The 6p Café – and the question You Should Really Ask

Just a note before I start this week: I’ve written more than 300 posts on this blog, but last week’s was much the most personal. I’d like to say thank you for all the comments and replies: some of them were touching, some heartfelt and some even more personal than the original post. One in particular buoyed me for the whole weekend: so thank you again.

Anyway – on to business. And a simple question: how much did you pay for your last latte? I’d guess anywhere from £2.40 to £2.90: that’s the going rate and it is, of course, completely ridiculous. Invest not-all-that-much in the right equipment and you can stay in your kitchen and make a coffee that’s equally good for a fraction of the price.

But that’s not the point is it? Because as we all know, Nero, Starbucks and your local coffee n’ cake shop don’t sell coffee. They sell something else entirely.

…And now a café has started charging for it.

Let me introduce you to Ziferblat, a café in Manchester that charges 6p a minute. That’s right, 6p a minute. Stay as long as you want; eat and drink as much as you want and use the Wi-Fi. 30 minutes costs £1.80 and an hour is £3.60.


At first glance that seems remarkably cheap: why do you need to pay rent on an office? An eight hour day at Ziferblat costs £28.80 with no need to go out for a sandwich at lunchtime. Well, they make a profit and the chain is expanding. But it’s not their balance sheet I want to discuss; it’s their willingness to look at an established concept in a wholly new way.

I have plenty of my meetings in various Costas, Starbucks and Neros around North Yorkshire. Am I paying for the coffee? No. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m paying for convenience, for somewhere to meet, for thirty minutes with a friend, Board member or potential client.

I’m buying the coffee in order to rent a convenient meeting space for thirty minutes. The owners of Ziferblat have recognised this: as one of them says in the video, “Everything is free, except the time that you spend.”

Some of you may remember a post I wrote early in 2014: it was about American restaurants charging different prices for their food depending on when you ate. Re-reading the original piece – and thinking about ‘the 6p café’ – that still seems entirely logical to me.

The reason I make these points is simple. We’re now well into ‘making plans for next year’ season and there’s a fundamental question to ask yourself: what do I really sell?

Do you sell coffee? Or do you sell the convenience, the surroundings and the meeting place?

Quite rightly, you’re now turning the question round and asking, ‘Fair enough, Ed. What do you really sell?’

Let me answer that, because it illustrates the point exactly.

Do I really sell 1 to 1 meetings and peer-to-peer coaching? No, of course I don’t. So let’s look at the reasons entrepreneurs ‘buy’ TAB York:

  • They want to solve a problem and/or address some pain
  • They don’t want to feel isolated/lonely any more
  • They want a fresh perspective on their business
  • They’re stuck in a rut
  • They know they’re ready to ‘take the next steps.’ But they don’t know how to do it, and may not even know what the next steps are

So TAB York sells solutions to specific problems, an end to loneliness, a new way of looking at problems and opportunities, motivation and – as I wrote two weeks – a glimpse of what life and business could be like: ‘permission to dream’ as I termed it.

Clearly, TAB York sells different things to different people – and that doesn’t change even after someone becomes a member. The reasons why entrepreneurs continue as Board members can be very different to the reasons why they joined:

  • The Board meetings are an insurance policy against things going wrong
  • The routine of the monthly meetings forces members to work ‘on the business’ not ‘in the business’
  • It’s the only place they can really talk about their business with people who absolutely understand…
  • Who’ll give absolutely impartial advice…
  • And who care about your success and the success of your business

So in no way am I selling the monthly meetings: I’m selling reassurance, a framework, and the experience, objectivity and commitment of the other Board members. And ‘commitment’ is the right word: members of TAB York have an emotional investment in each other’s businesses.

All the above points have come from Board members over the years – and yes, when entrepreneurs ‘buy’ for so many reasons it makes it difficult to define what my colleagues and I ‘sell.’

The same may very well be true for you and your business. But take your time to define exactly what you do sell – and don’t be afraid to emulate ‘The 6p Café’ and think a long way outside the box. It’s a really worthwhile exercise and the answer may well surprise you – and have a significant impact on next year.

