Author: James

FoundersCard vs Amex Platinum in the UK

Amex Platinum is fairly well known. It’s a charge card with a high fee that gives you a bunch of mostly travel-related perks. In my view, the card and the perks are separate products. You buy in to an Amex charge card at the Green fee (£60 p.a.) and optionally choose to pay a bit extra for added perks. I previously wrote about how I think the UK Amex Platinum card doesn’t offer good value for money in my opinion.

The market for premium credit cards is getting more crowded all the time. I recently noticed something that stood out, though.

FoundersCard

FoundersCard is a bit like the Platinum Amex offer but without the charge card element. In other words, it’s just a collection of perks for an annual fee. The annual fee, if you are referred by an existing member, is $395 USD.

It’s mainly aimed at the US market, where is sits nicely alongside the US Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire and others, with a similar annual fee and similar perks. However, because it’s not a credit product, the exact same product is offered internationally. For folks like me in the UK, who are used to companies changing $ signs to £ signs, it means a more competitive offer. However, this must be balanced with the fact that most of the perks are rather US-centric.

The perks change regularly so if you’re curious, I’d advise registering for the preview, to see the current set, for free. However, here are the headline offers right now:

Category Company Offer UK Amex Plat. Equiv. Comment
Hotel Hilton Gold Tier Status Gold Tier Status Free breakfast!
Hotel Mariott/Starwood Gold Tier Status
(3 months only)
Gold Tier Status
(Ongoing)
Benefits are fairly limited
Hotel Caesars Diamond Tier Status N/A Huge range of benefits.
Must-have if you travel
to Vegas.
Car Hire Avis N/A (US only) Chance of Upgrade
Car Hire Hertz N/A (US only) Five Star Status
Car Hire Sixt Platinum Tier Status N/A
Car Hire GroundLink $30 off first trip then
15% off
N/A Good if you want to rent
a limo in the US
Car Hire Zipcar Free Signup N/A
Flight Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Tier Status N/A Cathay Pacific are a good
choice if you travel with a
company that insists on an
Economy ticket but you
want to upgrade.
Networking FoundersCard Regular networking
events in London
N/A
Software Harvest, Hive, HelpScout,
Namecheap & many others
Percentage discounts.
Better than generally
available coupons.
N/A Most are only for new accounts.

It’s a real shame that some of the best offers are restricted to the US (including Avis, Hertz, BMW, Audi, Dell, Apple & others). However, overall, I think this is a better alternative to Amex Platinum in the UK.

Transferwise add business debit cards!

I’ve often complained about the high cost (i.e. FX fees) involved with doing business internationally – most banks in the UK just don’t understand that modern businesses are increasingly international and that “traditional” 3% FX charges on card spend and expensive/lengthy SWIFT transfers (and the SWIFT system in general) make them really uncompetitive.

I’ve tried to find solutions. The best I’ve found are:

  1. Revolut’s business product, although as a limited company, you have to do a lot of volume to make it worthwhile, which is hard as the USD facilities are very limited.
  2. Starling Bank’s business account, that I’ve decided we won’t adopt even when they accept multi-PSC businesses, because of the complete lack of a web interface.
  3. Curve – a sort of proxy that charges the Visa/Mastercard of your choice with the Mastercard rate + 1% when you spend on it in a foreign currency (the 1% is eliminated when you use a cashback credit card).

Until today when this arrived in my inbox!


Transferwise business debit cards are here

Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend using an e-money product as a bank account, Transferwise are backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland and were one of the first entrants to the fintech space. We’ve been using them on and off for years and the only thing stopping us using their borderless business account was the lack of a debit card.

Their (market-leading) offer is now:

  • FREE real bank accounts in the UK, USA and EU (and elsewhere),
  • FREE debit card
  • Web AND mobile banking
  • Faster Payments, SEPA, ACH AND Wire (with a fee)
  • Approximately 0.5% FX fee,
  • Proper company and decent service
  • Xero integration coming soon(tm)

Interested? Sign up here.

