relax.  Or do you?

Have you been able to let go of your work commitments?  How many of you reading this will be taking “just a little bit” of work with you this summer?  No doubt you assure the family that it won’t eat into the precious family time you all so richly crave but are you being truly honest with them, and yourself?

Last November I was lucky enough to go on holiday to Australia.   I naturally went into a pre-holiday melt-down.  The fact that the flight to Brisbane coincided with my annual voluntary Children In Need duties just added to my stress levels.  Being the conscientious soul that I am, I even went so far as contacting the hotels we were due to be staying at (3 in total) to ask about WiFi.  Was there any?  Free or chargeable?  Any computers for guests to utilise during their stay ….. and so it went on.

The night before we were due to fly, my Better Half sprang the bombshell on me that not only was he not taking his iPad on holiday with him, but his iPhone was staying in the UK too!  Yes, you read that right folks – no tablet, no phone.  He then advised that I should do likewise.  My goodness!  The world temporarily stopped spinning.  What would I do without my iPad?  How would I cope?  After some considerable discussion, I agreed to play ball and leave the gadgetry at home so that we could enjoy our Ashes experience (ahem ..!) without interruption.  After all, all of my client social media was scheduled to run in my absence, all my clients knew I was off on the trip of a lifetime and actually, there was nothing that couldn’t wait until we got back.

En route to the airport I had the Gadget DTs.  I felt a bit odd, not having my third hand – I couldn’t check-in on Foursquare to tell the world I was at BHX airport!  I couldn’t update my Facebook status with a picture of my first G&T of the holiday, and I couldn’t tweet to inform the world we were in the Departure Lounge.  Did it matter?  Hell, no!

Once we’d checked in at the flight desk, rid ourselves of the suitcases and taken stock of the flight ahead we relaxed.  And do you know what?  It was fabulous!

Two whole weeks went by with no phones, no emails, no texts and it was utter bliss.   I’ll have no hesitation when I take my break in the sun in September to leave the gizmos and gadgets at home, pack the paperbacks and just relax for 10 days – after all, that’s why I run my own business in the first place – work/life balance.

So when you’re drawing up the packing list, think of your family, your health and your own wellbeing.  Most of all, think about time and how precious it is.   I once worked as a PA for a lovely Danish man called Jan (sadly, no longer with us).  Jan said something once which has stayed in my mind ever since:

“Cheryl, the problem with the British is that they live to work.  In Denmark we work to live”.

Trust me when I say that the world really won’t stop turning if nobody can reach you for 2 weeks, and you and your family will be grateful of the break.  At the end of the day, almost everyone takes a holiday – people will understand!  They may even respect a little bit more for your decision.

Happy holiday!

 

 

 

Schools out

School’s Out! How Do You Cope?

For the kids, it’s the highlight of the year.  Six week off school to have fun and generally let their hair down after a year of lessons and homework.  The days are long, with little structure and lots of (perceived) freedom.

For working parents the school summer holidays can be a nightmare.  The days are too long, with the conundrum of child-care to consider, the promise of over-crowded over-priced attractions and if the British summer runs true to form, rainy days of confinement climbing the walls.

So how do working parents cope with the school summer holidays?   I hope my Top 5 Tips give you some ideas of how to make it through to September relatively unscathed!

  1. Plan ahead.  Look at what resources are available to you in terms of other team members, co-workers and outsourcing.  Don’t leave things to the last minute – get into the routine of delegating some of your workload and outsource where possible to lighten the load so you can have some time off.
  2. If you have no alternative than to work and not take any time off, don’t feel guilty – after all, you work to support the family and pay the bills, don’t you?  Are there any family members you can call on for childcare duties?  Is it possible to take turns for “child days” with other business colleagues by way of a rota system?  You’re not the only one in the soup when it comes to work/life balance and school holidays – so work at it together!
  3. Is it possible to work from home?  Although you can’t leave the kids unattended when you go to work for the day, they will make their own entertainment if left to their own devices as you work from home.
  4. Check out local play centres.  We have one in Hednesford that is offering  a summer pass at a very reasonable price which is valid for the entire summer break – they also have free WiFi.  So, as the kids hurl themselves about on the soft play equipment and make their own friends, you can take your tablet or laptop and crack on!
  5. Holiday clubs run in most areas – its also worth asking schools if they have any holiday clubs planned during the school holidays.  Full of activities, a holiday club will not only occupy your little soldiers, it’ll tire them out too!

