Lockdown. Is there a silver lining for business?

These are strange times.

Everything, including the world of business, has been thrown up into the air. As they land, things have changed – or have they?

Yes, we are being asked to work from home if at all possible and always ‘socially separate’ but the vast majority are healthy, and the measures in place are designed to keep us that way, hopefully avoiding unbearable pressure on the NHS, keeping resources available for those who are in need.

Running a business has challenges all the time, COVID-19 is just another one that happens to be affecting most people all at once. If I have learnt one thing from over 30 years in business it is that challenges encourage adaption and adaption can deliver real benefit.

So how can you adapt to see the real benefit for your business when the dust settles? Here are my thoughts….

1. Don’t panic

Suddenly being told you can’t go out to business and finding clients cancelling or postponing the projects you rely on is a real shock. It is easy to be like a startled rabbit in headlights and just freeze. Perhaps this is a natural reaction but take a deep breath and count to 10. Business is a long term proposition and any successful business should plan for knock-backs. The unexpected can happen at any time. It is good to have a ‘rainy-day’ fund. The rainy day is here but there is no need to panic. Better to plan.

The essence of business is cashflow. So perhaps the first step is to address cashflow concerns. The government has already stated that they want to protect businesses from the impact of Covid-19 and have announced extensive measures to provide direct financial support through a mixture of Grants and Loans. Details are still sketchy but probably the best source of information is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/covid-19-support-for-businesses

This page is being updated pretty regularly.

For the self-employed it has just been announced (in the past few minutes!) that support will be broadly in line with that already announced for emplioyees on PAYE. Implemetation will inevitably more complex.

Beyond direct government support, you may also be able to make arrangements with customers and suppliers to ease you own financial path. Banks, lenders, mortgage companies etc. are all offering support.

Naturally, some businesses are more vulnerable than others but as the adage goes: Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Don’t panic. Don’t be the rabbit in the headlights. Take control and make a plan (where have I said that before!). Your plan can be your salvation.

2. Work on your business

It is often quoted by SME owners that they are too busy working in their business to work on their business – not any more!

The optimists can see the current situation as a real opportunity. Your business fundamentals haven’t changed. If you had a good business on 1st March, you can still have a good business when the crisis abates. OK nobody knows the full timescales but taking a 3-6month view seems reasonable in the light of the available evidence.

Once you have your plan to ride out the storm, you can look ahead and work to make your business a better business, ready and stronger for when the economy reopens.

3. Tap into your expertise/experience

We all try to  run our business in the best way possible but inevitably you sometimes have great ideas but never find the time to implement them. Now you can!

Also so you may see ways that others operate and think ‘That’s a good idea, I could learn something from this‘. They may be customers, suppliers, competitors, or others. There can often be ways you see others operate that could work in your business and make your business better.

Now you have the time to tap in to this knowledge/expertise and do something about it! Have confidence that your successful business in February is still sound – and now you have time to make it better. The work that isn’t being done now will need to be done later so make sure you are ready for it – and ahead of the pack.

4. Stay engaged with your customers and markets

When things get difficult, inevitably, business owners tend to focus on their own needs but, as I have talked about above, it is great if you can get your head around accepting the short-term situation and return to thinking longer term. Don’t forget the infinite game that we are still playing. Many people may be focused on their own needs but it is still good to talk.

Stay engaged with your contacts. There are lots of ways to do this and technology offers some great opportunities. We look at some in this post.

Remember though that engagement doesn’t mean selling. Many businesses blur the lime between marketing and selling, seeing any communication as sales promotion. I don’t belive that now is the time for the hard sell. It is about us all trying to work together to get through. Better to focus on help and support. Make sure people know where you are if they need you.

Try to be helpful. Many business owners are understandably anxious. A bit of altruism in challenging times can pay real dividends in the long term. We all know we are in business. Our business is our livelihood and we don’t suddenly have to do everything for nothing. It is about mutual support and balance.

5. The way ahead

Things have changed – there is no going back.

The current pandemic was previously only in books and Hollywood – now it is real and affecting everyone.

We should be thankful that it isn’t worse than it is. SARS and Ebola are significantly more deadly even if they proved easier to contain.

We are being forced to think differently. Some things will be harder/slower/more challenging but others will be easier/faster/better. By first addressing the immediate adversities and clarifying your strategy for the coming months (essentially a cash-flow plan) you can then start to look ahead to prepare to your business, ready to make the most of the opportunities when the world re opens to what will be the new normal.

