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July 2021

Work Life balance

Work Life balance 150 150 Cypher

Work Life balance

On our twentieth podcast we discussed the distinction between work-life balance and work life integration.

We all want a good work- life balance; it has become so much more of a talking point since the first lockdown of 2020 when we all forced to work from home. Effectively that migration to homeworking broke the natural barrier between work life and home life.

Before lockdown, the majority of people could leave work at the office. When they logged off, they decompressed on the drive home, turned up at their house and were then in home mode. Now for lots of people home life and office life are one in the same. You put the kids to bed, you walk passed the back bedroom, where your laptop is and you sneak in and do some more emails. It might have exacerbated by the fact that at the start of the first lockdown there was literally nothing else to do, so people were filling their time by doing extra work.

Sadly, a consequence of this is increases in feelings of overwhelm, which is affecting people’s mental health and is detrimental for ongoing performance.

Whereas the definition of work-life balance is pretty straight forward; you work when you need to and are doing completely non-work things for the rest of your time, the definition of work- life integration is rather more subjective, and what is optimum integration anyway?

I have found is that while I work the same amount as I did when I was going to the office, my working hours are completely different. Now, instead of a commute, I take my daughter to school and because I am at home, I can help with the baby’s lunch. These are now two events in my diary. But then I work for an hour and a half in the evening, not because my work-life balance is skewed, it’s just that I spread my work around the day, which feels like an optimum situation for me.

Others may choose to start with a run at 4am before they start work at six and finish at three to collect the kids, which demonstrates that the hybrid model provides a genuine opportunity for business owners to truly own their time and create a better quality of life. But there is a risk that we now fill every single second of our day. Getting the work-life integration right is a new skillset and one that probably requires more self-discipline to create the boundaries that allow you be productive but still access a better quality of life.

Dolly Parton, sang about it but the concept of nine-to-five isn’t a true reflection of life anymore and we need to achieve better work- life integration to balance the amount of time we’re working with the amount of time we’re not. When we were all home schooling the Cypher team kept varied ‘office hours’ in order to maintain some semblance of normality, particularly for the children. It meant we responded to emails late at night, but if you contacted us at three o’clock on a Thursday we weren’t available. Lockdown has changed the boundaries of what is an acceptable time to contact people.

For me business owners are used to working extra, longer and odder ours. It’s the team that this is new for. If you’re managing a team and offer a hybrid working model, work-life integration will be important to maintain productivity, mental health and balance.

It’s about setting good boundaries and providing clarity on what each individual’s role is, what good looks like and what they need to accomplish in any given time period. Then people can manage their time, integrate your business into their life and if they deliver on expectations they know they have done a good job, which keeps everyone motivated.

Secondly, while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that productivity is higher in a hybrid workforce, business owners shouldn’t underestimate the value of looking after their teams, staying in regular contact, reaching out, setting expectations around email usage and timings for switching on but importantly logging off.

Now it just so happens that I recently managed a potential client crisis from my bath! I was communicating with a team member and a client – not on video calls for obvious reasons- but we averted any real danger and got the job done. Did anyone care that I was in the bath, or at my kitchen table or at a cottage in the Cotswolds.

Google meanwhile have issued their policy on the hybrid working model. It’s three words; flexibility and choice. Basically the employee gets to choose what’s right for them! They have access to all the tech in the world but, more importantly, they recognise the value and maturity of their employees and trust them to make good decisions.

It proves another of the unintended consequences of remote working was to shatter one of the most durable myths about a workforce: if you can’t see them, you can trust them. Nonsense, business owners need to get over themselves.

We are entering a situation where, as more employees are able to really integrate work into their home life, they simply won’t want to go back to the office, at least not full time and the employers that demand it of them will soon find themselves losing lots of good people, probably to the benefit of their competitors because of their short-sightedness.

Clearly there are some businesses that need people physically in the workplace; retail, hospitality, manufacturing but many don’t and if there’s a choice, because a job could be done as effectively- or even better -at home as in the office, then surely it’s a least worth the conversation.

I think a hybrid model is going to become the natural bias for employees. Your talent pool has gone global but if you want access to the best people it’s going to be an absolute prerequisite that you allow them to work flexibly and provide an integrated approach to the work-life balance.

