Long White Beards are not Mandatory

Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.
I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…
Without wishing to sound old – but policeman definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.
That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.
Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?
Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.
Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.
This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.
I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.


A Brave New World – at least for TAB Members

Clearly I am going mad. That’s the only possible explanation for a world in which people phone the police because their local KFC has run out of chicken. It’s enough to turn a man into Disgusted of South Milford and make him write to the Telegraph…

Assuming the nation survives being rocked to its foundations by the bargain bucket turning into the empty bucket there are rather more serious issues to deal with. Theresa May has just announced a ‘far reaching review’ of the student loan system. As our two boys get older it’s a subject I increasingly read about – and as far as I can see the current student loan system is broken. It must be the only loan where you can make your contractual payments and still see your debt increasing. Shylock would have been green with envy.

Meanwhile the Government is selling student loan debt for 50p in the pound, having already written off around £7bn – a sum equivalent to the capital budget of the NHS. The current system appears to work for neither borrower nor lender.

So some fairly shabby decision making in both big business and Government. Thank goodness artificial intelligence is marching to the rescue. Decision to make in your own business? Sit back, leave it to machine learning and the algorithms and know you’ll have the right decision in the time it previously took to sharpen your pencil.

When you first contemplate robotics, machine learning & Artificial Intelligence the headlines are nothing but doom and gloom. Robots are coming for financial services jobs first. AI to cut a swathe through middle management.


And, most chillingly of all, the report from management consultants McKinsey that AI and robotics will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030. AI and robotics undoubtedly will take plenty of jobs. A robot arm can dispense your fries perfectly well – clearly not your chicken though. It doesn’t get sick, doesn’t need a holiday and most certainly doesn’t need including in the company pension scheme.

But let’s dig a little deeper: do technological changes necessarily lead to unemployment and – just as importantly – what do these changes mean for those of us running a business? At the beginning of the 19th Century the Luddites began smashing up weaving machinery, fearing that the traditional skills would be lost and – closer to home – that they’d lose their jobs. Mill owners took to shooting the protesters and the movement was only ultimately supressed with military force. There have been plenty of periods of unemployment in the ensuing 200 years – and all too often the first reaction has been to blame the machines.

There is plenty of evidence though, that technology creates as many jobs as it destroys. There is not a finite amount of labour: it does not follow that because technology removes one job, someone is irreversibly unemployed. The same technology may well create another job. In fact, a recent report on Silicon Valley concluded that for every job lost to automation and AI, four were created.

So where should you work if you don’t want a robot to steal your job? The answer – according to an article in City AM and sitting nicely with Silicon Valley – is in the creative sector, which is forecast to create 1,000 ‘robot-proof’ jobs a week right up to 2030. The creative sector has grown twice as fast as other sectors in this decade, and London now has 90,000 creative businesses. Clearly plenty of those are going to be one-man businesses but that is still a significant number and an increasingly important contribution to UK plc.

But it’s not just the creative sector that offers protection against the march of robots and AI. There’s also the small matter of starting your own business: never say never, but it is hard to see a time when a machine will replicate the drive, desire, enthusiasm – and potential to create wealth – of the entrepreneur, especially those sitting round TAB tables up and down the UK.

As a few of you know, I have just been away for a week’s skiing. A holiday always gives you time to think – and not always about why your sons are going downhill far faster than you are. Change is undoubtedly coming and change will be – to use the current buzzword – ‘disruptive.’ Some companies will be disrupted right out of business. But I am absolutely convinced that no group of entrepreneurs is better equipped to meet, and benefit from, change that those in TAB UK. Yes, they’re awash with drive, desire and enthusiasm – but also with a willingness to question and accept new ways of doing things. As Robert Kennedy famously said, “To see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’”

Which sadly, brings me back to government and education. At the weekend, I was watching this short video featuring a clip from Jack Ma, co-founder and CEO of Alibaba. His message was short and simple: manufacturing no longer equals jobs. As he put it, “It’s not made in China, it’s made on the internet.” In the same way that we urgently need to reform student loans, so we urgently need to reform education. It depresses me to see that so much of the work Dan and Rory do is the same work that I did.