In fact it’s something we could cover at a 1 to 1: maybe over a meal. I’ll drop an e-mail to the Star Inn the City and offer them 6p a minute…


Whose Boat are you Trying to Float?

According to data from the US marketing agency Deep Focus, four out of every ten millennials would rather engage with pictures than read.

What? They’re suggesting that the most educated generation in history would rather look at the pictures you’ve just texted to them than read what you’ve written? That they’re more interested in an emoji than your carefully crafted prose?

Apparently so.

But let’s just take a step backwards. Because I’m willing to bet that a great many people read that first paragraph and thought, Hang on. What’s a millennial? It’s someone young isn’t it? Definitely younger than a baby boomer…

So before we go any further, here’s Ed Reid’s cut-out-and-keep guide to millennials, boomers and every other group that might be important to your business:

Maturists were born before 1945: they’re the generation of rationing, rock n’ roll and defined gender roles – particularly for women

Baby Boomers – 1945/1960: the Cold War, the Swinging Sixties, moon landings – and now very much family oriented

Generation X: born between 1961 and 1980, they’re marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev, early mobile technology – and the divorce rate rises

Millennials/Generation Y – 1981-1995: 9/11, social media, the invasion of Iraq – and the generation that has produced many of our digital entrepreneurs

And finally, Generation Z: born after 1995 they’ve been brought up with global warming, the economic downturn, cloud computing and WikiLeaks.

These terms are largely American, but the marketing message they bring with them is every bit as relevant in the UK. The infographic I used for the research is fascinating: the difference in attitudes to previous generations is startling – and marketing messages will need to reflect that.

But let me change tack for a minute, and reference another article I read on the same day as the infographic. This one featured the Kiss Navy. I’ve quoted the business acumen of Gene Simmons previously on the blog, and now Kiss have added an annual cruise round the Caribbean with 2,300 of their fans.

As the headline suggests, there’s an ‘unstoppable growth’ in the market for themed cruises. You can cruise down the Danube with the National Rifle Association, or spend your days afloat dressed as a Star Wars Stormtrooper. Want to book? Here’s the link.

What struck me as I looked at the infographic and contemplated cruising round the Caribbean listening to Detroit Rock City was how they meshed together to deliver one message. And how important that message was for all our businesses.


Knowing your customer has always been important, but today it is more important than ever. You can reach a far wider geographical audience – and you can also target a specific niche much more precisely: the analysis and market segmentation that’s almost instantly available now (and which is very often free on social media) is something you have to use.

You also have to communicate with that audience in the right way – which brings us full circle to four in ten Millennials preferring pictures to words. You have to know your audience, and you have to know the story they want to hear.

Why? Because yes, modern technology means you can reach a much wider audience: but it also means that far more competitors can reach your customer base. The days of putting your product out there and hoping someone wants it are gone and they’re never coming back. Sadly, five minutes walking down most high streets will confirm that.

But if you get it right – if you discover your niche and tell the right story – then the rewards can be spectacular.

Not So Mad Men

Think of Mad Men on TV and what’s your first thought? Almost certainly it’s Don Draper: liquid lunch, chasing tail and unbridled cynicism…

What you call love was invented by guys like me … to sell nylons.

People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.

I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.

Except, of course, that there is a tomorrow. And tomorrow morning those of us running businesses will still need to market our products – and ourselves.

But let’s not waste time worrying about it. We’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, a few more new apps that I still haven’t come across but which are undoubtedly valued in the billions, good ol’ LinkedIn, and – of course – our blogs.

So Mad Men is purely there for entertainment. There’s nothing we can learn from it. The ‘Golden Age of Advertising?’ It’s about as relevant today as the ‘Golden Age of Steam.’

And yet…

Maybe I’m finally getting older, but I seem to pay more and more attention to some fundamental truths. Advertising has been with us a long time – commercial messages and political campaign slogans have been found in the ruins of Pompeii – and whatever’s happening on your iPhone this week, I suspect some of its core messages will be with us as long as people buy and sell goods and services.

