Lessons from the Maybot


Consider these two newspaper headlines:

South Milford FC win Champions League

Labour win Kensington & Chelsea

Well, you think. A Chinese conglomerate. Don’t see the value in spending £3bn on Manchester United. Decided to do it the romantic way. Small local team – but a million people within 30 minutes. 20 year plan, work their way up the football pyramid. Suppose it could happen…

What was the other one? Labour win Kensington & Chelsea? Have a word with yourself. And don’t forget your medication…

Except last Friday afternoon it did happen. With a majority of just 20, Emma Dent Coad captured Kensington and Chelsea for Labour. And if you want a measure of how completely inept the Conservative election campaign was, there you have it.

‘I didn’t fail. I learned,’ is one the great aphorisms of the positive-thinking industry. Well, Theresa May certainly learned how to take a working majority and turn it into – dare I use the phrase – a coalition of chaos. As everyone knows, she is now dependent on the DUP, whose ten MPs shuffled into the limelight last Friday afternoon like a factory syndicate who had won the lottery.

But this is a business blog, not a politics one. Are there any lessons we as business owners can learn from the election, the Conservative ‘strategy’ and the Maybot? Oh yes…

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First and foremost, don’t ever take success for granted. I hope Ian Hislop doesn’t mind: I photographed the Private Eye cover from May 18th as my illustration this week. At the time it exactly summed up the mood in Conservative Central Office: it wasn’t a General Election, it was a coronation.

…Did the Conservatives underestimate Corbyn? Only by a factor of 300 – in much the same way that the Clinton camp underestimated Trump. In both cases the overwhelming favourite said, ‘You can’t possibly vote for my opponent:’ to which the electorate replied, ‘Watch us.’

Whatever you’re doing – whether you’re pitching for a contract, tendering for some work, making a presentation to potential clients – you must show up, give your best every single time and never, ever underestimate your opponents. No-one – clients, customers or the electorate – likes to be taken for granted.

Yes, show up. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? You need to show up, even if it’s going to be tough. Say what you like about Corbyn – he turned up, he was prepared to speak, his events were free and he connected with people. Theresa May hunkered in her bunker muttering “strong and stable.” I am sorry, Prime Minister, when the going gets tough, the tough do not send Amber Rudd.

What’s next? Ah yes, the personality cult. They weren’t Conservative candidates were they? They were ‘Theresa May’s local candidate.’ The cabinet? Never heard of them: are you talking about ‘Theresa May’s team?’ If you want to make it all about your personality – whether it’s your business or the General Election – just make sure you have one.

Have a vision. How many times have we said that the leader’s job is to lead? To have a vision and communicate that vision. End tuition fees, raise in the minimum wage, a hand-up for the many… Whether you agree with it or not, that was a vision.

Trust your team. When she became PM Theresa May shuffled her team. Whatever your view of Messrs Hammond, Johnson and Davis – and Ms Rudd – they are experienced politicians. They’re used to campaigning. If you’ve handpicked your team, you have to trust them. No business grows or succeeds by the boss micro-managing every single decision himself.

Lastly, don’t always rely on the same people for advice. The apocryphal story is that the only person Mrs May would take a phone call from during the campaign was the Queen (yep, probably asking for her coach back…) Clearly the PM’s advice came from her two, now-departed, special advisers and her husband, all of whom were telling her what she wanted to hear. Maybe she should have joined a TAB Board for the duration of the campaign: she’d certainly have received advice at odds with her thinking but – as it so often does for so many business owners – it would have saved her from some disastrous mistakes.

So did Theresa May get anything right? Well, certainly not the Mexican wave on Tuesday night but – as one of my team in Harrogate pointed out – she always wore nice shoes…

I could go on and on – but enough’s enough. The Conservative campaign was easily the most inept in my lifetime. And yes, I know she is still Prime Minster but go back to the end of April. Record approval ratings and a 20 point lead in the polls. It’s the equivalent of a team leading 6-0 at half-time, scoring six own goals and scraping home 7-6. A win is a win, but at what price in the long term? What will it cost the country, the economy and our businesses?

