Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 2

Another blog about a large business making money from my own little enterprise. This time, the subject is Internet Service Providers.

I’ve had some very poor experiences with ISPs over the years. In the early years of the Internet the problems were largely due to teething difficulties – providers and customers didn’t really know what our respective roles were. But now, the issue seems to be the commercialisation of the World Wide Web.

My needs from a service provider are quite simple – I want a basic website, which I can tailor to suit. I want an easy interface (I’ve done enough years of coding), a basic shop where people can order books direct from me and the ability to link to other websites. It’s important that the website is available all the time (or nearly so) and that I can setup multiple email addresses.

The two ISPs I’ve used in recent years both offered all of this for a reasonable fee. Or so they claimed.

One useful way for companies to make money from small business customers is to keep taking money, whether we still want the service or not. I cancelled one package, as a consolidation exercise – just redirecting the URL to a page on my main website. I cancelled the package and, for good measure, didn’t update my credit card details. So the ISP couldn’t “accidentally” debit my card for a renewal, as they’d done before. The catch-all redirection of my URL was included in my registration and I redirected it myself.

For several months, there were intermittent problems with my emails being unavailable – and the best answer I got was that they were taking securities and the email was only down “briefly” at quiet times of the day. (Over an hour one morning, starting about 3am, while I was trying to work.)

Then a few months later, I had to update my credit card, to make payment for my main website package.

The ISP also took payment for my cancelled service and reinstated a four-year-old version of the website without telling me. The first thing I knew was a friend contacting me to say a link was broken. Not surprising, as the website it pointed to had closed down years before. I queried this and was told my cancellation was invalid – I went to check the service tickets I’d raised on their website and found about two-thirds had vanished. I never did get an explanation for this.

At about this time, a folder in my main email suddenly emptied, losing me a lot of important emails. I raised another ticket, requesting that my email be restored to the latest backup – only to be told that they don’t take backups any more. Except for their “premium” customers. Something that used to be included in the cheapest package is now only available for an additional cost. Apparently they’d notified users of this change in an email – but I tend to delete their marketing mailshots without reading. Don’t we all?

Their premium service is also necessary for anyone wishing to sell anything from their website, or have a contact form that works. This isn’t clear until someone tries to do something and the transaction / contact forms just don’t do anything. No error message to the customer or myself.

Another handy way to increase your profit margin – downgrade the service you’re providing, hoping the customer is too stupid / busy / trusting to notice. I was all three.

Not surprisingly, I will be migrating my custom to a new ISP in a few months, when my contract expires.

Total cost to date: £60 plus wasted time plus income lost through unchaseable invoices.

And from now on, I will check that renewing my ISP each year is still a good deal. The price may stay the same, but I no longer trust that what it’s buying covers my simple requirements.

After all, I have nothing better to do with my time than check that companies are being honest with me.

One more blog to come on this subject – and it’s a doozy!

Advertisements

Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 1

First blog in a short series of how companies are increasing their profits from small businesses. Specifically me – an independent author.

Yes, times are hard and everyone’s trying to keep themselves in business, but I have my suspicions that some of the methods used are not entirely ethical. Possibly not even legal.

Firstly, I send a lot of parcels, mainly individual books, to lots of destinations, including International ones. I’ve been known to walk into a branch of the Post Office with more than a dozen packages to post. Royal Mail may not be the cheapest way to post a small parcel, but they have been more reliable than other courier companies and going into the physical High Street shop means I get a free certificate of posting. I even make it simple for the staff by printing my own table of addresses, so they can write in the price for each and stamp it. I’ve done this for several years and the staff are used to me handing over this form.

They’re also used to my always saying, “Cheapest possible, please” as I place the package on their scales.

So I was surprised to notice they’d charged me for first class post for a package when I’d got the correct (second class) payment ready in my pocket.

I checked back through my paperwork and realised this has been going on for more than a year. During this time, I’d been served by various staff members so I suspect it’s standard practice in this Post Office. I can’t be sure when it started, as historical postage rates aren’t available in any way I can access them.

Now, this may sound petty. A “Large Letter Second Class” charge for one of my books should be £1.17 whilst the same parcel as “Large Letter First Class” is charged at £1.24. If it’s sent as a “Small Parcel”, this goes up to £2.80 and £3.20 for the respective classes of delivery and I’ve had to argue that my packages are small enough for the cheaper category. (All prices current in April 2014 and for UK delivery.)

