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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…