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.

Advertisements

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.

maya-bielik-33716-unsplash

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.

Men-can-rock-jewellery-too-just-ask-Dumbledore-beard-bangle
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.

unnamed

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.

Our Glass is Half Full


Well, we have a form of words. But as many commentators have already written, ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ No matter, the Brexit talks can stumble forward to the next hurdle…

Meanwhile Donald Trump has antagonised 95% of the world by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire ICBMs on an almost daily basis, Germany doesn’t seem to have an effective government and China is threatening to take over the world. Oh, and the financial world will surely be rocked any day now when the Bitcoin bubble explodes.

Make plans for 2018? Only a madman would think of starting – or expanding – a business.

Welcome to the madhouse.

A recent report from accountants UHY Hacker Young revealed that more businesses were established in the UK last year than in any of the world’s other developed economies. Hacker Young put the number of new businesses at 218,000 – a 6% increase on 2015.

But across the road at the Institute of Directors they are three times as bullish, saying that 650,000 businesses were created last year. I suspect that Hacker Young are counting limited companies and the IoD are counting companies and those registering as self-employed. Whatever way you look at the stats and whatever measure you choose, it’s a remarkable statement of confidence in both the individual entrepreneur’s determination to succeed and the future of the UK.

half-full-and-empty-157672090-57a8f6553df78cf45952581a

And yes, of course confidence comes naturally to an entrepreneur. What is remarkable – and heart-warming – is not just the number of start-ups but the absolute conviction that they will succeed. In the IoD survey 83% of those who replied said they felt optimistic about next year – whereas just 5% were optimistic about the wider UK economy.

Of course concerns remain – chief among them being lack of access to finance and lack of information about the government help available for start-ups and those looking to expand their businesses. Awareness of the British Business Bank, for example, was just 17%. Clearly the Government needs to do rather more to get its message across…

Closer to home, I see the same optimism around the TAB boardroom tables. Optimism, coupled with a steely determination to make it happen. Everyone acknowledges that the road is going to be bumpy – but everyone in the TAB family is determined that next year will be an outstanding success.

As for me, twelve months ago I was the owner of TAB York – and someone who was keeping very quiet about some very complicated negotiations. You all now know how they turned out: to say that 2017 has been an eventful year for me is one of the year’s great understatements!

However much I thought I knew what running TAB UK would be like the reality has been very different. Easier than TAB York? Harder? Neither: simply very different and very exciting – and I see more opportunities for us to grow with every passing day.

I’ve been especially struck by how much our TAB members up and down the UK want to be part of the wider TAB community and how keen they are to meet other TAB members, whether that’s from their own region, the wider UK or internationally.

The ten months since February have been a sharp learning curve for me and I couldn’t have climbed the curve without the support of my brilliant co-director Mags, the amazing team at the Harrogate head office or – as always – the love, support and encouragement of my team at home. I hope all of you know how much I appreciate you.

…Which brings me, misty eyed, to the change I was going to announce. I have been writing this blog every week since 2010. I have absolutely enjoyed it and if you’d told me in 2010 that I could have found something to write about every week for roughly 7½ years I’d have said you were mad. Proof positive that, one bite at a time, you can eat the elephant…

However, my new role as MD of TAB UK has afforded me a broader canvas than writing as owner of TAB York. I hope you’ve noticed the posts becoming slightly longer and taking a wider view of the economy and the future. Necessarily these longer posts take more writing, so from next year I’m going to move to updating the blog fortnightly, starting – after a good break for Xmas and New Year – on Friday January 12th. I’m also going to have more of a theme running through the blog: alternating posts between what you might loosely term an ‘overview’ of business and the economy, with a TAB view of the entrepreneur’s journey – from making the decision to go it alone to signing the final contract and walking into the sunset…

In the meantime have a wonderful Christmas and – on behalf of all of us here at TAB HQ – I hope that 2018 brings everything you would wish for.

Brave new world? Or Lonely Planet?


We’ve all been there at some stage in our business careers. You’re called to a meeting. Attendance is crucial. A three-line whip. Apparently the very survival of the company is at stake.

You settle in. The sales director/MD/new owner drones on for an hour. You retain the will to live – but only just. “Well,” someone says as you emerge back into the sunlight. “There’s an hour of my life I won’t see again. Why didn’t he just give us the notes?”

“Too right,” you say, as you both wonder where the bar is…

I felt much the same way yesterday as I listened to the Budget. Why didn’t you just give us the notes, Phil? We could have read them on our iPads as we ate breakfast. All that time and expense saved. Not to mention the acres of newsprint and the trees…

Only three things jumped out at me from the Budget speech. First and foremost, stamp duty. Good. A sensible move: there are few better investments in life than buying your first home.

Secondly, one of the numbers – or as the Chancellor put it, “an economic-y bit.” Specifically, it was this sentence: “Annual borrowing will be £49bn this year – £8.4bn lower than forecast in March.” He announced it as good news: I found it slightly alarming. That forecast in March was made by the Office for Budget Responsibility – presumably featuring a few brains on hefty salaries. And yet in just eight months they were 15% out with their forecast? I know plenty of TAB members who’d consider that a completely unacceptable performance from the proverbial back of an envelope.

Lastly, another phrase: “Britain is at the forefront of the technological revolution.” Cue a few raised eyebrows in Silicon Valley and China – but he did at least follow it with the £84m commitment to recruit more computer science teachers.

A week or so previously I’d been chatting to the parents of one of Dan’s classmates. We’d been discussing the world of work our children would go into – and then I’d come home to stumble across a quote from Professor Steve Furber of the University of Manchester – and one of the early pioneers of the Acorn Computer. He put it very simply: “The rate at which technology is transforming the workplace means that we live in a world where many primary schoolchildren will work in technology based roles that do not yet exist, so it is essential that [they] can apply digital skills with confidence.”

So ‘technological revolution’ and ‘Brave New World’ are right. But the changing face of the workplace doesn’t just present a problem for our children. It will also present a problem for us as employers – and our employees.

It’s a well-worn stat now: by the middle of the next decade millennials – those who became adults around the turn of the century – will make up 75% of the workforce. And we all know what millennials want: they want to work flexibly, have the chance to work from home, avoid the 9-to-5 commute and have a better work/life balance.

So as employers, life becomes very simple: all we have to do is give our staff what they want – and then sit back and watch productivity shoot up: after all, it’s a well-documented fact that people who work flexibly are more productive and take less time off for sickness.

But is it that simple? Or are there some long-term trends that should concern us?

People are likely to find the traditional office environment changing rapidly in the next few years. Up to two-thirds of companies are planning to implement hot-desking and shared workspaces by 2020. The trend has started in the Far East but will quickly spread to the West as multinationals and large companies realise the savings they can make – despite evidence that employees do not like the practice.

By 2025 many companies will be holding virtual reality meetings – meaning that physical meetings will become a thing of the past and there will be even less need to travel into an office.

Even if you do go into the office, by 2030 it is likely that you will be working with an AI office assistant – a robot that will book travel, arrange virtual meetings and complete other administrative tasks. (Let’s hope science can tell the difference between milk chocolate and plain chocolate digestives…)

You might say that none of the above matters – that if remote workers are so productive they’re changes we should welcome. I’m not so sure: I think the very low-tech office water cooler still has a crucial role to play.

Lonely-office-man-003

I know half a dozen people who work on their own, more or less isolated from real human contact as they write, design or illustrate. What do at least three of them describe as their main problem? Not finding clients, not delivering their work and not getting paid. Their main problem is loneliness.

And with many people warning that the UK is facing an epidemic of loneliness, with all its attendant health and social care costs, adding a generation of work-at-home millennials may not be a sensible long-term idea.

So the ever-faster pace of change is going to bring challenges for both employers and their employees. Employers will need to keep an increasingly distant workforce engaged and motivated. Millennials may find that their desire to work flexibly is readily seized on by their employers – and translates not into working flexibly but into working alone, with meetings conducted by virtual reality and sales figures and reports handed over to the AI assistant. In the future, it may not be just the elderly that are lonely…

Strange Habits…


You know how it is… You go online to look at one thing, you see a link, click another link and before you know it you’re reading about men in ice-baths…

I’ve written previously about business pitches delivered from freezing water and how it concentrates the mind. Here’s someone else who says freezing water helps him focus – albeit from the far more gentle climes of Silicon Valley.

Every morning Tim Kendall, President of Pinterest (current valuation £9bn), wanders on to his back deck and climbs into a freezer full of water. “A bath with ice wasn’t quite cold enough,” he says. Famous for wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘focus’ on it – “if you do fewer things you can do those things much better” – Kendall claims that his daily dip in the freezer, “Gives me a lot of energy, wakes me up, and resets my mind and body.”

