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… 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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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.

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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…