Tips for VAT MOSS Registration

VAT MOSS is the latest brainchild of HMRC (the UK’s Tax & Customs part of the government) and it’s been giving everyone some weird and wonderful headaches. While I don’t have time to go into details about why it’s going to hurt small businesses a lot (here’s Ysolda’s great summary), I wanted to quickly pop a post up as it seems many others are getting the error message I got to. (Skip to the end if you’re in a rush)

When logging in to the Government Gateway site, the logical first place to look to register for MOSS (Mini One Stop Shop) is under the “Services you can add” header; This is where I previously had to register for other services. You’ll find a link to register for MOSS for Union and non-Union businesses.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.54.21

Pick the right one for your business (if you’re in the UK, you’re Union).

However, when using this link to register, I encountered this error:

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.48.55

No matter how many times I checked our details (which I knew were right), still that error.

I tried tweeting the @HMRCCustomers Twitter account and got flat-out ignored. I then proceeded to email the Online Services Helpdesk. Two weeks later, they responded with the following:

“For security reasons we are unable to provide any information, or carry out any actions, requested by email.”

I was instructed to phone the VAT helpline, which I did earlier today. After half an hour on hold, and an almighty battle with the voice recognition system (Did you say “I want to cancel child benefits”?, Did you say “I want to import a car into the UK?”), I managed to speak to a nice Scottish chap. After quite openly explaining that they were helpless and hoping for more information soon, he put me on hold a while longer and then pointed me to a completely different section through which you register. Of course. Because that makes sense…

You’ll find the registration section you need under “Register for HMRC Taxes”, accompanied by the confidence inducing “This is a ‘beta’ service” message.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.56.13

Once you’re in there, it shouldn’t take you long to register, but somehow, it has been absolutely teeth-pullingly impossible to get the information needed to get this far.

Good luck to everyone else who’s having to wrestle VAT MOSS for 2015!

8 Big Productivity Tools for Small Businesses

Lately, I’ve been meeting tons of great owners of small businesses with fantastic ideas, boundless enthusiasm and passion for their work. What struck me was how poorly equipped they were, technologically speaking.

From working with computers that only booted when they felt like it, printers that had to be coaxed into cooperating and accounting still done on paper or using software they didn’t understand, they all expressed frustration (some in colourful words!) at the challenges of running their business.

It inspired me to put together a list of some of the tools that are closest to my heart to run a small business without losing your mind.

The right setup

Anyone who’s ever popped by this blog will know I’m a Mac geek, so a few of the tools are Mac-biased, but the majority will apply whatever your platform of choice.

Abstracting from the software and tools, first there’s the right desk and working setup. Get a computer that’s fast enough for you to work efficiently. No, you don’t need a 24GB RAM Mac Pro if you mostly do email, browsing and word processing, but you need a reliable machine. If you’re a laptop user, do yourself a favour and take good care of your battery so that it gives you plenty of life when you’re unplugged.

Work from home? Set yourself up with a self-respecting desk, chair and screen. Sitting on the bed or sofa is going to hurt in the long term, trust me. I won’t lecture you about posture and ergonomics but, right now, sit straight please.

Software & web apps

FreeAgent Accounting Software

I’m starting with this one as it was SUCH a revelation for me. I used to launch a virtual machine into Windows XP, use QuickBooks and want to jump off a bridge every time I had to do any accounting. It was downright painful and I had NO idea what I was doing (thankfully my accountant was ultra-helpful, patiently talking me through it).

A few freelancers suggested FreeAgent, and when I finally gave it a go, I was bowled over. Not only is it born and bred in the UK (and therefore ready to cope with the weirdnesses HMRC throws our way, even flat rate VAT!), the team is totally on the ball and provides amazing support. As it’s a web-based service, you can get your team to enter their time slips daily, your accountant can log in and you can use it anywhere.

The overview screen means you’ll know exactly where you stand in terms of incoming and outgoing money. Words can’t describe how much this has saved my sanity and put me in control of my own business.

For what it can do for you, it’s worth every penny, but they make it even better by offering an affiliate scheme. As a bonus, if you’re interested in trying out FreeAgent, use this link and we’ll both get 10% discount!

Campaign Monitor

Quite the opposite of newcomer (to me) FreeAgent, Campaign Monitor and I have been in a long-term relationship, and it’s a relationship that’s getting better with age.

