The Collaborate project is supporting small and medium-sized businesses in Leicester and Leicestershire with business advice and sector-specific workshops. More details here. Below we’ve written a few short blogs to support business owners in some areas which can often be challenging when you are doing things yourself. If you have any suggestions for articles let us know.


    • The power of succession planning – 15 November 2018

      Business adviser Jo Bekis gives her thoughts on planning for the future of your business in our latest blog post.

      Succession planning should always be in your top five of continuous improvement and action planning. Done correctly your succession plan should give you a ‘line of sight’ of who is in your business, where their skill set is now and where it is heading in the future.

      Many SME clients do not have HR departments or even team leaders who can perform personal development reviews and one-to-ones with staff, often it is down to the business owner to undertake this role.

      When I perform my initial meeting and diagnostics with my clients, they do have clear thoughts and goals about who they need to recruit to meet their growth plans. But often they don’t look inwardly at their current talent pool and who is going to be the next them.

      Having worked for over 10 years in further education leading an apprentice department I always like to challenge my clients with a number of questions:

          • Do you have a skills matrix?
          • Do you run your own apprenticeship programme?
          • Do you regularly upskill your existing workforce?
          • Do you have the skills within your workforce to accommodate the growth you want to achieve?
          • Do you have an ageing workforce?
          • Are there clear skills gaps within your business right now?
          • When was the last time you performed any training?

      Far too often I hear ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ giving me a clear outline of an ‘area for improvement’. Getting a client to embrace the power of the skills matrix, how to use it and more importantly how to effectively succession plan in line with their strategic business plans is a regular talking point within my weekly activities and it is really easy when you know how.

      Workforce development is a huge part of planned successful growth. To stay ahead of the curve you could utilise a number of online tools performing Gallup 12 surveys, reviewing training needs, undertaking one-to-ones and holding weekly team meetings to plan for the week ahead, mid-week reviews and end of week wash ups. Engaging with your team on multiple levels can happen as part of the daily operations.

      Some of the questions that often asked by businesses:

      Can you help me create a skills matrix?
      Yes absolutely, we will look at different methods of compiling this data, but more importantly how you need to use it, filter it and assess where your team are. The easier the tool and more visual the better.

      What if my staff do not want to upskill?
      Not everyone wants to train or retrain, but more than ever you have a wide range of training options, from small bite size webinars, half day and one-day courses and more formal qualifications that can be done online or in a classroom. The choices today are immense. However, we never stop learning and you can still train in-house without it feeling like training.

      Is this going to be time-consuming?
      As with anything when you first introduce a new system it does require some time and input to put it together, however, once you have your training matrix up and running maintenance is easy. Also, there are many online surveys like survey monkey and Gallup 12 that are easy to prepare and send out (with the touch of a button) that will gather data for you very quickly on what your employees think and need in terms of their role and training. I can show you how and help you review this.

      I do not have time to perform staff one to one?
      A one-to-one does not need to be time-consuming, but any business that is engaged and embracing growth should take time to include their team as part of this, it is a vital part of growing your business. A review can be performed in just 30 minutes. You can send your team member the review before you sit down and ask them to think about the questions, preparation always makes the review easier. Ask them to think about examples of the questions so this gives you a talking point. It is amazing what comes out of these reviews. Having performed many staff one-to-ones and performance reviews it really is insightful and may just hold the answer to a problem that has been on your mind. A great example guide can be found here, but how your one to one looks is entirely up to you.

      If you need help with any of the areas covered in this article complete this simple online form to see if you’re business is eligible for free support from the Collaborate project.

      (Jo’s caricature kindly supplied by Euro Project Recruitment, one of the businesses she has recently supported. View testimonial from their MD Stephen Brown here.)


          • To innovate or not to innovate, that is the question – 10 October

            Collaborate adviser for engineering and advanced manufacturing businesses, Jo Bekis provides her thoughts.

            A regular question asked when I’m advising a business is about product innovation. It is high on the agenda for many advanced manufacturing companies. A couple of my clients are currently innovating their existing products or processes, due to realising they need to stay ahead of the curve. Either by identifying a gap in the market, demand is driven from their supply chain or it is derived from their continuous improvement planning.

            One of my clients is changing the way in which their product is used by the end user. By modifying tooling to ensure usability is easy, minimising damage to the product itself, which is often being returned as damaged. Whilst some training has reduced returns it was deemed the tooling needed to be modified.

            When my client started on this journey they knew what they wanted to do, but didn’t quite know how to do it. I arranged visits to a couple of organisations who could assist. I took my client to the Innovation Hub at Leicester University and the Manufacturing Technology Centre and facilitated discussion of a very confidential nature to establish if they could assist. Coupled with teams of innovation experts, research and development tax credit support and company employee ‘buy-in’ the project is pushing ahead.

