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…

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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.

The Biggest River in the World


Do you remember when you first heard of it?

“There’s this company in America. Only sells books. And only sells them online.”

“Really? What’s it called?”

“Amazon, I think.”

“Right. Well good luck with that. I read somewhere that people aren’t reading books any more. And it’s not like this internet thing is going to last…”

You probably had that conversation some time in the late 90s. Just 20 years later Amazon is the biggest online retailer in the world as measured by revenue and market capitalisation. And Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman, president and CEO, is the richest man in the world.

BEZOS

How has Bezos built Amazon to where it is now? And more importantly, are there any lessons we can apply to our rather more modest businesses?

Amazon was founded in July 1994. It was originally called Cadabra, but that name was jettisoned after someone mistakenly heard it as ‘cadaver.’ Bezos also considered calling the company ‘Relentless’ – but that was dismissed for sounding “slightly sinister.”

So why did Bezos settle on Amazon as a name? Because it sounded “exotic and different” and because it was the biggest river in the world and he intended to create the biggest bookstore in the world. “There’s nothing about our model that can’t be copied,” he told a reporter. “McDonald’s got copied and still built a huge, multibillion dollar company. A lot of it comes down to the brand name: they’re more important online than they are in the physical world.”

So lesson number one, brand names are important and lesson number two – not that I’ve ever said this before – the job of a leader is first and foremost to lead, to know where the company is going. “We’re going to create the biggest bookstore in the world.” Good, that’s the destination sorted: and if you want to join me on the journey, that’s fine.

Since then, of course, Amazon has gone on to become rather more than just a bookstore, even going back to a substantial bricks and mortar presence with the purchase of Whole Foods for $13.4bn in 2017.

Now Amazon supplies everything. I am constantly amazed by how many everyday items I buy from them. It simply isn’t worth going shopping – we’ll leave the rights and wrongs of Amazon’s impact on the high street to another day – when I know that Amazon will deliver for free tomorrow. And yes, I still remember the sense of wonderment when I first ordered something late at night and it turned up – as promised – the next day.

There are now more than 100 million members of Amazon Prime: that’s equivalent to 64% of the households in the US and for me it’s lesson number three. Deliver what you promise to deliver, on time, every time.

But the biggest lesson from Amazon is simple. It’s one that all of us in the TAB family know all too well – but it never hurts to be reminded.

No regrets.

When he founded Amazon at the age of 30 Jeff Bezos was a vice-president of a Wall Street brokerage. He was presumably on course for a successful and wealthy career.

But he went west, as a result of what he described as his ‘regret minimisation framework.’ In a 2010 speech at Princeton he described the decision as “the less safe path.”

“I decided I had to give it a shot,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected that I would also be haunted by the decision not to try.”

The company was funded with $100,000 of personal and family money. Within a month of the launch it had already shipped to every US state and to 45 countries. In the first five years customer accounts jumped from 180,000 to 17 million. Sales went from $511,000 to $1.6bn – and Jeff Bezos was one of the world’s richest men.

One final lesson? An absolute focus on your customer. Amazon has always been a company willing to spend money to make money. It failed to make an annual profit in 10 of its first 23 years as it ploughed money back into what Bezos described as a “heads down focus on the customer,” cutting prices, offering free shipping and developing new devices like the Kindle.

Along the way Amazon has revolutionised our shopping habits: the current buzzword, disruption, doesn’t begin to describe it. And like every successful company, plenty of ex-employees have gone on to found very successful companies of their own – always a measure of an entrepreneur’s success.

But none of it would have happened without Jeff Bezos’ regret minimisation framework – his decision to take the less safe path. The poet Robert Frost put it rather more eloquently, in words which speak to every single entrepreneur:

Two roads diverged in a wood and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Don’t Join the Navy. Be a Pirate!


Of course we are always going to shop on the high street. Of course there will always be bank branches in town centres. Marks and Spencer closing branches? Don’t be ridiculous.

Suddenly, so many things that seemed absolute cornerstones of our life are – to use the modern phrase – being ‘disrupted.’

In fact, if you want to predict the future, there’s a very easy way to do it. Think the previously unthinkable.

If I look back to when I started TAB York and started writing this blog, the changes – in a relatively short space of time – have been remarkable. But I am prepared to wager a hefty sum that the pace of change over the next seven years will be far faster than it has been over the last seven.

So if you’re running a business – or planning to start one – then ‘innovate’ and ‘think differently’ have to be right there at the top of your list. As Steve Jobs put it, if you want to be successful, you can’t join the navy: you have to be a pirate.

MerchantsMarauders

So everything is changing.