Campaign Monitor is an email marketing platform which allows you to send newsletters to your ever-so-precious list of customers. Templates make your life easy from one send to the next and reports are beautiful and automatically generated (great to send to clients or bosses!).

The only problem with it is that the recent Worldview feature, which allows you to see in real-time when your emails are opened, makes me look like a complete lunatic as I say “Hi Stig! Oh hello Paul!” to my screen as I see friends opening our newsletters. This aside, Campaign Monitor is a pleasure to use and pretty affordable for small businesses.

Evernote

There’s a reason Evernote uses an elephant as its logo; it truly has the memory of an elephant.

Evernote is a web-based service that allows you to save text, pictures or files and synchronise across multiple locations. For example, I have the app on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, so I can look up information I’ve saved from anywhere. I can make a little note or take a picture when I’m on the go, knowing I’ll be able to get to it later from any device.

With the premium version ($5/m or $45/y), images are scanned for text so I use it to take pictures of business cards and then dump the originals. Later, rather than flick through a dangerously large pile of business cards, I can type the name of the person or company I’m looking for and find their details right away.

Sitting on the train, I’ll make some notes on my iPad after a client meeting, then later edit them on the desktop. I also use it for hobbies, saving all my digital sewing patterns, project ideas and pictures in Evernote for future reference.

1Password

How often can you get your password right on the first go? And how many times a week do you have to use the “forgot your password” function on a website? (If you don’t, you probably use the same password everywhere, in which case shame on you!)

1Password is another external brain (do we sense a theme here?) which allows you to save all your passwords in one place and only remember one master password. You can then hit a key combo to auto-fill your login details on a site. Folders and tags make it easy to categorise the zillions of logins clients or suppliers expect you to remember.

It’s available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android AND you can synchronise across them all! (yay!) Plus, they’re based in Canada. (double yay!)

Skitch

Need to send a quick annotated sketch to show what you’re trying to describe? Skitch to the rescue!

Skitch is a brilliantly speedy way to share screenshots and information. Use fewer words and more arrows and pictures to tell a story. Upload your screenshots to Skitch.com or Flickr to share easily and check your history when you need to return to an old screenshot later on. Resizing is as simple as dragging the bottom right corner so anyone can do it and there’s no need for heavy software like Photoshop.

This one is for Mac users only. 🙂

TextExpander

You might have noticed that I’m all about effortless efficiency. What can I say? The more efficient you can be, the sooner you can pour yourself a G&T! (hey, that rhymed…)

TextExpander allows you to save bits of text you use frequently and paste them by typing a few characters. For example, I can give the same links or replies in an email, in a tweet then in a forum without having to re-write it from scratch or find the link in my browser history every time.

As an aside, yes, my own app Alfred also offers Snippets as a way to save frequently used bits of text and I do use both, but TextExpander is a single-purpose app, while Alfred does a multitude of rather awesome things.

Alfred

What? You didn’t seriously think I’d talk about useful tools without including the one we’ve lovingly crafted over the past 18 months? 🙂

In its simplest form, Alfred is a productivity app for Mac that helps you launch apps, websites, do calculations, check your spelling and more without having to ever take your fingers off the keyboard. Start paying attention to how many times you need to use the mouse to get to apps and files, and you’ll quickly see that it isn’t so efficient. Click here, scroll down, oh where’s that app… With Alfred, pop up your window with a hotkey and type the name of the app you want. Tadah, launched!

With the Powerpack, which is the paid add-on we launched nearly a year ago, you can control your iTunes collection, set up global shortcuts to launch apps and scripts with a hotkey, use clipboard history and much, much more. In fact, Andrew is working on the next release, which will include extensions; these will be so flexible, I can’t wait to see what users will create to fit their own workflow.

The free version is available either from our website or the Mac App Store, and the Powerpack from our website. Soon, however, you’ll be able to upgrade to the Powerpack in the Mac App Store too if you become an OS X 10.7 (Lion) user.

Dropbox

Another useful tool for those who juggle multiple computers or devices is Dropbox. Using a background app, Dropbox synchronises the folders you choose so that they’re available from any device or from their website when you’re in a pinch and need to access files from elsewhere. Many Mac apps use Dropbox as the vehicle to synchronise settings across multiple computers and setup is usually completely effortless!

A word of advice, however, is to only share non-critical and non-confidential files on services like Dropbox. A few days ago, a bug in Dropbox allowed access to any account using any password for a window of a few hours. Scary thought, but then these are services to help make you more efficient, not a secret lock and key vault, so don’t store your deepest secrets there.

