Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend


I bumped into an old friend in York last week. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. This was the man who became bored with dress-down Friday – and dress-down every other day of the week – when the rest of us were still learning not to wear a striped tie with a check shirt…

There was only one possible explanation.

“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve finally made an honest woman of Claire. Where is she?”

He didn’t laugh. “Other end of the scale I’m afraid, Ed. Funeral. My second in two weeks. And both of them not much older than us.”

We’ve all been there: mentioned someone in conversation only to hear, ‘Hasn’t anyone told you? Last Thursday. No warning, nothing.” And inevitably the person being discussed was ‘not much older than us.’

That meeting with my friend played on my mind for the next few days. One thing I am sure of is that there is an ever-increasing level of stress in the average entrepreneur’s life. A few years ago people e-mailed or phoned. Now there is myriad of different ways of contacting someone: whatever you turn off, something else will bleep just as you sit down to dinner.

And we all know the dangers of stress.

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So that chance meeting with my friend stayed with me – not just because we’d been talking about someone close to our own age, but because the conversation posed a question that’s absolutely central to The Alternative Board.

You’ve started a business. You know what you want to achieve: you know what you’re capable of achieving. And you’re determined to get there.

So what do you do? How do you react when someone says, ‘haven’t you heard?’

Do you take it as a signal to run at 100mph in case the same thing happens to you and you never realise your potential?

Or do you stop and smell the roses? Pay attention to your work/life balance? Remind yourself that no-one’s last words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

The more I thought about it the more I realised I’d seen business owners – perhaps without even recognising it – struggling with the same dilemma. And not just as a one-off.

It’s a problem that raises it head, in different forms, at different stages of your entrepreneur’s journey.

What should I do? Put in the time? Re-invest the cash? And build a company that will really be worth something in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Or realise that I might not get there – and milk the business for all its worth and take my rewards in the here and now.

The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. The right answer depends on your own individual personality and how you want to live your life. As everyone who knows me will recognise, I’m in the ‘building a business’ camp – and I’m determined to enjoy the journey along the way, sharing that journey with my family and my friends.

Yes, I could be in the office every minute of every day – but I remember waking up one Tuesday morning early in my TAB York days. It was a morning like today: early May and the sun was shining in through the window. I looked at the pile of paperwork on my desk and went off to play 9 holes of golf.

It was a moment when I suddenly appreciated the freedom the decision to start my own business had given me – and when I knew I’d made the right decision in Newport Pagnell service station.

Not every entrepreneur would have taken that decision: some would have ploughed through the paperwork. The important thing, I think, is to recognise what works for you – and what you want from your business.

Whatever choice you make – whether you take your rewards now or later – remember that the business is working for you. It is emphatically not the other way around.

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Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.

Carillion

Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.

Bad Customer Service always Hertz


It’s impossible to start anywhere other than the Ryanair check-in desk this week. The lonely and deserted Ryanair check-in desk after one of the more spectacular own goals in corporate history. What is it about the airline industry? Last year United, this year Ryanair.

Michael O’Leary was swift to go on TV and offer profuse apologies. Flights cancelled for up to six weeks: up to 400,000 passengers with their flights cancelled and/or their holiday plans in ruins. But how do Ryanair still manage to give off that air of ‘sorry-not-sorry?’ There’s just the distinct impression of the kid at school – the one who’s apologising with his fingers crossed behind his back.

So Ryanair have thrown a large rock into their corporate pool. I suspect that they have done lasting and public damage to their reputation. And they have done it spectacularly.

But this week I want to talk about what I think was equally bad customer service. It wasn’t spectacular, it certainly won’t be reported in the media and, if Ryanair threw a rock, this was barely a pebble.

But there’s a ripple. And I hope that when you’ve read the blog this week the ripple may be on its way to being a wave. Here’s an abridged version of the story: if you want the full version, just let me know.

In the summer we went to Portugal for a week with another family. The events I’ve related below happened to both Ben and myself: a double whammy.

I’m a Hertz Gold Club member and I booked a car with them in advance – something around the size of an Astra, at £400 for the week.

When I arrived there was no Astra and instead I was offered a Clio Grande. I wondered if that was big enough for two large suitcases. “No problem,” the very helpful guy on the desk said, “You can upgrade to a BMW X3. Normally that would be £150, but you’re a Gold Member so I can do it for £80.”

That seemed fair enough. And we were anxious to start our holiday: I fumbled for my card. “No problem,” he said. “We don’t need your card. Just initial here … and here.”

And I was done – and, at that point, quite happy with the service I’d received from Hertz.

Fast forward a week. Time to hand the car back.

…At which point I find out that the £80 extra was per day. Was that mentioned initially? Not in a thousand years. Hertz presented the extra £80 as a one-off increase on the £400 I’d already paid.

You can imagine the scene. You can imagine the arguments Ben and I had with Hertz. You can also imagine the time I have wasted on this.

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At the time of writing it is still ‘in dispute.’ Hertz have so far refused to take any action: that includes failing to reply to my e-mail of August 20th despite – see the image – telling me that I should ‘stand by’ for a response on four separate occasions. Yep, I’m ‘standing by’ waiting for a response in much the same way as 400,000 Ryanair passengers are ‘standing by’ waiting for a flight. So here we are, in the rather more transparent world of social media…

Will I ever rent a car from Hertz again? Right now I would rather cycle round Portugal with our suitcases on my back. Will you ever rent a car from Hertz again? You may well do: but you will pause before you sign anything.

This is – by some distance – the worst service I’ve ever received in my life. Hertz still have my £500 (and Ben’s) and the words ‘ripped-off’ and ‘mis-selling’ don’t even come close. Worst of all is that – in the best traditions of United and Ryanair – Hertz don’t seem to care.

They may have been around since 1918, they may be the biggest name in car rental, but nothing excuses their lamentable service and their inability to answer an e-mail. I’ll be sharing this post with them: let’s hope someone at Hertz finally wakes up and takes notice. I’ll let you know…

365 Wasted Days


Hesitantly, the young graduate trainee approached the seen-it-all sales manager to proffer his excuse…

“I just don’t think it was the right time for them. Maybe next month…”

The sales manager sighed. The lad showed promise, but he needed to learn a basic truth. “You know what, Ed?” he said. “There’s never a right time.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well quite clearly no-one’s ever going to buy anything in January. Just recovering from Christmas and hiding from their credit card bills. February it’s too damn cold. March and April it’s Easter and they’re all doing DIY or out in the garden. May they’re thinking about summer holidays. June there’s always the World Cup or the Olympics. July and August they’ve gone on holiday; September they’re recovering from the holiday. October it gets dark. Everyone’s always depressed in November and December’s written off because of Christmas.”

“So…”

“So there’s never a right time. Go back and see them, Ed. Explain that there is a right time and the right time is now.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation and over the last 20 years I’ve quoted it word for word to several potential customers. I was reminded of it last week when the news broke that Theresa May would be demanding our attendance at the polling stations on June 8th.

Yes, the election – and Brexit – is going to happen. Clearly Theresa May wants her own mandate and equally clearly she doesn’t want to be bound by David Cameron’s election pledges.

Sir Martin Sorrell was being interviewed on TV and failing to hide his irritation. The election, he said, was “another excuse” for people in business to stop making decisions. The run-up to the election would see an inevitable slowdown in the economy: “another 50 wasted days” as Sorrell termed it.

Well, by the time you read this there’ll only be 41 more days to waste – but he may have underestimated the problem. My old sales manager would have understand it perfectly…

‘You’re right, Ed. First and foremost no-one can possibly take a decision before Macron is confirmed as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. Then there’s our election. But by then we’re into the summer holidays. And as soon we’re back from summer there’s the German election to worry about: if Angela Merkel is defeated it’ll be chaos. Then there’s Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Budget (assuming he’s still Chancellor). I mean seriously, given the hints there have been about tax rises it’s safer to wait and see. Then it’s Christmas and staggering back to work in January. And by February/March we’ll have had six months of serious Brexit negotiations with the new German government. It makes sense to wait and see how those are playing out. And then it’s Easter again on April 1st 2018. You’ve nailed it: no-one can possibly make any decisions for at least a year…’

50 wasted days? More like 365.

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As we all know, there are always reasons not to take decisions. They might be macro – political, economic – or micro, such as staff problems and cash flow, but they’ll always be there.