We need our leaders to act like TAB members: accept the change that is coming and prepare for it. To not only ask ‘Why not?’ but also to ask, ‘What can we do to be ready for it?’

Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale

Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.


Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.

Our Glass is Half Full

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.

A recent report from accountants UHY Hacker Young revealed that more businesses were established in the UK last year than in any of the world’s other developed economies. Hacker Young put the number of new businesses at 218,000 – a 6% increase on 2015.

But across the road at the Institute of Directors they are three times as bullish, saying that 650,000 businesses were created last year. I suspect that Hacker Young are counting limited companies and the IoD are counting companies and those registering as self-employed. Whatever way you look at the stats and whatever measure you choose, it’s a remarkable statement of confidence in both the individual entrepreneur’s determination to succeed and the future of the UK.


And yes, of course confidence comes naturally to an entrepreneur. What is remarkable – and heart-warming – is not just the number of start-ups but the absolute conviction that they will succeed. In the IoD survey 83% of those who replied said they felt optimistic about next year – whereas just 5% were optimistic about the wider UK economy.

Of course concerns remain – chief among them being lack of access to finance and lack of information about the government help available for start-ups and those looking to expand their businesses. Awareness of the British Business Bank, for example, was just 17%. Clearly the Government needs to do rather more to get its message across…

Closer to home, I see the same optimism around the TAB boardroom tables. Optimism, coupled with a steely determination to make it happen. Everyone acknowledges that the road is going to be bumpy – but everyone in the TAB family is determined that next year will be an outstanding success.

As for me, twelve months ago I was the owner of TAB York – and someone who was keeping very quiet about some very complicated negotiations. You all now know how they turned out: to say that 2017 has been an eventful year for me is one of the year’s great understatements!

However much I thought I knew what running TAB UK would be like the reality has been very different. Easier than TAB York? Harder? Neither: simply very different and very exciting – and I see more opportunities for us to grow with every passing day.

I’ve been especially struck by how much our TAB members up and down the UK want to be part of the wider TAB community and how keen they are to meet other TAB members, whether that’s from their own region, the wider UK or internationally.

The ten months since February have been a sharp learning curve for me and I couldn’t have climbed the curve without the support of my brilliant co-director Mags, the amazing team at the Harrogate head office or – as always – the love, support and encouragement of my team at home. I hope all of you know how much I appreciate you.

…Which brings me, misty eyed, to the change I was going to announce. I have been writing this blog every week since 2010. I have absolutely enjoyed it and if you’d told me in 2010 that I could have found something to write about every week for roughly 7½ years I’d have said you were mad. Proof positive that, one bite at a time, you can eat the elephant…

However, my new role as MD of TAB UK has afforded me a broader canvas than writing as owner of TAB York. I hope you’ve noticed the posts becoming slightly longer and taking a wider view of the economy and the future. Necessarily these longer posts take more writing, so from next year I’m going to move to updating the blog fortnightly, starting – after a good break for Xmas and New Year – on Friday January 12th. I’m also going to have more of a theme running through the blog: alternating posts between what you might loosely term an ‘overview’ of business and the economy, with a TAB view of the entrepreneur’s journey – from making the decision to go it alone to signing the final contract and walking into the sunset…

In the meantime have a wonderful Christmas and – on behalf of all of us here at TAB HQ – I hope that 2018 brings everything you would wish for.

The Irresistible Rise of the Entrepreneur

Mid-November. Dark, cold, gloomy. You leave your house in the dark, you come home in the dark. It’s freezing, the fog hangs in the Vale of York – and only the brave travel from Pickering to Whitby without a clove of garlic and a silver bullet in the car…

November is by common consent the most depressing month of the year: which is why I am going to write one of my most upbeat blog posts, celebrating the irresistible – and very optimistic – rise of the British entrepreneur.


It’s not just November: the bickering continues around the Brexit negotiations; the Bank of England have said inflation will remain high, placing more pressure on wages; we have a rudderless Government and an Opposition committed to turning us into Venezuela.

Despite all this, the optimism, endeavour and commitment of the British entrepreneur continue to shine through.

