Does your business pass the Whitby test?


So where do you fancy? Whitby or Scarborough?

I’ve just walked in from the garden. March 26th and I’ve been sitting outside with a glass of red wine. If it’s like this over Easter we could well be joining the exodus to the coast. So which one will it be? Whitby or Scarborough?

More to the point, is there anything these traditional British seaside resorts can teach us about business? Yes, I think there is. And at the risk of antagonising my clients and friends in Scarborough, I think that in the marketing stakes Whitby is the clear winner.

Why do I say that?

Because I think Whitby has a very clear message. Traditional English fishing town – the Abbey – fish and chips – the moors – Heartbeat – Dracula – Goths – Captain Cook.

I’ve used 16 words there and ticked off 8 reasons why you might go to Whitby. Not every one of them is going to be attractive to you but can most people looking at that list find a reason to go to Whitby? I’d be astonished if they couldn’t.

Can I do the same with Scarborough? Traditional seaside holiday – Alan Ayckbourn – the Castle… And at that point I’m starting to struggle.

Before you think that’s just my opinion, or that I’m trying to open a Northern branch of Reid Enterprises, ask the question of a few friends in the South of England. Without exception all our friends south of the Watford Gap service station feel the same way: if they come up North for a weekend at the seaside, it’s Whitby they head for, not Scarborough.

And I think those 16 words – and the clear message they convey – are the central reason for that. There’s a combination of history, fantasy, tradition, family holidays, countryside – and Heartbeat; tons and tons of free, feelgood-factor advertising.

Now let’s leave the ice-cream, candyfloss and blood-curdling screams of the Dracula exhibition and return to the sober and business-like surroundings of an Alternative Board meeting. I’m constantly intrigued by how often this question of a short, sharp simple message comes up in Board meetings. It’s almost as though we’re frightened of simple messages – that we feel a need to over-complicate things.

Whether it’s ‘we try harder’ ‘just do it’ ‘finger-lickin’ good’ or – closer to home – ‘bread wi’ nowt taken out’ you can say a lot in a few words. The trouble is, it’s hard work. It’s easy to describe your business in fifty words – but a lot harder to do it in five words.

So there’s a challenge for you. As you’re sitting in your garden this Easter, the North Yorkshire sun soothing away your worries, a Shiraz smoothie at your elbow, grab a pad and pencil and apply the Whitby test to your business. Come up with seven or eight succinct reasons why people should do business with you. (And no points for woolly nonsense like ‘we care’ – they’ve got to be reasons that an objective observer could agree with.)

Hopefully you’ll have around a dozen words that capture the unique quality of your business. Now you need to get ruthless and cut that down to half a dozen words – the fewer the better.

Chances are, you’ve now achieved two things. Firstly, you’ve got right to the core of your business – what it is you’re selling and what it is that your customers value. And when you go back to work on Tuesday, if what you’re doing isn’t strengthening or furthering one of those core values, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Secondly, you might just be on your way to that elusive strapline: the short, sharp, memorable message that tells someone all they need to know about your business – and why they should deal with you.

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Greatest Hits: Volume 1


June 26th – what a day it’s been…

1483 – Richard III became King of England (only to die at Bosworth Field two years later)

1843 – The Treaty of Nanking came into effect, ceding Hong Kong to Great Britain ‘in perpetuity’

1977 – Elvis performed what turned out to be his final concert in Indianapolis

And, of course, in 2010 (relatively loud fanfare, I think) this blog went live. Yes, the blog is five years old. We’re not quite at post no. 250 as I’ve selfishly had a few holidays, but five years seems an appropriate time to look back. So here are my ‘greatest hits.’ Five of my favourite blog posts from the last five years – posts that I liked at the time and that are still very relevant today.

Make Good Art was no. 99 – and it’s probably the one that I reference the most. The inspiration was a speech by Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts – and the premise of the speech, and the blog, was simple. Whatever you do, that’s your art: it’s what you – and only you – do best. As I wrote in May 2012:

I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t draw. I can’t design. But I can advise someone on how to run their business: I can help them get the most out of their business and their personal life. That’s my art.

If you can re-structure a company’s cash flow; negotiate an employment contract; guarantee that an event for 2,000 people runs smoothly or make sure the hospital flooring is safe to walk on…that’s your art.

And as Neil Gaiman put it, do what only you do best. Whatever it is, make good art – and enjoy the journey along the way.

In March 2012 I published The Shy Entrepreneur – a post which resonated with so many people. There’s a popular image of the entrepreneur: brash, confident and not even sure what the phrase ‘self-doubt’ means. In my experience there are just as many entrepreneurs who are the exact opposite: worried that they’re doing the right thing for their family and desperately trying to make sure their work/life balance stays balanced. Re-reading it three years later, the advice for people who’d rather eat their thumb than go to another networking event is still as valid now as it was then.