There’s a great blog post from Hubspot which develops that argument in much more detail – but there are three points from it which are particularly relevant to all our businesses in North Yorkshire.


“Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”

Whatever medium you use for your advertising – whether it’s a traditional newspaper ad or the very latest inbound marketing platform – nothing will ever beat word of mouth. As I’ve said many times on this blog, it doesn’t matter whether you’re B2B or B2C: ultimately we’re all P2P. And nothing will ever beat a person-to-person recommendation, especially in a relatively small business community like North Yorkshire.


“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

I sometimes think we’re in danger of drifting away from this simple fact. Ultimately your advertising, your customer relations, everything you do has to be directed at selling your product. Yes, go out of your way to give information, to entertain and engage. That’s exactly what I’m doing every week with the blog. But I never forget that the blog has two fundamental aims:

  • It’s there to build and strengthen my relationship with my existing clients
  • And it’s there to convince potential clients that I’d be a good person to work with


“It’s not the ink, it’s the think.”

When Charles Saatchi was still in short trousers, David Ogilvy – ‘the father of advertising’ – was founding Ogilvy & Mather, for many years the top agency in the world. Ogilvy built his business on research and data. He believed that the function of advertising is to sell, and that successful advertising for any product is based on information about its consumer.


Take the word ‘advertising’ out of that last sentence, substitute ‘your business’ and it still makes perfect sense. And that to me is a fundamental truth: who is your customer? Where is he? What does he want? How can we supply that?


Here’s Don Draper’s answer:

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

With respect, Don… I know we can go further than that with TAB. I want everyone I work with to be a lot more than ‘okay.’ That’s what I work towards every day – and those fundamental truths play a key part.

How to Succeed in 2016 – in Thirty Seconds…

We’ve all heard the term ‘elevator pitch’ – a short, succinct and persuasive sales pitch, traditionally delivered in the space of an elevator ride. Once upon a time that was two minutes: let’s adjust for today’s lifts and say 30 seconds…

I was talking to someone who specialises in bringing entrepreneurs with great ideas face to face with significant investors. “To be honest,” he said, “The elevator pitch is dead. These days there are so many good ideas – the market is so competitive – that investors want to see a serious proposal. And that includes a working website or an embryo app.”

Point taken. But call me old-fashioned. As I never tire of saying, you must be able to define your business in a few (three at the most) short, sharp sentences. Just ask my old friend, the fitness coach for pregnant women in Kensington.

What started me on elevators? I came across this video on the BBC business site. It’s young entrepreneurs making ten second pitches at the recent Dublin Web Summit. Well, I’ve watched it twice now and all I can remember is ‘electric scooters.’

In fairness, ten seconds is a remarkably short time. And they probably didn’t have much chance to prepare.

But what about 30 seconds? The elevator pitch? There are plenty of times when we all have to describe our business in that time. And yet very few people manage to be short, succinct, persuasive – and memorable.

You can say a lot in 30 seconds. If you’re making a speech you’ll speak at between 120 and 140 words per minute. So 30 seconds gives you 60-70 words.

So here’s the challenge. Can you do that? Short, succinct and everything else in 30 seconds.


Of course, that means there’s no hiding place. Can I describe The Alternative Board in 30 seconds? Here goes:

What do a builder, a manufacturer and the owner of a software company have in common? The insight and experience to help each other achieve their vision. The Alternative Board makes this possible for business owners like you.

I’ll anxiously wait for the comments, criticism and corrections…

But in the meantime, there’s an even more important 30 seconds looming for all of us.

Today is November 13th. Christmas Day is exactly six weeks away. 52 days from now we’ll stumble back to our desks to start another year. And the single biggest key to success in 2016 is simple: knowing what you want to achieve.

So here’s another 30 second challenge: can you define your goals for the coming year in that time? Can you clearly, simply and unequivocally say what you want to achieve? If you can’t – even if you have a long wish-list tucked away somewhere in Evernote – you’re in trouble.