As with any significant change. Some will benefit and some will struggle. A bit of objective thought and planning can help make sure there is a silver lining to this strange, locked-down world for you and your business.

As always, I am happy to talk.

Stay safe and stay positive.

4 Tools we could no longer live without

As we discussed in this week’s Marketing Matters podcast, one or two things have changed over the last couple of weeks!

One of the biggest changes for many is the need to WFH (work from home), remote from the normal office environment. For us, it’s no different, and I am now writing this post from home.

Up to now, the ability to work remotely was something we did occasionally and if we could not, it wasn’t a big deal! Now it is a necessity. A number of systems, which we had seen as peripheral to our operation, are now key. I thought this would be an opportunity to talk about our experiences with cloud applications and to highlight the four that we cannot live without right now:

1. Office 365

Through Office 365, Microsoft delivers a suite of office programmes as software as a service. Most people’s introduction to Office 365 will be Exchange email + Outlook. This in itself is a great tool, and gives you full access to your email from anywhere with a web connection. Anything you do being synced across all devices. But beyond Outlook, O365 delivers a full suite of programmes that allow you to be location agnostic (functional from wherever you are, as long as you have a connection to the net). Yes, this includes the staple office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc), but it also gives access to tools like One Drive, which gives you cloud access to files, Teams, for on-line collaboration, and many more.

With an Office 365 subscription and an internet connection, you can turn any PC (or Mac) into a fully functional office tool in a matter of minutes, with full access to all your contacts and files.

2. Zoom Video Meeting

2 months ago I had pretty much never used Zoom. Now video meetings are a key part of my working day. We have looked at and tried out a number of video meeting systems (Skype, Zoho Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Facetime etc.) but at the end of the day, Zoom.us is our favourite, and here is why:

  1. It just works – It’s my experience that the technology just works, and does not get in the way of what I am trying to do. In my book this is the number one requirement. If you have to think too hard using a piece of technology, you are probably not going to use it. Whilst there may be a learning curve, once you are used to it, it should just work and in my experience, in this area Zoom delivers.
  2. It is platform agnostic – Unlike options such as Facetime and Skype, where generally all parties involved must sign up to a proprietary system (Microsoft for Skype, Apple/IOS for Facetime) – With Zoom, only the person initiating the meeting needs an account. Whilst other people do need to download a small app (which happens pretty seemlessly) there is no need for all participants to create an account, and it works on pretty much any device, desktop or mobile.
  3.  It has a free option, and some useful paid add ons – With the free option, the only real limitation is meeting length, capped at 40 mins – This will probably be fine for most, but the paid version at £12 per month, is great value if you need longer meetings. What’s more, only the person initiating the meeting needs a paid account to gain this benefit.

….however….

As so often with technology, nothing is perfect. There are downsides, and in the case of Zoom, the downside is their privacy policy, which allows them to collect data from your calls, including videos, screen shares, chat transcripts etc. and to use this data for various purposes. Zoom do say they will not sell your data. Whilst privacy is a concern, it does very much depend on how and why you are using Zoom. For us, and the types of conversations we have, right  now we see it as a good tool with the benefits outweighing the negatives.

For those who want to use a video chat for more sensitive purposes, maybe an alternative tool might be more appropriate. However, in our experience none of the other options deliver comparable performance, functionality or ease of use.

3. Xero Accounting

Historically, we have used Sage Line 50, and recently moved our accounts onto the cloud with Xero.  Sage is a good system, that worked well for us for many years, but it was predominently desk based, and relied on a data file that needed to be moved if you wanted to access it from a different location. Whilst Sage has moved on since we switched and now offer cloud options, Xero is again totally location agnostic, and allows you to manage your accounts from whereever you wish (so long as you are on line!).

Again a priceless facility in these times.

4. Cloud PBX IP Phone system – 3CX

The final one on my list is our phone system. Coincidentally, we switched from an office-hosted ISDN phone system to cloud-based 3cx just two months ago. Boy are we glad we did! 3CX works seamlessly when we are in the office, working as a traditional system with desktop extensions. When we were forced to work from home, switching the extensions to home was a doddle. Again, because everything is hosted in the cloud, all management of the system can be done online, anywhere with a connection to the web.

With the right tools, Working From Home need not be an issue

For us at least, these four tools have meant the switch to Working From Home has been bearable, even if it is taking a bit of getting used to! From the perspective of our clients, it has hopefully been fairly seamless. We are still able to pretty much operate “Business as usual”. In many cases, somewhat ironically, we find we are speaking to to people “face to face” more often than we have before!

I think that some of the changes arising out of necessity in the current lock-down climate will have positive repercussions for our business long into the future.

