So I quit my job #45 – How Scottish independence could impact small businesses

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As it draws closer to September the 18th, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are exploding with “No” or “Yes” campaigners trying to convince people to vote one way or another. While as a normal citizen – I know what choice I’d make, but as a small business owner – I’m afraid of what might happen if we were to go independent. I’m not the only one either.

Before we go any further, I feel it’s warranted to have a little disclaimer. I shouldn’t need to say this but after some of the recent (what can only be described as) shit storms on various comments sections regarding this topic – please don’t turn the comments section of my blog into a canvasing area for or against. I’ve already made up my mind personally (and I’ll be keeping that view to myself) but as for professionally – there’s a number of lingering questions, hence the post. As to the background for this post - I’ve read several articles recently from businesses who were asked how they felt about Scottish independence. Almost all of the businesses/CEO’s/MD’s that were interviewed were from multi-million pound companies trading globally. While that’s very well and good, it doesn’t really represent people like me or my business. These guys can lose a few million and it wouldn’t even dent their coffee budget.

Back when the white paper was released, we signed up to get a copy. After recovering from the heart-attack of when it hit the door mat (spoiler alert – it’s pretty thick), I had a quick flip through it and had a few pretty tough questions regarding the future of my business(-es). Naturally I hit Google with as many of them as I could think of but wasn’t seeming to find any answers that I’d say were nearly acceptable. I understand that without actually choosing one or the other most questions will never be answered but unfortunately business doesn’t work that way. Although we take risks a lot, most of them are calculated risks based on something from an excel spreadsheet… and pie charts. There’s always a pie chart.

Relinquish all the domains!

Back when the postman was playing extreme frisbee with the white paper, I read a few articles on domain names in an independent Scotland. The TLD .scot has been introduced recently (which I hate for a million other reasons) and Salmond obviously proposed we use that. Great, another £3.99 / year out of my limited budget for each company but a small price to pay for a supposedly better future. Reading further into it though it seemed that the only way I could hold on to my .co.uk domains was if I were to have a registered address in England. Of course, this might be relaxed but while everyone is busy debating the really fine points about stuff that has been done to death – this always gets overlooked. I’m absolutely not registering my company all the way down in England. It costs a fair bit of money to register your company at another address (accountants usually do it if you use their services) but don’t you think that some smart alec is going to hike the fees during independence as it’ll be a money spinner? That’ll be more money out of my practically non-existent budget, theoretically.

Let’s forget about the cost though and just go on the Google impact. For this blog, it’s not a big deal if I lose .co.uk financially in the grand scheme of things. I’ve registered most of the TLD’s anyway so can easily switch but what happens to all the old Google search links? I’ll turn in my .co.uk on the 19th, somebody else will register it and Google will suddenly be sending them all the traffic for a particular keyword. Okay, my blog doesn’t rely on keywords but I do have a few friends that do for their e-commerce businesses. Imagine if overnight you suddenly lost 90% of search traffic thanks to a Yes vote. That’d suck.

90% of business is south of the border.

Okay this one is a particular concern of everyone I’ve spoken to in the startup/small/medium sized business community and one that nobody can answer fully. Most of my and others’ business is back down south and, at the moment, it’s a pretty straightforward deal. Whether it’s software or a physical product – shipping, tax, currency, phone numbers, etc. – they aren’t a problem. If we were to go independent though, that could quickly become a bigger nightmare than anyone expects.

Even if it were to go amazingly smoothly (which it won’t) and everything was left as is (which is unlikely) it’ll add a whole load of organisational complexity that I didn’t have to deal with before. Big companies can afford to hire more people or train their staff on new procedures and, although they might not like it, it’ll have a small impact in the overall company. For me, it could give me a whole load of headaches that I really could do without and perhaps even add on some cost. Cross-border taxes, currency exchange, and even just a new load of paperwork to do is going to really take it’s toll on my already overtaxed mind. When 90% of my business is back down south (and if it were to cause an operational minefield) I think I’d be very tempted to move the office down south. Again, I’m not the only one.

