The Valley of Clouds

You know how it is on a long flight: you read anything and everything. A history of the sword making industry in Toledo? What could be more fascinating?

So it was that somewhere at 30,000 feet I came across an article that included this quote: it’s from an author – and a bonus prize to anyone who guesses the author before the end of the post…

There’s a phrase I use called ‘The Valley Full of Clouds.’ Writing a novel is as if you are going on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree. At this stage in the book, I know a little about how I want to start, I know some of the things I want to do on the way. I think I know how I want it to end. And this is enough…


That may well be a description of how the author wrote his books. Isn’t it also an exact analogy for the entrepreneur’s journey – the journey we’re all on?

The long flight took me to Denver, for TAB’s annual conference – as many of you know, one of my favourite weeks of the year. It was great to meet so many old friends and (as always with TAB) make plenty of new ones. The best part of it for me? It was simply going back to basics. After the whirlwind of becoming the MD of TAB UK – after spending so many hours with solicitors, bankers and accountants – it was wonderful to be reminded of the simple truth of why we do what we do.

That’s why the quotation chimed so exactly with me: all of us start our journey with a lot of faith and not much in the way of a ‘map.’ As the quote says, we know where we want to get to, we can see a few staging posts along the way: but the rest we’re going to discover on the journey – and we accept that there’ll be plenty of wrong turns.

So when we start the valley is full of mist – but we can emphatically see the other side. Most importantly, we can see the people we love on the other side of the valley, financially secure and happy. We can see our future selves as well – not just financially secure, but fulfilled because we have achieved what we set out to achieve and realised our full potential.

I know some of the things I want to do on the way. Yes, when we start our entrepreneur’s journey we do know some of the things we want to do: in my experience we want to do things differently, ethically.

And sure, we can see the top of one or two trees – but none of us can see down into the mist. We can’t see the route we’re going to take.

And that might be just as well, because if the mist cleared and we saw all the late nights and missed weekends, the deadlines and the stress, we might decide that the journey across the valley isn’t worth it.

Trust me, it is.

Some members of TAB UK have just reached the first tree. Some of them are a long way across the valley and plenty have reached the other side. Building a business is exactly like walking through the mist – but if you have a guide, someone who can say ‘I was here a year ago. This is the path I took’ then you are going to cross the valley much more quickly, with far fewer wrong turns.

Let me finish with another reflection on Denver. It was absolutely inspiring: TAB is now in 16 countries and is becoming a truly international organisation. The latest country to launch is India – along with China one of the two fastest growing major economies in the world and a country almost synonymous with the entrepreneurial spirit.

As always it will take me about a month to process everything that went on and everything I learned in the week. But I came away with one key reflection: the strength of our team here in the UK. The calibre of the people involved is both humbling and inspiring. Truly, if you are at any stage on the entrepreneur’s journey – just starting or halfway across the author’s Valley Full of Clouds – you could not wish for better guides than the TAB UK team.

The author? The late Terry Pratchett.

Thoughts from a Mile High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And isn’t that exactly the same with business?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great bank holiday weekend.

Stand Up, Speak Up – With These Four Simple Rules

All of us have to give speeches: whether it’s business or family, sooner or later we have to stand up and pull a page of notes from our inside pocket. And very few of us relish the occasion: as the old joke goes, the number one fear in America is public speaking; the number two fear is death. So if you’re at a funeral you’d rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy…

We’ve all been on the receiving end as well. Goodness knows how many speeches and presentations I’ve listened to in my life – but remarkably few of them have been memorable. In fact far too many have been downright disappointing. Why is that? Making a speech can be crucially important in business – and yet it’s a skill that’s almost totally ignored. ‘Oh hell, I’ve got to make a speech on Friday. I’ll make a few notes on Thursday night’ seems to be the prevalent attitude – and all too often it shows.

So when I was introduced to a professional speechwriter recently I was all ears. We talked for maybe half an hour: some of her suggestions for giving an effective speech might surprise you…

Write it out. She was absolutely adamant on this one – and very critical of the man who stands up to speak, searches every pocket in his suit and finally produces a battered piece of paper. Inevitably what follows isn’t fun for anyone…

“The back of an envelope simply won’t do,” she said. “You’ve been invited to give a speech. You have an obligation to deliver. Not to wing it.” So she absolutely advocates writing the speech out in full. And then…

Practise. “The best speaker I know has a ratio of 60:1,” she said. “That is, he’ll spend 60 minutes practising for every minute that he’s speaking.” I protested that this was incredibly time-consuming. If you’re running a business, finding 20 hours to practise a 20 minute speech is close to impossible. “Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why men – and sorry, Ed, it’s always men – convince themselves they can wing it. But they can’t.” The example she quoted was Barack Obama. Outstanding when he’s practised and when he’s on the autocue: significantly below average when it’s an impromptu speech.

