Question : As a woman setting up in business for the first time I wonder if there is any specific support I can access?
Sharon Polson from Invest NI’s entrepreneurship development team replies:
First of all I would recommend that you explore the mainstream support that is available to all entrepreneurs. The main support for people setting up a business is the Go for It programme.
It is open to anyone starting a business that will trade only within Northern Ireland and is delivered through local enterprise agencies.
You can find out more about this on the Go for it website, www.goforitni. com. The Go for it programme builds the skills of potential entrepreneurs, helping them to develop strategic business plans and commercialise their ideas.
Once established, businesses will have access to continued mentoring support in branding and website development.
If your business will be trading outside Northern Ireland you should contact your nearest Invest NI office and speak to an advisor who will let you know about export related support.
However, there are also a number of organisations that offer specific advice for female entrepreneurs. There are five women’s business networks across Northern Ireland.
These offer networking events and the opportunity to benefit from peer-led mentoring relationships. You can find out about your nearest one on the Invest NI website, www.investni.com.
Sometimes the best advice you can get is from a woman who has been through the process of setting up a business.
On the Invest NI website you can view the Business Journeys videos, which feature successful local female entrepreneurs.
The nibusinessinfo.co.uk website also has a good overview of support for female entrepreneurs with links to many useful resources.
Question: People keep telling me about Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Should my business be using these services?
Gary McKeown, consultant at Stratagem and blogger at www.garymckeown.info replies:
Given the influence of online social networking platforms growing apace, it is important for businesses and organisations to be aware of these communications channels, even if they don’t actively use them to engage with stakeholders.
New media offers a fantastic range of opportunities for companies to create a dialogue with customers and potential customers in an innovative and creative way. And when it comes to reputation management, businesses also need to be aware that rumour and speculation can spread like wildfire on the internet with few checks or balances.
The latest online social networking phenomenon is Twitter, a simple platform that allows users to post messages of no more than 140 characters to an online profile.
This can be done via the internet, text message or on a BlackBerry, for example. Profiles can then be ‘followed’ by other users who are able to read the messages that have been posted.
Twitter comes on the back of more established services such as YouTube, which allows users to post videos online, and Facebook, which boasts an estimated 13% of Belfast residents on its books.
Companies shouldn’t feel under pressure to establish a social networking presence unless they are comfortable with the technology, believe it could benefit them, and are aware of the potential pitfalls.
There is nothing worse than an organisation trying to shoe-horn itself into online networks in a hamfisted and inappropriate way.
However, it makes sense for businesses to be at the very least aware of how these platforms operate and to seek advice on how best to approach them.
There are some great examples in Northern Ireland of digital engagement, such as the IoD’s NI Crunch Talk site, which Stratagem is a partner on, and Slugger O’Toole, which has provoked political debate and driven news.
The internet has opened up a broad range of innovative and exciting opportunities for companies to improve how they communicate, so new media channels such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook should certainly be on your corporate radar.
Question: What can I do to improve cash flow for my small business?
George Houston, head of specialist business at Northern Bank replies:
There are five steps that any business can take to achieve better cash control.
Firstly, it’s important to ensure your business collects money from debtors and pays creditors in a balanced way.
Paying creditors too quickly could ultimately result in over trading. However, it’s also important to realise that harsh terms and conditions could push customers to competitors.
Secondly, it may sound simple but always negotiate the best deal possible on all purchases by seeking three quotes in terms of both price and payment.
If you are selling goods or services into the Republic, be mindful of the impact of exchange rates on cash flow.
Thirdly, remember time is money. Free up as much time as possible for staff to focus on sales generating activities that will grow the business.
Look into automating systems or outsourcing activities such as processing wages and invoices.
Fourthly, better coordination of cash flow issues equals better liquidity. A measured focus on both sales and purchases or making use of trade finance products, such as ‘letters of credit’, can improve the health of a business.
Finally, cash flow needs to be a company-wide responsibility. It’s important for all staff to understand cash flow and its relevance to the business which you must take time out to explain.