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Last Updated: Monday, 30 June, 2003, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
The small business panel of experts
A panel of experts on small business answer questions from BBC News Online readers.

Whether you are worried about growing your company without losing control, or agonising over funding for a new business, our panellists can help you.

Following an overwhelming response, BBC News Online is publishing a fourth instalment of answers to your questions. We have tried to include as many questions as possible.

BBC News Online will publish the next series of answers from our panel of small business experts on Tuesday, 22 July.


QUESTION
Abiola Adesina, UK
Could you please provide ideas on how to advertise on a low marketing budget?

ANSWER
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop
Every blank space is an opportunity for a message. I've used trucks as moving billboards, sprayed messages on pavements and made cinema ads on a shoestring budget.

But without knowing the nature of your business, it's hard to advise. Read my book 'Body and Soul' to see how we did it at The Body Shop.

QUESTION
Daniel, UK
If you make a major mistake with one or more of your customers and they are left at the very least unimpressed, what can you do to re-establish yourself as a quality producer or service provider in the eyes of your customers, as well as rebuild your staff morale?

ANSWER
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop
So you screwed up. Recognize it. Contact everyone involved - by phone if possible and show that you have recognised your mistake. Bring them round by offering products/services at a reduced price.

Your staff are the most important part of the equation. Ask them how they think you can avoid the problem happening again. They're the ones in the firing line. How do they think that the company can best restore its image?


QUESTIONS
Jan Budkowski, UK
It would be interesting to find out whether there are any grants available for small businesses like ours, in book publishing. We gave up looking ages ago. Publishing, despite the fact that we do more in exporting than in local, doesn't seem to feature anywhere. Yes, we've talked to Business Link in London and elsewhere, looked up DTI website, and can't even find assistance to display at the big Frankfurt Book Fair.

Sara Rafferty, England
My husband is in the process of setting up his own horticultural business. He plans to operate as a sole trader, certainly to begin with, but he will need certain equipment, mainly specialist tools and spraying equipment. Are there any small business grants available to help him do this?

ANSWER
David Wilkinson, partner, Ernst & Young
There are literally hundreds of grants at local, regional, national and international levels and it is often necessary to be very specific about location and circumstances.

We do not get involved with assistance at this level, but you may find the following website helpful as it allows you to access grants in a very specific way:

You need to register to get access to all parts of the site.


QUESTION
Vic de la Flor, UK
I am looking to grow my recruitment business by making sure my target market is aware of my services and how different they are to rivals. Money being limited, how do I raise awareness?

ANSWER
Liz Barclay, presenter of Radio 4's You and Yours
You're saying that you have a unique selling point. Who is going to want that particular element of the services you offer? They're the people to target. Rather than spending a lot of money advertising to a wider audience gear your marketing to them.

It might be something like a brochure with examples of work you've done, contacting people personally, fliers through relevant letter boxes, mail shots or a mixture.

Look for opportunities for free publicity. Maybe the local radio station or press would be interested in having you talk or write about skills shortages, or the qualifications people leaving school or university this summer would need for the types of jobs you recruit for.


QUESTION
John Stoddart, UK
Do you think there is any advantage to using commercially available bookkeeping/finance software in a small business?

ANSWER
Peter Ibbetson, head of NatWest Business Banking
Yes, these packages will assist with the financial management of your business, helping you to stay in control of your finances by developing cashflow forecasts, profit and loss projections and some packages also include invoice management.

They do not, however, replace the need for an accountant.

NatWest provides a free book-keeping package that has been produced in conjunction with TAS Software. This can be downloaded via:

Or call 0800 777 888 for a free copy.

QUESTIONS
Raghu, UK
I want to take up franchise of a product to market and sell in a foreign country. The product is manufactured and sold here in the UK and Europe. Are there schemes to provide loans for this kind of business?

ANSWER
Peter Ibbetson, head of NatWest Business Banking
There are no specific lending schemes for franchised businesses, however, traditional small business products are applicable for those entrepreneurs considering franchising.

Some banks do have dedicated franchise departments with specialist franchise managers, who will be able to offer advice and guidance on all aspects of franchising. The British Franchise Association is a good first point of contact.


QUESTION
Paul, UK
I have set up in business with four ex-colleagues. Our business has been running now for almost nine months and has been relatively successful (we are in profit!).

We are all equal partners in the business but with no nominated managing director. We have been described as a "commune". Although no MD exists we do have a nominated business development manager. What comments or experiences do you have of this type of set-up and are we destined for failure?

ANSWER
Professor Nigel Nicholson, London Business School
Fuzzy leadership operates best in small, fluidly organised businesses. This is fine, so long as you do not resort to decision making by voting or other pseudo-democratic means.

Consensus around spontaneous leadership, appropriate to the task in hand, is one of the fundamental patterns of social functioning from our Stone Age origins (see my book, 'Managing the Human Animal').

If you get larger you will need more structure, which tends to formalise leadership. Beyond the magic number 150, it is hard to maintain a sense of community in a single unit.

But no, to answer your anxiety, you are not destined for failure. Just so long as you are reflexive - this means devoting time to collectively examining your structure and process and how it needs to be adapted to growth or change in your environment or strategy.

The opinions expressed above are those of the panel of experts, not the BBC's. The advice is not intended to be definitive and should be used for guidance only. Always seek professional advice for your own particular situation.



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