My First 100 Days


It’s not often I compare myself to Donald Trump – well, not this side of the psychiatrist’s couch – but he’s famously completed 100 days in the White House and I’ve now completed 100 days in my new role as the MD of The Alternative Board in the UK.

I haven’t pulled out of any climate change agreements, sacked anyone or threatened wholesale renegotiation of every trade deal that’s ever been made. Instead I’ve worked with some brilliant people and generally had the privilege of running an organisation that changes people’s lives. So thank you once again to everyone who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who keeps making it happen on a daily basis.

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Quite obviously, I’ve had to get used to a few changes. I’m not driving round North Yorkshire anywhere near as much: I see a lot less of Costa Coffee at Clifton Moor…

I’m now in the office at Harrogate for 2½ days a week, working as part of a team of six. I didn’t realise I’d missed the office ‘buzz’ so much. That’s a bonus that I hadn’t anticipated.

…And I’ve discovered another, equally unexpected but far more important bonus. Every month Mags and I are in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

We always go on the train – and it’s a brilliant place to work. (But why, he asked innocently, could I get a mobile signal under Hong Kong harbour ten years ago but still can’t get one on the train between Huddersfield and Stalybridge? I’ll vote for whoever has that in their manifesto…)

As I was saying, a brilliant place to work – and to pick up on a point from last week, it’s a great place to work on the business. By definition you can’t work in the business, so Mags and I have time to discuss strategy, make plans and generally do all the things phones, meetings and the need to pop out for a sandwich stop you doing.

I’ve always liked working on the train. I’ve written before that if you want to think differently you need to be in a different physical location and I get some of my best work done on trains and in cafés, ploughing through as much paperwork between York and King’s Cross as I would in a full day at my desk.

Why is that?

Why do so many of us enjoy working in locations like that, and why are we so productive? And yes, I have been known to play a ‘café soundtrack’ on YouTube when I’m working in the office.

Early studies suggested that it was what’s known as ‘the audience effect:’ that we work better when we have someone to work with and/or compete with – witness the peloton in the Tour de France.

But according to an article in New Scientist, what applies to Team Sky doesn’t – for once – apply to us. The answer, apparently, is that hard work is contagious.

A study was done which involved sitting people doing different tasks next to each other: neither could see what the other was working on. When A’s task was made more difficult B started to work harder as well, as he or she responded to subtle cues like body posture and breathing.

I’ve often talked to TAB members who say their number one criteria for hiring another member of their team is work ethic: now it looks like there’s real evidence to back up that good old gut feeling.

…Except, of course, the evidence also suggests that I shouldn’t be on the train or in the coffee shop. I should be where people are working really hard. So I may hold future meetings in the library at Leeds University – and if it’s still the same as in my undergraduate days, on the same floor as the law students…

United we Fall


Even if you’ve been living in the proverbial cave at the bottom of the proverbial salt mine the news of United Airlines PR disaster-to-end-all-PR-disasters must have reached you by now.

I’ve covered disaster, catastrophe and the required corporate apology before. But that was something minor – just an oil spill and devastation of a coastline. In PR terms, hauling Dr David Dao up the aisle of the United flight to Kentucky was in an altogether different league.

Why? It’s simple. Devastating a coastline is tragic: of course it’s a disaster. But it’s a news item.

What United did to Dr Dao was personal. There isn’t one of us who – next time he flies – won’t sit in his seat, fasten his safety belt and then glance at the aisle of the aeroplane and think, ‘It could have been me…’

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Was United’s action legal? Sadly, yes. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, in 8pt print at the bottom of page 23. Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are so inconsiderate that they turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. Then…

And the figures are small – almost insignificant. In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.

But none of this matters: because we’ll all look at the aisle of the plane and wonder…

Not surprisingly, United took a savage beating on social media: ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ rapidly became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags…

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Fight or flight

If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

…And several others which have no place in a family blog on a Friday morning.

