David and Goliath? It could be TAB vs. Amazon…


If you saw the news last week you may have seen that there was – very briefly – a change at the top of the league table. Specifically, at the top of the Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Amazon shares rose ahead of their results and for one day – July 27th – Jeff Bezos was the richest person in the world. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the company’s results were disappointing. Despite revenue for the three months to June rising to $38bn (25% up on the same period last year) earnings-per-share were down as the company chased growth. The shares slipped back by 2% and that was enough. Bill Gates was back at number one and poor old Jeff was struggling to get by on $89bn.

But wherever Jeff Bezos is in the rich list, Amazon has become an integral part of all our lives. I’ve touched several times on the decline of the traditional high street: whatever your feelings about that, Amazon has played a central role in it. And the company is chasing yet more growth – $14bn to buy Whole Foods, for example, as it goes head-to-head with Walmart.

Right now Amazon seems to be looking to dominate just about every sector you can think of: quoted in City AM an American fund manager said, “What you’re buying [Amazon shares] for is revenue growth and market share – and Amazon is making great progress.”

And now to another story that caught my attention. ‘Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial eco-system encouraging start-ups.’ Basically it’s a simple story: Edinburgh has brought all the key ingredients together to allow people to start businesses and to encourage those businesses to grow – a talented workforce, public sector and academic support, access to finance, affordable space and quality of life.

For me, the two stories are closely connected. Amazon and the other tech giants are going on a spending spree. That is going to bring benefits: both Amazon and Google are committed to massive new developments in London that will create thousands of jobs. But it will also come at a price, and that price may well be paid by our local shops and communities.

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And yes, I use Amazon. Of course I do. Someone recommends a book, you find it in 10 seconds, click, it’s bought. But I am acutely conscious that if I shop with Amazon the money does not stay in my local community. South Milford does not have a book shop: I’d hate to think that in a few years The Village Store (no, the marketing committee didn’t spend long on the name…) had disappeared because we’d all decided Amazon was the best place to buy Weetabix, dog food and loo rolls.

This is where I think entrepreneurs have a significant role to play. We are firmly rooted in our local communities and I’m really keen to encourage the 400 business owners in the TAB community to play their part in creating ‘entrepreneurial eco-systems’ like the one in Edinburgh. One of the things that TAB members do well is bring people together: not just other TAB members, but people from banking, regional development, education and other sectors. If we can develop that, then we can play our part in building and nurturing successful local economies.

Technology isn’t going away. Any day now you’re going to look up into the sky and watch a delivery from an Amazon drone. And if you think that’s impressive the Chinese version of Amazon claims to deliver in 15 minutes: not even worth nipping out to the shops at lunchtime…

Local businesses and local communities are going to need all the help they can get. I’m proud to know that TAB members will play a central role in providing that help – and no-one is better qualified.

PS Should you need either of these vital items the Chinese Amazon will apparently also deliver a Vietnamese bride and/or a live scorpion. A whole new meaning to ‘something for the weekend…’

Time for your Annual Service


Well, after last week’s slice of humble pie I’m not even going to mention the cricket this week. I don’t even have it on as I’m writing. Oh, for goodness sake. Pushing forward to one he should have left. That’s a fine start…

Remote found, TV turned off and focused on my Mac, let me turn my attention to something I briefly touched on two weeks ago when I was discussing productivity. According to this story in City AM: ‘Half of the UK’s small business leaders are taking fewer than six days off work each year.’

The research quoted suggested that 52% of entrepreneurs took five or fewer days off last year, with one-in-five taking no time off at all. Of those that do make it to the departure lounge, 1 in 4 admit to answering e-mails and taking calls while they’re away, and more than a third take outstanding work with them to finish.

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Interestingly, the research also showed that the vast majority of the bosses wanted their staff to take their full allocation of time off – recognising the value of time away from the office and paying real attention to your work/life balance.

So why don’t they practice what they preach?