The Truth about WordPress Security

As you can read in David’s post this week, WordPress is a great tool for small businesses. and is a significant playing in the world of internet publishing. Here are few stats to illustrate my point:

WordPress currently powers:

  1. 60% of all CMS powered websites
  2. 14.7% of the world’s top websites
  3. 22% of the worlds top 1 million eCommerce sites

Finally, there have been over 1.25 billion plugin downloads on WordPress.org.

Add to this the fact that the code is public domain so it can be analysed to identify potential vulnerabilities.

Add all this together and it is no surprise that it has a reputation of being susceptible to hacking.

But how valid is this reputation? Below, I look at the reality of WordPress security, and look at 4 top tips for keeping your site safe.

The reality of WordPress security

There is a flip side. It’s ubiquity on the web, and the open nature of its code, are also key to it remaining secure.

Because it is so widely used, there are a-lot of developers interested in keeping it secure, and thwarting hackers. As a result there is an army of people communicating about and fixing vulnerabilities as they are identified. there are also great tools for being kept up to date and alerted whenever a vulnerability is identified, and informing what fixes are available. The result of this is that usually the window for hackers between a vulnerability being identified & fixed is narrow.

Another consequence of the wide use of WordPress is that it mean the economics of creating world class security plugins for the system are attractive, and as a result, there are a number available at either no, or low cost. the plugin we use is Wordfence.  Wordfence is available as a free of  paid for premium plugin.  In our experience, the free version does an excellent job of protecting and monitoring the health of your WordPress site.

Keeping your site secure

With all of this in mind here are my 3 top tips for keeping your site secure:

Keep your site up to date

This is the number one way to keep your site secure. In our experience, security issues usually occur where sites are running out of date code. Experience that is backed up by the stats which suggest that over 60% of compromised sites are out of date.

One of the great features of WordPress is the easy of keeping it up to date. Updating plugins, themes and core can be done at the click of a button. Whats more, use a backup plugin like Updraft plus, you will be prompted to perform a backup before you do the update. As a result, if you experience any issue with the update, rolling back is again a click of a button. Just one footnote on plugins. The need for reliable updates means you should always consider the support available when you install a plugin. If you are installing a mission critical plugin, it is always worth considering the paid version, as this will usually come with enhanced support. Furthermore, the fact that developers are earning an income will incentive the update process for then

Use a good security plugin

We use Wordfence on all our WordPress sites. Wordfence performs 3 useful tasks:

    1. Brute force protection – Wordfence will monitor attempts to login to your site, and restrict or lock out visitors whose login activity is seen as suspicious. It will also monitor visitors generating a lot of “Page not found” errors as this can often be an indication of a hacker trying to find vulnerabilities on a site.
    2. It provides an Application Firewall. This is a set of rules. This monitors all attempts to run code on the site, and passes them trough an algorithm to identify suspicious activity. Again any activity deemed to be a threat to the site is blocked before it ius run. Furthermore, the algorithm is constantly updated by Wordfence based on what it learns from the 1000’s of sites running the plugin. The speed with which this is updated being one of the benefits of the paid version of WordPress. However in our experience the free version does a respectable job in this area.
    3. It will scan your site for anomalies. Most compromises to sites involve adding or changing the code running your website. To protect against this Wordfence will scan the site for suspicious files. It does this by comparing the code on your site to the original code published by WordPress & plugin developers. Where it identifies unexpected code, it will send you an alert. In circumstances where your site has in-fact been compromised. fixing it is usually simply a case of restoring a recent, clean, backup. This brings me to my third tip.

Implement a backup routine

Make sure your site files & database is regularly backed up. By doing this, you ensure that even if your site does get compromised, you can make repairs without too much disruption.

For this task we use the UpdraftPlus plugin. This will automatically take backups of your site as scheduled by you. It will also automatically copy backups to a cloud storage system like Google drive or Dropbox, so that even if your web server is irrecoverably compromised, you should still have the necessary data & file to get up and running on a different server. We recommend backing up the database daily, and the site files weekly, we then keep a minimum 30 days worth of backups, just in case you take a few days to identify an issue.

Harden your login

The final tip is around login credentials.  Be sure to use secure passwords on your site (WordPress will monitor these as you set up users). Its also a good idea not to use “admin” as your default username as this is the first one a hacker will use when trying to get in by brute force. You can select your admin username when you set up WordPress, and if you are using admin, Wordfence will help you to change it easily.  Wordfence also offers the  facility to implement 2 factor Authentication (2FA) should this be deemed to be appropriate.

