Checklist: things to consider when negotiating a commercial lease

Getting an office can be a stressful business. This short guide provides some tips on how to avoid pitfalls.

Types of arrangement

Serviced office

This is often the most convenient option. Serviced offices generally roll all costs into one charge and tend to be the most flexible. A one month notice scheme is not unsusual. However, this convenience and flexibility comes at a cost. For long term office space, serviced offices can be very expensive.

Full repairing and insuring (‘FRI’) lease

FRI leases are the most common type of lease. The tenant takes responsibility for repairing the building and insuring it. However, where the lease covers a unit it is likely that the landlord will insure the property and repair common parts. The charge for these services will then be passed back to the tenants through a service charge.

office

Costs to watch out for

If you are new to office space negotiations of moving from a serviced office to an FRI lease for the first time then there are a number of costs to be aware of.

Legal costs

There is no absolute requirement to get legal advice on taking out a lease and many people do not, but it’s at least worth getting input from someone who has experience of taking out commercial leases. If you do get legal advice you should be able to get a quote in advance for a fixed fee service.

Rent

The top line price you will be quoted will be the rent. This is often expressed as a cost per square foot or metre. Be aware that this is usually a lot less than the total you will end up paying.

Continue reading “Checklist: things to consider when negotiating a commercial lease”

Using TeamworkPM & agile sprints to get things done

At White Fuse Media we have been exploring ways to introduce elements of agile project management into the way we manage workloads across the company. We recently introduced the idea of a weekly sprint and have found it very helpful so I thought I would share our experiences.

The success of the change is very much due to the functionality of the team collaboration tool we use, Teamwork (you can read our brief review of Teamwork here) though hopefully much of what follows is relevant to users of other systems too.

Hacking the agile methodology

Agile methodology grew up in the software development world and is a lot easier to apply when you are working on one product. At White Fuse Media we tend to have around 20 external projects running at any one time and numerous small internal ones. Using agile methodologies in this context requires some hacking of the pure concepts.

Benefits and shortcoming of using task lists to manage workload

Benefits

At the heart of our workload management systems is the task list. Most of the popular online collaboration tools are in some way based around projects and tasks. Teamwork is no exception – it has projects, task lists and tasks. Tasks can each have a priority, estimate and due date.

We see task lists as crucial to effective working. By getting tasks out of people’s brains and into an organised structure we leave our brains free for creative thinking. Ideas can be captured for later evaluation and we can prioritise our time effectively. However, over the last year or so we have become aware of the shortcoming of using task lists alone to manage our workload.

Shortcomings

First, task lists can quickly become overwhelming. While Teamwork’s priority functionality allows us to focus on the most important tasks it can be daunting to be faced with an unending task list.

Second, it proved very hard to know how much we would get done in any particular week. Each member of the team would work through tasks in their task lists but there was no way of tracking whether it had been a good week or a bad week on the productivity front, except by gut feel.

Third, we struggled to effectively record our time. We see time recording as crucial to check that we are running project to budget but the accuracy of our figures depend on individuals in the team having easy ways to record their time.

Introducing ‘sprints’

Key concepts in agile project management methodology include the breaking down of large tasks into small tasks and assigning each small task a time estimate. A reasonable number of small tasks are then allocated to a person or team over a period of time (a ‘sprint’). The rate at which these tasks are ticked off is measured (the ‘burndown rate’) and this allows the team to get an understanding of how quickly work is being achieved and how accurate estimates are. This information can be extrapolated to get an undertanding of how realistic larger project milestones and deadlines are.

We chose a one week period as our sprint period. Rather than attacking our whole task list each day, we decided to start each week by considering priorities for that week and pulling an achievable number of tasks into a specific task list for the week.

TeamworkPM’s ‘workload’, ‘estimates’ and ‘due dates’ functionality

Although Teamwork is not specifically structured around the agile methodology (there are a whole wealth of systems which are) it has a number of extremely useful features that we used to introduce the agile concept of a sprint into the agency’s company wide processes.

Estimates

The first step was to start assigning estimates to all of our tasks. This takes some thought since to fit with week long sprints each task must be defined with sufficient granularity to be achieved within a particular week. On the other end of the spectrum, the tasks couldn’t be too small otherwise the admin associated with creating tasks, assigning and estimate and then recording time against them because too arduous.

Due dates

The next step was assigning tasks to the next sprint.

Because we run many projects concurrently for different client it was still very important to track project progress on a per-project basis. This meant we couldn’t actually create a separate task list for the sprint. Instead, we decided to use Teamwork’s due date functionality for this. This requires a slight shift in understanding of ‘due dates’. Due dates become the final day in the next sprint cycle, which is often slightly different to the intuitive purpose of due dates on a task (we have shifted to using ‘milestones’ to track important client deadlines that then inform our sprint priorities).