Let’s exercise a little caution before I move into ‘full rant’ mode. It was a survey and I think we can safely assume that there was some ‘no-one works harder than me’ posturing going on. How many hours day do you work? Pah! Never less than 16. How many days a week are you in the office? Easily eight: nine some weeks… Where are the Four Yorkshiremen when you need them?

But even allowing for that natural exaggeration the results are worrying – and it appears from another study that entrepreneurs are now working longer hours than in previous years. So much for the work/life balance message…

Anyone who has read this blog on even an occasional basis will know that I think working longer and longer hours and not taking holidays is madness. Never mind your business, you’re cheating your family. Hopefully we’ll all be at the top of the mountain one day – but you need someone with you to share the view.

More than anyone, entrepreneurs need to take breaks. I have written many times that to think differently you need to be somewhere different. There’s nothing more dangerous these days than ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but if you sit at your desk every day you’ll do exactly that.

Get away, do something different, and you’ll find you’re thinking differently as well. I’ve lost count of the number of problems I’ve solved/insights I’ve had on holiday, simply because I’ve been thinking in a different way.

And as we’ve always said, if the business doesn’t function without you, you don’t have a business. The only way you’ll find that out is to leave them to it. And if you insist on staying in the office every day then all you’ll ultimately do is bring forward the day when they have to function without you – while you’re stressing about the mobile signal in the cardiac unit…

Holidays also give you a chance to let go of your ego for a while – especially if you take your children. And if they’re the age Dan and Rory are then I’ve no choice other than to let go of my ego. Whenever we try anything new I simply have to accept that they’re going to pick it up more quickly/be better than me/not have the aches and pains the day after. Or all three…

I suspect that a large proportion of those entrepreneurs who never go on holiday would all give the same reason: ‘I don’t have the time.’ No, you don’t. There’s never a good time for a holiday. There’ll always be a new idea, a new client – or a crisis. But if you’re not at your peak – and without a break you won’t be – then you can’t be at your best for the client or able to deal with the crisis.

After all, you service your plant and machinery every year: you do the same with your car. Isn’t it time the company’s most important asset received the same care and attention…

More advice for Joe Root


On July 22nd last year I posed a simple question: did Joe Root want to be just a very, very good cricketer – or did he want to become one of the game’s greats?

I received my answer the same day. Root scored 254 against Pakistan and England won the game by 330 runs.

A year on and – by the time you read this – Joe Root will have completed his first day as England captain. I’m tempted to question whether he’s the right the man for the job, just to make sure we win the game…

But at 26 Joe Root steps into a new role. No longer the cheeky young upstart in the dressing room, no longer ‘one of the lads:’ he’s the captain, the public face of English cricket.

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As so often, there are parallels between sport and business. In taking over the captaincy, Joe Root is simply mirroring what so many of us have done in our careers: been promoted, moved to a new company, even acquired a business. And we’ve had to a walk into a new office and simply say, “Good morning, I’m the boss.”

So in my unheralded – and sadly unpaid – role as The Secret Coach to the new skipper, let me pass on some advice, which applies in business just as much as it applies in sport.

You still have to justify your place in the side. As the owner of TAB York I had the pleasure of working with Suzanne Burnett, then MD of Castle Employment in Scarborough. Suzanne’s now handed over the reins to Kerry Hope, and last week in her ever-excellent blog Suzanne introduced Kerry as the new MD. This Q&A is relevant to all of us:

Q: Let’s just talk about those people [the team at Castle who didn’t know her] for a minute. How did you establish your credibility with them?

A: That’s a good point – and it’s something any manager going into a new company has to do: ‘show us your medals’ as they say in football. Maybe in recruitment that should be ‘show us your fees.’ I made absolutely certain that first and foremost I performed as a fee earner, so everyone could see that what I was saying – and the changes I was recommending – absolutely worked.

It’s the same for any new manager, for anyone taking over a company and it will be the same for Joe Root. If your performance can be measured, then you need to perform.

But you will have bad days. It’ll happen. Rooty will get a jaffa first nut and be back in the hutch for a duck.

What do you mean ‘you don’t understand?’ Sigh… The England captain will receive an unplayable delivery first ball and be back in the pavilion without scoring.

