It’ll Never be Time for the Pipe and Slippers…


Friday September 23rd. And after today, only 11 weeks of the year left. So yes, any minute now I’m going to start looking round the TAB boardroom table and suggest you start making plans for next year.

The time of year for looking ahead is approaching – but for some TAB members, ‘looking ahead’ is starting to take on a slightly different meaning. And it’s no surprise…

It’s more than six years since I started TAB York. As I check the boardroom tables, I see plenty of people who’ve become lifelong friends – but I also see rather more grey hair: or – in some cases – significantly less hair…

Yes, the thoughts of some members are turning towards exit strategies, what they’ll do when they’re not building a business and – ultimately – their legacy.

Well, maybe we should take a leaf out of Charles Eugster’s book…

Charles is 97, and holds the indoor and outdoor 200m and 400m world records for men over 95. He worked as a dentist until he was 75 and – despite a small pause in his 80s – has never stopped working. He still goes to the office in Zurich every day, before training in the afternoon. And Charles comfortably wins my ‘Positive Thinker of the Year’ award:

Even at 87 I wanted an Adonis body, in order to turn the heads of the sexy, young 70-year-old girls on the beach.

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Dr Charles Eugster (87) who has become one of the worlds oldest wakeboarders today when he was given his first lesson at the Ten-80 Wakeboarding School in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Credit: Shaun Fellows / newsteam.co.uk 25/5/2007

More seriously Charles Eugster says that he is “not chasing youthfulness. I’m chasing health.” Retirement, he says, “is a financial disaster and a health catastrophe.”

In many ways this was one of the most interesting articles I’d read all year – and I’d add ‘psychological’ to ‘financial’ and ‘health.’

The sentiments chime with what so many of my friends and clients are saying, and echo an underlying theme from the TAB Conference in Denver.

“I’m not intending to retire any time soon, Ed, if at all,” is a phrase I hear over and over again. No-one, it seems, is thinking of their pipe, slippers and Bake Off.

“I’m going to do a lot less in the business and a lot of other things,” is the consensus – with ‘other things’ covering charitable work, non-executive directorships, and mentoring students and start-ups.

I’ve just finished reading Finish Big by Bo Burlingham: ‘how great entrepreneurs exit their companies on top.’

Burlingham talks about entrepreneurs being defined by their place in the world: specifically by how they see themselves in the community. Unsurprisingly, 66% of entrepreneurs who exit their business “experience profound regret afterwards” – and a large part of that is the feeling that they’re no longer making a contribution.

Back to Charles Eugster and his Adonis body. He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s using his vanity as a motivating factor. And why not? Feeling that you’re valued and appreciated is an integral part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It’s no wonder that 66% of entrepreneurs experience profound regret. They’ve built a business, they’ve a wealth of wisdom, experience and knowledge and now suddenly – unless they plan for it – nobody wants to talk to them. Despite all they’ve achieved, they’re no longer defined by their business, they no longer feel valued.

So TAB York is not only about you and your business, or your work/life balance as you’re building the business. It’s not just about immediate problems and next year’s plans – it’s about what comes afterwards as well. It’s about leaving a legacy – for yourself and for the community.

PS I’m sorry, I had to check. Charles Eugster’s time for the 200m is 55.48 seconds. That’s three times longer than Usain Bolt’s time – but it’s roughly 8 minute mile pace. Well, well, there’s a challenge and an interesting ice-breaker for a few TAB meetings. Bring your shorts, ladies and gentlemen; let’s see who’s slower than a 97 year old…

The Chef’s Recipe for Success


I seem to have become addicted to chefs. Barely a weekend goes past when I’m not reading about the latest culinary superstar. You know the story: started off washing veg in Macclesfield – 20th restaurant just opened in Macau.

This may have something to do with my continuing attendance at the Star Inn the City (don’t wait a day longer: go and eat the White Whitby Crab right now) or the simple fact that getting it right in the restaurant trade means ticking every business box there is.

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So this week it was Jason Atherton in the Guardian. And the journey was Skegness to Shanghai, so I wasn’t far out…

There were three comments in the article that really struck me…

I’m a big fan of David Beckham. He wasn’t the best player in the world but he worked like a dog on the things he was better at than the others and became the best footballer he could be. To be honest, I didn’t know where I was heading [as a teenager] but everything I did want to do, I wanted to be the very best at.

Doesn’t that go right to the heart of everything we all try and do? Whether it’s with our families, in our businesses or round the TAB boardroom table, ‘being the best you can be’ will take you a very long way.

I remember Beckham’s first season with Manchester United – a talented midfielder who scored a wonder goal in the famous ‘you win nothing with kids’ season. Looked like he’d go on to have a good career: but captain of England, owner of a Major League Soccer franchise, Unicef ambassador and net worth (as of June last year) estimated at $350m? Jason Atherton is right: in sport and in business, Beckham is a superb example of making the very most of your talents.

Once, I thought I was impressing him [Gordon Ramsay] by saying, ‘I’ve not had a day off in four months.’ He replied, ‘Then you’re stupid. A kitchen should run just as well without you as with you, Jason. I’ll look at you as a success when you haven’t got more bags under your eyes than I count at Heathrow.’

Another theme that runs throughout this blog: you haven’t built a business if that business can’t run without you. One day you’ll have to walk away from your business: and if the business can’t cope – if you haven’t trained your sous chef – then the business doesn’t have a value.

…And you can’t build a business if you’re exhausted. I see that some of the world’s top business people have just trekked to the top of a mountain in Davos to hear Sebastian Vettel tell them that you can’t drive an F1 car – or run your business – without sufficient sleep. Huh! They could have stayed in the bar with a gluhwein and read the blog…

Rather than go to school I’d sneak off to Boston to go fishing. My parents went ballistic when they found out, but it’d given me time to be alone and daydream and thankfully I discovered the idea of being a chef. I’ve always found daydreaming useful; nowadays I carry a Moleskine book to jot down ideas. A lot of people are too scared to follow dreams, therefore they don’t achieve. What I mean is, if you do have big dreams, don’t be afraid to chase them.

I’m not suggesting that there should be a few empty spaces at the next TAB meeting: “Sorry, Ed, they’ve all gone fishing at Filey.” But we all need space – and time – to dream. Then we all need the courage to follow those dreams – and it’s that courage which separates the successful people from the ones still saying, ‘Someday…’

To repeat the Tim Ferris quote from last week: ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.

Let me finish with one more quotation from Jason’s interview – and it applies to all of us, whether they are ‘eating your food’ or buying your widgets…

I feel really privileged and honoured to have a job I love, a family supporting and enriching my life; that customers are eating our food and I have a great team with the same ethos as me. So that’s as good a work/life balance as I can think of.

…It’s also as good a definition of success as I can think of. Until next week: have a great weekend – and spend some time daydreaming!

The Road Less Grizzled


Like a lot of you, I like business quotes. They’re inspirational, helpful, supportive and, just occasionally, there to remind you that however busy you are there are still more important things in life.

But by the time you get to my age – and thirty is not that far away now – you’ve heard them all before.

So this article was a breath of fresh air. Some really pertinent, worthwhile comments that I hadn’t come across before – still inspirational, helpful etc. etc. – but not the same old grizzled faces that pop up all the time.

You’ll all have your favourites – let me pick just four.

I’ll begin with this one, from Jason Cohen, the founder at WPEngine. You spend 99.9% of your working life on the path and 0.1% experiencing the euphoria of an exit or the disappointment of a final failure. If you’re not fulfilled by the journey, you’re wasting your life.

That for me goes right to the heart of TAB in general and TAB York in particular. 99.9% might be a slight exaggeration, but we’re all going to spend the vast majority of our working lives ‘on the journey.’ If you don’t enjoy the journey – if it doesn’t fire you with enthusiasm – then sooner or later one or more wheels will fall off the business.

But the journey can’t rule your life and that is hopefully where TAB comes in – making sure you’re successful without being consumed by your business: helping you keep your work and your life balanced.

On to number two, from Fred Perrotta at Tortuga Backpacks. You can’t figure out everything beforehand by reading about it. Just do it and make your own mistakes. Get back up, dust yourself off and do better next time.

Again, this is exactly what modern business is about. As I’ve said many times in this blog, Ready, Fire, Aim. For many businesses these days the price of starting – and the price of failure – is low. Don’t spend months (or years!) analysing the market and writing endless business plans: the best information is the information your customers give you. Get out there, give them a product, listen to what they say, revise your product and go again.

Next up, Francine Hardaway, founder of Stealthmode Partners. And this is very much a back-to-basics reminder, but a basic none of us running a business can ever ignore. Watch your cash. Running out of money can happen when your business is at its most successful.

Of all the KPIs you monitor, the ones dealing with cash flow are the ones which need watching the most closely – and as Francine says, running out of cash isn’t necessarily a sign that your business is failing. Running out of cash is just that: running out of cash. It’s easy to put off doing the cash flow forecast and chasing up the bills, but it simply has to be done – and it has to be done consistently.

