We were joined by Boost Business Lancashire and the Centre for SME Development at this month’s Propeller Networking. As all three of us provide support to local SME’s, we thought it would be a good opportunity for us to bring people together to discuss what issues small and medium business owners are facing.

The night started with a brief introduction from the hosts and then everyone submitted areas of business that they want to focus on. These all went up to the board and five topics were picked out. Attendees then split off into groups to look at each of the problems. Here’s an overview.

What’s on everyone’s minds

FINANCES

  • Cashflow
  • EU funding
  • finances
  • ground-zero start-up capital
  • raising investment
  • monetisation of an idea
  • tax digital
  • getting multiple streams of income
  • customers paying on time

MARKETING

  • SEO
  • digital marketing strategy
  • finding customers
  • competition
  • product differentiation
  • turning conversations with leads into commercial relationships
  • advertising
  • closing the sale
  • Traffic to my website and Facebook pages

EMPLOYMENT

  • Employees
  • Finding personnel
  • Student recruitment and retention
  • Skilled workforce
  • Lack of efficient or goal-orientated employees

OTHER

  • Change in technology, adapting to new technologies
  • Time, how to increase productivity
  • Lack of confidence in the market
  • Brexit
  • Competition, international competition
  • New businesses in Preston

A little about the hosts

Boost

Boost is a £7m growth hub backed by ERDF funding, supported by the LEP, established in 2013. They collate all the different business support on offer to Lancashire-based SME’s in order to curate the support that you can benefit from. Since 2013 they have supported 5,000+ businesses, created 2,200 jobs, added £70m+ to the Lancashire economy.

Centre for SME Development

The Centre offers support to Lancashire-based SME’s, ensuring that the local community has access to the resources at UCLan.  They act as a gateway to UCLan’s internationally recognised research centres, the expertise of staff, students and graduates, and the outstanding facilities UCLan has to offer. Typical events hosted by the Centre included quarterly business breakfast and twilight networking events; hosting good practice networks; masterclasses and workshops.

Propeller

If you’re a UCLan student, staff member or alumnus you can make use of Propeller’s support. We have a host of workshops, 1-1 business support, online modules, working space, Propeller Enterprise Award and networking events. Find out more about us on our website.

Solutions to Specific Problems

Each of the groups went into quite some detail and found the exercise useful. So that you can benefit, the notes have been typed up below.

1. Issue: marketing

What will work? What will it cost? How to ensure good value? Are you marketing to the right people? Specific/mass marketing? Data analytics and interpretation

Solutions

The ongoing theme from the working session is to collect and learn from feedback. You can create surveys through the likes of surveymonkey, collect testimonials and case studies, conduct focus groups and undertake competitor analysis. Ensuring good value involves asserting the correct value proposition for your audience. It’s important to conduct research into this (as above) and then to anticipate the customer journey. If they are first looking for information and comparing providers, make it very simple for them to see that you can solve their problem.

  • A tactic mentioned involved emailing customers with free gifts. This can work at different stages of the process. Whilst customers are looking for information, you can use a free offer to sign them up to a mailing list, provide information and show them the quality of your work. Later in the customer lifecycle, you can work on retaining customer loyalty by offering discounts and free products if they buy from you again.
  • Another tactic mentioned was using social media influencers. For those unfamiliar, this involves sending your product/service to someone that your audience trusts and admires and asking for a review. Sometimes social media influencers require payment to do this, other times they do it for free. They act as a brand representative and can direct people to your site.
  • A combination of the above tactics, it is also worth considering affiliate marketing. This is where you turn your loyal customers into advocates for the brand and pay them a commission for recommending people to you. This is often set up with unique links.

Marketing is often a trade-off between time, skill and money. In order to conduct good marketing, you need at least two of those. It’s worth hiring an expert freelancer through the likes of Fiverr (or our very own UCLan Talent) if you’re short on time or skill.

2. Issue: recruitment

Finding personnel and ensuring a skilled workforce

Solutions

When hiring, asking people you trust for personal recommendations can ensure potential employees match the company culture, are hard-working and, essentially, you will know that they will be reliable. Networking can be a good starting point for this.

Tapping into intern programmes or student placements can be a good way of accessing staff with a special expertise. Likewise, contacting University careers services can help you find longer-term candidates.

If you’re having little luck finding someone that fits the role, seeking specialist advice from a head-hunter may provide a solution.

During the interview process, set a task in order to see how the candidates approach the work they will need to do. Ensure you check the references, ideally over the phone so that you can have a real conversation and get an idea of a candidates strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to familiarising employees to the work they need to do, it’s important to organise a good induction and provide staff training or coaching. It will take a bit of time for new employees to learn the ropes, so be patient. Setting a probationary period is convenient for both you and the employee – it allows a shorter notice period if the desired results are not achieved or if the employee doesn’t fit well with the company culture and values.

3. Issue: Technology

Including affordability, fit for purpose, addressing knowledge gaps, equipment and anticipating the future.

Affordability/investment

  • Self-fund, build a case, co-ops, in kind/swap. Look who has it and collaborate.
  • UCLan plan your capital spend from the start and build in a margin, partner other organisations

Not entirely fit for purpose (making it work as best as you can)/ inefficient/ wasting money, Understanding what is possible

  • Weigh up time v cost, make the best of the situation, acceptance. A realistic market to operate where you can meet expectations.

SEO/digital marketing strategy, Keeping up to date, Knowledge gaps

  • Training (YouTube), consultant or acquire.
  • UCLan/Boost memberships, peer to peer

Access to equipment

  • Lease instead of buy equipment

Anticipating what is coming next

  • run a workshop on AI as the solution (+/-)
  • Growth and competitiveness
  • Customers have to be able to adapt – know your market

4. Issue: Product differentiation

Product differentiation including product assembly, supply chain, risk within supply chain, importing

Solutions

  • Feedback from customer on what makes that product different
  • Also what service/product they might want to see
  • What does the customer want to achieve from the product (sell the value)
  • Customer perception of product – will affect pricing and competition
  • Value proposition, the right producer to the right person
  • Ansoff? Customer matrix – existing, new
  • No overreliance on one supplier or customer
  • Develop local distribution – additional cost of international
  • Source UK/local product
  • Changing mindset about value – not just cheapest cost
  • Future-proof
  • Benefits – customers
  • Grow profit
  • Stress
  • Time
  • Ethical
  • Save the world
  • Social enterprise

Issue: Finding time working on the business 

  • Delegate
  • Discipline
  • Planning
  • Organisation
  • Task management
  • Tie management
  • Efficiency – lean thinking, remove waffle to increase value
  • Prioritising the most important jobs
  • Goal setting
  • Apps: software that organises. Diaries
  • Mentoring – surround yourself with like-minded people/positive/successful
  • Focus – concentrate on the job at hand
  • Strategy – time to work on your business not in your business – strategic/operational differentiation
  • Distractions/procrastination
  • Space to work on your business
  • Critical thinking