Janet Stone, the founder and managing director of Case Consult Pty (Ltd)*, was once again up at 4am pouring herself coffee and pondering the future of her business.
For the past six months the cycle had been the same, she would wake in the early hours of the morning and lie in bed thinking about customers, employees, new products and strategic options for her business. Eventually she would get up and either try to distract herself by checking email or messing around in Excel, trying to figure out a solution for the business.
CaseConsult specialises in developing technology solutions for companies in the real estate industry. The business has two core software products, one that enables real estate agents to market properties utilising an integrated web and cell phone technology and another that enables estate agents to manage a portfolio of rental properties for clients.
CaseConsult employs 15 people; five are sales and client orientated, five focus on technology and product development and the remaining five are in administrative roles. At the helm of each team is a manager and Janet heads up the management team.
CaseConsult was founded in 2003 and initially comprised just two people working on a very simple technology product.
During five years of strong growth, more people were employed, more sophisticated products were developed and the company built up a healthy cash reserve. Then, in 2008 the property market began tightening up and estate agents stopped spending money on technology. Now, 12 months into this downturn, Janet is seriously concerned about the future of her company.
Janet’s worries are not unique.
Janet Stone and CaseConsult Pty (Ltd) are fictitious and are used in this scenario to illustrate real business issues within the current economic environment.
All across the world people are asking how bad can this get? For many the economic meltdown is terrifying – jobs are being lost, investment portfolios have all but disappeared and a number of once profitable high profile corporations are turning to their governments for lifelines.
For the business owner the uncertainty and negative sentiment surrounding the current crisis presents a significant challenge. The budget that you prepared six months back is probably no longer relevant, some of your significant customers or suppliers may be fighting for survival and you probably lie awake at night wondering if and when things are going to turn around.
The economy moves in cycles and we are in the midst of one of the worst downturns ever. So what can you do in these circumstances? What is the best strategic move you can make?
In conditions of great uncertainty and confusion, one of the most prudent and useful things you can do is spend time considering what your company’s future may look like in different environmental conditions. Scenario planning is a process that can be applied within a business to envision different futures and develop plans for what you may be able to achieve in each set of circumstances.
Scenario planning was originally used for military planning in World War II. In the early 1970s, it was adapted for industry and used extensively at Royal Dutch Shell to plan for the future in the context of an uncertain oil price.
Using this approach, Shell was the first to see the emerging over-capacity in the industry and was better prepared to deal with the ensuing drop in demand. Since then many other companies in other industries have adopted scenario planning as a tool to assist them in improving strategic decision making and investment decisions and in guiding their thinking about competitive moves.
A constructive scenario planning exercise involves a number of important steps. In order to illustrate each of these steps we will consider how Janet Stone may use scenario planning to make wise strategic decisions for CaseConsult.
Step 1: Identify the focal issue
A scenario planning exercise is usually built around a critical choice or key focal issue. This is a significant decision that has important long-range consequences for the organisation. The scope and timeframe for the focal issue and the concerns relating to the focal issue should be clearly defined.
The focal issue facing CaseConsult is whether or not to diversify into another industry within the next 12 months. The company has always focused on a single industry with a single group of customers.
Janet understands the real estate market, having been an estate agent herself, but now she wonders whether the narrow focus of her business will result in its downfall. She is therefore considering developing products for customers in another industry and she wants to be as thorough as possible in making this important decision.
Step 2: Identify the critical uncertainties
Linked to a focal issue are a number of uncertain future events or trends. These uncertain future events or trends are situations that are generally out of the control of management but may significantly affect the environment in which a business will operate in the future.
Examples of uncertain future events or trends include future exchange rates, interest rates, market demand, political stability, regulation etc.
A management team should aim to identify the two uncertain future events or trends that will have the biggest influence on their business over time. They are called “critical uncertainties” and they become a key component of a scenario planning exercise.
For CaseConsult one critical uncertainty is whether or not the property market will pick up again within the next 12 months. If it does, the demand for the company’s products and services is likely to increase. If real estate sales don’t increase in the next 12 months, Janet Stone fears that there will not be adequate demand for her products to sustain her current business model and she must either change her business model or branch out to develop products for other industries.
The second key uncertainty facing CaseConsult is the rate at which telecommunications costs will decrease. Because the company’s solutions rely heavily on web and cell phone technology, the more the company’s clients have to pay for telecommunication costs the less affordable CaseConsult’s solutions become.
The company’s long-term business model is built on the assumption that telecommunications costs in South Africa will decrease to be in line with global pricing but the rate at which that decline will happen is a key uncertainty.
Step 3: Develop a Scenario Framework
The two critical uncertainties then become axes on a matrix with four quadrants of future uncertainty. The aim is to end up with a depiction of four contrasting situations that can be used as a context to make strategic decisions.
The contrasting environments that are created in each quadrant of the matrix are called scenarios. They are plausible alternative outcomes indicating how the world might unfold and are created to highlight risks and opportunities for a business.
Effective scenarios challenge the thinking of the managers in a business by instilling greater insight into the key factors and circumstances that may arise in the future. There are no “right” or “wrong” scenarios, merely plausible alternative future situations that incorporate multiple factors.
Step 4: Create Narrative Scenarios
To enrich the scenario planning process each scenario is expanded upon to create a narrative or story. These narratives should be logical and coherent. They should be structured like a well-written article and stretch the imagination without being too far-fetched.
In the process of writing the narratives you should consider how the world will get from where it is now to where it is in the scenario. Each scenario is also given a title to distinguish it from other scenarios.
In CaseConsult, the managers will spend time developing detailed descriptions of how one may arrive at each of the different situations and of what life will be like in these scenarios.
“Blue Sky Scenario”
Open Property Market with Low Costs
The US government stimulus package kicks in, global markets stabilise and the positive sentiment associated with the Soccer World Cup results in a surge in demand for residential and commercial real estate in late 2009. Estate agents have been cutting costs and rationalising for the past two years and are suddenly overawed by the increased work demands.
Local telecommunications companies embark on a fierce price war. The new undersea fibre optic cable into South Africa is clearly on track and will help to increase South Africa’s bandwidth capacity 120 times to around 10 terabits per second by 2011.
The promise of this cable gives rise to innovative new telecoms reseller business models, all of which seek to provide telecoms solutions at a lower cost. Competitors push these models into the market early to claim market share before the new undersea cable comes online.
“Scattered Showers Scenario”
Closed Property Market with Low Costs
The property market splutters. There are many attempts to inject energy in the market but none take hold. Interest rates remain high, global sentiment is generally negative, lenders remain tight on credit and property buyers hold back.
As a result estate agencies start to go out of business. Although the customer base is drying up, the cost to use the technology is coming down because of the telecoms price war, the new undersea cable developments are on track and new telecoms resellers are emerging (see Blue Sky scenario).
“Cold Wind Scenario”
Open Property Market with High Costs
The efforts to re-energise the property markets are successful and estate agents are thriving. New estate agencies are opening up and all of them are looking for a competitive advantage. The CaseConsult products offer estate agents a potential competitive advantage but the costs to use the product are high.
The cost for bandwidth and SMS’s remain high and thus it is expensive for customers to use CaseConsult’s product. Some customers believe that it is worth spending the money to use the technology while others feel that the cost for using the product is too high to commit to buying it.
“The Perfect Storm Scenario”
Closed Property Market with High Costs
Supply continues to exceed demand in the property markets and estate agents are struggling to move stock. Most estate agents are not generating enough sales to cover their costs and make a decent living. They will do whatever they can to keep their businesses alive.
Telecoms costs in South Africa remain high as the price war has limited impact on pricing and very few new telecoms resellers enter the mix. It therefore remains relatively expensive for estate agents to use CaseConsult’s product. Some still see the value but most are reluctant to buy the product under these conditions.
Step 5: Consider Implications and Options
The narrative scenarios developed in step 4 are then used by the business managers to consider the firm’s strengths and vulnerabilities under each of the scenarios. Options can be discussed, further research requirements identified and alternative strategies developed.
In CaseConsult, the management team spends 90 minutes “living” in each scenario and considering the key implications for the business under each set of circumstances.
The team considers the implications of diversifying the business into a new industry under each scenario and what tactics they may employ to maximise their prospects. This will provide deeper insight into a complex business situation and enable the managers to make better long-term strategic decisions.
Step 6: Identify the Early Warning Signals
Early warning signals are leading indicators that highlight the likely emergence of one scenario or another. They give an indication that the world is moving in a particular direction and are used to trigger strategic re-evaluation. If carefully selected, these signals can give a company a head start on competition when changes in the environment occur. Possible examples include changes in legislation, pending lawsuits, shifts in commodity prices etc.
For CaseConsult the early warning signs in the real estate market and shifts in telecommunications costs are critical. The management team can use the scenarios to identify early warning signs.
Early warning signs related to the movements in the real estate market include:
- Success of global stimulus packages designed to re-energise
- Interest rate movements
- Sentiment associated with the Soccer World Cup
Early warning signs related to telecoms costs:
- Competitors enter the market
- Likelihood of the new undersea fibre optic cable coming into operation on time
- New innovative reseller business models emerging in telecoms sector
Ultimately scenario planning will not give Janet all the answers she needs to survive. But scenario planning will provide her and her managers with the insight and context to make good strategic decisions. The process will force her and her management team to be very aware of the external business environment.
It will provide them with creative options in response to environmental shifts and enlighten them about the early warning signs that may indicate when an environmental shift is occurring. With greater clarity about how it will respond under different environmental scenarios, CaseConsult will be more competitive over the medium-term and Janet may be able to sleep through to 6am.
What To Measure To Make Sure Your Business Won’t Crash And Burn
Let your customers measure success for you and you’ll have a better idea of how to reach your goals.
If you don’t want your business’s spurts of success to end up just a flash in the pan, you need to measure your business progress against your goals. This allows you to adjust your plans for future success accordingly. But how?
Back in the nineties, NASA designed an interplanetary weather satellite to orbit Mars. However, it deviated from its planned trajectory and was destroyed in the atmosphere, simply because of a minor miscalculation; a result of the NASA team and their contractor using different systems of measurement.
By the same token, business owners need to determine what metrics to use to measure their progress, before they can work out what still needs to be adjusted to get them to their ultimate goals. Many businesses know this, but many don’t know they’re doing it wrong.
Connect with your customers
Most organisations use the same key performance indicators such as sales, customer retention, and product quality to track their progress. What’s the problem with this picture? They’re measuring where they are now in relation to where they were before, leaving the question of where they want to be, and how to close the gap, to guesswork.
Why waste time testing one strategy after another when you can find all your answers in one place: With your current and prospective customers? They’ll tell you exactly where to aim and what to do to get there. This is why customer surveys are the proverbial toolkit of business progress tracking.
A customer survey is simply a series of questions that you ask your customers, to gauge their satisfaction, so you can hold on to them and collect ideas about how to improve your business offerings.
There are a number of ways to distribute these surveys, but it’s no surprise that social media is trumping phone calls, text messages and emails as the preferred platform for customers to communicate with businesses and brands.
Engage with your customers
What you choose to ask your customers is entirely dependent on what goals you wish to outline and track. That’s the easy part, but it’s significantly harder to gauge the effectiveness of social media campaigns, because you need to know what to look for. You can measure awareness of your business using metrics including volume, reach, exposure and amplification.
Retweets, comments and replies will tell you how engaging your content is, and you can keep an eye on traffic by tracking URL shares, clicks and conversions. Plus, there is a plethora of additional plug-ins to this from ORM and sentiment tracking tools for deeper analysis of this data.
Related: Does Your Customer Service Care?
The catch is that in the past, businesses had to compete for space — on billboards, in magazines, during ad breaks on TV — but now it’s all about timing. So the first challenge is making sure your social media post questions are being seen by as many of your customers as possible.
On the flip side of the coin, people don’t have to have any previous experience with your brand to interact with you on social media, so another challenge is calculating which of your respondents are actually viable customers.
Leverage your data
You’ll need to tap into the analytics that speak to who your followers are, and then focus on finding ways of channelling them on social media, based on their geographical location and the kind of content they are most likely to consume.
Then test your social media measurements against your key performance indicators. Yes, we’re back where we started, but this time you’ll be armed with what you need to leverage this data, in order to achieve your business goals.
How Do I Go About Valuing My Business?
Francois Otto, Head of Corporate Finance and Jonathan Wernick, Corporate Finance Transactor, Sasfin Capital give advice on how to value a business.
Francois Otto, Head of Corporate Finance and Jonathan Wernick, Corporate Finance Transactor, Sasfin Capital give advice on how to value a business.
If you have ever thought about raising capital for, or selling, your business? Perhaps one of the most difficult questions you have had to ask yourself is “How much can I sell my business for?” Regardless of what anyone tells you, determining the value of your business is a subjective process.
The value of business in one person’s hands can be completely different to another. However, there are a variety of methods to determine the value of a business. Some methods are fairly simple and others are a bit more complex.
Perhaps the simplest method that can used to value your business is to determine its Net Asset Value (“NAV”). This simple method entails subtracting the value of the liabilities from the value of the assets.
Another method that can be used to value a business is to apply a specific multiple to a financial metric. This method is referred to as a comparative valuation or “MULTIPLES” approach. For example, a company’s net profit could be multiplied by a specific number to give you a value of the business.
The number which you multiply the earnings by is referred to as a “Price Earnings” or “PE” multiple. The size of this number will depend on the business in question, for example its growth prospects, its size and the industry in which it operates, just to name a few.
The final approach that can be used to value a business is the discounted cash flow (“DCF”) method. This method adopts the philosophy of “Cash is King”.
Under this method, the business is valued using cash flows that the business is expected to generate. Cash flows can take the form of future dividend payments or, if the business pays a small or even no dividend, cash flows can take the form of profits generated by the business after adjusting for future capex, investments in working capital and taxes payable.
As this method values a business using the cash flows it is expected to generate in the future, a discount needs to be applied to these future cash flows (to reflect the uncertainty thereof), the size of which increases the further out in the future the cash flow occurs. The aggregate value or sum of these discounted cash flows represents the estimated value of the business.
Related: Here’s How To Value Your Business
The three valuation methods (NAV, MULTIPLES or DCF) mentioned above can yield different values for a business and deciding which method to use will often depend on the purpose of the valuation as well as the specific business being valued.
This exercise is normally the first step in raising capital or selling your business, to provide the owners with a sense of value. This value is theoretical until such time as a willing investor agrees to a transaction.
This is where a good adviser will assist the owners, through effectively marketing their business, to optimise the value achieved by the owners with the added benefit of ensuring the terms of a transaction are fair to the owners (e.g. reasonable earn-out conditions and warranties).
How You Can Use Your Creditors To Fund Your Business Growth
Everything you need to know to keep your cash flow positive, use your creditors to fund your business, and make your numbers work for you.
The success of a business is often judged by its rate of growth and its number of employees. The problem is that both a business’s rate of growth and its size come with their own demands and consequences, which are often ignored in the pursuit of more and more growth.
The reality is that not all growth is created equal. If your business doesn’t have scale, you can end up growing yourself into trouble — or even out of business.
Even more important is positive cash flow. Is that great new contract bringing in money, or costing you money? Shouldering an upfront cost for growth down the line is all part of the growth journey, but only if the numbers make sense and you know when your investment will turn to profit.
Here’s the secret to growth: It can be self-funded. Yes, there are venture capitalists, private equity firms, angel investors, bank funding and a host of other ways to access finance — but you can grow a large, successful organisation without any of these.
The trick is to know your numbers. Here’s how you can practically apply the rules of positive cash flow to your business.
The Power of Cash
In 2012, Amazon’s share price was $173. By 2016 this had grown to $725. Walmart, arguably the biggest retailer in the world, went from $59 to $70 in the same period.
But take a look at Table 1 for the revenue growth of both companies between 2003 and 2012 (a trend that has continued).
How can Walmart’s stock price have hardly increased, while Amazon experienced impressive growth over the same period, despite the fact that Walmart’s revenue growth far outstrips Amazon’s (in absolute, not percentage terms)? Is Walmart’s stock undervalued, and Amazon’s overvalued? Even accounting for growth off a low base, how can we explain this?
The share price is simply the net present value of future free cash flows generated from the efficiency of an organisation in managing cash to generate more sales.
In other words, Jeff Bezos’ focus on his cash conversion cycle has meant his business is incredibly cash-positive, which has in turn positively impacted Amazon’s stock price. Although Amazon is a highly unusual business with its negative cash conversion cycle, and its actual liquidity is somewhat contested by the investment community, it’s a great example of getting customers to fund growth.
The Cash Conversion Cycle
We agree that it takes money to make money. A business, even one with a tight, scalable business model, will consume more cash in its growth phase than in its steady state, or execution phase.