Having read that – and being in research-useless-things-online mode – I wondered if other successful entrepreneurs had equally strange habits. Was there anything we could usefully import to the UK? (Although anyone who’s been to Wetherby races in January will regard an ice bath as positively tropical…)

We may as well start at the top with the richest man in the world. When Bill Gates started Microsoft he liked to keep a check of who was in the office – so he memorised everyone’s number plate. As Microsoft now employs around 120,000 people we may safely assume he’s abandoned that habit… but apparently Gates still takes to his rocking chair when he needs to focus or when he needs to disconnect – a habit which apparently goes back to his days at Harvard, when he’d do long stretches of coding in a rocking chair.

‘The richest man in the world…’ Unless Amazon’s shares have shot up this morning. Jeff Bezos writes a six page memo before every management meeting: everyone then has to sit in silence for 30 minutes and read the memo. Presumably allowing them to say, “Yup, all good with me, boss,” after 30 minutes and 10 seconds…

Bezos also instigated the two-pizza rule. When he started Amazon he wanted a decentralised company with small teams making the decisions: so the rule was simple – any meeting had to be small enough so that everyone there could be fed with two pizzas. (As you might guess there are now any number of scholarly articles on the ‘two pizza rule…’)

Food takes us very neatly to Steve Jobs. Not only was the former boss of Apple famous for wearing the same clothes – black jeans, black jumper – every day, he also went through obsessive periods with his food, eating nothing but apples or carrots for weeks at a time. Apparently Jobs once ate so many carrots that he turned a vibrant shade of orange.

9781623706388_p0_v1_s1200x630

And there’s a link we can’t ignore. Speaking of bright orange people Donald Trump has a hatred of shaking hands – he calls it “a barbaric ritual” – and always carries a hand sanitizer with him. You just pressed the nuclear button, Mr President. No £$%*! I thought that was the hand gel dispenser…

Back to eating habits: Henry Ford ate the weeds from his garden, while Mark Zuckerberg had a year when he would only eat meat that he had killed himself. Charles Darwin tried to eat every animal he discovered and the only-just-late Hugh Hefner would only eat food prepared at the Playboy Mansion – even in a restaurant. And Stephen King always eats a slice of cheesecake before he sits down to write, which may explain why the film rights to this blog remain mysteriously unsold…

Meanwhile Novak Djokovic follows a strict gluten-free, vegan diet and has been known to eat grass. After beating Rafa Nadal in 2011 he celebrated by snacking on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Finally, proving the old adage that ‘what you can measure you can control’ former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wanted to create the perfect cupcake: she bought scores of cookbooks and created a spreadsheet – then did the same with the icing. And just in case you’re ever on bake-off, here’s the link you’ll need…

That’s enough from me for this week: I’m off to buy a car number plate – ED 1 should let them know I’m in the office – and go shopping for black jeans and carrots. Oh, and could I apologise in advance to my golfing partners? If I hack out of the long grass to within six inches of the pin next week I may choose to celebrate in an unusual way…

The Professionals


Professionalism. Noun. The competence or skill expected of a professional. The practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.

Hang on, just let me read that again. I can’t see any mention of fighting outside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Or driving a lady home who’s not your wife and ending up accused of drink-driving. Or getting into a taxi which unfortunately whacks a lamppost, leaving you with a broken rib.

I refer, of course, to Messrs Stokes, Rooney and Aguero, all of whom might now be in a much happier – and potentially much less costly – place had they looked at their watches and said, “Goodness me, ten o’clock. I’ve an important game in two days; time I was tucked up in bed with a mug of cocoa.”

Ben Stokes and Wayne Rooney are leaders. Stokes is vice-captain of the England cricket team; Rooney, having re-joined Everton with the experience of captaining Manchester United behind him, must surely have been expected to show leadership; to set an example to the younger players in the dressing room.

What price that leadership now? What price their professionalism?

But this is a business blog – so how do I define professionalism in business?

First of all I think it’s about predictability: that’s not someone saying ‘Ed always says the same thing:’ it about people knowing that Ed will always deliver what he promised to deliver. No ifs, no buts, no excuses: professionalism is delivering what you promised to deliver, when you promised to deliver it.

It’s about preparation as well – and yes, I’m aware that I’m almost wandering down the army’s ‘Six P’s’ path here. Whether it is an interview, a client appointment or a speech, the preparation is as important as the performance: in fact the preparation determines the performance. I will tolerate many things, but one thing that used to really annoy me in my corporate days was the time wasted due to lack of proper preparation, even for supposedly ‘make or break’ meetings. For me it was just unforgivable.

And politeness, which includes punctuality. It may well be the courtesy of kings but it’s also fundamental to business: everyone’s time has value, not just yours.

Let me also define professionalism by what it isn’t. It’s not simply being serious: clearly there are professions where being serious is a requirement, but even then not at the expense of demonstrating empathy and personality.

It’s one of the great truisms of life that people buy from people they like. And that still holds good today, even in an age where we are increasingly dealing with people we may have never met. You can still get your personality across with your language and ‘tone of voice’ – even if that voice is only heard through an e-mail.

I remember an early sales manager telling me to watch Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan on TV. “They would have made great salesmen, Ed. A loss to the steel industry…”

But despite the instruction to watch Parky and Our Tel I probably didn’t smile enough in my early days. You might be doing a thoroughly professional job: but you’re still allowed to smile and laugh while you’re doing it. Let me hold my hand up and say I wasn’t brilliant at this. So thank you to Paul Dickinson, my predecessor as TAB MD, who gently pointed it out to me…

And yes, I’d like to think we’re seen as professional at TAB: not just in that we deliver results but that we’re fun to work with as well. As I’ve written many times, TAB is about enjoying the journey as well as reaching the destination, and I’m absolutely sure we help the members of the TAB family to do that.

LEWIS_COLLINS OBITUARY

One last question: this week’s title references a once-popular TV programme. Do any of you remember it? Just a quick test to see how old you are and if your fashion sense has moved on…

The Work/Life Support System


One of the facets of my new role within TAB is taking a wider view of the UK economy. That’s not to say I ignored it when I was owner of TAB York – but as MD of TAB UK I’m much more aware of the concerns and initiatives of organisations like the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses.

…And last week brought a worrying report from the FSB. Their latest Small Business Index – carried out in the summer and based on a survey of more than 1,200 members – found that optimism among entrepreneurs had fallen sharply. Most worryingly, 13% of those who responded to the survey were looking for a way out of their business, the highest figure since the FSB began measuring in 2012.

OK: let’s introduce an immediate word of caution. I suspect if I were a disgruntled entrepreneur, desperately looking to sell my business I’d be far more likely to complete a survey like this than if everything were going well and orders were flying out of the door.

But that said, these are the worst figures the FSB have seen for five years. Rents, regulations, taxation and what Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, described as “the ridiculous staircase tax” all contributed to the entrepreneurs’ dissatisfaction.

Inevitably rising costs and uncertainty surrounding Brexit also received honourable mentions and they all – with the notable exception of the UK’s very cheerful export sector – contributed to a sharp fall in the FSB’s ‘optimism index.’

I wonder though, if it doesn’t go deeper than that for many entrepreneurs.

I’ve written previously about the ever-increasing impact of flexible working. If you’re looking to build your team and attract – and retain – the very best talent then offering flexible working is a must. Flexible hours, the option of working from home and genuine regard for someone’s work/life balance are all key.

But flexible working cuts both ways. One company’s flexible day can very easily equate to someone else’s 16 hour day.

I am not saying that we should all go back to 9 to 5 – that’s never going to happen. You can’t turn the clock back and remove flexible working, any more than you can – let’s take a ridiculous example – turn the clock back and ban a safe, convenient, modern, technology-driven ride sharing app…

In the old days it was very simple: if you wanted to succeed in business, you had to meet people. Face-to-face contact was essential.

Not so today: there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there – especially in the creative sector – who have never met their clients. “They’ve become my biggest client, Ed,” someone said to me the other day. “I think I’ve spoken to the MD twice on the phone. Everything else has been e-mail and Facebook messenger. I’ve got an address for invoicing but I’m not even sure where the MD’s based.”

That’s not unusual: for an increasing number of people running a business – whether they employ staff or not – equals sitting in front of a screen all day. And that must lead to more and more ‘lonely entrepreneurs.’

loneliness

Costs, taxation and ever increasing legislation all play their part in making the life of an entrepreneur difficult: but I just wonder how often loneliness is the final straw…

That’s why I believe the ‘work/life support system’ offered by The Alternative Board is so important: it’s why I believe the potential for us to grow in the future is so exciting. Some of you may have seen my recent profile in the Yorkshire Post – and yes, I absolutely believe that we can move from working with 350 business owners to over 1,000. And if we can do that we will very definitely benefit the UK economy.

But as I said in the article, sometimes as a business owner it’s difficult to know where to turn. I also said that I now realise how much I didn’t know when I started TAB York. One of the things I unquestionably didn’t know was how lonely life can be as an entrepreneur and how much having a support network can help.

Five years from now let’s hope the FSB are reporting that virtually no entrepreneurs are desperate to sell their businesses – and if TAB UK can play a part in that I’ll be absolutely delighted. Everyone needs friends: as the old saying has it, ‘Even the sharpest knife can’t cut it alone…’

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 10.13.01

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…