ENTREPRENEURS have been offering insight into their business journeys at Start-up Day events, held at libraries across the country.
At a Made in Manchester session, the city’s Business and Intellectual Property Centre hosted representatives of three growing companies from the area.
We’ve rounded-up their top tips:
Ask for testimonials
Steve Hilton is the founder of Liberty Apps, based in the city’s creative hub, the Northern Quarter. Its website trumpets its work with companies such as Warburton’s bakers and Crown Paints as a way of building its reputation.
He said a lot of early customers chose Liberty after landing on its website and seeing recommendations from other clients. “Referrals – getting someone to say ‘yes, I worked with these guys and it was fantastic’ – have worked really well for us,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask. Even on LinkedIn there’s a way to send a request for a referral.”
Hilton takes this so seriously he would turn down work if his company would not be acknowledged. He said he once rejected a £1m contract.
“We are very wary of ‘white label’ work,” he said. “We don’t want to work with someone unless it’s a joint venture. You have always got to have something to talk about at the end.”
Take detailed notes
Matthew Kendall is a partner in Bury-based airTeem, which makes full-body driers for people with disabilities to use after a shower. His key advice is “boring but core to running a business”.
“Write down as much as possible and keep a record of what you said to who, and when you said it,” he said. “You will be talking to people about sales, how you will send a product and at what price, then someone else will phone about something different and you might forget the details.”
Kendall uses the Paper function on file-sharing app Dropbox to document conversations so that he can check the details later. And while that might lead to challenging what someone claims you have offered them, it can still leave a positive impression.
“You sound like you know what you’re doing. If you want to use a pen and paper and keep it on file, that’s great. It’s whatever works for you.”
Make time for rest
Marcy Hazell started out as a stallholder in Manchester’s Arndale market, where she ran an art café. Her business later evolved into Parched Tea, a bespoke tea-crafting company which sells wholesale and online to restaurants, delis and outlets such as the Haworth Parsonage, famous as the former home of the Bronte sisters.
She says factoring in time for fun and rest is essential to avoid burn-out.
“I thought I could work seven days a week and do everything because it’d all be amazing and it’d only be for a year. But that was a bad move. You get emotionally and physically stressed.”
Repeatedly lifting and carrying trays without giving her body a chance to rest left Hazell needing an operation – and a six-month recovery. “It’s so easy to put your whole heart and soul into it but you have to hold back a bit. Try to keep a good social life, have good friends around you. You make bad business choices when you’re tired and hungry,” she added.
Let distributors do your marketing
If you’re a manufacturer, you might not need to market your product direct to the public, according to Kendall.
“We use distributors so don’t do marketing as such. They are in a better position because they sell our product alongside their other products. It’s more a case of meeting them and having a cup of tea, building a relationship and then letting them do the work.
“A few people approach us and we just make it as easy as possible for them to stock our products – sending them free models out and offering free delivery.”
A human touch can trump tech
“Given we are digital, we have never put any effort into SEO at all,” said Hilton. “It’s about the human approach, going out and meeting people; if you’re a service company, that’s the way to do it and it’s worked really well for us.”
Don’t be afraid to turn down business
“You can have orders that are too big and it might ruin your reputation if you can’t deliver,” says Kendall. “It’s a bit counter-intuitive but turning down an order might not be your worst decision.”
Make sure people understand your product
Hilton said he learned a lot from the experience of building an app for driving instructors that ‘flopped’.
“Make sure people know what it is and how it works,” he said. “Just get a design… and only when people buy into it should you be thinking about any development. If people come to us with an idea and we don’t get it, we say go to someone else because it’s not going to help us to get involved.”
Be careful about IP
Hazell fell foul of copyright laws when a designer incorporated a teapot symbol from the internet into a logo for Parched Tea Bar.
“A German company said we’ll take you to court because that teapot is our teapot. This company had designed the first ever teabag in the world but I didn’t know anything about them. It cost me £500 and was a big lesson learned.”
Kendall has experienced the situation from the other side.
“Someone did copy our product after the patent ran out,” says Kendall. “But unless you have a lot of money behind you there’s not a lot you can do. To pin down exactly how someone may have copied your product is very difficult.”
But don’t stress about it
Kendall is philosophical about the experience: “It’s not the end of the world. [The market is] such a big pie that everybody can have a slice.”
Likewise, Hilton says his company has never had a bad experience.
“There are so many new ideas that cross our desk every day that most people don’t have time to [bring them to fruition] anyway. If you’ve got a passion for something then you can go for it.”
To export, get support and do your homework
Kendall said the Department for International Trade had been a great source of support.
“We are looking to go to Norway and India based on new funding coming through,” he said. AirTeem is already selling in Australia and New Zealand but Kendall said he remains careful about research. “It’s about connecting with who you’re dealing with over there and trying to relate to people. Do your research before you go over there so you’re not offending people and you’re all on the same page,” he said.
Network – even if you don’t like it
Kendall admits: “Sometimes I just don’t want to get up at six o’clock and go, even though there’s a free breakfast. But you nearly always meet someone useful.”
“Always carry your business cards,” says Hilton. “I have a huge stack of them. You just never know when you are going to walk out of your front door and meet a really good connection at a tram stop.”
Hazell wasn’t so sure, adding: “I never give out my card at a tram stop.”
Start-up Day is a British Library initiative, with events taking place at 11 Business and Intellectual Property Centres based in libraries across the country.