Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Starting your own UK Company - it's not that scary!

[This article is about forming Companies in the UK. Specifically, my experience covers England and Wales. To the best of my knowledge, the details are the same if forming in Scotland or Northern Ireland, but there may be differences in companies law in those countries, so please seek detailed advice if you are forming your company there.]

Whether you're launching yourself as a consultant, or starting another kind of business, the one thing you really need is a company of your own. For a lot of people, that's a big, scary idea, and they simply don't know where to start.

The good news is that it's trivially easy, and not very expensive either.

Finding a name

So what do you need? Well, the first thing is a name. You want a name that's memorable, and descriptive or suggestive of what you're selling (without limiting the future scope of the company). Being earlier in the alphabet is also useful. Don't use a dictionary word on its own: firstly, someone will already be using it, and secondly, you can't trademark/service mark dictionary words, you need to do something with it such as write it in a unique font or combine it with other words. ("Bright" isn't a trademark; "Bright Flight" is.) Be as inventive as you can.

Your best friends here are Companies House (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/), Google and WHOIS - I use http://www.virtualnames.co.uk/whois.php when I'm not using a Linux PC. Companies House's WebCHeck (their capitalisation) service lets you look for past, present and proposed company names, and make sure you're not going to conflict with someone else's trading name. WHOIS lets you search for related domain names. You want a .com or a .co.uk (both, ideally) as a bare minimum. Ideally, you want the full set of .com, .org, .net, .co.uk, .org.uk, .info, .eu and .biz available. You may wish also to consider .gb.com, .uk.com, .gb.net and .uk.net.

My experience is that this process - coming up with a list of candidate names, removing the ones that conflict with other entities and owned trademarks - takes several days. Don't get upset if your favourite name gets eliminated, or you'll find it a depressing process!

Domain names

Before you register the company, buy the domain names. They're not expensive. Getting the full set above (apart from the ones in the "You may also wish to consider" list) will cost you only £111+VAT from VirtualNames (http://www.virtualnames.co.uk/) - a domain registrar/ISP that I strongly recommend.

Why do you want to register the domains first? Because it stops cyber-squatters, who keep eagle eyes on newly registered companies at Companies House, from getting there before you.

Once you've secured the domains, you're ready to move onto company registration.

Buying your company

Now you're ready to buy your company. I'm going to assume that you want to form a Company Limited By Shares, the "standard" kind, but I'll cover other options later.

Years ago, it cost a small fortune. You'd have to buy a pre-formed company with a stupid name from an accountant or solicitor, along with its Company Seal, then go through the faff, bother and expense of changing the name to something you preferred - usually paying the original registrant even more to help you. Alternatively, you could operate it under another name...but "Clever Ideas (trading as Dumbsmart Bridge Ltd.)" never struck me as a great look.

These days it's a lot simpler - and you don't need a Company Seal any more! You can do it all yourself, direct with Companies House, but it's a lot easier to get someone else to do it. Surprisingly, it's often cheaper, and they'll provide you with Articles of Association, Memoranda of Association and a few other extras too. The firm I've used most of all is Companies Made Simple ("CMS" for brevity), at http://www.companiesmadesimple.com/ - and I'll use their prices here, all of which are ex-VAT. Other registrars are broadly in line with CMS's pricing, or slightly highter.

CMS's cheapest registration package costs all of £16.99, with a three-hour formation time. That compares very favourably with Companies House's £50 same-day service! They throw in a Google AdWords voucher that almost pays for the cost of registration too. I'd remove the Barclay's Business Banking option; I've not been favourably impressed with their service. We'll cover banking a little later.

If you don't want (or are not allowed) to register the company at your home address, many registration agents offer a Registered Office service with mail forwarding. CMS's package including that service for a year is £49.99 (this is instead of the £16.99, not in addition), and there are some added extras included. You may also need a Company Secretary. CMS offers this for an additional £75, although they hide it well!

So, the cheapest way to register (let's assume you want the .com and .co.uk domains, and don't need more than the basic services) is going to cost you (ex-VAT):

Company formation£16.99

That's a total of £52.19 inclusive of the new 20% VAT rate - the equivalent of a couple of months' mobile phone costs, or less than a tank of petrol.

Alternatives to a Limited Company

You don't have to have a Limited Company; there are other options. One that will appeal to group consultancies, and the likes of solicitors and accountants, is the Limited Liability Partnership, or LLP. This is a kind of half-way house between a conventional Partnership and a Limited Company. Unlike a traditional Partnership, where its membership is written into its Articles, the LLP is an independent legal entity. Partners can enter and join without major upset. Whilst each partner is responsible for their own actions, and jointly liable for the LLP's, they are not responsible for each other's.

An LLP can reduce paperwork, compared with a Limited Company. LLP registration can be a lot more expensive than a Limited Company's, though: ex-VAT prices vary from £94 to £150 or more. I find this strange, as Companies House charges only £15 (or £30 for same-day service). If you are thinking of forming an LLP, I'd suggest doing so directly with Companies House, and sourcing a standard Partnership Agreement (optional, but advisable) separately.


Now you've formed your company - from now on, I'll use that to mean either Limited Company or LLP - you need to consider banking.

If you're expecting to handle significant amounts of cash, or if you're going to need a direct relationship with a named account maanger, you should probably be looking towards branch-based banking. Branch accounts are generally a little more expensive to operate. Beware of non-optional "optional" extras: Barclay's, for example, likes new companes to rent accounting software from them, and it can be a bit difficult to persuade them that you want a basic account.

If you don't have those requirements, and you're happy to deal with centralised internet-based banking, I'd recommend Santander Business Banking (http://www.santander.co.uk/business/), currently operated under their recently acquired Abbey Business marque. Almost all transactions are free "forever", provided you don't exceed a substantial turnover level (£1 million at time of writing), and you can still pay in cash amounts (up to £3000 per month) free at Santander branches. They don't charge for cheque books or paying-in books, nor for cheques issued. For a small to medium sized business, that's a pretty good deal. The one warning I'd give is that they inherited Abbey's creaky computer systems. I think they're improving, though.

[Later note (2012-01-25): they didn't, and we sacked them in favour of HSBC Business Banking. In particular, we got very, very tired of Santander not being part of the BACS Faster Payments scheme, so that our payments to other UK banks were delayed by most of a working week, and any payments over a few hundred pounds having to be confirmed as non-fraudulent before they would be passed. That kind of fraud prevention may be fine for low-net-value personal accounts, but not for business accounts, where there's an established trading pattern, and transaction accounts are routinely in the thousands. There were other problems too, including more computer problems and outages at their end. HSBC offers small businesses an initial year of fee-free banking, and then a transition to a primarily online account that has no fees for normal operation, and this is now my recommendation.]

Your web site

So you've got your domains, and your company. Now, and finally, you need a shop front: a web site and corresponding letterhead. For these you need three groups of helpers here, and often you can find them all in one place. The really good news is that at Adeptium Consulting, we can provide all of these for you, and we're not as expensive as you might think, so don't panic! More about that at the end of the article.

The first helper is a designer. You've got a company name, and that's the starting point for creating a corporate image that fits it. Now, you may think, "Why do I, just a singleton consultant, need a corporate image?" Believe me, a good logo combined with a complementary colour scheme makes a great impact, whether it's on a letterhead or a web site. If you're handy with graphical design packages and/or fonts, you might even take this part of the work yourself, but if you do, do pleasse get opinions on your ideas from both strangers and potential customers.

The second and third groups are web site designers and web site hosting providers.

For the design, you'll need to work with a company that creates good, clean web sites that can be maintained and extended by someone who's not a computer guru. After all, you may want to be writing articles yourself when you get new contract wins, without having to pay someone else to do it. That's only the starting point, though.

You're going to need two sites - one that's "live", and one that's a private prototype area not accessible by the public, which parallels the live site. The objective is to make all your changes to the prototype site, never to the live site. Once your prototype site looks good, you've proof-checked it, and you are ready to roll it out to the live site, you need an easy and secure way to make that happen. Finally, the vital bit that many new business people forget - you need backup! Backups should happen regularly, and before each live rollout. Those backups should be sent securely to a server on a different network, so that if your web server fails completely, or a hacker wipes its disk, you can get up and running in minutes, not days or weeks.

