Monthly Archives: August 2017

Troublesome words – refusenik

Troublesome words – refusenik

I try not to be an over-prescriptive fuss-pot when it comes to language,* believing the important thing is clarity and accepting things change with them, while obviously, as I do here, trying to share examples where, say, there are two different words that mean subtly different things and thus should be retained and used. I know people get very cross about the use of words like “decimate”, and when I get a little bit cross about things, as with swathe or swath a while ago, I try to remember to make a point of looking them up and finding out whether our big dictionary sources back me up, or not!

Here is a (perhaps more obscure) case in point. I keep hearing the word refusenik being used to describe someone who is actively refusing to do something, usually to prove a point or in some form of protest. School uniform refuseniks and the like. I knew the term in its original meaning, which is the highly specific one describing Jewish people in the former Soviet Union who were refused to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. I kind of expanded this in my mind to incorporate all people whose exit from a place is refused. The emphasis here is on the fact that they are being refused exit – someone else is doing the refusing and they are the passive objects of the refusal (grammatically speaking).

But I checked my sources, and there we are: a refusenik is perfectly able to simultaneously be someone who refuses to do something out of principle and someone who is refused exit.

** Did you notice the at least three rules I have broken in this post to prove my point about not being fussy?



Posted by on August 31, 2017 in Be careful, Language use, Writing


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Small business chat – Dominic Irons

Small business chat – Dominic Irons

I’m pretty excited this morning, because here’s an interview with the representative of a brand I very much like and use regularly, and which anyone interested in stationery is going to love, Bureau Direct. I’ve been indulging my passion for ink pens and unusual coloured inks with them for a couple of years now and was thrilled to find they are the people behind a bricks-and-mortar shop I loved way back when! I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about European and Japanese notebooks – the ones with squared or – even better – dotted paper, and they make buying this a lot easier than going overseas! Anyway, rather than me ranting on about it, a) go and have a peek for yourselves, and b) let’s meet Dominic!

Hello, Dominic! What’s your business called? When did you set it up?

The business is called Bureau Direct although it was originally called just Bureau. We still call it Bureau ourselves but since going online 10/15 years ago we realised that Bureau was not such an easy name. Bureau Direct was an online presence and the name has sort of stuck since that is what people see.
The business was originally set up by my mother and sister – Kathy and Jo – back in 1995, as a shop. It had a bit of a cult following, since it offered smart, stylish and slightly exotic (back then!) stationery from far-flung places like France. The shop was between Leicester Square and Covent Garden and was something of a destination store, a place to stop by and see what was new.

My involvement came a few years in to try to get us online (this was real boom time). The business had been taken over by investors who briefly expanded to 5 shops in and around London. When they pulled out at the end of 2000 the business was left in the lurch and collapsed. We, as a family, decided to buy the business back out of receivership as we felt it had potential.

We did go online a few years later, and soon realised that our future lay online not in bricks and mortar. The shop was sold and so we became an online-only business back in 2004.

What made you decide to set up your own business?

I’ll have to answer on their behalf here as technically I didn’t set it up. I think both were at a point where they had jobs that had either come to an end or were looking for a change. My mum ran a successful small retail business back in the 70s and my early memories are full of that – a homeware business with shops in Camden Town and Islington.

My involvement came at a time when I was frustrated in my job at British Airways, feeling slightly lost in a huge company with no real sense of what my role in it was for, plus the politics of big companies. When I left and joined Bureau it was such a change and nice to feel that my role had a direct impact on the outcome.

What made you decide to go into this particular business area?

Stationery was felt to be an area that had real potential as the UK market was just dull and uninspiring. Stationery was so much better even just across the channel let alone further afield. The way stationery has changed since then validates this, and there has been a real explosion of demand and choice over the past 5-10 years. An antidote to the digital world.

I love that, and it’s very true! Had you run your own business before?

No, never before. It was a difficult time and a very steep learning curve for me personally. In fact, it has continued to be a steep curve as I often feel like I am learning so much, and wonder why I didn’t know that before.

How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?

As I took over in such unusual circumstances, I was already working full-time and just continued.

What do you wish someone had told you before you started?

So much! We did try to bring in an outside person soon after buying the company back, to help act as a sort of mentor and although a couple of people we knew did briefly become involved, they had other commitments and it didn’t work out. It was always a regret of mine that we didn’t manage to make that work early on as I do wonder how things might have turned out with their involvement. I think they would have brought an experienced business mind to the table, been more prepared to take difficult business decisions and ask more demanding questions early on that could have better shaped where the business went in that phase. The years from 2001 to 2004, when we finally sold the shop and went online only, were a very difficult few years.

What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?