Please feel free to leave your own tips for others to read – and enjoy the summer!

woman cafe

1-2-1s – The Art Of Planning

Anyone who has met me will know that I am passionate about, and believe in the power of networking.  Anyone who read my last blog will also know that I am meticulous about planning my working week.

When I sat down at my desk the Friday before last to plan for the following week, I noted that I had three 1-2-1s in the diary, all of which had been arranged as a result of regular attendance at my fortnightly networking group.  My diary was telling me that I had 2 meetings on Tuesday, and one on Wednesday.

Now, I accept that running your own business can throw curveballs and I have, on occasion, had to re-arrange 1-2-1s if a last minute deadline has crept up on me or a new project fallen from the sky and into my lap – after all, we’re all in business to make money and look after our clients, right?  Therefore, it was wholly acceptable when I received an email around lunchtime on the Sunday from my first proposed meeting of the week, explaining that workload was heavy and time poor, and could we postpone until things had calmed down.  I replied, thanked the person for the notice given and their courtesy and thought no more of it, other than “I’ve got myself an hour back to do some work”.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning and after an early start I was about to leave the house, 15 minutes before my 1-2-1 was due to begin when I received a phone call from the person I was meant to be meeting, basically apologising, previous meetings over-running, they were running late, just about to start their 9 am meeting (this was at 9.45 am) etc etc.  Bottom line – the 1-2-1 was put off with 15 minutes to spare.

The best of the bunch was Wednesday morning where I had arranged to meet a “social media phobic” (their words, not mine!) for a 1-2-1.  I kept my side of the bargain; I drove to the agreed location (approx. 25 minutes away), ordered myself a cappuccino and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Feeling a bit “billy no mates” sitting alone in a busy café, I texted my meeting to ask if he was running late, to which a very honest text came back “sorry – totally forgot”.

Now, please  forgive me, but my experiences this past week have really made me think about planning 1-2-1s in the future, so I thought I’d share my Top 5 tips for planning 1-2-1s which I hope you find helpful.

  1. If possible, tag a 1-2-1 onto the end of a networking meeting.  That way, you’ll both be in the same venue and the 1-2-1 will become a natural continuation of your networking meeting.
  2. Don’t over-stretch yourself or your time – be realistic.  Meetings have a habit of over-running and traffic has a habit of causing delays.  Arranging several back-to-back meetings in different locations is asking for trouble and ultimately you will be letting somebody down by the end of the day – usually yourself!
  3. Plan.  Plan.  Plan.  Take time at the beginning of the week to make sure you know what commitments you have for the week ahead.   Hopefully this will avoid the “sorry – totally forgot” scenario!
  4. If you do need to postpone, give the other person as much notice as possible.  After all, they’re not running their business with the sole purpose of sitting around waiting for you all day.  Think how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of a short notice cancellation or no-show  ……
  5. Don’t arrange a 1-2-1 for the sake of it.   Yes, getting to know fellow network members is important but be mindful that we’re all busy souls and we’re not going to get to know everyone overnight.   Maybe leave it until you’ve met the person a few times at your networking meetings before diving in with a 1-2-1 request.

As someone pointed out to me on my Facebook page when I mentioned the “sorry – totally forgot” moment:  Woody Allen is quoted as saying “99% of success is just showing up.” And many self-employed people who don’t show up will be the ones wondering why they struggle to pay the bills. It isn’t rocket science.

Now – go forth and network!

 

 

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
working from home

Distractions Beware! Top 5 Tips For Staying Focused Working From Home

Running your own business can be the most rewarding thing you may ever do in your lifetime.  It can offer you flexibility that those in paid employment may never experience.  It can give you a sense of self-worth and achievement when you receive positive feedback and glowing testimonials  from happy clients and eventually it will also give you an income over and above what you may have earned whilst working for someone else.

However, working from home, as many of us do, can be a challenge in itself with days filled by distractions, temptation and procrastination.  Some might even call it “cherry picking”!

Your success could depend on you remaining focused on running your business, so here are my Top 5 Tips for achieving your goals when working from home.

1. Discipline

The washing needs doing.  The house could do with a quick once-over with the vacuum cleaner.  It’s sunny – I could go for a run, I need to see what time the film starts at the cinema on Saturday  …..

