Face to Face with the Future


Last month brought the news that Chinese company Megvii was planning a listing on the Hong Kong stock market. Well, nothing unusual in that: despite the current pro-democracy protests, Chinese companies often list on the Hong Kong market. 

But who are Megvii? As you’ll know if you clicked the link, Megvii are ‘a world class AI company with core competency in deep learning.’ 

But what Megvii are best known for is facial recognition. They are the makers of the Face++ system, currently thought to be more accurate than rival systems from Amazon and IBM. 

So far, Face++ has largely been used in smartphones and laptops. The Chinese ride-hailing app Didi uses it so that passengers can check their driver’s identity. And, inevitably, it is used in dating apps to cut out all that tedious swiping (left or right? I haven’t a clue…)

But according to the company, most of the revenue for Face++ comes from ‘smart city’ applications – which largely means facial recognition and security at workplaces, schools and major events. It has also been reported that the technology (along with similar apps) has been used to help make thousands of arrests in China, and has been pitched to police departments around the world. 

Facial recognition is going to have big implications – for all of us as individuals, and for the businesses we run. But maybe we should take a step back, and ask a rather more basic question…

How does facial recognition work? 

Put simply, facial recognition is a way of recognising a human face through technology, ‘mapping’ features from a photograph or a video. It then compares that information with a database of known faces. 

Everyone, therefore, has a ‘facial signature’ based on ‘facial landmarks’ such as the distance between your eyes, or the distance from your forehead to your chin. One system identifies 68 of these ‘landmarks,’ giving everyone a unique signature, contained in what I suspect is a very long mathematical formula. If you’d like a little more detail, here’s one of any number of videos on Facebook. 

The continued development of facial recognition is inevitable: I have seen one estimate that suggests it will become a $7.7bn a year industry in 2022, up from $4bn in 2017. I’d say that was a very conservative estimate. As the world becomes ever-more security conscious, facial recognition is going to be increasingly pervasive. 

Are we already on the database? 

Very possibly: at least 117m Americans already have images of their face on one or more police databases. The FBI apparently has access to a database of 412m facial images for searches: given my recent trip to Denver, presumably one of those faces is Ed Reid Esq. 

So there are bound to be more and more arguments about facial recognition and its intrusion into our lives. It’s yet one more thing that chips away at our privacy. 

But on the other hand I can see the arguments in favour. Yes, security: but also – on a more practical level – speed. No more having to swipe the card you hang round your neck to walk through a door. And cash? Forget it. Just stand in front of the vending machine, it reads your face, delivers your sandwich and debits your account. Not so much Brave New World as very convenient new world. 

Facial recognition in the business world 

Earlier this month there was a controversy about the use of facial recognition in the UK. Developer Argent is working on a 67 acre site in the King’s Cross area – and it is using facial recognition technology. The company say they’re using it ‘to ensure public safety’ and that it is simply ‘one of a number of detection and tracking methods.’ 

Argent insist there are ‘sophisticated systems’ in place to protect privacy. Other businesses and organisations in the area – including Google and Central St Martin’s College – are less than convinced. Meanwhile a development at Canary Wharf is also going to trial the system…

What about business on a smaller scale? Your business and my business? Right now facial recognition will be a very long way down the agenda for most of us, but it’s not going to go away. And it will become more widespread as the cost – inevitably – comes down. 

As this article in Forbes points out, facial recognition has the potential to be a ‘friend or foe’ for business. As with so many modern developments, it seems to have an equal capacity for good or ill. 

If you’re ever going to employ facial recognition in your business (and my guess is that many of us will) then you will have some big ethical questions to answer – from your own staff to your customers to the wider public your business engages with. 

It would certainly help to have some regulatory frameworks in place. As Forbes comments – and as the King’s Cross development illustrates – ‘currently describing the field like the Wild West feels like a disservice to the Wild West.’ 

So proactive thought and guidance from our government would go a long way. After all, it’s not like they’ve got anything else to deal with this week…

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There’s a Reason it’s a ‘Challenge…’


Before I put my walking boots on and re-visit the TAB UK Three Peaks Challenge – and ‘challenge’ was the right word – let me make a comment about our new Prime Minister. 

Boris Johnson has won, he’s kissed the Queen’s hand and he’s appointed a cabinet. And – as we all know – he has promised to deliver Brexit ‘do or die’ by October 31st, just three months from now. In some ways – despite how I voted in the Referendum and despite how I still feel about the EU – I welcome that. We simply could not keep deferring the decision. Whether it is politics or business you have to take decisions, and I’m sure Boris will do that. 

But I just worry what those decisions will be. He’s not Donald Trump, but he does seem to have Trump’s inclination to shoot from the hip.

I am, though, pleased to see that his Cabinet contains a mix of Leave and Remain supporters. I may not agree with his first ‘D’ – deliver Brexit – but the need to ‘Unite’ can’t be disputed. But I worry it’s too late. I’ve seen it described as the ‘footballisation’ of politics. It’s an ugly word but you instinctively know what it means. You can support Liverpool or Everton, Rangers or Celtic. There is no middle ground, and I worry that’s the way our politics – and maybe even our society – is moving. 

The problem is, business likes the middle ground. It likes certainty and predictability – and right this minute our body politic is delivering exactly the opposite. 

The Three Peaks Challenge 

And so to the bottom of Ben Nevis, which is where the TAB UK team – plus Simon, our guide – stood at 8:30 on the morning of Sunday July 7th.

Our team of five was attempting the National Three Peaks – part personal challenge, part tribute and fundraising in memory of TAB UK founder, Paul Dickinson. 

The Three Peaks Challenge is to walk the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales – in theory within 24 hours. Like us, most people start at Ben Nevis, drive down to Scafell Pike in the Lakes, and then on to Snowdon. The total walking distance is 23 miles, the total climb 10,052 feet and the driving distance – not to be sniffed at – is 462 miles. 

We set off up Ben Nevis – and the team very quickly split into two groups. That was fine: we’d known it was going to happen. 

We knew we had different abilities within the group. The months of training we’d done had made this very clear and everyone was comfortable with it. We accepted each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we knew we weren’t going to walk up Ben Nevis as a group of five. Anyone who’s done any walking knows that walking slower than your natural pace is just as tiring as someone forcing you to walk faster than you’d normally go. 

So we accepted that there’d be times some of us would push on, and there’d be times we’d stop to re-group. 

“Wait at the hot tub,” Simon said. 

Mags and I looked at each other. Hot tub? If there was one thing you could guarantee not to find on Ben Nevis, it was a hot tub. But there it was – a perfect circle of stones, looking for all the world like a medieval hot tub. 

As we waited there we very quickly got cold. We went behind the hot tub to shelter from the wind and have a cup of tea. We sat down – and realised that we were surrounded by pink toilet paper. It was clear what one group of walkers had done on the ‘last stop before the summit.’ Mags and I decided to brave the cold…

We waited there for the rest of the group to arrive. If there was one thing we were going to do, it was reach the summit together. And that’s what we did, looking out at the quite stunning view from 4,413 feet. “There are just 15 days a year when the view is like this,” Simon said. “Someone up there likes you.” 

Or – sadly – maybe not. One of our group had seriously strained her groin on the walk up. We’d barely started the descent and someone else fell, sustaining heavy bruising. 

But we all made it down the mountain and by four in the afternoon we were back at the bottom. That in itself was a real achievement. I have nothing but admiration for all the members of our group: for the two who were injured, and came down without ever complaining, it goes a long way beyond admiration.

Gretna Green Services

And then it was in the cars and off to Scafell Pike. We’d arranged to meet up at Gretna Green services to eat. But, as we were driving down the A74, another metaphorical wheel fell off. 

Mags had to stop her car. Simon was violently sick. “Think it’s just car sickness” our guide muttered. 

It very clearly wasn’t ‘just car sickness.’ He sat in the service station, put his arm on the table, his head on his arm and groaned. 

Meanwhile our two walking wounded were clearly badly wounded and – after 200 miles in a car – very stiff and very tired. 