            These types of projects are not quick fixes for businesses, they are performed for long-term gain and exponential growth. Advanced Manufacturing more than ever needs to stay ahead of the curve and current trends. They must be always looking inwardly, outwardly and at innovation. Mastering how they will next evolve within the industrie 4 revolution.

            If you need support with a specialist project it is always wise to bounce your ideas around with an independent adviser. Collaborate is able to give you 12 hours of fully funded business support. We can connect you with the right people quickly and ensure you keep moving forward. Complete this online form to see if you are eligible for support. Read more about Collaborate here.


        • A quick guide to increasing productivity – 2 August

          When we talk to companies about what they’d like help and support with, the answer is often improving productivity, so several of the free business support workshops we run tackle issues which could help with the productivity of your organisation.

          Whether you’re talking about a service industry organisation or a manufacturing business, productivity can make or break a company and the health of its bottom line.  The most powerful thing you can do is embrace technology; allowing your workforce to work flexibly and have high-speed connectivity in order to collaborate effectively with colleagues and customers wherever they are in the world.  Here is our top 12 list of things that can help improve a company’s productivity when allied with that technology:

          1. Great internal communications – ensuring that your workforce understands what is required of them and what impact their efficient working will make to the success of the business is vital.

          2. Happy employees – research has shown that a happy workforce simply gets more done than unhappy and depressed staff. You only have to look at the way productivity levels drop in businesses which are undergoing consultation on redundancies to see that.  Often simple praise for a job well done can raise morale and motivation.  Other things that can help ensure a happy workforce are setting achievable goals, incentive schemes and performance reviews.

          3. Plan your day with an action list of things you can tick off as you go.

          4. Make all meetings productive, with short agendas and minutes containing action points and deadlines for each attendee so that everyone is reminded of what is expected of them and by when.

          5. Protect a minimum of 90 minutes per day to focus on tasks that must be done (do this by turning off email and telephone calls for that period wherever possible). If your mobile is off but still buzzes, it can lead to lost concentration, if your email pings, likewise.  Eliminate any distractions – such as things that pop into your head that you must remember to do – by keeping a blank sheet of paper to write them down on a list which you can attend to later.

          6. Keep a clutter-free workspace so that you can see when something new has arrived on your desk.

          7. Tackle the most difficult jobs when you are fresh and have the brain space to deal with them.

          8. Keep hydrated – a fit and healthy employee will be more productive.

          9. Utilise continuous improvement or Kaizen, which is a way to make small incremental improvements to your processes; these add up to big improvements in overall efficiency and quality.

          10. Adopt manufacturing processes like Lean Manufacturing, Right first time and/or Just in time – all of these can help manufacturing productivity and keep stock levels tight – sign-up for one of our workshops to find out more.

          11. Adopt new technologies to save you time, for example, Messenger apps on your website, a Messenger app that can answer frequently asked questions on your behalf on your Facebook page, a live chat facility direct to the sales department on your website.

          12. Use virtual reality to map out any potential changes on the factory floor or in the office and work out if they would improve your productivity.

          If you need help with increasing the productivity in your business contact Collaborate to see if your business is eligible for 12 hours of free business advice and workshops. Visit this page and register now.

          For a list of Collaborate workshops visit the events/news section or search under ‘collaborate’.

          Introduction to digital marketing – 26 July

          In our fast-paced world, digital marketing offers SMEs the opportunity to reach more people very cost-effectively. With a professional looking corporate identity and good photography, there are things you can be doing right from the word go without spending lots of money.

          You may choose to access some help with some of these things, especially if you’re not particularly ‘techy’, but the reality is that with a little knowledge you can make things happen digitally!


          First social media – there are a number of different social media outlets, some appropriate for business-to-business, some more business-to-consumer oriented, so choose wisely and if you’re unsure, start with one and see how you get on before setting up an account with all of them. LinkedIn is the most appropriate for business-to-business organisations for example. This is your shop window, so make the most of it, complete your profile as fully as you can and on LinkedIn seek testimonials from customers as it helps to build the picture. Once your profile is set up, LinkedIn offers you a way of publishing articles, so that you can share information in-depth.

          Facebook is a great place to start if you’re running a business-to-consumer company. However, you should realise that customers have expectations of a very speedy response from you to any questions asked. According to a study by Nielsen, 56% of people would rather message a business than call customer service and 67% expect to message businesses even more over the next two years. Facebook Messenger does include some tools to help manage customer enquiries in a speedy way but be prepared, customers will ask questions all day and all night 365 days of the year. Facebook also allows you to create events and groups so that you can build a community of customers.

