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Business Support is a Critical Resource for SMEs following COVID Lockdown

Business Support is a Critical Resource for SMEs following COVID Lockdown

Remember life before COVID?

Do you remember life before COVID? It probably feels like a long distant memory of more stable days and greater freedoms, when stories of ‘BirdFlu’, ‘SARS’, ‘Ebola’, ‘Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease’ and ‘Swine Flu’ would grace our Smart Phone and TV news screens as we went about our daily lives, never really impacting us here in Europe and the UK.

A chance to reflect for business owners?

Now, as we approach the end of the second year of COVID mania and media sensations regarding ‘Coronavirus’, ‘Lockdown Announcements’ and ‘Business Support’ through ‘Furlough Schemes’, is it time to reflect on how lockdown has changed our lives? Again and again, we ask how did lockdown affect small businesses? What should businesses do after lockdown? Will there be another lockdown announcement? What business support will be available?

How Lockdown affected Business Owners?

Businesses in the UK have not only faced repeated lockdowns forcing many to close, but we’re also seeing inflation running at its highest for many years, driving up the cost of materials and labour, and we really don’t know what is going to happen over the next 12 months regarding the coronavirus pandemic, economic health and spiralling debt levels.

Businesses are being told to help their staff work from home wherever they can, encourage people to get fully vaccinated, get booster vaccines, limit close contact with people, implement social distancing, let fresh air into your workplaces (which is a great idea as long as it isn’t too cold), and to wear a face-covering when possible.

To add pressure to all of this, business owners are facing increasing challenges regarding the emotional wellbeing and mental health of their workforce. SME leaders in particular tend to have the least support available to them to support staff who feel worried, feel anxious, have mental health concerns, or who are less able to cope with lockdown restrictions due to the nature and size of their business.

Business owners need to provide compassion to their employees for the loss of loved ones or family requiring hospitalisation, and for employees needing support for long covid symptoms, all the while not really having a yardstick of any kind to know how honest or loyal employees are really being.

From Furlough to Fear for Business Owners

Business owners initially cheered when the government announced the furlough scheme and provided debt funding to prop them up, and most business leaders assumed that things would be settling after a year or so at the most.

We are now soon to enter the third year of the COVID pandemic and the mounting concerns for SME owners are also centred around their rising debt levels, facing a higher risk of financial exposure than ever due to spiralling material costs and a shortage of labour available to bring home their potential revenue, knowing that further COVID restrictions could finish them off for good.

Acting the part for your employees

In addition to the financial pressures thanks to COVID and government regulations, as employers you are expected to turn up looking positive and strong for your employees.

Offering advice and understanding for their mental health, support for their anxiety and sympathy for their positive COVID test after positive test requiring them to self isolate.

Along with making sure you have hawk-like reactions for anyone displaying symptoms or showing symptoms, and ensuring your own mental health is in good shape, whilst wondering if coronavirus and national lockdowns will ever end.

COVID impacts businesses differently

One thing that has been absolutely clear as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is that the impact is certainly not the same for all companies. Not only do different sizes of businesses cope in different ways, but the services the business provides and the manner in which they provide them makes for a wide variation across the sector, in particular SMEs.

We were all used to seeing the growing dominance of Amazon pre-covid, and they were certainly in the right place for when it hit. Internet shopping became a must for many regardless of their inclination regarding shopping this way, and Amazon has been able to grow and dominate during this time.

The hospitality sector has found that if people are either not allowed or too frightened to eat and drink out then their businesses are not viable. But what about all of the businesses that don’t get much of a mention in the media?

The UK’s Business Makeup

Our nation is made up of a wide variety of companies from manufacturing, R&D, engineering, financial services, legal services, construction, tourism, technology and so many more. This provides a level of resilience for hard times, but how are we distributed in terms of sizes?

How many businesses are there in the UK?

According to the UK government report on ‘business statistics’ published in 2020, there are almost 6 million private companies in the UK, up from 3.5 million in 2000, however, the proportion that employs people has fallen from 32% in 2000 to 24% in 2020, representing a huge rise in self-employment.

How many self employed business owners are there?

Of the 6 million businesses, 4.5 million have no employees, meaning these are generally self-employed. Considering they make up 76% of business in the UK, they contribute 7% of turnover generated in the private sector.