The stock market was equally quick to react with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.

United’s response to all this was ‘apology by committee.’ You could see the eventual statement had gone round the company several times, with every department head making sure his own base was covered. CEO Oscar Munoz even tried to deflect the blame on to David Dao, saying that he had been “disruptive and belligerent.”

What would I have done? Four things:

  • Have one person immediately issue a genuine and sincere apology to Dr Dao and the other passengers on the flight, without worrying about any hurt feelings at United HQ
  • Settle Dr Dao’s lawsuit immediately, whatever the cost. United cannot have people constantly reminded of this incident
  • Sack the security team, sack the CEO and sack anyone else who didn’t have the courage and the common sense to say, “Stop. This is wrong.”
  • Announce an immediate end to the overbooking of flights. United – and all other airlines come to that – need to give an absolute guarantee that you cannot pay for a flight and then be ‘bounced.’

But all those moves are simply locking the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. What they needed – what every company needs – is a culture where incidents like that simply cannot occur in the first place. No-one can legislate for one individual’s erratic behaviour, but in United’s debacle everyone screwed up – and it was indicative of a deeper malaise at the company.

Thankfully as I meet more and more Alternative Board members up and down the UK I see the same commitment to clients and customers, and the same determination to build and empower great teams, that was so evident in York. Dr Dao would be safe with any member of the Alternative Board. (United’s HQ is in Chicago: maybe it’s not too late for Oscar Munoz to sign up…)

That’s it for this week – and yes, before you ask, I have noticed that there’s going to be a General Election. I’ll tackle it next week…

Negotiating with Friends: How we got it Right


Negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

That was what I said last week when I was discussing the general principles of negotiation. ‘Think win/win. Nine times out of ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship.’ But that becomes even more true when you’re negotiating with a friend – as I did when I bought TAB UK from Paul Dickinson and Jo Clarkson.

“Never do business with a friend,” is an old business maxim – and it’s probably saved a lot of friendships – but sometimes doing business with friends and, ultimately, negotiating with them is inevitable.

“Loan oft loses both itself and friendship,” said Polonius, giving advice to his son Laertes before he set sail for France. Well negotiation can do exactly the same: the negotiations can flounder and the friendship can be ruined. Worse still, the negotiations can apparently ‘succeed.’ And then one party gradually realises he’s been ripped off: that he’s been taken advantage of by someone he previously considered a friend. Not any more…

The negotiations to buy TAB UK were long and complex: there were two people involved on both sides, plus accountants, bankers, lawyers – and our respective families.

As Mags and I sat across the table from Paul and Jo I had four priorities:

  • I wanted to buy the UK franchise for The Alternative Board: I’d talked it over with Dav – at length – and I absolutely believed it was the right thing for me, and for my family
  • But like any business deal, I wanted to buy it at the right price
  • I wanted to make sure the negotiations did nothing to damage TAB UK going forward
  • And I wanted to retain the friendship of two people I liked, respected and valued greatly as business colleagues and confidantes.

So how did we set out to achieve that? There were three key rules that guided us through the negotiations and which protected and strengthened our friendship.

  • First and foremost, we set the stage. Both sides were absolutely open about what they wanted to achieve in the negotiations. We constantly asked ourselves a simple question: ‘Is this fair to you? Is it fair to us? And is it in the best long-term interests of TAB UK?’ That question was, if you like, the mission statement of the negotiations
  • …Which inevitably brings me to one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits.’ “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” There was a real willingness to see the other side’s point of view. If you do find yourself negotiating with a friend it’s vital to see the negotiations from both sides of the table
  • So there was plenty of goodwill on both sides. But even with all that goodwill, there were bumps in the road: that was inevitable with such complex negotiations. The key was to look ahead and anticipate problems, to be open about setbacks and to clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible.

The net result? A very successful negotiation and both sides happy with the outcome. Was it easy? No, but then readers of this blog don’t need telling that few things that are worthwhile are easy. Ultimately, I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome – I’m equally delighted that Paul and Jo will be friends for life.

