What can Businesses Learn from the Vegan Sausage Roll?


What was the big story from the high street over Christmas? Marks and Spencer’s and Debenhams reporting disappointing trading and surely signposting more store closures this year? HMV going into administration – and now rumoured to be the latest chain to be acquired by Mike Ashley?

Or was it a vegan sausage roll?

Many of you will be familiar with Gregg’s, founded 80 years ago by John Gregg, headquartered in the North East and now the largest bakery chain in the UK. And, of course, home of the ‘bacon sandwich and a coffee for two quid’ special offer which, disappointingly, has now gone up to £2.10. (A friend told me, honestly…)

Gregg’s was famous for pies, pasties, sandwiches and everything you firmly resolved on December 31st would never touch your lips again.

What it wasn’t famous for was healthy eating but, following hot on the heels of the company opening a branch in Westminster, came news of the vegan sausage roll.

Let me confess here and now that I haven’t yet tried the new delicacy (“they’re flying out” according to my local shop) but what I have seen – and greatly admired – is the marketing and social media campaign that surrounded the launch. It’s small wonder that as M&S and Debenhams were reporting Christmas trading figures with long faces, Gregg’s were cheerfully announcing a 5.5% sales rise over the Christmas period.

Gregg’s launch of the vegan sausage roll has been called ‘a masterclass in public relations’ by industry magazine PR Week. It centred on whether a vegan product could be called a sausage roll, with the YouTube ad beautifully parodying an iPhone ad.

But it was Piers Morgan who supplied the rocket fuel for the campaign, rather predictably over-reacting and calling the company “PC-ravaged clowns.” Other celebrities reacted, there were apparent demonstrations against the rolls by Brexit supporters and an article in the Guardian suggesting that a vegan sausage represented ‘a chance for a divided nation to heal itself.’

Conspiracy theorists suggested that Gregg’s had orchestrated everything: the company smiled and said nothing. But there cannot be many people who haven’t now heard of the vegan sausage roll – or who don’t know where to buy it.

Interestingly it is not so long ago that Greggs were issuing a profit warning, after the ‘Beast from the East’ meant that many of its shops were unable to open. Another company having trouble around that time was KFC, after a change of logistic company meant that many of its shops serving fried chicken ran out of, er… chicken.

But in another example of a company bouncing back from adversity, KFC produced one of the best ad campaigns of the year by way of an apology. The company recognised that its apology needed to be sincere – but not serious. It duly rearranged the letters K-F-C (which I won’t do here, but which you can see in the link) in a campaign which won a series of awards and saw KFC nominated for ‘Brand of the Year’ at the Marketing Week awards.

So what lessons can we draw for our own businesses from these two examples?

1) Laugh at Yourself

First things first – a sense of humour is becoming increasingly important in your marketing messages. We are all dealing with a different demographic to that of even five years ago and – as the current political situation seems to be more depressing every day – people are increasingly responsive to something that will make them laugh.

2) Challenge the System

It is alright to challenge the established order. It seems to me that both the Gregg’s and the KFC campaigns tapped into an increasing feeling that the we don’t want to be told what to do. We no longer want to be told what is good for us or how we should react. As I’m writing this post the great and the good of the world are meeting in Davos, supposedly “to improve the state of the world.” Am I the only one who thinks it is all starting to look a little irrelevant to someone running an SME?

3) Don’t sit on the Fence

Lastly, it is increasingly acceptable to take a view in your marketing. Nike created a stir in the US last year with its ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who famously knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. ‘Believe in something,’ said Nike’s ad, ‘Even if it means sacrificing everything.’

Unsurprisingly, the ad sparked plenty of controversy, with reaction split roughly 50/50 between favourable and unfavourable responses. But analysing the figures more closely suggested that Nike had got it right. 18-34 year olds – who are likely to be Nike customers – supported Kaepernick’s stance and supported Nike’s backing for it.

That, I think, will be an important and developing trend in all our advertising and marketing. Customers and clients will increasingly want to see that we have ethical and moral principles and that we are not afraid to state them.

As the famous saying has it, you cannot please all the people all the time and the days of trying to are drawing rapidly to a close.


By Ed Reid, TAB UK

Read more of Ed’s Blogs here:

The Importance of Cyber Security for Your Business

Leadership: The Key to Prosperity

Your Goals for 2019: But What if you Achieve Them!?

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The Importance of Cyber-Security for Your Business


The strength of TAB UK: Defence and Attack

Good morning – and welcome to 2019. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, that you have returned to work refreshed, re-focused and reinvigorated and, if it is not too late, a very Happy New Year to anyone I’ve not yet spoken to.

I’m writing this on Thursday, or – as it almost certainly should be labelled – Black Thursday. Ford are planning to slash thousands of jobs, Jaguar Land-Rover are going to make 5,000 people redundant and – in the least surprising headline of the year – Debenhams and M&S have reported poor trading figures for Christmas. The high street, apparently, had its ‘worst Christmas for a decade.’

In search of a rather more uplifting message to start the year, let’s leave the UK and head off to sunnier climes. Specifically, to Las Vegas which this week is hosting CES2019. CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show and this year (as it always does) it features some astonishing products: the Breadbot (a fresh loaf of bread every six minutes), the Foldimate (anyone with teenage children should simply watch the video and place an order) and a ‘smart toilet’ that talks to you.

Given that the smart toilet talks to you via the Alexa app and Alexa does have a previous reputation for broadcasting your conversations to your friends, I think we might pass on that one…

But much as I love fresh bread and the idea of my boys’ clothes being folded automatically, it is a rather more serious tech development that I’d like to talk about this morning.

The importance of a cyber-defence

A perennial theme of this blog has been the pace of technological developments. In 2019 they look set to go at an even faster pace – and while freshly baked bread and freshly pressed clothes might be something to look forward to, there are some rather more serious developments on the horizon…

One of the things writing and researching the blog has increasingly given me is an interest in tech and trends – and I’m delighted that former LastMinute CEO Helen Webb will be talking about ‘megatrends’ at our TAB Conference in May. So over Christmas – at least when Maison Reid was finally cleaned up after our ever-expanding Christmas Eve party – I read a lot of articles more or less entitled ‘Predictions for 2019.’

There was one prediction that struck me very forcibly – that 2019 could be the year when a piece of malware or ransomware takes down a FT-SE100 company.

Two years ago we were all worrying about the NotPetya ransomware attack, which caused millions of pounds worth of damage to countries and companies around the world. Two years on and you can be sure that the viruses, ransomware and the AI behind them are more sophisticated and more dangerous. So much so that security firm Gemalto made this prediction: that ‘an AI orchestrated attack will take down a FT-SE 100 company.’ This will apparently see a new generation of malware infect an organisation’s systems, gather information (presumably on customers, bank accounts and products) and then let loose a series of attacks that will ‘take down the company from the inside out.’

How will companies counter these AI attacks? With AI of their own. We are heading towards a world where it will not be man vs. machine, but machine vs. machine.

…Which, of course, is fine if you are a FT-SE100 companies with a ‘defence’ budget of millions. But no-one sitting around a TAB boardroom table is the boss of a FT-SE100 company. We are owners and directors of SMEs acutely conscious that if it can happen to the big boys, it can happen to us.

“Come with me if you want to live!”

That’s one of the reasons I see 2019 as a year when TAB UK will be more important than ever. Increasingly the problems brought to the TAB table will be about technology and the threats we might face: that they’ll be about defending your business as much as they’ll be about developing your business.

Fortunately TAB gives you the chance to learn from not only the six or seven other people around your table, it also gives you the chance to learn from every member in the UK. Rest assured that any advice and guidance on protecting our businesses will be swiftly and widely disseminated.

Right now it is difficult not to read the news and be depressed: the Brexit shambles, the continuing US/China trade war and – most crucially – no transfer budget at St James’ Park…

And yet I have never been more optimistic about a coming year. As I wrote in December, I am privileged to work with some hugely talented, hard-working and dedicated people. Working together through TAB, I am certain that we’ll all have a year to remember…


By Ed Reid, TAB UK Managing Director

Read more of Ed’s Blogs here:

Your Goals for 2019

How to Manage a Millennial

The Importance of Brand Perception

Leadership: The Key to Prosperity


Another Year Ticked Off

Another year ticked off – but one that has made me feel a little older. Dan, my eldest son, has started his A-levels. Two years from now – gulp – I’ll be writing this wondering how the first term at university has changed him…
So I’d better crack on. But before I reflect on 2018, let me just look back to my last post of 2017. Here’s how I started on Friday, December 15th.


Well, we have a form of words. But as many commentators have already written, ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ No matter, the Brexit talks can stumble forward to the next hurdle…

Meanwhile Donald Trump has antagonised 95% of the world by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire ICBMs on an almost daily basis, Germany doesn’t seem to have an effective government and China is threatening to take over the world. Oh, and the financial world will surely be rocked any day now when the Bitcoin bubble explodes.

Make plans for 2018? Only a madman would think of starting – or expanding – a business. Welcome to the madhouse.

What happened? Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had a meeting, the Korean peninsula is being de-nuclearized, Germany has a government but Angela Merkel’s days are numbered, China is locked in a trade dispute with the US and Bitcoin has tumbled spectacularly.

In short, there has been change – just as there will always be change. And some of the people in the madhouse with me have done remarkably well in that year of change.

Brexit Shambles

Where there does not seem to have been any change is the complete shambles that is the Brexit negotiations. Virtually everyone knows that I voted Remain in the 2016 Referendum. I didn’t agree with the result, but I believe in democracy so I accepted it. My feeling then was simple: ‘It’s not what I voted for but let’s get on with it and secure the best possible deal. And don’t take too long about it because I’ve got a business to build.’

What have we seen since? A textbook on ‘how not to lead and how not to negotiate’ being written in front of our eyes. There are three months to go to the date on which we – in theory – leave the EU and as I write (on Tuesday morning) our Prime Minister is scurrying back to Europe for what the papers describe as a ‘last throw of the dice,’ with the can labelled ‘make a decision’ kicked down the road, apparently until January 21st.