Or is it? Because according to the hot new business book, 300 years ago things were, well, pretty much the same…

Three centuries ago, the world was surprisingly similar. The establishment was broken, there was a backdrop of international interconnected conflict and millennials of the day worried the rise of technology would crush employment as they knew it. So they left town and created new societies aboard ships – societies that pilfered and raped, yes, but that also included the systems we operate and abide by today.

The book is Be More Pirate, by entrepreneur-turned-author Sam Conniff Allende – you can read more of his views in City AM here.

I’ll take issue with some of his points – I’m fairly certain that it was the Roman legions, not pirates, who first came up with pension schemes and workplace compensation, for example – but he’s absolutely right in suggesting that the old ways of looking at things simply don’t work any more.

Much of what we have taken for granted for so long – as the high streets and the banks will testify – is starting to break.

So where does that leave mentoring and peer group coaching at a time when innovation is more important than ever? Where does that leave The Alternative Board UK?

Mentors, surely, are part of the established order? It will be a fairly safe bet that the mentor will have more grey hair – or less hair – than the person being mentored. It’s easy to think that the mentor will simply say, “Aye well, ’appen it were done this way when I were a lad and there’s nowt new tha’ knows…” Or words to that effect.

And you could very easily make the accusation that a peer board doesn’t encourage innovation. People are drawing on their own tried and trusted experience and – with a board of six or seven – there must be an inclination to find the common ground in the middle.

In my experience, exactly the reverse is true. The one thing a good mentor knows is that there’s a great deal he doesn’t know. He knows that there is plenty that’s new – and keeps up to date with social and technological changes.

And I am constantly amazed by the cutting edge knowledge of TAB members: yes, even the ones with grey (or very little) hair. In fact, far from a TAB board producing a consensus of ‘safe’ advice, exactly the opposite is true. There is a real willingness to think outside the box and look for innovative solutions when you are discussing a different business to your own. To use a pirate analogy, the shackles are off.

It is then the job of the TAB coach – a job they do superbly well – to make sure that nothing is off the table. That the brave, innovative and outright hard questions get asked – and that they are taken seriously and answered.

So yes, the world is changing at an ever-faster pace. But watching a TAB board meet the challenges of that change is an exhilarating and very, very rewarding experience.

The Board members may be a rum bunch, but none of them parrot the company line.

I’m here all week…

Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


You know me. Cutting edge info, state of the art tech, firmly focused on the future.

So let’s go back to 1841. And then take inspiration from Dad’s Army.

Go right back to 1841 and the first census showed that 20% of the UK’s population were engaged in agriculture, and another 20% were in domestic service.

Fast forward a few decades and millions of people were employed in the ‘horse economy.’ They made saddles, shod the horses, built the carriages and – yes – collected the dung.

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

But then Edison invented the long-lasting electric light bulb. Henry Ford brought us mass production of the motor car – and the sons of people who’d been employed in the horse economy became panel beaters, paint sprayers and mechanics.

Fast forward again. Right up to today. And if you work in retail, or you own a shop, then the news this week could not be worse. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), March and April saw an “unprecedented” decline in footfall – the number of people visiting the nations’ shops. Over the two months footfall was down by 4.8%.

The town centre vacancy rate – the number of empty shops – rose to 9.2% with every area of the UK (except Central London) reporting an increase. A spokesman for the BRC said, “Not since the depths of the recession in 2009 has footfall over March and April declined to such a degree. Even then the drop was less severe at 3.8%.”

Are we seeing the slow death of retail? Quite possibly.

Similarly – as I’ve written previously – artificial intelligence and financial technology (aided by blockchain) are going spell the slow death of the high street bank in a great many towns. “Working in a bank, sir,” will no longer be an acceptable answer to your careers master.

The doom-mongers are having a field day. “This time it really is different,” they say, as they welcome the Four Horsemen of the Robocalypse – Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Unemployment and Bankruptcy.

And if you believe the worst forecasts, they’re right.

The darkest claims – from two American economists – suggest that 47% of all jobs could disappear. Using the same methodology the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the figure at closer to 10%.

That is still a massive figure – in round numbers there are 32m people employed in the UK. The social and economic consequences of 3.2m people becoming unemployed do not bear thinking about.

That’s assuming you believe in the ‘Lump of Labour.’ It’s Friday morning and you probably don’t want a large slice of economic theory, so I will deal with it in less than 50 words.

The theory in question is the ‘Lump of Labour’ theory: there is a finite amount of labour (the ‘lump’) that needs doing. If new machines are invented that do some of that labour, then jobs are necessarily lost.

That’s the theory. But as we have seen throughout history, new inventions and new technology create new jobs. Yes, the motor car did serious damage to the horse economy – but ultimately it created more jobs and more wealth than the horse economy could ever have done.

So yes, right now we may be seeing the slow death of retail and the high street banks – but what we are also seeing is simply change – as there has always been change.