After we have set a due date for the week’s tasks, we then use the ‘everything’ tab in Teamwork to view all active tasks that are due by the end of the coming week. That is our agenda for the week.

One huge advantage of this approach to task management is that it gives individuals much more control over what tasks they choose to do at any particular time. It doesn’t matter which tasks are done first as long as everything gets done in the week. One caveat to this is that we prioritise tasks which are dependent on other tasks (another brilliant feature of Teamwork).

Workload tracking

The icing on the cake of this new way of working is Teamwork’s ‘workload’ feature. This gives a snapshot of the whole team’s workload for a particular time period. By setting this for the coming week it is possible to get a quick view of how busy the team is and how well everyone is doing with their week’s tasks.

At the end of a successful week this system gives the deep satisfaction of looking at an empty task list!

This is all still very much a work in progress so please share your own experiences below.

How to set up a fast reliable office internet connection

Don’t rush into expensive options


If you call BT and start talking about business requirements for a solid and reliable office broadband connection then before you know it they will be telling you about ‘leased line’ options and quoting you hundreds of pounds a month.

Take a deep breath, pause and hang up the phone.

Before diving into an expensive and high spec option consider your needs. Do you need high upload speeds? Unless you are running web servers in your office then that answer is probably no.

If you are an average small business then chances are you just need a connection that doesn’t drop out when you most need it and can support multiple users at the same time carrying out basic day-to-day tasks online. For this, standard broadband connections should be just fine. Continue reading “How to set up a fast reliable office internet connection”

Board skills audit: building an effective trustee board

1) Take a broad view of ‘relevant skills’

It can be easy to focus in on practical skills first: who will look after the finances? who will review policies? Practical skills are essential but don’t neglect the ‘soft’ skills.

The Educator

A board is just like any other team or group: it has the capacity to grow and improve but is unlikely to do so without some intentional skills development. Some people are great at pushing forward a board and keeping it learning.

The People Person

Directors and trustees often have to make hard decisions and manage change, both inside the board and within the organisation they govern. This needs people of diplomacy, tact and compassion.

The Enthusiast

It can sound naive, but the drive and energy that comes from genuine enthusiasm can be a powerful force when harnessed by a well balanced board. This can often be an argument for youth and new faces, but not necessarily so.

The Politician

Most organisations can benefit from partnerships and external input. It is therefore important to have people on the board who know how to network, manage external relationships and advocate.

The Strategist

Boards should be active in shaping the future direction of their organisation. For this reason, they need people who anticipate future challenges and generate vision.

The Analyst

A major part of trustees’ legal responsibility is to keep a charity accountable to its objects and best practice. This requires board members to spot problems quickly and understand an operational context they are not part of on a day-to-day basis.
Continue reading “Board skills audit: building an effective trustee board”

Contract Checklist: a guide to the basics of preparing a good business to business contract

There are lots of resources out there written by lawyers, aimed at lawyers. This checklist is focused on the pragmatics of running a small business.

Basic Principles

What is a contract?

A contract is just an agreement but to avoid ambiguity you need clear evidence of that agreement.
Clarity on commercial terms is usually more important than technical legal clauses.

Risk factors

This checklist contains generic advice but you should always take the time to consider the particular risks of the deal you are about to agree.

Here are a few questions to help:

  • Are you doing something for the first time?
  • Are you working with someone for the first time?
  • Are there external factors that could affect your ability to deliver?

Continue reading “Contract Checklist: a guide to the basics of preparing a good business to business contract”

Pipedrive Review: sales & pipeline focused CRM web application

Pipedrive is not really a fully fledged CRM. It is a web app that is focused clearly on assisting with the sales process, and it does this well.

Pipeline Dashboard

The key distinctive of this application is the pipeline dashboard view.

Pipedrive review dashboard screenshot

For those familiar with the pipeline sales methodology this is a very intuitive and helpfully visual way of displaying everything that is going on in one screen. For those who are newer to the pipeline way of thinking, this app will probably help to convince you of its merits (or which there are many, but that’s a different blog post).

The only significant downside of this pipeline view is the fact that it is not that scalable. Yes, you can use filters to break up your deals onto different pipelines, but nonetheless the graphical interface only works well with a limited number of deals.

Continue reading “Pipedrive Review: sales & pipeline focused CRM web application”

Telephone solutions for the start-up phase of your business or charity

Reliable communication mediums are crucial to any business, social enterprise or charity. While email (and to some extent social media platforms) are increasingly dominant communication mechanisms, the telephone remains a crucial pillar of an organisation’s operations.

If you can’t be easily contacted you risk missing crucial opportunities. This post explores a typical trajectory through different telecommunication solutions.

In the sole trader phase just stick to your mobile phone

As you get your business off the ground you may well be spinning a few plates. You may be holding down one or more other jobs to fund your emerging enterprise. In these circumstances it will save you lots of cash and hassle to focus your business communications around your mobile phone.

mobile phones
Most of the monthly costs goes on the phone.

On most mobile phone contracts the bulk of the costs is effectively a monthly payment to cover the purchase of the phone that you receive ‘free’ at the start of the contract. For this reason, if you can use your existing mobile phone for business calls the additional costs will be quite minor.

Also avoid ‘business’ deals at this stage as they won’t be any cheaper and don’t become cheaper until you are buying a large number of phones for your employees. Instead, check out cheap online mobile phone providers like BuyMobilePhones.net for very good value mobile phone contracts. Continue reading “Telephone solutions for the start-up phase of your business or charity”

Clearbooks review: the best accounting software for small businesses?

Taking into account the huge market for accounting solutions and the number of years they have been around you might think that there were no major improvements left to make. However, you would be mistaken!

This review considers whether Clearbooks, the new entrant to the charity accounting software sector, successfully challenges the established players.

Clearbooks is an addictive productivity app!

Clearbooks review - clearbooks logo

I must admit to being slightly addicted to productivity apps. I hate spending ages battling with software that could have been designed better. I love it when people cut through the complexity and deliver a solution that just works.

Microsoft Accounting, Quickbooks 2010, then Clearbooks

Clearbooks review - ms accounting

After testing out the options thoroughly, White Fuse Media started life with Microsoft Accounting, which wasn’t terrible but was shelved by Microsoft in 2009. After reviewing the options thoroughly we then went for Quickbooks. It seemed the best out of a not very compelling bunch of options. We upgraded to Quickbooks 2010 when it was released, but never did figure out the difference between that and its predecessor.

In general it did the job but had some key failings:

Clearbooks accounting - quickbooks 2010

  • Adding transactions each month was cumbersome and time consuming.
  • The system was tied to one computer.
  • Passing data to our accountant never worked.
  • The payroll system was clumsy and very expensive relative to the small amount of functionality it gave.

Continue reading “Clearbooks review: the best accounting software for small businesses?”

Why your business should choose to specialise more

Starting a business is hard enough already, without limiting yourself still further and turning down work, right? Surely, as a new business you should cast the net wide and take everything that comes?

Wrong.

Lots of people are running businesses that are competing with yours. They have been around longer than you. They may even be better at what they do. Why would anyone choose to do business with you and not the other guy?

Specialise to make your business stand out

The key to promoting your business more effectively than the rest is to make sure you are different. In some tangible way, a potential customer must see in your start-up something they don’t see in your competitors. This is your company’s unique selling point; your differentiating factor.

Specialising can be counter-intuitive for small businesses but it is a great way to differentiate yourself.

Specialise to deepen experience

Another value of specialisation is depth of experience. If you really want to become better than the competition quicker then you can’t just sleep less. By focusing on a narrower area than your competition you can more quickly build a depth of expertise that make you stand out.

Once you have developed a specialism, there is nothing to stop you branching out and try other things. But resist the generalist trap as it may sentence you to mediocrity.

Should I set up a limited company or be a sole trader?

One of the first questions people ask when they are setting up a business is whether they need to set up a company. It’s a good question.

For most people the choice is between trading as an individual (becoming a sole trader) and setting up a company.

Limited liability to keep you safe

When people talk about companies they normally mean ‘limited liability’ companies. This concept of ‘limited liability’ is crucial to answering the original question.

The first business start-up to be a limited liability company
The East India Company was one of the first companies to be granted limited liability status, in the 17th century.

The biggest single reason to trade through a company rather than as an individual is that your liability will be limited.

Put simply, if you trade as an individual and things go pear shaped you can lose all of your possessions and go personally bankrupt. Alternatively, if you trade as a company the worst that can happen (as long as don’t do anything illegal) is that the company runs out of money and is wound up.

In a limited liability company, the liability of the owners is limited to the value of the companies shares, which is often as little as a pound or two.

Building a team with your company

The other non-tax-related reason for trading through a company is that it can allow you to build a team (crucial to the success of many businesses). The law sees companies as ‘people’ that can enter into agreements and generally be an actor in the world of business; but behind that company can be a complex ownership structure.

There are other ways to build a business with other people. Industries dominated by services that are strongly linked to individuals, like law and accountancy, have made great use of partnerships (they have also historically been restricted from setting up companies). Parnerships are a legal mechanism for people to do business together without setting up a company.

Continue reading “Should I set up a limited company or be a sole trader?”