Adventures In Micro-Business: How to escape the tyranny of the inbox

Each month Professor Russell Smith answers your queries
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Q. Since starting my own business I seem to be spending too much time at the computer answering e-mails and too little time doing real work. Are there any tricks to help improve this?

A. Be ruthless with e-mails. Why not just look at them first thing in the morning or at the end of the day to avoid this tyranny of the inbox? If you really have to deal with lots of e-mails then give "" as your general enquiries address and have "" as an address that you only give to important clients? This will at least let you prioritise. And customers will like the fact that they get a priority address.

Q. I have a technical idea that I believe could translate into a great business opportunity but the prototype needs some complex laboratory testing. My small business can't afford the test equipment and I'm wondering if university academics might collaborate?

A. Absolutely! Call the Business Development office at your local university. You might also wish to look at the Business Link website ( for further information. Be careful to put a contract in place that makes it clear you own any intellectual property arising from work you contract academics to do.

Q. Last year I raised money from three investors and sold 25 shares, out of 100, in my business. I'd like to sell more shares to fund the business further but the investors are worried about "dilution". What is this?

A. Whenever a company issues more shares, the percentage holding of the original investors becomes reduced or "diluted". However, shareholders have the right to buy some of the new shares so as to maintain their previous percentage holding. If investors buy shares hoping that they will increase in price and be sold later for a profit then such dilution may not be an issue. However, if investors bought shares hoping to benefit from a dividend (a share of annual profits proportional to their shareholding) then this may be more of an issue. Take advice from your accountant about your options and then arrange a shareholder meeting to explain your plans.

Q. I've been told that the STEP programme could be useful for my engineering business. Could you explain this please?

A. The Shell Technology Enterprise Programme (STEP) is designed to give small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) access to undergraduate students who wish to undertake a project as part of their course. Projects usually run from four to eight weeks but can be extended up to one year for sandwich students. Further information is available from the STEP website (


Send your questions to Professor Russell Smith at Selected questions will be answered each month. Answers are for the general guidance of owner-managers only; always seek professional advice. Professor Smith is the founder of Oxford-based Business Boffins Ltd which, in collaboration with Oxford Brookes University Business School, delivers sustainability support programmes to small businesses nationwide. Independent on Sunday readers can enrol on the university-accredited programme at a discounted rate. For details, see: