Your NOT-To-Do List


The children have gone back to school, the nights are drawing in, there’s only a month until the clocks go back. Christmas has appeared on the horizon, you’ve spotted a 2020 diary in the shops…

Which means that for many of us thoughts are already turning towards plans for next year. For what you want to achieve in the year – and, by implication, what you need to do in the first quarter and first month of 2020. 

No question about it, you’ll march confidently into your office on Thursday 2nd January, pull that brand new pad towards you and – knowing exactly what you’re going to achieve – confidently write ‘To Do’ at the top.

But there’s another list you need to write. Not just for 2020, but starting now. And in my view, it’s even more important than your ‘to do’ list. 

Your ‘Not To Do’ list. 

I can still remember the shock I got the first few weeks I used Toggl and realised how much of my time wasn’t being used effectively – and how many things I was doing very definitely belonged on a not to do list. 

Despite the technological advances of modern life virtually all of us are leading busier and busier lives: perhaps because of those advances. How many of us check our e-mails just before we fall asleep? 

Add in family commitments – and for many people reading this blog, taking care of ageing parents is now starting to become a major commitment – and all of us have a seemingly endless to-do list. 

At work you need to delegate: at home you need to decide what’s really important. 

Let’s start in the office. Delegation is one of the hardest skills to learn. It is all too easy to sigh and think, ‘It’s quicker to do it myself.’ But you cannot build a business without delegation. Sometimes ‘done’ is more important than ‘perfect.’ 

And as I have written many times, it is not your job to be the best engineer, coder or salesman. It is your job to lead a team of outstanding engineers, coders and salesmen – and to help them go on improving. 

So as you contemplate your plans and targets for 2020 ask yourself – or get someone else to ask – why should YOU be doing that? And delegate what you can delegate, whether it’s to your own team, or to an outsourced specialist. Even starting a ‘not to do’ list will be a valuable exercise: it will unquestionably challenge some of your long-held assumptions about what your job really is. 

Time to come home – where exactly the same principle applies. Let me give you just one example. One of the best decisions Dav and I ever made was to hire a gardener. Andy comes for three hours a week, he cuts the grass and generally keeps the garden under control. We pay him £60 and it is a superb investment. It gives me three hours – longer, really, as I’m not as good a gardener as Andy – which I can spend with my family or simply de-stressing myself. Or yes, as has recently been pointed out to me, hacking out of the rough…

There is one final, and very important, point about your ‘not to do’ list. It doesn’t just apply to you. 

Take a look around you. Is everyone in your team seriously making the very best use of their time? Or are they doing jobs that really could be delegated, allowing them to do much more important work? 

We were guilty of this at TAB head office. Members of the team were doing admin tasks that they really shouldn’t have been doing. That wasn’t a failing: we’d simply reached one of those moments every business reaches from time to time. We’d expanded, there were new challenges, the team needed to focus their attentions elsewhere. 

So Tracey has joined us, she’s immediately picked up a whole range of admin for us and that has helped the existing members of the team to focus on what’s really important. It’s also given them some time to think – to stand back and look at the business. 

I’ve often talked on the blog about working on your business not in your business. A ‘not to do’ list helps you do that. Equally importantly, making sure all the members of your team have a ‘not to do’ list means they can sometimes work on their part of the business not – as Stephen Covey put it – constantly be ‘in the thick of thin things.’ 

And now, with exactly 13 weeks to go until we all abandon the office for Christmas, time for me to make a list…

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Is Compromise a Dirty Word?


With the resignation of Theresa May and the European elections, it’s impossible to start this week’s post anywhere other than in the corridors of power. 

Obviously I’m being sarcastic when I use the word ‘power.’ If anyone is in power in the UK – or has the slightest idea what’s going on, or what is likely to happen – then please let me know. 

Like everyone else in the business community I am tempted to have an 800 word rant about our politicians. The words ‘whelk’ and ‘stall’ would feature. As would a celebration in a brewery. But, I must remember I’m an adult. So what business insights can we rescue from the ashes? 

One comment – which I have edited slightly so as not to offend you, gentle reader – summed up the current malaise: 

Having got into this mess because of dithering, they are now dithering over who is going to oversee the next bout of dithering. 

