What are the vital tasks that young businesses need to undertake in order to succeed?

I was one of the judges at the Scottish heat of the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards today., and was really impressed with the standard of the entries. Everyone gave such impressive, confident pitches. 

I was also asked to give a short talk on this topic  I wrote this in preparation but ended up ‘winging it’ as usual, despite the butterflies in my stomach. Apologies to people in the audience if I rambled on; clearly I had not put as much work into my preparation as the finalists who were pitching.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts, please let me know if you agree, and do add your own ‘vital tasks’ too. 

Find out what you really care about

What does success look like to you? Is it about making lots of money, is it about responding to a social issue? If you don’t care about your business, why should anyone else?


I’m not talking about writing a 64 page business plan that goes into minute detail and quotes endless market research statistics here. But you do need a guide for where you want to be, and how you are going to get there. At SIE, we favour the Business Model Canvas which is a very simple tool for mapping out the essential elements you need to consider.

Don’t be afraid to change your plan as you go. Sometimes, as you gain knowledge of what your customers and market really want, you need to change direction. But don’t keep changing direction. If you have to change too often, perhaps you need a complete rethink. Pivot, don’t spin!

Get Customers

If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business! Your product or service may not be ready yet, but the sooner you start to look for customers, the sooner you will know if your business idea has traction. But they have to be the right sort of customers, the sort that pay you money and appreciate you. Successful businesses want to get repeat business and referrals.


Do your potential customers/market know what you are selling? Is your message (and your product) simple to understand? Are you listening to what they are saying? Communication is a two way process, and listening to what customers want is a vital part of becoming a successful business (unless you are Ryanair!).

Get some Money

Of course you need money to succeed, and the best money to get is from paying customers. However that may take a while, so what do you do to keep going in the meantime?

For those of you who have not been successful in this competition, don’t give up. Your businesses have great potential and there is plenty you can do without a lot of money. You don’t always need as much as you think. Think about what else you have, skills that you can share in order to get something in return. What help and resources you can you get? Maybe you can partner with someone? Don’t be afraid to ask – you need to become a ‘master asker’ (my favourite definition of an entrepreneur).


Staying still is not an option. You may be perfectly happy in your little niche, but If you don’t plan to grow, eventually someone will come along and take your business away. The world is a big place, but its accessible, so don’t be afraid to go beyond borders. Keep challenging yourself to take the next step, and the next, and the step after that. Be prepared to move outside your comfort zone – its only uncomfortable for a while.

Be the best

You probably already are an expert in something, whether that is whisky, wedding dresses or computational linguistics. But you need to be the best you can be in your business. Customers (yes, them again) need you to solve their problems and want to believe they are getting the best solution. What’s your USP, or ‘unique selling point’? What can you offer that no-one else can?

Find advisors you can trust

Its great that there are plenty of people who will give you help and advice, It could be a bank manager, someone from a support organisation such as SIE, even a friend or a family member. They may have a vested interest, they may be completely impartial. Listen to what they say, but also trust your own judgement. They may be highly recommended, but they need to be right for you. Take time to reflect. Sometimes the advice you get is wrong – you need to be able to believe in yourself and trust yourself above all.

Finally, just do it!

You won’t get everything right, every time, but you will always learn and do better the next time.

Posted in Entrepreneurial, Go for it!, Start-ups | Leave a comment

A new year begins with a snapshot, friends and memories

I took this photo with my phone on 1st January, 2013.


It’s not a great photo, but I’d just discovered that there was a panorama option and I wanted to play with it.

New Year is a time to reflect on times past, and my enthusiasm with this newly discovered tool reminded me of some of the first photos that I took with my very first ‘good’ camera – a Vivitar with a fixed 50mm lens. I wanted to capture some of the glory of the Scottish scenery and took lots of photos of the hills. It took 2 weeks before the enormity of my inexperience
became apparent. I sent away my film to be developed, but my excitement soon turned to disappointment when I looked through the prints. All I had managed to capture was a few disappointing images of a bare slice of hill.
I soon learned how to compose better photographs, and I really enjoy taking photos. I also know my limitations, and that even the amazing new technology in my pocket, I can still take terrible pictures. But I appreciate the time and effort that professional photographers have to put in to take really good photos. In the meantime, I the snap above has value to me as a reminder of a lovely walk with family and friends, like many other New Year’s Days in the past, with many more to come.

I took a few more snaps yesterday, and messed around with software on my phone to make them look a bit better. Technology and experience has vastly improved my photographs compared to the first pictures I took as a 12 yr old with a new camera. Most it my photos are still terrible, but every so often I manage to take a photo I’m really proud of. Fortunately digital photography means I can keep trying, without the limitations of an expensive roll of film!



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Entrepreneurial students are where will Scotland’s economic growth will come from.

This is the talk that I gave at ACCA Scotland’s business debate in June 2012. ACCA is the global body for professional accountants. Let me know what you think, join in the debate using the comments below.

“I know where our economic growth will come from – it will come from our students; the enterprising, socially aware, tech savvy, globally connected, young people that fill our university campuses.