I’ve saved my favourite for the end. It’s from Scott Meyer of 9 Clouds. Show up and give your best effort every time. You never know who’s listening.

Absolutely right. You never know who’s listening, who’s in the audience, who you’re going to meet. But show up and give it 100%, whether you’re delivering a once-in-a-lifetime speech or whether you’re at yet-another-networking-breakfast. I am prepared to wager that every person reading this blog owes one of their major clients or one of their biggest opportunities (or maybe even their wife!) to a time when they very nearly didn’t go – but finally decided to make the effort.

Let me leave the rest of the quotations and advice from the article with you. You’re bound to disagree with my choices and you’re bound to have your own old and new favourites. As always I’d be delighted if you’d share them.

Have a great weekend and I’ll be back next week. That’s April – the first quarter of 2014 gone already. But I’m absolutely confident you’re all on target for a great year…

Passing the Four Week Test


…with flying colours.

Last week I posed some questions. Supposing you walked out of the office door and didn’t come back for four weeks. What would happen to your

 Sales and revenues?
 Stock control, production and delivery?
 Relationship with your clients/customers?
 And what would be the biggest problem you faced when – tanned and smiling – you eventually came back?

As I said last week, ideally the answers would be nothing, nothing, nothing and ‘there wouldn’t be one.’ The trouble is that we don’t live in a perfect world and for most TAB members and potential members the Four Week Test provides an all too reliable examination of the business they’re building.

So, assuming you’re running a small to medium sized business and that the success of the business is in large part down to you, how do you pass the FWT? As I said, at some stage you have to pass – because if you don’t the business won’t be a very attractive proposition as and when you finally want to sell it.

Obviously, it comes down to your team: the people who are going to be left behind when you go on your gap month.

What’s the first step in making sure your team cope while you’re away? Simples. Hiring the best people in the first place. We’ll look at recruitment and the key qualities you want in a future blog, but if I’ve learnt one thing in my life it is this: key members of staff have to be right. Don’t ever hire someone because they’re the best of a bad bunch – the last man standing when the music stops. Better to struggle on until Mr Right does turn up. To slightly mangle the old saying, ‘Hire in haste, repent at leisure.’

Assuming you’ve found the right people, motivate them. Yes, that means money and yes, it may mean giving them the chance to acquire some equity in the business. But read this blog from a Board member: there are plenty of ways of getting the best from your staff, and this is one I must admit I hadn’t previously considered.

An essential part of motivating people is trusting them. It’s a lot like children: Dan’s getting older and we’re getting to the stage where we have to say, “OK, if that’s the decision you want to make, we’ll go with it. And we’ll support you.” The key word there is support: you’ve got to let people make decisions and you have to support those decisions, even though you may not agree with them 100%. Have faith; you may be pleasantly surprised…

Hand in hand with that goes the ability to delegate: ultimately it’s the quality in a leader that will allow you to get your work and your life properly balanced. It’s interesting that as TAB York develops a lot of the conversations I used to have about building a business have been replaced by conversations about delegating and time away from the business. That must be a good sign…

Choose the right people, motivate them and trust them and you’ll be amazed at what they can achieve. And even more, what they can achieve without you there. Being away gives people the chance to step up, take responsibility and try things they probably wouldn’t attempt if you were there.

Who knows, there might come a time when they’re suggesting you take another four week break…

Next week I’m looking at the management of stress – but in the meantime, here’s a quiz question. A bottle of red wine and some serious kudos if you can tell me who came up with this piece of advice on time management:

A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.

Time to Hang up Your Boots


I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for the radio. No idea what to write about this week? No problem – there’s an hour’s drive to the first Board meeting. Stick Radio 4 on, listen to the Today programme and somewhere around Monk’s Cross, Malton or the motorway the problem will be solved.

So it was this week, when the sports news was dominated by talk of retirement – specifically, David Haye and Sachin Tendulkar. Haye’s retirement has been prompted by a shoulder injury and he described it as “a crushing blow.”

The little master on the other hand, simply decided that enough was enough. The years had taken their toll, he didn’t feel he was quite the batsman he once was and, he said, “it was time to put my feet up and watch some cricket.”

Radio 4 had a sports psychologist on the programme. He was taking about David Haye, but he might equally have been talking about Tendulkar or any of the thousands of sportsmen forced to retire – or who choose to retire – each year.

His self-esteem is going to suffer. Boxing defines him. It’s what he does. Nearly all his friendships will have come from boxing – and nothing is ever going to give him that same high ever again.

Ditto for Sachin Tendulkar. Never again will he walk out in front of 66,000 adoring fans at Eden Gardens. Never again will he face Jimmy Anderson in fading light with only the tail to come…

So retiring is hard – whatever the reason. It’s no wonder that sport is littered with recently retired players suffering from depression. But as I listened to the sports psychologist, it struck me that you could quite easily cross out the word ‘boxing,’ substitute ‘business’ and the sentence would still make perfect sense.

Virtually all of us are going to have a ‘Tendulkar moment:’ a time when something clicks and we realise we’re not enjoying it any more, we’re not quite as sharp as we once were and that maybe the time has come to hang up the iPad.

At that stage there are two considerations: financial and psychological. Hopefully the finances have been taken care of: hopefully your accountant and your IFA have been advising you along the way and – even if you didn’t get quite the price you wanted – there’s enough in savings to allow you to walk onto the golf course without worrying about losing a few balls.

But the psychology of it is a different matter. How many of us secretly love it when we’ve a last minute deadline and we’re really up against it? What’s better than finally winning the big order you’ve been working on for months? And what’s going to replace the simple fact that the buck absolutely stops at your desk? ‘If it is to be, it is up to me’ as the saying goes. Well, sorry, not any more…

So far, none of my Board members have reached that stage. None of them have sold up and headed for the sunshine. But it’s going to happen sooner or later (and between you and me there’s one particular Board where they seem to have aged dramatically…)

When it does, I hope TAB has done its work. Because as we stress repeatedly – and to paraphrase Bill Clinton – it’s not just the economy, stupid. If work has been your sole reason for existing – if you’ve lived to work – then David Haye is right: retirement will be ‘a crushing blow.’

That’s why I’m always at pains to stress work/life balance – that life is every bit as important as work. Work should not define you. Yes it’s a cliché, but no-one ever did lie on their death bed muttering ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

Above all, if you get the work/life balance right now – and keep it right – then your eventual retirement is going to be successful, financially and psychologically. And if there’s anyone out there who still thinks a business meeting is more important than their child’s Nativity Play, give me a ring. I could do to let off steam…

Heading for the Exit


Last week I had Six Random Thoughts About Felix Baumgartner. This week I have one very simple thought: what does he do with the rest of his life?

I don’t mean that negatively. But when you’ve fallen from 24 miles up it’s fairly certain that those 5½ minutes are going to be the ‘high’ point of your life. How do you follow that? Spend your life delivering inspirational messages to audiences that dutifully give you a standing ovation but have not the slightest understanding of what you’ve really achieved?

Matthew Pinsent said much the same during the Olympics. “We won the gold, did all the interviews, shook about a million hands… And then at eight o’clock that night I’m back in my room. Sitting on the bed with my gold medal. And I’m thinking, ‘now what?’”

The race is slightly longer for entrepreneurs and owners of SMEs – but are they doomed to suffer the same reaction at the end of the day? “Is that it? What do I do now?”

I’ve been reading some research from Coutts & Co, quoted in EN, a magazine for entrepreneurs and business owners. The report was called The Long Goodbye, and dealt largely with the amount of time it took to sell a business, and preparing your exit strategy. But it also quoted some statistics on how entrepreneurs felt on the day of the eventual sale.

Only 36% said that they were happy: 32% simply felt relieved, but 26% reported a sense of sadness and a feeling of anti-climax. Only 1 entrepreneur in 4 actually retired, with the majority still being involved in some way in the business they’d sold. And 40% of the entrepreneurs went on to start a new business.

There seems to be a simple message in this. In the same way that footballers – even those successful in management – say that they wish they’d played on for a few more seasons, so entrepreneurs seem to relish being in the game. The journey seems to be as important as the destination. As one TAB member confided, “Between you and me, Ed, there’s nothing I like better than a full-on crisis.”

But however much you enjoy the journey, it’s going to end one day. As the old cliché goes, you’re going to walk out of your business or you’re going to be carried out. Every entrepreneur knows this, and 90% of them agree that planning your exit is ‘very important.’ But as you might guess, not much more than 50% actually do anything about it.

So what should we do to make sure that our exit from the business we’ve run is as planned and as profitable as possible? (And yes, I do include myself in this.) Here are three preliminary steps – and I’ll return to exit planning in much more depth in a future post.

1. Accept that it’s going to happen. At the moment it seems to be fashionable for entrepreneurs to claim that they’ll never retire. Really? I suspect that your health may have something to say about that, or – hopefully – your common sense. One day, the buzz just won’t be there any more, and your business will go on without you.