How many UK businesses are less than 9 employees?

Approximately 1.4 million have 1-9 employees and extracting the data in the report we can approximate that they provide around 14% of the turnover generated and makeup 23% of UK businesses.

How many UK businesses have 10-49 employees?

There are around 200,000 businesses in the UK that employ 10-49 people, making 15% of the turnover generated by private companies, whilst representing 4% of the total number of businesses.

How many Medium & Large business?

There are 36,000 medium (50-249 employees) and 8,000 large employers (over 250) in the UK. They generate 16% and 48% of the turnover nationally, meaning in reality that 8,000 companies out of 6 million generate 48% of the turnover in the sector. The large sector employs 39% of people and medium employ 16%. The 8,000 large companies will involve many day to day names you recognise and you probably know several people that work for them.

So what does that mean for UK Business Support?

These numbers may be very interesting to you or even not very interesting at all, but what does it mean? Different businesses have different needs, and the people they serve are very different.

Is there a Coronavirus grant funding to support businesses in the UK?

The good news for many UK companies during lockdown was the launching or availability of multiple business support initiatives by the government. We’ve had the furlough scheme, Kickstarter scheme, business rates relief, VAT breaks, the recovery loan scheme, bounce back loans, ‘eat out to help out’ to name but a few.

The funding schemes provided through channels such as the British Business Bank, high street banks and their associated partners have helped a multitude of businesses stave off collapse due to the impact of COVID19.

Business Support of varying natures can be accessed through growth hubs like the Leicestershire Business Growth Hub, with business advisers available to listen to your challenges and signpost you to either available funding, support, resources and more. If you are wondering about more support, read on to the bottom of this article to find more resources.

Different Business owner approaches to lockdown measures

The nature of businesses and the opinions of their respective leaders have had a high impact on the measures taken during the national and local lockdowns of 2020-2021. We’ve seen a large scale moving of office workers to a work from home culture and the subsequent explosion in the use of video meetings and video networking events, many with some really positive outcomes. How you can operate also had some dependency on whether you were deemed as an ‘essential worker’ or ‘essential service’.

Many companies rely on their staff being co-located to have efficient operations, especially in fast-paced environments where different teams tend to shout across to each other throughout the day to carry out their jobs effectively. There is also the reality that a lot of low skilled roles have a tenuous but undeniable link to work integrity.

Managing people remotely compared to sitting in a room with a team is also very different and has forced large scale changes to the work approach.

Some business owners shut down their operations very quickly and often unnecessarily at the beginning of the pandemic, whilst others hung on too long before facing the reality. The furlough scheme was used very differently, with many businesses taking the opportunity to dodge furlough and move straight to redundancy knowing few questions will be asked.

Others used the furlough schemes even when they had the work and revenue for their staff and used the scheme as an opportunity to protect or even enhance their bottom line (EBIT or profit). How many times have you phoned an organisation and heard them using COVID as an excuse for providing you terrible customer service? Sometimes this was genuine, but it’s also been used to increase profits at the expense of customers.

Is working from home really the answer?

We’ve gone from having to think about your support bubble, social contact and social distancing to facing a reality for many in having very little human contact day to day causing a wide variety of mental wellbeing issues. How to reduce pressure on the NHS? We are told we have to work from home.

We also have to consider what age group people are in when we ask this question. It is a very different prospect for a healthy 25 year old to attend the workplace than for a 60 year with health complications. The medical reasons for people having a different approach are self-explanatory, but as an employer, it makes it a very difficult prospect to deal with.

Working from home comes with many potential benefits. People spend less time travelling to work and have more time in the day, people can get out and walk during the day in their local surroundings improving their physical health, there has been a widespread uptake in people getting pets and enjoying the outdoors.

People talk about work-life balance now in a way they would never have dared before, taking care of themselves, talking about their mental health. But it’s not all as rosy as people like to often make out.

How can working from home have a negative impact?

Training and developing staff can be more challenging remotely, and creating a team environment of people working together remotely can be really difficult. Ensuring staff get enough social contact during the day whilst also ensuring people are working when they are meant to be working (and not slacking off) are all issues faced by business owners.

The net result is that there really isn’t a single ‘one size fits all’ approach to this problem, and working from home on a temporary basis is in no way similar to making it a long term measure. Of course, no one talks about what facilities people have in their homes.