Yes, it’s quite complicated, and I haven’t worked it out in detail – but I reckon a small amount has been added to the price of each book parcel I’ve posted for at least a year. (Most are small, single book orders, the price increase is more significant on the larger multi-book parcels.) Over the last year, I reckon I’ve been charged in excess of £10 more than I think I should have been. At a conservative estimate.

And that’s with me always requesting, “Cheapest possible, please”.

Not a lot of money perhaps, – but I’m trying to make a profit here, folks!

The sneaky thing is that I’ve been provided with the service I’ve paid for each time. It just happens to be more than I asked for.

The way the Post Office works, a label is printed out and affixed to each parcel after I’ve passed it across the screen-protected counter. I never get to see these labels – only the buyers see that I’ve sent them “First Class”.

I’m aware that the Post Office as a whole is going through hard times and that individual branches have to make a profit. But I feel this is the wrong way to go about it.

I now have different arrangements for posting my parcels.

And two more blogs to come on this subject.

Honesty

We’re always told not to give personal information to anyone unless there’s a good reason for it. Identity theft is a very real danger and personal information is a valuable commodity to those dishonest enough to want to steal it.

And yet retailers and other businesses often insist that we provide it. Whether it’s relevant to our purchase from them or not.

I received an email from a brewer whose website I have visited. I didn’t sign up for emails, I didn’t purchase anything. But I had to provide information to prove that I’m over 18 because the website content may be unsuitable for those under legal drinking age. So I had to provide my full name, date of birth, email and home address. Just for a casual browse on their website. But this email tells me their database has been hacked and that my information has been stolen.

Just think about that.

I gave them information in good faith and they’re now telling me they kept it on their database and it has been stolen. I’m sure there was a box I ticked which said I gave them permission to keep the data – after all, who reads the Ts & Cs every time they visit a website?

They say this happened on 28th September, which tallies with the huge increase in SPAM I’ve been experiencing for the last month or so. And those spammers apparently have a lot more info about me, too. A dangerous amount.

As far as I’m aware, I have no legal comeback on the brewers. I can’t prove that the people filling my inbox with adverts for body enhancements and phishing messages got my info from them and neither would I be able to prove that someone trying to steal my identity had found my date of birth and full name on that particular database.

They have the temerity to include advice in their email on how to protect my identity.

But here is my suggestion on how to avoid your information falling into the hands of criminals:

Lie.

I’m pleased to say, I gave them a false date of birth. I have one I use for just such an occasion. It’s feasible, it’s a date it’s easy for me to remember and I always use the same one when I don’t accept that a website has a right to that information.

I’m so glad I lied to them.

The Business of Writing

Ever wondered why you’re not taken seriously by bookshops when you approach them to stock your books? Or by the editor of a magazine you’re just dying to write an article for? I’ve had several people asking my advice on this topic. Rather than keep emailing the same responses, I thought I’d put some of my comments together in a blog post.

One of the biggest challenges that people face is what I’ll call professional behaviour. Just as your book needs to be as legitimate as possible, so your personality must come across as businesslike – non-amateur. And you need to pay attention to a few details that will be used to judge you and your product. Let me give you some examples:

Product. Whether it’s paperback or e-book, competition entry or magazine article, your product needs to be properly-formatted and professionally produced. Good presentation costs time and money, but pays dividends.

Stationery. Whether you register yourself as a business or not, you need proper stationery for all correspondence as a writer. It doesn’t have to cost anything, but headed notepaper, compliment slips, delivery notes and invoices are essential. A company logo will make it look less slapdash, but it should only be a simple picture or formatted text. Even the most basic image manipulation software (such as the one included with your Operating System) can be used to tweak an image into an attractive monochrome logo. Keep It Simple – think in terms of something recognisable that doesn’t turn every little email into a 20Mb monster.

Accounting. Again, it doesn’t need to be complex, but if you ever hit the big time, you’ll need receipts to prove what it cost you to get there. Or the taxman will take more than his fair share. Use a simple spreadsheet to track costs and income. Keep it up to date. It’ll help you chase invoices.