As it’s Easter, let me finish on a slightly lighter note – and a warning, if you’re planning to spend four days in the garden…

When I’m writing these posts I always – irrespective of how well I know the subject – check with Google, just to see if the Harvard Business Review or one of the entrepreneur magazines has a different perspective. And I’m increasingly astonished at how few words I need to type in before Google guesses what I’m after.

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Or I was – until this morning. How do you negotiate with I tapped in. Before I could add a friend, Google completed the sentence for me. How do you negotiate with a Sim eating plant? Seriously? That’s the most popular query about negotiation?

Well, fair enough. I always preach the value of knowing and researching your market…

So for those of you whose Easter might otherwise be ruined by the death of your carefully-nurtured Sims, I present perhaps the most useful advice ever offered on this blog. (Warning: the video contains violent scenes which some readers might find distressing. It also contains a teenage son doing nothing while his father is eaten by a tomato plant…)

The Best Bargaining Chips


It’s now nine days since Theresa May formally triggered Brexit, beginning two years of long and complex negotiations with the remaining 27 members of the EU. Whichever way you voted last June there’ll be days when you’re elated and days when you despair. Right now, only one thing is certain – the word ‘negotiation’ is never going to be far from the headlines…

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It’s certainly played a central part in my life of late, with the lengthy negotiations to buy TAB UK – and what I suspect may be even lengthier negotiations as my sons go through their teenage years. So you’ll be in for ten? I was thinking more like midnight, Dad…

While I await the grey hair and the whispered ‘was that the front door?’ conversation with my wife, let’s take a look at some of the basic principles of negotiation – and then next week I’ll build on those principles by discussing the rather more thorny question of negotiating with a friend – exactly what I was doing when I bought TAB UK.

First things first: unless you’re in a Moroccan bazaar, negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

I’ve always tried to go into any negotiations with three positions: my optimum (sell the car for £20,000); desirable (happy with £19,000) and my essential, bottom line price (I can’t accept less than £17,500).

Your ‘opposition’ – I don’t like to use the word but you know what I mean – will have those three in the reverse order. They’d be very happy to buy your car for £16,500, prepared to pay £18,000 and the maximum they’d pay before walking away would be £19,000.

In the scenario above it’s likely that the car would be sold for around £18,000 – assuming both negotiators are equally skilled.

So what do I mean by a ‘skilled negotiator?’ Looking back over my time in business there are probably four principles I’ve seen that work effectively and consistently: in my view, anyone applying these principles is a skilled negotiator.

  • The first thing is to keep the big picture in mind – and leave your ego at the door. I’ve seen too many negotiations fail because people got bogged down in petty details or tried to score points. It’s not just about demanding, “What’s your bottom line?” It’s also about discovering the other person’s ODE – optimum, desirable, essential. If you can operate within those parameters then you have scope to build – or strengthen – a long term relationship.
  • Sooner or later we all have to negotiate with someone we don’t like: someone who changes his mind, can’t make a decision, can’t remember what decision he did make – or all three. The answer is simple: concentrate on the issues, not the personalities. Stick to what you want, and be patient. It may well happen – as happened to me two or three times – that you sigh, mentally prepare yourself for another frustrating day, sit down at the table – and find a new face opposite you. All the problems vanish and the negotiations are wrapped up in a couple of hours. ‘Keep the main thing the main thing’ applies just as much in negotiation as it does in building your business: and the ‘main thing’ is what you want, not the failings of the person opposite you.
  • And don’t get emotional. At least, not for real. Any emotion is fine as long as you are in control of it. But don’t let yourself get angry, frustrated or sarcastic. And don’t get bored: we’re not talking about smoke-filled committee rooms where the old style politicos turned up with flask and sandwiches and simply bored their opponents into submission – but sometimes you do need to settle in for the long haul.
  • Finally, if you’re talking money, think in real money. We all know the traditional approach of breaking it down into ‘silly money:’ Look, you’re going to have this car for three years. £1,000 is 91p a day: two trips to Starbucks a week. Are you going to let that stand between you and a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow? A £1,000 is £1,000 however you break it down – which brings me back to my original point about optimum/desirable/essential price points. There has to be a point at which you walk away. If you cannot accept less than £17,500 for your car then you cannot sell it for £17,499 – if nothing else determines that, your self-respect should.