In her farewell speech Theresa May clearly did not see it as dithering. She made much of the need to compromise and – apparently quoting a late constituent – said, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” 

Is that right? After all, our other female Prime Minister had a rather different view: “If you spend too long in the middle of the road you’ll be hit by traffic coming in both directions.”

So what’s the position in business? Is compromise the answer? Or is Theresa May wrong and ‘compromise’ really is a dirty word. 

In the early days of this blog I would occasionally write that ‘the job of a leader is to lead.’ Now – especially when I’m discussing politics – I seem to write it in every other post. 

But it is – and sometimes leadership makes compromise impossible. Stephen King may have been talking about his writing but the comment applies equally to a business leader: ‘You cannot please all the people all the time. You cannot even please all the people some of the time. The best you can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time.’ 

So do real leaders ever compromise? 

Of course they do. Sometimes there’s a completely stalled situation which can only be solved by a compromise. Sometimes feelings are so entrenched that you need a compromise to allow both sides to save face and – at least in the short term – lower unrealistic expectations. And sometimes you just need a short-term win, something that will increase motivation and create some mutual trust. 

But in my experience, solutions that come through compromise are rarely long-term or lasting. By definition, a compromise is not a clear vision. It is rarely greeted with enthusiasm by either side. And the problems you solved with the compromise always seem to have a way of creeping back. 

If real leaders do compromise, they always do it from a position of strength. They do not walk into a negotiation and say, ‘We’re prepared to give in on this, this and this. Now can we compromise?’ 

So where does all this leave our politicians and – by extension – the country they are supposed to be governing? 

I don’t often read Conservative Home, but MEP Daniel Hannan summarises the current Catch-22 very neatly: ‘We (the Conservatives) cannot face the electorate before leaving the EU. But we might not be able to leave the EU without an election.’ 

What he doesn’t say, of course, is that if last Thursday’s results were repeated in a General Election, it would be Prime Minister Farage taking the UK out of the EU. 

When a business is in trouble – and the Conservative Party is a business, whose aim is to win elections – then it needs immediate action.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re not going to get. No new leader chosen until July, everyone on holiday in August, the party conference season… 

There will be barely five weeks to negotiate any deal, always assuming that the EU is prepared to move from its current, very entrenched, position of ‘no renegotiation.’ 

I wrote about Theresa May and her indecision on Friday 22ndMarch. At that time everything was going to be settled by June 30th. Now we’re looking at a date four months after that, with every possibility that the Hallowe’en deadline will be extended. 

That’s a dreadful failure of management and competence. But above all it is a stark illustration of what happens when a leader fails to lead and fails to communicate a vision. 

Somehow, from somewhere a leader has to emerge. He or she will have to take some very tough decisions. And compromise – the desire to please all the people – will need to be the first casualty. 

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… 

Be Brave


Last week I wrote a Tale of Four Leaders, contrasting Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd with two leaders who I consider to be far less successful – the Donald and the Maybot.

I’m still coming to terms with Paul’s passing, but gradually the sadness is giving way to what I’ll think of as his personal legacy to me.

Many of you will know the words of the poem by Henry Scott Holland, so often read at funerals. It’s called Death is Nothing at All, and there is a line that is particularly apt: ‘Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?’

Paul will never be out of mind for me and – two weeks on from the funeral – I feel a duty to his memory to make TAB UK the best it can possibly be. That means for everyone in the TAB family: our members, our franchisees, our team at head office – and the colleagues we work with overseas.

How are we going to do that? We are going to be brave. What was it Thoreau said? ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with the song still in them.”

No-one in the TAB UK family should do that and so – and I know Paul would have approved – the message this week is simple: Be Brave!

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This, more than ever, is a time for brave decisions, on both the micro and macro level. The world is changing at an ever faster pace: AI and machine learning, advanced search and the personalised internet are knocking on the door of virtually any business you can name. Businesses that were once cornerstones of the national and local economy are crumbling away. Brave decisions have become essential.

So let me turn to two decisions – sadly both from our government – which illustrate exactly the type of decisions we should not be making.