Honesty. The so-called budget airlines have been repeatedly criticised for adding “extras” to their headline price. Even people who use them regularly complain about their sharp practices. If you ordered something from a company and they added unagreed charges at the end of the transaction, you may decide to take your business elsewhere. So play fair with your customers. Don’t advertise your e-book as a free download when it’s not. State carriage costs (especially international) for your book upfront. If you’re offering a freebie or other incentive, make sure you include it. In particular, keep customers informed if they’ve paid in advance (I’m thinking about crowdfunding ventures where the recipient of my money has never sent the promised goods nor told me what’s causing the delay.)

Professionalism. If you take money from people, you are morally (and legally) obliged to give them what they’ve paid for. If something prevents you delivering what’s been paid for, keep the customer informed – offer a refund but be wary of people who “try it on”. State your terms on your invoice (“Payment within 30 days of delivery” etc.) and honour your commitments as quickly as you’d expect service from a retailer.

Courtesy. It doesn’t cost much to say “thank you”. It’s worth a few stamps / freebies to tell your suppliers they’ve done a good job. Make someone happy today.

I could go on. And on.

But that’s enough for today.

Technology and the internet have made it easier for us to sell to each other. But there’s still a place for old-fashioned professional behaviour. And courtesy.

Malingering and Munchausen’s

My name is Meg and I have a disability.

A simple statement, but how do I prove it? Well, I can point at the medical evidence, which clearly shows that there are physical problems with my body that can be seen and measured. So there’s obviously “something wrong with me”. But there’s no test that can measure the amount of pain, fatigue or difficulty caused by those flaws. You just have to take my word for it that I’m as disabled as I say I am.

I think most people realise I’m honest about my symptoms. If anything, I tend to keep them to myself rather than inflict them on everyone else. One friend commented recently that he doesn’t associate me with hospitals. I was touched.

But with the current changes in the benefits system here in the UK, there are many accusations that the disabled are “faking it”, exaggerating their symptoms and generally malingering. Whilst their opposition point to individuals with clear disabilities who’ve been assessed as making it up. Both sides cite anecdotal evidence to make their case. In my opinion, both are correct. There are plenty of people with chronic illnesses that don’t show.

And there are also those who claim there’s something wrong when there isn’t.
I know I’m walking a tightrope here and this isn’t meant as a political statement. I’m not coming down on either side of the benefits debate, just commenting on my own observations.

Firstly, there are people who claim illness they don’t have or exaggerate symptoms for a specific gain. This can be as simple as phoning work to say you’ve got flu to get an extra few days off. Or saying you’ve got a migraine when it’s really a hangover. That’s malingering and there is documented evidence it’s been going on for thousands of years. The Romans knew that people would fake illness to get out of work! Nothing new here.

But there are also people who fake or exaggerate their symptoms for less obvious gains. Presumably for sympathy or attention from others.

One man I knew was openly jealous of what he perceived as the special treatment I got for my disability. He was fond of making statements that began “It’s alright for you, Meg…” when he’d had to walk 20 yards from the car park and I’d been able to park close to the door so I didn’t have to push myself so far in my wheelchair. He clearly thought I was lucky to have a disability because my life was so much easier as a result.

Then there are those who elicit details about medical problems and later claim the same symptoms. A relative asked for details of how my fatigue affects me in a way that didn’t feel like sympathy. A few months later she told me about her own problems – using my exact words about fatigue and then embellishing the problem in ways that sounded unlikely. I can only assume she’d been telling so many people about ”her” problems that she’d forgotten when she got the information from in the first place.

There have been many such incidents over the years – and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m pleased to see this recent report: here which recognises Munchausen’s by internet – people who fake illness online because it’s easy to get away with lying. The full report here is a dry read, but there’s a list of characteristic behaviours which can give the game away.

Malingering is obviously part of the human psyche, whether we approve or not. People have been faking it for centuries and will keep doing so. But current patterns of individuals feigning illness for less tangible benefits are more worrying. It’s no wonder people and societies are suffering compassion fatigue when there are so many claiming sympathy they may not deserve.

Leaving those with genuine problems to take the “blame”.

Making Money and Promotional Freebies

I have the impression that the school system in the UK (and probably elsewhere) teaches pupils that they can make a living from writing fiction. Then they try to do it and find out it isn’t that easy. For every J.K. Rowling, there are hundreds of writers who have a day job for the steady income they need to pay the monthly bills.