Obviously I have now had to do a quick edit, given the events of Wednesday – the perils of writing about live events – but I don’t think my fundamental point is changed. Leadership is a theme that always runs through this blog. What does a good leader need? Vision, courage and honesty. What did Mrs May display? None of the above.

True Leadership

…And that is a tragedy, because the message I want to leave you with over Christmas is simple: leadership is the key to prosperity. The 2018 Legatum Prosperity Index was released earlier this month – and the trends are positive. Global prosperity – which includes wealth, wellbeing and security – is at its highest since the think tank launched the Prosperity Index 12 years ago. The UK is up to 7th in the table – but the conclusion this year is stark and simple: continued prosperity depends on good leadership.

In my view, that applies whether we are talking about a country or a company.

The other week we had the whole of TAB UK together in Manchester. In the evening we took over a restaurant. There was a quiet moment when I looked around – and found myself marvelling at the sheer quality of the people in the room. Some I’ve known for a long time: some I’ve only just met this year. But looking around that restaurant I saw leaders. Leaders of businesses and leaders of communities – and I could not have been more confident of the future.

Sometimes you gain your confidence from looking at the numbers and the KPIs: sometimes you just need to look up from your meatballs and pork belly…

New Year Outlook

2018 has been my first full year as MD of TAB UK. Whatever success the company has enjoyed would not have happened without the wonderful team at Harrogate. I’ve said it many times but let me publicly place on record my thanks to Suzanne, Rena, Emma and Conor. And, of course, to Mags: Mags, the phrase ‘grace under pressure’ is oft-quoted and seldom appropriate, but over the last few days I have never seen it better exemplified.

So to all the team at Harrogate, thank you. It is a joy and a privilege to work with you all.

On a personal note 2018 has been a brilliant year. The highlight was our family holiday in California when Dan and Rory might have decided that well, you know, going on holiday with the old people might not be so bad after all. And, as above, Dan has embarked on his A-levels, after a stellar performance in his GCSEs.

So that’s it from the blog for this year, which will return on Friday January 11th. As always, thank you for sparing me five or ten minutes on a Friday morning to read my ramblings.

It only remains for me to wish you all a wonderful Christmas – and may the coming year bring everything you would wish for. 2019 will be the tenth year of The Alternative Board in the UK: stand by for fireworks…


Read more of my blogs here:

Your Goals for 2019

How to Manage a Millennial

The Importance of Brand Perception

Your Goals for 2019: But What if you Achieve Them?


It’s a safe bet that a significant proportion of the people reading this blog have a word document – or a note on their phone or a page in their journal – with a very simple, three word title.

Goals for 2019.

We’re all ambitious: setting goals and targets comes naturally to us. But this morning I want to ask a question that isn’t often asked: why do so many people feel a sense of anti-climax when they finally achieve their goals? Why – for some people – does achieving a long sought-after goal lead not to elation, but to the exact opposite?

Let me give you a very simple example. A large number of women are depressed after their marriage. Not because of who they married (looks up, glances across the kitchen table) but because of an inevitable sense of anti-climax and a feeling of ‘what now?’ According to a report in the Washington Post12% of women admitted to being ‘blue brides.’

Similarly there are any number of anecdotal tales from sport. The momentary elation of winning the gold medal, followed by ‘now what?’ – and quite possibly the realisation that suddenly you’re back at square one. That four years from now you’ll need to prove yourself again. And there’ll be younger, hungrier pretenders to your crown.

There is no reason to suppose that business is any different. Yes, we all have goals for next year and, for most of us, those goals are a staging post on the road to the eventual destination.

But the statistics dictate that someone reading this post will reach that destination next year. They’ll sell the business they’ve built or they’ll reach a turnover or profit level they once considered impossible.

If that’s you, will you go off into the sunset punching the air? Or will you feel a sense of anti-climax and ‘now what do I do?’

Rest assured that you will be a long way from the only person to be suffering from ‘post event blues’ or the ‘arrival fallacy.’ (No, The Arrival Fallacy isn’t a thriller by Robert Ludlum: the theory is that as you get near to your goal you start to anticipate it, and therefore to discount it.)

Personal Goals

OK, time to make it personal. TAB UK is my life’s work. One day someone else is going to be the MD of TAB UK and I have no idea how I’ll feel about that. It will – absolutely – be one of the moments when I would have sought out Paul Dickinson’s wise counsel.

I have shared this with many people, but let me share it with everyone. What’s my long term goal for TAB UK? My vision is to see us helping 1,000 business owners – and thereby benefiting around 25,000 employees and roughly 100,000 people in their families.

That is a really compelling vision for me and obviously my goals for the coming year represent steps along the way.

Would – at some stage – 900 members of TAB UK be a success? In financial terms, yes. Would it satisfy me psychologically? No, I don’t think so. Both Mags and I want to reach the 1,000 member goal – and, with the support of everyone in the TAB family, we’re determined to get there.

So will I feel ‘post-event blues’ or the ‘arrival fallacy’ when we reach 1,000 members? I don’t think so – but I have no way of telling. What I do know is that there will have to be something after that. It may not be to benefit me directly – but I think I will always need to have a goal in sight.

And that, of course, is the textbook way to beat the ‘post event blues:’ to make sure you immediately move on to something else.