In summary…

Small business folks work SO hard to succeed that any tools or tips that can make us more efficient can make the difference between slaving until 10pm and being able to shut the door at a reasonable time and enjoy an evening in the garden.

Summer holidays are coming and it’s often a time where business is slower for some industries. Why not take advantage of that time to improve processes and make yourself more comfortable in your work environment?

If you’ve got more tips to share, please do leave a comment as I’d love to expand this list over time!

Get a free advice session on marketing & promoting your business

Christmas goodiesIn the spirit of Christmas generosity, I’m giving away a half-day of consultancy to a local startup or entrepreneur who needs help marketing and promoting themselves.

Cambridge and East Anglia are full of clever people doing amazing things, with many solo flyers or startups creating great products. In some cases, you might just need a little boost to get the word out about your product. For others, it’s such early days that you haven’t thought much about marketing yet – you just know your idea kicks ass.

With years of experience in marketing and working with Pepsmedia, nothing excites me more than a promising new business idea, so let’s hear what you’re working on.

Participating couldn’t be easier, here’s what you need to do:

  • You need to be a startup or entrepreneur in the region with a business, project or idea and would like some marketing and promotion coaching (Note: You can be based anywhere but we may run the session online if you’re too far away!)
  • Leave a comment below (or email vero@pepsmedia.com) with your idea, and what your marketing/promotion challenges are or will be in 2011
  • Do this by end of day on December 23rd

I’ll announce the winner around Christmas day (Internet access and family commitments permitting!), who will then be able to redeem their consultancy session in January. The session will either be held at the Pepsmedia office, somewhere local and convenient for everyone involved or, if need be, as an online session.

How will I pick a winner? I’ll choose the startup or individual who I think would benefit the most from this session. If there are more than one great contender, I’ll pick a name out of a hat. You don’t need to be a technology startup to participate; Whatever your market, leave a comment now for your chance to win a free advice session.

Making the Most of User Feedback

Yay monster cupcakes!

This is the third and final part in a mini series of posts on using a community forum to exchange ideas with your users.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

In the first part, we looked at the right time and right way to get started with a community forum. As we picked Get Satisfaction as our platform of choice, I then outlined a few top tips for it. Today, we’re looking at what happens once you’ve successfully created a place for conversation and the users begin to trickle in.

If you thought that once the community existed, you could kick back and relax, think again! Now comes the best part: Finally interacting with your users. You’ll meet the most wonderful people, as well as the occasional user who seems to relish being your daily pain in the backside.

So how can you deal with vast amounts of feedback, good and bad, yet retain your sanity?

Continue reading

Do It Your Way: Are You a Recipe Person?

I was making dinner the other night; salmon fillets wrapped in parma ham, steamed in the oven with a bit of wine and broth, with a bashed-up Vivaldi potatoes in a wasabi mayo dressing and some nice green beans. I popped the salmon in the oven hoping it would turn out right, hoping the parma ham would give the salmon flavour and guestimating the cooking time.

While pottering around the kitchen, I was thinking: I don’t think I’ve ever cooked the same thing twice in the same way. Every time, I tweak, adapt or change based on what’s in the fridge, the mood I’m in or the seasonal produce available. In my opinion, recipes are a great way to get inspiration, little else. My mom, on the other hand, always had a great little handwritten recipe book – covered in splatters from teaching us to make pancake mix – and usually followed recipes closely.

The same applies to business; Why do some of us love clear, repeatable processes while others prefer to try something new every time? Rationality versus instinct. Structure versus winging it. One’s not better than the other, necessarily. My mom probably ended up with a lot less weird-tasting dinners than I did, that’s for sure.

Personally, I’m certainly leaning towards the “creative thinking” end of the scale. I have processes and skeleton structures for projects I manage yet no two ever turn out the same. I’d be a terrible analytical chemist, air traffic controller or software tester but for what I do, it’s great; It allows me to nurture that bit of magic (wow, that sounds cheesy…) that’s unique to every new project.

I’m curious whether anyone consciously chooses to swing one way or the other, or whether we’re just made a certain way. What’s your style? What excites you enough to drop all normal procedures and just go for instinct?

The thrill of the ride & Making your own luck

Big wheels

It’s rare that I start a blog entry by apologising for the radio silence – but it’s also rare that I go nearly an entire month without blogging – so please accept my apologies for going a month without publishing anything.

