Want to Grow your Business? Do Less


The blog speaks, Wall Street trembles! And maybe profit does matter after all…

Two weeks ago I discussed Uber’s forthcoming IPO: 

Early estimates of $120bn have been scaled back to $90bn. But that’s £70bn – or more than 15 times the value of Marks and Spencer’s which, despite its recent problems, still made a significant profit in its last six months’ trading. 

But now Uber says it ‘may not achieve profitability.’ The company says that annual sales rose to $11.2bn and losses narrowed to $3bn. But, it warned, it expects operating expenses to “increase significantly.” 

In the event, even that lower estimate was reduced. With Uber drivers going on strike a few days before the IPO the company was initially valued at $82bn – only for the shares to fall 7% on the opening day. They have subsequently fallen even further – although that might have rather more to do with the sudden re-escalation of the US/China trade dispute than a blog written in Harrogate…

These are turbulent times, both in the UK and the wider world. Yet these are the times in which we have to build our businesses – but at the same time, keep our work/life balance well and truly balanced. 

One man who has unquestionably built a successful business is Jack Ma, the co-founder of China’s Alibaba group and estimated to be worth $40bn. 

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Jack Ma seems to have been unemployable: he was rejected by the police and was the only one of 24 applicants to be turned down by KFC. So he started his own business…

That’s great – but recently Jack Ma has been espousing the benefits of what’s termed ‘996.’ If you haven’t heard of it, 996 is simple – it’s China’s culture of working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week

“If you want to build a great company,” he says, “You have to work very hard. You have to suffer terrible things before you become a hero.” It is, apparently, a ‘blessing’ for his staff to work 72 hours a week. And he’s not alone: excessive working hours are also championed by Elon Musk of Tesla. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that they’re not championed by Ed Reid of TAB UK. Working 72 hours a week can never be a ‘blessing’ for you, your family or your staff. Throwing hours at a problem is almost never the way to solve it. Thinking ‘if I just spend more time…’ is nearly always one of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can make. 

Rather than Jack Ma, I prefer to look at a different example. Oscar Pierre set up a small shopping service in Barcelona in 2015. Now the company, Glovo, operates in 124 cities, employs 1,000 staff and has 1.5m shoppers. A shopping service was hardly a ground-breaking idea, even in 2015 – but by anyone’s standards that is a highly impressive growth rate. How has Oscar done it? Simple: as you’ll see in this short clip, he’s a firm believer in delegating. 

In fact, Oscar believes in delegating everything. As he says right at the start of the clip, “Make sure you walk out of all the meetings without anything assigned to you.” 

He makes a great point. If you don’t delegate you end up with such a long list of tasks and to-do’s that you become what he describes as ‘the bottleneck of your company.’ Rather than speeding things up, by taking on too much you slow things down. 

Now he says, he does the things which only a CEO can do. Everything else is done more effectively and more efficiently, while he has time to think about medium and long term strategies. The absolute opposite of ‘throwing hours at the problem.’ 

As you’ll all know, that exactly mirrors the TAB philosophy – and it’s put Oscar Pierre on Forbes’ list of 30 under 30 for Europe. 

So how do I measure up? Apart from being just a tad over 30…

With a team of six at head office it would be impossible for me to delegate everything except the ‘only I can do that’ stuff. Clearly, the boss has to be seen to be working – but I do make sure that the ‘only Ed’ stuff is right at the top of my list. And as the team grows, so I will steadily delegate more and more. 

Speaking of which, the team is growing. We’re increasing our numbers from six to eight, with one of the new people handling our every-increasing admin. Part of defining the role was to say to everyone ‘what things are you doing that aren’t core to your role, and can you delegate them?’ That effectively wrote the job description: he or she can look forward to an interesting and varied workload…

When you’re starting out, delegation is hard. You can almost certainly do whatever-it-is-you’re-delegating better and quicker yourself. But you have to let go: you have to give your team the chance to grow and – as Oscar Pierre says – ultimately your job is to do the things that only the CEO can do. 