With that have a lovely weekend in the (forecast) sunshine and I’ll be back next week with the more personal side of negotiation. And my apologies to anyone who does own a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow…

Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?


Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

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Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.

The Budget: the Shape of Things to Come?


But there’s also a problem: namely, where is the value you’re taxing actually created? If Apple builds an iPhone in Taiwan, using raw materials from Australia and advanced components from Brazil, to a design thought up in California (but partially in Oregon), then markets it in the UK, via a company based in Ireland, where is the value created?

(This is without even getting into the licensing and buying-back of intellectual property rights, or any number of other accounting dodges.)

That very pertinent question is from an article in Cap X that I read last week. More of it later: first, last week’s Budget.

Philip Hammond bounced confidently to his feet and delivered his first (and last – it’s moving to the autumn) Spring Budget speech. There was good news on the economy: growth forecasts were up, borrowing was down and the Government’s “plan was working.” He delivered some far better jokes than George Osborne and sat down to a loud chorus of approval from the Conservative backbenches. He may even have glanced sideways at Theresa May and concluded that in the event of the mythical fall-under-the-bus, Mrs Hammond would be odds-on to be measuring up for new curtains in 10 Downing Street.

He could look forward to a nightcap, a good night’s sleep and plenty of plaudits in the following day’s papers…

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Sadly not. Thursday morning’s newspapers were united in their condemnation.

‘Hammond breaks election pledges,’ said the Telegraph. ‘Hammond raids the self-employed to fund care,’ declared the i newspaper. The tabloids were significantly more direct: ‘Spite van man’ screamed the Sun. ‘Rob the Builder’ was the headline splashed across the Star.

Hammond’s crime? He had allocated money to fund social care – £2bn over the next three years – and one of the ways he planned to fund it was by raising the Class 4 National Insurance contributions paid by the 15% of the UK workforce who are self-employed.

By Friday morning more than 100 Conservative MPs were supposedly voicing their discontent, with Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, saying “it goes against every principle of Conservative understanding of business.” The Chancellor was roundly criticised for riding roughshod over David Cameron’s ‘5 year tax lock’ and the Conservative manifesto.

There’s no doubt that, politically, Hammond made a mistake. Wittingly or unwittingly he’s given the impression that the Government doesn’t like or trust the self-employed and those running small businesses. As the Spectator said, it seems ‘that he suspects them of being tax-dodgers, of using the NHS without paying for it.’

He may even have given an unintended boost to the black economy. If the legendary ‘white van man’ suspects he’s being taxed unfairly he might decide to do even more work for cash – and the Chancellor might end up with lower tax receipts, and very expensive egg on his face.

But let me say a word in defence of the Chancellor – and here we return to the quote from the Cap X article. In his speech Philip Hammond talked about “the challenges in globalisation, shifts in demographics and the emergence of new technologies.”

He’s right – the economic landscape is changing rapidly. More and more people are becoming self-employed or trading through limited companies: people are changing jobs far more frequently, and all too often they need to have two jobs, often combining employment and self-employment. As Cap X put it, a 20th Century tax system is failing to cope with a 21st Century labour market.

And it’s not just the labour market: look at retailing, where online, out-of-town, low tax distribution centres are wiping out the bricks-and-mortar, high street, highly taxed shops.

Right now the tax system is divorced from the way business operates. There will have to be changes over the coming years and it is simply another illustration of the point I’ve made continuously in this blog: business is changing, and the pace of change is accelerating.

In a future post I’m going to look at the growing trend towards ‘agile’ leadership and management. What the Budget – and its fall out – illustrates is that in the future we will all need to be increasingly agile as we face ever-faster change.