It’s certainly not for lack of things to write about, that’s for sure. The past few months have been some of the most exciting of my life; self-employment is in full swing and Pepsmedia is doing great, we’ve had two fabulous holidays (first was a quirky narrowboating trip with friends, second was a relaxing two weeks in Canada to see my family), and life has generally been very good to us.

Amongst all these brilliant events, however, time to step back and admire how far I’ve come since getting to the UK in 2001, which now feels like a lifetime ago.

But today, I’m feeling contemplative. Perhaps it’s because, as of yesterday, Pepsmedia now has a Cambridge office and I’m basking in the autumnal sunshine. Or perhaps it’s because our first employee is starting next week and I can already feel a weight lift off my shoulders, safe in the knowledge that I’ll soon have a secondary brain available to help me (what can I say, the cloning attempts have all failed…) Or it might simply be because I’m in a good mood.

When I chose to take online marketing and social media consultancy seriously, I didn’t know how well I’d fare, but I took the plunge. “What’s the worst that can happen?”, I told myself, “Worst case scenario, I get a new regular job or take on a temporary contract.” But after a good dose of hard work, long hours and a bit of luck, things are going brilliantly. An old colleague commented, saying I was so lucky to be where I was today, doing what I love and working with truly awesome clients.

While thinking about what proportion was luck, and what was blood, sweat and tears, I came across a post by Tara Hunt on people who seem to be lucky, and others who don’t seem to benefit from this supposed luck. Paraphrasing Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, she highlights four main characteristics of lucky people:

Four characteristics of lucky people

  1. Lucky people are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities;
  2. Lucky people make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition;
  3. Lucky people create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations; and
  4. Lucky people adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

To some extent, some days the planets probably do align better for you than for someone else. But generally speaking, luck isn’t about crossing your fingers in the hope that something good will happen, but rather taking every opportunity to MAKE your own luck.

If you’re passionate about something and you want to be “the lucky one who gets to do what they love for a living”, sitting in a job you dislike, slogging away on demotivating work hours a day, the lucky break won’t happen by itself.

Talk to people who understand where you want to be and may create serendipitous situations where you meet the right people to help you get where you want to be. Find pet projects in the evening, things that get you closer to learning the skills you’ll need to get to your goal. If it’s possible, even consider talking to your current boss to see if you can come to an arrangement; for example, my last employer let me move from full time to two days a week, providing me with a “safety net” while giving me the flexibility to get started.

Most of all, enjoy the journey. It’s like a long hike; while the destination matters, you’ve got to keep your head high and enjoy the view along the way!

So while I’m blogging less regularly, be sure to say hi on Twitter in the meantime.

[Photo credit: John-Morgan on Flickr, Creative Commons]

Pepsmedia News: Training Courses on "Blogs & Social Media in Business" in September & October

pepsmedia_workshop_artIn the past year, I’ve been providing in-house training for companies who are approaching blogging and social media with excitement, but need some guidance to ensure they do things right.

I’m now opening up the “Intro to Blogs & Social Media in Business” training course to the public, with a few dates in September and October:

  • Cambridge: 8th September and 20th October
  • London: 22nd September and 21st October

Some details about the training course:

This one-day introductory course will offer insight into the emerging social media channels:

  • Blogs
  • Social Networks: Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr
  • Microblogging: Twitter, Plurk, Tumblr
  • Podcasting, Videocasting
  • Wikis, mashups, community events and more…

We are confident that the above wonʼt sound like a foreign language any longer at the end of the day.

This course aims to explore each channel’s potential in terms of getting brand exposure, building feedback channels and integrating within traditional marketing campaigns. We will look at case studies of the best and worst uses of social media by marketers from businesses ranging from 1-man-shows to multinationals.

It will help you understand how you can join the conversation that is undoubtedly already happening about your company, your product and your brand on the web. You will discover the tools and techniques used for creatively communicating your message, building quality relationships with users & making your social media campaigns a success.

I suppose that coming from a family of teachers, I was bound to end up providing training. Seeing attendees leave the session feeling energised, with bucketloads of ideas for their own campaigns and having shed the fear of this social science is the greatest reward for me.

Interested? Download the course details here or register for the course right away to secure a space in one of the next few sessions!

Ten Tips to Avoid the Heat This Summer in Your Home and Your Business

It’s entirely possible that Britain has had the only three days of sunshine it’ll get this summer, and while I’m writing this, it’s monsoon weather out there. Regardless, summer is an interesting time for anyone working running a small business, so here are a few tips to beat off the heat both in your home office and in your business.