Some have the fortune to have a home office, garden room or nice environment, but for many they are sharing a small house with a number of other people and working from their bed all day (particularly young people), making for a very negative potential outcome on mental wellbeing for these groups, not to mention the physical health aspects of using a laptop sitting on a bed day in day out.

How can we move forwards with Business Support?

For many companies, the business support they need can be grouped into categories as outlined below, and taking action in each of these areas will make a real difference:

Revenue: Can I sell my products and services effectively?

Revenue for a business has become a challenge for many new reasons, from not having enough customers to having plenty of potential customers and no way to service their needs. This can be from staff shortages or a lack of material availability as we’ve seen in the construction industry.

Cash flow: Can I pay everyone’s wages whilst revenues fall?

For many businesses, the winter COVID makes people afraid to go out. There is no support from the government financially whilst they put measures in place effectively scaring people from going to the hairdressers, eating out with friends or having their Christmas party with their work. With more than half of businesses expected to not have a Christmas party for their staff this year, it is grim reading for many hospitality outlets that would otherwise be very busy.

Mental health and wellbeing

Keeping up with the demands of UK expectations on employers with respect to mental health, COVID support, understanding the need to self-isolate, getting your head around different restrictions from week to week is enough to deter many people from wanting to employ at all, and may be enough for many small business owners to give up altogether.

Digital Transformation

Many companies have moved forwards tremendously with digital transformation during the COVID pandemic, and a wide variety of funding has been made available to support these initiatives through local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and growth hubs, but many companies simply have not done enough to cope with the shift towards being a digital online business.

For business owners that aren’t technically advanced there is a real risk of finding a partner to assist with transformation to later find they have not served you well but relieved you of a lot of your money.

Outsourcing

Business owners are often very adverse to reaching out for help from other companies. If you really know what you are doing in a particular area it can be great to train and mentor staff internally, but so many business leaders hurt their company by refusing to seek help from outside agencies and consultants without having a deep knowledge of a particular area.

One example of this is in Digital Marketing, where owners seldom know how to develop their online business to improve the chances of being found, not realising that most website designers have little knowledge in this area, and thinking marketing is about creating leaflets and fliers.

Digital Marketing is one example of a business function that most SMEs benefit significantly from outsourcing due to the owners lack of knowledge in this area. For more on Digital Marketing refer to CREATIVE in TiME.

Networking

Speaking to other like-minded business leaders and owners can be a really helpful way of staying positive, finding out different ways to solve your challenges, meet new people, get access to vital support that you were not aware even existed, understand the best way to implement workplace rules, get more information about other business support initiatives, to name a few.

But where are these? Some private companies have successfully created networking events, whilst there are many others that are paid and require a lot of commitment and input from their members, which many do not have the time or desire to be part of.

Awareness

One of the biggest challenges for business owners is that they are simply not AWARE of the business support available to them either as a result of lockdown announcements, COVID and the pandemic.

If you speak to many SME owners they are so busy fighting day to day to win and deliver their offering to customers that they do not find the time to research the kind of funding and support on offer.

If you are a business owner or leader, reach out to your local growth hub and LEP (local enterprise partnership) to find what is available for you!

More information

If you would like more information on these topics, feel free to reach out to the author, Fred Warner, who is a Business Champion at the Leicestershire Business Growth Hub or find more information on the Business Growth Hub website.

About the Author Fred Warner

Fred Warner is a Business Mentor, Adviser and Consultant to a wide variety of SMEs both small and large. Fred has a passion for helping small businesses grow, plan, create strategies, and deliver. In addition, Fred also runs a Digital Marketing Agency called CREATIVE in TiME Ltd with his partner. Fred has 20+ years in leadership, sales & marketing, technology & products, transformation & business change in industries from F1, Aerospace, Rail, Electronics, Software to Beauty & Leisure.

What are SEO backlinks? 

What are SEO backlinks? 

SEO, backlinks, ranking, domain authority, do all of these words mean nothing to you currently? Well once you’re finished here you should be well versed in the world of backlinks. 

Did you know that 55.24% of pages don’t have a single backlink? 

This is even more mind-blowing when you hear that the top results on Google’s first SERP have 3.8 times more backlinks than results below them! 