Amex Platinum – a year on

I’ve been with American Express just over 3 years – first for a green charge card, then for a gold charge card, then for a platinum charge card. The two upgrades were driven by the value I was getting from the cards and the trust that I have in their service.

I’ve had the platinum charge card for just over a year now and, regrettably, the last year is the year I’ve got the least value from American Express, even before counting the enormous £450 yearly fee.

The key reasons I was so keen on American Express are:

  • Industry-leading website and mobile app
  • Industry-leading customer service
  • High limits on charge cards (£40,000 vs £6,800 a credit card I have elsewhere)
  • Good cashback/rewards options (1% if used cleverly on my £3500/month average spend)
  • Great additional cashback offers on places I regularly spend money (Post Office, Allsaints, Starbucks…)

However, since upgrading to platinum:

  • The customer service is on a downward trend – they’ve introduced a new “tell me why you’re calling today” robot and hold times are much longer
  • Since the only good redemption options are airline miles, Hilton points and Eurostar points/tickets, and I tended to redeem them for Virgin Atlantic miles, Virgin’s new Mastercard product, with a much better acceptance rate and a much better earnings rate has made Amex redundant
  • The additional cashback offers have been terrible – tiny % discounts are hugely overpriced, unheard of retailers. Visa and Mastercard have also started to negotiate offers with retailers, many of which are more along the lines of what Amex had the year before last

I’ve also learned that:

  • The only platinum hotel/car status that’s worth anything at all to me is Hilton gold status, because it’s the only one with a guaranteed benefit that is worth anything to me (free breakfast)
  • The concierge has been terrible in my opinion, sometimes requiring long hold times and failing to get tickets to the sold out concerts I wanted to attend (the most touted benefit of the service)
  • The Boingo WiFi service is great – but has recently been negotiated by other card providers including the above Virgin card,
  • Many of the lounges offered under the Priority Pass scheme have started to sell one time passes, at low prices (~£15), to anyone who wants one and the lounges are typically far inferior to airline-run business class lounges (some exceptions – the lounges at DXB are really nice for example)
  • The 3% fee to use a UK-issued Amex card abroad is no longer the industry standard, with many cards now offering 0% fee or negating the FX fee with cashback

I still feel that my trust in the American Express brand is well placed, and I think that the Preferred Rewards Gold Card is a fantastic choice for a lot of people. However, I just can’t see how platinum makes sense at the moment.

Starling launches its “challenger” business account

Starling Bank

I was lucky enough to attend Starling Bank‘s business account launch party. It was a nice opportunity to walk around the new office development in Finsbury Square, to meet forward thinking business owners and to understand a bit more about Starling’s roadmap.

I am a happy Starling personal customer and, in my view, if you are interested in fintech, Starling is the company to watch. They were the first of the challenger banks to obtain a banking licence and, of the few challenger banks offering current account, they have the best offer on paper. This review is quite critical but that is because I am holding them to a standard that is well above the norm.