So once again, Ed, nowhere to hide…

In 2016 I want to provide an even better experience for my current board members. And I want to help 10 more business owners in York get more out of their business and their life.

That’s 35 words: the definition of TAB was 38. So the definitions are short – and for me, they’re memorable. Every second of every day, I know what I want to achieve next year. And everything flows backwards from there: the marketing I need to do, the people I need to speak to… Everything.

Doing those two exercises will be some of the most useful time you’ll spend between now and the end of the year. And when you flick the office lights on in just over seven weeks’ time you’ll be focused on what’s relevant and what’s going to move you towards your goals. Equally importantly, the 30 second definitions will tell you what’s irrelevant: what’s simply vanity or window-dressing.

One final point. I’ve always loved the research that comes with writing this blog. I learn something new every week. In a sign that I need to get out more I found myself wondering if 30 seconds was about right for a lift. So I just Googled world’s fastest elevator. In a sign that a lot of people need to get out more there were 838,000 results. Here you go – the Shanghai Tower. And if that’s where you decide to make your elevator pitch, you’d better be going to the penthouse…

Have a great weekend.

Time to Start Podcasting?

A podcast is a digital medium that consists of an episodic series of audio or digital radio, subscribed to and downloaded through web syndication or streamed online to a computer or mobile device. The word comes from ‘broadcast’ and ‘pod’ – from the success of the iPod – as audio broadcasts are often listened to on portable media players.

As always, I’m indebted to Wiki for the technical explanation. Put more simply – and more significantly – the podcast is going to be an increasingly important tool for SMEs.

Traditionally, business has been about B2B or B2C: but technology and social media are changing that. Business is increasingly P2P. We all know the old adage about ‘people buy from people.’ For the vast majority of us, that continues to be true. What’s changing is the nature of the person to person approach. When you read this blog I hope you can ‘hear’ me speaking. How much would the experience be magnified by a podcast?


What does a regular blog do? It helps the writer build a community; it builds authority – and it should engage, inform and entertain the readers. A podcast can do all that and more: so it’s little wonder that they’re rapidly gaining in popularity. After all:

Podcasts are flexible: you don’t need to be watching the TV or staring at your laptop. You can listen to a podcast anywhere – and irrespective of what you’re doing.

They’re on demand: every bit as importantly, you can listen to a podcast whenever you want to.

They’re mobile: once you’ve downloaded a podcast you can listen to it anywhere – on the beach, at the gym or on what used to be that long, boring commute to work. And in 2015, podcasts are poised to conquer the ‘final frontier’ of the car dashboard, with Apple and Google busy signing deals to get their systems – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – onto the dashboards of new cars.

The number of people listening to podcasts is increasing all the time. According to Edison Research, about 39m Americans, or 15% of the over-12 population, listened to a podcast in the last month. That’s up from 12% in 2013 and 9% in 2008.

Before you sniff and say, ‘15% isn’t much,’ those figures mask the fact that the people listening to podcasts are young, well-educated and earning well above the average wage. In short, they’re the demographic businesses are desperate to engage.

Right now there are around 250,000 podcasts available to download: that’s compared to half-a-billion English language blogs and four million hours of video uploaded to YouTube every month.

At this point you’re probably expecting a quick checklist: 5 Steps to Producing the Perfect Podcast or something similar. That’s probably outside the scope of my expertise at the moment, but I do know that podcasts are not hard to produce. All you need is a microphone, a computer and – above all – some interesting topics.

Want to have a practice and see how you sound? I used Voice Record Pro on the iPhone – it’s free if you don’t mind the ad at the bottom of the screen.

But if this isn’t a ‘how-to’ post, it most certainly is a ‘be-aware’ post. I’m absolutely convinced that podcasts will become an effective – and cost-effective – marketing tool.

I’m not talking about the US gurus who send out a slick 20 to 30 minute podcast to hundreds of thousands of subscribers every week. I am talking about the possibility of a monthly podcast that helps to build your business and informs, engages, entertains and updates your clients and customers.

