Printing booths

The alternative to having business cards printed by a high street printer is to use one of those instant printing booths. I think they're on a par with the machines that print your passport photo in terms of presentation and quality. They're fine for passports but that's it. Likewise instant business cards are great for notifying everyone of your change of address, summer barbeque, party or whatever. But they're pretty uninspiring if you're trying to convince potential clients that you're the person who is going to make or keep their garden beautiful.

Online digital printing

It's now possible to go online and create your own business cards, letterheads, brochures etc, order the quantities you want and have them delivered to your door in around 14 days.

What I find useful is to create a set of postcards, which I use for a variety of seasonal sales campaigns. For example, I have cards with a picture of a perfect lawn, which I use to promote our lawn-care services and cards with pictures of hedges for promoting our hedge-cutting, re-shaping, planting and removal service and so on.

On the back of all my promotional cards I head with the word - ESTIMATE followed by a suitably large blank space. Where the job I am quoting for is reasonably straightforward, for example a hedge cut or border clearance, I then give my written estimate there and then to the prospective client. My aim is to get the order immediately as opposed to having to send written estimates at a later point. As soon as the client says yes, I whip out my diary and pencil in a provisional date. They're happy that the work is now booked in at a price we both agree, and I'm happy that my efforts in visiting their garden haven't been wasted.

Who should you use?

There are lots of companies now offering this service and I suggest you surf around until you find one that you're happy with. In our business we use Vista Print. You can find them at www.vistaprint.co.uk and to date we've been happy with the quality of work and the service they offer. I also like the wide variety of templates they offer for everything from letterheads to brochures.

Start-up packages

Most high street printers offer start-up stationery kits for small new businesses. While charges may vary, you should find that you can obtain a set of business cards, letterhead and compliment slips for under £100. Or if you opt for business cards alone, the damage should be no greater than £50. Considering the price you pay for DIY business card paper and the cost of your ink cartridge, I really do believe that it's cheaper to use a professional printer.

Before rushing off to the printers work out a number of different drafts of how your business card will look. Whatever you come up with, leave them alone for a few days before deciding which one you're going to have printed. If you are thinking of having a dedicated business line in your home but haven't yet arranged it, then obviously you need to wait until you get your number before having 200 cards printed.

Business cards are important. When you're working on someone's garden you'll be surprised how often neighbours will ask you for your card. Nothing is worse than handing your telephone number over written on the back of an envelope.

But newer simply hand your card over. You must always book an appointment there and then, whether to come and see what needs to be done, or better still a time to do the work.

When I first started I handed my cards out to everyone who asked me for one. Now I don't. Instead I offer them an appointment. People seldom refuse. After all it is they who have approached you. This is a great, cost-effective way of getting new clients. When I gave my cards out to all who asked for them I found the results disappointing.

There are a number of reasons why these initially very interested people don't call you. Often it's because they are not the decision-maker in their homes and when they tell their partner that they're thinking of hiring a gardener, you can imagine the response. Others simply lose your card, change their minds, didn't really need one, are working undercover for the Benefits Agency, Inland Revenue, local council and so on. So if approached by anyone looking to hire you - book an appointment.

Make your business cards earn their keep in your enterprise by putting them wherever people have to sit and wait, for example:

  • hairdressing salons
  • barbers' shops
  • supermarket noticeboards
  • garden centres
  • DIY stores
  • dentists' and doctors' waiting rooms
  • give some to your friends and ask them to put one up in their work canteen. Your letterhead

Treat your letterhead as you would were you having a brochure. Have it done by a high street printer on a quality, bonded notepaper. I prefer to buy white A5 envelopes with windows in them. This way you don't have to waste time addressing envelopes. It also looks more professional. If you have an email address think carefully before having it printed on your letterhead. Only have it included if you're going to keep this email address in the long term, and if you're going to check your email box daily. I prefer not to include my email address on my business letterhead, but it's up to you.

Whatever you decide to use in the way of stationery, go for quality. You don't have to invest fortunes, but don't end up with something the texture and longevity of newspaper.

Bank accounts

Should you open a business bank account prior to starting?