By this time I was feeling slightly under attack. I’ll freely admit that I’ve never gone anywhere near a ratio of even 20:1. But there was another onslaught to come…

“Learn It.” Her view was that any competent person can learn any speech of twenty minutes or less. (Apparently we speak at around 120 words a minute – so that would be a speech of 2,400 words. Three of these blog posts…) “Yes, you can,” she insisted. “You only think you can’t do it because you haven’t tried.” Again, she was absolutely certain of her point. “If you’ve learned a speech your confidence goes up 1000%. That confidence is reflected in your voice and in your body language. The audience sense it. You make eye contact. You have more energy. Why do you think politicians are so desperate to seem to give a speech without notes?”

By this time her final point didn’t seem at all surprising. “A speech is a conversation. Sure, it’s a conversation where one person does nearly all the talking. But it’s still a two way process.” What she meant was that your audience will smile, nod, laugh and applaud. Even though they’re not speaking, they’ll still be interacting with you. And the word conversation is important in another sense as well. “You need to speak in a conversational style. A speech – especially when it’s personal – isn’t an essay and it isn’t a lecture. And even if it is a lecture, it still needs lighter moments. So when you’re writing you need to cue applause and laughter – and above all you need to use short, simple words.”

I’ll freely admit that when I was speaking to her I was sceptical. Thinking about the conversation later – and having been on the receiving end of another man stumbling through his notes – I can see the sense of what she said. And I can see the ‘obligation to deliver’ as well. As she so succinctly put it, “You want 100% of your audience’s attention. They want 100% of your ability.”

Ignorance is a Choice

I don’t frequent football fans’ forums very much – as a Newcastle supporter it’s not a sensible way to spend Saturday evening. But you know how it is, sometimes you can’t resist… And what did I find after we snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Crystal Palace? An important business lesson for us all.

If you’re not a regular visitor to football chat rooms – and let me congratulate you on that particular life choice – I should tell you that all the fans have fictitious names and ‘signatures.’ Mostly these signatures question the manager’s competence or the owner’s sanity, but one of them ran much deeper than that. “Right now,” it read, “Ignorance is a choice.”

And for every reader of this blog, that’s true.

Let’s do a simple test. How far is it from Vladivostok to Delhi? Starts stop watch on iPhone…

It’s 5,088km – and it took me 18.53 seconds to find that out, including the time it took me to type the query.

Maybe something more philosophical? Why is it wrong to steal? In 0.31 seconds Google offers me 43m results.

So I’m inclined to agree with my pal on the forum. Ignorance is a choice. But sadly from a business point of view, it’s a choice that a lot of us make. The mass of men not only live lives of quiet desperation: all too often they live lives of quiet complacency as well. And if you’re running a business in this rapidly changing world, that’s dangerous.

Let me ask you two questions:

  • When did you last challenge yourself intellectually?
  • When did you last feel out of your depth in a discussion, at a conference or in a meeting?

It’s human nature: we all like to feel comfortable: we all like to feel in control – but very often we’re only learning when we’re slightly out of our depth.

One of the best business tips I’ve read recently is to take yourself off to a conference or a meeting that’s well outside your comfort zone. Maybe it’s programming or SEO or mobile apps: you’ll be surprised at a) how much of it is relevant to your business and b) how much you learn.

I find as I get older that I like learning more and more: it’s one of the bonuses I never expected from TAB. I know far more about management techniques, different leadership styles and – above all – different ways of coping with the trials, tribulations and joys that running your own business brings.

One thing we can be sure of: the world will not stand still and the pace of technological change will continue to increase. If you don’t carry on learning you’re going to be left behind. Ignorance is a choice and unfortunately it’s going to be a choice that will put your business at risk.

One of the great strengths of TAB is that it allows you to go into areas where you’re not comfortable; where you don’t know everything. I’m constantly amazed at the collective wisdom round a Board table and I’m constantly gratified by the discussions: it’s fantastic to hear successful people say, ‘All I know about this is that I don’t know. Can someone help me?’

It’s a characteristic of good leaders that they’re always willing to learn: rest assured that if you’re going to run a successful business over the next ten years a willingness to learn and to go on learning will be absolutely crucial.