And who adapts to change? Entrepreneurs: the people reading the blog this morning.

Changes in technology are going to wipe out jobs. But bright, innovative, hard-working people are going to use those changes to create new jobs. The banks may be going, but fintech (financial technology) will create 100,000 new jobs by the end of the next decade.

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Artificial intelligence ? Let me turn to one of the leading management thinkers of the last century. I refer, of course, to Lance-Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army. As the clips shows, he summed it up perfectly. Artificial intelligence will inevitably render some current jobs irrelevant: but it will open up a host of other avenues. I am certain that both my boys will – at some point in their careers – be working in jobs which simply don’t exist at the moment.

Change is undoubtedly happening at a faster pace than ever before, but change does not necessarily equal bad news. The old cliché about the Chinese character for ‘crisis/change’ being made up of ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ may not (sadly for business trainers up and down the land) be true, but the coming technological changes will offer a plethora of tremendous business opportunities.

And no-one is better placed to profit from that change and those opportunities than the members of TAB UK. All we ask is that the Government creates a climate that fosters innovation and enterprise, that rewards risk and long-term investment in your business. If we have that, then I have absolutely no doubt that TAB members will more than play their part in building the businesses of tomorrow, creating both jobs and wealth.

You’re Never Too Big for TAB


Hmmm… Vladimir Putin is effectively President for life. Xi Jinping President for life as well. With the annual congress of the People’s Alternative Board being held this week a chap could get ideas

Sadly there is a rather more serious idea that I want to discuss this week: the idea that you are too big to fail – which all too often starts with the idea that you are too big to learn anything new. This year has already seen the administrators called in to once sound businesses: Carillion, Toys-R-Us and Maplin.

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I’ve already discussed Carillion and the impact that collapse will have on up to 30,000 SMEs. More recently we’ve also seen Toys-R-Us and Maplin close the doors and – especially in the case of the now renamed Toys-Were-Us – it seems that arrogance and complacency and a ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ attitude were largely to blame. As the Greeks used to remind us, hubris leads inexorably to nemesis.

I often use the question ‘why not?’ on this blog, referencing the well-known quote from Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’”

But in business today ‘why not’ – to borrow from SWOT – isn’t just about strengths and opportunities, it’s also about weaknesses and threats.

Could this business start-up I’ve just read about disrupt our industry so much that our whole business model is outdated? Why not?

Could our customers decide that sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes to drag children round a toy warehouse isn’t how they want to spend a Sunday morning? Why not?

Today you have to think the previously unthinkable. Not doing that and believing your business model is inviolate – and Toys-R-Us seems to have been the perfect example – is to signpost your own downfall.

With the company having closed its doors there are plenty of anecdotal stories – from former employees and executives – emerging about the decline of Toys-R-Us. Was it simply competition from Amazon? Or did it go deeper than that?

Of course having Amazon as an alternative didn’t help. But all the stories point to Toys-R-Us seeing themselves as ‘king of the toy jungle’ and simply not giving their competitors enough respect. Add in a failure to lock-in the loyalty of their customers, a determination to open new stores whatever the cost and tales of wholesale fall-outs with their suppliers and the story only had one possible ending.

And when the inevitable happened, whose fault was it?

Everyone else’s.

Right now the directors of every failing company seem to have an instant explanation. ‘Picking the low hanging fruit’ might well mean reaching for the most easily available excuse. Competition from Amazon – uncertainty caused by Brexit – fall in the value of the pound – and (my personal favourite) customers changed their shopping/buying/spending habits.

What no-one ever seems to say is that it was rank bad management. Customers and clients are always changing their shopping/buying/spending habits: with the greatest possible respect that’s why you get paid so much – to anticipate those changes and do something about it.

It is my privilege to work with some very talented and very successful people: that includes members of TAB boards up and down the UK, and franchisees both here and overseas. Without exception they have one thing in common: they know that they don’t know everything. They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to listen. They accept that ‘why not’ could overtake their business – as it can overtake any business today.

You are never too big to learn and – bluntly – you are never too big to sit round the table with your colleagues from TAB. If we’d had a director of Toys-R-Us as a member then very quickly – in his first meeting would be my guess – someone would have said, “You know, last Christmas, we bought all the kids’ present on this thing called the internet. From a site called Amazon. Took half an hour, delivered them the next day…”

The loyalty of your customers, not opening stores for the sake of opening stores and working with your suppliers might well have been mentioned as well…

Nothing stays the same for ever and nowhere is that more true than in business. I floated the idea of a TAB for young entrepreneurs recently: maybe we should have one specifically for directors of ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ PLCs as well. The blunt common sense of their new colleagues round the table would be the best investment they ever made.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.