There is no legal requirement for you to have a separate bank account from your ordinary bank account. Indeed, there is no requirement for you to have any bank account. If you decide to keep your money in a tin under the bed, recording the ins and outs of your account on a roll of toilet paper, in pencil, then you're not breaking any law.

Clearly, it would be in your best interests if you didn't keep your money in a tin and you maintained correct records. My own opinion is that you do need a separate bank or building society account for your business. Many of your clients will want to pay you by cheque and to tell them you only accept cash is not only unprofessional but might also invite an investigation from the Inland Revenue.

Could you use your personal account for your business?

Banks and building societies have certain restrictions on how you manage your personal accounts. Generally, you are not allowed to use your personal account for business use. Instead you will be invited to apply for a separate business account. If you're trading as a sole trader, which will be the most common form of trading entity for the majority of gardening businesses then your business account will be in your name followed by your trading name, for example Paul Power trading as Paul Power Landscape Gardening.

Most banks will offer you a period of free banking. This can be anything from six to 18 months, depending on which bank you choose and whether or not you need an overdraft or financing for your business

Building societies have now entered the business market and appear keen to encourage new business accounts. Certainly many are now offering a far more imaginative account package than the high street banks, with accounts that pay a far more generous rate of interest on your money and if you need to borrow their charges on the whole appear lower.

Be sure to shop around

Treat your banking as you would any purchase. Shop around and get the best possible deal. Ask lots of questions and read all the bumf they give you carefully. Go straight for the kill and start with the small print. How much is banking with so and so going to cost you after the initial period of free grace? Compare charges, overdraft fees and everything else, before opening your account.

Despite the relatively high costs, I believe having a separate business account is necessary because:

  • You know where you are on a day-to-day basis without having to wade through your personal statements.
  • Bookkeeping and record-keeping are certainly made easier and, if you employ a bookkeeper, their fees may be reduced.

Here is a list of some of the things you should look for in your business bank package.

Bank checklist

  • Initial free banking period, minimum 18 months.
  • Or life-time free banking, provided you manage your account within certain prearranged limits.
  • Debit card.
  • Cheque book.
  • Paying in book.
  • Monthly statements.
  • Twenty-four hour access to your account via the internet.
  • Seven-day-a-week telephone banking service.
  • Interest on your current account balance.
  • Clearly defined cheque clearance cycle - how long will it take for what you lodge to arrive in your account?
  • A genuine interest in small businesses - don't always go for what they say in their brochure.

Most business bank accounts will include the services of a relationship manager. Their sales literature will detail what this person can do for you, that he or she will take a special interest in both you and your business, and that they are as determined as you to see you succeed.

My experience has been something different. While my relationship manager was friendly, approachable and an all-round good egg, it was very clear to me after our first meeting that he was working for the bank and not for me. His interests in my business were limited to his bank's interests. The discussion we had concerning my banking needs largely centred around whether or not I had sufficient insurance and the like. I was left with the impression that his interest didn't go beyond that of selling me the bank's products.

When I actually needed the bank's help in the way of having a short-term overdraft to see me through what I had imagined was going to be a lean few months, my application was turned down. Every time I went into my branch to make a lodgement I was scarcely acknowledged by the morose staff.

The final straw came when I received a nice letter from the bank wondering whether I'd ever considered starting a business and that if I wanted an information pack on what they could do for me, all I had to do was ask. Nothing was too much trouble for them. Having banked with this bank for over 11 years, I was appalled that they didn't even recognise I was one of their customers. To think of all the interest that I've paid in these years, not to mention the charges I pay for having my personal account with them. Enough was enough. It was time to change. I looked around at all the various packages available, and the organisation that satisfied the above criteria was the one that got my business. Relationship managers are a very nice idea, but don't you think if they knew half as much as they say they do about running a small business, they'd be doing it themselves?

I have now switched my business banking to a building society, where I not only enjoy a high rate of interest on any funds in my current account, but also free banking for life provided I maintain my account within certain pre-agreed guidelines.

Make sure you get the best deal possible when opening your bank account. Look beyond the introductory free banking offers and work out which bank or building society is giving you the best deal. Don't be afraid to shop around and ask lots of questions.

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