If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

You’re the one who persuaded the bank. Convinced your wife to put your house on the line.

You’re the one who went in early. Stayed late. Made sacrifices.

You’re the one who took the difficult decisions. Sat down with Bill and explained – as gently as you could – that his future wasn’t with the business.

You’re the one whose energy, drive, commitment – and sometimes your sheer force of will – has taken the company to where it is now.

And now, Sir or Madam, I am telling you to do nothing. Play golf. Have another day at York races. Walk the Pilgrim Way.

“What?” you splutter. “That’s ridiculous advice. I need to be there. Hands-on, constantly fine-tuning the business, ever-present.”

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

Several times over the last few years I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs along these lines: “I’ve got nothing to do, Ed. Everything’s under control. I could walk out for a day. For a week, a month even. Things would still run smoothly.”

Are the entrepreneurs happy about that? No, they see it as a sign of failure.

But it’s not failure. It’s exactly the opposite: a sign of success.

I’ve written about this before, but if you haven’t built a business you can walk away from then you haven’t built a business. Because one day you’re going to sell the business and if it is entirely dependent on you – if you are the business – then you have nothing to sell.

Entrepreneurs are driven, passionate, committed people. They love working and they love working hard. Secretly, they’re never happier than when they have to set the alarm for 4:30.

But businesses are constantly evolving. No business goes upwards in a straight line. There are always steps and plateaus. And one of those plateaus might suddenly see you with nothing to do. Trust me, it won’t last. Every time an entrepreneur has said, “Ed, I’ve nothing to do,” it’s been followed one, three or six months later by, “Ed, I’ve never been busier.”

In the short term, though, the hiatus can be a real problem for the entrepreneur. They’re conditioned to see doing nothing – not constantly running at 100mph, not being there all the time – as a sign of failure.

They start to feel guilty, start to think they’ve missed something. And sooner or later they start to make changes for the sake of making changes.

Tap ‘entrepreneur doing nothing’ into Google and the search engine doesn’t believe you. By the third listing it has defaulted to the norm: ‘Why nothing less than 100% can ever be enough.’

Once you’ve built your business to a certain size, your job changes. It’s another topic I’ve covered previously – and I’ll be writing about it again next week – but your job is no longer to work in your business, it is to work on your business. Clients and customers still need to see you, but they do not need to see you behind the counter – or whatever you equivalent of a counter is.

Working on your business means a lot more thinking time and a lot less ‘doing’ time. Initially, it can be a difficult transition – but let me repeat: resist the urge to meddle, to look for problems where none exist.

And if you do find yourself with nothing to do, remember it’s not a sign that your business is broken. It is not a reason for you to feel guilty. It’s a sign of success. So enjoy it. Take time off and re-charge your batteries. Spend time with your family. Give something back to your local community. You deserve the break – and don’t worry: you’ll soon be smiling quietly to yourself and re-setting the alarm clock…

The Workplace Taboo


It’s been a busy week for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight for me – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the rain – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain yesterday this morning I’m obviously at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.

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As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And in The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”

The Monday Morning Quarterback


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Fire people: hire people

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

 

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

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

What we can Learn from Baboons…


We’ve all been on holiday. We’ve all experienced it.

For me, it comes around lunchtime on the third day…

You’ve finally hauled yourself off the sun lounger and wandered down to the beach restaurant. There’s a plate of calamari in front of you. A glass of cold beer at your elbow, the condensation running down the glass. The sun’s on your back. And suddenly you feel it.

You feel the muscles in your back relax. You feel the tension go out of your shoulders. At last, you’re relaxed. Stress? What stress?

But holidays end. You come home. Go back to work. Delete 300 e-mails. Drift back into the old routine. And before you know it, the muscles in your back are as knotted as they ever were…

So let me break off here, and consider two species which are closely connected: the baboon, and the British civil servant.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is a primatologist. And every year, he forsakes the charms of California for the African jungle, where he studies baboons. Specifically, he studies their social structure and stress levels.

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Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Public Health at University College London. He’s stayed rather closer to home, and conducted a 40 year study into the British civil servant, looking at 18,000 members of the service from the lowest new entrant right up to Sir Humphrey level.

Both studies come to the same conclusion: the higher up the social order you are, the less stress you suffer. Lower ranking baboons had higher heart rates and higher blood pressure than their leaders: their arteries contained more plaque, significantly increasing their risk of a heart attack.

Marmot’s findings mirrored those of Sapolsky. Men in lower employment grades were more likely to die prematurely: there was a ‘social gradient’ for mortality. Subsequent studies involving women revealed a similar pattern.

Why? Surely those at top of the tree – literally and figuratively – have bigger decisions to make? Protecting the troop, pleasing the new PM…

Apparently not: Sapolsky identified five factors that are responsible for the more stress/lower down the pecking order correlation:

  • You feel like you have no control
  • You’re not getting any predictive information – how bad is this going to be? How long will it last, and so on
  • You feel trapped
  • You interpret things as getting worse
  • And you’ve no support system or ‘shoulder to cry on’

And now we’re coming closer to home. Most people reading this blog will be the top baboon, the alpha male or female in their organisation. But every single one of us has known that feeling of not being in control of our business, of feeling trapped, of not knowing how things will turn out – and of not having anyone who truly understands what the problem is. And therein lies the stress – and the inherent dangers that come with it.

I think I’ve done a reasonable job of eliminating stress in my life, but on the third day of the holiday I can still feel the muscles in my back loosening. Much as I like that moment, I’d prefer it didn’t happen. So one of my key goals for the rest of this year is to remove even more stress from my life: given the responsibilities I’m taking on, that’s not going to be easy – but I’m determined to do it.

As a starting point, I’ve just written down all the factors that cause me stress: there are six of them. So here’s a firm commitment: by the end of this year I’ll have the list down to three. And I challenge you to do the same. Make your list, and commit to reducing it by 50% over the next 4½ months.

…And by all means share it with your fellow Board members, the ultimate ‘shoulder to cry on.’ Whatever you’ve written down, it’ll be mirrored around the table. Much more importantly, though, the solutions will also be around the TAB table –in the knowledge, insight and experience of your fellow baboons…

It’s the Hard Days…


I’ve been writing this blog for six years now, and we’re coming up to post no. 300.

Inevitably I have my favourites.

No. 99 – Make Good Art – is probably the one that I re-read most often. Written in May 2012 the post took its inspiration from a commencement address writer Neil Gaiman gave to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Here’s how post no. 99 finished:

You should enjoy it – because the journey is what makes it worthwhile. Ricky Gervais was on TV the other night. He was asked about the large pile of folding stuff now nestling snugly in his bank account. I forget his exact words … but his point was simple. The journey – the hardships, the disappointments, the knock-backs – had made it worthwhile. If he’d won the lottery, it couldn’t have compared.

So the message from me is as simple as it ever was. Whatever you do, ‘make good art.’ And above all, enjoy the journey.

And now I’m going to take inspiration from another commencement address. This one – delivered a few weeks ago – was Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, speaking to Berkeley’s Class of 2016. In the speech she makes a point about the crucial days on your journey – and it’s a point which is remarkably relevant to every entrepreneur I know.

Sandberg spoke of the death of her husband – Dave Goldberg, the former CEO of Survey Monkey. Goldberg had died “one year and 13 days ago:” her speech covered not what Sandberg had learned in life, but “what I learned in death.”

She described her grief and how she’d learned to cope. The lessons for the Class of 2016 and – by extension – for those of us running a business, were invaluable.

You will almost certainly face deep adversity. There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or accident that changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity, there’s loss of love and sometimes there’s loss of life itself. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. Today I want to talk to you about what happens next.

And then she makes a point that probably ought to be chiselled on the desk of everyone running a business:

The easy days will be easy. It is the hard days – the days that challenge you to your very core – that will determine who you are.