To paraphrase the famous Robert Kennedy quote, successful leaders won’t be the people that see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ They’ll be the ones who see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’

Winning Awards is Good for You

Glamorous actress, golden envelope, the audience all household names. She opens the envelope, pauses dramatically…

“And the winner is…”

Well not quite. But in the real world the rest of us inhabit the TAB Member Awards at Oulton Hall were close enough. And as I hinted last week, three of the four awards were won by board members from TAB York – and I am absolutely delighted for them.

In fact, I’m more than delighted. All the parents reading this blog will know exactly what I mean: you’d far rather see your children win something than win an award yourself. My business is just the same: I have in the past won TAB Bod of the Year. And that was lovely – but nowhere near as lovely as seeing my members collect richly deserved awards.

So without further delay, the roll of honour:

TAB Member Contribution Award – Chris Wilson of Tailormade Conference Management
TAB Community Award – Simon Hudson of Cloud 2
TAB Member Achievement Award – Rachel Goddard of Intandem Communications

To them – and to several other York members who came damn close – congratulations.

So that’s nice. Chris, Simon and Rachel marched up and received their awards, shook hands, sat down and hopefully will be in the running again next year. But back to work the next day, folks – awards are nice, but they don’t change the fundamentals of your business. Or do they?

I was talking to Rachel after the ceremony. Not immediately afterwards, when the euphoria of winning was still rushing round her bloodstream, but a few days afterwards – when problems with clients and suppliers had brought her back to earth.

I don’t think I’m giving away too many confidences if I say that one of the reasons for Rachel winning her award was that she’d had to make a very big – and very difficult – business decision during the past year. “I sat in this office and agonised about that decision,” Rachel said. “Then I went home and agonised some more. And the next day I came to the office and started agonising again.”

Everyone who runs a business can empathise with that. If you’re self-employed, if you’re running a business, then you’re never alone. If you’ve a major problem in the business, it’s with you wherever you go.

Fortunately, if you’re a member of a TAB Board, you don’t have to deal with the problem alone. “The other members of my board were great,” Rachel said. “That is, they asked me the questions I didn’t want asking but knew I had to answer. I remember one question in particular: it pinpointed the exact problem I had to solve.”

Rachel worked through the difficult decision and her business has moved forward significantly. Hence the award, now sitting proudly on the window sill in her office.

“You know the best thing about that award?” Rachel said. “It means someone else noticed. Someone else recognised what I had to do. And that recognition feels astonishingly good. I’m proud of myself – and it’s helped my team see what we’ve achieved as a business.”

And that’s why awards matter. This blog has often touched on ‘the lonely entrepreneur.’ Sooner or later difficult decisions have to be taken and when that happens the buck stops resolutely and defiantly on your desk. Sometimes you can feel very alone.

But an award like Rachel’s says that other people did notice: that they’re impressed by what you did and that you deserve the recognition.

So if you’ve the chance of an award in your industry – go for it. Yes, you might have to spend some time on a submission, telling the judges what you’ve done and why you deserve the award. But it will be time well spent.

As Chris, Simon and Rachel will tell you, there’s no better feeling than hearing your name announced – immediately after, “And the winner is…”

The TAB York Conference 2011. In the sun…

Most of the time I like to produce blogs that are educational, informative, inspiring, amusing or (hopefully…) useful. This one is different, and I suspect – I very strongly suspect – that it’s the only blog of its type I’ll ever write.

As you know last week it was the Budget – and as you also probably know, the Government has decided to dispense with Business Link. What’s going to replace Business Link? The answer from the Government seems to be “you are.” Or at least Government approved mentors are.

Originally it appeared that the Government wanted the mentors to work for free. Naturally this unleashed a storm of protest as most people guessed that the only people who’d put themselves forward would be those with an agenda – something to sell to naïve business start-ups.

But buried away in the Budget small print – and Heaven knows why it was buried away as I think it’s a real plus point for a Government that needs plus points right now – was the provision for SME’s to receive grants for mentoring. The suspicion is that it is aimed at start-ups, but as the legislation is currently worded, the grants are available to everyone. This will almost certainly be corrected before the Budget actually receives Royal Assent, but as the legislation now stands, any business can apply for a grant of up to £500 to pay for “mentoring and business advice.”