Go and do a crash course in business management, and better understand the nature of the business you are running (in my case a retail business).

What do you wish you’d done differently?

Been more ruthless at seeing what worked, what didn’t and focusing the business on its strengths rather than its legacy parts that did eventually get dealt with anyway. I don’t think we could have gone online much earlier as the demand and technology were not quite ready but I wish we had better understood some of the differences of trading online in the early years.

What are you glad you did?

Go online! It was what I had joined to do and I always think it slightly amusing that I worried we were a late arrival to going online, when now we feel like old-timers! Still, going online in the period from 2001 to 2003 was a strange time – the bubble had burst, enthusiasm had waned a bit and demand had yet to actually arrive to make it a serious activity. I think the history of broadband take-up will show that sometime around that period in 2003-2005 there was a tipping point and with that so it meant that online shopping was a serious prospect for all. Once that happened, so the marketplace for an online shop just grew and grew. And still is growing.

What’s your top business tip?

Get the right balance between the numbers and a gut feeling. If you are too numbers based then you are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, head buried in an Excel spreadsheet. If you rely too much on what you believe is right then however good your instincts you will be at odds with what is really happening.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule but for most of us a good balance of these two will go a long way.

How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?

After going online and then deciding that the business should be online only we have probably kept to a similar core business since. We have grown, considerably and consistently, since then but it has been slow and organic and with adapting to the changing world of online retailing. But the core of what we do now is the same as what we were doing 10 years ago. Even online there is a physical process that is required to get orders into customers hands and that just evolves gradually.

BONUS QUESTION: What question would you like to ask other small business owners?

How did you cope with your worst situation (and what was it)?

Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?

We have made a lot of changes to how to run the business, taking out a lot of unnecessary costs and so in a year’s time I would hope that we are considerably stronger for these changes. In the short term they caused some problems, notably with the digital marketing side, but it will all be positive in the long run.

I loved reading all about how Bureau Direct started and grew – I don’t email people and demand that they do an interview with me very often, and I’m glad I did! I love Dominic’s comment about stationery being an antidote to the digital (in the middle of an interview about a retail website in particular!) – I keep records in books and write my book reviews in a journal, and it certainly balances all the screen stuff. Do pop over and have a look at the website – quite different from our last stationery interview, you’ll find delicious notebooks, pens to suit all budgets (how many pens does it take to become a collector?) and inks in every colour you can imagine.

Find Bureau Direct at and you can get in touch with Dominic and his team via the website or his email address.

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources. 


Posted by on August 26, 2017 in Business, Small Business Chat


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Exciting news – a new publication!

Some long-term readers of this blog will already know that one of my side-projects (apart from running the odd marathon) has been a seven-year research project on Iris Murdoch. I finally got it finished over the summer, had it read by a couple of lovely people from the Iris Murdoch Society and a good friend who is also a senior academic, and I’ve had it printed up and made it available via Amazon worldwide in both print and e-book versions. Any of my book groups which are still in existence have been offered and have received e-book versions, copies of the print version will be available to buy at the upcoming Iris Murdoch Society Conference, and I’m very relieved it’s done and dusted.

“Iris Murdoch and the Common Reader” looks at reading groups in the UK and US and whether one of Murdoch’s mid-20th-century novels would make a good reading book read. Based on Reception Theory and Death of the Author, I reclaim Murdoch from the academy and the critics and return her squarely into the domain of what my reading groups preferred to call the ‘ordinary’ reader.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon US Buy from Amazon CA Buy from Amazon AU Buy from Amazon FR Buy from Amazon ES


Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Iris Murdoch



Small business chat – Amanda Brown

Small business chat – Amanda Brown

Today I’m excited to feature the lovely Amanda Brown with her marvellous, crafty invention, Treasure Toyz Ltd, that helps keep your kids safe when you’re out and about. Amanda is in my neck of the woods soon, attending the top Home and Gift Retail Trade Show, Autumn Fair 2017 3-6 September at the National Exhibition Centre. Amanda’s a classic example of someone being made redundant and starting their own business, although in her case what she does now hasn’t been informed by what she has done before, but by her own family traditions. Let’s find out how she started, how it’s been going and how she ended up exhibiting at this big show … 

Hello, Amanda, and welcome to the interview series. What’s your business called? When did you set it up?

The company is Treasure Toyz Ltd, and it was established in September 2015.

What made you decide to set up your own business?

I was made redundant from my Oil & Gas recruitment position when the oil price plummeted. I hadn’t been enjoying my job for some time but didn’t move due to it being work I was used to, and also a salary I was used to, but when I got made redundant, I saw it as an opportunity to try something myself.

What made you decide to go into this particular business area?

When I was young, I was never allowed out the house without all of my Mum’s contact details pinned on to me in one way or the other … and when my friends started having kids, I witnessed them scribbling their number down their arm with pen and drilling them with meeting places and remembering phone numbers. I am very crafty, so bought some beads and started making up bracelets for friends’ children. After finding a lost boy and not knowing what to do, I knew this was a daily problem around the world, and it just went from there.

Had you run your own business before?

Yes, I had a bar in Spain for a while – so a little bit of a different industry!

I’ll say! How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?

I jumped in the deep end after being made redundant. The business was originally called “Phone My Mum” and I handmade all of the bracelets and accessories. Orders started coming from New Zealand, Italy, the States – everywhere via my Etsy and Amazon shops. But as it got busier, I realised the company couldn’t scale up if they were all to be handmade. I used to do a lot of stalls and parents kept telling me they would love to be able to make the accessories with the kids. So, I started to create a box where children could make their own – and bang, Treasure was born!

What do you wish someone had told you before you started?

Everything takes at least twice as long and costs twice as much than you originally think.

What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?

Stop constantly looking for advice and opinions, trust your instincts and remember that nobody knows your business more than you!

What do you wish you’d done differently?

Taken bigger risks earlier.

What are you glad you did?

Adapted the business as I went along. Although I was busy, I would not have achieved my goals I have for myself and the business.

What’s your top business tip?

Say yes to every opportunity and work out how the heck you are going to do it later!

How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?

I have certainly grown in the waistline, anyway, having a beautiful baby boy a year into opening the business!

No, but seriously, I have grown as a person. I went from having a very comfortable lifestyle to living back in a little town, travelling by bus at first and not getting my nails done every two weeks. When you first start up and put everything into your business, the little luxuries go and you quickly realise you can easily live without the things you thought you could never live without! Starting a business has certainly humbled me and changed me for the better.

Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?

I see myself still in Ayrshire with a factory to assemble all my boxes. My boxes being sold across the UK and just emerging into Europe. The next loom bands – here we go!

Fantastic stuff – and you can see that exhibiting at Autumn Fair is part of this big push to expansion. It’s all very exciting, and I love Amanda’s bravery, willingness to take risks but acceptance of the personal changes the business has brought, too. Best of luck to her, and do pop along to see her at Autumn Fair if you are in the area – tell her Liz sent you!

Amanda’s Treasure Toyz website is at and she also has a Facebook page. You can email her, too.

Details for the Autumn Fair, which runs from 3-6 September, with 30,000 retailers from across Europe, can be found here (Amanda’s in Hall 5, 5A76)

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources. 

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Posted by on August 19, 2017 in Business, Small Business Chat


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irrupt or erupt?

irrupt or erupt?


This one was suggested by my husband, a keen birdwatcher (see below for why that’s relevant) and adder of troublesome pairs to my list.

Erupt is perhaps the better-known of the two. To erupt is to forcefully throw out rocks, lava, gas and ash, if you’re a volcano. The next meaning is to break out suddenly, usually used of something like a fight, and similarly, you can erupt into laughter, meaning it happens suddenly and forcefully. Finally, a spot or rash erupts when it appears suddenly on the skin, and a tooth erupts through a gum when it grows in your mouth and becomes visible.

To irrupt, also a verb, means to burst into somewhere, to enter suddenly or even forcibly. The kind of thing people do when they break down a door. Interestingly, I’ve seen people being described as “erupting” in this sense, but let’s use irrupt here if we can, to preserve those two senses, yes? The second (and husband-relevant) meaning is to migrate into an area in large – that’s abnormally large – numbers, and it’s especially used of birds. So when an awful lot of waxwings descended on some trees with berries in a Birmingham car park, that was them irrupting. Or an irruption.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!


Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Errors, Language use



Small business chat update – Sarah Banks

Small business chat update – Sarah Banks

It’s Small Business Chat update time with Sarah Banks from Banks’ Business Solutions. Sarah joined this interview series in April 2015 when I was impressed by her dedication to helping people, particularly women, with email newsletters and websites, and ethically, too (not always the standard, unfortunately). We caught up with Sarah in July 2016 and when I asked her where she wanted to be by now, she said, “Offering the same services but with a team of at least 2 other part-time VAs supporting me so that I can take on more clients and have a more strategic view of the business going forward.” So how’s she doing now?

Hello again, Sarah. Are you where you thought you’d be when you looked forward a year ago?

Yes, the business is growing rapidly and I’ve recently been announced as a finalist for the Biz Mums Exceptional Service Award, which I am really pleased about.

What has changed and what has stayed the same?

I now have two associates working for me as well as working closely with a copy writer and social media marketing expert. This has enabled me to have more time to focus on growing the business and networking as well as being able to do more 1-1 WordPress support which is something I love doing.

What have you learned? What do you wish you’d known a year ago?

I wish I’d had more trust to go out and look for associates, my business is all about outsourcing but I found it really hard to do that for myself. By building a team around me, I now feel less stressed and have more time to focus on growing and developing my business further.

Any more hints and tips for people? 

Network more, even if it is online by sharing videos on social media. One of my clients came to me via word of mouth and by having seen my online presence which just goes to show that social media can have a huge effect on your brand awareness. It really is true that people buy from people.

And … where do you see yourself and your business in a(nother) year’s time?

This time next year my family and I are going to be going travelling for 3 months so I see the business in a position that will allow me time to travel whilst dipping in and out when I can. I plan to increase my client base to be able to offer more hours to my associates and to have more distinct services so that people can really see the ways in which working with me can benefit them.

Wow – that’s an exciting plan, and one which I’m sure will work out really well – Sarah looks to have everything under control! It is hard to find people to trust: I only recommend clients to people I know or have worked with myself after making one recommendation led to a deadline being missed, so I appreciate how difficult that aspect is.

You can find Sarah at Banks’ Business Solutions on the web at or you can phone her on 07736 938 480, email her or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources. 

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Posted by on August 12, 2017 in Business, Small Business Chat


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How do customers get in touch?

How do customers get in touch?

How do your customers get in touch with you? What should you do to help them get in contact? Where should you be visible and how are people likely to message you? You might be surprised …

Be where your customers are

There’s a good general rule that you should be where your customers are. That means physically as well as virtually.

  • If people buy your type of thing at craft fairs and in shops, go to craft fairs and establish a presence in a few shops (many crafty shops will rent shelf space and/or take a commission. Take advice from other crafters on tips for choosing fairs – I have no idea about this myself)
  • If your clients hang out in Pinterest or Instagram, make sure you have an account there, you use it on-brand and wisely, and you put your contact details on your profile
  • Most people will do a web search when they’re looking for what you sell or provide – make sure you have a website, even if it’s just a landing page with contact, product and service details.
  • I strongly suggest you add a contact form to your website. Most blogging platforms and website services like WordPress will have contact form templates for you to use.
  • Many people will look on Facebook so make sure you have a Facebook page even if you don’t interact with it very much.
  • If you have a Twitter profile, again, get those contact details on it.
  • If you can’t help someone, try to pass them to someone who can.

How do customers contact me?

I’ve been observing how people have contacted me about genuine paid work opportunities over the past few months. Here are the ways they’ve done it:

  • Contact form on my website – this is the main way in which people contact me. It comes straight through to my email, with the person’s email, so I can reply straight back to them
  • Email – my email address is on my website, so I assume people pick it up from there, if they’re not a recommendation who has been given my email address by someone else
  • Twitter – a public @ message – so make sure your Twitter account is open and allows messages
  • Facebook – a question on my business page – make sure you enable alerts so you can see when these come through to you!
  • Facebook – a Facebook Messenger request – these can get lost in “Other” messages – check that folder regularly
  • Twitter – a direct message. This can only be sent by someone you mutually follow on Twitter but they still happen – watch out for alerts
  • Phone – I have a dedicated mobile phone with its number on my website. I receive very few phone calls and because I leave my phone on voicemail most of the time (because I do a lot of work where I really have to concentrate), people who leave messages tend to email me as well anyway.

Other ways people might contact you:

  • At networking events
  • Through any messaging facilities on other social media sites
  • By text message

The golden rules of social media contact

I’ve covered this in depth in an article about reciprocity but in general:

  • Always respond to people who contact you – it’s only polite
  • Take the conversation out of the public eye if it’s about prices and services
  • Always be super-polite, even if it seems like someone is trying to get at you
  • Do set expectations – if you’re not going to work weekends / late nights, maybe don’t reply to messages so quickly at the weekend or late at night, to set an expectation of office hours only (be prepared to make exceptions for a real jewel of a prospect, however!)

Summary: make yourself as available as you can; you never know where that lead will come from

Create yourself a website with a contact form as well as a list of contact details

Establish a presence on the very popular social media sites

Establish a presence on any social media sites that are relevant to your area of work

Always answer queries, taking them privately as soon as you can

Set expectations

If you can’t do a job for someone, try to recommend someone who can

In this article I’ve reminded you to keep as many avenues open as possible for people to contact you, and to follow that up by being responsive.

Other relevant articles on this blog

Reciprocity and social media

Coopetition versus competition


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Posted by on August 9, 2017 in Business, Social media


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