  1. There was heavy criticism from the audience around spend tracking. Spend tracking as it stands at the moment is extremely simplistic – there are a small number of fixed categories and spend is assigned to one of the categories based on the merchant’s MCC. The result is that your spend will be put into one of a few vague buckets such as “travel” or “bills”. For personal customers with relatively simple budgeting needs, this may suffice but for businesses, this feature is completely useless. Starling have heard this feedback but it seems low on their list of priorities.
  2. I was the only one to raise the lack of web-based banking. On Starling’s forum, the lack of web-based banking attracted similarly passionate critique to the simplicity of spend tracking. The audience, myself excluded, didn’t seem to mind. Starling confirmed that they are still committed to being mobile only but, when they release their Xero and FreeAgent integrations, that will provide a web interface, sort of. They also suggested that their apps will be made usable on tablets “soon”, which will at least make it easier to see what’s happening without frantically scrolling up and down.
  3. Xero and FreeAgent integration isn’t here yet but it sounded like that is their top priority right now and will be available in a matter of weeks. CSV export is available now. It sounds like integration with other accounting systems, including Sage and Quickbooks, as well as Yodlee, are a very long way off.
  4. They have initially chosen to target limited companies, with one significant person of control, with a turnover below £1.7m, who don’t need cash or cheque facilities. They will be able to start using it immediately and will pay nothing. Companies with a turnover over £1.7m that meet the other criteria will be able to sign up but will be liable for yet unannounced fees at a yet unannounced point in the future. Seems like quite a narrow market segment to me. Sole traders, LLPs, companies with more than one controlling party etc., are all coming “soon”.
  5. Pricing was announced, sort of. For limited companies who either have a turnover below £1.7m or who have fewer than 10 employees, there will not be any charges at all. Not even for foreign currency. Businesses larger than that will enjoy free banking until Starling’s business user base grows (how much?!) and will then have to start paying (how much?!)
  6. Cash deposits are still coming “soon”. Starling talked a lot about costs but, for most SMEs, the key cost of their banking is cash handling, which Starling don’t offer at all. Take that away and you’re saving something like £5-7.50 per month, after a free 12-24 months, for a high street bank’s electronic tariff.

So, overall, the thing that really stood out to me was the extensive use of the word “soon” and no mention of when “soon” means weeks and when it means probably never. The general vibe in the room was that is ok because Starling is moving fairly quickly. In my view, though, Starling ought to take a page out of Monzo’s book on this one and create something like a publicly accessible Trello board to help customers understand what “soon” means.

In summary, Starling do now have a business current account but it’s very MVP. Personally, I will be revisiting this topic when the requirement for businesses to only one significant person of control is dropped.

A small victory in the battle against telemarketers

We get far too many cold calls. What’s more, we’re on the Telephone Preference Service, making the calls illegal, and the salespeople are really, really bad at their job.

There is something terribly selfish and patronising about these calls. They have taken no time at all time find out who we are and what we do (often so little that they struggle to read our company name out loud in their opening line) and yet they expect that we have plenty of time to hear all about them, whenever it is most convenient for them.

Where they come from

Trying to find out where they originally got your number from can be difficult. There has been a positive correlation between our SERPs and the number of cold calls that we get, especially from abroad, leading me to think that many of them simply Google search for companies in a specific sector. Unfortunately there isn’t much we can do about this – we rely on potential customers seeing our website and calling us.

The WHOIS directory for domain names and IP addresses seems to be an equally common source. We’ve had a lot, again mostly from overseas, calling to try to sell us services for a newly registered domain name (that they also struggled to pronounce). For this, there are a couple of solutions – many domain registrars offer “WHOIS protection” or “private registration” options for exactly this reason, where they substitute your information for theirs and then discard any queries. The other option is to enter valid, but anonymous, details. All of our domains are registered to:

Name: Domain Admin (to date, nobody has called asking for Domain Admin but I’m sure it will happen!)
Address: Our office address
Phone number: a number goes straight to voicemail
Email address: a separate mailbox just for domain WHOIS contact

The other common source is from marketing lists. These are the most common among callers in the UK, who are the ones who really need to respect the TPS to avoid a fine. One of the big list-builders is Dun & Bradstreet that allow businesses to register themselves and get a “DUNS number”. The DUNS number, strangely, is a necessity to register an EV SSL certificate with Comodo, and to supply certain other organisations, oddly including Lancashire County Council.

As regards Comodo, I can only assume that they receive a royalty from Dun & Bradstreet for this requirement, which they are increasingly having to rely on with competition from Let’s Encrypt.

The solution

I have seen no reduction whatsoever after being on the TPS for more than a year. It’s possible that some unscrupulous companies might even buy the TPS list to add to their databases.

The solution I’ve found is to try to waste as much of their time as possible. Over the years, I’ve employed various techniques to do this, including telling them that I’m “transferring their call” and leaving them on hold until they hang up, speaking to them a bit and telling them “I just need to get my credit card” and then leaving them on hold until they hang up, and treating it like a prank call.