European Union

Whether you like the EU, hate it, or simply think “these are the countries I can bring cigarettes back from” – it’s something that’s brought up in the independence vote quite often. The EU says we’d have to re-apply, Salmond says “naw were no”. Regardless, what happens to the EU trademarks, EU patents, EU trading regulations and other equally important stuff that’s been registered pre-independence? What happens to the stuff that’s in progress? Patent applications and trademarks don’t happen overnight so have I potentially wasted money? Does the EU patent no longer apply if we did go independent or will it still cover the EU until it expires?

This one is a little more scary than the Scotland/England point above as not only is it more difficult for a non-EU country to trade with an EU one, there’s substantially more people (customers) in the EU that’d we’d potentially be missing a sale with. And then of course there’s the whole Euro thing…

That’ll be 3 Salmonds and 50 Sturgeons please.

Sort of related to the above, this is something a lot of people have mentioned. What bloody currency will we have? There’s three choices – the Pound Sterling, the Euro, or a new currency (the Salmond for ease of argument and because it’s fun). The one that’ll cause the least disruption is the Pound, obviously, but Westminster says we can’t have it. The Euro is the next logical choice as that’ll allow us to tick a few of the EU entrance criteria and trade easily once we’ve gotten over the fact it looks like “funny money” (overheard from my mother). The last option is one that most people personally don’t have a problem with but, as a business owner, I really do. A new currency would be devastating to my business as most of the money goes back down south. Think about the services a business may use – manufacturing, distribution, design, development, building, cleaning, accountancy, etc.. I use a few English companies to work with me on most of the above and can guarantee that a new currency will just cause more headaches operationally than it’d be worth.

Of course, I could be wrong but if I’m not it could seriously impact my business… Is that worth the risk?

You’ll be £xxxx better off!

This point is more for those of you who think I’ve not made up my mind and are trying to convince me. It’s still something I wonder about, but less so than the ones above.

“You’ll be £x better off a year!” I hear often as a wooing mechanism for/against independence. That sounds great but you’re forgetting one thing – I pay taxes a little differently to the average person. Rather than paying NI or PAYE through my wages, I get taxed monthly based on a very accurate estimate that I supply the HMRC. At the end of the financial year I’m legally obliged to submit my earnings to the HMRC for them to audit and decide how much tax I should be paying/be refunded. The claims about me being better off don’t apply unless I’m earning a really decent amount.

The last figure I saw was £1,000 which (regardless of whether I think it’s all lies or a decent estimate) means you all get to make more in your wage packet but doesn’t mean I get a nice £1,000 bonus from the desk of Mr. Salmond himself. No actually all it does is raise my tax threshold meaning that I can earn more money before I’m due to pay more tax. That doesn’t make me £1,000 a year better off – it gives me a £1,000 tax buffer to play with which is great if you’re earning over the threshold. For those who don’t though – this is a hollow point.

 

Anyway regardless of what my personal feelings are about independence (or indeed yours for that matter), I think it’s necessary for small businesses to press for answers to these questions before it’s too late. I don’t expect the government to give us nicely formatted excel spreadsheets or indeed a full blown 5 year business plan, but I do expect some amount of reassurance that independence won’t cost me my business, my job or my dreams.

So I quit my job #44 – How does $1.5 – $3 million sound?

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As you might have seen or heard on social media, things with NixCall have been progressing really well recently. Loads of great feedback, it’s still being consistently downloaded, and I’ve been contacted by an MP, trading standards and more about using it as a crime prevention tool. Things are going in the right direction and, while that’s a great thing, it was all totally unexpected.

One of the stranger things that’s happened so far was a deal to license the app to a media company in the United States. With Yahoo, Facebook, Google and others buying up smaller tech companies almost daily, the pipe dream for a lot of startups these days is to get bought out for millions before they’ve even started. While possible, it’s extremely unlikely that this will actually happen to anyone you or I know. So you can probably understand why I was surprised at an offer in my inbox… for (approx.) £1.5 million a year.

You were all thinking it anyway.

