With the plants in bloom and lambs leaping in the fields, spring is officially here. And a different type of new beginning has arrived with the beginning of the financial year, prompting many business owners to think about the months ahead.
It’s a good time for an SME to take stock – in many senses. Just as people look at their homes at this time of year, deciding what they should keep or discard, what items need a polish, and areas that could use a complete overhaul, a similar spring clean of your enterprise might yield great rewards.
There are several areas to consider when blowing the cobwebs away:
When did you last revisit your business plan? Most firms revise this document only when they’re visiting the bank manager. But having a written record of your company’s goals is a good template for success, as well as being a useful guide for staff. Four out of five SMEs say that they want to grow, but only a third do so in practice, according to Government research. Meanwhile, several studies show that business owners who demonstrate real ambition for growth – and who can articulate how they’ll achieve it – are significantly more likely to see their hopes become a reality. Set short-term objectives to be achieved in the next few months, and longer-term ones that you intend to reach within 12 months. This could be the moment to turn to one of your key advisers, be it your accountant, solicitor, or a professional mentor.
Are you happy with your banking provider? Many small firms aren’t, yet very few of them change banks, largely due to a degree of apathy and a perception that all of the big banking groups are the same, according to recent analysis from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). In fact, businesses could get better service, pricing and access to finance by shopping around, and new rules introduced last September have made account switching easier, reducing the change-over time to a week from 30 days. The OFT also makes the point that small businesses need to look beyond conventional lenders to alternative finance. If you need capital, explore all the funding options: bank loans, asset finance, invoice discounting, peer-to-peer lending, business angels and short-term lenders like Boost Capital. Consider your finance plans for the year ahead. One in four SMEs checks its financing needs every month, but 27 per cent have never reviewed their enterprise’s funding requirements, according to a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Consider what you want to achieve, and whether you require quick, extra capital for a project or business need in the short-term, or whether a larger injection of money would help you realise a bigger ambition for the firm during the year ahead. Then, assess what type of lending may be best suited to your needs.
Digital developments move at a lightning pace, and many firms struggle to keep up. Look at your computer systems to see if they’re out-of-date, or not being used to best effect. Consider your software use, and whether you could save money and still achieve your aims by using open source software, such as Apache OpenOffice, or Thunderbird by Mozilla. Get an expert to do a tech audit of your company and give you advice if you really don’t understand these areas. Are you using the new tools available to benefit your business in terms of marketing? In this day and age, every SME should have some sort of web presence, but one in three UK firms still don’t have a website, according to a study by Lloyds Banking Group and Go ON. If you have a website, make sure it’s up-to-date. And, of course, every self-respecting business should be looking at the world of social media, where even the smallest firms are achieving great things through the likes of Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Where you work.
If you’re renting business premises, look at how you use the space that you have and ask yourself honestly whether you need all of that area. Downsizing could cut your rental costs, and even give the company a new burst of life in a new location. If you want to stay put, but would like to reduce your overheads, check your lease to see when it expires or if there’s a break clause. Talk to your landlord, and try to negotiate a better deal for the year ahead. Do the same thing with any service charges that you may pay on the property. It may be the case that you work from home, and have reached the point where moving to an office is the best next step. Again, drive a hard bargain with any prospective landlord. Many self-employed people opt for the shared business facilities that exist in many town and cities across the UK when they leave their home offices for the first time. Not only will you save rent by sharing with other SMEs, but you can swap ideas and contacts, as well as pooling costs on items such as telecoms.
An easy way to save money is to check the tariffs you’re paying for your utilities, and then see if there are better deals available. You can do this through price comparison websites such as uSwitchforBusiness, and MakeIt Cheaper. And new rules that came into effect last month mean that small businesses are now in a position to haggle with their existing energy supplier over their bills. Since March, energy firms are required to tell SME customers their contract end dates, putting consumers in a better position to negotiate over the rates they pay before re-signing with a provider. MakeItCheaper estimates that the move could save small firms more than £1 billion every year.
Of course, no true spring clean is complete without getting your hands genuinely dirty by tidying up your surroundings and clearing away a year’s worth of grime. And it’s not just your general workplace, desktop and filing cabinets that need sorting out and sprucing up. If you’re not in the habit of wiping down telephone and mobile handsets, and clearing your keyboard and computer mouse of dust, you should get out the anti-bacterial wipes. About one in six mobile phones in the UK have been found to have traces of poisonous bacteria E.Coli, according to one study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – a fairly grim thought, and a possible contributor to workplace sickness.
Whatever area you decide to tackle, set yourself a clear goal, and then check in to see that you’ve achieved your aim in a few months’ time. Making the effort to freshen up your processes and practices now could make all the difference to your company’s health in the year ahead.
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