Greatest Hits: Volume 1

June 26th – what a day it’s been…

1483 – Richard III became King of England (only to die at Bosworth Field two years later)

1843 – The Treaty of Nanking came into effect, ceding Hong Kong to Great Britain ‘in perpetuity’

1977 – Elvis performed what turned out to be his final concert in Indianapolis

And, of course, in 2010 (relatively loud fanfare, I think) this blog went live. Yes, the blog is five years old. We’re not quite at post no. 250 as I’ve selfishly had a few holidays, but five years seems an appropriate time to look back. So here are my ‘greatest hits.’ Five of my favourite blog posts from the last five years – posts that I liked at the time and that are still very relevant today.

Make Good Art was no. 99 – and it’s probably the one that I reference the most. The inspiration was a speech by Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts – and the premise of the speech, and the blog, was simple. Whatever you do, that’s your art: it’s what you – and only you – do best. As I wrote in May 2012:

I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t draw. I can’t design. But I can advise someone on how to run their business: I can help them get the most out of their business and their personal life. That’s my art.

If you can re-structure a company’s cash flow; negotiate an employment contract; guarantee that an event for 2,000 people runs smoothly or make sure the hospital flooring is safe to walk on…that’s your art.

And as Neil Gaiman put it, do what only you do best. Whatever it is, make good art – and enjoy the journey along the way.

In March 2012 I published The Shy Entrepreneur – a post which resonated with so many people. There’s a popular image of the entrepreneur: brash, confident and not even sure what the phrase ‘self-doubt’ means. In my experience there are just as many entrepreneurs who are the exact opposite: worried that they’re doing the right thing for their family and desperately trying to make sure their work/life balance stays balanced. Re-reading it three years later, the advice for people who’d rather eat their thumb than go to another networking event is still as valid now as it was then.

Moving from the entrepreneur to the company, the previous November had seen The 5 Characteristics of Successful Companies. What’s immediately interesting about that one is the comment about the prevailing economic mood at the time:

Any company that’s growing at the moment deserves our congratulations. And perhaps surprisingly – given the general doom and gloom – there are plenty of companies in North Yorkshire growing and succeeding.

But the reason that I chose it is that all the characteristics of successful companies still apply – especially the first one: hiring good people.

[And] once they’ve hired good people, the companies spend time, effort and money developing them. Do the companies I have in mind spend more than the average on training? That would be an emphatic ‘yes.’

Another of my favourites – and another from the Spring of 2012 (I must have been in form…) was The Whitby Test. I’ve always been struck by how clear Whitby’s marketing message is – traditional English seaside, fish & chips, Dracula, Goths, Captain Cook, ‘Heartbeat’ and so on – and I think there’s a great deal businesses can take from that. In the original post I used 16 words and came up with eight compelling reasons to visit Whitby – and challenged readers to do the same:

Come up with seven or eight succinct reasons why people should do business with you. (And no points for woolly nonsense like ‘we care’ – they’ve got to be reasons any objective observer could agree with.)

And finally to no. 5 – The Loneliest Place in the World. Building your team and building your business is a wonderful thing to do. But sometimes there are painful decisions to be made and sometimes being the leader is a very lonely job. You need psychological support, I wrote. Someone to simply say, “I understand how you feel.”

Very often the only person who does understand how you feel is another entrepreneur – one of your peers. And that’s where I hope TAB York has played its part over the last five years. And the last five years have, without question, been the most satisfying and rewarding five years of my life.

It’s been an immense privilege to learn from you, and to share your journeys. Thank you for your support, your loyalty, your friendship – and for reading the blog. And here’s to the next five years, for all of us…

Social Media is a Waste of Time. Or is it?

Social media’s here, and it’s here to stay. Whatever platform you use – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or any of the others – social media is playing an increasingly influential part in our lives.

But does it work for business? Does social media really generate worthwhile business leads and create customers?


It’s no surprise that a lot of people are sceptical. After all, look at the headline graph in this article in Entrepreneur. Facebook and Twitter come way below organic search and e-mail for customer acquisition.