New research from the Hampshire Trust Bank and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has revealed that the number of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK has grown by almost a quarter over the last five years. The FSB now puts the number of private sector businesses at 5.5m.

Leading the way in the CEBR survey was the ‘office administration and business sector’ with the number of SMEs increasing by 76% between 2011 and 2016. Second place went to ‘human health services’ with a 50% rise.

The cynic might retort that this is not real growth; it is simply people becoming virtual assistants or personal trainers.

But it is Friday morning: the glass is not so much half full as running over. Every business has to start somewhere: Apple was once a college dropout building a computer in his garage. Virgin was once someone who left school at 16 selling records in a student magazine.

Small businesses are unquestionably good for the economy – they are innovative, they drive growth and they stimulate local economies. If Tesco want a shop fitting out they use a national firm: if it is the local florist, then there’s work for the local electrician, joiner, glazer and plumber.

Some interesting statistics also came out of HSBC’s second Essence of Enterprise report, which found British entrepreneurs looking to the future with confidence, on average expecting their businesses to grow by 62% over the next five years. Perhaps worryingly though, Britain is creating fewer technology start-ups than other countries – 17% compared to a global average of 24%. (And yet half of our schools still don’t offer a GCSE in Computer Science. Madness, Mrs May, madness…)

Perhaps the most interesting point to emerge from the HSBC report was on motivation. Today’s entrepreneurs are driven not solely by money (sometimes not even by money) but by a desire to have a positive impact on society – something which absolutely chimes with the philosophy of TAB, not just in this country but around the world.

What I find fantastic is that the entrepreneurial flame burns at both ends of the age spectrum. Over the last ten years the number of businesses run by the over 55s has risen by 63% – but that is eclipsed by the number of entrepreneurs past the theoretical retirement age. People over 65 now run 140% more businesses than they did ten years ago.

But if you want to be really encouraged, read this report on the festival of young entrepreneurs which has just taken place in London. It holds out so much hope for the future of the country – although with entrepreneurs as young as nine, it makes me feel positively old.

But someone who is even closer to a new hip (well, hopefully…) is Philip Hammond who, on Wednesday next week, will present the first Autumn Budget. He has a lot to do to build bridges with the small business community: many people are still angry at his ill-conceived raid on the self-employed in the last Budget.

So what do I want to see from the Budget? More than anything I want to see a Budget which shows the Government understands what it means to be an entrepreneur: that they understand the risks – both personal and financial – in setting up a small business. Entrepreneurs and SMEs are not a cash cow to be milked, they are a source of employment, innovation and growth. They are the future of the economy.

Let’s hope that the Chancellor recognises that – or he risks a lot of those very optimistic and ambitious young entrepreneurs deciding that Berlin, Lisbon or San Francisco might be a more attractive place to develop their business…

Big Brother? He’s Sitting on your Desk…

In the old days advertising was very simple. You developed a product and went along to Madison Avenue. You consulted Don Draper – he put his Lucky Strike and his secretary to one side for a few minutes and came up with a catchy slogan. The artwork was done and your ad targeted with laser precision. It went up on a billboard at the side of the interstate: everyone who drove past saw it. In theory…

Fast forward 57 years: last week Facebook announced soaring third quarter profits, bringing in more than $10bn in advertising revenue. Profits for the three months rose to £4.7bn (£3.5bn), which is up 80% on a year ago. Much of that revenue comes from small and medium sized businesses – exactly like ours – which make up the bulk of Facebook’s 6m active advertisers.


Meanwhile Amazon boss Jeff Bezos once again leapfrogged Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world, as Amazon shares surged thanks to Q3 sales being 34% up on the same period last year. Sales were $43.7bn (£33.5bn) compared to $32.7bn in 2016. And if you are wondering how much $43.7bn is – it is equivalent to the economy of Slovenia.

Facebook now generates more advertising revenue than most major TV networks. So why do SMEs advertise in such huge numbers with the company? Why are the projections that ever more businesses will join them? And most importantly, what does the future look like?

In the early days you had a business page on Facebook. ‘No, no, we don’t need to advertise. We’ve a Facebook page.’ Sadly, Facebook business pages have pretty much gone the way of the penny-farthing. ‘Organic reach’ is dying out, with estimates suggesting that less than 1% of a business’s ‘fans’ actually see the updates the business posts.