But, you don’t want to ever spend more money than you need to — or can reasonably afford to. This is true whether you’re self-funded or spending someone else’s cash, but particularly if you’re funding your own growth. Dealing with unplanned funding can be costly, time-consuming and it hampers growth. It also bogs you down in stressful admin when you could be focused on the elements you love and that excite you.
There are two questions that you should have asked yourself as you embarked on your growth journey (note: if you’ve never asked these questions, you need to surround yourself with like-minded business people who can help you find and ask them):
- For what period of time is my money tied up in inventory and other current assets before customers pay for the end product or services?
- How much cash do I need to finance each unit of sale and what is the amount of cash generated by each unit of sale?
I guarantee you that Jeff Bezos knows the answers to these two questions. Not his accountant or financial director — Jeff himself. You can’t abdicate the numbers of your business to someone else. Understand the difference between delegation and abdication. You don’t need to be doing your business numbers but you absolutely need to know what they are. This is one of the most important metrics of your business.
Let’s go back to our example of Amazon (see Table 2): Bezos’ cash conversion cycle (measured in days), oscillates between -40 and -8 days. That’s the secret.
In other words, Amazon uses other people’s money to fund its operations. That’s an extremely valuable business model, as its share price demonstrates.
Walmart’s cash conversion cycle is also a very respectable 11 days. As a business model it’s not quite as valuable as Amazon’s, but there’s a reason why Walmart is an international leader in its industry. It takes this behemoth organisation just 11 days to convert $1 into something worth more than $1. It then recycles that original $1 a further 35 times per year. Walmart’s margins are not high, but the compound growth is very powerful, as we’ll see later.
Let’s Get Started
Step 1: Understand your business
To better understand the components of your operating cash cycle and your cash conversion cycle, take a look at Diagram 1.
Operating cash cycle (OCC) is the period of time between when you start the assembly of all the required inputs into your production line, and cash comes back into the business as payment for the sale. Remember, if you’re a B2B business, there’ll be a delay between when the customer starts using your product and service, and when payment is made as well. This difference is referred to as accounts receivable days. Likewise the time between when your production starts (having received inventory) and the moment your business pays for this inventory, is the accounts payable days.
Cash conversion cycle (CCC) This is the period of time that working capital is tied up. It’s the time between when cash was converted into one of the inputs for your production line, and when the product is converted back into tangible cash, handed to you when customers pay you in real money. It’s the difference in time between your operating cash cycle and account payable days.
Self-financing growth rate (SFG)
This is the crux of this article. Your SFG rate is the rate at which growth can be sustained by cash generated by your business without any external funding.
Step 2: Working out your cash conversion cycle
Where can you access the figures you need to determine your own OCC, CCC and SFG? First, use data spanning a 12-month time period. This has two advantages: You have a better chance of sourcing accurate data if it comes from a signed off financial statement, and you can dampen the noise caused by seasonality.
Work with your balance sheet and income statement.
Working out conversion days from balance sheet
|Asset||ZAR amount on (000)||Equivalent days||Liabilities||ZAR amount on (000)||Equivalent days|
|Cash||10||Accounts payable||99||Calc A|
|Accounts receivable||384||Cal B||Loan
|Inventory||263||Calc C||Current liabilities||149|
|Current assets||657||Retained earnings||183
|Plant & equipment||25||Capital contributed||350|
|Total assets||682||Total liabilities||682|
Working out conversion days from income statement
|IS line||ZAR amount on (000)||Day equivalent||Ratio|
|Line||ZAR amount on (000)||Day equivalent in (000)||Ratios in %|
|Revenue / Income||2 000||= 2 000/365 = 5 479||100|
|Cost of sales||1 200||= 1 200/365 = 3 288||60|
|Operating expenses||700||= 700/365 = 1 918||35|
|NPBT – net profit before tax||100||5|
Based on the above example and figures, we have determined the following information:
- This business generates R5 479 of income per day at a cost of R3 288 per day.
- Calculation A: We owe a total of R99 000 to our suppliers, which at
R3 288 per day is ~ 30 days from
99 000 / 3 288
- Calculation B: We are owed R384 000 from our customers, which at
R5 479 per day is ~70 days from 384 000 / 5 479
- Calculation C: The amount of inventory we have paid for and need to turn into a sold product in equivalent days is ~ 80 days from 263 000 / 3 288.