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As we’ve discussed many times, being an entrepreneur is a lonely place. You can have all the coaching there is, any amount of peer support. But there are days when you’re on your own. There will be days when the cash flow isn’t flowing, when suppliers aren’t delivering and when that big client – the one where you’ve invested all the time and the money – turns round and says, “Look, I’ve been thinking about this…”

So how did Sheryl Sandberg cope? How did she go back to Facebook ten days after the sudden death of her husband and sit in a meeting when – by her own admission – all she could think was “What is everyone talking about and why does any of this matter?”

She quoted psychologist Martin Seligman and the ‘three P’s’ that determine how we bounce back from hardships.

Personalisation – when bad things happen it’s human nature to blame ourselves. But sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes you’re just unlucky. Don’t personalise it.

Pervasiveness – the belief that something will affect every single area of your life. Let me quote Sheryl Sandberg again: For a second [in the meeting at Facebook] I forgot about death. And that brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful. My children and I were healthy. My friends and family were loving…

Permanence – bad things do not last forever. As the old saying has it, ‘this too shall pass.’ By all means recognise your feelings when things go wrong: but recognise too that those feelings will not last forever.

Sheryl Sandberg’s address is one of the most inspiring I’ve ever listened to. It lasts for 25 minutes and it’s one of the best investments of 25 minutes you’ll ever make. And her message is true for every one of us.

It’s the hard days that determine who we are: and it’s the hard days that will determine the success of our businesses.

The Entrepreneur’s Wife


As the old saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a strong, wise and hardworking woman.”

But that’s the whole point. It’s an old saying – dating back to the days when the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home. Now the chances are that both partners are working full time – and the entrepreneur is just as likely to be the woman.

So how important is an entrepreneur’s partner? Does the success or failure of your business depend not on your brilliant idea, your stellar crowdfunding or your strict control of the KPIs – but on the person you come home to at night?

It’s a subject I need to tackle – however great the personal risk! And bear with me: I’m not being sexist, but I don’t want to disrupt the flow of the post by constantly writing he/she or him/her. So I’m writing this one from my own standpoint and the pronouns are used accordingly.

First things first: being married to an entrepreneur is difficult. There are long hours, holidays that are interrupted by vital phone conversations and – as I wrote in the last post of 2014 – plenty of nights when you’re ‘there but not there’: when your body is watching Silent Witness and your mind is back at the office worrying about the cash flow.

Your wife can be bemoaning the problems one of your children is having at school, the fact that the kitchen wall is about to fall down, or the problems and frustrations of her career – when you suddenly jolt back to reality and say, “I’m sorry. What was that again?”

The bad news is, it may not improve.

Being married to an entrepreneur can put different strains on a relationship no matter how long the business has been established – and no matter how successful it may be. Different stages bring different pressures.

One day the husband comes home. “I can’t take any more,” he says. “I was determined to be at the Nativity Play this year. The boss says I have to be in Frankfurt. No more. I’ve resigned. I’m starting on my own in the New Year.”

Sadly, that may not be what the wife hears… “The dependable amount of money that goes into our account every month is going to stop. I’m going to be working a lot of late nights and we’re not going to have a holiday for three years. And there’s no guarantee it’ll be a success.”

You might not like what she’s thinking either. Oh £$%&. I was going to work part time. Spend more time with the children. Well that’s gone. Or… £$%&. That means I’m going to have to take that promotion. Longer hours, more driving, more stress, less time with the kids. But we need the money. Thanks, pal.

The decision to leave the security of a job and start your own business isn’t just about you: it affects two lives. You’re certainly changing your own career path – but you might just be changing your wife’s as well.

Three years on there’ll be another tipping point. The business has survived so far. The cash flow has evened itself out. There are even a couple of employees on the payroll. But now there’s a problem. A major customer has gone into liquidation; the business is under real pressure. Oh well, the wife thinks, if the worst comes to the worst he can always go back to Giant Corporate plc.