But for next week we might just be due something a little lighter: why Ikea bookcases are a vital economic indicator…

…And there, gentle reader, are the perils of including current events in your blog. I wrote this post on Tuesday evening and, as you’ll all know by now, The Chancellor performed a humiliating U-turn on Wednesday and the NIC increases have now been scrapped. (You can forget measuring up for curtains, Mrs H…) I was initially tempted to re-write this post but, on reflection, I think the U-turn illustrates my point even more forcibly: today’s tax system simply has to change to cope with today’s economy. Maybe Wednesday’s climb-down will bring those changes closer – but let’s hope that whichever Chancellor finally has the courage to undertake a wide-ranging review pays more attention to detail than the Rt. Hon member for Runnymede and Weybridge did last week…

Five Key Questions you Need to Ask Yourself


“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.”

We’re all familiar with that saying. In fact, we’re so familiar with it that we don’t even register the words any more. ‘Oh yeah, it’s that fish one…’

But the saying is fundamentally true: whether you’re talking about food shortages in the third world or educating your own children, ‘teach a man to fish’ always applies.

It applies with my business as well – especially when I’m wearing my ‘business coach’ hat. I can dispense advice very easily: but it doesn’t always work in the long term.

Farmers, fishermen, children or entrepreneurs, people learn best when they discover things for themselves. So my job – either in a 1 to 1 or with the help of half a dozen successful people round a TAB boardroom table – is to help entrepreneurs ask themselves the right questions. Or to put it another way: “Give a man advice and he’ll follow it for a month. Help him discover the advice for himself and he’ll follow it for life.”

So what are the questions I want entrepreneurs to ask themselves?

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Obviously some vary with the entrepreneur and the nature of their business, but looking back over the last seven years of TAB York certain key questions crop up over and over again. They apply to every member of TAB York – and to every entrepreneur I’ve worked with:

What do I really want from my business?

“I want more time and more money, Ed.” That’s almost always the first thing someone says to me – but in itself it’s meaningless. It’s a lazy way of thinking. So I need to ask some direct questions. How much more time? What will you do it with? How much more money? Why? What difference will it make? No-one can motivate themselves with a mental image of an abstract ‘more time and more money.’ It’s much easier imagining your house in Portugal; Friday on the golf course or handing your daughter the keys to her first car.

Can I please everyone?

As I’ve written many times on the blog, human nature dictates that we like to say ‘yes’ – whether it’s to a new client or a new commitment outside the office. But all the successful people I know say ‘no’ on a regular basis. If you want to avoid what Stephen Covey famously termed being ‘in the thick of thin things;’ if you truly want more time, then you’ll need to ask yourself this question – and sooner rather than later.

Am I in my comfort zone?

Let’s trot out another old saying: ‘Ships are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.’ And being safe in your comfort zone isn’t what an entrepreneur is built for. Staying in your comfort zone limits your growth; it gives you a false sense of security. Stay too long in your comfort zone and there’s a real danger that – when you finally pop your head above the parapet – you won’t recognise the new world.

Am I prepared for criticism?

As I wrote last week, we’re now living in an age where everyone has an opinion – and it’s easier than it’s ever been to voice that opinion. You can’t please all the people all the time and today those that aren’t pleased will reach for their keyboards. So be it. Criticism – and its attendant handmaiden, jealousy – is an integral part of a successful entrepreneur’s life. Focus on your long term goals and let it wash over you.

Do I know everything I need to know?

As Mario Andretti famously said, “If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough.” And if you think you know everything you need to know, you don’t. In fact, with the world changing so quickly it’s safe to safe that the more you think you have to learn the better. Right now, all I know for certain is that on December 3rd 2017 there’ll be more items in my ‘need to learn/need to read’ file than there are now…

Five very simple questions: but they apply to virtually every entrepreneur I’ve ever worked with. And successful entrepreneurs don’t just ask those questions once: they keep asking them. So sometime between now and locking the office on December 23rd take ten minutes and a piece of paper and ask yourself these five questions. It’ll be some of the best preparation you do for 2017…

Own Your Own Truth


How do keep your work/life balance well and truly balanced?