A couple of weeks ago Theresa May announced an extra £20bn – from your taxes – for the NHS. That’s a worthy decision: with four out of five people apparently in favour of tax rises to fund the NHS I’m sure the focus groups will approve.

It’s worthy, but in the long run I think it is wrong. And it’s the easy decision, not the brave decision.

Anyone who walks through any town centre will notice that the UK has an obesity epidemic which is getting worse every year. That in turn is leading to an explosion in Type 2 diabetes which is currently costing the NHS £25,000 a minute. Diabetes UK put the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes and its complications at £14bn a year.

Those are staggering figures for what is – in the main – a preventable disease. And quite clearly there isn’t much of the PM’s £20bn left when you’ve paid the diabetes bill: if we carry on getting fatter there very soon won’t be anything left.

The PM’s £20bn is, in essence, a very expensive bucket. There’s a hole in the roof of your factory, the water is coming in ever more quickly, so clearly what you need to fix the problem is a bigger, more expensive bucket…

Yes, that might be the answer while the guys go up on the roof to fix the hole. But as far as the diabetes epidemic is concerned, we’re not sending anyone up on the roof: we’re relying on an ever more expensive bucket instead of making difficult decisions and telling people the unpalatable truth.

Secondly, pot. Or weed, or whatever you might want to call it. Last week the case of Billy Caldwell and an article by William Hague brought cannabis front and centre in the news.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Hague argued that the war on cannabis has been “irretrievably lost” and called for it to be fully legalised. He argued that cannabis is freely available in the UK, but available in unregulated forms, with a thriving black market bringing huge profits to criminal gangs and putting an unnecessary strain on the police and our criminal justice system.

Some time ago I wrote about the legalisation of cannabis in the US state of Colorado. The state – which I visit every year for TAB’s global conference – legalised  cannabis in 2012. Teenage use of the drug in the state is now at its lowest level for a decade, opioid deaths are down, crime has not risen – but tax revenues have, by an estimated $230m over two years. The population of Colorado is around 5.6m – that is around one-tenth of the UK, so it is easy to project the tax revenues that might result from legalisation here.

Sam Dumitriu, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute says, “We estimate that legalisation would raise at least £1bn a year for the Treasury.” He added, “Just as the prohibition of alcohol failed in the US, so the prohibition of cannabis has failed here.”

What is the UK government’s position? A flat refusal to even discuss the subject – a refusal, not to make a brave decision, but to even have a brave discussion.

In business, you cannot do that. It bears repeating: we are living in the age of brave decisions. The problem is, there’s no pain in buying the NHS a bigger bucket or refusing to discuss cannabis. The government – like so many businesses – is in a comfort zone.

But you know and I know that it cannot last. We cannot go on getting fatter, we cannot go on seeing young people murdered on the streets of London and we cannot ignore Google, Amazon and Uber when they tap on our door.

Throughout his life – and never more than towards the end of it – Paul Dickinson took brave decisions. That’s the legacy he left me: that’s the legacy that we all – in government or in business – need to follow.

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.

Panto Season Comes Early


The scene: an Alternative Board meeting, anywhere in the UK. We’re going round the table, updating each other on progress. It’s Dave’s turn…

TAB franchisee          So, Dave, bring us up to date. How’s it going?

Dave                           Yeah, good. The MD’s coming over at the weekend and we should finally be able to sort it all out. Few wrinkles to iron out in Ireland but we’re getting there

TAB veteran               You said last time that your two divisions in Ireland couldn’t agree on anything…

Dave                           Well, technically, yes. But we’re getting there

TF                                So you’re all set to abandon your current deals and go it alone?

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

TabVet                        So what deals have you got lined up to replace them?

Dave                           Well, technically, none

2nd TabVet                 Sorry if I’m missing something here but isn’t that … well, just a touch risky?

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

TF                                OK, so what impact is this all going to have on the company?

Dave                           Huh?

TF                                About six months ago you said you were doing an impact analysis on the effect this would all have. On every division of the company

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

2nd TabVet                  Me too. Remember asking if you thought you could get it done in time

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

TF                                It was so in depth that you haven’t finished it yet?