But making decisions is our job. It’s what we signed up for when we sat in the motorway services, pushed our breakfast round the plate and decided there had to be a better way. Business is about making decisions – and as that as that well-known pioneer of the waste management industry, Anthony Soprano Snr., put it, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

He’s right: you can correct a wrong decision. Indecision eats away at you and your business until it does far more damage than a wrong decision.

But making decisions isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Tony Soprano again: “Every decision you make affects every facet of every other thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Alternative Board, and have seven other people to offer their input and their experience and – nine times out of ten – help you make the right decision.

But having last week recommended that the boss of United Airlines joins TAB, perhaps I’ll just stop short of suggesting a new member for TAB New Jersey…

United we Fall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Fight or flight

If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

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

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

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

What would I have done? Four things:

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

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

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

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

The Five Lessons I’ve Learned


I was talking to a potential new member of TAB York last week: explaining what I did, how the concept of peer coaching worked, the benefits it had brought to my members… And looking back on the seven years I’ve been running TAB York.

“So,” she said. “What are the five key pieces of advice you’d give to an entrepreneur?

Five? I thought. More like 55. Or 555. But let me try and answer the question more successfully than I answered it then. What are the five most important lessons I’ve learned in the past seven years – and by definition, the five most important pieces of advice I’d give?

Lessons Learned written on chalkboard

1.The job of a leader is to lead

You’ve pushed your breakfast round your plate in a desolate motorway service station: you’ve decided that enough is enough. It’s time to start your own business. You owe it to yourself: you owe it to your family. Sooner or later your new business will be employing people – and your job is simple. It’s to lead them: to say, ‘this is the where we’re going, follow me.’ There are plenty of other things you need to do – realise you don’t need to be an expert in everything and don’t be afraid to hire people who are brighter than you – but it is your drive, determination and vision that will carry the company forward.

2.A mistake is only a mistake

I made Spaghetti Bolognese at the weekend. I broke a bowl, tipped pasta sauce on the floor and left the gas on under a pan. They were mistakes – and that’s all they were. No-one (not even my wife) is suggesting that I give up cooking and never enter the kitchen again. So your latest idea didn’t work out: the guy you hired who was going to transform your business transformed it in the wrong direction. Move on: you live to fight another day – your vision is still the same. No-one scores 100% with their decisions – and as the saying goes, ‘the man who never makes a mistake never makes anything.’

3.Keep on Learning

I think we can say that the world has changed since I joined The Alternative Board in 2009. In that year Facebook had 360m users and 20m iPhones were sold. Today the figures are approaching 2 billion and over 200 million. In 2009 Apple had just introduced a fledgling service called the ‘app store.’ The pace of change over the last seven years has been astonishing, and it’s not going to slow down. You need to set aside time to learn – and as I wrote a few weeks ago, if you don’t develop and grow, then your company can’t develop and grow.

4.Nothing can replace your KPIs

Having just written about change, let me turn to something which can never change: your Key Performance Indicators – the numbers and metrics which tell you the current state of your business and go a very long way to predicting its future.

If I’ve seen one cause of business failure over the past seven years it’s not knowing your KPIs. Checking your KPIs every month is simply essential to the continued success of your business. And ‘How much have we got in the bank?’ is not an adequate check. Sadly, it is almost always followed by ‘Can we afford to pay the wages this month?’

5.Your product is more important than anything

Despite the internet, despite social media, despite e-mail marketing and despite every change that’s happened over the last seven years, your product (or service) remains the key to everything. And if it’s not excellent, you’re in trouble. To paraphrase the old saying, stories about bad service are half way round the world before good service has got its boots on. Not only is the world changing, it is spawning a lot of hungry competitors: if you’re not innovating and improving, then someone else will be, and they’ll be telling your customers.

6.We all need friends

Clearly I haven’t learnt to count, but where else can I finish? Over the last seven years it has been my privilege to listen to some outstanding business advice from the members of TAB York. It’s been advice which has transformed businesses, transformed lives and – on at least one occasion – saved a marriage. We all need friends and – in business – you will never find better friends than your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table. As the man said, we all need a little help

The Monday Morning Quarterback


It’s just about the perfect description. Instantly, we all know what it means…

So the wide receiver’s wide open. 20 yard throw straight into the end zone. Hell, even my six year old can do that. What’s he do? Tries to run it himself. Gets sacked. Turnover. And it’s game over. Season over. See you in September.

There isn’t an equivalent phrase in the UK, but no office is short of an expert round the watercooler on a Monday morning.

Seriously, he thinks X is a centre back? He needs to buy Y. And no wonder Z didn’t try an inch. My mate’s brother says he’s been tapped up by City.

Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, no sports fan gets a decision wrong on a Monday morning. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and it guarantees you a 100% success rate.

Sadly, the entrepreneur doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight: he has to make decisions every day – and he’ll get plenty of them wrong. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review put it, ‘The problems entrepreneurs confront every day would overwhelm most managers.’

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…And – just like the QB on a Sunday night – entrepreneurs get plenty of decisions wrong. Any entrepreneur who gets 50% of his decisions right first time is doing remarkably well. Fortunately, TAB members can improve on those numbers. They can bring their problems to the monthly board meetings – and rely on the collective wisdom, experience and insight of their colleagues: the Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday quarterbacks. Once a problem – or an idea – has been run past seven people instead of one, the chances of a correct decision increase exponentially.

But I’m aware that not everyone who reads this blog is a member of TAB York: plenty of readers are just starting their journey as an entrepreneur. So here are three of the most common problems, proposed solutions and – ultimately – mistakes that I’ve seen in my business life. I hope they help – and don’t worry if you tick all three boxes: every successful entrepreneur has done exactly the same.

  • No-one else cares like I care. The only answer is to do it myself

That’s true. It’s your business: no-one will ever care like you care. But you cannot do everything yourself. That way lies fatigue, burn-out and your wife telling you that she needs to talk… Embrace the division of labour: we live in an age where everything can be outsourced online. Your job is to manage the business: let someone else do the tedious stuff that takes away your creativity and your productivity.

  • There’s no more money in the budget. The only solution is to throw more hours at it

Let me refer you to one of my favourite books, Rework, and page 83: ‘throw less at the problem.’ As the authors say, the solution is not more hours, people or money. The solution is almost always to cut back. You cannot do everything and, as I wrote last week, success comes from a focus on your core business – not on trying to please all the people all the time. Besides, more hours simply means a second, more serious, talk with your wife…

  • Fire people: hire people

When you’re starting out you’ll be a small team: that breeds closeness – and loyalty. But not everyone who starts the journey with you is capable of finishing it. Sadly, at some stage you’ll learn just how lonely it can be as an entrepreneur: one day, you’ll accept that Bill’s just not up to it any more. You have to act: if you don’t, you’ll cause resentment among the rest of Bill’s team – and risk losing people who are up to it. And when you hire Bill’s replacement, don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter than you. See above, your job is to manage and lead the company, not to be the expert on every single aspect of it.

 

When I write this weekly post I sometimes ‘let it go cold’ for an hour and then give it a final read through. That’s what I did this week and I need to correct myself. The three mistakes above are mistakes we can make at every stage of our business journey – not just when we’re starting out.

It’s all too easy to slip back into bad habits, to think ‘it’s easier to do it myself’ or ‘If I work through the night I’ll have cracked it.’ We’ve all done it. But at least you won’t make the mistakes for long: those quarterbacks round the TAB table will be watching you…

The Road to 2017


Last week Keaton Jennings made his debut for England, playing against India in Mumbai.

He was dropped off the 21st ball of the day. At the time he’d made 0. Had the catch been taken, he couldn’t have made a worse start to his test career. But it wasn’t – and by the end of the day Jennings was the hero, scoring 112 – only the 19th England player to make a hundred on debut.

Listening to a recap of the first day’s play one of the summarisers made a really important point: even if Jennings had made 0, even if he’d failed in his first few innings, he still looked right. ‘We get too focused on outcomes in very small samples,’ he said.

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That’s something to keep in mind as you head into 2017. You’ve now made – or you’re close to finalising – your plans for the year ahead. You’re convinced they’re the right plans. You’ve run them past your colleagues and in January you’ll do the same with your fellow Board members. Come Tuesday January 3rd they’re the plans that will guide you through the year.

So don’t lose heart if you get a duck in January. If the plans don’t work immediately, don’t rip them up. Refine, tweak, adjust, get outside the line of off stump: but remember that the first month of the year – like the first steps in building a business or the first few innings in a test career – is a ‘very small sample.’