How do you make sure you build your business – but never miss the Nativity Play?

How do you make sure your business is working for you – and that it’s not the other way round?

Yep, we’ve dealt with a few minor questions over the last six years, but let’s turn to something fundamental this week…

What is Truth?

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Don’t worry: I’m not abandoning TAB York and heading back to the campus: but in the year of Brexit and Trump ‘what is truth?’ is a pertinent question. And it’s one that has important implications for all our businesses.

You may have seen recently that ‘post-truth’ is the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ for 2016. It follows previous winners ‘emoji’ and ‘vape’ and beat off strong competition from ‘hygge,’ ‘Brexiteer’ and ‘adulting.’

What does ‘post-truth’ mean? It means that objective opinion has become less important in shaping public perceptions than opinions and emotional appeals.

The day after reading about ‘post-truth’ I was at a seminar, where one of the speakers made a simple statement: “you don’t own your own truth any more.”

His comments were largely directed at the hospitality industry. What he meant was that the truth about your hotel is no longer what you put in your brochure or on your website: the ‘truth’ is what someone says about you on Trip Advisor.

We’re now living in an age where comments and feedback no longer arrive in response to your carefully crafted e-mail or your solicitous feedback form. Instead, they’re 140 characters on Twitter, a photo on Instagram – or comments on sites like Trip Advisor over which you have absolutely no control.

It used to be said that ‘a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.’ That’s no longer the case: today, someone else’s version of the truth can be halfway round the world before your truth etc. etc.

I’ll be writing a post in the New Year about managing your reputation on social media: unfortunately, it requires rather more research than the usual pre-Christmas madness allows…

For now, some of my TAB York members are very well aware of both sides of the social media coin: others, less so. And while there may not be a Trip Advisor for widget manufacturers, that doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about you, your business or your product.

So what steps can you take in the short term to make sure that your version of the truth is pre-eminent? Here are five basic suggestions:

Keep your message simple. I wrote earlier this year about how many millennials now prefer to communicate using pictures: no wonder ‘emoji’ was the 2015 ‘word of the year.’ Your business message doesn’t need to be complicated: after all, there are few things simpler than an emoji. And whatever your feelings on Donald Trump, ‘Make America Great Again’ must have swayed a lot of votes.

Keep your message up to date: and keep it consistent. I’ve been writing this blog for over six years now. I hope some of what I write is useful, interesting and thoughtful. But in getting my message across, the delivery is every bit as important as the content. New clients know I’ll deliver, because they’ve seen the blog updated every Friday morning without fail.

Don’t make ridiculous claims. It’s now impossible to walk past any café without seeing a sign for their ‘award winning’ cakes. Every fish and chip shop in Yorkshire is ‘world famous.’ If your version of the truth contains patently ridiculous claims, don’t be surprised if people choose to believe rather more objective versions of the truth. So I’m sorry, reading this blog will not make you more attractive to women…

Force yourself to check. You may well think that Facebook is for teenagers who should be revising: you may see no point in Twitter as you’ve no interest in whether Stephen Fry has brushed his teeth. Unfortunately, that view is now in the minority: however much social media brings out the ‘bah humbug’ in you, force yourself to check occasionally…

…And if someone has mentioned your business, respond: gently, tactfully, with a touch of humour if you can, but above all respond. Otherwise you run the risk of ‘guilt through silence.’ The accused offered no defence on Twitter, m’lud…

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to offer the Chancellor confirmation of the productivity gap he complained about in the Autumn Statement. I can’t do any work today, Mr Hammond: I have to spend my day deleting ‘Black Friday’ e-mails…

The 6p Café – and the question You Should Really Ask


Just a note before I start this week: I’ve written more than 300 posts on this blog, but last week’s was much the most personal. I’d like to say thank you for all the comments and replies: some of them were touching, some heartfelt and some even more personal than the original post. One in particular buoyed me for the whole weekend: so thank you again.