Now a lot of people may have been ready for this hybrid approach for many years but the infrastructure or tech simply wasn’t available to support it. That’s changed radically and we are part of a new paradigm, let’s embrace this hybrid model and the opportunities it offers to integrate work into life.

Find out more

New editions of the Mind Your Business Podcast appear every Friday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your choice of Pod provider to have it delivered straight to your device.

Mistakes for early stage businesses

Mistakes for early stage businesses 150 150 Cypher

Mistakes for early stage businesses

This blog was based on a podcast that was inspired by an article I read about the four overlooked mistakes that sabotage first year entrepreneurs. As you know Cypher supports a lot of start-up businesses so Alan and I noted the four big points and discussed their respective merits.

According to the Entrepreneur web site, the four critical errors to avoid when launching and growing your business in the first year:

  1. Not choosing a well-defined niche
  2. Not seeking help and support
  3. Not collaborating with your competition
  4. Being busy but not productive

Choosing a well-defined niche
So, apparently, the first problem that a lot of first-year businesses encounter, is not choosing a well-defined niche. By creating a niche, the author suggests, you get better at selling your service because you’re repeatedly pitching the same thing. This allows you to build up reviews and testimonials faster for the service you’re known for and as each project is similar, you can create templates, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and streamline your processes so you can complete work in less time.  He continues that the more you specialise, the more people that have a specific need will seek you out.

Fundamentally, however, I completely disagree that you need a niche to be successful for two reasons. Firstly, when I was looking for a business coach, I was approached by a number of potential candidates who specialise in coaching accountancy business owners. I spend my life on LinkedIn dodging them. Now there may be a bit of arrogance on my part, but I feel that I understand how to run an accountancy business; I did it in my previous life and I’m doing it now. Fundamentally, I didn’t want someone telling me to do the same thing I’d already done. I wanted an outside perspective; I want to know how things work in other businesses or sectors and how I can apply them to mine.

Secondly, when I started Cypher, a lot of people told me to niche, to become the accountant for estate agents or the accountant for recruiters and again, we purposely stayed away from that approach because one of the joys of my business is getting to work with so many different businesses, from different sectors, doing different things. It makes it more interesting but also as people find so many wonderful ways to make money, it allows us to learn from other businesses.

That said, I think we probably do niche a bit, but not on what someone does, rather on how they think. We only work with business owners that get it; that get what we want to deliver and want to join us on that journey. There’s plenty that don’t, and that’s great, but we only work with people that have a similar mindset. It’s quite a broad niche, but I think it’s enough to separate us from others.

We do work with businesses that niche, but if I was to highlight factors that sabotaged an early stage business, I don’t think niching would necessarily be in my top four.

Seeking help and support as a start-up business
The second point in the article, however, that business owners don’t seek help and support at the right time is definitely right up there. I found out myself that there are just so many things you don’t know when you start up.

Because I’d been helping small businesses for years, I thought I knew a lot about running a small business, but then in those first few weeks, as I sat at my own I realised I didn’t know very much at all. What has overwhelmed me in the two years we have been in business was how much support I got for free in those first few months. The small business community is overflowing with people willing to help other people out.

When you start a business, it’s because you’re generally very good at what you do; you’re a great plumber, or a great estate agent. But then suddenly you’re dealing with balance sheets and insurance and HR and marketing and Facebook profiles and it all comes at you on day one and you find you are very inexperienced in many of the aspects needed to run a business.

My advice was that I joined a networking group early on and generally in any group there is a bit of everything. If you want financial support, HR support, coaching or marketing, it’s all there and people are happy to offer one-to-ones and give you an hour’s free advice. Make sure you get advice from actual experts, but absolutely seek it out. People will offer it because it builds a relationship for down the line.

Collaborate with your competition
The third point in this list of problems for early stage businesses is not collaborating with your competition. We’ve talked about this on a few times on the Mind Your Business Podcast, but again, when I started Cypher, I was overwhelmed by how other accountancy businesses interacted with us in such a positive way. One of the most important things in businesses is relationships.

Now, I think day one might be a bit early to collaborate with the competition, unless – as we discussed in another podcast you are completing one of their products or services, and in general you should let your business grow a little bit before you start engaging the competition. A key element of being able to collaborate is having the utmost confidence in your business. Having belief in your products and services means you are more comfortable seeking others out, collaborating together and going after the bigger fish.

