How to not get ripped off

In case you didn't happen to be drifting through the Kensington Olympia last Thursday and Friday, Smarta was there for the Business Startup Show. Bad luck if you didn't, we were handing out free Smarties. Cue lots of chocolate-hungry small business hopefuls coming to talk to us. We loved it.

Do you know what question we were asked most? "How much does Smarta cost?" Having been bombarded with a whole exhibition-full of high-price pitches all day, people just couldn't believe that we weren't trying to sell them something.

Now, we're not about to get into a long self-promoting blog post about how wonderful it is that Smarta is free (you know that already). But the question reveals the mindset of all the startups visiting that fair. They expected to be hit with a fee for everything.

Which is fair enough, because nigh-on every stand there was trying to sell to them. We came across one poor woman who, having bought every type of business insurance under the sun already, was suddenly very panicked because someone offering 'free' advice had told her she needed yet another form of protection. She was led to believe it was a legal requirement. We had to tell her it wasn't - he was just trying to make a sell from the consultation.

It's a very sad fact that there are a lot of companies out there who prey on start-ups' vulnerabilities - the fact that you won't yet know precisely how much everything should cost or what you really need.

It's not just at startup shows. Beware the 'social media experts' charging £350 a seminar, the developers whispering in your ear that you definitely need that extra functionality that, oh-by-the-way, will cost you another £1,000, the investor-matching service that demands several hundred pounds before you've sealed any kind of deal. All are all-too-common.

To break the cycle, you have to stop expecting things to cost you hundreds, and start expecting things to be free or cheap. If you don't start your business with that mindset, your costs are going to escalate quicker than you'll ever be able to afford.

You also need to learn to negotiate, hard. Read out guide on negotiation in business for help there.

Crucially, you have to learn to spot a rip-off when you see one. It's not easy. We'll be writing  series of smartbites to help you, as we've seen just how prolific the problem is, so keep your eyes out for those.

You also need to get very much into the habit of asking your peers for
recommendations and advice
. Swallow any pride you may have, and ask those people you know who've been there and done it what you should be doing next. Ask the Smarta community for advice. Read our case studies. (Okay, this blog does contain a fraction of self-promotion, but it's necessary!)

Don't make any buying decision without giving yourself time to think about it first, and time to discuss it with your peers. Finding a business mentor will help you hugely.

Don't let anyone rush you into a purchase, however a good a deal they make it sound.

You'd be amazed at how much you can wangle for free, either be asking nicely, trading your skills with someone else's or offering the person in question plenty of paid-for business once you've got things off the ground.

You just have to keep your wits about you and consult your peers regularly.

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