Sport and sales are equally unforgiving. The numbers are there for everyone to see. We all go through bad spells but the answer is simple. Keep believing in yourself, keep doing what you know is right and trust that the results will come – which they will. But you’re the leader now – everyone will be watching to see how you respond to a bad day: and how you respond determines how everyone else will respond.

Find a way to manage your stress. Well, no worries for Joe there. His son was born about six months ago. There are those of us, however, to whom a new baby would come as something of a surprise. That’s why I’m such an advocate of keeping fit, of spending time with friends and family and making sure you have interests outside work. All work and no play not only make Joe a dull boy, it makes him an inefficient, unproductive one as well.

Prepare to be lonely. Sad but true. We’ve said it many times on this blog but being an entrepreneur – or the captain – can be a lonely business. You get the accolades and you get to lift the trophy. But you also have to deal with the lows: as Joe Root will find, you’re not only managing yourself, you’re manging other people – and part of that will be delivering bad news. Saying to someone who’s been with you a long time, ‘I’m sorry, we’re going to make a change.’

There are a hundred and one other pieces of advice I could pass on – be there first in the morning, demand high standards of yourself and your team will automatically raise their standards – but lastly, and most importantly, lead. The job of a leader is to lead: to have conviction. To have the sheer bloody-minded conviction that his team will win, that his business will succeed.  After all, Joe, if you don’t believe, no-one else will…

Are you Still the Best Person?


There’s no better story of the new, disruptive economy than Uber. What could be more set in stone than your local taxi company? But along comes Uber, along comes an iPhone app and everything is different.

Equally there could be no more archetypal disruptive entrepreneur than Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Travis Cordell Kalanick is 40. He dropped out of UCLA (obviously: dropping out is mandatory for the disruptive entrepreneur).

His first business venture – with partners – was a multimedia search engine and file sharing company called Scour, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

Next came Red Swoosh, another peer-to-peer file sharing company. Red Swoosh struggled: Kalanick went three years without a salary, had to move back into his parents’ home and at one point owed the IRS $110,000. All the company’s engineers left and our hero was forced to move to Thailand as a cost saving measure. But in 2007 Akamai Technologies bought the company for $19m.

In 2009 Kalanick joined forces with Garrett Camp, co-founder of Stumble Upon, to develop a ride sharing app called Uber. And the rest as they say…

Uber now operates in 66 countries and more than 500 cities around the world. Wiki lists Kalanick’s net worth at $6.3bn. Presumably he’s not living at home any more.

But neither is Kalanick still at Uber. On June 20th he resigned as CEO after multiple shareholders demanded his resignation. We’ve all read the stories: let’s just file them under ‘abrasive personality.’

Looking at Kalanick’s early struggles he ticks every box for an entrepreneur. Dropped out of college, saw the future, first venture failed, money problems, do whatever it takes, absolute persistence, never lost faith in himself and – eventually – jackpot!

We can all imagine some of the scenes: we may not have ticked all the same boxes in our own entrepreneurial careers, but we’ve ticked enough to imagine Kalanick’s journey. And to empathise with it…

But now he’s gone. And his departure from Uber prompts an interesting question.

Are you still the best person to run your company?

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When I pushed my breakfast round my plate in Newport Pagnell services and decided to work for myself there were two main motivations. They were frustration: “There has to be something better than this,” and family: “Someone else is dictating how much time I spend with my wife and children.”

In some ways I was luckier than most embryonic entrepreneurs: my experience told me I could manage and motivate a team. But I wasn’t thinking about that in Newport Pagnell: what – after proposing to my wife – has turned out to be the best decision of my life was motivated purely by frustration at what I was then going through, and a determination to be there as my boys were growing up.

I suspect the vast, overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are the same. We all started by saying, ‘I want to create something, I want to be in control of my own life, I want to build a future for my family.’ We didn’t say, ‘Oh yes, I have the skills necessary to lead a team of 30.’ Famously, even Mark Zuckerberg had to learn how to manage Facebook.