But if you read on, you’ll find that most people are using social media in the wrong way. Too many marketers – in both big and small businesses – are using it in the same way they once used an ad in the paper.

The optician: Pop in and see our new luxury Paris fashion frames from Maison Chloe

The hotel: Everyone deserves a little bit of luxury. Treat yourself!

The insurance broker: How badly will your business be hit by a cyber-attack?

Whatever platform you’re on, you have to engage with it. It’s now approaching the status of a well-worn cliché, but social media is a conversation – it’s not a megaphone.

Social media has one huge advantage over traditional forms of marketing. It’s free. It doesn’t cost you anything to tweet, to post on Facebook, or to write a blog.

Unless you value your time of course. That’s why it’s crucial to use social media properly.

In addition to time there’s another charge that’s often laid against social media: you can’t measure the ROI. And I can understand that – the accounts department wants to measure the return on investment, not the return on intuition. But let me quote from the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject:

People tend to look for simple solutions when they’re measuring the ROI – or trying to measure the ROI. But it’s much more complex. First of all, you’re very often investing time, not money. Secondly you need to look at the return on social media in two ways – analytically and anecdotally. You’re going to gain customers or clients – but you’re also going to gain reputation and authority. You can measure the first one analytically: the second though, is much more anecdotal.

Looking at it from the point of view of this blog, that’s exactly right. Has the blog brought new clients? Yes. Has it boosted my reputation? Yes. And somewhere in the middle are those new clients for whom the blog was part of the marketing effort. To paraphrase the old saying. I know the blogs works: I just don’t know how much.

But I know you’re an analytical lot: let’s turn to something that can be measured – and ask a very relevant question. If you’re going to use social media, which platform (or platforms) should you use? There is some seriously useful research here: The Key Demographics of Social Networking Platforms from the Pew Research Center.

I’d recommend reading the article – it won’t take long. But if you don’t have time, here are some snippets. 71% of ‘online adults’ in the US (that’s 58% of all adults) use Facebook – and as you might expect, the average age of a FB user is steadily increasing. 23% of online adults use Twitter: 26% use Instagram – and 28% of them use Pinterest.

The highest earners are on LinkedIn: no surprise there. But there’s also a bias towards higher incomes on Pinterest, a platform that is very popular with women. If your business lends itself to pictures and images – and women are your key customers or decision-makers – then the data suggests you should be using Pinterest.

For all of us running a business, it comes down to time in the end. But I watch Dan and Rory’s increasing use of social media and know that the next generation of consumers will use little else. There are an ever increasing number of social media platforms – and you can’t be on all of them. But you do need to be on some of them – and you need to be talking to your audience, not shouting at them.

Do People Still Buy From People?

‘People buy from people.’ It’s one of the fundamental business truths. It’s drummed into you on your first day in the office.

“People buy you, Ed.”

“People buy from someone they know, like and trust.”

As I say, fundamental truths.

Or are they?

After all, I don’t know Jeff Bezos. No-one I know knows him. And given what Amazon has done to the high street – and not done for UK tax receipts – there are plenty of people that don’t like him. But Amazon is phenomenally successful.

As are a myriad of other online businesses.

And as I look round the TAB York boardroom tables I see more and more business being done online.

So is ‘people buy from people’ fast becoming a myth? Do we actually prefer not to deal face-to-face? Is the ideal business model now to give people all the information they want and then leave them to it?

I was pondering these questions at the weekend when I bought a t-shirt. From time to time I treat myself and buy a t-shirt from Howies. They’re not the cheapest, but they’re great quality, the designs are a little bit different – and I like the story.

In fact for me the two most important words on the website are ‘read story.’ That and the latest happenings from West Wales. The fact that Howies are in a small town in West Wales – Carmarthen – adds to the authenticity and the story. I’m actually more inclined to deal with them than if they were in say, Cardiff.

Back to the story. Here’s what it says on the website:

And one thing you can be sure of when you buy one of our printed organic t-shirts, is that it was screen printed by hand in our own little printshop, here in Cardigan Bay.