Be vigilant, Stay Secure

In our experience, if you follow the tips above, then in the real world, WordPress is a great and  secure website development tool. Add this to the benefits outlined in David’s post, and you have a fantastic & flexible tool for promoting your business.

 

 

 

Why WordPress?

I recently wrote how, in a ‘real-world’ business, I believe you should think about technology as the means, not the end. The ‘end’ being your business goals while technology is the tool to help you achieve them. (You can read more here)

I’d like to continue this theme looking specifically at websites and, even more specifically, why I am a fan of WordPress.

Why do you want a website?

A website is a business tool. So, what are the business goals that you want your website to help you achieve?

Most people answer this question quite generally (more sales, more leads, growth etc.) – but these goals aren’t very SMART. In fact, more often than not, the creation of the website becomes the goal itself – which brings us back to focusing on the wrong thing. Aaargh!

Having a website doesn’t make your business better. It is how you use your website to achieve business goals that can make your business better. However, if the focus is on building a website, it might only be after it is launched that you turn your attention to the business goals you want to achieve using it. This is where having a website you can ‘do stuff’ with yourself starts to be extremely valuable.

Why WordPress?

A traditional (coded) website needs a knowledgable webmaster to manage it. In a small business, this normally means outsourcing which tends to be either costly (if your supplier is good at their job, so ‘in demand’ and able to command higher fees), or frustrating (if you go down the ‘friend of a friend’ route but find your ‘web person’ ever more difficult to get hold of!)

Back in 2003, WordPress launched and started the trend of more accessible options for building websites and blogs. Since then, WordPress has developed into the single most popular website development platform in the world. Some estimates calculate that around 35% of the entire internet is powered by WordPress with over 50,000 new WordPress sites being launched every day!

At BSA we built our first WordPress website in 2011 and we haven’t looked back. I continue to be impressed with its flexibility and practicality. So what is so great about it? Why is WordPress ideal for most SME business websites?

Cost-Effectiveness

The core WordPress software is open source meaning it is free to use. This is a great starting point for building a cost-effective website. Of course, involving a professional supplier to design and build your website does bring in some cost but the nature of WordPress allows sites to be built relatively quickly and efficiently meaning a lower project cost. Furthermore, the accessibility and flexibility I discuss below bring additional cost benefits in relation to the ongoing use of your website as a dynamic business tool.

Flexibility

Because WordPress is so popular, there are LOTS of people out there who build ‘plugins‘ to add functionality to the core WordPress platform. OK, many of the popular and respected plugins do come with a fee (though there are often free versions with fewer options) but the fees are normally modest and great value for the additional functionality you get.  After all, you are using your website to make your business better and effective investment is at the heart of every successful business.

If you are looking to add bells and whistles to your website to make it work the way you want for your business, chances are that someone has written just the plugin you need!

Accessibility

WordPress is designed with Content Management in mind. Day to day management of your website content can be handled in-house (if you choose). Gone are the days when every change of a picture or text means tracking down your web developer and receiving their bill!

Bear in mind that making your website accessible and easy to use day to day should be part of the initial design and build project. Spending a bit more to get your site properly set up for you or your team to manage in-house is a valuable investment.

Great for Collaboration

I have no doubt that the best way to ensure your website really works for your business is to take ownership and manage the day to day updates and maintenance in-house. This way, your site will stay dynamic (good for SEO!) and relevant to your business (giving your visitors the right information and messages).  A good website shouldn’t be one that you change completely every few years. rather it should evolve steadily over time. However, as part of this evolution, it is likely that you will want to make some more significant changes to your site from time to time. This is where collaboration works well. You manage the day to day while you have specialists on hand ready to ‘get their hands dirty’ to make more significant (and less frequent) changes. It just isn’t worth having these capabilities in-house.

When working with clients on websites, a collaborative approach is our favourite.

Is WordPress Perfect?

I like to keep a real-world perspective and, in the real-world, WordPress is not perfect. There are plenty of gain-sayers across the internet who will point out the weaknesses. However, we have nearly 10 years of practical experience and in all that time, we have found any of these weaknesses can be addressed and negated with a bit of organisation and planning.

This article looks at the potential downsides of WordPress in some detail.

And finally…

Want to know a bit more about WordPress? Here are some links you may find useful/interesting:

  1. The BSA Showcase – some of the WordPress sites we have built
  2. WordPress Stats – some amazing stats showing just how big WordPress is
  3. Get WordPress – Download your own copy

If you have any questions or want to talk WordPress – do get in touch