Backlinks are alive and kicking and just waiting for you to make the most out of them… 

Simply put, backlinks (aka incoming links and inbound links) are links from one page to another. 

Backlinks are seen by search engines, such as Google, as “votes” for the page.  

The more backlinks a page has, the more likely it is to have high organic search rankings and be found. Here at CREATIVE in TiME, we are alllllll about being FOUND! 

A backlink can be compared to a positive vote. Each time your website receives a backlink, it tells search engines that your content is useful, relevant and trustworthy. 

As you may know, Google makes changes regularly to its algorithm however backlinks have always remained as a key ranking factor, building backlinks isn’t going out of style anytime soon so hop on the trend! 

No, having a high number of backlinks is perfect however this is only the case for high quality backlinks. 

Quality over quantity. 

Having a few high quality backlinks is more desirable than having 100 low quality backlinks. Think of it this way, are you more likely to trust a recommendation from a sketchy guy’s website or from Forbes? Exactly. 

1. It comes from a trusted website 

As we have previously mentioned, the website from which you have a backlink is important. This is called having “domain authority”. Domain authority means that the more authority a website has, the more it can pass onto your site through the link. 

Backlinks from authority sites have more weight under Google and can easily boost your organic search traffic. This does mean that quality backlinks are harder to get than low quality links, but they are absolutely worth the effort. 

What is anchor text, I hear you ask? Anchor text is the visible text part of your link which people click on.

If possible, you want the anchor text in your links to include your target keyword. Including your target keyword has been shown to cause higher rankings for said keyword. 

If you are thinking “this sounds too good to be true”, well you aren’t totally wrong. You want to be careful not to go overboard with keyword-rich anchor text as this can harm you if you’ve done too much. 

This is likely the most obvious of all, Google wants to see a relation between your website and the website which is linking to you. 

For example, you have written a blog detailing how to bake a cake. 

Google will put significantly more weight on backlinks from websites that are related such as baking, cooking and recipes as opposed to websites about fitness and electronics. 

Reach out to other people in your industry, you likely already know people who will have relevant websites and may wish to host each other’s backlinks. 

Backlinks from new websites are more effective than websites who have already linked to you. If a website links to you more than once, all links after the first will have lower returns. 

Once you have a link from a domain, do not focus your efforts on being linked to AGAIN.  

The number of websites linking to you is more important than the total number of links. 50 links from 50 websites is better than 100 links from 1 website. 

If you want to get backlinks, then you need something for people to link to. You need something that other people will recognise as being worth linking to. 

We would recommend: 

  • Blog posts 
  • Videos 
  • Quizzes 
  • Surveys 
  • Software 
  • And anything else that people will want to link to. 

For people to link to your website, it needs to be useful and relevant content. Here’s a tip, when creating your content, look at what other people AREN’T doing.  

If you are writing a guide then check out what other people are missing, maybe they haven’t included examples or do not have enough detail. If people are looking for the best guide on a topic, ensure that yours will be the most relevant. 

Another way to build backlinks is through guest posting. Writing guest posts for quality sites in the same field as you is ideal. Avoid guest posting for unrelated topics as this can look suspicious to Google. 

Find websites in your niche that support guest posting and try reaching out to get the ball rolling. 

You should now know what backlinks are, why they are important and what links are most desirable for your website. 

If your website has backlinks and is still struggling to be found, get in touch with us now. Our team of SEO experts are just waiting to get stuck in! 

To PLAN or not to PLAN – that is the question

To PLAN or not to PLAN – that is the question

If you ask someone if they have a plan for their work, you’ll get vast array of different answers from ‘not at all’ to ‘yes, and I’ve planned my whole life out’.  

So, do you need a plan? Why do you need one? What sort of plans should you make? How do you make a plan? How long should you spend on it?  

I’ve led programme and project managers that hated and dodged project planning despite it being a key aspect of their role. On the other extreme I once worked alongside a project manager that literally scheduled her whole life to an extreme that made me shudder, with holidays mapped out for the next 50 years, and a weekly life plan that included what time of day her and family would get up to when she would have sex with her husband (including day of week and hour of day, yep, it was not the best idea to detail these in work time and keep them on the public work drive!).  