Using an old-fashioned carousel, silk mesh screens and a bit of elbow grease, Tomos prints each and every one of them with the same level of skill, craftsmanship and respect for the end product as they deserve.

That ticks every box for me. Local, hand-made, and I even know the name of the person making my t-shirt. In fact, Howies go one step further. When I order a t-shirt I get an e-mail telling me when Tomos will be printing it. So I’m kept in touch, and I’m made to feel that I’m important to the company – and to Tomos. I’m a very happy customer.

But what about a slightly larger scale? We’ve all heard of Boden. One of the things I remember from the early Boden catalogues was the little bit of irreverent description on every page. Maybe it was about the clothes, maybe it was about the model. But it made me feel I was being spoken to directly, that I wasn’t dealing with a faceless, distant organisation.

Did it work? Well, according to Wiki Johnnie Boden, who founded the company in 1991, is now worth £300m. So I think that’s a ‘yes.’

More and more of your business is going to be done online. Whether you like it or not your online presence – and the way you interact with people online – will become increasingly important. But if you’re going to be successful, you’ll need to make it – and keep it – personal. Use your ‘About’ page to tell your story: not to list how wonderful you are. And if you’re not in the centre of York, Leeds or some other major city it doesn’t matter – as the Howies site shows, you can turn it into a positive advantage.

People still want to buy from people they know, like and trust. But these days, ‘know’ may appear in inverted commas: use your online presence to make sure that people like and trust you and you can build a significant business.

A-B-M: Always be Marketing

I was at a sales and marketing event. More years ago than I care to remember. Some nondescript hotel off an equally nondescript motorway junction. Entirely forgettable.

Except for one conversation which has always stayed with me.

There’d just been a presentation on ‘the sales cycle.’ As we queued for coffee and wondered how old the biscuits were I started talking to the man next to me. It turned out he was responsible for a direct sales team in the life assurance industry.

“So how’s ‘the sales cycle’ go with your guys?” I asked.

“Remarkably simple,” he said. “Virtually every one of my team has a four stage sales cycle.”

“What’s that?”

“You want to know? It goes like this. Prospect – prospect – prospect – prospect: close – close – close – close: spend it – spend it – spend it – spend it. Sod it. Prospect – prospect – prospect…”

I couldn’t help laughing – and I’ve remembered the conversation every time I’ve opened the paper and seen the financial services industry beset by another mis-selling scandal. But it isn’t just ‘commission hungry salesmen’ who get trapped in that four stage sales cycle. I’ve seen it any number of times in any number of industries. And I was thinking about it the other day as I drove home from the annual TAB conference.

I love the two days of the TAB conference: as I wrote the other week it re-energises me and re-focuses me. And it’s a great reminder of the basics – not just of my business, but of any business. I drove away this year with two clear thoughts: I was doing the right things, but maybe I needed to do more of them – and I was proud of my commitment to this blog.

I was talking to one of my newer colleagues over a drink – and no, this time it wasn’t hotel coffee and stale biscuits…

“I’m really busy, Ed,” he said. “In fact I’m so busy that I don’t really have time to do any marketing at the moment.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years – irrespective of the industry I’ve been in or the sales teams I’ve managed – it’s this: marketing cannot be turned on and off like a tap. It’s an essential part of your business: making sure your marketing is running smoothly and that you’re doing it consistently is every bit as important as an appointment with a potential client.

This blog was started on 29th June 2010 as part of my marketing. At the time TAB York had just a handful of members and – not surprisingly – the blog had very few readers. Before I started I spoke to someone who knew a lot about blogs. “You have to do one thing, Ed,” he said. “You have to publish consistently. It’s exactly like a newspaper. And it’s called the Sunday Times. Not the When-I-Can-Be-Bothered Times.”

I rapidly came to understand how difficult it is to publish every week. And with not many readers it would have been easy to give up. But I gradually realised what my expert had meant. Marketing today is more difficult than it used to be, especially if social media is an integral part of it. If you’re blogging or using Twitter it doesn’t cost you anything – except time and commitment.