The sweet spot for collaborating with your competition is if you’re doing the same thing, but you’ve niched successfully to different marketplaces. For work that is slightly outside our comfort zone, we recommend other firms that, we know, will offer a great service and in return if they receive complex ‘Xero’ requests, they kick things over the fence to us. While we are competing in some areas there is enough to go around, making it a very lucrative co-opertition model.

Being busy but not productive
Finally, point four on the mistakes to avoid, is being busy, but not being productive. Busyness is often disguised as productivity, you feel good because you are doing something. It is vital that new business owners understand and appreciate the value of their own time. A trap that a lot of people fall into is not only do they not get the right support, but they also don’t outsource enough tasks at the right time.

You have something like a thousand minutes a day to do something with, so your mentality should be ‘what is the true value of my thousand minutes and how should I best spend them?’ Small business owners always have two or three jobs they won’t let go of and there are a number of ways we can all work smarter, not harder to give us back time and be more productive by doing the things that actually make a difference to our business.

On balance, the article on the Entrepreneur web site raised some valid points, highlighting some of the traps start up business owners fall into. First of all, not choosing a well-defined niche isn’t necessarily the death knell for your business, but having a niche can be a positive. Secondly, both Alan and I agree that not seeking help and support at the right time is definitely an issue that can be easily resolved. Thirdly, similarly to point two, seeking others out, even if you deem them competitors can be a good thing and collaboration is the way forward for so many businesses, and finally being busy, but not productive is 100% something that all business owners, not just early stages ones need to be aware and avoid.

Find out more

New editions of the Mind Your Business Podcast appear every Friday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your choice of Pod provider to have it delivered straight to your device.

Work smarter, not harder

Work smarter, not harder 150 150 Cypher

Work smarter, not harder

A few months ago the Harvard Business Review included a special offer for a suite of books under the banner ‘working smarter not harder’. It’s a bit of a cliché that is often used but potentially misunderstood. What does it mean and how do we actually work smarter, not harder?

The Cypher business is based around this ethos, there are numerous mentions of it throughout our business plan and it won’t surprise you to know that the first example I’ve got of working smarer not harder is through your finance function.

If your business finance function- the way that data gets into your accounts- isn’t automated; you’re not in the cloud and you’re not letting software and all of Google’s robots do their thing, then you are working harder not smarter.

If anything written in the next part of this blog looks or sounds like something you do when you are managing your bookkeeping then you need to stop, immediately, and Google Xero, or DEXT.

If a supplier sends you an invoice and you print it, if you print your sales invoices to then send to your customers, if your customers pay you by cheque or if someone sends you a bill and you have to then manually type information into another system, quite simply there’s a better way of doing it.

I could bore people for hours on this subject, but basically, if at any point something crosses your desk and you have to do something with it other than take a photo, then there is a quicker, smarter way of doing it. That’s the way modern, automated, cloud-based finance functions like Xero work.

We’ve got clients, literally brand new businesses, which have finance functions that are now far more advanced than businesses that have been going for 10 or 15 years because they’ve had no legacy system.

You can receive invoices via an email and Xero ingests that email, takes a snapshot of the PDF, harvests all the data; the date, the invoice number, the due date, how much VAT is on it, sucks out all of that information and puts it into your bookkeeping system. It takes an hour to set up and then you never have to manually enter another purchase invoice.

Xero allows you to create sales invoices with links embedded in them so that anyone can click a button and pay you by card, so you don’t have to take a payment over the phone and you don’t have to send a cheque or even a bank transfer. If you are a trade’s person you can set up an app, so when you finish a job, you push a button, the invoice is sent and the customer can pay you automatically.

And then you integrate a feed from your bank in to your bookkeeping system so all of your bills are harvested from your inbox. The only thing left then is when you spend money on a debit card, you use an app to take a photo of the receipts and then all the info- all the data- is extracted and goes straight into the system.

That’s how modern bookkeeping works. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for bookkeepers any more, robots aren’t taking our jobs, but rather the clever bookkeepers are using technology to allow them to service more customers. It’s a great example of people working smarter.

How many small business owners spend hours at the weekend doing their bookkeeping, manually inputting data? Think, if you could get that time back, what else could you be doing; golf, pilates, watching the kids football?