STOP!

Would you even think of these things if you were working in an office/shop instead of working from home?  Of course you wouldn’t!   You need to treat your working day with the same respect as you would when working at a place of business.

If possible, set your work area away from the family space: use the study (if you have one) or a spare room as an office rather than setting up camp on the dining room table every morning.    OK, this could be tricky for some businesses, such as cake makers or crafters, but just having a permanent designated workspace will in itself give you more discipline to stay focused.   Working in the lounge, hunched over your laptop with the television on in the background won’t turn you into the next Peter Jones!

Every successful business owner needs …….

2. Routine

Have a working day.  Set yourself a time-frame that you will work to and stick to it: have a start time, and a finish time.  If you need to work around school hours, school holidays, fitness classes, dog walks –that’s fine, but build those aspects into your working routine before they become “distractions” (see above!)

Once you have your routine, you’ll need to ……

3. Plan

Every week, without fail, I plan my working week on an A3 desk planner.  My desk planner sits next to me, on my desk, with the things I need to do that week  allocated on a daily basis for each client/task.   Some of my tasks are daily, others weekly or monthly but they’re all noted on my planner.    My planner also includes dog walks, networking meetings, any 1-2-1s, client visits – you get the picture.

IMG_0962As I complete a task, I strike through it with an orange highlighter pen, which gives me an enormous sense of achievement.  My aim, at the end of every working week, is to have more orange than white space on the planner – only then do I know that I’ve achieved the tasks I set myself at the beginning of the week.

Use your planner to make notes and prioritise.  Every now and again you’ll be thrown a curveball and there will be a need to re-jig things:  if that happens, don’t waste time beating yourself up about it.  Just do it, and move on.

As you cross things off your Planner, it’s a good idea to clear you head so you’ll need to ….

4. Take A Break

Make sure you take regular breaks.  Get up from your desk, make yourself (and anyone else in the house!) a drink, get some fresh air.   Take a lunch break.  You’ll quickly lose focus (and interest)  if you sit in front of your screen for 10 hours a day – not to mention the damage it could do to you physically.    And you wonder why you have backache ……

Health and Safety and VDU Workstation Guidelines apply to those of us who work from home as well as those in jobs!

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Switch It Off

You’re doing well.  You’ve got your office in the spare room, you start work at around 9am every morning (preferably not in your pyjamas!), you’ve planned your weekly work schedule and you’ve even managed to reacquaint yourself with the end of the garden during a well-earned break but hang on, what’s this?  Someone wants to follow you on Twitter?  You have a comment on Facebook to read from last night’s status update?  Six new emails?

Distraction Alert!!!

Don’t be afraid to turn off your social media pages and close down your email application if it stops you getting distracted and helps you to get on with some work.  Trust me, the world will not stop spinning if you leave those Twitter interactions for a couple of hours.  There will be no national crisis if you don’t instantly reply to every single email you receive and believe it or not, other people aren’t sitting, waiting with baited breath for you to post your next LinkedIn update or Tweet.

You may find it helpful to plan in to your day certain times for social media and emails – I know of some business owners who only check their emails 3 times a day:  first thing in the morning, again at lunchtime and finally at the end of the working day – and they manage to maintain their sanity and business success at the same time!

I hope you found my Top 5 Tips useful – good luck in implementing them!

 

 

 

 

hashtags

Seize The #Hour!

Once you’ve got yourself set up with a Twitter account, the next step is to grow your following, after all, tweeting to no followers is akin to shouting to an empty room – nobody will hear you!An effective way to gain followers is to make the most of the various #hours which run on Twitter throughout different times of the week.  There’s a #hour for pretty much everything, if you take the time to search for them – networking groups, geographic locations, hobbyists ….. but how, and when?

  • Getting married?  Have a product or service to sell into the wedding industry?  Advice for bridezillas?  Try #weddinghour which runs every Wednesday from 8 – 9 pm.
  • If you’re the crafty type, there’s #crafthour, which occupies a cosy 7 – 8 pm slot on Sunday evenings.
  • For the gastro-tweeters amongst us there’s #foodhour every Tuesday, 8 – 9pm (warning: don’t go there on an empty stomach!)
  • Busy working mums, maybe #mumpreneurhour is the one for you – every Monday from 9pm, just after you’ve got the kids off to bed.  Genius.