Anyway, the end of 2016 is approaching. You may now be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. You may carelessly think, ‘Phew, thank the Lord that’s over. Leicester City, Brexit, Trump… Surely we can’t have another year that’s so unpredictable?’

‘Yes we can,’ is the answer to that question: I suspect there may be quite a few twists, turns and bumps along the road in 2017. Domestically Brexit will be triggered: how it will end, no-one (least of all the Government) knows. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Theresa May call a General Election next year, Fixed Term Parliament Act or not…

But it’s my colleagues in TAB Europe who’ll see their countries become the focus of attention next year. March brings a General Election in Holland with the far-right Freedom Party currently on course to become the largest single party. The French Presidential election is in April/May – the signs are that it will be fought out between Marine le Pen of the Front National and the likely winner, the right’s self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Fillon.

And then in September there are elections in Germany: Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term, but she will surely come under plenty of pressure from the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

May you live in interesting times’ as the supposedly-Chinese curse has it. I suspect we’ll look back on 2017 and decide that ‘interesting’ was an understatement. So next year will not be a year to take your eye off the ball. No, don’t panic if your plans are not on track by January 31st. Even if the world changes so much next year that you need to completely re-write your original plans, remember the words of Dwight D Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What you will need to do next year is keep a close watch on your metrics: the two or three key statistics, ratios or measurements that absolutely determine the health of your business – the ‘pulse’ that I’ve talked about in previous posts.

Through December I’ve had the remarkably enjoyable job of listening to TAB members reflect on the past year: I’m delighted to say that far more has gone right than has gone wrong. Has there been a common thread running through the success stories – apart from measuring those key metrics?

Yes, I think there has. ‘Resilience’ and ‘consistency’ are the two words that come to mind: TAB members have consistently done the right thing and stayed true to their beliefs and their vision. And as a result, they’re reaping the rewards.

So 2017 will be challenging: I suspect the old PEST analysis will be wheeled out several times. But like all years, it will also be full of opportunities: and however challenging, the plans you’ve made, the metrics you measure and the support of your TAB colleagues will ensure that you couldn’t be in better shape to greet the coming year…

Marks out of Ten


Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery.

We’re all familiar with Mr Micawber’s quote – and while inflation may have changed the numbers, the essential truth of Charles Dickens’ words can never be challenged. Translate them into business and they’re the reason you monitor your cash flow, the reason you check your KPIs and the reason you keep a lid on the expenses.

Yes, you can get away with spending that extra shilling in the short term, but annual expenditure of twenty pounds, ought and sixpence catches up with you in the end. ‘The mills of the Gods grind exceeding slow,’ Sextus Empiricus pointed out in the 3rd Century, ‘But they grind exceeding fine.’

Make no mistake, the result of that extra shilling of expenditure is misery. There is nothing that drags you down – mentally and physically – like staring at the cash flow every night, realising it just doesn’t add up.

So make sure you don’t spend that extra shilling, and you can forget about Wilkins Micawber, and be happy for the rest of your business career.

Or maybe not…

…Because I think there are other areas of business life where the ‘Micawber deficit’ can have a significant impact on your happiness. It’s not just the cash flow.

Let me turn for a moment from Micawber to Maslow – and his hierarchy of needs. Right at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization: as Maslow put it, “what a man can be, he must be.”

Nowhere is this more true than in business. And it takes me right back to last week’s post and the decision to ‘move to the next level.’ If you feel you can do it, you have to do it. If you don’t, you’ll end up frustrated and disappointed – and ultimately, a danger to your business.

We’ve had a recent innovation at TAB York. Before the meeting starts I ask every member for a ‘mark out of ten.’ It’s not quite ‘life, the universe and everything,’ but it is an indication of how they’re feeling – about life and business.

Supposing I were to take that one stage further – and ask the board members to rate their own performance over the last month: to give themselves a mark out of ten?

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The actual mark wouldn’t matter: one man’s eight is another woman’s six. But in the context of this blog, one thing emphatically would matter. We all have minimum standards for ourselves. Whether that’s a six or an eight is immaterial. We all have a number that reflects the minimum level of performance that’s acceptable – that in Maslow’s terminology, confirms our self-actualisation.

To miss that number on a consistent basis – to regularly deliver less than your best – is a recipe for long-term unhappiness. As Mr Micawber might have said:

Monthly target eight, monthly average eight point one, result happiness. Monthly target eight, monthly average seven point nine, result misery.

There are few worse feelings than performing below the level you’re capable of: do that consistently, and it starts to eat into you. And suddenly ‘could have, should have, would have’ are rearing their ugly heads…

KPIs and the cash flow are crucial to the health of your business: but monitoring the KPI that’s your own performance is every bit as important.

Mention of KPIs takes me back to last week’s post: to cricket, a sport which is most emphatically measured in KPIs. Bluntly, I’m not sure whether to order a slice of humble pie or send an invoice…

You may recall that I was mildly critical of Joseph Edward Root. I wonder if he really wants to be one of the game’s greats or merely very, very good. Let’s see if he makes the decision [to move to the next level] over the next five days…

Joe Root – obviously having read the blog on the Friday morning – responded with 254 in the first innings and the highest aggregate runs ever scored by a batsman at Old Trafford.

So don’t ever tell me the blog doesn’t work! And if you’d like me to be mildly critical of your football team as the season approaches, simply send a large cheque to ‘Reid Sports Predictions.’ I’ll do the rest…

I’m now off on holiday for a week. The blog will be back, relaxed and refreshed on August 12th. And I’ll be back determined to deliver at least 8.1 to all my members through the rest of the year.

Dealing with the Dark Side


A great half term, a brilliant family holiday and – like my trip to Australia – absolute confirmation of why I run my own business.

But as I wrote two weeks ago, it’s time to consider the darker side of being an entrepreneur. How to cope when it’s all going wrong.

So my Google search was fairly straightforward – and back came the regulation 26.7m results. Almost without exception they failed to address my query.

Coping with failure is the key for entrepreneurial success. Don’t see it as a failure; see it as a learning experience.

That’s all very fine. It’s easy to trot out the old clichés, and all successful entrepreneurs have had their share of failure. Equally, you’d expect the vast majority of articles about entrepreneurship to be unremittingly positive.

But this blog has always sought to address the real world. Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic people, but everyone running a business will – sooner or later – go through tough times.

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We’ll go through times when we wonder if we’ve made the right decision, we’ll go through times when the old security of the corporate world seems remarkably seductive – and we’ll go through times when we wonder if the price is worth paying, both for us and the family we’ve dragged along on the journey.

And once or twice in our entrepreneurial careers, we’ll go through times when the ship seems to be heading for the rocks.

So the question is, how do you cope? I’m not talking about the practical here – solving the immediate problems, keeping everyone informed, stringent cost control – I’m talking about you.

How does the entrepreneur cope when the easiest decision might be to wave the white flag? How do you stop yourself going mad? How do you put on a brave face and focus on sports day, not on what is – or isn’t – happening back at the office?

If that’s what you’re going through right now, here are five strategies that work. These themes are remarkably common in talking to entrepreneurs who’ve ‘been there, done that’ – and eventually steered the ship away from rocks.

Remind yourself why you started

…And remind yourself that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You started because you wanted to build something and you wanted to define your own future. Creating anything that worthwhile will involve some pain – and remember the old adage: ‘the only thing harder than carrying on is giving up.’

Take the opportunity to make changes

Tough times can be an opportunity as well: take the chance to make some hard decisions about what’s really working and what’s not working. That might be parts of the business – or it might be people. Sometimes difficult times force you to make the decisions you’ve been putting off for far too long.

Keep the end in mind

This is self-explanatory. Remind yourself why you started this journey – and remind yourself where it’s going to end. That can be incredibly difficult when you’re fire-fighting, but force yourself to do it. Lift your eyes up and look at the eventual destination. Trust me, when the fires are out, you’ll be more determined than ever to reach it.

Walk…

Do some exercise, release some endorphins. No problem was ever solved by eating junk food and gaining half a stone. Get out there in the fresh air, walk up a hill and somehow it puts problems into perspective – and often presents a solution.

…And talk

You’re not the only parent whose teenage daughter has just slammed the door and walked off into the night – and you’re not the only entrepreneur who’s ever had this problem. There is an absolute wealth of experience around any TAB boardroom table, and I’d be amazed if one of the members hasn’t experienced – and solved – whatever problem is facing you right now.

And next week I’ll take a look at one of those problems – one that everyone building a business faces sooner or later. Until then, have a great weekend.