Our original ‘as-is’ timing diagram now looks like this:
We still need to account for operating expenses, including salaries, utilities, rent, marketing costs and so on, and we can safely assume (but check this for your business) that bills arrive uniformly over the 150 day OCC period, meaning some will be paid immediately (day 1) or have to wait (day 150). On average this is 75 days.
You should now interpret the information as follows;
- The OCC is 150 days, but because the business has 30 days to pay its suppliers, the CCC is 120 days. In other words, cash is tied up for 120 out of 150 days (80% of the time).
- In terms of operating expenses, we assumed a uniform distribution over the period whereby some creditors would be paid immediately and some would have to wait for the 150-day cycle to finish. On average, this leaves us with 75 days or 50% of the OCC.
Related: Mobility, Security And Your Business
Step 3: Unlock capital in your business
We now know for how long our cash is tied up, but we still need to determine how much is tied up. Using the ratios in the original income statement, we can now answer the following: What amount of cash is needed to finance each unit of sale, and what is the amount of cash generated by each unit of sale?
Cash conversion at work on your IS
|Income statement line||Per ZAR||with CCC factoring||effective per ZAR|
|Cost of sales||0,60||80% (120/150)||0,48|
|Operating expense||0,35||50% (75/150)||0,18|
|Total costs||0,95||Cash tied up per 1 ZAR of Sales Revenue||0,66|
|Profit before tax||0,05|
|Free cash generated per ZAR of Sales||0,05||Cash needed for each OCC||0,66|
Putting it all together
Let’s look at what you now know about your business:
Self-funded growth rate
|The cash generated from 1 ZAR of sales||By looking at the income statement ratio||0.05|
|The time in days of your OCC||Calculated from holdings inventory days + accounts rec days||80 + 70 w= 150|
|The CCC time to cycle cash used in the OCC||Calculated from OCC – accounts payable days||150 — 30 = 120|
|The cash tied up in each OCC for a 1 ZAR sales income||Restated IS with CCC factored in for OpEx and inventory||0,18 + 0,48 = 0,66|
|Your per cycle growth rate||Free cash that can be added to the OCC cash requirement||0,05 of 0,66 -7,57%|
|How many cycles can be completed in a year?||Days in year available divided by OCC||365/150 = 2,43|
|Assume a productivity factor for safety||90% as a reasonable contingency for strikes etc||2,43 x 0.9 = 2,19|
|Compounded annual self-funded growth rate||(1 + SFG) OCC cycles – 1) = (1 + 0,0757) 2.19 – 1 =||17,3%|
Driving growth in your business
So, how can you use this information to drive growth in your business?
First, your debtors book must exceed your creditors book. Then, if we just shorten our accounts receivable days from 70 to 30 days, the following would happen:
- The OCC is now 150 — 40 = 110 days
- CCC is 110 — 30 = 80 days
- Cash needed for cost of sales is 0,60 X 80/110 = 43 cents
- We have not targeted operating costs yet, which remain at 18 cents
- Round everything up and we now need 62 cents instead of 66 cents (6% improvement)
- Your per cycle growth rate is 5 cents/62 cents = 8% growth rate
- How many cycles can you do in a year now? 365/110 = 3,3 cycles; up from 2,43!
- This is a 36% improvement
- Add a contingency of 95%, which gives us 3,13 cycles
- Compound this over a year: (1+ SFG) nbr of cycles — 1) = (1 +0,08) 3,1 -1) = 26% from 17% originally.
That’s 9% growth and nobody noticed a thing!
- That large corporate account that you cherish and that one of your sales executives is overly proud of landing may well be destroying value in your business. Why? Because large corporate accounts tend to get over-serviced (and I doubt you allocate those costs properly) and tend to pay you late.
- Growing with a greater number of smaller customers, steadily over time, within your means and without being bullied delivers more value and less stress.
- There are easy and clever ways to add lots of value to your business, that cost very little to implement, but you do require an understanding of how cash gets tied up.
- Delegate, don’t abdicate. No entrepreneur is ever great at sales, production, operations and cash management, so get people who can complement your skill set, and allow you to do what you enjoy. That said, you can never hand the numbers over to someone else. Receive assistance if you need it, but know your numbers!
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