But businesses still need to advertise – and the first thing that attracts them to Facebook is the sheer scale of the numbers. Facebook has 2.07bn active users – strip out 10% of that figure for duplicate accounts and you still have around a quarter of the world’s population.

More than 1.5bn people log into Facebook every month, with more than a billion now logging in every day. With people spending ever increasing amounts of time on social media – studies suggest that the average American now spends up to 2 hours a day on social networks – there is plenty of time for advertising to connect.

Secondly, advertising on Facebook is cheap – and scalable. You do not have to commit to a billboard or a TV slot. Businesses can set their own budget and ‘dip a toe in the water’ with a spend of £40-50 getting an advertising message in front of 5,000 to 10,000 people. After that, it is scalable: the ad doesn’t work? Scrap it. It does work? Spend more money and increase its reach.

But the real reason advertising on a platform like Facebook is so attractive is the very specific targeting. Businesses can target users with Facebook ads by location, demographics, age, gender, interests, behaviour and connections. Everyone in North Yorkshire between the ages of 25 and 35 interested in being an entrepreneur? No problem: how much would you like to spend?

It’s the same story with Amazon. Once a book store, Amazon is now arguably the world’s most trusted and effective search engine. Marketing technology company Kenshoo reported that 72% of people visit Amazon if they’re planning to buy something online. And why wouldn’t they? The Amazon search engine is fast, it’s accurate – and the product listings page has everything a shopper could want to know: price, descriptions, pictures and reviews.

But even if you don’t buy the product from Amazon, you’ve researched it – and Big Brother has quietly stored the information away, ready to make recommendations next time you drop by.

We all know the feeling of being ‘stalked online.’ You look at something – and seconds later ads for it are following you round the internet. The first time it happened to me (it was for work shirts, honestly) I found it quite unnerving: now it is an accepted part of being online – but it still leaves me feeling that Big Brother is watching me. That feeling is only going to increase – and if Amazon and Facebook ever merge then believing in privacy will be like believing that the Earth is flat.

So what does the future look like? As I wrote last week, ‘algorithms will do the heavy lifting.’ The buzzwords are ‘deep learning’ and ‘machine learning’ and the ‘machines’ are only going to go on learning. However good you think your insight is, it won’t be as good as the Amazon/Facebook algorithm. My desire for work shirts has been noted – and will never be forgotten.

Over the next ten years, advertising will move from communicating to predicting. Content and advertising will be so intertwined that we will not be able to tell which is which. As brands learn more and more about you, your emotional commitment to them will strengthen: a recent study by neuroscientist Paul Zak claimed that three out of eight people already love their favourite brand more than they love their spouse. (Checks to see if wife is reading over his shoulder…)

And advertisers will know exactly how much we like their brands because our pulses (via our smart watches) will tell them. And with that chilling thought I’ll leave you to enjoy the weekend. Just remember to take your watch off before you log on to Facebook…

Just Eaten?

When Dav and I were first married we’d often watch a video on a Saturday night. “Why don’t we stay in and watch a film tonight?” my lovely wife would say.

What she meant was, ‘Why don’t you drag yourself away from the fire, put your coat on, drive down to Blockbuster, rent a video – and a tub of ice-cream – and bring it home? And then tomorrow you can do exactly the same and take it back.’

…And as the rain lashed down I’d think, ‘There has to be a better way.’ And now there is. Amazon, Netflix, on demand… The idea of going out into the dark and the cold to rent a film is simply ludicrous. Dan and Rory fall about laughing.

Blockbuster? At its peak in 2004 it employed 84,000 people worldwide in more than 9,000 stores. It filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and its last stores were sold the following year.

Until recently, I felt much the same about takeaways. “Oh, I can’t be bothered to cook. Why don’t we have a Chinese or an Indian?” But it wasn’t a takeaway: it was a go-and-collect.


Then the takeaway shops started to deliver – and technology and big business eventually came together in a plethora of Just Eat signs. The company started in Denmark in 2000, is now headquartered in London and operates in 13 countries around the world. It’s just posted a 44% increase in revenue for the third quarter and is the most visible face of our love affair with takeaway food. There are now more than 56,000 takeaways in England, up by 4,000 over the last three years.

So let me pose a question: could Just Eat eat the restaurant industry?

Ever since this blog started in 2010 ‘nothing is impossible’ has been a constant theme running through it. ‘Don’t think it can’t happen because, today, it can.’

So could the restaurant industry – that basic staple of birthdays, anniversaries and targets achieved – be under threat? According to accountants Moore Stephens the answer is yes. They cite the rising cost of imported food because of Brexit and problems with increasing business rates – due to rise by 42% in some parts of London this year – and suggest that 20% of the UK’s restaurants could go out of business.

Factor in the rise and rise of the takeaway and the number could be even higher. ‘Go and collect it’ has become ‘tap the app and have it delivered.’ Eating out means getting changed, booking a table, going into town, one of you can’t drink because you have to drive… “Let’s just stay in, order a takeaway and watch a film” is quick, easy and convenient – and a lot less expensive.

But business rates and Brexit are one thing: a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour is quite another.

And right now the words ‘fundamental shift’ apply everywhere: ‘don’t think it can’t happen because it can’ probably ought to give way to ‘don’t think it can’t happen because it already has.’

Five years from now chatbots will be interacting with your customers, autonomous vehicles will be reducing the need to own a car and machines will be learning. As a recent article in Forbes put it, ‘Algorithms will be doing the heavy lifting.’

…And that’s before we consider voice control. With Alexa – or her second cousin – sitting in every home and on every desk, controlling everything in your home and office with voice commands will be second nature.

It’s easy to see the future glass as half-full. Amazon drones flying overhead delivering everything we need and Just Eat and Deliveroo drivers knocking on the door with all our meals. Throw in the ability to work from home and we may never need to leave the house again.

But you won’t be surprised to know that I see the glass as very much half-full. Yes, change is coming and it will impact areas of our lives and businesses we thought were set in stone. But change always brings opportunity – and who better to capitalise on it than the members of TAB UK?

Strange Habits…

You know how it is… You go online to look at one thing, you see a link, click another link and before you know it you’re reading about men in ice-baths…

I’ve written previously about business pitches delivered from freezing water and how it concentrates the mind. Here’s someone else who says freezing water helps him focus – albeit from the far more gentle climes of Silicon Valley.

Every morning Tim Kendall, President of Pinterest (current valuation £9bn), wanders on to his back deck and climbs into a freezer full of water. “A bath with ice wasn’t quite cold enough,” he says. Famous for wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘focus’ on it – “if you do fewer things you can do those things much better” – Kendall claims that his daily dip in the freezer, “Gives me a lot of energy, wakes me up, and resets my mind and body.”

Having read that – and being in research-useless-things-online mode – I wondered if other successful entrepreneurs had equally strange habits. Was there anything we could usefully import to the UK? (Although anyone who’s been to Wetherby races in January will regard an ice bath as positively tropical…)

We may as well start at the top with the richest man in the world. When Bill Gates started Microsoft he liked to keep a check of who was in the office – so he memorised everyone’s number plate. As Microsoft now employs around 120,000 people we may safely assume he’s abandoned that habit… but apparently Gates still takes to his rocking chair when he needs to focus or when he needs to disconnect – a habit which apparently goes back to his days at Harvard, when he’d do long stretches of coding in a rocking chair.

‘The richest man in the world…’ Unless Amazon’s shares have shot up this morning. Jeff Bezos writes a six page memo before every management meeting: everyone then has to sit in silence for 30 minutes and read the memo. Presumably allowing them to say, “Yup, all good with me, boss,” after 30 minutes and 10 seconds…

Bezos also instigated the two-pizza rule. When he started Amazon he wanted a decentralised company with small teams making the decisions: so the rule was simple – any meeting had to be small enough so that everyone there could be fed with two pizzas. (As you might guess there are now any number of scholarly articles on the ‘two pizza rule…’)

Food takes us very neatly to Steve Jobs. Not only was the former boss of Apple famous for wearing the same clothes – black jeans, black jumper – every day, he also went through obsessive periods with his food, eating nothing but apples or carrots for weeks at a time. Apparently Jobs once ate so many carrots that he turned a vibrant shade of orange.