Your hosting providers must be able to provide stable, reliable and scalable site hosting. If your business takes off, you want to be able to boost the hosting facilities to manage the increasing load, without visitors ever noticing. Your site designers should be able to work with your hosting providers to set up everything for you and document how to operate your site.


I wrote this blog article to help other business people and pass on some of the tips and tricks I've learnt, having formed quite a few companies, and set up many clients with web hosting, but I'm going to make no apology for a bit of promotion. After all, you got all this advice for free!

One of the companies I've formed, Adeptium Consulting Ltd., can help you with every stage of starting a new company - whether it's just setting up your web service, or the whole package from helping you find a company name, through registration, to sorting out your IT. We can even provide you a portfolio (that's to say, part-time and pay-as-you-go) Technical or IT Director who can be named on your Companies House register of Directors, to advise you on your technical needs, and help you present a much more attractive proposition to prospective customers or potential investors.

Finally, I'd like to make it clear that, with the exception of Adeptium, I have no beneficial interest in any of the companies I've recommended. That is to say: at the time of writing, I don't hold shares in any of them, I don't sell products or services to any of them, and I get no benefit from the recommendations. I have been a satisfied customer of products or services provided by them, and it's solely on that basis that I make the recommendations.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Musical finds, fiends, friends and enemas

Every now and again, I feel the urge to write something about musicians I've discovered or been pointed towards. This posting is sponsored by Spotify and the letter 'F'. Or not. Depending.

At this time of the year, the BBC publishes its list of musicians to watch for in the coming year. You'll find the current list on the Sound of 2011 mini-site. Usually, it's a pretty reliable selection of really decent talent. The 2010 list, for example, included Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, The Drums and Owl City, all of whom were doing stuff that was fresh and good. (Marina's my favourite - she's intelligent, barking mad, and a damn good songwriter too. What more could you want?)

BBC's Sound of 2011 list is a bit of a disappointment.
The 2011 list, though, is a bit of a disappointment. I've watched all the videos, to spare you the indignity - and the only artist that got my attention was a grime MC who goes by the tag of Wretch 32. That's a pretty hefty indictment of the others, as hip-hop's not usually my bag, but this guy's good, and the production on Traktor was really slick. If his other tracks are as good, I'm getting the album. As for the other artists - sorry, but ... whatever. There was little else that wasn't derivative. Maybe I'll revisit the site in a while and have a second listen.

All of which means I have to do some actual research and find some names for you. Spotify's a great tool for finding artists you'd never heard of - just type a random word into the search box, listen to a few tracks and discover. Today, it's thrown up a strummer new to me: Paul Gilbert. Formerly of Mr. Big, and now with Racer X, he's a powerhouse guitarist who plays with accuracy and precision. For me, he's way ahead of Joe Satriani, whose work Gilbert's resembles. Much fuzzbox and overdrive, but the tunes aren't samey.

Something hip-hoppy, folky and ... Basque?
Fancy something hip-hoppy, folky, trance-y, techno-y and ... Basque? Look no further than Crystal Fighters. Mix Catalan instruments with Marina and an MC - and you've almost totally failed to grasp their range. Earlier in the year, they performed on Later with Jools: you can see the performances here.

More when I remember them.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

I told you so!

Regular readers will remember that I dropped a hot little piece of tittle-tattle about a month-and-a-half ago. In this blog posting, I happened to mention: "Will we see Windows and Office for ARM? Well, here's a bit of gossip: keep your eyes open in the next twelve months."

And, lo, it came to pass.

Today, The Register published an article that blew the secret wide open.

So was it just speculation on my part? No. What I wasn't allowed to say in that November blog piece was that I'd got the information from an authoritative source within Microsoft. In fact, I'd been sitting on the coup for about two months because I wanted to leave enough time that the source in question couldn't be traced - and it still hasn't been.

The Register's earlier article mentioning the Microsoft/ARM pact shows how much they'd been misled - or misled themselves. El Reg had speculated that the ARM licensing was to do with the next generation of XBoxen. With the advances made in recent ARM architectures, that might yet come to pass, but the real deal was the one that no-one had dared suggest: Windows and Office on ARM.

Glad to be of service.