The problem with these is that they not only waste their time, but they waste our time. In other words, it doesn’t scale.

Recently, I found the Jolly Roger Telephone Company. They have received a lot of press coverage for their service – a sort of automated soundboard that pauses and speaks at the right times, and follows a script that keeps transferring them around and asking them to repeat themselves.

Now, if they call, we tell them that someone will call them back and add their phone number to a list that goes straight there. One cold caller wasted 12 minutes (!) with our soundboard last week.

The next step is to collate a list of the worst telemarketers so that we don’t even have to talk to them once. I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be one in the public domain. Perhaps a job for someone on Fiverr.

Time tracking apps – what’s missing

Procrastination is a funny thing. I can spend days trying to solve a problem that might save me a few minutes here and there, or trying to get my working environment just right.

I’ve poured a lot of time into trying to find a suitable time tracking app. I mean a lot of time – and I still haven’t found one. In my view, there is a huge missed opportunity for something that sits between the apps designed more for freelancers – such as Harvest, and the apps designed for enterprise – such as Accelo.

Apps for Freelancers

There are loads of apps like Harvest. They let you store some data about your clients, projects and invoices. They let you track your time. They are hopeless at reporting and bookkeeping – and seem to assume that you don’t file accounts or pay taxes, and don’t track KPIs to grow your business. They’re also designed to integrate with payment gateways like Paypal and Stripe, that are an expensive choice for all but the smallest companies.

If you don’t fit neatly inside their tiny box, and you’re like me, you wonder why you’re paying $12 per user per month. If you do, you probably think the app is the best thing since sliced bread because it’s easy to use.

There are a few good self hosted options in the same category. The best I found were Pancake and Duet. Duet actually looks pretty good to me – and a few additions to Duet would make it suitable for us.

Apps for Enterprise

On the other end of the spectrum, there are enterprisey PSA apps such as Accelo and Bitrix24. We used Accelo for a bit. It’s actually the only app I’ve found that really understands retainers. However, it’s slow to navigate and though it tries to do everything, some features (e.g. CRM and proposals) are way behind its standalone competitors.

Bitrix24 is very cost effective and offers a self hosted option – but after Accelo, I decided PSA software would take up far more time than it would save for a company our size.

The Hollow Middle

The middle ground is something that makes simple tasks as quick as possible – but offers robust reporting and a degree of customisation. I was very excited (too excited) to find out that Xero Projects has just been released – until I found out that there isn’t any support for retainers – nor is there an API to extract data. WorkflowMax has also just had a lick of paint – but it doesn’t have a timer option and doesn’t support retainers as far as I can see.

Toggl looks good but the pricing is very aspirational. Perhaps they’ve just received VC funding and reality will settle in in due course.

Clockify is a Toggl clone from a former Toggl customer who seems to agree with me. It’s completely free! However, it doesn’t support rounding time entries nor does it have an API. Both of these features are on their roadmap and when they are implemented, I think it will be perfect.

The final app I found in the hollow-ish middle is Timestamp. It’s missing retainers and although there is an API, there isn’t any documentation for it whatsoever. That said, overall, currently, it looks like the best option for us.

Next Steps

The best options I’ve found are Timestamp and Clockify. They’d both need us to layer retainers functionality on top using their API as we do now with Harvest. With Timestamp, we’d have to figure out how their API works, which could be quite time consuming. With Clockify, we’ll have to wait for the API and rounding.

I’ve toyed with the idea of creating something in-house. I don’t think it would be a huge endeavour. I do think it would be a distraction from growing our core business, though, especially if we wanted to sell it to recoup our investment.

Curve – the solution to business FX woes?

About a year ago, I decided that enough was enough, and I had to find an alternative to Paypal to cut costs. At the time, we were paying PayPal around £300 per month, which was at their 2.9% rate, generally plus a 1% cross border fee (i.e. we were paying them almost 4%). Although Elavon gave me the runaround, Worldpay offered a surprisingly good solution for a fraction of the price. Moving from Paypal to Worldpay was one of the best decision I’ve made.

