Are you Still the Best Person?


There’s no better story of the new, disruptive economy than Uber. What could be more set in stone than your local taxi company? But along comes Uber, along comes an iPhone app and everything is different.

Equally there could be no more archetypal disruptive entrepreneur than Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Travis Cordell Kalanick is 40. He dropped out of UCLA (obviously: dropping out is mandatory for the disruptive entrepreneur).

His first business venture – with partners – was a multimedia search engine and file sharing company called Scour, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

Next came Red Swoosh, another peer-to-peer file sharing company. Red Swoosh struggled: Kalanick went three years without a salary, had to move back into his parents’ home and at one point owed the IRS $110,000. All the company’s engineers left and our hero was forced to move to Thailand as a cost saving measure. But in 2007 Akamai Technologies bought the company for $19m.

In 2009 Kalanick joined forces with Garrett Camp, co-founder of Stumble Upon, to develop a ride sharing app called Uber. And the rest as they say…

Uber now operates in 66 countries and more than 500 cities around the world. Wiki lists Kalanick’s net worth at $6.3bn. Presumably he’s not living at home any more.

But neither is Kalanick still at Uber. On June 20th he resigned as CEO after multiple shareholders demanded his resignation. We’ve all read the stories: let’s just file them under ‘abrasive personality.’

Looking at Kalanick’s early struggles he ticks every box for an entrepreneur. Dropped out of college, saw the future, first venture failed, money problems, do whatever it takes, absolute persistence, never lost faith in himself and – eventually – jackpot!

We can all imagine some of the scenes: we may not have ticked all the same boxes in our own entrepreneurial careers, but we’ve ticked enough to imagine Kalanick’s journey. And to empathise with it…

But now he’s gone. And his departure from Uber prompts an interesting question.

Are you still the best person to run your company?

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When I pushed my breakfast round my plate in Newport Pagnell services and decided to work for myself there were two main motivations. They were frustration: “There has to be something better than this,” and family: “Someone else is dictating how much time I spend with my wife and children.”

In some ways I was luckier than most embryonic entrepreneurs: my experience told me I could manage and motivate a team. But I wasn’t thinking about that in Newport Pagnell: what – after proposing to my wife – has turned out to be the best decision of my life was motivated purely by frustration at what I was then going through, and a determination to be there as my boys were growing up.

I suspect the vast, overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are the same. We all started by saying, ‘I want to create something, I want to be in control of my own life, I want to build a future for my family.’ We didn’t say, ‘Oh yes, I have the skills necessary to lead a team of 30.’ Famously, even Mark Zuckerberg had to learn how to manage Facebook.

So the skills you had then – vision, a willingness to take risks (with both your career and your family), persistence and that sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed – may not be the skills you need now. In fact, there’s no ‘may’ about it. Maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make great managers: you may have been the only person who could have started your business, but are you the best person to keep it going? Is it time for the visionary to make way for the general manager?

I’m not going to answer the question: I’m simply going to state that it is one of the most interesting and fundamental questions we’ll all face as our businesses grow, and one we’ll all need to ask ourselves. As I talk to the other TAB franchisees and to more and more business owners who are nearing the end of their entrepreneurial careers, it’s a question which increasingly fascinates me. We can never stand still: we’re always growing, developing and learning. Whether it is internal change or external change, the challenges we face this year are never the same as the challenges we faced last year.

That’s why you need friends. Whether it is your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table, your other franchisees or my team here at head office, they’ll always be there with advice, insight – and the occasional reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously…

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Dear Prime Minister…


Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

This week I wanted to start with, ‘The dust has settled and we can get back to normal…’ But, apparently not: still no deal with the DUP and a Queen’s Speech which roughly translated as, ‘Sort it yourselves, I’m off to Ascot.’

Apparently many Conservative MPs are privately admitting to disappointment at the way the Prime Minister has handled the talks with the DUP. Ah well, it’s not as though she has any major negotiations coming up…

But sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

That’s it. Except that if you’re still struggling to cobble a government together give me a ring. I know plenty of owners of SME’s who are first-rate negotiators. 10 members of the DUP to sort out? They’d do it before breakfast…

Best regards

Ed

The Road to 2017


Last week Keaton Jennings made his debut for England, playing against India in Mumbai.