What makes that story even more poignant is that this project manager ran off with one of her clients about 12 months later, making all that work a total waste of time (although I imagine she was getting more of what she wanted!). 

I’ve trained many project managers in planning, and I’ve worked with countless people who find themselves needing to make a plan with very little background in it, and from all the years of doing it myself, mentoring people who are planning, and seeing the execution and results of said planning, let me share a few thoughts with you about it. 

Do you need a plan? 

If you need to achieve something, and you don’t have a project plan, how on earth can you know whether you will achieve the desired outcome, and when you get there will it be worth it?  

Think about it like this, you see programmes on TV like ‘Grand Designs’ and you see them over and over again finding folks that have a budget and no idea how much it is all actually going to cost, they don’t have a PLAN. They go massively overbudget, they let their emotions run them, they often lose money.   

  

What are the benefits of planning?  

Having written details for nearly all situations that involve any level of complexity are critical to evaluating the PATH to your destination, review the risks involved, the likelihood of success, the costs and time durations involved, you can then EVALUATE and decide which path to take. 

Here’s a big headache for you: your plan is only useful on the day you write it. The next day, everything’s probably going to change.  

That’s right folks, this process isn’t a one-time event, a plan MUST be seen as a living and evolving snapshot of the route to the finish line. If you get blown off course you need to replan to get back on track to your destination. 

So, some folks need detail to such a degree it cripples them, it becomes a death by plan for anyone that goes near it. Other people literally rock in every day and just do stuff that seems about right. 

Your job is to plan at the right level or relevance, and the easiest way to do this is in chunks of time

How do you make one?  

Now, let’s say you have a project that is going to take 1 year, I’d immediately recommend creating a high-level summary plan with estimates for the main chunks over that year, and how they depend on each other.  

Once you have a high-level scope, you can take the chunks that fall in the next 3 months and go into more detail. If after going into more detail you find you had to double all your original estimates, you can apply this to the whole project.  

Without going into specifics, there is great value in having a near term focus and clear breakdown of what is needed, whilst allowing items further in the future to be more and more hazy.  

Trust me when I say there is no point planning out a chunk of work in minute detail that is 12 months away of more because it will have completely changed by the time you get there, and your effort is wasted. 

People that get too lost in planning and ‘not doing’ are procrastinators, they are avoiding the real-life execution of the project. People that get lost in execution without planning are avoiding having a reality check on what they are doing. 

What should you plan?  

Whilst there are many basic things in life that should be straight forward for you (like going to the toilet), having a plan can literally CHANGE your life, your work, your achievements, everything.  

I work to the following:  

  • 10-year wish list 
  • 3-year horizon (what I would like it to look like) 
  • A 1-year business plan 
  • A quarter breakdown of objectives and goals I wish to achieve 
  • And then I run a weekly plan (the plan of the week is a PLOW) to give me direction.  

As I’m a human I often fall into lapses on this and stop following my own rules, and do you know what happens, I don’t achieve very much. When I have focussed plans to guide me, I achieve a lot more. 

A plan should be proportionate to the ‘doing’. The old ‘Plan, Do, Review’ saying is very valuable here. It is actually the same as the techy / agile saying for ‘design, build test, repeat’.  

Keep it simple, keep it short, communicate it and share it with the folks that you need support from in the plan, and then get on with the ‘doing’.  

You can then review your progress, see how effective it’s been, learn about your own estimations vs what actually happened, then feed all this knowledge into the next project. 

  

Should you plan?  

Absolutely yes, you should have a plan for your upcoming week with your key desired outcomes listed. 

 

Do you ever NOT need a plan? 

Not really, not unless what you are doing is so ingrained in you or so predictably simple that it is self-explanatory. 

So folks, start simple and grow, if you don’t do it at all, start with very short plans and grow from there. If you are one of those ‘death by plan’ types, wind it right back to the next few weeks only, and DO something.  

To sign off, I’m going to say this, you can MASSIVELY change your life, if you make a 1 year AND a weekly plan of what you wish to achieve (not a task list – that’s another BLOG), and look at your plans briefly every day, I dare anyone to come back to me and say you haven’t exceeded your own dreams, and you are smashing it after 1 year. 

Want to learn some more about Fred? Check out his LinkedIn here!

Or check out another one of our blogs, our most recent: Social Media Do’s and Dont’s.