#Hours are a great way to raise your brand awareness, and can act as a knowledge-sharing platform and even be an effective online networking tool.

As with all social media, there are elements of etiquette to follow:  be engaging, be courteous, re-tweet others ….. and don’t just sell, sell, sell!

Back in October 2013 I was shocked to learn that there was no such thing as #CannockHour – so I created one.   We’re up to 228 followers now and it’s slowly gathering pace – you can follow us @CannockHour and please, join in from 7 – 8pm every Thursday.

My own (@VirtualTao) following has grown significantly since joining in with the #hours.  My favourites are #BforBHour (I’m a member of the BforB Rugeley group), #WestMidsHour, #StaffordshireHour and #MidlandsHour.  There’s also #LeedsHour, #HarrogateHour, #YorkshireHour, #LondonHour …… go on, search for your own geographic #hour.  If you can’t find it – create it!

One final thing to share with you that no small business can afford to ignore:  are you taking part in #sbs?  Run by ex-Dragon Theo Paphitis, #sbs runs every Sunday from 5 – 7.30 pm.  Just tweet MrP (@TheoPaphitis) your small business in 140 characters, including the hashtag #sbs.  Of the hundreds of tweets he receives every week, he re-tweets his 6 favourites at 8pm on Monday evening.  I was successful on behalf of one of my clients in 2012 and overnight their Twitter following went through the roof.  The successful winners also get their own presence of Theo’s SBS website, and invited to #SBS events to network with other winners.

#HappyTweeting!

linked

Facebook & Twitter Updates – To Link, or Not To Link?

I have to admit that the main social media faux pas that really makes me cringe is when I see Tweets posted from a Facebook status update.  This is one of the most common mistakes made by many social media users, but is also very easily avoided.

Maybe you can be forgiven for not realising that your updates on Facebook are automatically posting to Twitter, or maybe you are fully aware, and just assume that all’s well with each and every post?

If guilty of the latter, just remember that you are relying on your Twitter followers having (a) the time to click on the Tweet to take them to Facebook to read the rest of the update, and (b) that they have a Facebook account in the first place.

  • A Facebook fan page status update or post can be up to 63,206 characters long when posted direct to Facebook, or 2000 characters when posted from Hootsuite.
  • A Tweet is limited to 140 characters.

Subsequently, when your fan page is linked to your Twitter account you end up with something like this ……

Tao Blog FB

And on Twitter, your followers see this:-

Tao Blog Twitter

 I always advise clients to UNLINK their Facebook fan page from their Twitter account unless they can be absolutely 100% certain that their Facebook updates will never exceed 140 characters.

To do this –

  • Make sure you’re logged into Facebook
  • Use the http://www.facebook.com/twitter/ link.
  • Find the page you’d like to unlink, and click “Unlink from Twitter”

If you manage your own social media it’s worthwhile taking a couple of minutes to unlink the two social networks –  trust me, your followers on Twitter will thank you for it!

 

 

tripadvisor

TripAdvisor – Embrace It, Respect It and Learn From It ……

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” – Bill Gates

How many of us are guilty, both in business and everyday life, of coasting through on the positive comments given by others yet burying our heads in the sand, and ignoring the negatives?   In business, we are all very proud of what we do and what we achieve and just one detrimental comment can knock us back immeasurably.  We’re all guilty of taking criticism personally and immediately putting ourselves on the back-foot of defensiveness but what if we took a deep breath and actually addressed the criticism, taking the points on board and treating them as a learning curve?

Whenever I’ve mentioned TripAdvisor to business contacts within the leisure or hospitality sector, they tend to go pale and their inner-defence mechanisms come to the fore, and it’s not uncommon for them to lose the capability of direct eye-contact …..

  • “We’ve had trouble with TripAdvisor”
  • “We don’t like TripAdvisor – people are horrible on there”
  • “TripAdvisor is useless – it’s rates us 76/80 in our town. That’s not right …. is it?!”

I’ve heard them all.  What none of the business owners are asking themselves is ….. why?! In our busy schedules, the average Joe doesn’t have time to be deliberately malicious on a rating website.  They do, however, find the time to praise or warn fellow diners/travellers of their experiences in the name of being helpful.