He was dropped off the 21st ball of the day. At the time he’d made 0. Had the catch been taken, he couldn’t have made a worse start to his test career. But it wasn’t – and by the end of the day Jennings was the hero, scoring 112 – only the 19th England player to make a hundred on debut.

Listening to a recap of the first day’s play one of the summarisers made a really important point: even if Jennings had made 0, even if he’d failed in his first few innings, he still looked right. ‘We get too focused on outcomes in very small samples,’ he said.

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That’s something to keep in mind as you head into 2017. You’ve now made – or you’re close to finalising – your plans for the year ahead. You’re convinced they’re the right plans. You’ve run them past your colleagues and in January you’ll do the same with your fellow Board members. Come Tuesday January 3rd they’re the plans that will guide you through the year.

So don’t lose heart if you get a duck in January. If the plans don’t work immediately, don’t rip them up. Refine, tweak, adjust, get outside the line of off stump: but remember that the first month of the year – like the first steps in building a business or the first few innings in a test career – is a ‘very small sample.’

Anyway, the end of 2016 is approaching. You may now be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. You may carelessly think, ‘Phew, thank the Lord that’s over. Leicester City, Brexit, Trump… Surely we can’t have another year that’s so unpredictable?’

‘Yes we can,’ is the answer to that question: I suspect there may be quite a few twists, turns and bumps along the road in 2017. Domestically Brexit will be triggered: how it will end, no-one (least of all the Government) knows. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Theresa May call a General Election next year, Fixed Term Parliament Act or not…

But it’s my colleagues in TAB Europe who’ll see their countries become the focus of attention next year. March brings a General Election in Holland with the far-right Freedom Party currently on course to become the largest single party. The French Presidential election is in April/May – the signs are that it will be fought out between Marine le Pen of the Front National and the likely winner, the right’s self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Fillon.

And then in September there are elections in Germany: Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term, but she will surely come under plenty of pressure from the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

May you live in interesting times’ as the supposedly-Chinese curse has it. I suspect we’ll look back on 2017 and decide that ‘interesting’ was an understatement. So next year will not be a year to take your eye off the ball. No, don’t panic if your plans are not on track by January 31st. Even if the world changes so much next year that you need to completely re-write your original plans, remember the words of Dwight D Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What you will need to do next year is keep a close watch on your metrics: the two or three key statistics, ratios or measurements that absolutely determine the health of your business – the ‘pulse’ that I’ve talked about in previous posts.

Through December I’ve had the remarkably enjoyable job of listening to TAB members reflect on the past year: I’m delighted to say that far more has gone right than has gone wrong. Has there been a common thread running through the success stories – apart from measuring those key metrics?

Yes, I think there has. ‘Resilience’ and ‘consistency’ are the two words that come to mind: TAB members have consistently done the right thing and stayed true to their beliefs and their vision. And as a result, they’re reaping the rewards.

So 2017 will be challenging: I suspect the old PEST analysis will be wheeled out several times. But like all years, it will also be full of opportunities: and however challenging, the plans you’ve made, the metrics you measure and the support of your TAB colleagues will ensure that you couldn’t be in better shape to greet the coming year…

A Glimpse of the Future


I love my job: the opportunity it gives me to say “this is how it could be” – to see someone recognise the possibilities in their life and their work – is immensely fulfilling.

That’s a quote from last week’s post – and the inspiration for those two lines came from the second episode of Westworld.

One scene really struck a chord with me: it went to the heart of everything I do, and I’d like to expand on it this week.

I’m aware some of you may not have seen Westworld, so I’ll tread carefully. In the scene the increasingly desperate writer, Sizemore, presents a scheme for Westworld’s ‘greatest narrative yet.’ There’ll be maidens to seduce, Indians to kill and unnamed horrors that I’m not going to mention in a Friday morning blog post.

“Above all,” claims Sizemore, “It’ll show the guests who they really are.”

He’s shot down by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the owner of Westworld.

The guests aren’t looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

Sometimes you’re watching a film, reading a book or listening to a song and there’s a line that absolutely hits home. That’s how it was for me last Tuesday. Hopkins captured not only the essence of Westworld, but also the essence of what I do for a living.