I am by nature an optimistic person. And why wouldn’t I be? I lead an organisation that helps students to become entrepreneurs. Every day, I see bright, enthusiastic young people who are full of ideas. Some are supremely confident, others are more reticent. All, however, are smart, hard working and forward looking. These smart, well-educated young people are not enough, however; they need to be nurtured and supported.

I’ve heard a lot of negativity about Scotland’s low rate of business start-ups but, I wonder, are we too focussed on quantity rather than quality?

What we see at the Scottish Institute for Enterprise are companies started by students and recent graduates that aim high. They are not just looking to develop a lifestyle business or become self employed. Their ambition is to have companies with turnovers in the millions; and then they are going to use that money to help others. These are the companies from which Scotland’s future growth will emerge.

An example, Deer Digital in Aberdeen. The business started in 2010, when Alice, their Managing Director graduated. Its founders are still in their 20’s, but already they are employing 13 highly skilled people. They could have been just another web design agency, but they are far more ambitious. They are successfully raising investment for the technology platform they have developed; their aim is high and their horizons are global.

And then there is Lat56, founded by 2 students from Strathclyde University’s Department of Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management. Keen outdoor sports enthusiasts, their first product was a folding surfboard, before they moved on to the luggage market. Their company was founded in 2007, and in 2010 they secured an exclusive launch with Selfridges to retail their innovative luggage designed specifically for business travellers.

Now the products are available in the US and the rest of the world thanks to an online launch, and the luxury brand has offices and logistics in Glasgow, London, San Francisco and Hong Kong.

Last night, I was at Strathclyde’s annual design show, full of students with great potential and amazing ideas. And that’s just one department in one of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, so we have more than enough raw materials to work with.

So what do we need in order to fully exploit Scotland’s emerging talents? In my experience, students need three things:

– Advice

– Routes to market

– Money!!!!!

The first, advice, is where we score very well.
The existing Scottish business community is our ‘secret sauce’. We are a small country, and our experienced business people are incredibly generous when it comes to sharing their experiences and giving advice to our students. They are candid and realistic, and their insights are incredibly valuable to our new, entrepreneurial companies.

And if they can’t help, they will know someone else who can, the networking advantage of a country where everyone seems to be, at most, just two degrees of separation away, cannot be overestimated. At one of our recent student company accelerator bootcamps, participants worked out that they knew people who know Richard Branson and Bill Clinton!

The second, routes to market, although good in part, can be problematic.We have access to global markets though organisations such as SDI, and we have Global Scots. Global Scots have infiltrated every corner of the globe. They have senior roles in companies around the world, but they still feel like part of the Scottish community. They are perfectly positioned to help Scottish companies to develop global clients.

And of course, technology brings the world to us. Every young person has grown up in an environment where information is available at the click of a button, and where contacting people on the other side of the world is easy and quick. Even I can build a website in just a few hours, and can reach a global customer base instantly via tools such as eBay. If I can do that, imagine what people who have grown up using these technologies every day can do.

However, if you need good business contacts, either as customers or as partners, there comes a time when you need to meet them face to face. I don’t need to tell you how hard that can be, when almost any journey requires at least two flights.

On a related note, manufacturing is also an issue. Our fledgling companies happily negotiate production deals with manufacturers in China. Any why not? Costs are lower, which gives them bigger sales margins. However it’s hard to get started on prototyping when relying on remote manufacturers, so many promising product ideas fail early because of the lack of local, smaller scale manufacturing and prototyping.

And finally there is access to money.
Do I need to say any more? Our new entrepreneurs are very adept at bootstrapping in the early stages, but there comes a point where significant investment is needed, and that is very hard to get. In fact, for many new businesses, they struggle even to raise £20k and so can fall at the first hurdle.

I don’t want to end on a low note, however, so I’d like to end by quoting Sir Tom Hunter when he spoke last week at the Business in Parliament event:
He said that “The beauty of Scotland is that we are small, we’re nimble. We’re a speedboat, if you like, against the large supertankers that are America, India and China. We can run rings round about them if we have the ambition, drive and determination to do so.”

And quoting Google founder Sergey Brin, who said the competitor he feared most was probably sitting in a bedsit in China or a garage in America, Sir Tom asked: “Why not a bedsit in Scotland?” He also asked that when he spoke to nearly four hundred students at SIE’s Student Enterprise Summit last year, and you can be sure that the audience took note!

So if you want to see where Scotland’s economic growth will come from, don’t take my word for it, come and meet some of these young people yourselves, I’d be pleased to introduce you.”

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Positive attitudes!

I was fortunate enough to attend the Business in Parliament event at Holyrood last week. It was an incredibly friendly and uplifting experience, well attended by politicians of all hues and many business people, representing their own companies and business organisations. I took four young entrepreneurs along with me, all winners of SIE’s competitions, and all were made extremely welcome. They certainly made the most of the networking opportunity!

The Debating Chamber

The conference is designed as an opportunity for politicians and business people to get to know each other better, and for businesses to share their experience and opinions with the MSPs. The theme for this year was “The importance of entrepreneurship and internationalisation to promote economic growth” and so was a theme that had great relevance to me.