I suspect, though, that human nature doesn’t work like that. It dictates that we do pause when we reach the summit, both literally and figuratively. And that is both right and understandable – you’ve worked to get there, you’re entitled to enjoy the view.

And if you find that the euphoria isn’t what you’ve expected then you won’t be alone. Success, as the old saying goes, is a journey as much as it’s a destination. And that’s what all of us at TAB UK are committed to – your success on the journey. You, and the other 999 business owners that are on the journey with you…

Read more of my blog here:

The Importance of Brand Perception in 2018

How do you Manage a Millennial?

The Seven Ages of The Entrepreneur

How do you Manage a Millennial?


Two weeks ago I read a blog written by former TAB member Suzanne Burnett.

Suzanne was one of the members of TAB York, so I’ve known her a long time now, and her blog is invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

In her most recent post she’d been to the Aviva offices in York – and she’d been struck by their commitment to ‘corporate wellness.’

As Suzanne said, plenty of companies and organisations pay lip service to ‘wellness’ but Aviva had embraced it wholeheartedly, from a dedicated ‘hygge room’ to mindfulness and meditation sessions for the staff, corporate wellness champions and plentiful supplies of fresh fruit.

The question – as Suzanne rightly pointed out – is how do smaller businesses compete with that? We all want to employ the best people – but what chance do we have if they’re tempted away by Aviva’s bean bags and bananas, or the recent ‘work when you feel like working’ introduced by accountants PwC?

What’s the answer? Let me quote directly from Suzanne’s blog:

You can spend as much as you like on corporate wellness but, ultimatelyit is the culture within your company that counts. If someone feels under-appreciated, under pressure or feels that their career isn’t developing as it should – then 20 minutes in a sleep pod isn’t going to fix that.

That’s why having a clear vision for the company is so important. That’s why regular review meetings with your team really matter. That’s why agreeing targets, not imposing them, is crucial.

Those are key elements of a corporate wellness programme and they are key elements that don’t cost anything at all.

So problem solved. Or is it? Because I think the initiatives of companies like Aviva and PwC, and the absolutely spot-on response from someone who’s built a very successful business, poses an additional question for all of us.

How do you manage a millennial? Or, more to the point, a team of millennials?

Because who are those bean bags and platters of fresh fruit for? And who is going to make up 75% of the global workforce by the middle of the next decade?

The millennial generation: those people who came of age around the turn of the century.

As we all know by now, millennials want different things to their parents’ 9-to-5, don’t-change-jobs-too-often generation. They want flexibility, they want to feel that they are making a difference, they want to work for a company that ‘shares their values.’

But is that possible? Especially for a small business? How long can the owner of an SME go on supplying the latest ‘wellness’ initiative and giving yet more time off for mindfulness and meditation (to say nothing of the nativity play) before he asks a simple question. What is more important: the bean bag or the bottom line?

The ‘Millennial Question’

If you have 20 minutes, watch this excellent video featuring management thinker Simon Sinek, in which he discusses what he terms “the millennial question.”

Teenage Girl using a phone

If you haven’t, let me summarise the argument for you.

Millennials are tough to manage. They’re said to be lazy, unfocused, self-centred and only care about themselves. Yes, they want the company they work for to ‘make a difference’ but they have no idea what ‘make a difference’ actually means. They want free food and bean bags – but even when all that is provided they’re still not happy.

Sinek blames a combination of factors – including the parenting and education of a generation brought up to believe that they were ‘unique’ and ‘special’ and deserved a medal for simply taking part.

Well, if there is one thing the corporate world teaches you – quickly and sometimes harshly – is that you are not unique and there are absolutely no prizes for simply taking part or turning up.

Unsurprisingly, there is something of a backlash against millennials in some quarters. Managers don’t want to be surrogate parents, they’re fed up with an ‘anti-work’ attitude and they don’t see their employees’ happiness as their responsibility.

Which would be fine, were it not for the demographics.

Millennials are going to make up 75% of the workforce: there is nothing we can do to alter that fact. No-one reading this blog runs Google or Apple. But we are competing with them for talent and – if you’re in it for the long term – you’ll be competing with them for talented millennials in eight or ten years from now. So anyone looking to build a successful business in that time will have to recruit, manage and motivate his millennial workforce.

How are you going to do this?

First and foremost I’d endorse the points Suzanne made. I’ve said it many times before but you need a clear, concise vision for your company and you need to communicate that vision effectively. And you need to show how you are making a difference – plenty of companies will address this by choosing a charity to work with in 2019. That’s one simple step you can take: the owner of the business does not need to choose the charity.

Let me make three more suggestions:

Millennials – as Sinek suggests – want approval. Right now that appears to come from social media, but it is going to be crucial at work as well. Team meetings and collective decision making will become increasingly important in building your business.

Training is important, both for the millennials and their managers. Millennials expect to ‘make a difference’ within months: they may not see the long term strategy. Managers will need to learn to deliver feedback in different ways: millennials will need to learn some long-term thinking.