The entrepreneurs I speak to aren’t looking to be told who they are, or where their business is now. They already know that. They want a glimpse of who they could be: of how far they could take their business – and how far the business could take them.

The first time I meet someone, that’s all I can offer – a glimpse.

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What do I want in return? First and foremost, I want an entrepreneur with courage. Someone who – to quote Bobby Kennedy – is willing “not to see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ But to see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’”

So it’s not someone who wants to gamble on the future, or even someone who’s endlessly positive and always sees the glass as half-full. What I’m looking for is an open mind: a willingness to step outside their comfort zone and the realisation (even though they might not be acting on it then) that you cannot become the person you want to be by continuing to be the person you are.

My job is to say, ‘”This is how it could be, for you and the company.”

I’m giving the entrepreneur permission to think about the future: I’m saying, “There’s the door, it’s OK to walk through it.”

In one of his TED talks Simon Sinek makes a significant point: Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a plan’ – much less, ‘I have a business plan’ – he said “I have a dream.”

Giving people permission to dream – and a setting in which they can dream – is what a great TAB board does. Make no mistake, sitting there at your desk, being the person you’ve always been, isn’t conducive to dreaming. In order to think differently – to see things as they could be – you need to move out of your everyday environment.

Good leaders spend their time encouraging others: giving them the means and the encouragement to grow. But someone needs to tell the leaders they can grow as well: that it’s OK for them to dream, that they don’t always need to be the detached pragmatist running the company. That they can be who they could be.

So when I say, “This is how it could be” I’m opening the door and offering a glimpse of what’s on the other side. Hopefully the entrepreneur will walk through the door, where she’ll find half a dozen like-minded people waiting for her.

But going through that door can be painful. Because you’ll need to have a couple of conversations: one with your team, admitting that maybe you don’t have all the answers. And one – which I’ll tackle next week – with your spouse or partner, saying that you have room to grow: that you’ve had a dream, and you’re going to pursue it…

Nine Pregnant Women


One of the things I do every other Wednesday is read Suzanne Burnett’s blog.

Many people reading this will know Suzanne – a mixture of successful businesswoman and farmer’s wife with a healthy dollop of insight and common sense. And this week, with a quote in her blog that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s from legendary American investor Warren Buffet:

No matter how great the talents or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t make a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant.

The year is ticking by. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, now is the time to start making plans for next year. But plans – not ‘wish list’ – is the key word.

Remember that it’s ‘SMART:’ specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And the most important word in there is ‘realistic.’

Over the years – both in the corporate world and as owner of TAB York – I’ve seen thousands of business plans produced at this time of year. By March of the following year a significant number of those plans lay abandoned, hastily pushed to the back of the filing cabinet, their creators denying all responsibility for them.

And the main reason for that was simple: the goals and targets weren’t realistic – and it had quickly become apparent that they weren’t realistic.

But faced with that blank piece of paper the temptation to be too ambitious – or to please the boss peering over your shoulder – is almost overwhelming.

Yes, yes, I know. ‘Better to shoot at the moon and hit an eagle.’ But sometimes we need to put Norman Vincent Peale on hold and listen to Thoreau as well: ‘If you build your castles in the air that’s where they should be: now put the foundations under them.’

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Or as Warren Buffet said, ‘some things take time.’

Many TAB members have made tremendous strides this year: may will do the same in 2017. But there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘No. Next year’s a year when we need to put the foundations in place for 2018.’

One of the key factors in building a successful team – both inside and outside your business – is finding people who’ll tell you the truth. I love my job: the opportunity it gives me to say “this is how it could be” – to see someone recognise the possibilities in their life and their work – is immensely fulfilling. But I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t unfailingly honest with people. And sometimes that means urging caution: if the immediate job is to fix the cash-flow, nothing matters until that’s done.

So as well as holding up a mirror saying ‘this is how it could be,’ sometimes I have to say, ‘this is how it really is. Let’s fix it.’

As you may have noticed, the debate about Brexit rumbles on. As I write, the legality of invoking Article 50 is being tested in the courts. Clinton and Trump are having a mild-mannered disagreement. Russia, China… the world is going to be a challenging place in 2017 and if that coincides with a year of consolidation for your business, that’s fine. I’ll support you 100% of the way.

No business is on a constantly upward path. At some time we all need to pause and consolidate before we jump to the next level. Almost always, business growth is a series of steps – in turnover, staffing levels and the quality of your team.

It’s my job – helped by your colleagues round the TAB table – to help you make those steps, and to help you recognise the right time to take the steps. So don’t worry if it isn’t next year: setting unrealistic and over-ambitious goals might satisfy your ego in October, but it could cost you a whole year when you quietly shelve the plans in March.

No, you can’t make a baby in a month. And you can’t build a business in one unrealistic year: everything worthwhile takes time.

It’ll Never be Time for the Pipe and Slippers…


Friday September 23rd. And after today, only 11 weeks of the year left. So yes, any minute now I’m going to start looking round the TAB boardroom table and suggest you start making plans for next year.

The time of year for looking ahead is approaching – but for some TAB members, ‘looking ahead’ is starting to take on a slightly different meaning. And it’s no surprise…

It’s more than six years since I started TAB York. As I check the boardroom tables, I see plenty of people who’ve become lifelong friends – but I also see rather more grey hair: or – in some cases – significantly less hair…

Yes, the thoughts of some members are turning towards exit strategies, what they’ll do when they’re not building a business and – ultimately – their legacy.

Well, maybe we should take a leaf out of Charles Eugster’s book…

Charles is 97, and holds the indoor and outdoor 200m and 400m world records for men over 95. He worked as a dentist until he was 75 and – despite a small pause in his 80s – has never stopped working. He still goes to the office in Zurich every day, before training in the afternoon. And Charles comfortably wins my ‘Positive Thinker of the Year’ award:

Even at 87 I wanted an Adonis body, in order to turn the heads of the sexy, young 70-year-old girls on the beach.

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Dr Charles Eugster (87) who has become one of the worlds oldest wakeboarders today when he was given his first lesson at the Ten-80 Wakeboarding School in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Credit: Shaun Fellows / newsteam.co.uk 25/5/2007

More seriously Charles Eugster says that he is “not chasing youthfulness. I’m chasing health.” Retirement, he says, “is a financial disaster and a health catastrophe.”

In many ways this was one of the most interesting articles I’d read all year – and I’d add ‘psychological’ to ‘financial’ and ‘health.’

The sentiments chime with what so many of my friends and clients are saying, and echo an underlying theme from the TAB Conference in Denver.

“I’m not intending to retire any time soon, Ed, if at all,” is a phrase I hear over and over again. No-one, it seems, is thinking of their pipe, slippers and Bake Off.

“I’m going to do a lot less in the business and a lot of other things,” is the consensus – with ‘other things’ covering charitable work, non-executive directorships, and mentoring students and start-ups.

I’ve just finished reading Finish Big by Bo Burlingham: ‘how great entrepreneurs exit their companies on top.’

Burlingham talks about entrepreneurs being defined by their place in the world: specifically by how they see themselves in the community. Unsurprisingly, 66% of entrepreneurs who exit their business “experience profound regret afterwards” – and a large part of that is the feeling that they’re no longer making a contribution.

Back to Charles Eugster and his Adonis body. He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s using his vanity as a motivating factor. And why not? Feeling that you’re valued and appreciated is an integral part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It’s no wonder that 66% of entrepreneurs experience profound regret. They’ve built a business, they’ve a wealth of wisdom, experience and knowledge and now suddenly – unless they plan for it – nobody wants to talk to them. Despite all they’ve achieved, they’re no longer defined by their business, they no longer feel valued.

So TAB York is not only about you and your business, or your work/life balance as you’re building the business. It’s not just about immediate problems and next year’s plans – it’s about what comes afterwards as well. It’s about leaving a legacy – for yourself and for the community.

PS I’m sorry, I had to check. Charles Eugster’s time for the 200m is 55.48 seconds. That’s three times longer than Usain Bolt’s time – but it’s roughly 8 minute mile pace. Well, well, there’s a challenge and an interesting ice-breaker for a few TAB meetings. Bring your shorts, ladies and gentlemen; let’s see who’s slower than a 97 year old…

Thoughts from a Mile High


As you read this I’m in Denver: the end of August, and time once again for the annual Alternative Board conference.

This year there are more of us than ever from the UK, and we’re joined by TAB colleagues from Germany, Austria, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Canada and the US. It feels truly international and I’m absolutely loving it.

I won’t say the conference is the highlight of my year – just in case my wife pops Ed Reid York into Google – but when I sit down in November to plan the following year the last week in August is at the front of my thoughts. I simply love mixing with colleagues from other countries and the exchange of ideas.

In many ways it takes me back to my days at Northumbria University, when I was Chairman of the sexily-named ‘Polyglot,’ the society for foreign language students. These days Polyglot has matured into ‘EU Students at Northumbria:’ it’s clearly sobered up since the days when my definition of ‘international collaboration’ relied heavily on Sangria…

Not that alcohol won’t make a fleeting appearance in Denver. So far the ‘Brit evening’ has featured Pimms, gins, an Irish pub, cocktails, real ale and bowler hats. Despite the best efforts of US counter-intelligence our plans for this week remain a closely guarded secret…

A lot of my American colleagues are old friends now. I first went to Denver in 2009. At the time Dan was seven and Rory four. So mixed in with the views on Brexit – and the unappetising choice between Trump and Clinton – there’ll be a fair amount of catching up with family news as well. And the issues are always the same…

Yep, whether you’re in Denver or Dringhouses, Colorado or Clifton Moor one of your children is having problems at school: your daughter is refusing to eat her vegetables and your teenage son has just come home two hours after he promised to be home.

And isn’t that exactly the same with business?

The conference in Denver will bring TAB franchisees from eight or nine countries together: without exception, their members will have the same problems.

Yes, local legislation may alter the fine detail, but the wider principles – and the worries – are the same the world over.

• How do I achieve what I’m capable of achieving?
• How do I stay in control of the business and make sure the business doesn’t control me?
• And how do I keep my work/life balance truly balanced?

And so on… The more time I spend working with entrepreneurs the more the common threads emerge – wherever the entrepreneur is based. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose needs a business equivalent.

I’ll be back in the UK after the Bank Holiday and next week’s post will be dated September. Is that a sign of me getting older? This year seems to have flown past. Then again I’ve a friend who’s now into his eighties. “Make the most of it, Ed,” he always says to me. “By the time you’re my age you’re having breakfast every half hour.”

I certainly do intend to ‘make the most of it’ – starting with the last four months of 2016. In many ways the September to December period is the most important part of the year. It’s the four months that’ll see you hit your targets for the full year, and it’s the time to lay all the groundwork for the following year – which I’m absolutely certain will be helped by the insights, wisdom and experience of my TAB colleagues from around the world.

Have a great bank holiday weekend.

Why is Starbucks so Successful?


Last week the blog made a simple claim – you don’t need to be outstanding to be successful – and I used the Howard Schultz/Starbucks story for much of the background.

So is Starbucks outstanding? If you use coffee as your yardstick, then the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I doubt that more than five people reading this blog would name Starbucks as their favourite place to grab a coffee. Give me thirty seconds and I can list half a dozen places where the coffee/cake/ambience/service – or all four – are better.

But those half dozen places are all one-offs. They’re successful – but on a small scale. There are not 23,043 of them around the world, up from 21,366 last year and 19,767 in 2014. In 2015 842 of those Starbucks outlets were in the UK, split more or less evenly between company-operated and licenced stores. Revenue and profits continue to grow strongly.

By any standards, that’s a success story. If ever there was a company that knew where it was going and paid attention to its KPIs, it’s Starbucks. Remember, we’re not taking about apps, iPhones or technology here: we’re talking about cups of coffee.

But why is Starbucks so successful? Ask Google and the search engine returns 12.4m results, so I’m not the first person to wonder.

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…And there are plenty of articles as well, many of them extolling exemplary qualities. Start small, expand carefully. Leadership, be efficient, training… But those are simply good management in any business. Based on my own career – hundreds of meetings in hundreds of coffee shops – here are three Starbucks qualities that really stand out for me.

Remorseless attention to detail. Howard Schultz is famous for this – and if you want to read a case-study in getting the little things right, read this book by journalist Taylor Clark. Let me pick up on just one example: the tables are round. Why?

So that if you’re on your own, you don’t feel awkward. Someone has to arrive first for the meeting – and even a 1:1 needs a table for four. But sitting at a rectangular table with three empty chairs feels downright awkward. You can’t put your finger on why you didn’t have the meeting in the other coffee shop; Starbucks just felt more comfortable.

This attention to detail extends to the pictures, the length of the counter, the height of the window seats. If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then there’s a lot of genius in the layout of a Starbucks.

Secondly, consider the cups: short, tall, grande, venti and trenta. Starbucks doesn’t do regular, it doesn’t do medium. Supposedly three out of the five cup sizes are in a foreign language to cater to the ‘collegiate’ needs of Starbucks’ clientele. Howard Shultz wanted to foster a feeling of belonging, of exclusivity. He wanted Starbucks to be an experience, in the same way that Disney was an experience.

Lastly, Starbucks innovates. Use of first names when you’re ordering your coffee; among the first to adopt mobile payments and Starbucks has worked with PayPal to create its own mobile payment app.

So small wonder that there are more than 23,000 outlets around the world: the coffee may not be better in Starbucks, but the relentless attention to detail, appreciation of their customers and willingness to innovate has produced one of the world’s best known and most valuable brands, with a market capitalisation of $85bn.

If it works for Starbucks, it can work for you: damn it, all they do is sell coffee and cake…

The Only Certainty is Uncertainty


From the Daily Mail: 24th June 2017

“What on earth were we worried about?” That was the triumphant cry from Prime Minister Michael Gove yesterday as he celebrated ‘Independence Day’ – the first anniversary of the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union. “What do we see now?” he asked to loud cheers on the Conservative benches. “The pound riding high, the stock market at a record level, small firms liberated from the shackles of Brussels’ red tape and free to recruit. Foreign firms rushing to invest in ‘the Switzerland of Northern Europe.’ The motion to make June 23rd a national holiday was passed by a majority of 378, with only the SNP and the handful of Labour MPs remaining after last month’s general election voting against. Celebrating with a pint of Late Knights’ Worm Catcher, Lord Farage said it was “a wonderful day for ordinary British people.”

From the Guardian: 24th June 2017

“I propose these measures to the House with a heavy heart,” said Chancellor of the Exchequer Nicola Sturgeon as she announced more tax rises and further austerity measures in her second emergency Budget of the year. “Exactly twelve months has passed, Mr Speaker, since we took the ridiculous and xenophobic decision to leave the EU. We now see the pound approaching parity with the dollar, the stock market plunging and unemployment rocketing.” Prime Minster Dan Jarvis – who seems to have aged ten years in the six months since the SNP/Labour coalition came to power – looked on with a pained expression. He is back in Brussels tomorrow as he tries to negotiate Britain’s re-entry to the EU, but must know that Angela Merkel and the German bankers will make the UK pay a heavy price.

Two scenarios, each equally unlikely.

But this time last week anyone predicting a lame-duck Prime Minister, an even lamer Leader of the Opposition and thirty shadow cabinet resignations in one day would have been advised to increase their medication.

Given the outcome of the Referendum – and the consequent fall-out – we can say goodbye to any hint of certainty for the next few weeks, and possibly for a good deal longer.

…Which is going to make running your SME extremely difficult. Big companies will be reluctant to commit to orders, fuel costs will increase as the pound falls against the dollar and – I suspect – some banks are going to be unwilling to lend as they watch their own share prices drift south.

Uncertainty-is-an-uncomfortable

My question last week was, ‘Does Brexit Really Matter?’ I stand by my thesis that five or ten years from now it will not be the most significant factor in the success of your business or your personal life. But in the short term there will be some very difficult questions for owners of SMEs to deal with.

Confidence, costs and the availability of capital will certainly be three of them – but there’s a fourth, highlighted by this article on the BBC website. Will the pool of talent dry up? When you need to hire someone outstanding to drive your business forward, will there be anyone left in the UK? And if there is, will a small business in North Yorkshire be able to compete?