But if you do put the commitment in – and you do it regularly and consistently – then you will not only generate a regular flow of potential clients, you’ll generate a flow of potential clients who already know that you’ll deliver, because they’ve seen it every week.

“You don’t know me,” a voice on the phone said, “But I’ve been reading your blog every week for a year. I think it’s time to talk.”

That conversation led to a great TAB member. At the time I had absolutely no idea he was reading the blog – and that’s increasingly true of a lot of our marketing. We cast it adrift on social media and we have no idea who might be reading it – or when we might get that phone call.

But make sure your marketing is consistent – whatever form it takes – and I guarantee that someone will read it and act on it. We live in a wholly different world to the old sales approach. Your clients expect you to deliver consistently: make sure your marketing proves that you do.

The Below Zero Business Pitch

How can I put this delicately? Have you been to a networking lunch lately? Did you not have a slight feeling of deja-vu?

What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is a trip to Oulu. It’s in Finland. 65 degrees north – a mere 107 miles from the Arctic Circle. And the place where you can present the coolest business pitch in the world. Literally.

Chamber of Commerce, Institute of Directors, people sitting comfortably round a table in a nice, warm hotel, please take note.

In Oulu they do things differently.

Go there in February and you’re welcome to speak about your company for as long as you like. Just as long as you remain standing in a hole in the ice.

I suspect that might concentrate your mind. If you’re in freezing water, “We really care about our customers and we’re different to all the firms out there so we’d be really grateful if you’d give us a try” probably isn’t a sensible way to start your pitch. By the time you’ve wasted those 26 words the hypothermia will be setting in. As you can see…

But back in the nice, warm hotel people are doing precisely that. They’re wasting far more than 26 words, taking a minute to say nothing at all, talking about their business in a way that’s unrehearsed, that lacks conviction and does nothing to persuade the other people round the table that they’d be worth talking to.

(In fairness, the problem isn’t confined to networking lunches. I’m constantly amazed at the people who go on Dragons’ Den and casually ask for £75,000 without researching the Dragons or rehearsing their pitch.)

But let me ask you a question. If you had to make your pitch in a hole in the ice, in water that could kill you, what would you do?

  • You’d rehearse
  • You’d get straight to the point
  • And you’d make sure you delivered the very best pitch you could

I can’t see how those fundamentals change simply because you’re in the Marriott on Tadcaster Road.

At various times in all our business lives we’re face to face with a potential client or customer. You’ve been introduced and suddenly you realise that this guy could well contribute to your bottom line. And then he says, “So what do you do exactly?”

It’s at this point that you need to give a simple, persuasive and – ideally – slightly intriguing answer.

But all too often it’s something like this: “Well, I’m a web designer. Mostly, that is. There’s a house I’m doing up – when I get round to it. And I teach guitar a couple of nights a week. But what I’m really thinking of…”

Here’s how my conversation goes:

  • So what do you do exactly?
  • I help business owners achieve their potential
  • How do you do that then?
  • I bring together business owners from non-competing sectors in a group setting – similar to a board of directors – and we help each other to identify opportunities and solve challenges we each face in our own companies. Make sense? I’m adding to my boards and I’m looking for business owners that would be a good fit.

The first answer is 7 words long: the second is 56, which I deliver in 20-30 seconds.

Did I write those answers down? Did I work on them with the help of other people? Have I practised them in the bathroom? Yes to all three. And I’m not ashamed of that.

I think in those 56 words I offer the solution to a problem, sell the potential benefits and give the person I’m speaking to the chance to empathise.

Yes, of course it could be shorter – We sell blankets that instantly warm people up when they get out of freezing water – but everyone will listen for 20-30 seconds.

So two questions:

  • Do you have an answer to the ‘what do you do’ question that solves a problem, sell the benefits and invites empathy?
  • And you must have asked a hundred people what they do: what’s the best answer you’ve ever received?

Anyway, that’s enough from me for this week. I’ve an important presentation on Tuesday. I need to practise. Dan and Rory are just filling the bath with ice…