Across the lounge her husband is also deep in thought – and he’s worrying about two things. First of all his customer. But secondly, himself. Because he knows he can’t go back to Giant Corporate. He knows that the last three years of running his own business have changed him. In effect, he’s become unemployable. And it’s not something he shares with his wife: no wonder there’s a certain tension between them…

Ten years later it’s all very different. The business is a success. Money isn’t a problem any more. Everything in the garden is rosy. Except success can undermine a relationship every bit as much as failure. I was talking to a partner in one of our bigger firms of accountants about this. “I can’t count the number of marriages I’ve seen ended by success,” he said. “Suddenly the girl he married when he was 23…” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Being an entrepreneur is tough – but being married to an entrepreneur can be even tougher. Your wife needs to understand that being an entrepreneur is part of you – every bit as much as being right handed or having brown eyes is part of you. She needs to understand risk – and she needs to be able to live with it. Hopefully TAB plays its part in minimising that risk, but running your own business will always bring risk – especially if the bank are eagerly clutching the deeds to your house.

And that’s why your work/life balance is so important. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when you’re planning your diary for this year, get the really important dates in first – the dates when you’re with the people you love. The entrepreneur’s wife pays a high price: make sure you repay her in full.

Live on Stage… The Entrepreneur


“No, of course you don’t feel like it every night. Sometimes you just want to be at home with your kids. And bluntly, I hate touring. I hate the hotel rooms, I hate the travelling, I hate the unpacking. I hate it all. But then I go on stage. There’s me, the mic, the audience. And everything else melts away…”

“I can still remember the feeling. You’d pull up outside someone’s house – a ‘real prospect’ your sales manager had said. Invariably you were late due to them saying ‘take the second right’ when actually it was the fourth right and then left at the pub. It was raining, you wanted to be at home and you just didn’t feel like going in there and delivering your pitch. But you did. And somehow the disillusioned guy in the car always morphed into a charismatic salesman half-way up the garden path.”

Two views – ostensibly from completely different perspectives but both reaching the same conclusion. The first is my recollection of a remarkably well-known performer speaking when he wasn’t that well-known (and who certainly wouldn’t admit to ‘I hate touring’ any more). The second is a TAB member talking about an unhappy year he spent in very direct sales.

And the conclusion? I’m sure we can all recognise it. You’re fed up, you’ve done this presentation a thousand times before, the client won’t appreciate it anyway – but somehow something happens, a switch flicks at the crucial moment, and you’re fine. And it happens every time.

I’ve been taking some time off to be with Dan and Rory this week. As they’re happier with the Xbox as a companion I found myself reading about the well-documented problems in the F1 industry. This week’s GP is in America – land of the free and home of the salesman. The consensus there seems to be that F1 needs to connect with more potential fans – be more ‘personality led.’

If you’re running an SME then the words ‘personality led’ will be familiar to you – because that’s exactly what your business is. Despite the internet, Facebook, LinkedIn and a gazillion tweets a day, when it comes down to it people always have and always will buy from people. That means there’s no hiding place for the owner of an SME – which brings us back to the man waiting to go on stage; to someone sitting in his car outside a prospect’s house.

That’s you. You’re the one that needs to flip the switch. You’re the one who’s on stage every day. You may well be desperate for a day off from performing. But I’m sorry, your audience is stamping its feet, demanding the main act

And it’s me as well. I’m lucky that I’ve always enjoyed the ‘pressure of the presentation.’ Nestle used to wheel me out when there were difficult presentations to give to sceptical clients – and I revelled in the challenge. Why? Because I believed in the product – I genuinely believed that we had a great plan which would help the clients (and help us).

But I must have done thousands of sales presentations in my life. Surely I must be getting jaded by now?

Fortunately, there’s never been anything in my business career that I’ve believed in as much as TAB. Does that mean every presentation and every meeting is a piece of cake? Far from it: if I’m driving to a meeting with a potential member and I know that TAB would be perfect for her and she’d be perfect for TAB then it’s fine.

But there are plenty of other meetings with potential members that I do have to motivate myself for. Just as I know there are sales presentations and meetings that you have to motivate yourselves for – even though you believe passionately in your business.

So that’s the question for this week. How do you motivate yourself when you’re sitting in the car or waiting in the hotel lobby? What is it that flicks the switch and guarantees your absolute best presentation, every single time?