Mags and I looked at each other. We needed to talk. We had an obligation to everyone who had supported us. But we had another obligation – to take care of our team. And this was not a decision that could be kicked endlessly down the road. 

We had a five minute conversation standing next to a fruit machine in a service station (quite possibly exactly how Brexit will eventually be sorted out…) and decided there was only one logical decision we could make. With two of the team injured and our guide throwing up more frequently than a child who’s eaten too much at a party, we called the challenge off. 

We clearly have a moral duty to our sponsors and supporters who were, to a man, totally supportive and understanding when we told them the news. So we’ll return to Scafell Pike on Sunday September 8thand finish the last two peaks. 

There’s also a personal itch to scratch. Could some of us have done it in 24 hours? We’ll find out one day in 2020…

Calling it off wasn’t the decision we wanted to take. Our families were slightly surprised when we turned up in the middle of the night. But there was no other choice. With two of the team injured and a guide who was still ill 24 hours later, it was the only decision we could make.  

It would be easy to see our attempt at the National Three Peaks as a failure. You know what? I think it was exactly the opposite. 

No, we didn’t achieve what we set out to achieve. But we faced adversity together. We came through it. We learned things about each other we’d never have learned in a lifetime of meetings. We found reserves of stamina – and courage – we never knew we had. 

We’re better people for Ben Nevis, and we’re a stronger group. And we will return…

[…And the blog will return on Monday August 12th: I’m on holiday on Friday 9th, so I’ll be back on the Monday morning.] 

Want to Grow your Business? Do Less


The blog speaks, Wall Street trembles! And maybe profit does matter after all…

Two weeks ago I discussed Uber’s forthcoming IPO: 

Early estimates of $120bn have been scaled back to $90bn. But that’s £70bn – or more than 15 times the value of Marks and Spencer’s which, despite its recent problems, still made a significant profit in its last six months’ trading. 

But now Uber says it ‘may not achieve profitability.’ The company says that annual sales rose to $11.2bn and losses narrowed to $3bn. But, it warned, it expects operating expenses to “increase significantly.” 

In the event, even that lower estimate was reduced. With Uber drivers going on strike a few days before the IPO the company was initially valued at $82bn – only for the shares to fall 7% on the opening day. They have subsequently fallen even further – although that might have rather more to do with the sudden re-escalation of the US/China trade dispute than a blog written in Harrogate…

These are turbulent times, both in the UK and the wider world. Yet these are the times in which we have to build our businesses – but at the same time, keep our work/life balance well and truly balanced. 

One man who has unquestionably built a successful business is Jack Ma, the co-founder of China’s Alibaba group and estimated to be worth $40bn. 

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Jack Ma seems to have been unemployable: he was rejected by the police and was the only one of 24 applicants to be turned down by KFC. So he started his own business…

That’s great – but recently Jack Ma has been espousing the benefits of what’s termed ‘996.’ If you haven’t heard of it, 996 is simple – it’s China’s culture of working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week

“If you want to build a great company,” he says, “You have to work very hard. You have to suffer terrible things before you become a hero.” It is, apparently, a ‘blessing’ for his staff to work 72 hours a week. And he’s not alone: excessive working hours are also championed by Elon Musk of Tesla. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that they’re not championed by Ed Reid of TAB UK. Working 72 hours a week can never be a ‘blessing’ for you, your family or your staff. Throwing hours at a problem is almost never the way to solve it. Thinking ‘if I just spend more time…’ is nearly always one of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can make. 

Rather than Jack Ma, I prefer to look at a different example. Oscar Pierre set up a small shopping service in Barcelona in 2015. Now the company, Glovo, operates in 124 cities, employs 1,000 staff and has 1.5m shoppers. A shopping service was hardly a ground-breaking idea, even in 2015 – but by anyone’s standards that is a highly impressive growth rate. How has Oscar done it? Simple: as you’ll see in this short clip, he’s a firm believer in delegating. 

In fact, Oscar believes in delegating everything. As he says right at the start of the clip, “Make sure you walk out of all the meetings without anything assigned to you.” 