And there’s a link we can’t ignore. Speaking of bright orange people Donald Trump has a hatred of shaking hands – he calls it “a barbaric ritual” – and always carries a hand sanitizer with him. You just pressed the nuclear button, Mr President. No £$%*! I thought that was the hand gel dispenser…

Back to eating habits: Henry Ford ate the weeds from his garden, while Mark Zuckerberg had a year when he would only eat meat that he had killed himself. Charles Darwin tried to eat every animal he discovered and the only-just-late Hugh Hefner would only eat food prepared at the Playboy Mansion – even in a restaurant. And Stephen King always eats a slice of cheesecake before he sits down to write, which may explain why the film rights to this blog remain mysteriously unsold…

Meanwhile Novak Djokovic follows a strict gluten-free, vegan diet and has been known to eat grass. After beating Rafa Nadal in 2011 he celebrated by snacking on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Finally, proving the old adage that ‘what you can measure you can control’ former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wanted to create the perfect cupcake: she bought scores of cookbooks and created a spreadsheet – then did the same with the icing. And just in case you’re ever on bake-off, here’s the link you’ll need…

That’s enough from me for this week: I’m off to buy a car number plate – ED 1 should let them know I’m in the office – and go shopping for black jeans and carrots. Oh, and could I apologise in advance to my golfing partners? If I hack out of the long grass to within six inches of the pin next week I may choose to celebrate in an unusual way…

God’s Own County? Or God’s Own Country?

From Catalonia to the Aland Swedes in the north of Europe to Sardinia and Sicily in the south, there seem to be an ever increasing number of demands for independence, greater regional autonomy or simply more local power. Could it be that Yorkshire is now about to join that list? God’s own county may not become God’s own country, but with serious conversations being held about a ‘Yorkshire mayor’ it looks like the region could well be set for much greater control over its own economy, investment and spending.

…And apparently we already have the runners and riders. Mane’s neatly plaited and jig-jogging round the paddock are Ed Balls from the Red Stable and William Hague from the Blue.

At first glance it is – to use the colloquial term – a no-brainer.

Yorkshire’s Gross Domestic Product – roughly £120bn – is equal to that of the Ukraine and bigger than 11 EU countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. Leeds is the largest legal and financial centre outside London – its financial and insurance industry is reckoned to be worth £2.1bn a year. Sheffield has an economy equal to that of Ghana. On the sporting field Yorkshire gained more medals at the Rio Olympics than Canada.

Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland: its GDP is twice that of the whole of Wales. And yet it has the powers of neither.

Liverpool, Manchester and Teesside have directly elected mayors, exercising executive powers. And directly elected mayors are more responsible to the local electorate: they’re in power for four years – they can take the tough decisions that need to be taken. What’s more a local mayor is more recognisable – more of a figurehead, both engaging more people in politics and attracting inward investment. A ‘heavyweight’ like Ed Balls has to be more attractive to foreign companies than, say, the head of the regeneration department at the local council.

Yep, it’s a no-brainer. Roll on the first elections for Yorkshire mayor in 2018.

Wood, Frank Watson, 1862-1953; Alexander Darling, Mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed (1925-1927)

Or maybe not…

Because the more I think about it, the more cautious about the idea I become. Hang on, I’m just going to jump in the car…

I drove from Leeds to London to Birmingham to Liverpool to Manchester and back to Leeds. A round trip of not quite 500 miles. But on that journey I drove through four areas with directly elected mayors – five if Yorkshire follows suit. That’s five directly elected mayors with their attendant salaries, staff and bureaucracies. Many would argue that what this country needs is less government, not more government.

It’s like a business adding layer upon layer of ‘spending and oversight’ committees: ultimately, they’re all costs which have to be borne by the people that produce the wealth.

And I’m not sure that a politician is the answer. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham – both Labour party stalwarts – have washed up in Manchester and Liverpool respectively. Aye, there’s always Mayor of Yorkshire, love. I may have failed at Westminster but t’party has found me a cushy number in Leeds…

No thanks.