FX Fees

However, I’d yet to find an equally good solution to the smaller but still substantial FX fees we pay for various software and hosting products in USD and EUR. I’d looked into currency accounts where the cost and headache of getting one and reconciling it would have outweighed the benefit and “travel” credit cards that, instead of paying cashback, simply don’t charge FX fees.

I didn’t want to have to reconcile two credit card accounts, nor did I want to give up the Membership Rewards that I get from running business expenses through my American Express. However, I was deeply unhappy that American Express charge a 3% FX fee on top of the £450pa card fee.

To make matters worse, although I have been a happy occasional customer of Transferwise, and was eagerly anticipating their stress-free currency account service, when it was launched, I realised that it doesn’t come with a card. Most of these software and hosting services rely on card payments.

Imagine Curve

I read about Curve on a travel site. Essentially, it’s a prepaid card, similar to Revolut. However, whereas Revolut prohibits business use, Curve is specifically for business use. Well, allegedly. The offers for Topshop, Goldsmiths and Dorothy Perkins might suggest that it’s a commercial card purely because commercial cards attract a higher acquisition fee but that’s not my problem.

The other key difference, which is a big help from a business point of view, is that rather than having to keep the card topped up or getting another statement to reconcile, each transaction is converted to GBP immediately and billed in GBP to the card of your choice. In this case, my business debit card. Therefore, I can rely on my business bank statement and I have a receipt from Curve and from the merchant with a complete paper trail.

It gets better

Not only is this a very easy way of cutting FX fees from 3% (Santander / American Express) to 1% (Curve), you can also attach several Visa and Mastercard credit and debit cards to it and pick the right card for each purchase. You can even reassign the card a purchase is funded from after the purchase. Again, this is probably more useful for personal users, of whom I’m sure there are many, because a the FX fee could be offset by using a cashback Visa/Mastercard credit card.

Also, you’ll get £5 free on the card the moment it arrives (code: TENPY) and the whole order, verification and activation process is really smooth. The limits are also, in my view, reasonable for most small businesses.

To make it perfect

I understand that Curve have to sustain grow their business and to do that, they have to charge their customers. However, I would like to see an option to pay a fixed monthly/yearly fee in place of 1% of my FX spend. This would persuade me to use the card more without having to think of the fee at each purchase, especially with larger purchases.

Rant: expensive developer programmes

Before I spoke to Sage yesterday, Apple topped my list of biscuit-taking developer programmes. Getting anything on to the App Store is a convoluted process requiring a myriad of Apple devices, one or more paid subscriptions and navigation of a bloated IDE and a completely unhelpful QA process.

If you want to create an iOS app, you’d need an Apple computer (£400-4000+), at least one device to test on (£400-1000ish) and a subscription ($99 per year) even to keep an existing app on the App Store. After creating the app in Xcode, which is awful, you’d create a multitude of certificates and submit it with the built app to Apple’a QA process. Recently, the QA team seems to be providing the same rejection reason to every developer – it doesn’t support IPv6 – even if the problem is actually something else. Therefore, developers have to guess what Apple might not actually like about the app and re-submit.

However, developers can’t simply ignore Apple products because their market share is so great.

Yesterday, I spoke to Sage, the accounting software provider, about their development programme. It costs £1500+VAT per year just to be granted the right to create software that modifies the Sage database. By comparison, a perpetual licence of their Sage 50 accounting software, that is by far the most widely deployed version, can be bought from a distributor for around £380+VAT.

Sage is reportedly keen to encourage developers to get on board. They need to realise that their relationship with developers is mutually beneficial. Xero, which seems to be eating Sage’s market share gradually, has a much better approach and, as a result, has a huge range of options for users who want to add functionality to their accounting package.

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Good to Great by Jim Collins analyses commonalities between highly successful businesses and their differences to mediocre businesses.

Contrast to most other books in this category

The books I’ve read in this category have had at least one good take-away point but many of them are just that – a good take-away point wrapped in a lot of fluff so that something can actually be distributed and sold. Nobody would pay for a few bullet points on a postcard. I would put Lean Startup in this category – the only key message in the book can be summarised by the below image.