He makes a great point. If you don’t delegate you end up with such a long list of tasks and to-do’s that you become what he describes as ‘the bottleneck of your company.’ Rather than speeding things up, by taking on too much you slow things down. 

Now he says, he does the things which only a CEO can do. Everything else is done more effectively and more efficiently, while he has time to think about medium and long term strategies. The absolute opposite of ‘throwing hours at the problem.’ 

As you’ll all know, that exactly mirrors the TAB philosophy – and it’s put Oscar Pierre on Forbes’ list of 30 under 30 for Europe. 

So how do I measure up? Apart from being just a tad over 30…

With a team of six at head office it would be impossible for me to delegate everything except the ‘only I can do that’ stuff. Clearly, the boss has to be seen to be working – but I do make sure that the ‘only Ed’ stuff is right at the top of my list. And as the team grows, so I will steadily delegate more and more. 

Speaking of which, the team is growing. We’re increasing our numbers from six to eight, with one of the new people handling our every-increasing admin. Part of defining the role was to say to everyone ‘what things are you doing that aren’t core to your role, and can you delegate them?’ That effectively wrote the job description: he or she can look forward to an interesting and varied workload…

When you’re starting out, delegation is hard. You can almost certainly do whatever-it-is-you’re-delegating better and quicker yourself. But you have to let go: you have to give your team the chance to grow and – as Oscar Pierre says – ultimately your job is to do the things that only the CEO can do. 

In the long term you’ll do more by doing less. Delegation is an absolutely essential part of building your business… 

Is it Time to Abandon the Office?


Last week found me in Berlin. I was meeting my TAB colleagues from Europe and the two top guys from TAB in the US.

As you can imagine, we occasionally strayed into politics – on both sides of the Atlantic – and it is fair to say there were interesting, and differing, views. But there was also a combined goodwill to make progress and to make things work – which absolutely transcended any differences. We may need to invite a few politicians to some TAB meetings…

We now meet twice a year: we’ve been doing this for three years and the more we get to know each other, the more the dynamic improves. As the group expands, so it takes in more backgrounds and cultures – but it’s fascinating to see how TAB, and the very simple concept of peer support, transcends those cultures.

But as I flew home my overwhelming impressions was of the progress we’d made at meetings that weren’t meetings. The amount of progress we’d made over drinks, dinner and simple conversations as we walked around Berlin was simply amazing. And it is a lesson that we can all use – and benefit from – in our businesses.

It has been a long-running theme of this blog that if you want to think differently you need to be somewhere different: that if you simply sit at your desk you will always think in the same way you’ve always thought. To use the well-worn cliché, thinking outside the box is impossible if you are sitting in the box.

Is that just my personal preference, or is there any evidence for it?

Before I answer that, let me take a step back. How much time do we spend in meetings? According to one article I read when I was researching this post, 11m (yes, million) meetings are held every day in the US. On average, people attend 62 meetings a month, with over 15% of a company’s collective time spent in organisational meetings.

There is no way to verify the accuracy of those figures – except that based on my experience in the corporate world, they feel right.

The figures are quite staggering. How much productive time, or how much of a country’s GDP, is lost to meetings doesn’t bear thinking about it.

But meetings are inevitable – and so we need to get the maximum from them. And that’s why I think you should meet ‘off-site’ as often as you can.

There are any number of tips for making sure that off-site meetings are successful. The key one for me is to be clear about what you are trying the achieve. Yes, obviously visit the venue beforehand (not always a given…) but more importantly than that, know why you are going there.

What is the purpose of our twice a year TAB meetings? To learn from each other, to share ideas that are working, to solve common problems and to look at the business from a different angle. And to ask the questions that we don’t have time to ask in the other 50 weeks of the year.

And as I’ve said above, the more time my colleagues and I spend out of the ‘office’ – or the hotel meeting room – the more productive we are. And that is true for every organisation I have ever worked in.

Why is that?

When people meet off-site – possibly because they have made an effort to get there, possibly because of a different setting – they are more focused. Remember to keep changing the venue though. ‘Off-site’ does not mean the same hotel on the fourth Friday of every month. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds the same way of thinking and expecting the same result from a meeting.

I’ve already touched on it with my outside/inside the box comment, but there is no question that people are more creative away from the office. The same room, the same chair – after all, we are creatures of habit – and the same view promotes the same way of thinking. A new venue changes all that.

There’s more camaraderie outside the office or a formal meeting venue. It’s not for nothing that team building exercises are held away from the office. By definition when I am meeting my TAB colleagues in Europe I am out of my own office, but the difference between having a meeting in a ‘hotel board room’ and a restaurant or bar – or simply when you are walking to a venue – is almost impossible to measure.

And there’s one final point, which struck me as I drove home from the airport. There’s an interesting parallel here with being a parent. If I want to have an in-depth conversation with Dan or Rory, the best solution is to go for a walk or for a drive. If we’re sitting facing each other, the barriers go up. I’m not saying there are barriers with my TAB colleagues – exactly the opposite – but it is still interesting how different thoughts, ideas and initiatives develop when you’re not face to face.

Which brings me full circle… There are a couple of people meeting in Brussels about now who don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. Perhaps they should go for a walk…

By Ed Reid, TAB UK

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How do you Manage a Millennial?


Two weeks ago I read a blog written by former TAB member Suzanne Burnett.

Suzanne was one of the members of TAB York, so I’ve known her a long time now, and her blog is invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

In her most recent post she’d been to the Aviva offices in York – and she’d been struck by their commitment to ‘corporate wellness.’

As Suzanne said, plenty of companies and organisations pay lip service to ‘wellness’ but Aviva had embraced it wholeheartedly, from a dedicated ‘hygge room’ to mindfulness and meditation sessions for the staff, corporate wellness champions and plentiful supplies of fresh fruit.

The question – as Suzanne rightly pointed out – is how do smaller businesses compete with that? We all want to employ the best people – but what chance do we have if they’re tempted away by Aviva’s bean bags and bananas, or the recent ‘work when you feel like working’ introduced by accountants PwC?

What’s the answer? Let me quote directly from Suzanne’s blog:

You can spend as much as you like on corporate wellness but, ultimatelyit is the culture within your company that counts. If someone feels under-appreciated, under pressure or feels that their career isn’t developing as it should – then 20 minutes in a sleep pod isn’t going to fix that.

That’s why having a clear vision for the company is so important. That’s why regular review meetings with your team really matter. That’s why agreeing targets, not imposing them, is crucial.

Those are key elements of a corporate wellness programme and they are key elements that don’t cost anything at all.

So problem solved. Or is it? Because I think the initiatives of companies like Aviva and PwC, and the absolutely spot-on response from someone who’s built a very successful business, poses an additional question for all of us.

How do you manage a millennial? Or, more to the point, a team of millennials?

Because who are those bean bags and platters of fresh fruit for? And who is going to make up 75% of the global workforce by the middle of the next decade?

The millennial generation: those people who came of age around the turn of the century.

As we all know by now, millennials want different things to their parents’ 9-to-5, don’t-change-jobs-too-often generation. They want flexibility, they want to feel that they are making a difference, they want to work for a company that ‘shares their values.’

But is that possible? Especially for a small business? How long can the owner of an SME go on supplying the latest ‘wellness’ initiative and giving yet more time off for mindfulness and meditation (to say nothing of the nativity play) before he asks a simple question. What is more important: the bean bag or the bottom line?

The ‘Millennial Question’

If you have 20 minutes, watch this excellent video featuring management thinker Simon Sinek, in which he discusses what he terms “the millennial question.”

Teenage Girl using a phone

If you haven’t, let me summarise the argument for you.

Millennials are tough to manage. They’re said to be lazy, unfocused, self-centred and only care about themselves. Yes, they want the company they work for to ‘make a difference’ but they have no idea what ‘make a difference’ actually means. They want free food and bean bags – but even when all that is provided they’re still not happy.

Sinek blames a combination of factors – including the parenting and education of a generation brought up to believe that they were ‘unique’ and ‘special’ and deserved a medal for simply taking part.

Well, if there is one thing the corporate world teaches you – quickly and sometimes harshly – is that you are not unique and there are absolutely no prizes for simply taking part or turning up.

Unsurprisingly, there is something of a backlash against millennials in some quarters. Managers don’t want to be surrogate parents, they’re fed up with an ‘anti-work’ attitude and they don’t see their employees’ happiness as their responsibility.

Which would be fine, were it not for the demographics.

Millennials are going to make up 75% of the workforce: there is nothing we can do to alter that fact. No-one reading this blog runs Google or Apple. But we are competing with them for talent and – if you’re in it for the long term – you’ll be competing with them for talented millennials in eight or ten years from now. So anyone looking to build a successful business in that time will have to recruit, manage and motivate his millennial workforce.

How are you going to do this?

First and foremost I’d endorse the points Suzanne made. I’ve said it many times before but you need a clear, concise vision for your company and you need to communicate that vision effectively. And you need to show how you are making a difference – plenty of companies will address this by choosing a charity to work with in 2019. That’s one simple step you can take: the owner of the business does not need to choose the charity.

Let me make three more suggestions:

Millennials – as Sinek suggests – want approval. Right now that appears to come from social media, but it is going to be crucial at work as well. Team meetings and collective decision making will become increasingly important in building your business.

Training is important, both for the millennials and their managers. Millennials expect to ‘make a difference’ within months: they may not see the long term strategy. Managers will need to learn to deliver feedback in different ways: millennials will need to learn some long-term thinking.

And hand in hand with this goes the inevitable business focus on short term results. This is going to be incredibly difficult for managers and owners. You’ve built your business on KPIs and short term results: on identifying problems quickly and fixing them equally quickly. Ten years from now a significant proportion of your workforce will see ‘percentage of office power from renewables’ as your most important KPI.

So just go into your office, lock the door, put your password in and have a look at that ridiculously old-fashioned – but strangely, still important – cash flow forecast…

The Power of Momentum


I was going to talk about momentum this week – the irresistible force that can carry an entrepreneur and a business forward like a surfer catching a wave.

…But first of all I suppose I’d better comment on the two national sideshows. In their own way they’re both fine examples of momentum in action. But a caveat: I’m writing these opening paragraphs on Tuesday morning. But the time you read the blog Downing Street and the England dressing room may be very different places…

Monday brought us the resignation of David Davis and Boris Johnson. More government resignations are rumoured to be imminent. Her Majesty’s Government most certainly has momentum, but sadly it’s the momentum of a downward spiral. ‘Complete shambles’ doesn’t even begin to describe it and Boris Johnson’s reported comment – “£$%& business!” – all too accurately reflects what most politicians think about the people who produce the country’s wealth.

So let’s talk about momentum of a much happier type. Again, Croatia might have had something to say by the time you read this, but for now Gareth Southgate can do no wrong. As I write, the England team’s momentum is carrying them straight to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

…Ah, damn it. It’s now Thursday night: football’s not coming home. At least not until 2020.

Does that mean the momentum of the England team has been stopped dead in its tracks? Far from it: people are already talking enthusiastically about the 2020 Euros. Southgate doesn’t think his team will peak until 2024.

And the nation has fallen back in love with the national team. Southgate himself has a lot to do with that: engaging, honest, articulate – and clearly a great man-manager. He’s trusted his players, believed in them and given them a clear direction. They’ve responded by giving him every last drop of blood, sweat and – sadly on Wednesday – tears.

Colombia-v-England-Round-of-16-2018-FIFA-World-Cup-Russia

But give them a week and the team’s morale and momentum will be right back where it was. Goodness knows where our government’s momentum will be in a week’s time, so we’d better talk about business…

Momentum is a subject that comes up a lot at TAB meetings – whether it is a meeting of business owners or TAB franchisees. No-one says ‘momentum,’ obviously. They’re ‘on a roll,’ or ‘can’t do anything wrong.’ Meanwhile across the table someone else is ‘stuck in a rut’ and ‘doesn’t know where the next sale is coming from.’