And hand in hand with this goes the inevitable business focus on short term results. This is going to be incredibly difficult for managers and owners. You’ve built your business on KPIs and short term results: on identifying problems quickly and fixing them equally quickly. Ten years from now a significant proportion of your workforce will see ‘percentage of office power from renewables’ as your most important KPI.

So just go into your office, lock the door, put your password in and have a look at that ridiculously old-fashioned – but strangely, still important – cash flow forecast…

The Importance of Brand Perception in 2018


“It’s what they say when you’re not in the room…”

Last week there was a story in City AM, reporting on a survey that had been done for MoneySavingExpert. The survey results detailed the ‘UK’s most loved and loathed brands.’

A word of caution before I open the envelope and reveal the results. You suspect that the results of the survey would have been different had it been done for the Telegraph or the Socialist Worker. As I dimly remember from an MBA module, we all have our unconscious biases.

But reading the article was still useful. It made me think about brands – about the way they wax and wane and, inevitably, ask some simple questions. What does a brand do or say? Which brands will disappear? And – inevitably – what’s the brand perception of TAB UK?

So what are the most loved and loathed brands in the UK right now? Let us start off with the good guys. According to the poll, top of the list is Aldi, followed by AmazonJohn LewisM&S and Lidl. The rest of the top ten is made up of IkeaHome BargainseBayWaitrose and Wilko.

(Just breaking off to make a wider business point: the presence of both Aldi and Lidl in the top ten – and the complete absence of the big supermarkets – illustrates what a difficult job Tesco’s new brandJack’s, will have in taking market share from the established discounters.)

Sorry: onto the guys in the black hats. Taking the ten most loathed brands in reverse order, the first five are Debenhams, Asda, Tesco, WH Smith and (the only company to appear in both lists) Amazon. With Debenhams and WH Smith in there, that must sound the alarm bells for town centres all over the UK, irrespective of the Chancellor’s sticking plaster in the Budget.

Next up – still in reverse order – are Primark, House of Fraser, Currys/PC World and Apple. Top of the list – the most disliked brand in the UK – is Sports Direct, owned (like my football team) by Mike Ashley.

But supposing we step back ten years? Think of all the brands and household names that have disappeared. Toys R UsStaples, BHS, Tie Rack. Remember when you couldn’t walk through an underground station without tripping over a branch of Tie Rack?

Fast forward ten years to 2028 and nothing is more certain than that some of the names currently on both lists will have disappeared. M&S are currently competing with Debenhams to see who can issue most ‘store closure’ warnings and John Lewis have seen their profits fall by 99%. Ouch…

Throw in the irresistible rise of the Chinese brands – Huawei (it’s pronounced Hwah-way) is just one example – and the disappearance of some well-known names is inevitable.

So what can we learn?

Is there a common theme among the brands which are in trouble? Or is it just the high street?

I think it goes further than that. For me, one thing is essential in a brand – and that is a clear message.

What does Debenhams do that someone else doesn’t do better? What does M&S do in 2018? What do you go into WH Smith to buy?

Contrast that with a brand dear to the heart of the TAB office in Harrogate: Yorkshire Tea. It’s been around since the 1880s and – over the last few years – has become the second most popular tea brand in the UK. Have the advertising slogans – “Where everything’s done proper” and “Let’s have a proper brew” helped in that?

Yorkshire Tea Brand Perception

Yes. Unquestionably. Ask anyone in the street what the Yorkshire Tea brand represents and they’ll give a simple answer. ‘A proper cup of tea.’ ‘A good, strong cup of tea.’ Nothing more, nothing less.

Any other businesses in Harrogate I can think of? Hmmm…

What does the TAB UK brand represent? The very best peer-to-peer coaching for business owners. Nothing more, nothing less.

When we’re talking about brands the key words in that sentence are ‘business owners.’ Because your brand is more than your business: it’s you. Is the TAB UK brand inextricably linked to the Ed Reid brand? Of course it is: perhaps not as much as TAB York was, but the answer is still ‘yes.’ For me that means doing the right thing every time: building my brand by delivering results for other people.

In Budget week it is tempting to reflect on the ‘brand’ of our elected representatives. But I’d better resist, and instead leave you with my two favourite quotations regarding brands – with the second one  exactly summarising my experience at the hands of Hertz last year:

“It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room,” and…

“People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s Time to take Two Steps Back…


This is the last blog post I’ll write before the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Spreadsheet Phil – stands up to deliver his Budget speech on Monday October 29th

As always there will be plenty of warm words: ‘fairness,’ ‘opportunity,’ ‘safety net’ and – if the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Conference was any indication – the beginning of the ‘end of austerity.’ No matter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says it will cost £19bn– inevitably meaning higher taxes and higher spending.

I am a little frustrated (my entry for the Understatement of the Year Award) when it comes to the incompetence and lack of business acumen of our elected politicians. Virgin were allowed to walk away from the East Coast franchise but have just shared a £52m dividend from the West Coast franchise. Tell me, please, which ‘high flyer’ negotiated that particular arrangement. 

As the saying goes, ‘give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ But goodness me, it is difficult at the moment. 