And at my rung of the ladder, writing is little more than a hobby that pays for itself.

I’ve been doing the sums for the costs associated with my book launch in March. I not only have to pay for the books themselves, I’m also committed to providing goody bags for my major donors and those are the costs I was checking. I’m pleased to say I’ve stuck within my budget and I won’t be begging on an internet street corner to make up a shortfall!

In fact, as well as the goodies promised to people who funded me, I have a few extras of some items. And this is your chance to win a few of these. I’ve put together some packs, each consisting of two pencils, two ballpoint pens, an eraser, a pencil sharpener and a set of three bookmarks.

Comment on this post to be in the draw for a pack, like and share on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/MegKingstonAuthor ) to be in with another chance.

Names will be drawn on Wednesday 13/02/13 and Chrystal’s birthday, which is Wednesday 20/02/13. Winners will be announced on this blog and the Facebook page.

Good luck, everyone. 

Crowdfunding: Secrets of Success

Hello. My name is Meg and I’m a successful Crowdfunder.

Yes, it is possible.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Crowdfunding is based on the idea that money can be raised by collecting small amounts from a large number of people. Instead of a lump sum from a single source like a bank loan, a publisher’s advance or Great-Aunt Ethel’s will.

But it isn’t a magical pot of gold just waiting for someone to find it. Raising money through crowdfunding takes planning, work and a touch of luck.

People are in the crowdfunding community because they want to raise money for their own project, not because they are looking for people to give it to. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But many have assumed I’m only involved because I’m looking for reasons to give money away. I suspect everyone is spamming everyone else – I wonder if anyone ever makes any dosh that way?

Mind you, I’ve been accused of spamming someone with my own campaign. I’d just sent out the third email of my crowdfunding project (a month into the two-month schedule) and I got a reply telling me I was spamming her and she had no interest in my {expletives deleted} writing. I checked that all my emails had included my polite message asking people to let me know if they didn’t wish to receive any more. I also checked the paper headed “Sign below for news of my books and other writing” to make sure that was where I’d got her email from. She continues to send emails trying to sell me her overpriced jewellery.

It’s worth remembering that even the politest form of communication will annoy someone who once told you they were interested in supporting you.

So if you can’t raise money from other crowdfunders or by asking for donations, how do you actually get money from your crowdfunding project?
The simple answer is, from people who are interested in buying your product.

So:
• Your fans,
• People who’ve bought from you in the past,
• Groups with an interest in your particular genre,
• Friends and family,
• Work colleagues,
• The occasional stranger who comes across your pitch online. (I had one!)
– and I’ll guarantee someone will complain about you asking.

So, straighten your shoulders and thicken your skin. Calculate your costs and prices. Prepare your list of emails and work out what you’re asking for and what you’re offering in return. Draft your first email and setup a system to track who you email and when. (I’ve just asked someone to take my email off their list, after their 5th email in 4 days.) Set a finish date for your fundraising and a delivery date for the product. (I’ve been left hanging over some items I crowdfunded. I paid my money, but haven’t received what I paid for and still don’t know when they may arrive.)

Next you need to choose a crowdfunding website (or design your own webpage to take donations). Look carefully at their charges – most state it’s 5% of money collected, they don’t tell you they’re going to add VAT and don’t all mention that the payment company (such as Paypal) takes another 3%-ish.

Revise your estimate of costs!

Write your pitch, record a begging video, whatever you want to use.

Load it all onto the website and start sending out your begging mails. Print posters / flyers / business cards.

Keep careful track of money as it goes into the website and encourage your supporters to let you know when they make a donation, just in case it goes missing between their ewallet and yours.

Above – play fair with your supporters. Give them what they’ve paid for and when you said you would deliver. (I always include a little extra with my books when I send them to crowdfunders.) If there’s a delay, let them know – and offer a refund. Better to lose a few quid than a valued supporter! Don’t spam people who haven’t expressed an interest (or me!) and don’t send too many emails to anyone.

I believe that 2013 will be the year of crowdfunding. And I wish you well in your own venture into this fast-growing arena.

(If anyone does want to pre-order my book, my own crowdfunding page is here: http://jaywalkerwriting.co.uk/chrystal.html or not. I’m not pushing!)