Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend


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

There was only one possible explanation.

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

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

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

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

And we all know the dangers of stress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m All In…


“Forty million, five hundred thousand,” Bond says. “All in.” And he pushes his pile of chips into the centre of the table.

It’s the climax of the poker game in Casino Royale: the moment when there are only two options for Bond: he wins, or he loses.

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Throughout this year I’ve compared the entrepreneur’s journey to the classical story structure used in literature. The ‘inciting incident’ when Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard – and the moment our potential entrepreneur pushes his breakfast round his plate and realises something has to change.

Then there’s the importance of a mentor figure – Dumbledore or Gandalf or – hopefully for some of you – the Alternative Board.

And then comes the climax. The moment when there are only two possible outcomes, success or failure or – in stories and in the movies – a heroic triumph or certain death. Harry Potter goes through the trapdoor to confront Voldemort: he can succeed, or he can die. There is no other option.

Literally and metaphorically, he’s all in.

There’s a moment when the entrepreneur realises he’s all in as well. But this time it’s not the climax of the movie. Instead, it’s a staging post on the journey.

There are millions of words written about the decision to start your own business. There are virtually none written about this equally important moment. Let’s try and put that right.

I’m talking about the moment you realise that you’ve found your niche: that you’re doing what you were put on the Earth to do – and that you’ve become unemployable.

This is the moment when the entrepreneur realises there is no going back. He turns around – and the bridge behind him is burning.

For me this ‘realisation moment’ was triggered by a client. It was early in my TAB York journey and I was just finishing a 1 to 1 with a client. “Thanks, Ed,” he said. “I simply couldn’t have made these changes without you or my TAB board.”

A day later I was in a taxi, travelling home – relatively late at night – after an event. There was a sudden moment of quiet and I thought: ‘I like these people. They’re great people to work with. And I’m building a community of people like this.’

And then I spoke to one of my old friends from the corporate world. Five minutes on office politics, five minutes on the changes the new MD was bringing in and five minutes on why he was bringing them in – essentially to prove he was different to the old MD.

At that moment I realised I was all in. I couldn’t go back to my old life.

I liked my new life too much: I loved the fact that success or failure was entirely down to me. And I knew I could never go back to the office politics, to dancing to someone else’s tune.

I’ve talked to any number of entrepreneurs over the years and they can all recognise the moment. Suddenly you know you’re creating something worthwhile: suddenly the business community recognises that you’re in it for the long term: suddenly aware that you’re building a network of people around you that add something new to your life every day.

That’s when you turn around, see that the bridge is burning – and punch the air in celebration. You’re all in – and you couldn’t be happier.

Twenty years ago I went all in as well. And as this week draws to a close Dav and I will be in Whitby for our 20th wedding anniversary. Whatever I’m achieving with TAB, whatever I’m helping to build, I couldn’t have done without her at my side. “All in…”; the best decision I ever made. On the off-chance you read this, thank you.

Trouble Down Under – and what it can teach us


Monday March 26th

I’ve been writing the blog for nearly eight years now, and for the first time ever I’m going to split it into two halves: a game of two halves you might say as, not for the first time, I’m using sport as an analogy for business.

Almost no-one reading the blog – at least in the UK – can fail to be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Australian cricket team. But for those of you in Europe and the US, let me briefly summarise.

Australia are currently playing a test series in South Africa: to describe it as acrimonious is an understatement. At the weekend the series stood at 1-1, with the third test being played in Cape Town. South Africa were ahead in the game and batting in their second innings – at which point Cameron Bancroft, the newest member of the Australian team, reached into the pocket of his cricket flannels. TV cameras around the ground filmed him looking remarkably guilty as he paid the ball some extravagant attention (with sandpaper, as it later turned out).

I won’t go into the intricacies of swing bowling. Bancroft was tampering with the ball to give his team an unfair advantage. But this wasn’t the action of a lone player: this was a plot hatched by the senior members of the team: “the leadership group” as they were described.

Australian captain Steve Smith and Bancroft quickly admitted their cheating – and confessed that at the very least, the captain and David Warner, the vice-captain, had encouraged Bancroft to tamper with the ball.

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…And that’s why I’m splitting the blog in two. The Australian Cricket Board are to hold an immediate enquiry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed his outrage. Perhaps most tellingly, veteran Aussie cricket commentator Jim Maxwell has been virtually reduced to tears on air.

At this point, what would a business do? Two of your senior executives have admitted cheating. They have damaged your worldwide reputation. They’ve brought into question your previous successes which – quite naturally – people are saying were gained through cheating. And to cap it all, they got a junior member of the company to do their dirty work.

But hang on. Both the executives have a worldwide reputation. One of them is perhaps your best performer for 50 years. Dismissing them will seriously weaken your company: there are simply no ready-made replacements.

No business that wanted – or deserved – to be taken seriously would hesitate. Smith and Warner would be instantly dismissed. Bancroft would be given a savage reprimand but he’d keep his job. And then the questions would start. If the two execs were conspiring, was the director they report to aware of it? Given their close working relationship he must have been aware of what they were planning. So how high up the organisation does the rot go?