So the skills you had then – vision, a willingness to take risks (with both your career and your family), persistence and that sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed – may not be the skills you need now. In fact, there’s no ‘may’ about it. Maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make great managers: you may have been the only person who could have started your business, but are you the best person to keep it going? Is it time for the visionary to make way for the general manager?

I’m not going to answer the question: I’m simply going to state that it is one of the most interesting and fundamental questions we’ll all face as our businesses grow, and one we’ll all need to ask ourselves. As I talk to the other TAB franchisees and to more and more business owners who are nearing the end of their entrepreneurial careers, it’s a question which increasingly fascinates me. We can never stand still: we’re always growing, developing and learning. Whether it is internal change or external change, the challenges we face this year are never the same as the challenges we faced last year.

That’s why you need friends. Whether it is your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table, your other franchisees or my team here at head office, they’ll always be there with advice, insight – and the occasional reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously…

Dear Prime Minister…


Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

This week I wanted to start with, ‘The dust has settled and we can get back to normal…’ But, apparently not: still no deal with the DUP and a Queen’s Speech which roughly translated as, ‘Sort it yourselves, I’m off to Ascot.’

Apparently many Conservative MPs are privately admitting to disappointment at the way the Prime Minister has handled the talks with the DUP. Ah well, it’s not as though she has any major negotiations coming up…

But sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

That’s it. Except that if you’re still struggling to cobble a government together give me a ring. I know plenty of owners of SME’s who are first-rate negotiators. 10 members of the DUP to sort out? They’d do it before breakfast…

Best regards

Ed

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?

The Entrepreneur’s Manifesto


First things first. This post was written on Thursday: by the time you read it you’ll have sat up all night watching the results come in or – early on Friday morning – you’ll have smiled with satisfaction. Or wondered if you could relocate to Mexico…

Either way, we’ll have a new government: new policies, new priorities and – as usual – those of us running a business will need to adapt. There are some very definite things that I’d like to see over the next five years and I’ll be writing about them next week. For now, let me reflect on the campaign that has just ended.

…And go back to some words I wrote in July 2014, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, Jeremy Corbyn was a maverick backbencher and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition could look forward to another 10 months in power.

Seven o’clock the next morning. He’s in his office. A bank of computer screens. Stock market prices, foreign currency exchange – and the production figures from his factories; the sales figures from his shops. He finishes his black coffee, takes his tablets and settles into another high-risk, high-pressure day. Another typical day for an entrepreneur…

That’s the popular perception of the entrepreneur – someone who loves risk, who needs the adrenalin rush from risk, who even goes out of his way to create risk when none exists.

We could well take the stereotype even further. Focused, ruthless, determined to get what he (yes, the “typical” entrepreneur is always a he) wants. Doesn’t care who gets trampled in the process…

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One of the things that has most disappointed me about this election campaign has been that both sides have failed to understand the role of the entrepreneur in our society – that the picture of ‘the typical entrepreneur’ has been allowed to hold sway.

To Labour supporters “the rich” (let’s not use some of the other epithets) have been nothing more than a vehicle to be taxed: an inexhaustible supply of cash for the state. But neither have the Conservatives supported our cause: the entrepreneur has taken a back seat as they increasingly see ‘big government’ as the engine of growth.

I know virtually no-one in TAB who fits that outdated picture of the stereotypical entrepreneur. Yes, of course many TAB members and franchisees want to build successful businesses for themselves and their families – but almost none of them have the creation of personal wealth as their sole motivation.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think entrepreneurs are some of the most important members of our society. They create jobs: in the UK, more than 15m people are employed by SMEs.

They innovate – the iPhone, the Dyson, your computer’s operating system. So much of what we take for granted now was born out of an entrepreneur’s spirit, determination and willingness to make sacrifices.

Entrepreneurs drive economic growth – and they accept risk. Ultimately, nothing is created without someone, somewhere taking a risk. And that person is almost always an entrepreneur.

And entrepreneurs give back. Yes, initiatives such as The Giving Pledge will always attract the major headlines, but I constantly see entrepreneurs working in their local areas without any expectation of reward or recognition, giving back to communities that have given so much to them.