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

TF                                So you’re telling us, with our experience in business, that you are planning a major, major overhaul of your business, abandoning trading relationships you’ve had for forty years, you have nothing ready to replace them – except hope – and you have done no analysis at all of the impact it might have on your company?

Dave                           Well, technically…

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The TAB blog is politically neutral. And whatever my personal views, I try to be strictly neutral on Brexit. The blog is not, however, common-sense neutral. And when I read the stories coming out of the Committee on Exiting the European Union (let’s just call it the Brexit Committee, shall we?) on Wednesday I was, bluntly, staggered.

Were the UK Government – in the shape of Dave – a member of any TAB board (and frankly, Mrs May, right now I think it would be money well spent) he would not have survived the meeting. I can think of no instance in my seven years with TAB UK in which a member has gone ahead with a radical overhaul of his business without doing some seriously in-depth analysis of the potential impact. If a member of TAB York had acted in that way I would have questioned whether I was any good at my job.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, David Davis sat down in front of the Brexit Select Committee and said that Her Majesty’s Government had done no significant work on the impact Brexit might have on major parts of the UK economy.

Translate that into business terms. If you had tasked your finance director with doing these impact assessments and six months later he came back and said he hadn’t started then there would only be one outcome. He’d be clearing his office the same day. Even if he hadn’t been tasked with doing the work – but hadn’t shown the initiative to do the assessments – the end result would be the same.

David Davis has argued that there is no point in preparing impact assessments because the scale of change will be so big. Again, if you translate that into business, it’s just nonsense. “We’re going to make major changes in the company – a complete change of direction. And because the changes are going to be so big we’ve decided not to bother making any plans.”

Yep, that would go down well with your TAB colleagues.

Enough lampooning politicians. Sadly, they’re an easy target. There must be a reason for the Government’s failure to carry out due diligence…

Theresa May – the MD in our example – famously campaigned for Remain in 2016. A few weeks later she was roundly declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She had seen the shareholders get rid of the previous MD and give her the job – with a clear mandate to deliver something she’d very recently campaigned against.

This is the time of year when I traditionally write about planning for next year. And that’s where the lessons of Brexit apply. Because if you don’t absolutely believe in your plans, targets and goals – if they don’t reflect what you want both for the business and as an individual – then you’ll end up exactly where Theresa May and David Davis now find themselves. Trying to deliver a plan that you don’t believe in and, consequently, controlled by external events – when it should be the other way round.

That’s it for this week. Next week will be the last post of the year and I’ll be looking forward optimistically to 2018. And also announcing a change…

You Have Three Months…


Two weeks ago I used a quotation from the late Terry Pratchett as the inspiration for the blog. Struck by the analogy between writing a book and building a business, I wondered if any other writers had some inspiration for us.

Not so much ‘if’ as ‘It…’ That’s the title of Stephen King’s book about a demonic clown which terrorises children in a fictional town in Maine. Whatever you think of the storyline, the film of the same name has just opened – with the third biggest box office opening of the year and largest opening for a horror movie in history. And whatever your view on Stephen King’s writing two facts are indisputable: he’s productive – more than 50 books written – and he’s successful, with around 350m books sold.

So like Terry Pratchett, does King have any insights that we can translate into the business world? ‘Yes’ is the short answer: thirty seconds with Google brings up Stephen King’s ‘Top 20 rules for writers.’

I’m not sure they all translate into business. Number three – ‘don’t use adverbs’ – probably isn’t relevant, I thought confidently. Scanning the list hurriedly I came to number five. ‘Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.’ Right, I’ll try not to do that in this blog what I write every week…

But let me pick out just three points, the first of which is ‘stick to your own style.’ King is counselling against trying to write like John Grisham or Tom Clancy – but the same holds good in business. We all have our heroes of the corporate world: but you cannot run your business like Richard Branson (not, sadly, that he will have much time for business now…) or whichever of the Dragons you want to be this week. You can only run a business in your own style, in your own way and – hopefully with TAB’s help – building on your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses.

‘Write one word at a time.’ That piece of advice almost sounds too obvious to be worth considering: but it has an exact parallel in business. Good years where you demolish your targets don’t just happen: they are made up of good months, good weeks and good days. Success in business is not about consistency of results, it is about consistency of effort. As I have written many times, if you do the right thing every day, the results will come.

