SAM a Superwoman of Lancashire: My video interview with Jane Binnion

This month, Jane Binnion of fellow Lancaster-based business Jane’s Social Media kindly invited me to be part of her series of blog posts entitled ‘the Superwomen of Lancashire’.

According to People Management Magazine, the number of self-employed women in the UK has increased by 172,000 since the start of the recession in 2008. So how fitting was Jane’s desire was to gather and share the experiences and challenges of a number of local business women in the Lancashire area. With me still being quite new to the world of self-employment and with a wish to share my experiences so far, I of course jumped at the chance to be part of this great project. But rather than writing a 500 word blog post, I asked Jane if Back Room SAM’s contribution could be in the form of a video blog instead.

In my interview Jane gave me opportunity to share my motivations for going self-employed, the personal challenges of running my own business and the joys of collaborating with other local traders. I also expressed my desire to see more graduates consider staying in Lancaster after study and look to how they can use their skills to invest in our city.

I’m not sure how I feel about being described as one of the ‘superwomen of Lancashire’. These are hard times and any kind of work will always have its challenges, and the kinds of challenges I have faced over the last year will no doubt be similar to those others have had to deal with. But maybe what might qualify me, and many other of the lovely local business ladies Jane has spoken to, is the desire and courage to step out and see if business and work can be done another way, a better way. A way which allows us to support our families while remaining flexible to our other responsibilities and circumstances. A way which empowers us to creatively flex and make use of whatever skills we have harnessed so far however we see fit. And a way which ultimately and fruitfully works for the good of not just ourselves and our homes and families, but also the local Lancashire economy as a whole. Maybe that does qualify for Superwoman status after all….

I hope you enjoyed watching, and look out for more videos posts here on my blog soon!

sarah x

Business Identity: Be what your customers want, and what your competitors aren’t!

Business IdentityTo a small local business, marketing words such as ‘brand identity’, ‘positioning’ and ‘USP’ can be perceived as rather intimidating jargon often thought to only be appropriate to and made use of by the likes of Heinz and M&S, or the large corporate businesses that have gone to great lengths to develop a shrewd and complex business strategy over the course of many long and intense hours of board room meetings and performance review sessions. However, as a fellow small business who works closely with a variety of other small businesses on a weekly basis, I would like to argue an alternative viewpoint; that taking a bit of time to think about the identity and ‘feel’ of your business may be an invaluable exercise to ensuring you and your business are set to work effectively in the environment you find yourselves in. But don’t worry – no board room pomp or suited and booted attire is required. Just put the kettle on and make yourself a brew, grab a notebook and pen and simply ask yourself the following 4 questions:

1. Put simply, how would you like your business to be viewed? Is your business no-nonsense and to-the point? Is it fun and quirky? It is approachable and friendly? Is it fighting your customers’ corner? Is it environmentally conscious? Is it convenient with lots of choice? Is it budget-aware and cost-effective? Try to sum up your business identity or standpoint in less than a dozen words. What does it ‘feel like’? What do you want it to most be remembered for? If your business was a famous personality who would it be?  You get the picture. But whoa there horsey! Don’t set your heart on this identity quite yet, as there are some other important questions to answer first…

2. Does my business identity possess qualities my target market is interested in? It’s no good positioning yourself as environmentally-friendly if your customers generally aren’t very eco-friendly and don’t care whether or not your product is made from recycled materials or if your service has a low carbon footprint. Have a think about what matters to your ideal customer, both generally and what they more specifically would care about from your product or service. Then make sure the way you promote and sell your product or service reflects the very things they care about. Don’t attempt to try to be all things to all men – inevitably there will always be some people who aren’t interested in the selling points you go for. Better to run with a small number of benefits to delight the customers who will be interested.

3. Does my business identity reflect qualities that outdo my competitors? This is where sketching out a number of positioning maps can be quite helpful. See the example below of a positioning map for choice of American coffee places. You need to think about how the main selling points of your business (reflected in your brand identity) give you some sort of advantage over your competitors. Take a couple of the main qualities you would like your business to be perceived to have, and use these as the X and Y axes on your positioning map. Then plot where you think you and your competitors sit according to these qualities. This will help to you to easily identify which of your competitors are trying to promote the same selling points as you, and whether the way you plan to position your business is already being done by several others and perhaps you need to consider re-positioning and offering some alternative benefits and selling points so placing you somewhere which is less competitively fierce.

Positioning map

So just to sum up where we’ve go to so far, you need to decide on how you wish your business to be viewed and perceived in terms of its key qualities, make sure this is based on things your customers actually want and also ensure that these qualities allow you to outdo most of your competition in some way.

4. Finally, is your business identity reflected in everything you do and say? The posh term for this is Integrated Marketing Communications. The way to build up a really strong and clear reputation for your business is once you have decided on a position, run with it to make sure it informs everything else in your business. This means making sure your latest brochure design reflects the qualities of your business, in both its content and design. It will mean thinking about the language you use when sending out your regular mailshots, and even what you wear to business networking meetings! It will also mean thinking about what promotional activities your business chooses to engage in; if you want to be seen as knowledgeable and experts in your field, then why not start a blog or run a series of workshops to communicate this quality to potential customers? Sending out mixed or contradictory messages about your business is generally bad news, so make sure that all your channels of communication between your business and the outside world – both verbal and non-verbal – align well with the overall ‘feel’ of your business.

I hope that this has been helpful reading in introducing you to the idea of thinking through your business identity, and the benefits of doing so even if you’re not as big as Heinz! Thanks for reading, and give me a shout if I can help in any way.

See you soon!

sarah x

One of the services Back Room SAM offers is an affordable 2-3 hour marketing strategy session structured ideally for small business owners. If you think this is something you and your business might benefit from, then please do drop me a line at

Have you got your Facebook timeline cover design covered?

facebook timeline design

A bit of latest news for you…if you have a page for your business on Facebook, you will have probably already spotted that on 30th March 2012, your page will, in Facebook’s words, be getting a ‘brand new design’. Facebook are rolling out their timeline format across all pages, both personal and business.

So what are the advantages of the new timeline layout? These will soon become clear as you play around with the new format. To name just a couple of useful changes, you will be able to pin your most important posts to the top of your timeline (formerly referred to as your wall). And as your posts are now displayed chronologically, if you’re clever about it you can use the new format to show the world how your business has evolved over time. Check out the new ‘milestones’ you can use when creating a post about a particular key moment or episode in the life of your business you wish to highlight, such as a new product launch or special event that’s happening. A milestone post will be marked out from the rest of your posts and will be more prominently displayed on your page.

But perhaps the most obvious and important change that will happen to your page on March 30th is the introduction of a 851-pixel wide cover image of your choosing spreading all the way across the top of your page like a banner. This image will be present in addition to your standard profile picture, which is now required to be a small square (and so any vertical banner you have had designed for your page previously will be reduced to this!). This change is a brilliant opportunity to create a great first impression of your Facebook page and your business as a whole, so choose wisely. But beware! There are a number of restrictions regarding what information you can include on your cover design – for more details about these restrictions click here.

Need a hand with the design of your Facebook cover image for the new timeline layout? Throughout March and April 2012, Back Room SAM will happily design and deliver a professional and eye-catching banner design especially for your page, for just £30. Just give me a bell on 07866 417211 or email me on to chat about your new fancy design.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and hope you come back very soon!

sarah x

4 Big Do’s and 4 Big Don’ts of Email Marketing


email marketing

Email marketing doesn’t just have to be for the big boys! More and more small businesses are increasingly seeing the benefits of email marketing, even when just working on a small and local level.  In fact, when done well it can work very effectively for those of us wanting to relate to our customers on a personal and friendly level. It helps keeps our business on people’s radar, can keep others in the know of what’s going on in our business – offers, new products, or upcoming events or workshops that may be of interest to them.

But before leaping in headfirst ­­into a full-blown email marketing campaign, why not try these on for size? Here are 4 BIG DO’s and 4 BIG DON’Ts when thinking through and implementing your email marketing campaign for your business.

1. DON’T just hop on the email marketing bandwagon.
It’s very rarely a good idea to start doing something in your business “just because everyone else is doing it”. We’re not in high school anymore (thank goodness!). Have a think whether email marketing would be appropriate and worthwhile for your business. If you are B2B, then it is likely that email marketing on some level would be a good idea. If you are e-commerce, then email marketing is a must, as your customer base is clearly online. Even if you are selling stairlifts and are predominantly aiming at an older target audience, don’t automatically rule out email marketing – I know a good number of 60-70 year olds who know and love the web! In today’s world I imagine that it is likely some form of email marketing campaign would be of useful to most businesses, but please do think it through and make sure you are clear of your strategy and what you are hoping to achieve out of doing it.

2. DO get legal.
email spammingNobody likes receiving emails they never requested to receive. It’s called spamming. Make sure that you are up-to-date with the current anti-spam laws regarding email marketing in the UK, and in other countries if you are sending emails internationally). Click here to view the UK regulations. But in a nutshell, recipients in our country have to have actively opted-in and requested to be added to a mailing list, whether by receiving a personal invitation from you, or by them filling in an online form on your website, or by them filling in a paper form at your tradeshow stand or something similar. In any case, it’s a good idea to keep a record of these sign-ups for legal purposes in case you ever get accused of spamming people. By law, every email you send also has to include an ‘opt-out’ option, such as an ‘unsubscribe’ link or clear instructions for the recipient to follow should they decide they no longer wish to receive these emails from your business.

3. DON’T stuff it with too much!
Be picky about what content you choose to include in your email. Many of the best email marketing campaigns work best because they provide short and well-written tasters of useful information that is relevant to the recipient (with links to more info on certain topics if required). The exact content of your email will of course depend on your strategy, but one tip is to remember that it is not all about selling. The email is meant to be informative and an instrument for helping people engage with your business. Keep it friendly, and full of value-added content so that the reader feels they get something out of being on your regular mailing list. By keeping it short but sweet, this will keep your readership numbers up and your ‘unsubscribe’ numbers down.

4. DO include links in your email to other online points of engagement with your business.
Make it easy for your readers to follow your activities or contact you via their preferred platform. Do you have a Facebook page or use Twitter? Include some links to these. What about a blog which can be subscribed to via RSS? Promote this in your email, as well.

5. DON’T assume that one email fits all.
Why not split your mailing list into smaller subgroups, and send out a few different emails that are each specially tailored to be of interest to each group of people. Do you offer a range of different products or services? Do you have a wide mix of different customers? It makes sense to personalise your email to them so they are more likely to read it and engage with your business.

6. DO use a decent HTML template for your email.
Almost all email clients now do a good job of correctly displaying HTML emails (when it’s coded well, that is) which means that we as businesses now have the luxury of making professional and pretty-looking emails to send out to our mailing lists. There are a number of really useful online interfaces out there to assist in sending out a HTML email campaign. Mailchimp, for example, has a number of ready-made templates which you can modify to your liking relatively easily, and lets you send out 12,000 emails per month to a mailing list of up to 2,000 email addresses for free. I have built a number of professional looking e-newsletter templates for clients in HTML, designed to their liking, which I have then imported into Mailchimp for the client to easily edit as they wish for each monthly or weekly mailing. So do let me know if you could do with a hand with this.

7. DO include a plain-text version of your email and a ‘view in browser’ link. Granted, most email clients can now decently render HTML emails. But these types of tools are still useful – they give the recipient some decent alternatives if they would prefer only to view a plain-text version (without viewing the images in the email) or are unable to view HTML in their email client, for example, if they are using a mobile device that doesn’t support HTML.

8. DON’T just send it out and hope for the best.
If you are investing valuable time and money into your email marketing, you’ll want to know how effectively it’s working. Of course how you monitor this all depends on your objectives of the campaign. But one obvious way of monitoring performance is to be able to see how your recipients are responding to your email. Who opened it? What links in the email did they click on? Who has unsubscribed? At what time of day of sending does your email get the best response? “But how can I get hold of all this information?”, I hear you ask. The good news is that good ol’ Mailchimp gives you free access to this data when you use their platform to send out your campaigns. Click here for more info about Mailchimp reports.

Thanks for reading. Any comments are welcome. And of course do feel free to get in touch if I can help with your email marketing in any way.

sarah x

SAM six months in: 5 down-to-earth tips for the early days of self employment

self employed

Since going self-employed and launching Back Room SAM just short of six months ago, my experience of setting up and starting to run a small business from scratch is one like nothing else I have experienced to date. And although in my case this only refers to 25 short years of life(!), I think it is still fair to say that when being compared alongside any other path in life, this is a rather unique one to be travelling. I’m sure the many others who have been through this same experience would agree. And with more and more people in our country choosing the self-employed route of work at the moment, this is to be a journey that increasingly large numbers are embarking on.

As a business which regularly works with and alongside a large number of small businesses in a variety of weird and wonderful sectors, I have become more than aware that every individual’s and business’ story is different when it comes to the how’s and why’s of starting up, the ups and the downs, and the challenges and the rewards inevitably involved in getting their business up and running. However, my hope is that these 5 down-to-earth tips of I have chosen to share below, flowing from my own experience of starting up, may prove useful to others regardless of industry or field of work.

So, if like me, you are still fairly new to the path of self-employment, I hope you find some of the tips below helpful, as just some of what I have figured out along the way so far. Or if you are a more established business owner, why not think back to your early days and see if any of these points echo back to your own experience. And as someone who is still very new to this, any comments or additions to my thoughts are of course very welcome.

So here we go. These are just five small pearls of wisdom for embarking on the journey of self-employment, for what they’re worth…

1. You are not alone, and you need a good network of people to remind you of this fact! I often feel that going self-employed is a little like going on a diet. Tell those people close to you what you are doing so that they can support you and refer potential customers to you. Also find out about local networks and networking events in the local area, as I have found these to be absolutely invaluable both in terms of finding clients and mutual encouragement and support from other local businesses.

2. Plan…but not too much! By all means, do a business plan, do your market research, do a sales and cost forecast for your first year and beyond, so that you have an idea of where you want the business to go. Figure out your business proposition and stand by it. BUT don’t let your strategy be so rigid as to sufficiently squish any emerging trends or patterns that you see happening, especially in your first year or so. A good approach is to start broad in terms of the product or service you are offering; you can always narrow down and focus later on if you wish.

3. Be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster. This definitely took me by surprise! In business we often don’t think that emotions have much of a part to play, but you can’t get away from the fact that your business is being run by a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human who doesn’t exist in a corporate vacuum. There will be times when you feel great about how everything’s going, and there will be times when you feel like you’re a failure, often all in the same morning! Be honest about your doubts and fears. Be ready to spot the lies out there that might creep into your thinking and try to destroy your confidence. Put things in place in your life to keep you grounded and help you keep things in the necessary perspective. What works for me? I have a worry bubble on the whiteboard in my office in which I write down any current concerns. I take a walk in the park up the road when things start to get on top of me. I have a number of people who will help me rationally evaluate how things are going, and I go dancing on a Thursday night. But find what works for you to help you manage and control your attitude to your business. You can be sure that this will also pay dividends in helping you to work more positively and constructively.

4. Don’t be afraid to start small and grow organically.

big fish in small bowl

The mistake many businesses apparently make is they want to grow too quickly, despite very little time having been spent laying the necessary foundations and ‘infrastructure’ to sustain the growth. Don’t be afraid to take the time to learn about the industry you are working in, to build good relationships with your customers or clients and find out what they care about from your business, and to get things like your pricing right from the start. Sure, this might lead to a comparably ‘slower’ pace of growth, and you might not end up a multi-millionaire with your own yacht and private jet within your first year of trading. But when you do start to grow, your business is much more likely to grow into one which is more established and sustainable, whatever the economic weather.

5. Maintain control of what you want the business to be, and only collaborate with people who get that. In the early days of starting up you are likely to come across many people who may want to collaborate with your business in some way. You may be invited to become part a network, join forces with another business for a number of projects or make use of a business mentoring programme. All of these things can be extremely useful things for your business, and I am all for collaboration, especially on a local level. But BEWARE that not everyone will understand (or even agree with) what you and your business is about and what you are wishing to achieve. Make sure you are clear about your aims and goals, and have enough conviction and confidence to politely leave behind anything or anyone that doesn’t seem to be able to get on board with your vision. Take what is useful, leave what isn’t. And of course, that applies to my advice too!

Thanks for reading,

sarah x