Back to the Budget, and another word you will need on your Philip Hammond bingo card is ‘productivity.’ It was a favourite of George Osborne’s as he regularly bemoaned the UK’s poor productivity and his successor will no doubt make the same point. UK productivity – essentially, a country’s GDP divided by the total productive hours – has not improved for ten years. It is still at the levels it was before the financial crisis. 

How can that be? Compared to other countries in the G7, the UK’s productivity is poor. The ‘productivity gap’ – the amount we lag behind the other major industrialised countries – is consistently around 16% in ‘output per hour worked.’ If you measure productivity in ‘output per worker’ terms then the gap is even higher – rising to 16.6%. And where the productivity on other G7 countries has improved since the economic downturn, the UK’s has not.

That is hard to understand. The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies not just in Europe, but in the world. And virtually every business in the TAB UK family – even if they are not at the leading edge of innovation – is simply too busy to worry about any productivity gap. 

So why the problem? 

Writing in City AM, Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, suggests that we should all ‘think like a small businessto solve the productivity puzzle.’ That rather than looking to do ‘the same with less’ businesses should instead look to do ‘more with the same.’ 

In many ways that goes right to the heart of what we’re trying to do with TAB UK. I have been writing this blog for a long time but one of the earliest – and now one of the most perennial – themes has been the need for business owners to work ‘on’ their business as much as they work ‘in’ their business. 

It is by no means a new idea – Michael Gerber first wrote about the e-myth in the mid-80s and my battered copy of The E-Myth Revisitedwas published in 1995 – but the principle of working on your business is as important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more important. 

Despite the fact that the world is demonstrably changing at an ever-faster pace, people remain resistant to change. It’s human nature (especially as you get older, according to my sons…) 

Right now people are also taking the labour market into account. UK unemployment has just come down by another 47,000 in the three months to August and there is a real shortage of talented people. So if a small business has some of those talented people, it is understandable that business owners are reluctant to disturb the status quo. 

But as the last post on Uber showed, sooner or later all our status quos will be disturbed. We either manage change ourselves or some outside agent takes it out of our control. 

There is, of course, a second part to the quote I used above. ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – and the courage to change the things I can.’

Change takes time and it takes work. Initially it will almost certainly feel like two steps back – and the three steps forward may seem a long way off. But now, more than ever, we need the courage to change those things we can change. Let’s see if the Chancellor has that courage a week on Monday…

Uber and Out?


The time: the future 

The scene: the Wastelands.

Two vagrants huddle round a slowly dying fire. There’s a super-highway in the far distance, sleek cars heading to an even-sleeker city. 

Tom: Is that all we’ve got? 

Dave: (holding up a rat) All we caught in the trap

Tom: Guess that’s it then

(Tom drives a skewer through the rat. He holds it over the fire. But the fire will go out long before the rat cooks properly…)

Dave: My anniversary today. Three years. 

Tom: Yeah? Must be closer to four for me

Dave: What did you do? 

Tom: Sent some food back in a restaurant. Chicken wasn’t cooked. But they still gave me one star. Took my rating down below four. You? 

Dave: TAB Conference. Too many beers. Threw up in an Uber. Letter arrived two days later. Can still see the words…

Tom: Me too. ‘Your behaviour has fallen below the rating required to continue in society. You have a week to put your affairs in order…

Tom and Dave together:   …You will be escorted to the city gates.’

If you have never used Uber, it’s simple. You download the app, and use it to call a cab (more correctly, a private hire vehicle). The app tells you the name of your driver, the type of car he is driving, the registration number and when it will arrive. A map shows you exactly where your cab is. 

As many of you know, we had a family holiday in California this summer – a state that is about as far from the Wastelands as it is possible to get. But it is the state where Uber was founded less than ten years ago – and where Uber leads, society may one day follow…

You don’t pay the driver – Uber drivers do not accept cash – and the money is taken direct from your bank account. And then, when the ride is finished, you rate the driver and – crucially – the driver rates you as a passenger. 

Phew. I’m rated at 5 stars by Uber and yes, I do what I can to protect that rating. As more than one driver said to us in California, “If someone’s rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t pick them up.”

It used to be said that ‘the customer is always right.’ Well, as businesses start to rate their customers that old maxim is disappearing out of the window. 

I am giving no secrets away when I say we do that at TAB. We want the product we deliver to be the best it possibly can be – and it is a product that depends on mutual trust and co-operation. It also depends on a mutual contribution: if someone consistently fails to prepare for meetings, then they lessen the value and experience of the meetings for the other participants. If the 7thmember of a TAB board is not preparing properly, we owe it to the other six members of that board to take some action – and we do. 

What we don’t have, of course, is an app that rates TAB members. I can just hear our Uber driver, ‘If a couple of Board members are rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t join that Board…’ 

But I believe that where Uber leads other businesses willfollow: that the idea of businesses rating customers will become commonplace. 

As my boys get older, I become increasingly fascinated by the developments that will shape their future. They will shop almost exclusively online: they will use Uber – and I think they will be entirely comfortable with the idea of rating a service and being rated as a consumer. 

At this stage in a post I usually have a sentence along the lines of ‘so what lessons can we draw for our businesses?’ For once, I’m not sure: maybe it’s a topic for a few boards to consider…

But I am absolutely certain that ‘ratings’ will play an ever increasing role in all our futures. We may be a few years away from Tom and Dave being consigned to the Wastelands, but the penalties of a ‘low social rating’ may be closer than you think. 

And before you say it is a big leap from getting a low rating on Uber to being thrown out of society: that I’m painting a dystopian vision of the future that is never going to happen – or that I’ve written this on a Friday night after one Shiraz too many – consider this. 

China has already introduced a social rating system, and people are already being penalised. People’s routine behaviour is being rated and scored and the data is being accumulated and used.

A high score can lead to perks – lower energy bills, a better rate of interest on your savings – while a low score can see penalties imposed. Your children might not qualify for certain schools, or you might be denied rail or air travel within the country. 

That, I think, is sinister and Orwellian in equal measure: but once the tech exists, it is almost always used. So you, and your business, need to be aware of the developments. 

Uber came along and ‘disrupted’ the taxi business – and I, for one, am delighted that it did. Similarly Amazon has ‘disrupted’ our high streets. But link Amazon’s tracking with Uber’s popularisation of ratings and there are implications for all our futures. 

A Brave New World indeed…

The Seven Ages of the Entrepreneur


I like a nice drop o’ Shakespeare…

Macbeth’s my favourite, but as far as speeches go, I’m drawn to As You Like It, and Jaques’ speech to Duke Senior, which many of you will know…

All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts/His acts being seven ages. 

This idea of the world as a stage wasn’t new, even in the 16thCentury. Shakespeare borrowed it from the Greek dramatists, who no doubt borrowed it from someone even earlier. 

Neither was the idea of ‘seven ages’ new: in Shakespeare’s case, infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, the justice, the lean and slippered pantaloon and – finally – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. 

Which, of course, raises a simple question for me, and for any man:which age am I at? 

Am I a soldier, still ‘seeking my reputation, even in the canon’s mouth?’ Or am I now the justice? In fair round belly with good capon lined/With eyes severe and beard of formal cut/Full of wise saws and modern instances. 

Perhaps more to the point, what age am I as an entrepreneur?

There are, I think, seven ages of the entrepreneur, just as Shakespeare had seven ages of man. Let’s see if we can define them – although, sorry, I won’t be doing it in iambic pentameters…

Pushing your breakfast round the plate 

My story of the first age of the entrepreneur is well-known now. If it’s characterised by one word, that word was ‘frustration.’ 

‘There has to be a better way.’ ‘What am I doing in Milton Keynes when my son is in the nativity play?’ 

The first age of the entrepreneur is the age when you decideto be an entrepreneur: when you make the decision that – for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer – you are going to be in charge of your own destiny.

“Doesn’t Daddy have a job any more?” 

And running through all those seven ages is a common thread: your family, the people you love, the people you are doing it for. Ultimately – as I intimated last week – ‘family’ comes to mean a lot more than immediate family. I’m very, very conscious now that my family – the people for whom I feel a responsibility – is far wider than the three people in South Milford, but when you start your journey, you musttake your immediate family with you. 

Your partner will need to come to terms with the fact that – for now at least – her security has gone. She may suddenly be the main breadwinner. And you’ll need to explain to your children that yes, Daddy doeshave a job – ‘and the reason I’m working in the spare room, sweetheart, is that nothing is more important than collecting you from school.’ 

A man and a lad 

I remember this from years ago – before I became a ‘coach’ and I was just giving advice to a friend. “There was me an’ a lad,” he said. “And I was doing alright. Now there’s me an’ seven lads and an office manager and I’m not making any more money.”

This is a key age for the entrepreneur. It’s the age where you learn two valuable lessons: businesses progress in steps, not straight lines and – much more importantly – you can’t go back. If the first age is characterised by ‘frustration’ the third age of the entrepreneur is characterised by ‘unemployable.’ You wake up one morning and realise that you’ve changed too much. You cannot go back to your old, corporate world. As you turn round, the bridge is burning brightly. 

The man who couldn’t play frisbee any more 

The title of this age is taken from one of my favourite blog posts. Just as you wake up one morning and realise that you can’t go back, so you wake up and realise that you’re no longer ‘one of the lads.’ You’re the leader, your job is to lead and – sooner or later – that means difficult decisions, quite possibly affecting someone’s career, family and mortgage. That’s when the loneliness of the entrepreneur hits home – and it’s when The Alternative Board appears on your radar. When you realise that the only person who truly understands is another successful entrepreneur. 

Make Good Art 

If ‘The Man who Couldn’t Play Frisbee’ was one of my favourite blogs this one – blog post no. 99 – possibly still ranks as my absolute favourite. The title came from a commencement address which writer Neil Gaimangave to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012. 

His message was simple: ‘make good art.’ Whatever you do, that is your art – and you should do it to the very best of your ability. And that’s where you are as an entrepreneur. Your business is established, you’ve accepted that you can’t play frisbee any more – your children even believe you have a proper job again! And every day, you are striving for excellence. Whatever your business does – from web to widgets – you ‘make good art’ and you do it consistently and remorselessly. 