Keep your house cool

summer_cocktail

First let’s look at a few tips to keep your house from heating up during the day:

1. Setup fans to make the air circulate

Rather than just letting air blow towards you, setup two fans along a “corridor” area crossing your house or apartment – from bedroom to office or kitchen to living room. One should face inwards and the other outwards so as to encourage the natural airflow throughout the rooms.

2. Get it done before the heat kicks in

Let the fresh air into the house early in the morning. Open all the windows, and let the crisp morning air cool down the house before the sun gets too strong.

In the same spirit, get your toughest work done early in the morning. Once it gets too warm and you can’t focus, you’ll be able to take on the easy tasks (or pop out for an ice cream!)

3. Keep the blinds down

Throughout the day, selectively shut blinds and windows on the sunny side of the house to avoid turning your home office into an oven.

4. Rehydrate

You may not be doing very physical activity when working at home, but when it’s hot around you, you’ll sweat nonetheless. Be sure to drink plenty of water to keep your brain working at its best.

5. Make iced coffee

If like me, you need your caffeine to get the day going, try this cold-brewed iced coffee. Sure, the soaking coffee grounds look like a bowl of mud in the fridge, but it makes delicious iced coffee and can be prepared in larger quantity to last a few days. It’s a great way to avoid hot beverages if you’re already feeling too toasty.

Keep your business cool

1. Warn clients ahead of your holidays

If you’re a fairly small outfit, you may not have significant backup when you go on holiday. Let your clients know at least a few weeks in advance, so that any urgent work can be communicated ahead of time.

With difficult clients, it’s worth setting the ground rules ahead of time, letting them know that they need to give you at least a week’s notice for work that needs to be done ahead of a holiday. If you let them know that this ensures you can give them quality results and avoid releasing dodgy code on a Friday night before you go away for two weeks, they’ll (usually) appreciate that it’s for their own good as well as yours.

2. Get backup from colleagues

Wherever possible, build good relationships with industry colleagues who you trust and could rely on to take over while you’re away. Whether it’s running a monthly report for a client or being on-call if things go wrong, it’ll be a relief to have someone back home dealing with it so you don’t have to pick up on the beach!

3. Plan your summer development

Before the summer starts, map out everyone’s holidays on a calendar. Based on the availability, plan your development cycle in more details. Avoid making big promises or planning projects too large for periods where only a few people are in.

4. Setup server monitoring

If you’re hosting client sites, applications or services, put your mind at rest by setting up monitoring. We use Pingdom, but there are many services out there providing a similar service.

5. Create a swipe file

A swipe file is a set of templates, examples and inspiration documents, which can serve as resource or starting point when writing a proposal or starting a new project. Whether it’s a physical print file, or a set of notebooks in Evernote, it’s a great way to give any project a kickstart, especially when you’re not in the mood to be writing and would rather be out playing frisbee!

What are your tips for coping with the challenges of summer? Do you bring in extra support for your team, take on less projects or just don’t take holidays? And do you prefer Pimms & lemonade, an air conditioned office or the beach to help cope with the heat? Share your tips in case the warmth comes back! (In the meantime,  I’m off to turn the heating back on!)

[Image credit: “Vicar’s Delight” by Tower Girl on Flickr, CC]

Spring brings change to Pepsmedia.com

With many years of moonlighting and now nearly a year under my belt working full time for Pepsmedia, we felt lately that it was time to refresh our site to reflect the shift in what we’ve been doing for our clients.

The new Pepsmedia siteMuch of my time this year has been focused on strategic planning for blog & social media campaigns, in-house coaching and brand monitoring, interspersed with some gorgeous blog and website designs. So far, it’s been both the most enjoyable and the most challenging experience I’ve ever faced.

Many people ask me whether I regret choosing this economic climate to jump into self-employment, and I always answer that I don’t have an ounce of regret. Sure, I’ve had a few sleepless nights and my squeezy stressball is due for some therapy, but it’s been worth it every step of the way.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with great clients to date, and every new meeting excites me because it keeps getting better. Great projects, great experiences and best of all, I didn’t have to eat beans on toast for too long. (Phew, I hate beans on toast…)

So over the past few weeks, we spent some time brewing a new design for pepsmedia.com and finally launched it this week. Let me know what you think of it!

Oh hello there!

I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

Say hi in the comments or on Twitter! :)

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