For me, TripAdvisor has become a saviour.  Whenever I am planning a trip to somewhere new, TripAdvisor is my first port of call before I book any hotels or restaurants, having been caught out far too many times before by an immaculate-looking hotel on its own website, only to turn up for check-in to find that the hotel was last decorated (and in some cases, deep cleaned) in 1995!

Review sites such as TripAdvisor can really work in your favour, if you embrace them and more importantly, embrace the comments left about your hotel/restaurant/tourist attraction.  Yes, even the negative ones!

Ask yourself why there are repeated comments in the same vein about a certain aspect of your business, say, for arguments’ sake, your staff.  You can choose to ignore the comments – after all, you know that your staff are brilliant, don’t you, you employed them in the first place  …… Or you can address the issues, perhaps relaying the comments to your staff and addressing any problems they may have.

Opting to carry on regardless and ignoring the nasties will only see more negative comments about your staff being posted online over the course of time.  A five-star glowing review about your food/rooms will be completely negated if your staff are struggling to achieve a one-star rating for you and your business.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

On the other hand, you can address the issues raised and make changes – yes, we’re back to that learning curve I mentioned earlier!  Once you’ve managed to get to the bottom of the matters raised, you can start to make changes – is there an issue with a lack of staff training? Do you have a clash of personalities on a certain shift pattern?  Do you need to appoint a manager to keep the staff in check and stop any slacking?

Learning from the negatives can quickly turn them into positives, and subsequently over the course of time, your customers will leave more complementary reviews and your TripAdvisor rating will slowly, but surely, increase.   This point has been proved recently with one of my clients, a well-known local pub with a fabulous restaurant.  They took on board, and addressed, negative comments made against them on TripAdvisor, and also at the same time used market research company, SwissPeaks (http://www.swisspeaks.com/) to collect feedback and opinions from diners via iPads whilst they were still on the premises!

Don’t be afraid to encourage your clientele to rate you.  Showing them that you care for their opinions speaks volumes – some businesses even have business cards printed which are presented with the bill, giving details of TripAdvisor and any other social media channels they use.  Other businesses may capitalise on a captive audience, with posters on the backs of toilet doors or in designated smoking areas, just subtly, but politely asking or you to “please rate us on TripAdvisor”.

Once you have the positive reviews on TripAdvisor, take the time and trouble to log into your account and reply to the clients who have taken the time to write them.  You can even ask if they mind their review being used on your Facebook page or in your Twitter feed – it’s all good, positive PR, and as far as social media is concerned ….. it’s FREE!

Of course, you will still get negative, or below par reviews.  You can’t please all the people, all of the time.  The golden rule is to not take it personally, and also not to ignore the points raised.   In the words of Bill Gates …

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”

 

 

 

steps

Networking: from tiny steps to leaps and bounds!

Once I’d decided to start my own business towards the end of 2011, I felt that I needed to do a bit of this thing called “networking”, to see what it was all about, and hopefully pick up some useful contacts and maybe even some business.

It was early one morning that I quietly crept into my first networking event; a breakfast meeting in Cannock town centre.   I was unbelievably nervous – longing for a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak, praying not to be left standing on my own and yet not wanting to look like Mrs Billy No Mates.   The meeting host greeted me, gave me the good news that my first breakfast was “on the house” (they expected me to eat?!?! with these nerves!?!?!) and I was introduced to some established members of the group, made to feel very welcome and taken under their collective wing.

My first 60 second intro pitch was a bit hit and miss: my business at that time was merely an idea (I was still working part-time in a job I loathed), my presence at the networking meeting merely a fact-finding mission, but I did it.  With shaking legs and sweaty palms, I sat down and before I knew it, the meeting drew to a conclusion and I was told of dates for future meetings.  And yes, the bacon and eggs had gone down rather nicely, thank you very much!

How times change …..

I now attend 3 networking groups on a regular basis – Cannock WiRE, The Lichfield Premier Women’s Business Club and the fabulous Business and Breakfast.  It took a while to find the ones that suited me best but now that I’ve made those commitments, I am making excellent connections, new friends and much valued clients as a result of my efforts!

To anybody unsure about networking, I’d say give it a go. Shop around, take advantage of the initial “free taster meetings” and follow-up any contacts you make as soon as you can after the meeting.  People really do buy from people, and what better way to get to know new connections and get yourself known in the area, than networking.

Good luck – and please feel free to share your networking recomendations and experiences here.

 

 

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