I was slightly stunned when I was first made aware of this (by another TAB owner) and I’ve checked it with Louise Roberts Battison of Tax Perspective. Louise confirmed what my TAB colleague told me and said that the Government have indicated that they will honour applications made in good faith. This gives me a unique chance to organise something that has been a dream of mine since the members of my first board got together – The TAB York Annual Conference.

Again, I’ve run through the details with Louise and if we can get this organised quickly, then members can get their mentoring grant applications in and approved before the Budget receives Royal Assent. I’ve already done some preliminary work and this is what I’m proposing:

  • A 4 day TAB York conference over the weekend of Friday 23 – Monday 26 September
  • To be held at the 5* Don Carlos Hotel in Marbella –  (I’ve been: it’s fantastic)
  • Accommodation will be approximately £500 per couple – so more or less matching the mentoring grant
  • Louise confirms that all your expenses – travel, accommodation etc – will be tax deductible
  • I will also try and bring one of TAB’s foremost coaches in the US, Rolf Apaloni, over to present a couple of ‘success clinics’

We’re never going to get the chance to do this again, so it’ll have to be on a first come, first served basis. Louise suggests we can probably get around 20 applications for the grant approved, so if you’re interested, could you please let me know asap – ideally by commenting on the blog so I can quickly & easily keep track of the numbers.

Sadly – back to normal next week, with a blog on overcoming your fears.

Letter from America

The harsh, useful things of the world, from pulling teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are as starkly sober as so many convicts in the death-house, but the lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things, are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets in the wind – H L Mencken

So here I am on Broadway. No, not that Broadway. I’m at 1675 Broadway, Denver, Colorado – the British Consulate. And very shortly I start my new job as a waiter, fully intending to make sure several Americans are rendered wholly unfit for pulling teeth and digging potatoes…

Before you rush to the conclusion that I’ve left my wife and fled to the colonies, I should explain that I’m here on business. Well, yes, technically, today was sunny and 88 degrees. And yes, if you want to be pedantic tomorrow is forecast to be, er…sunny and 90 degrees.

According to my guide book, Denver has the best climate in the US, easily on a par with Southern California. The 15th step on the west side of Denver’s State Capitol Building is exactly one mile above sea level and 92.1% of the population have high school diplomas. What it doesn’t say is that 70 to 80 Americans will shortly be getting impatient if I don’t dish out the Pimms fast enough.

So, the glasses are polished, the nibbles are strategically strewn around and…You heard me. Pimms. With lemonade. And lots of fruit. Jack Daniels? Budweiser? No chance.

Let me explain. I’m here for the annual conference of The Alternative Board. TAB started in the US in 1990. Right now there are more than 450 boards, with a total of nearly 3500 members. So if I can’t learn something to help my York members in the few days I’m out here then I probably shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

Five of us have flown over from the UK – do you ever grow out of the sense of excitement you feel when you touch down in the US? – and we thought we’d entertain our American colleagues. And yes, we could have done white wine and red wine and a few bottles of Milwaukee’s finest, but let’s serve something essentially British. So it’s Pimms – despite the fact that all that fruit in a drink may confirm some American beliefs regarding the sexuality of British men. It’s a risk we’ll have to take.

Much later…

The Pimms party was a huge success. And afterwards we staggered downtown to The Appaloosa Grill.

Several of our American colleagues, never having come across alcohol-disguised-as-fruit-salad seemed to have difficulties pronouncing ‘Appaloosa.’ I might admit to slight co-ordination problems of my own. It seemed simplest to order steak.

Equally I might admit to a slight hangover the next morning. And as I was in a strange bed, I inevitably woke up ridiculously early so I could appreciate it. Five o’clock.

There was no chance of going back to sleep. So I drank all the orange juice in the mini-bar and headed for the hotel pool. At least I’d have it to myself at five in the morning.

Fat chance. Or rather thin chance. The guide book had said that Colorado was the only state where 50% of the population weren’t obese. No wonder. They were all in the pool. Several of my new friends who’d decided that the “App-sluice-ia Grill” was a fine idea were now remorselessly hammering out lengths. Clearly men determined to dig up potatoes…

And men determined to help. I cannot thank my American colleagues enough for all their kindness. I left Denver with the words, “No problem, Ed, I’ll do it as soon as I get back to the office” ringing in my ears. And over the coming weeks I’ll share some of their ideas with you.

But for now, let me leave you with this thought. If you want help, ask for help. What did I do in America? I simply said, “I’m relatively new, I’m learning. Can you help me?” And it works nearly every time – even with starkly sober men who spend their day pulling teeth…