But it’s the third point that I think is the most interesting. ‘You have three months,’ says King. ‘The first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.’ By a long book King means 180,000 words, which he aims to write at 2,000 words a day over 90 days – consistency of effort.

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Interestingly, the obsession with three months chimes with something I was reading about Tim Ferriss, of 4 Hour Work Week fame. I’ve commented previously on Ferriss not doing what he thinks will make him happy, but what will excite him. He refuses to have long term plans, instead working on what he describes as three to six month ‘experiments.’ Often he has no idea where these experiments will lead: “What’s the worst that can happen?” he says. “You waste a few months and learn a lot while doing it?”

Three months for the first draft of a best seller: three months for an ‘experiment’ that might change your life. And for me, three months is a very effective period for your business. It’s long enough to set targets which have urgency, without being simply today’s to-do list. More importantly, it’s a long enough trial period.

If you still have misgivings about someone after they’ve been doing the job for three months, you’ve probably made the wrong choice. If your latest brainwave isn’t showing clear signs of working after three months, it’s probably best to cut your losses. And if your KPIs are still off-course after the third month, it is most emphatically time to take action – or bring the problem to the next meeting with your TAB colleagues.

Thanks for the reminder, Mr King. ‘You have three months’ is great business advice – and right now those three months will effectively take you to the end of the year. Make the most of them…

Business Advice from Dr. Who


You know how I like to keep up to date with cutting edge modern business management theory, so let’s start this week by hopping in the Tardis and travelling back to the 14th Century. Then we’ll fast forward to the early 20th and consider one of the fundamental building blocks of any business – garden peas.

William of Ockham (or Occam) was a Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian who died at age of 60 in 1347 – having first come up with a key business principle that still applies 670 years later. Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the one with fewest assumptions should be selected. Or more succinctly, the simplest explanation is nearly always right. Or in business terms, KISS.

And now to the University of Lausanne in 1906 where the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto made the famous observation that 80% of the property in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. As you do, he then went home and confirmed the hypotheses: 20% of the pea pods in his garden held 80% of the peas. Later generalised as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule was born.

We have all known about KISS and the 80/20 rule pretty much from 9:30 on day one of our business careers. We also know that they are as relevant – and as useful – today as they have ever been. So why don’t we give them the respect they deserve? And how can we use them to help build our businesses?

In many ways this is part of the ‘back to basics’ feeling that I’ve returned from Denver with. As technology gets ever more sophisticated, as a new app appears on our phone every week, as there seem to be 101 ways to solve every problem, it’s easy to forget the basics. It’s easy to forget that the simplest solution nearly always is the best solution, and that whatever we do, 20% of our customers give us 80% of our sales and 20% of our time produces 80% of our results.

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So how can we use these old rules to build our businesses?

Let me take the last point first. It’s four or five years now since I first started using Toggl to track how I was using my time – and I still remember the shock when I looked at my first report. How much time had I lost/wasted/frittered away in the week? I’ll keep that one to myself, thanks.

I’ve written many times that you owe it to yourself and your family not to work 60-80 hours a week. 40-45 is fine, providing you are working productively for all those hours. The reason that 20% of our time produces 80% of our results can sometimes be that we’re only working productively for 20% of our time.

Now let’s turn to our customers or clients. For the majority of businesses, 80% of the customers do account for 20% of the sales. So if you want to grow your business, ask yourself two simple questions: where did those customers come from? And what need do we meet for those clients? Answer those questions, and then go out and find some clients that match the same profile.

But this is where Occam’s Razor comes in: this is where we need to resist the urge to over-complicate.

I’ve seen a couple of articles suggesting that the 80/20 rule is scalable. If my top 20% of customers produce 80% of my sales, why don’t I repeat the exercise with just those customers? Wow! My top 4% give me 64% of my sales. (Trust me on the maths!)

No. The simplest solution is the best solution. Once is enough. 4% of your customers is too small a sample: you run the risk of including the one outlier that skews the statistics.

Let me finish with another instance of the 80/20 rule. We’re all familiar with the old saying: ‘I know that half my advertising budget is wasted. I just don’t know which half.’ Today, that no longer applies. Google analytics, ads on Facebook – today you can measure the return on your marketing budget very accurately. And again, you’re going to find that one or two channels account for the vast majority of your leads or sales. Don’t be afraid to concentrate on those channels: you no longer have a moral obligation to keep the local newspaper afloat.

That’s it for this week. After the summer holiday and the trip to Denver I’m looking forward to a weekend at home doing not very much. Then again I have teenage boys: time to reach for my taxi driver’s hat…

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…

The Best Bargaining Chips


It’s now nine days since Theresa May formally triggered Brexit, beginning two years of long and complex negotiations with the remaining 27 members of the EU. Whichever way you voted last June there’ll be days when you’re elated and days when you despair. Right now, only one thing is certain – the word ‘negotiation’ is never going to be far from the headlines…

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It’s certainly played a central part in my life of late, with the lengthy negotiations to buy TAB UK – and what I suspect may be even lengthier negotiations as my sons go through their teenage years. So you’ll be in for ten? I was thinking more like midnight, Dad…

While I await the grey hair and the whispered ‘was that the front door?’ conversation with my wife, let’s take a look at some of the basic principles of negotiation – and then next week I’ll build on those principles by discussing the rather more thorny question of negotiating with a friend – exactly what I was doing when I bought TAB UK.

First things first: unless you’re in a Moroccan bazaar, negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

I’ve always tried to go into any negotiations with three positions: my optimum (sell the car for £20,000); desirable (happy with £19,000) and my essential, bottom line price (I can’t accept less than £17,500).

Your ‘opposition’ – I don’t like to use the word but you know what I mean – will have those three in the reverse order. They’d be very happy to buy your car for £16,500, prepared to pay £18,000 and the maximum they’d pay before walking away would be £19,000.

In the scenario above it’s likely that the car would be sold for around £18,000 – assuming both negotiators are equally skilled.

So what do I mean by a ‘skilled negotiator?’ Looking back over my time in business there are probably four principles I’ve seen that work effectively and consistently: in my view, anyone applying these principles is a skilled negotiator.

  • The first thing is to keep the big picture in mind – and leave your ego at the door. I’ve seen too many negotiations fail because people got bogged down in petty details or tried to score points. It’s not just about demanding, “What’s your bottom line?” It’s also about discovering the other person’s ODE – optimum, desirable, essential. If you can operate within those parameters then you have scope to build – or strengthen – a long term relationship.
  • Sooner or later we all have to negotiate with someone we don’t like: someone who changes his mind, can’t make a decision, can’t remember what decision he did make – or all three. The answer is simple: concentrate on the issues, not the personalities. Stick to what you want, and be patient. It may well happen – as happened to me two or three times – that you sigh, mentally prepare yourself for another frustrating day, sit down at the table – and find a new face opposite you. All the problems vanish and the negotiations are wrapped up in a couple of hours. ‘Keep the main thing the main thing’ applies just as much in negotiation as it does in building your business: and the ‘main thing’ is what you want, not the failings of the person opposite you.
  • And don’t get emotional. At least, not for real. Any emotion is fine as long as you are in control of it. But don’t let yourself get angry, frustrated or sarcastic. And don’t get bored: we’re not talking about smoke-filled committee rooms where the old style politicos turned up with flask and sandwiches and simply bored their opponents into submission – but sometimes you do need to settle in for the long haul.
  • Finally, if you’re talking money, think in real money. We all know the traditional approach of breaking it down into ‘silly money:’ Look, you’re going to have this car for three years. £1,000 is 91p a day: two trips to Starbucks a week. Are you going to let that stand between you and a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow? A £1,000 is £1,000 however you break it down – which brings me back to my original point about optimum/desirable/essential price points. There has to be a point at which you walk away. If you cannot accept less than £17,500 for your car then you cannot sell it for £17,499 – if nothing else determines that, your self-respect should.

With that have a lovely weekend in the (forecast) sunshine and I’ll be back next week with the more personal side of negotiation. And my apologies to anyone who does own a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow…