Saturday 16 August 2014

Build your own: Online Business Planning toolset - The best free tools

Making a business plan is a tool for communicating your business ideas to others, identifying flaws and attempting to promote future success with a clear set of goals.

Because the best ideas come to us wherever we may be, it's useful to formulate our plans- or at least make a note of them whilst we're on the move. We can use simple methods like:

  1. Emailing ourselves reminders
  2. Post-it notes
  3. The dreaded 'writing on hands*'
*Only writing only on your own hands is probably more sociably acceptable...

There are a multitude of tools to help with these note keeping: Evernote, Google Keep and GoodToDo (just to name a few commercial solutions).

What we need, however, after that note taking process, is a solid tool which we can sit down with and work with to form a solid business plan.

For a quick and easy resources for hard-copy free business templates, a few reliable sources include:

  • For the more visual planner 'FreeMind', is a free open source too for mind-mapping. It's possible to use this tool to plan your business visually, and even link to external resources such as financial reports, and market research findings. 
Here is a sample FreeMind business plan example, naturally, you will have to download and install FreeMind which is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux. 

Establish your business planning tools workflow

Use what works best for you- obviously. There's no point wasting time learning some fancy software if all you really need is a word processor, good old pen & paper, a whiteboard. Get rid of the procrastination gremlins and make life easier for yourself. Whatever the tool you use check that, for you, it's: 
  • Easy & quick to use
  • Free, preferably open source*
  • On-line or easily updated on the move
*We mention this because a lot of extensive business planning software markets itself as 'free', when if fact it's more 'free entry' where the next step is a upgrade from their inferior free offering. Start with something which is free from the onset, and you will not experience this misleading false dichotomy. 

The reality is the tools on the market today will try and take money off you before you even get started. 

'Enloop', for example will charge roughly £172.52 a year for their full-fledged on-line business planning tool, and 'Bplans' Business Plan Pro product costing £103.99. This is a tall order for a task which essentially involves putting your ideas on paper, assessing the risks, and attempting to gauge future business based on similar market behaviour. Some may argue the forecasting capabilities are unmatchable; read on for a free solution for that too.

By putting together the tools outlined above, FreeMind, and freely available business plan templates, it's quick and easy to make-your-own flexible business plan using these tools.

All that remains is a simply financial planning and accounting software for small business. For that, we recommend the GnuCash Accounting Software which we reviewed recently which also has a mobile app, allowing you to record your expenses when on the move with your mobile. 

Thursday 24 July 2014

Alternatives to the coffee shop cubicles- working outdoors in the sun practically

'Third place' at the coffee shop cubicle,
 is not the only option
`We` - Referring to business owners.

The rational is simple- we're board of taking up so much time in the Coffee Shops and ticking off the waiters. It's sunny outside all we need now is to break away from the norm and go-it-alone to the great outdoors of office in a park. Yes, it can be done.

The third space coffee cubicle - the status quo  

We love the coffee shops, swapping the coffee at home for a free Wifi connection elsewhere by the full glass window of a Starbucks, embracing their "third place" philosophy. A philosophy which, promotes the social acceptance to stay sat in the corner of a coffee shop for an inordinate amount of time buying very little coffee. It's on their website if this post is not to be believed. The third-place concept has been around since the 90s, a "home away from home" which is not strictly for work related activities, but is taken advantage of by those liking a Café cubicle. Not all coffee shops appreciate this annexation of a table for four hours, however, and may even spot you coming should you dare become a regular by refuting your receipt concealing the closely guarded password to the toilets.

Café Ziferblat, consequently, is now offering a 'pay per minute' coffee shop where coffee is free. Instead the time is paid for.  There's one in London should you be passing.

Yes we can: Working in the park. On a bench

The beauty of working in the fresh air cannot be understated. Don't be guilty, your working where you've always wanted to work anyway- away from the distractions of the office!

This is so true it bares repeating- if you ask people where they get most of their work done, it's rarely their place of work. It's usually 7pm, when the office is quiet- late at night or in the bath. 

Taking the o-natural approach to working outside simply makes sense, for many people it's where your  relaxed and can toil with problems in a non-disruptive environment. Wifi in a park- what wifi? Yes this used to be a problem.
A small handy portable solar charger is all you need to
keep you going for a good few hours in the park.
But is no more- there's always the very practical solution of tethering ones mobile phone. Create a wifi hotspot with your mobile and your all set. The real challenge here is power. For this, there's an equally pragmatic solution. Extended battery packs and portable solar chargers for your mobile. 