Moving from the entrepreneur to the company, the previous November had seen The 5 Characteristics of Successful Companies. What’s immediately interesting about that one is the comment about the prevailing economic mood at the time:

Any company that’s growing at the moment deserves our congratulations. And perhaps surprisingly – given the general doom and gloom – there are plenty of companies in North Yorkshire growing and succeeding.

But the reason that I chose it is that all the characteristics of successful companies still apply – especially the first one: hiring good people.

[And] once they’ve hired good people, the companies spend time, effort and money developing them. Do the companies I have in mind spend more than the average on training? That would be an emphatic ‘yes.’

Another of my favourites – and another from the Spring of 2012 (I must have been in form…) was The Whitby Test. I’ve always been struck by how clear Whitby’s marketing message is – traditional English seaside, fish & chips, Dracula, Goths, Captain Cook, ‘Heartbeat’ and so on – and I think there’s a great deal businesses can take from that. In the original post I used 16 words and came up with eight compelling reasons to visit Whitby – and challenged readers to do the same:

Come up with seven or eight succinct reasons why people should do business with you. (And no points for woolly nonsense like ‘we care’ – they’ve got to be reasons any objective observer could agree with.)

And finally to no. 5 – The Loneliest Place in the World. Building your team and building your business is a wonderful thing to do. But sometimes there are painful decisions to be made and sometimes being the leader is a very lonely job. You need psychological support, I wrote. Someone to simply say, “I understand how you feel.”

Very often the only person who does understand how you feel is another entrepreneur – one of your peers. And that’s where I hope TAB York has played its part over the last five years. And the last five years have, without question, been the most satisfying and rewarding five years of my life.

It’s been an immense privilege to learn from you, and to share your journeys. Thank you for your support, your loyalty, your friendship – and for reading the blog. And here’s to the next five years, for all of us…

The Chef’s Recipe for Success


I seem to have become addicted to chefs. Barely a weekend goes past when I’m not reading about the latest culinary superstar. You know the story: started off washing veg in Macclesfield – 20th restaurant just opened in Macau.

This may have something to do with my continuing attendance at the Star Inn the City (don’t wait a day longer: go and eat the White Whitby Crab right now) or the simple fact that getting it right in the restaurant trade means ticking every business box there is.

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So this week it was Jason Atherton in the Guardian. And the journey was Skegness to Shanghai, so I wasn’t far out…

There were three comments in the article that really struck me…

I’m a big fan of David Beckham. He wasn’t the best player in the world but he worked like a dog on the things he was better at than the others and became the best footballer he could be. To be honest, I didn’t know where I was heading [as a teenager] but everything I did want to do, I wanted to be the very best at.

Doesn’t that go right to the heart of everything we all try and do? Whether it’s with our families, in our businesses or round the TAB boardroom table, ‘being the best you can be’ will take you a very long way.

I remember Beckham’s first season with Manchester United – a talented midfielder who scored a wonder goal in the famous ‘you win nothing with kids’ season. Looked like he’d go on to have a good career: but captain of England, owner of a Major League Soccer franchise, Unicef ambassador and net worth (as of June last year) estimated at $350m? Jason Atherton is right: in sport and in business, Beckham is a superb example of making the very most of your talents.

Once, I thought I was impressing him [Gordon Ramsay] by saying, ‘I’ve not had a day off in four months.’ He replied, ‘Then you’re stupid. A kitchen should run just as well without you as with you, Jason. I’ll look at you as a success when you haven’t got more bags under your eyes than I count at Heathrow.’

Another theme that runs throughout this blog: you haven’t built a business if that business can’t run without you. One day you’ll have to walk away from your business: and if the business can’t cope – if you haven’t trained your sous chef – then the business doesn’t have a value.

…And you can’t build a business if you’re exhausted. I see that some of the world’s top business people have just trekked to the top of a mountain in Davos to hear Sebastian Vettel tell them that you can’t drive an F1 car – or run your business – without sufficient sleep. Huh! They could have stayed in the bar with a gluhwein and read the blog…

Rather than go to school I’d sneak off to Boston to go fishing. My parents went ballistic when they found out, but it’d given me time to be alone and daydream and thankfully I discovered the idea of being a chef. I’ve always found daydreaming useful; nowadays I carry a Moleskine book to jot down ideas. A lot of people are too scared to follow dreams, therefore they don’t achieve. What I mean is, if you do have big dreams, don’t be afraid to chase them.

I’m not suggesting that there should be a few empty spaces at the next TAB meeting: “Sorry, Ed, they’ve all gone fishing at Filey.” But we all need space – and time – to dream. Then we all need the courage to follow those dreams – and it’s that courage which separates the successful people from the ones still saying, ‘Someday…’

To repeat the Tim Ferris quote from last week: ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.

Let me finish with one more quotation from Jason’s interview – and it applies to all of us, whether they are ‘eating your food’ or buying your widgets…

I feel really privileged and honoured to have a job I love, a family supporting and enriching my life; that customers are eating our food and I have a great team with the same ethos as me. So that’s as good a work/life balance as I can think of.

…It’s also as good a definition of success as I can think of. Until next week: have a great weekend – and spend some time daydreaming!