That is exactly where Cricket Australia now find themselves. Many of us have been in the close atmosphere of a dressing room at some stage in our lives: if a plot was being hatched, everyone in the team would have been aware of it. I find it inconceivable that the coach, Darren Lehmann, didn’t know. So how does the Board react to the cheating? And make no mistake, it is cheating every bit as much as an athlete taking steroids is cheating.

Thursday April 5th

So now we know: all three players were sent home from South Africa. Smith and Warner have been banned for a year, Bancroft for nine months. Coach Darren Lehmann was found not to have known anything – but has resigned anyway.

Both Smith and Warner have now performed the modern act of contrition – the tearful press conference – and have accepted their bans. Warner accepts that he is unlikely to ever play for Australia again. I’m not so sure – he’s only 31 and 12 months from now will still be one of the best opening batsmen in the world. Steve Smith is only 28 and will unquestionably be back in the team. Will he be captain again? I wouldn’t bet against it.

We can all argue about the length of the ban. As Michael Vaughan posted on Twitter, you suspect that Mr Lawyer and Mr QC were involved, and it is telling that neither player has sought to challenge their ban. And the dust seems to have settled remarkably quickly…

Are there any business lessons we can learn from Sandpapergate? I think there are two – and one lesson we can learn from Cricket Australia (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write) is the importance of acting decisively.

I’ve written previously about corporate cock-ups – United Airlines and Ryanair spring to mind – and one thing that unquestionably made the situation worse for the companies was that they firstly tried to defend that they’d done, and then they dithered. Even when they clearly didn’t have a leg to stand on, neither company would apologise with good grace. So Cricket Australia have acted swiftly, the players have accepted the bans and the focus of attention turns elsewhere.

The second lesson is that pressure makes you do stupid things. What on earth were Smith and Warner thinking? A disgraced businessman can disappear into the wilderness for a while and come back with a different company. Steve Smith cannot disappear and come back playing for Pakistan.

There is pressure in business every bit as much as there is pressure in sport – and just as in sport, it can lead to stupid decisions. For the entrepreneur, that pressure very often comes from loneliness – from having no-one to speak to about the stresses of running your own business. That is one of TAB’s great strengths: you are never alone. There is always someone there to speak to, always a friend who will allow you to release the pressure – and who will occasionally say, “Hang on, sport. That may not be the best decision you’ve ever made…”

Time for your Annual Service


Well, after last week’s slice of humble pie I’m not even going to mention the cricket this week. I don’t even have it on as I’m writing. Oh, for goodness sake. Pushing forward to one he should have left. That’s a fine start…

Remote found, TV turned off and focused on my Mac, let me turn my attention to something I briefly touched on two weeks ago when I was discussing productivity. According to this story in City AM: ‘Half of the UK’s small business leaders are taking fewer than six days off work each year.’

The research quoted suggested that 52% of entrepreneurs took five or fewer days off last year, with one-in-five taking no time off at all. Of those that do make it to the departure lounge, 1 in 4 admit to answering e-mails and taking calls while they’re away, and more than a third take outstanding work with them to finish.

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Interestingly, the research also showed that the vast majority of the bosses wanted their staff to take their full allocation of time off – recognising the value of time away from the office and paying real attention to your work/life balance.

So why don’t they practice what they preach?

Let’s exercise a little caution before I move into ‘full rant’ mode. It was a survey and I think we can safely assume that there was some ‘no-one works harder than me’ posturing going on. How many hours day do you work? Pah! Never less than 16. How many days a week are you in the office? Easily eight: nine some weeks… Where are the Four Yorkshiremen when you need them?

But even allowing for that natural exaggeration the results are worrying – and it appears from another study that entrepreneurs are now working longer hours than in previous years. So much for the work/life balance message…

Anyone who has read this blog on even an occasional basis will know that I think working longer and longer hours and not taking holidays is madness. Never mind your business, you’re cheating your family. Hopefully we’ll all be at the top of the mountain one day – but you need someone with you to share the view.

More than anyone, entrepreneurs need to take breaks. I have written many times that to think differently you need to be somewhere different. There’s nothing more dangerous these days than ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but if you sit at your desk every day you’ll do exactly that.

Get away, do something different, and you’ll find you’re thinking differently as well. I’ve lost count of the number of problems I’ve solved/insights I’ve had on holiday, simply because I’ve been thinking in a different way.

And as we’ve always said, if the business doesn’t function without you, you don’t have a business. The only way you’ll find that out is to leave them to it. And if you insist on staying in the office every day then all you’ll ultimately do is bring forward the day when they have to function without you – while you’re stressing about the mobile signal in the cardiac unit…

Holidays also give you a chance to let go of your ego for a while – especially if you take your children. And if they’re the age Dan and Rory are then I’ve no choice other than to let go of my ego. Whenever we try anything new I simply have to accept that they’re going to pick it up more quickly/be better than me/not have the aches and pains the day after. Or all three…

I suspect that a large proportion of those entrepreneurs who never go on holiday would all give the same reason: ‘I don’t have the time.’ No, you don’t. There’s never a good time for a holiday. There’ll always be a new idea, a new client – or a crisis. But if you’re not at your peak – and without a break you won’t be – then you can’t be at your best for the client or able to deal with the crisis.

After all, you service your plant and machinery every year: you do the same with your car. Isn’t it time the company’s most important asset received the same care and attention…

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.

mlm-tips-when-life-is-tough

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.