We have all been there – and experienced both emotions. I very clearly remember thinking that I would never, ever sell anything to anyone ever again. I can picture exactly where I was when my phone buzzed with yet another ‘no thanks’ to TAB York and I began to have doubts…

What’s astonishing is how quickly momentum can change. You see it in sport and you very definitely see it in business. And what’s equally astonishing is that it can change with something relatively unimportant: a small sale, someone you’d written off getting back to you – or just getting some exercise and feeling better about yourself.

That’s why mental resilience is so important in business: we all go through periods when we can do no wrong – and we all have those moments of self-doubt. As I’ve written many times, what’s important is consistency of effort: do that and – in the long run – the results will take care of themselves. And when the momentum is with you, then you’ll be unstoppable.

Which takes me back to England, the Euros and 2020. The final’s at Wembley: book your ticket now…

(The end of this month will find the Reid family booked into Hotel California for a much-anticipated family holiday. If you’re going away in the next four weeks have a wonderful time, and – assuming we can check out and want to leave – the blog will be back on August 10th.)

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.

1

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.

You’re Never Too Big for TAB


Hmmm… Vladimir Putin is effectively President for life. Xi Jinping President for life as well. With the annual congress of the People’s Alternative Board being held this week a chap could get ideas

Sadly there is a rather more serious idea that I want to discuss this week: the idea that you are too big to fail – which all too often starts with the idea that you are too big to learn anything new. This year has already seen the administrators called in to once sound businesses: Carillion, Toys-R-Us and Maplin.

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I’ve already discussed Carillion and the impact that collapse will have on up to 30,000 SMEs. More recently we’ve also seen Toys-R-Us and Maplin close the doors and – especially in the case of the now renamed Toys-Were-Us – it seems that arrogance and complacency and a ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ attitude were largely to blame. As the Greeks used to remind us, hubris leads inexorably to nemesis.

I often use the question ‘why not?’ on this blog, referencing the well-known quote from Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’”

But in business today ‘why not’ – to borrow from SWOT – isn’t just about strengths and opportunities, it’s also about weaknesses and threats.

Could this business start-up I’ve just read about disrupt our industry so much that our whole business model is outdated? Why not?

Could our customers decide that sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes to drag children round a toy warehouse isn’t how they want to spend a Sunday morning? Why not?

Today you have to think the previously unthinkable. Not doing that and believing your business model is inviolate – and Toys-R-Us seems to have been the perfect example – is to signpost your own downfall.

With the company having closed its doors there are plenty of anecdotal stories – from former employees and executives – emerging about the decline of Toys-R-Us. Was it simply competition from Amazon? Or did it go deeper than that?

Of course having Amazon as an alternative didn’t help. But all the stories point to Toys-R-Us seeing themselves as ‘king of the toy jungle’ and simply not giving their competitors enough respect. Add in a failure to lock-in the loyalty of their customers, a determination to open new stores whatever the cost and tales of wholesale fall-outs with their suppliers and the story only had one possible ending.

And when the inevitable happened, whose fault was it?

Everyone else’s.

Right now the directors of every failing company seem to have an instant explanation. ‘Picking the low hanging fruit’ might well mean reaching for the most easily available excuse. Competition from Amazon – uncertainty caused by Brexit – fall in the value of the pound – and (my personal favourite) customers changed their shopping/buying/spending habits.

What no-one ever seems to say is that it was rank bad management. Customers and clients are always changing their shopping/buying/spending habits: with the greatest possible respect that’s why you get paid so much – to anticipate those changes and do something about it.

It is my privilege to work with some very talented and very successful people: that includes members of TAB boards up and down the UK, and franchisees both here and overseas. Without exception they have one thing in common: they know that they don’t know everything. They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to listen. They accept that ‘why not’ could overtake their business – as it can overtake any business today.

You are never too big to learn and – bluntly – you are never too big to sit round the table with your colleagues from TAB. If we’d had a director of Toys-R-Us as a member then very quickly – in his first meeting would be my guess – someone would have said, “You know, last Christmas, we bought all the kids’ present on this thing called the internet. From a site called Amazon. Took half an hour, delivered them the next day…”

The loyalty of your customers, not opening stores for the sake of opening stores and working with your suppliers might well have been mentioned as well…

Nothing stays the same for ever and nowhere is that more true than in business. I floated the idea of a TAB for young entrepreneurs recently: maybe we should have one specifically for directors of ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ PLCs as well. The blunt common sense of their new colleagues round the table would be the best investment they ever made.