2. ‘Without you’ are the key words there. If your business can’t function without you, it simply doesn’t have a value. Entrepreneurs and business owners often like to be involved in the smallest details of their business – after all, they built it; no-one knows it like they do. Don’t. You have to learn to delegate, however hard it is.

3. My other initial suggestion – and one that I’ve seen work well – is be prepared to gradually move out of your business. You can’t be 100% involved on Friday afternoon and then wake up on Monday morning with nothing to do. Gradually cut down your hours: gradually pass your work over to other people.

Notice that I haven’t said, ‘make sure you’ve plenty of hobbies’ as though they’re some sort of compensation for running your business. If they are, you’ll be very, very lucky. But in the vast majority of cases they’re not. Running your own business – even in these tough times – is brilliant. I love it and almost without exception so do all the Board members. We’re privileged – so make sure you really do enjoy the journey.

Has the world gone mad?


Over Easter Facebook announced that they were acquiring Instagram for $1bn.

I’m prepared to bet here and now that 50% of people reading this blog have never heard of Instagram. Insta what?

It’s an app for your iPhone. You take a photo and Instagram makes it look cool and trendy (that is, sepia tinted mostly). Huh, you think, aren’t there loads of apps that do that? Yes there are.

Anyway, Instagram makes no money, but was still valued at $500m when it raised some cash a couple of weeks before Easter. Then it launched an Android version of the app, Facebook struck and fresh-faced CEO Kevin Systrom was walking home with $400m in his pocket.

Now according to Forbes magazine, all this was a piece of smart business from Facebook. They bought a rival company for $33 a user (Instagram has 30m users) largely using their own shares – which currently value a Facebook user at $117, or roughly four times an Instagram user.

Hang on. A billion bucks for a company that makes no money? That was valued at half that amount only a couple of weeks previously?

Has the world gone mad?

Does this signal the end of the technology bubble in the way that the flotation of lastminute.com signalled the end of the dotcom bubble in the UK?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that 245 miles from Facebook HQ in Palo Alto is the Carrizo Plain, shortly to be the home of one of America’s largest solar energy plants. This plant will generate enough electricity to supply 160,000 American homes and the company building the plant is currently in the process of signing 25 year agreements with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

It’s a $2bn investment by that know-nothing ne’er-do-well, Warren Buffet.

So which would you rather do? Buy a cool app that lets you take photos but doesn’t make any money? Or a plant that will generate a depressingly predictable income stream for as long as the sun shines?

And what does it all mean for the value of your company? After all, you’re presumably planning to sell your business at some stage in the future and live happily ever after with your pot of gold?

Whether you’re in Palo Alto or Pocklington; Silicon Valley or Sherburn-in-Elmet, I think there are three key lessons we can all learn from Facebook’s acquisition:

1. Timing is everything. Five years ago, the word Blackberry was more or less synonymous with smartphones. The idea that an upstart computer manufacturer could capture the market was, frankly, ludicrous. Today, Forbes describes Blackberry manufacturer RIM as “a financial basket case” with its share price plunging by 75%. Five years from now Instagram could well have gone the same way. But this weekend it was worth $1bn and the shareholders have cashed in accordingly. Your business – and mine – is no different: the value of it will rise and fall. Timing your exit will be crucial.

2. For the great majority of us, though, the fundamentals will always matter. North Yorkshire is a long way from Silicon Valley and you’re unlikely to sell your business on a sky-high multiple of what it might earn ten years from now. So while cash-flow and net profits might be hopelessly outdated concepts in some parts of the US, they are – and always will be – the bedrock of your business and, ultimately, what you’re going to sell.

3. But a little bit of sexy is good. The internet, social media and the Instagrams of this world are not going to go away – so if you’re selling up, think about sprinkling a little bit of that online stardust over the basics of the business. Everyone buying a business is to some extent buying potential: make sure that you provide some. In old-fashioned adspeak, sell the sizzle as well as the steak.

Let me finish by depressing the Facebook fans amongst you. Back in 2008 AOL bought teen social network Bebo for $850m: two years later they sold it to a private equity firm for $10m. Newscorp bought Myspace for $580m in 2005 when Facebook was still in Master Zuckerberg’s bedroom. They later sold it for a huge loss. The acquisition of Instagram may yet prove to be a very shrewd piece of business: then again, if a guy with an American accent and a cheque for $1bn wanders into your office this week, I know what I’d do…