Building something serious 

Remember those steps? Businesses progress not in a straight line but in a series of steps? ‘Good art’ may now consist of a lot of time with solicitors, bankers and accountants. 

But one morning you wake up and realise that you havetaken another step. Maybe your profits or your turnover have hit a level you once considered impossible: maybe your staff levels have done the same. Either way, you’re no longer just a business, you’re part of the community – maybe part of the regional or national business community. Which means that suddenly there are demands on your time which start to take you away from the business, and – although you don’t realise it immediately – prepare you for the final age of the entrepreneur. 

Giving Back

That little girl who wondered if ‘Daddy still had a proper job?’ Well, she’s all grown up now and – despite your best efforts – you can no longer convince yourself you’re 39…

It’s time to sell the business, pass it on to the team you’ve built or maybe even stand aside for your son or daughter. But that doesn’t mean your time as an entrepreneur is at an end. Far from it: and this is one of the key lessons I learned from Paul. 

When an entrepreneur sells his business, very often he gets a new lease of life. Because there’s a new generation of entrepreneurs who need coaching, guiding and mentoring. There are challenges and opportunities in your local community. The entrepreneur’s age of giving back can be the best age of them all…

So where am I? Unquestionably I’m ‘building something serious.’ If TAB York took me through the first five ages of the entrepreneur, TAB UK is the sixth (and yes, complete with bankers, solicitors and accountants…)

And – together with the extended ‘family’ I talked about earlier – we are unquestionably building something very serious. 

So let me end exactly where I began, with Shakespeare. ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ said Macbeth, again using the stage as a metaphor for life.

Macbeth ends the speech with ‘signifying nothing.’ But for TAB UK, ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ signifies a verybright future. I couldn’t be more excited about our plans for the years ahead and I couldn’t be more excited about the people I’m privileged to work with every day.

A Question of Trust


Two weeks ago I was heading to Denver, for the annual TAB conference.

The plane was circling Denver International, I could see the Mile High Stadium in the distance and I was feeling reflective.

It was 9 years since I’d first flown to Denver. I’d come as someone who’d just bought the TAB franchise for York. I’d pushed my breakfast round my plate in the service station, told myself there had to be a better way, looked at a hundred different businesses and opted for TAB.

“Are you sure?” my wife had said, looking at our newly increased mortgage and feeling the serious pressure to keep working.

“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.”

But let me be honest. During that initial training in Denver I had some doubts. Would sceptical businessmen in the UK really pay for peer to peer coaching? And I’d bought the York franchise – surrounded myself with hard-bitten Tykes, people with a reputation for being careful wi’ t’ brass…

To use a well-worn cliché, the rest is history. Building TAB York was hard work, but it was simply the most rewarding experience of my business life. And I am now privileged to be in the same position with TAB UK.

This was my second conference as the MD of TAB UK. Looking back to last year, here’s what I wrote about the 2017 Conference:

The long flight took me to Denver, for TAB’s annual conference – as many of you know, one of my favourite weeks of the year. It was great to meet so many old friends and (as always with TAB) make plenty of new ones. The best part of it for me? It was simply going back to basics. After the whirlwind of becoming the MD of TAB UK – after spending so many hours with solicitors, bankers and accountants – it was wonderful to be reminded of the simple truth of why we do what we do.

And later in the post…

TAB is now in 16 countries and is becoming a truly international organisation. The latest country to launch is India.

Well, that needs updating for a start. TAB is now active in 19 countries and we duly had our ‘national CEOs’ meeting – which prompted an obvious question at the start of our two days together. ‘Is 19 too many for a meaningful meeting, especially as an increasing number of people don’t have English as a first language?’

The answer – which was obvious in the first few minutes – was an emphatic ‘no.’ The reason was simple – and in many ways that reason was the main message I took away from Denver this year.

Summed up in one word it was ‘trust.’

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Trust is simply at the heart of what TAB is, what it stands for and the benefits it delivers to everyone in the ‘family.’ (Yes, another cliché but with TAB it just happens to be true.)

The annual conference means a lot of old friends for me – of course trust exists with them. It’s like the very best relationship with someone you’ve known all your life. You may only see them for three days out of 365 but instantly you pick up the conversation where you left it a year ago.

But this year there were a lot of new friends as well, especially those who’d made the significant decision to buy the franchise for a whole country. And what struck me was how immediate the trust was with them.

The atmosphere for our two days CEO meeting was unbelievably positive. We shared, we co-operated, we exchanged ideas and we trusted each other implicitly. Language barriers? They simply melted away.

So when I talked about ‘back to basics’ last year, what I was really talking about was trust – just about the most basic, and essential, human currency.

It’s the willingness to sit round a table with half a dozen other people and tell them the most detailed information about your business and – in many cases – to open up to them in a way you haven’t opened up to your professional advisers, your bank manager or even your partner.

I’ll confess it now: that was another worry of mine all those years ago. Would one Board meeting be much like the last one? Were there a finite number of business problems to solve? Would a Board – would I – eventually go stale?

I know now that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m renewed on a weekly basis as I meet with the TAB franchisees in the UK and continue my work with individual TAB members. And once a year I get a double-espresso shot of renewal in Denver – this year from the most important business commodity there will ever be.