Anyway – on to business. And a simple question: how much did you pay for your last latte? I’d guess anywhere from £2.40 to £2.90: that’s the going rate and it is, of course, completely ridiculous. Invest not-all-that-much in the right equipment and you can stay in your kitchen and make a coffee that’s equally good for a fraction of the price.

But that’s not the point is it? Because as we all know, Nero, Starbucks and your local coffee n’ cake shop don’t sell coffee. They sell something else entirely.

…And now a café has started charging for it.

Let me introduce you to Ziferblat, a café in Manchester that charges 6p a minute. That’s right, 6p a minute. Stay as long as you want; eat and drink as much as you want and use the Wi-Fi. 30 minutes costs £1.80 and an hour is £3.60.

ziferblat

At first glance that seems remarkably cheap: why do you need to pay rent on an office? An eight hour day at Ziferblat costs £28.80 with no need to go out for a sandwich at lunchtime. Well, they make a profit and the chain is expanding. But it’s not their balance sheet I want to discuss; it’s their willingness to look at an established concept in a wholly new way.

I have plenty of my meetings in various Costas, Starbucks and Neros around North Yorkshire. Am I paying for the coffee? No. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m paying for convenience, for somewhere to meet, for thirty minutes with a friend, Board member or potential client.

I’m buying the coffee in order to rent a convenient meeting space for thirty minutes. The owners of Ziferblat have recognised this: as one of them says in the video, “Everything is free, except the time that you spend.”

Some of you may remember a post I wrote early in 2014: it was about American restaurants charging different prices for their food depending on when you ate. Re-reading the original piece – and thinking about ‘the 6p café’ – that still seems entirely logical to me.

The reason I make these points is simple. We’re now well into ‘making plans for next year’ season and there’s a fundamental question to ask yourself: what do I really sell?

Do you sell coffee? Or do you sell the convenience, the surroundings and the meeting place?

Quite rightly, you’re now turning the question round and asking, ‘Fair enough, Ed. What do you really sell?’

Let me answer that, because it illustrates the point exactly.

Do I really sell 1 to 1 meetings and peer-to-peer coaching? No, of course I don’t. So let’s look at the reasons entrepreneurs ‘buy’ TAB York:

  • They want to solve a problem and/or address some pain
  • They don’t want to feel isolated/lonely any more
  • They want a fresh perspective on their business
  • They’re stuck in a rut
  • They know they’re ready to ‘take the next steps.’ But they don’t know how to do it, and may not even know what the next steps are

So TAB York sells solutions to specific problems, an end to loneliness, a new way of looking at problems and opportunities, motivation and – as I wrote two weeks – a glimpse of what life and business could be like: ‘permission to dream’ as I termed it.

Clearly, TAB York sells different things to different people – and that doesn’t change even after someone becomes a member. The reasons why entrepreneurs continue as Board members can be very different to the reasons why they joined:

  • The Board meetings are an insurance policy against things going wrong
  • The routine of the monthly meetings forces members to work ‘on the business’ not ‘in the business’
  • It’s the only place they can really talk about their business with people who absolutely understand…
  • Who’ll give absolutely impartial advice…
  • And who care about your success and the success of your business

So in no way am I selling the monthly meetings: I’m selling reassurance, a framework, and the experience, objectivity and commitment of the other Board members. And ‘commitment’ is the right word: members of TAB York have an emotional investment in each other’s businesses.

All the above points have come from Board members over the years – and yes, when entrepreneurs ‘buy’ for so many reasons it makes it difficult to define what my colleagues and I ‘sell.’

The same may very well be true for you and your business. But take your time to define exactly what you do sell – and don’t be afraid to emulate ‘The 6p Café’ and think a long way outside the box. It’s a really worthwhile exercise and the answer may well surprise you – and have a significant impact on next year.

In fact it’s something we could cover at a 1 to 1: maybe over a meal. I’ll drop an e-mail to the Star Inn the City and offer them 6p a minute…