If we are to have a Yorkshire mayor, give me someone with business experience: someone like Gary Verity – or better yet, Barry Dodd, someone with experience of business, spending, the LEPs and dealing with politicians.

Mayor of Yorkshire would be a tough gig. Getting Leeds to agree with York is a challenge, before we try and get Sheffield to agree with anyone in West Yorkshire. And then there’s geography. As my former TAB York members on the coast would tell me, Scarborough to Skipton is a three day camel trek.

Money does need spending in Yorkshire, but I have my doubts as to whether a mayor is automatically the right answer. The problem is that the Government seems addicted to expensive gestures, irrespective of their real benefits.

…Which brings me neatly on to HS2. What’s the latest bill? Somewhere north of £50bn – it’s set to be the most expensive railway in the world. I suspect it will cost Elon Musk less money to colonise Mars. Let’s spend a fraction of that money and improve the rail link between Leeds and Manchester and Liverpool. An hour stuck in a siding outside Huddersfield would concentrate the new Mayor’s thoughts. At least they’ve stopped calling the trains ‘sprinters…’

You Have Three Months…

Two weeks ago I used a quotation from the late Terry Pratchett as the inspiration for the blog. Struck by the analogy between writing a book and building a business, I wondered if any other writers had some inspiration for us.

Not so much ‘if’ as ‘It…’ That’s the title of Stephen King’s book about a demonic clown which terrorises children in a fictional town in Maine. Whatever you think of the storyline, the film of the same name has just opened – with the third biggest box office opening of the year and largest opening for a horror movie in history. And whatever your view on Stephen King’s writing two facts are indisputable: he’s productive – more than 50 books written – and he’s successful, with around 350m books sold.

So like Terry Pratchett, does King have any insights that we can translate into the business world? ‘Yes’ is the short answer: thirty seconds with Google brings up Stephen King’s ‘Top 20 rules for writers.’

I’m not sure they all translate into business. Number three – ‘don’t use adverbs’ – probably isn’t relevant, I thought confidently. Scanning the list hurriedly I came to number five. ‘Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.’ Right, I’ll try not to do that in this blog what I write every week…

But let me pick out just three points, the first of which is ‘stick to your own style.’ King is counselling against trying to write like John Grisham or Tom Clancy – but the same holds good in business. We all have our heroes of the corporate world: but you cannot run your business like Richard Branson (not, sadly, that he will have much time for business now…) or whichever of the Dragons you want to be this week. You can only run a business in your own style, in your own way and – hopefully with TAB’s help – building on your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses.

‘Write one word at a time.’ That piece of advice almost sounds too obvious to be worth considering: but it has an exact parallel in business. Good years where you demolish your targets don’t just happen: they are made up of good months, good weeks and good days. Success in business is not about consistency of results, it is about consistency of effort. As I have written many times, if you do the right thing every day, the results will come.

But it’s the third point that I think is the most interesting. ‘You have three months,’ says King. ‘The first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.’ By a long book King means 180,000 words, which he aims to write at 2,000 words a day over 90 days – consistency of effort.


Interestingly, the obsession with three months chimes with something I was reading about Tim Ferriss, of 4 Hour Work Week fame. I’ve commented previously on Ferriss not doing what he thinks will make him happy, but what will excite him. He refuses to have long term plans, instead working on what he describes as three to six month ‘experiments.’ Often he has no idea where these experiments will lead: “What’s the worst that can happen?” he says. “You waste a few months and learn a lot while doing it?”

Three months for the first draft of a best seller: three months for an ‘experiment’ that might change your life. And for me, three months is a very effective period for your business. It’s long enough to set targets which have urgency, without being simply today’s to-do list. More importantly, it’s a long enough trial period.

If you still have misgivings about someone after they’ve been doing the job for three months, you’ve probably made the wrong choice. If your latest brainwave isn’t showing clear signs of working after three months, it’s probably best to cut your losses. And if your KPIs are still off-course after the third month, it is most emphatically time to take action – or bring the problem to the next meeting with your TAB colleagues.

Thanks for the reminder, Mr King. ‘You have three months’ is great business advice – and right now those three months will effectively take you to the end of the year. Make the most of them…