Portable chargers are so cheap now: A quick search on ebay will find a reliable solar charger for less than £20. Look for chargers with standard USB sockets on then. Don't be distracted by the overpriced 'iPhone' or 'Samsung' only chargers. Electricity is electricity. So long as you equip yourself with your phone's usb cable, your better off with a solar charger with USB sockets to keep your devices tops up.

Likewise, your laptop might not be able to keep up with your intense working in the sun. Laptop batteries have improves, though your options aren't limited for extended power. Most non-apple laptops have a removable battery which can be upgraded to an extended battery pack. Lenovo laptops are especially notorious for catering to this need and provide 'Lenovo certified' extended battery packs. Again, just look for your laptop model with the word "extended battery". It may not be possible to find vendor certified extended battery packs for all brands, there will always be non-brand alternatives. A spade is a spade.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Why offering customers free returns it not so insane

 Offering free returns completes
the full circle of trust.
(It's not the sale).
In short, as reputable sellers whom want to be respected online, we should  aim to keep returns to a minimum by being genuine, never over selling on promise, and then convert unavoidable returns into surprising customers with a hassle free service which they reward the seller with an increased level of trust.

"The true score is made when a customer is given a hassle free returns experience, they will feel safe to order more next time. In many ways, it's your returns experience which "seals the deal" and not the sale itself. - You want continued custom, not a one-time hit."

Paying for returns- the rationale
A seven year (American) study  found that the 'wrong size' was the number one reason for returns (Dr. Petersen et al 2009). However, it's misguided to look at returns as a bad thing when we look at the full circle for the customer. It found 13% returns is the sweet spot for increased follow-up orders because they come to trust the retailer more. 

-This makes sense dons't it? If you know you've got the freedom to return, hassle & cost free, your going to be more comfortable buying more. The study affirms this. 

It's about building the trust, according to psychologist & retail consultant Kit Yarrow, observes that Women especially see their relationship with on-line retailers as a very personal one, and feel violated when not treated as a 'friend' or trusted member. Being a 'happy customer' doesn't stop when the item arrives. 

It's alarmingly true,  think about the last time you returned something to an on-line store which didn't go to plan. After being treated badly, how to you feel shopping there again. Did they factor in your previous spends with the company? 

The true score is made when a customer is given a hassle free returns experience, they will feel safe to order more next time. In many ways, it's the returns experience which "seals the deal" and not the sale itself. The deal is the relationship with the customer, trusting us to buy again, despite our faults. A sale is a small part of that continuing relationship. 
Reality- when returns are hitting the bottom line
Of course, if a significant number of returns start to happen, it tells us something's not right with the offer being presented. It's not an indication to penalise customers further an unfriendly returns policy. Poor product descriptions this is the third top reason for returns on-line (Dr. Petersen et al 2009).

Your product descriptions – online or in print – should be as accurate as possible.  A great deal of effort should go into crafting detailed product descriptions that answer just about any question a customer might have – especially online.  Extra effort should be put into proofing these same descriptions for accuracy before they’re released to consumers.   Generally, customers buy because they like what they see.  If they don’t get what they see, they start thinking that maybe you’ve pulled the old “bait and switch” – leading to returns that could have been easily avoided.
- J. Andrew Petersen study

What the customers are saying (or shouting!) (a random example) sells is a typical on-line retail store, they're generally badly reviewed on-line- but primarily for their returns. It's very easy to find positive review, however, commending the quality of the products vs their low price. So what's the problem?

One customer points out "Charging for returns says one thing to me, and that's that they get so many they can't afford to cover it themselves and remain sufficiently profitable" the review.

Square pegs round holes.
Isn't it it's the worst kept secret people buy feelings not things? Truth is people do buy more once they come to trust the retailer they're buying from and retailers can partly build that relationship with returns. 

For a detailed discussion on retailing on-line, the panel "Britain's Retail Empire 2013" interview with and others comes highly recommended.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Use a free antivirus and firewall

Having worked in a large enterprise, it's common place to never keep using a system which has had a virus infection- it's just too risky to keep using a system which has once been infected. There's simply no quick fast easy way for an enterprise to check what damage a virus may have done- even after 'removal' a virus may have re-created itself into another form which is not detectable to the current virus scanner (this is known as ' Polymorphic code' which changes itself every time it runs making it much harder for virus scanners to detect.