Spotify's MVP model

In contrast, Good to Great’s author is Jim Collins. He is an academic and the book draws on a the findings and the journey of a large research project that he headed at Stanford University.

Brief summary

The research team selected companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange that out-performed the average for their vertical for 12 (?) consecutive years by at least three times. This is important to rule out the tail wind of an industry-specific boom, the tenure of one individual and happy coincidences. Picking publicly listed companies means that financial data is easy to come by and as accurate as possible.

The author identifies twelve companies and for each, identifies a comparable company in the same vertical that performed roughly on average for the same vertical in the same period. The book explores a series of commonalities between the companies in the first category and the differences between them and the comparison companies. The focus is on the people within the company – their leadership skills, their worldview and so on.

What’s reassuring for me

I didn’t read this book for reassurance. However, the book devotes a chapter, that is preceded by a clear message that it is a particularly important chapter, to what I had come to believe is the most important skill for a small business owner.

Brutal honesty

Companies are full of numbers – profit, revenue, growth rate, customers acquired and lost, people acquired and lost, marketing ROI and so on. However, sometimes the numbers aren’t what we want to see. Perhaps a period was turbulent and the numbers for that period are embarrassing. Perhaps one project was particularly bad and distorted the average – and it feels easiest to move on and forget about it. Perhaps some people within the company generate much less value than others but fixing it could open new a can of worms.

What I have come to believe is the most important skill for a small business owner is the ability to be brutally honest. That is, to start with unbiased numbers, to do broad and unbiased analysis regularly, to draw unbiased conclusions and to act on them without bias. It’s often easier to gloss over a subject, to accept a situation as inevitable and to tell the message that you want to tell.

However, by conducting broad, regular and unbiased analysis, forming unbiased conclusions and acting on them systematically, you can start to work on making the changes you really need to make.

Docker for CI/CD

As our team has grown, we’ve seized the opportunity to improve processes that had previously been held back by our small size. Steering an organisation towards continuous delivery and away from the waterfall model is interesting in itself but for now I want to focus specifically on how well Docker is suited for CI/CD.

Docker recently (relatively) rolled out a tool called docker-compose. Very simply, it’s a YAML file that you can create yourself in under a minute that defines the set of Docker containers your application uses. For each container, you can either use your own Dockerfile or one on a public repository. You can also set any environment variables, links between containers and where your project should be mounted in each container.

For the developer, it’s remarkably simple but for the development process, it’s a paradigm shift. Now that docker-compose file has been created, it can be added to your Git/SVN repository so that not only is your code on the repository but the environment in which it runs is too.

This means that, if you deploy your application using the docker-compose file in your repository, in your staging environment, and everything works, then there is very little that would stop it working if you repeat the same process on production. It also means that, because the process is contained within a YAML file, if something does go wrong, not only do you have an audit trail for your code to help you but you also have one for the environment in which it runs.

This is the foundation of CD – but what about CI?

Well, if you use programmatic tests – be they unit tests, frontend test and/or server configuration tests, you can write a small script that runs them and add it to the repository as well. After setting up your containers with docker-compose, you can run your tests on the Docker containers it creates. If the tests pass on staging, it is very unlikely they would fail in production.

I can’t overstate just how easy this is and how well it can work. In just two months, we’ve moved all of our development to Docker-based CI/CD – and we’ve written our own software to automate all of the heavy lifting:

  1. We have a web hook set up in GitHub so that GitHub reports each push
  2. Our system (built in 2 days) runs clones the repository at the commit that was just pushed
  3. It then runs the docker-compose file contained within the repository and runs tests specified in a separate YAML file on the corresponding containers
  4. The output is captured and stored in the system and we get alerted via Slack if a test fails (typically we know if we’ve broken something within 3 minutes of pushing)
  5. If all of the tests pass and if the commits are to the master branch, another command could be run to copy the repository at that commit to production.