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Ever fancied setting up your own business? Well, it’s quite easy with business social networking sites. Alison Oultram started on the net and is now going global…
Alison Oultram’s youngest daughter had bad eczema and she was told that organic cotton clothes would ease the condition. She began looking for “colourful, funky” organic tee-shirts, but couldn’t find any. “I thought why don’t I have a go at making some myself?” she says. She was perhaps a little over-optimistic about how easy it would be, she admits, but 18 months down the line she now has a thriving award-winning business, Arabella Miller , which offers a range of baby clothes and is stocked in over 15 shops. She is now going global.
Part of her success is due to BT Tradespace, a business social networking site which not only offers small businesses a shop window on the net but also allows them to network with other like-minded people.
Set up in 2007, it offers tradespaces which are free and quick to set up, even for those without any technical knowledge. Users simply fill in the details and upload images and logos and choose the community that they would like to belong to, for example, ‘business services’ or ‘weddings’.
Each BT Tradespace includes a blog, photos, podcasts, contact information and maps. In addition to creating an online presence, Tradespacers can also use the service as a marketplace to sell goods to consumers and other businesses using the PayPal element of the service to process payments for goods and services securely.
It is an idea that is catching on – a recent study showed the number of companies promoting themselves through social networking sites doubled in 2008. BT Tradespace now has over 300,000 registered users.
BT says that the sites can either stand alone as a marketing and sales tool or open up new potential customers by directing traffic back to an existing company website. It is estimated that there are now over 2.5million home businesses in the UK and a growing number are being run by women. The recession is likely to mean thousands more people look at creative ways to earn more money and sites like BT Tradespace offer an easy and cheap way to test the market.
A BT spokeswoman says: “Historically, there may have been a perception that those working from home were less qualified and less well paid because of the limited and largely administrative or piece-work opportunities this type of work offered. Today, this could not be further from the truth. Mothers, young people and the over-50s seeking a fresh start out of the corporate environment have been the main drivers of a trend which is transforming the small business sector. But an increasingly varied range of professionals are also turning to home working to achieve a better work-life balance or to maximise the chance of success for a fledgling or growing business.”
Alison Oultram is one of them. “It’s really easy to use and you don’t have to know anything about websites. The explanations are really clear. It’s a very good way to do market research and test the waters and you can see which products customers are most interested in. The blog gives them a chance to post feedback.”
Alison, whose background is in marketing in the civil service, has used some of the fora on BT Tradespace, for instance, one for business mums and another for green and eco-friendly businesses. She says it works a bit like Facebook in that she can add another business as her friend and this is a good way of meeting like-minded people. “I can’t believe how much I enjoy running my own business,” says Alison, “but also how much work I have to do. I came from a corporate environment where someone else did all the sums.”
She adds that if she does not know how to do something, for example, on the finance or manufacturing side, she simply looks for it on the site and usually finds it, particularly in the business mums’ forum. Through the forum, she has developed some really close friends who she has never met. “There are people I hear from every day, including business mums in the US,” she says.
She has also set up joint ventures with some of the mums, including a sling manufacturer. “We promote each other and put our stockists in touch with each other, share advertising and so on.” As her business is not well established and is still growing she doesn’t know what effect the recession will have, but she has recently started exporting abroad, having got an Australian agent through BT Tradespace.Since October, she has also rented an office near her home because her house was getting so full of her products that she could not move. “We had to move cardboard boxes to watch tv,” she says.
Alison, who lives in Lancashire, says her husband does the childcare for her two children, aged two and 10, although her two year old goes to nursery two days a week. Her husband also helps her with quality assurance.
She says she now feels she could not do any other job. “I am completely unemployable in a traditional sense,” she states. “I have not met anyone who works for themselves who feels they could go back to their old life of working for other people. It’s such a different way of working. There are downsides of course, but the upsides are really rewarding.”