Let me leave you with the story of one entrepreneur. He was born in Hackney: his father was a tailor in the garment industry and they lived in a council flat. He earned extra money for the family by working in a greengrocer’s and then – after a brief spell at the Ministry of Education – he began selling car aerials out of a van he’d bought for £50 and insured for £8.

And in January of this year he paid £58,646,028.44 in tax.

You will have your own views on Lord Sugar. Whatever they are, you cannot deny that he is an entrepreneur who has innovated, created jobs and – ultimately – given back to society.

In the election campaign he was roundly vilified by left wing Labour supporters for suggesting (tactfully, as he always does) that their leader may not be up to the job.

In response to the criticism, he revealed the amount of tax he paid in January of this year. Yes, 58 million quid.

Alan Sugar could undoubtedly have spent his working life at the Ministry of Education: he’d now be quietly retired on an index-linked pension. Instead, he started selling car aerials in Hackney market – and he has just paid the salary of 2,320 nurses…

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…

If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

You’re the one who persuaded the bank. Convinced your wife to put your house on the line.

You’re the one who went in early. Stayed late. Made sacrifices.

You’re the one who took the difficult decisions. Sat down with Bill and explained – as gently as you could – that his future wasn’t with the business.

You’re the one whose energy, drive, commitment – and sometimes your sheer force of will – has taken the company to where it is now.

And now, Sir or Madam, I am telling you to do nothing. Play golf. Have another day at York races. Walk the Pilgrim Way.

“What?” you splutter. “That’s ridiculous advice. I need to be there. Hands-on, constantly fine-tuning the business, ever-present.”

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

Several times over the last few years I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs along these lines: “I’ve got nothing to do, Ed. Everything’s under control. I could walk out for a day. For a week, a month even. Things would still run smoothly.”

Are the entrepreneurs happy about that? No, they see it as a sign of failure.

But it’s not failure. It’s exactly the opposite: a sign of success.

I’ve written about this before, but if you haven’t built a business you can walk away from then you haven’t built a business. Because one day you’re going to sell the business and if it is entirely dependent on you – if you are the business – then you have nothing to sell.

Entrepreneurs are driven, passionate, committed people. They love working and they love working hard. Secretly, they’re never happier than when they have to set the alarm for 4:30.

But businesses are constantly evolving. No business goes upwards in a straight line. There are always steps and plateaus. And one of those plateaus might suddenly see you with nothing to do. Trust me, it won’t last. Every time an entrepreneur has said, “Ed, I’ve nothing to do,” it’s been followed one, three or six months later by, “Ed, I’ve never been busier.”

In the short term, though, the hiatus can be a real problem for the entrepreneur. They’re conditioned to see doing nothing – not constantly running at 100mph, not being there all the time – as a sign of failure.

They start to feel guilty, start to think they’ve missed something. And sooner or later they start to make changes for the sake of making changes.

Tap ‘entrepreneur doing nothing’ into Google and the search engine doesn’t believe you. By the third listing it has defaulted to the norm: ‘Why nothing less than 100% can ever be enough.’

Once you’ve built your business to a certain size, your job changes. It’s another topic I’ve covered previously – and I’ll be writing about it again next week – but your job is no longer to work in your business, it is to work on your business. Clients and customers still need to see you, but they do not need to see you behind the counter – or whatever you equivalent of a counter is.

Working on your business means a lot more thinking time and a lot less ‘doing’ time. Initially, it can be a difficult transition – but let me repeat: resist the urge to meddle, to look for problems where none exist.

And if you do find yourself with nothing to do, remember it’s not a sign that your business is broken. It is not a reason for you to feel guilty. It’s a sign of success. So enjoy it. Take time off and re-charge your batteries. Spend time with your family. Give something back to your local community. You deserve the break – and don’t worry: you’ll soon be smiling quietly to yourself and re-setting the alarm clock…

The Workplace Taboo


It’s been a busy week for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight for me – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the rain – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain yesterday this morning I’m obviously at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.

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As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And in The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”