Long White Beards are not Mandatory


Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.
I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

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The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…
Without wishing to sound old – but policeman definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.
That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.
Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?
Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.
Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.
This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.
I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.

Happy New Year. You’re a Hero…


Happy New Year – and welcome to my first blog post of 2018. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and I hope you’re now well and truly back in ‘work mode.’ I know a few people who had trouble remembering their own names last week, let alone remember what they did for a living…

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I’m going to take a slightly different approach with the blog this year, with longer pieces published every fortnight. I’m also going to alternate the posts between a TAB view of ‘the entrepreneur’s journey’ and a wider look at the economy, business trends and what the stable geniuses that make policy have in store for us.

So congratulations: you’re a hero.

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Last year, as I flew to Denver, I found myself reading about ‘the hero’s journey:’ the classic, storytelling structure that underpins so many novels and films. I’ve re-read the article a few times since – and it’s an almost exact parallel with the journey we take as entrepreneurs.

How does the hero’s journey start? It starts in the ordinary world. Harry Potter lives under the stairs. Peter Parker is a nerdy student bullied by his classmates. Frodo lives in the Shire and visits Bilbo Baggins. Ed Reid has a secure job, a company car, and a decent salary.

Then something happens: the inciting incident, or the ‘call to adventure.’ Letters from Hogwarts start arriving, Peter Parker gets bitten, Gandalf tells Frodo he must destroy the One Ring… Oh, and Ed Reid eats his breakfast in Newport Pagnell service station, wishes he was with his family and thinks, ‘There has to be something better than this.’

Initially, our hero refuses the call. ‘I’m just Harry, I can’t be a wizard.’ Peter Parker decides that winning cash at a wrestling match is the best use of his new powers. And Frodo is reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the Shire.

…Just as so many of us were reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the corporate world. We had mortgages, commitments, wives, children, a future with the company.

But we knew that there had to be something better…

I was reading an article on Richard Branson over Christmas – on an Australian site, the internet is a wonderful thing – and he was talking about most businesses being “born out of frustration” that the existing players aren’t doing a good enough job.

It’s important that you know instinctively that you can do it better (than someone else). If you can come up with an idea that will have a positive impact the figures will follow. It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare.

I take his point – but isn’t it also the point that most, if not all, entrepreneurial careers are born out of a sense of frustration? How many people reading this have had their own ‘Newport Pagnell moment?’ (Not quite ‘the road to Damascus’ but you know what I mean…)

As I sat and ate my breakfast I thought, ‘There has to be something better than this. What am I doing here when I should be with my family?’

So yes, my entrepreneurial career was absolutely born out of frustration. I was frustrated that I wasn’t seeing my children grow up and I wasn’t spending enough time with my wife. And I knew that I was ready to create and build my own business.

Yes, of course there were frustrations with the company I was working for. But the frustrations that drove me to start TAB York were internal, not external. I strongly suspect that holds good for 95% of people reading this blog and – if the figures are to be believed – it will hold good for a record number of people in the UK this year.

But what about the second part of Branson’s quote? It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare. Sadly, that’s not true of small businesses. Four in ten don’t make it through the first five years.

What is very rare, is entrepreneurs who are members of The Alternative Board not making it. Over the last nine months I sat in on any number of TAB meetings – and I never ceased to be amazed at the wisdom, knowledge and laser-like insight of our TAB members. It was a privilege to watch them in action and I can’t wait for more of the same in the coming year.

…As they continue on their hero’s journey.

They’ll be tested by their enemies (Snape, then Voldemort: the Green Goblin, Sauron, business competitors), face their final battles and eventually – in the classic ending – ‘return with the elixir.’ Harry ultimately defeats Voldemort, Peter Parker embraces his role as Spiderman and Frodo and Sam return to the Shire.

And you? You think back to that morning at Newport Pagnell – and know with absolute certainty that you made the right decision.