Of course, my scam and bullshit detectors were working overtime to figure out if this guy was legit or not. The deal sounded great on paper but there was a few unanswered questions that I wanted to sort out. We emailed back and forth for almost two or three weeks, constantly grilling each other. As it turns out, they wanted full rights in the US to the name and the app but were pretty upfront that they didn’t mind me re-releasing it under a different name at the same time – there was no non-competitive arrangements. They were also willing to send some money up front and reduce the minimum contract time to 6 months to make sure it’s what I was happy with. Everything just seemed to be slotting nicely into place – no question went unanswered and everything was above board. You’re probably wondering if I’m writing this post from either my Ferrari or Porsche right about now and, if I’d taken him up, you’d probably be right…

Or maybe even the tumbler…

Still looking at it with a pinch of skepticism, I wanted to make sure that everything was legit. Checking everything from the people I was licensing it to, the manner in which it was being used, the owner of the company, and even the selling price. You might be thinking “why the hell do you care, that’s a lot of money! Take it and shut up” but there was just something… off about the whole thing. I pressed for more details and, from what I got back and what I can gather, I can understand why it’d be worth that kind of money – if not more. Y’see the buyer had assumed that they could control database and add whatever numbers they deemed “spam”. The database is something I’m keeping pretty close to my chest as I don’t want it used for malicious or incorrect purposes. The scams capable of being pulled off with full access to the database range from competitive companies being blocked, debt collection agencies or even to people who weren’t on Santa’s nice list being blocked without any justification or warning. There’s several things they could have done with that, all ending in a scam to either the consumers or legitimate businesses. As the company that got in touch was a media company with a call-centre outfit attached, alarm bells started ringing.

We "could've been", you mean.

We “could’ve been”, you mean.

Having a re-read through the emails I received I’ve come to my own conclusions about how I think the app could have been used but there’s loads more that are entirely possible. The most likely going from the content of the emails are either they planned to add every business in the US to the do not call register, release the app for free and then extort money out of the businesses to remove them from the list. The alternative, which is more plausible given additional information I’ve not published here, is that the app would be used to stop legitimate callers from getting through (bailiffs, debt collectors, credit card companies, etc) allowing customers to claim that they’d never received a call regarding debts and ends up making the credit situation worse. The bottom line is that the offer was indeed genuine, it’s intention however was not.

"Just sign here, here and initial here".

“Just sign here, here and initial here and deposit your soul in the basket”.

It’s a really interesting situation to have been in (somehow I don’t think it’s my last) and I didn’t expect to react the way I did. I could have shut up, taken the money, pre-ordered my Ferrari and even re-released the app under a different name in the states but it just didn’t feel right. I made the app to help people avoid scams, not to get embroiled in one myself. If you know me, you’ll know one of the qualities that I highly regard is honesty and it’s how I like to conduct business – completely above board and upfront. I feel that the deal, while it could’ve definitely solved a few money issues and given me more material crap, just wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Like I said before, I’m here to solve problems – not create new ones. Politely, of course, I told them I refused the deal and any iteration of it in the future.

I really want to leave a meeting like this at some point in the future.

So yeah, that was interesting. NixCall is still doing well in the app store and I’m currently moving things forward with regard to the prototypes for the landline version which is pretty scary. Scary in a good way though. The upshot of all this is that on Monday, I’ve been invited by Trading Standards to a conference in London discussing scams targeted at vulnerable people on Monday.

I think my irony meter just exploded.

So I quit my job #43 – What’s ‘app-ening?

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So it’s been a few months since I last updated this thing and (as usual) there’s a lot to talk about. So much in fact that I’ve taken some time out to write this post and the next two rather than trying to cram the entire works of shakespeare into a single post. I’ll still ramble a fair bit though, so grab a coffee and get comfy.

Let’s start with my latest project, NixCall, and work backwards from that. NixCall is an app for iPhone that helps deal with those spam calls and texts we all love to get. I’ve had the same mobile number for about 8 or 9 years now and it’s fair to say that it’s been about the block a fair bit so I get pestered quite regularly. The final straw came for me around mid-March when I got 15 calls about my “unsecured debts” (of which I have none) in 2 or 3 days from the same company under different guises. I tried absolutely everything to get them to stop, from asking to be removed from the database, quoting legislation that requires them to give the people who sold on the details to more or less telling them to get tae. Not only were they persistent and aggressive but they were wasting my time with stupid interruptions.