Imagine how powerful that time could be if you used it instead to stop and actually think about your business? It’s phenomenal and could fundamentally change the work-life balance of a business owner if they use automation properly.

Sticking with the automated data entry theme, if you are spending more time completing your timesheets than actually doing the work, there is also a smarter way of doing that.

Another example of smarter working is choosing between sending an email and picking up the phone. It may be a bit old school, but we have a rule in Cypher that is very simple; if you have spent more than two minutes writing an email and you are still on the first paragraph-maybe the contents of the email you are replying to or the topic you are discussing requires more time and thought- then bin the email and pick up the phone.

Taking time to clearly articulate your thoughts or position on a more complex matter, rather than getting caught in a flurry of emails is another simple example of working smarter not harder.

Staying with the technology theme, how many businesses find their sales teams are having too many conversations with prospects that just aren’t the right fit; they’re not necessarily timewasters but not the right target market?

To improve their conversation rate a client of ours uses an app called Zapier, which if you haven’t heard about it is like programmable robots on the internet, plus some other tools to help filter out the wrong type of client. They have spent some time understanding their target client and found they had a particular sweet spot. So now if someone visits their website, the tech can understand who this person is by scraping data from Companies House and various other places, so even before they have started a sales conversation they know whether or not they are dealing with the right type of business. Within about 30 seconds of someone landing on the website the bots have decided whether this is a suitable client, given them prices and pushed them into the automated sales funnel. That’s smart.

Rather than a business cliché, working smarter, not harder might instead become a philosophy. One of our core values at Cypher is that we are digital first. If you distil that down, it means that if we can let software or automation do the job we should, because this actually frees up more time for the human contact that our clients really value. No software can replicate that. Our clients don’t care if a computer puts their data into the system or human does. As long as it’s in there, so they can see it and we can have the conversation about it, that’s where they get the value out of our business.

I’m sure this is the same for millions of different types of businesses, so, if you can get software to deliver it and it doesn’t affect the service and it doesn’t affect the human aspect of your brand, then get the software to do it and let your humans do what the software can’t, which is looking after the people, actually talking to the customers.

Moving away from technology and automation, we have also talked a lot about time, on the podcast, how best to use it and how to work smarter in the time you have. As a small business owner, you could be CEO, bookkeeper, credit controller, sales rep and social media contact. To work smarter, the key is to try and do more of the things that actually improve your business. Working smarter means considering what you can get off plate, what can you outsource and what jobs are absolutely not yours to waste time with so instead you can be really productive.

Lastly, in my opinion, one of the smartest things you can do is switch your email off. Having your email browser on your phone is a massive distraction. The constant pinging will mean it takes you longer to focus and get back to the job in hand, which then takes longer. It also means you never switch off and find yourself answering emails at 11 o’clock at night, which means you can’t sleep because you are stressing about this client’s email.

Instead of work smarter not harder, I think the saying should be ‘think smart, work hard’. You still need to work hard in order for your businesses to thrive, but you should do the thinking first. Understand the drivers for your business where your time is best used and then work on how you can get technology or supporting businesses to take away the things that take time to free up your time to deliver more human capacity to your clients.

Find out more

New editions of the Mind Your Business Podcast appear every Friday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your choice of Pod provider to have it delivered straight to your device.


Belief 150 150 Cypher


This blog, from a Mind Your Business Podcast Episode is all about the power of belief for the entrepreneur and business owner.

Belief is probably one of the most powerful human emotions. Cards on the table, I think it’s absolutely critical to the success of any business. We know that every entrepreneur or business leader across the world needs high levels of resilience, persistence, and drive, but at the heart of all of those characteristics is a belief that what they are doing is worthwhile.

But, while every business owner starts out with a huge amount of belief, as time goes on, maybe you didn’t have the instant success you expected, maybe you see competitors doing really well, either way it’s not working for you, you’re worn down and that belief has gone.

But if you don’t have belief in your business, who else will?

Beware the Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome affects a huge amount of business owners. Typically, it’s characterised either by a loss of belief in one’s ability or a belief that we don’t deserve the success they’ve had, or a belief that their success isn’t sustainable.

An antidote to impostor syndrome is to get absolute clarity on the role you play for a business and what a successful outcome looks like for you and then using your emotions, your energy and your time to deliver that outcome. If you didn’t have high levels of belief at the start, you’ll get them because as you start to deliver it takes the focus off you and on to your desired outcome.