          If you are offering a product or service that is particularly photogenic, then Instagram is the one for you. This is an ideal forum for artistic photography to help you spread your message. Twitter is particularly good for contacting and engaging with journalists and Pinterest, like Instagram, works well for inspiring people to look at your products and allows you to link photographs through to your website. The important thing to remember is that social media should be just that ‘social’, so the tone of voice should be casual and it should feel like you’re having a chat with a friend, not trying to sell someone something. All social media has analytics tools available for business accounts, so make sure you evaluate how you’re doing and that you shape future posts by learning what has gone down well before.

          Even with the new GDPR regulations which came in on 25th May, email marketing is a powerful tool and a great reminder to customers you may not have heard from for a while that you are still there! First, you need to ensure that you have an opted-in database if you’re contacting people who haven’t enquired about you or purchased from you before. One way of collecting opted-in email addresses is to include a contact form on your website so that people who want to receive news can sign-up. Customers with whom you have a contract will expect to hear from you, and unless they specifically unsubscribe from email marketing, will usually be happy to be kept in the loop. There are emailing tools like Mailchimp which are really useful for keeping track of unsubscribers and you can create a professional looking email newsletter for free if you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers on your list. The beauty of email marketing is that you can see exactly who has opened your email, who has clicked on links and who has taken action as a result of your email, so evaluating a campaign is easy.

          A web presence of some sort is essential these days and is generally best produced by a professional, but if you are not looking for specific functionality, it is possible to set up your own for free using something like which is a blogging platform.  Talking about blogging, that’s another way of getting your message out there to the wider world. If writing is your thing, then creating some unique content about your product or service, or related topics can help encourage interest in your business.

          If you want business support on how you can grow your small/medium business in Leicester or Leicestershire register at this page to see if you eligible for free advice from Collaborate. Digital marketing support, workshops and grants are available through the Digital Growth Programme.


          Cash flow tips for small businesses: 11 July

          With seven out of ten small business owners citing cashflow problems as the main threat to their business, tips for ensuring a healthy cash flow could be the most important thing you read in the early years of business.  Particularly for start-ups, experience shows that if you can’t manage your cash flow effectively in your first couple of years, it is unlikely you will survive.

          So, what does cashflow mean?   It is exactly what it says on the tin, it’s when the cash flows in and out of your business bank account.  Keeping on top of your income and outgoings is vital and when developing a new business, preparing a cash flow forecast should be one of the first things you do.  Estimate when you will need to pay bills and when you will be paid by your customers and have a plan B if your income doesn’t arrive precisely when you expect it to.  Monitor that cashflow forecast regularly, it’s a working document and must be kept up to date as sales (income) and costs (outgoings) change – and they will!

          Whatever type of business you run, you need to determine your breakeven point, sales beyond that point will contribute towards your company’s profitability and ability to invest for the future.  There are always unforeseen problems, so keeping some cash reserves can be a lifesaver and if that is unfeasible, then get a line of credit in place, just in case. Every business is different but there are a few key pointers that are wise to abide by:

              1. Make your terms of service very clear – that includes your settlement terms.
              2. If you land a big contract and are planning to offer credit terms ensure you have undertaken credit checks on the company
              3. Consider asking for payment on a pro-forma invoice for new clients or big projects
              4.  If completing a contract is likely to take a long time, consider asking for stage payments
              5.  Keep on top of your invoicing, bill quickly and then check that those invoices are being paid on time
              6.  Raise statements to arrive near the due date – late payments can cause big issues
              7.  If margins allow, offer early payment discounts
              8. Stay on top of stock management and tighten up your outgoings if cash flow is poor
              9. Use technology to your advantage such as internet banking, emailing invoices and statements or utilising invoicing software
              10. Consider leasing equipment instead of buying it

          Even with all those tips, sometimes those you have trusted can let you down, occasionally through no fault of their own – what do you do when someone is not paying?

              1. Establish whether they won’t pay or they can’t pay
              2. Going to court should be your last resort, but you can send a letter before action for very slow payers who fall into the won’t pay category.  This is a seven-day payment request which outlines that you will be taking them to Court if they don’t settle within that time. Citizens Advice have useful guidelines on their website about what to include in a Letter before Action
              3. The Late Payments Act 2013 allows you to claim late payment interest and compensation for recovery even if it is not outlined on the original invoice
              4. If the amount owed is less than £10,000 you can submit a small claims court action online
              5. If the amount owed is greater than £5,000 you can serve a statutory payment demand formally requesting payment within 21 days.  If this is not paid within that period, then you have grounds to present a winding-up order in Court.
              6. Take advice from your accountant or solicitor

          If you need help with cash flow forecasting or planning contact Collaborate to see if your business is eligible for 12 hours of free business advice and workshops. Visit this page and register now.