During dinner, I sat next to an MSP who told me a great deal about the workings of the Scottish Parliament, especially the role of the cross-party working committees, who do a lot of great work, mostly behind the scenes. It seems that there is a great deal of collaboration in the Scottish Parliament, which is encouraging to hear about.

The highlight of the event, however, was undoubtedly the inspirational speech given by Sir Tom Hunter. He emphasised the importance of having a ‘can do’ attitude and a global outlook, not just in business but in politics too. He talked about the importance of education, and the need for education at all levels to be grounded in the needs of business. He made us realise what Scotland has achieved, not just in the past but in the present too, and how these recent achievements and attributes are recognised around the world. There is an undoubted tendency in Scotland to underplay what we can do; we need to know that, in reality if ‘some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!’ we would actually see ourselves in a more positive light. 

We must all take confidence in our abilities. As individuals, we are highly educated; many of Scotland’s companies may be small, but that makes us fast and responsive. And in the modern world, those attributes can make us world beating!

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So many communications channels!

I’ve been really bad at writing blog posts in the past few months. There are two main reasons for that, and I’m sure most of my readers will identify with them.

First, its a real challenge for me to think about subjects to write about. Can I really say anything that hasn’t already been said in another blog, often far more eloquently that me. And so I tend to simply retweet a good blog.

Second, when I am inspired to write something, I don’t seem to have time to sit down at my computer and write it properly. And I really hate seeing myself on the rare occasions that I try to do a video blog. So what should I do? Well, I think I may have found a solution in audioblogging, via audioboo All you have to do is talk into your phone, and it only allows you 3 minutes, so you don’t need to think too much about it.  I’m probably a bit slow on the uptake, as lots of my twitter pals are already there, and its interesting to hear the voices of the people I’ve been following.

Its not ideal, however. The main disadvantage I can see is that it is a broadcast medium that doesn’t easily engage discussion. I’m going to persevere, however, as I think its a good addition to my social media mix.

I’ve also been exploring video as a means of covering events. I’ve spent quite a few hours this weekend at Startup Weekend Glasgow, and I helped out by interviewing people, using my phone video camera.

Have a wee look and listen to what I’ve done so far and let me know what you think by adding your comment and by filling in my poll. The videos are on http://www.moviecom.tv/startupweekendglasgow and the audioblogs are on http://audioboo.fm/FionaGo

Once you have listened to my wee broadcast on aodioboo, browse the channels and see how the professionals do it – BBCR4 are there too.

Come to think about it, I did want to be a journalist when I was at school….

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Social Media Etiquette (or TMI?)

When you are out in the ‘real world’, talking to someone face to face, it is relatively easy to gauge how you should behave in the situation you find yourself in  (at least it is for most of us). Its very likely that we would behave differently in different situations, such as having beer and pizza with a group of close friends, attending a business networking event, or at a formal dinner.   It’s possible that you could find yourself with some of the same people at these different events, but would the tone of the conversation be the same? I doubt it.

I do believe that we should be honest in our dealings with people (be yourself, in other words), but I also believe in the importance of self-censoring, ensuring your behaviour and language is appropriate for the circumstances.

Shouldn’t it be the same with social media?

I use LinkedIn and Twitter a lot; both are ‘social media’ but they are very different. I’m used to people posting updates on twitter as much as 20 times a day, and that is fine. I like to hear about their day (sometimes!), and I am interested in the links they share. I learn a lot about a wide range of topics, from education to politics, to technology and even a bit of gossip.  Twitter is a club with many rooms, and I choose which ones to visit using tools like Tweetdeck.  But with LinkedIn, I’m always in business mode, and I want to see just a few, highly relevant work related updates.

And yet some people use these spaces indiscriminately, and every thought they think or link they want to share gets posted automatically on both networks. Well, as far as I am concerned, linking your LinkedIn updates to your Twitter feed is lazy and results in far ‘Too Much Information’, that overwhelms my LI home page and blocks the information that I really want to see there.

It seems I’m not alone in being annoyed by this, in fact I have yet to find anyone that likes the constant stream of twitter updates that some people post on LI. Frustrated by yet another day of excessive postings, I posted this on LI “LinkedIn is NOT the same as twitter. Please, please, please disconnect your twitter posts from LI!” I was overwhelmed with responses, all strongly in agreement. A few people pointed out the benefits of cross posting in reaching a wider audience, but they emphasised the importance of relevance, and of not taking an undiscriminating approach.  Some people are saying that they are starting to ‘unfriend’ people that persist in these activities, whilst others are hiding* updates from certain individuals. Is this what you want to happen to you? There must be a better way of sharing. If you come across an interesting article on Twitter that you want to share on LinkedIn, why not share it in a relevant LI group? It takes a little more effort, but it reaches a much more targeted audience.  That’s surely better than losing the attention of valuable contacts through overzealous sharing?

What do you think?

*Here’s a useful tip to get rid of the chatterboxes from your LI home page. You can simply hide their updates, by hovering over their update and clicking on the ‘hide’ link that appears in the right hand corner of their update (look closely, its grey and not easy to see).

Posted in Communicating, networks, Social Media | 5 Comments

Statistics; a bit of reflection on my 2011 blog

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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