Next, take a look at your products and services. Are they good, are they great? How can you make them better? Focus on serving and if you believe you have something worth buying, you develop a confidence in your product and that is a position you can sell from.

Don’t catch ‘comparisonitis’
While everyone is comparing themselves to someone else, it breeds something we call ‘comparisonitis’. When you see how well someone else operates you might feel that, in comparison, you will never be as good as them. Social Media does a lot to portray a very positive side of any business and fuels this potentially crippling mindset. Maybe someone is boasting an amazing week; they’ve won five new clients this week and you haven’t. Or they are posting some great profits or a day out with staff. Remember, everyone has ups and downs and maybe about 75% of the stuff posted is a true reflection of reality.

Use more positive language
A lot of the language used in coaching conversations around imposter syndrome; around limiting beliefs, what’s holding people back and why they feel their business just isn’t good enough is typically very negative. It puts a lot of focus and energy into what’s wrong in order that business owners see that the reality is actually far more positive.

But if you are more positive from the start, you will have far more productive conversations. The next time you meet a prospective client, surely you going to have a better chance of securing a contract if you genuinely believe that your products and services are world-class or at least very good, versus not really being sure, but you really need the money and so you really need this deal.

If you have genuinely spent the time thinking about your products and services and believe that they’re really good, but certainly they are good enough for what your clients and prospective clients are looking for, then that puts you in a really powerful place. If you’re trying to sell effectively, you have to have that utmost confidence that what you’re doing is serving a purpose. Either you are fixing a problem or you are creating some value, but either way your customers have got to see that passion in you. It’s a big advantage a small business owner has over Tesco’s or other large businesses in the same space.

One of the best things any business owner can do is make themselves better. It is a process they can own and as they get better, they serve clients better, who tell more people, and as your reputation grows, it brings in more money. It’s a win, win. You don’t always have to be the best, but you have to be good enough. But as soon as you’ve got that confidence that what you are doing is really going to help your clients, it will really help.

Belief builds intent
Another big positive of believing in your products and services is the energy and industry you will bring to your business and your conversations, driven by the intent behind what you’re doing. That breeds confidence so when you explain your business, it gives you an air of authenticity.  It means that in any conversation, you’re coming from a position of strength. Yes, you’re listening to what somebody is looking for, but you know that you have spent time getting better and better at what you offer and people notice that, which removes purchase barriers and which, in the end, may make the extra difference between the deal coming to you or going somewhere else.

Competitors can bring you customers not steal them
Another key part of maintaining your belief is understanding who your competitors are and more importantly what they may be doing for your market place. For example, rather than worry about all the new digital accountancy firms setting up that look like Cypher, feel a bit like Cypher,  I found instead that it strengthened my belief that we were doing something right. While we used to try and show up better, bigger and bolder than all the other visions of a modern, digital accountancy firm, over time, I’ve realised that I actually want more businesses like that in the market place. With each new accountancy firm that sets up like Cypher, has the same ethos as Cypher, we move another step away from the old, traditional model of accountancy that we are all fighting against!

Whenever another modern accountancy firm takes on a new member of staff, we see this as a cause for celebration because it means there’s more demand for what we do. And that puts my belief right up. But to make that happen, you have to be secure in yourself, have belief in your core principles and have belief that your core product is good enough so you can interact with your competition in a more positive way.

Believe in your Forecast
I spend a huge amount of my time looking forwards with business owners. I ask them what this year looks like and what they want to achieve. Someone might say, ‘I want to do half a million…’ but I feel like shaking them and saying that I can see you don’t believe that. Or another way is to find a number that really excites a business owner. They say that is what they want but you can see that they don’t believe it and in the end they’ll get 50% or 60% of what they wanted.

And then, every now and again you see that something clicks. A business owner sets out his or her goals and commits. They have never been so focused or so determined to achieve something.

When you look at any successful business owner, an important part of their journey is the inbuilt belief that they will achieve the goals they set out to achieve.

If I consider the top 20% performing businesses that we work with, it’s not always the quality of their product that has brought their success rather it’s the belief of the business owner in the quality of their product.

Find out more

New editions of the Mind Your Business Podcast appear every Friday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your choice of Pod provider to have it delivered straight to your device.