So what can be done? Well as with the common cold- the first and best steps are prevention. This is the primary role of you're firewall to try to prevent known attacks from reaching your computers inside your network. A few well revered free firewalls for windows include:

> ClamAv
> Comodo Firewall & Internet security
> Avast internet security
> ZoneAlarm

Both Comodo and Avast also offer complete free internet security suites with antivirus, firewall and spyware protection.

There's little functional difference between the two (given they are both in competition with each other) so it's really a matter of preference- which one is easiest enough for you and is the least distraction?

Avast, although free, still requires you to register yearly for a licence key- so they get your email address.

Comodo doesn't have this restriction and therefore has the 'convenience factor'. Give both a try, remembering not to run both at the same time- unfortunately antivirus products generally do not play well together!

Distraction is a key point here. Everybody hates frequent popups from security programs asking "do you want to allow this program to run?". Thankfully, this is becoming behaviour of the past. Today many security products are able to automatically make this decision for you when it recognises well known, trusted, applications.

The non-free McAfee antivirus suit has told us it used it's own network of customers to 'learn' common safe applications and aggregates this to decide if the programs on your computer are safe to run.

Free solutions such as ClamAv also employ this strategy, albeit in a less automated fashion, by a community of submitters who submit unknown applications and files to the central database inspection. It's also true that free antivirus products do in fact outperform commercial products sometimes, killing the argument that you are safer with a commercial solution.

In conclusion, beware of claims saying your always better protected with a commercial antivirus- this simply isn't the case.
Instead, focus on identifying a solution which is the least distracting to you.

Friday 17 January 2014

Immersive Immersion for Duolingo

Duolingo is a popular free online tool to help learn a language. It's won multiple awards (including best education start-up in 2013 by techcrunch).

It's effectiveness is often brought into question- people are naturally inquisitive by "free" end "educational" in the same sentence. But the awards, and over 20 million users must put Rosetta Stone in an awkward position.

Immersive immersion is an experimental script written to help users who find hearing a language particularly useful for retention and comprehension. Let us be clear, this is in no way associated with Duolingo and any bugs, error are fault of the developer of the script and not Duolingo.

Duolingo is a beautifully smooth online language learning application. Users learn by progressing through lesson units which gradually progress to more complex language constructs.

Additionally, Duolingo offers an 'Immersion' section where users can translate real-world website articles written in the language they're learning. This is fantastic for reading comprehension, however there is no option for audio playback of the sentences.

Installation of the script: (instructions can be found here, Spanish translation, German translation). Will allow the playback of sentences being translated as demonstrated in the video.

  • The script supports all languages which Duolingo supports
  • It is not perfect and therefore only recommended for interested parties for experimentation
  • It helps make the translation of articles a much more fun, immersive learning experience. 

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Mobile accounting software for free

Calculate mobile expenses the easy & free way. 
Storing receipts on your mobile- keeping track of expensive is important for the annual tax return. You know how it all adds up; one ream of paper here, pens, postage and the printer ink needs replacing. Here's our requirements for a free, mobile accounting app:

It must:
  • Be free
  • Track both expenses and credits
  • Work alongside (integrate) with a robust account system(s)
  • Easy to use
The recommended app fulfills all these points:-
 For keeping record about purchases, mobile expenses,  which need to be tracked. Taking a photo of the receipt is easy at the time- but clumsy later.

Which expenses app is best?

We all know there are many apps available for this purpose, but we found that a combination of GnuCash on the Desktop / Laptop followed by GnuCash Mobile app on the phone. Why? Because we often found that by using other apps we were often making a sacrifice between a good app over our existing fully fledged accountancy package (whether that be QuickBooks, Sage, or GnuCash).

There's simply no need to totally remove your existing accounting solution. Just sync your mobile expenses with your existing accountancy package.

With GnuCash, you can import your existing accounts, and then have the app automatically email you your accounts at the end of the day so they can be imported to your full accountancy package.

Don't sacrifice a your existing accountancy package for the sake of an good app

GnuCash Mobile Edition is practical & free.
Additionally, by using GnuCash mobile app- you don't have to be locked into using a certain accountancy package. Often other 'free' apps will make their money by offering an online service, or additional accountancy package to use your app with when you get home.

You save yourself this vendor lockdown (and a few pounds) by using GnuCash mobile which supports accountancy formats OFX & QIF which both QuickBooks, Sage and GnuCash support.

GnuCash for mobile, which is currently only available for Android devices can be found from the Google Play Store for GnuCash.

It is highly recommended to explore the benefit of pairing this app with GnuCash- a free, reliable accountancy package for small businesses. See our full review of GnuCash to see if it's right for your needs.