I was talking to a friend of mine on Monday. “My son’s graduated on Friday,” he said. “Stellar degree from a top university. And now he tells me that he’s far more likely to work abroad.”

I suspect that conversation is being repeated up and down the country. And for the owner of a SME it’s a double whammy. Not only might your top talent move abroad, there might not be anyone around to replace them.

Hopefully you’ve now received (and read, obviously!) TAB’s ‘top tips in the light of the Brexit vote.’ One of those tips is simple: reassure your team, especially if you have EU nationals among them. Over the next 12 months the people you work with are going to be more valuable than ever – and more coveted by your competitors.

As everyone knows, I voted Remain. But living and voting in a democracy means you don’t always get the result you want. Now we have to get on with it. I hope – and believe – that there’ll be goodwill on both sides and that the sensible politicians in the UK and the EU will hold sway. But in the short term, the waters will be choppy. One captain may have resigned: those of us running SMEs don’t have that option. We’ll get through it – but a key part of that will be protecting, nurturing and retaining our teams.

Why You Need a Longer To-Do List


We’re into April – and the Blog is approaching its sixth birthday. That’s something close to 300 posts and nearly 200,000 words.

Which three word combination has appeared most frequently? I’ve no way of telling, but I sincerely hope it’s ‘work/life balance.’ But there are three more little words that won’t be far behind: the ones that haunt all of us. Yep, I’m talking about the ‘to-do list.’

However you keep it – on your phone, in Evernote or on a pleasantly retro piece of paper – the to-do list dominates our lives.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the trap we all occasionally fall into – scoring a few quick wins at the bottom while the most important thing on it remains ominously un-ticked. Let’s also ignore the need to prioritise the damn thing and to make sure that ‘life’ is every bit as well represented as ‘work.’

Let’s just look at one thing: the sheer length of your to-do list. And let me now make the vast majority of you splutter on your cornflakes or hurl your coffee at the screen in annoyance.

Pink+panther+to+do+list_cf2486_4742018

Because I’m going to suggest that your to-do list should be longer.

And that if it was, you’d be even more productive…

Let me use a simple example: ‘plan next year.’ Another three little words that will have appeared on all our to-do lists at some point in the not-too-distant past.

But what does ‘plan next year’ really mean…

Once you go to work you realise that ‘plan next year’ contains a series of questions:

  • What do we want to achieve next year?
  • So what are the quarterly targets we need to reach to do this?
  • What does this mean for staffing levels?
  • Do we need to cut costs? Or raise more investment?
  • What advertising and marketing do we need to do?
  • And how are all these plans going to impact on the cash flow?

All these points clearly impact on your to-do list: but suddenly one big task – made even more difficult because it is so vague – can be broken down into a series of small, precise, achievable steps:

  • Decide key targets/goals for next year
  • Determine necessary quarterly targets
  • Review staffing levels in light of targets
  • Plan advertising & marketing strategy for next year
  • Prepare business plan and cash flow forecast
  • Make appointment with bank

There are days when the to-do list fills everyone with dread: but the dread comes not from the length of the list, but from filling it with things we have no chance of achieving. If ‘plan next year’ is on the list with a host of client work and ‘Nativity Play at 2:30’ then you haven’t a hope of doing it. You won’t even start it.

You do have a hope of determining your key goals for next year. Or working backwards to your quarterly targets. What you’ll do by breaking your to-do list down into smaller segments is achieve something – instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s in front of you.

There are two other reasons for breaking the list down. If you go home at the end of the day and ‘plan next year’ is still on your list it’s going to cause you pain. And it’s going to cause you more pain when you see it again the next morning. But if you go home with your key targets identified and crossed off the list… That’s an entirely different feeling.

Secondly, your to-do list isn’t a wish list: it is – or should be – something that reflects your overall plan for the year or the quarter. And that plan requires specific actions – ‘decide key targets’ – not vague pipedreams like ‘plan next year.’

None of this advice is revolutionary. You’ve almost certainly heard or read it before. After all, it’s only eating the elephant one bite at a time. But we all slip back into bad habits and trust me, this works. It may be counter-intuitive but making your to-do list longer means you’ll ultimately get big things done faster and achieve more. And that’s what we all want…