I searched everywhere for a lifetime Googled it for half an hour trying to find some way of stopping them but everyone was just pointing me to the TPS and O2′s spam reporter. If you’re not familiar with TPS, it’s a service which you can sign up to for free that companies are meant to check before they cold call you. Sounds great in theory but I have two major problems with that. Firstly TPS only protects against truly cold call sales, not ones you may have accidentally signed up for (small print) or even the scammer call centres – they don’t care. Secondly adding your phone number to a database to stop spam calls is like fighting back against ID cards by signing a petition with your name and address and sending it to the government in protest – backwards.

Even the cat thinks you're a dumbass

Even the cat thinks you’re a dumbass.

I couldn’t find anything that would help me out but I knew something could be done so I went off on a tangent and started investigating. I grabbed as many known spam numbers I could find, whacked them all into a contacts database that could sync to my iPhone and job done!  It worked well – for the first 1,000 numbers or so. As the database grew in size and more people asking me about it I decided to revisit the service and see if I could make it available to everyone and more efficient. Although smartphones are technically capable of having more than 1,000 numbers per contact they don’t like it as there’s really no use case for it. So that was a fairly big problem I had to overcome. Eventually through a lot of trial and error, I wound up creating NixCall for iPhone (which is available on iTunes for only 99p) and started trying to spread the word about it. I didn’t really expect anything game changing or amazing to happen but shit suddenly got real – and quickly.

Like a boss

Like a boss

In the first 48 hours it had already amassed over 100 downloads – which is amazing. Over the course of the last week it’s regularly been in the top 200 UK business apps (highest place 15th and currently 17th, average 40th), keeps getting 5 star ratings and reviews and is continually being downloaded. The database is growing too thanks to it’s large user base and the ability for users to add numbers they believe are spam. Don’t worry though, there’s an algorithm that checks to make sure they’re not just reporting their ex-wife or submitting false reports for funsies – this is serious business after all. Anyway I’m pretty shocked and amazingly overwhelmed by the success so far.

it's awesome

My reaction checking my emails and stats in the morning. Every morning.

I’ve had numerous tweets, texts, calls and emails from people saying how great the app is and I can’t explain just how awesome that is. I’ve been working hard to get the app noticed by people and press and while it was difficult at first, I seem to be making some headway. I’ve been talking to loads of people on twitter and giving out what little free download codes I have to get the word out. I’ve also contacted probably every journalist and editor in the UK to let them know about this but (thanks to spam emails ironically) it’s difficult getting through to them. I won’t stop trying to get their attention though so I’m hoping it’s only a matter of time before someone picks up the story. Hopefully.

Yeah, no shit.

Getting to Mordor is easier than getting a reporter to call you back.

I’m really happy with the app and the way it’s progressing through the charts – it means it’s actually solving a real problem and people are finding it useful. If you’ve already downloaded it and reviewed it – thank you. If you’ve not already grabbed it, head over to the app store and have a look for NixCall (or click here).

So I quit my job #42 – We need to talk, it’s just not working out. Don’t worry – it’s not me, it’s you.

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I’ve told you all before, and Alice has too, that I’m constantly full of new ideas. I file most of these ideas away for a rainy day and occasionally I’ll decide to take an idea further than the “back of a napkin” conceptual stage. It’s now been 6 or 7 months since my last idea took flight and I think it’s only fair to tell you how it’s been going (SPOILER ALERT: not well).

There’s really no easy, buttered up way of saying it so here it is – I’ve killed off Camphaus. Although the underlying idea was good in theory, there were a myriad of reasons why it didn’t work in practice and although the idea may not have succeeded, I don’t count it as a failure. That might sound bizarre but let’s have a look at the whole picture.

What went wrong?

Well, a few things. Firstly, I’d underestimated how easy it’d be to get a merchant account with a credit-card processor. About 5 – 6 years ago it was shitloads easier but now, not so much. This lead me to use Paypal to process credit cards and in turn led to my profit taking a massive hit (in order to not break contract with suppliers) per transaction. 3.4% + 20p to be exact. That’s slightly higher than 30p/ transaction for merchant services.

Secondly, people don’t care about deals websites – they’ll still shop around. What I was finding was that customers tended to be browsing specific products and phoning competitors to my suppliers citing their “price match” service. If you’re not familiar with price match t’s and c’s it basically means that if you can find the product anywhere else online for cheaper, they’ll match the price. Using our discounted rate, customers would phone up competitors and force them to match it. Meaning my site was used as a glorified price check and they could still keep a relationship with their retailer.

Thirdly, all of my retail connections are in the same industry. That’s not terribly bad for some ideas but, for Camphaus, it was near suicide. If you remember, the idea was to only pick the best retailers to work with – when all your contacts are in office furniture, this means that you can only call 1 contact and get their products. Not only have you potentially pissed of 99% of your contacts that didn’t get the gig, you’re also stuck for who to phone next. What started out with good intentions grew menacingly into cold calls and pleading to get them on board – that’s not good.

What did it cost?

Other than time, £1000. 75% of that was spent on marketing and the rest on general running costs. I’d say that’s not bad, I know people that spend that easily in half the time on nights out. Mind you, that alcohol & pizza/kebab is looking pretty good right now.

At the end of the day it boils down to one simple fact- Would you rather spend £1000 on beer, kebabs, and hangovers or on an idea that might just be able to pay the bills. I’d choose the latter every-god-damned-time.

What did I learn?

Loads of shit. But more importantly, I found loads of ways not to do shit. Like Edison (prick), I think that’s way more important. Here’s some of the things I learned in an easy to digest list form:

1. Don’t get involved in industries you know nothing about.

Unless you don’t mind losing some money figuring out what it’s all about. Kinda like being the new kid at school and trying to figure out who’s who. When you eventually do, you’re still stuck with your head down a toilet.

2. Do all the banking stuff early as possible.

This buggered my first month. I powered into developing the system assuming that bank accounts would be really easy to set up. They were easy, just 30 days instead of a week. So the system was fully functional, it just couldn’t process credit cards. And on that note…

3. Don’t depend on one key condition for you to make money.

In order to attract sellers, I had to have a low commission rate. This wasn’t a bad idea until merchant services decided to pull an Edison and say “no” at the last kick. This meant my processing fees went from a flat 30p per transaction to 3.4% + 20p per transaction, killing my commission. Therefore it required a lot of sales to be making me a fair amount of money.

4. Know when to quit.

I’m not embarrassed about it not working out, I learned a lot of stuff in the process and had fun making the system. The one key thing I think I’ve learned is knowing when to call it a day. I’ve decided to pull the plug before it starts costing money, hold my hands up and apply the knowledge to my next project.

So what happens next?

My IT solutions company (Onnya IT, incase you’re keeping tabs ;)) is still running away successfully and I’ve pulled another idea out of the old folder to look into. This one is in an industry I know masses about and, this time, I’m not going it alone. Everyone I’ve spoken to so far has loved the idea and I’m using all the knowledge of Camphaus’ failings to help further it. More on that later but I’ll leave you with this final thought: recently someone asked me if this meant I was giving up and getting a “real” job.

Absolutely not, I’ll never give up. I’m going to make it, it just might take a few attempts.

So I quit my job #41 – A look back at 2013

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Last year, as you know, I started back up myself. Taking on the bullshit bureaucratic business world with a rock n’ roll attitude. It’s been an interesting ride so far and I’d like to share with you some stuff I’ve learned over the last year or so.

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So I quit my job #40 – Naming a business is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

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To most people, building something from scratch is a daunting task. To me though, coming up with a design that looks awesome, functionality that just blows away the competition and those cool funky things that you pull out at shows or events – easy. The naming though? Fuck that.

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So I quit my job #39 – Social media, you’re doing it wrong

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Everybody I meet has some form of social media account today. I’ve only got a handful of (actual physical) friends who don’t have any accounts whatsoever and I find that rather odd. Aside from the real people that join up to these networks, companies do too and most of them don’t have a clue how to use it properly. Twitter seems to be a great example of companies and individuals continually screwing up – maybe it’s something to do with inspiration with limitation. There’s a quote in there somewhere, I’m sure.

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