In the long term you’ll do more by doing less. Delegation is an absolutely essential part of building your business… 

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Welcome to the Fifth Generation


As most of you know, I’ve played the occasional round of golf over the years. So it is impossible for me to start anywhere other than the 18thgreen at Augusta as Tiger Woods rolled in the putt which gave him his 15thmajor, after a gap of 11 years. 

Tiger’s had his problems. We all know that. We all know that his behaviour has sometimes fallen short of certain standards. But leaving that aside, to come back from all the operations, the injuries and the headlines to win another major is an astonishing achievement. And he’s 43 – as many of us who are a similar age will testify, that’s the age at which your body doesn’t always want to co-operate…

So let me add my congratulations. What an example of dedication and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beaten. 

On to business, and the blog on a Wednesday morning – on the simple grounds that Friday may find you with better things to do than read my thoughts on 5G, the ‘fifth generation’ of mobiles. 

Two weeks ago both South Korea and the US launched commercial 5G services. This should bring a ‘new wave’ of capability and connectivity for smartphone users, with Samsung claiming that its Galaxy S10 5Gwill offer speeds that are up to 20x faster than current phones. 

What will 5G do? 

What will it do? 5G will simply be faster. Users should get more data, get it faster and enjoy better and more stable connections. 

Quoted in a BBC article, Ed Barton, chief entertainment analyst at Ovum, said the shift from 4G to 5G would be significant. 1G brought voice, 2G gave us text, 3G images and photos and 4G enabled video. “We’re expecting the leap from 4G to 5G to be a much greater leap than ever before,” said Barton. 

The current 4G offers download speeds of around 20Mbps. That is enough to download a movie in HD in 30 minutes. 5G will offer download speeds of 500 to 1,500Mbps – so you will be downloading your Saturday night movie in around 25-30 seconds. 

That’s incredibly quick – clearly you cannot make a cup of tea in 30 seconds or nip to the kitchen for another can of beer – so providing you have a good connection, 5G will see everything becoming more or less instant. Which is fine in theory: there is just the thorny question of coverage. Or the lack of it…  

Will 5G really improve coverage? 

Possibly… Which areas do and do not get coverage is still very much a business decision made by the phone companies. You may feel – as I do – that a good broadband signal is now an integral part of life. If, for example, I stay in a hotel I am far more concerned about the broadband signal than how many channels the TV has. 

You may therefore feel that our Government shouldn’t stand any nonsense from the phone companies. But they do – and the phone companies will continue to weigh the cost of new towers against the potential revenue from users in that area. 

Businesses continue to suffer

There is no question that UK businesses – especially in rural areas – are being held back by poor 4G connectivity. While 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, rural premises get less than half that, with no coverage at all in some remote parts of the country. As every member of TAB York knows as they drive around North Yorkshire…

For me, the roll-out of 5G across the wholecountry is essential. Nearly everyone I speak to sees it as far more important than HS2. It would be wonderful to see one of the phone companies really champion rural areas – and seaside towns, which are now also suffering because of poor connectivity. 

Sadly, if past performance is any guide that’s not going to happen. And that’s a real shame – the PR benefits for any company that made a genuine commitment to genuinely giving the UK 100% coverage would be enormous. 

But let’s at least try and have the glass half full for the Easter weekend…

What will 5G  bring us? 

The most exciting answer to that question is, ‘we don’t know.’ For example, once your smartphone could process payments and was aware of your location, it gave rise to companies like Uber and Lyft. 

But you are not reading this for a pathetic answer like ‘I don’t know’ so let’s look into the crystal ball and come up with some 5G predictions. Although if you are in the UK, it may be a good idea to move to London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham or Manchester. These are the citiesthat are supposed to have 5G capability by the middle of this year…

Mapping and shopping 

5G is going to allow your phone to know even more about you – and as the AI algorithms become ever-more powerful, expect your shopping to become more and more personalised. Just walking past Next? There’s a notification on your phone, with a special offer, just for you. And the female side of TAB will be pleased to know that stick-thin models could become a thing of the past. 5G and augmented reality could allow the catwalk models to look exactly like you…

Driverless cars and smart cities

5G will undoubtedly speed up the arrival of driverless cars – and with every other lamppost acting as a base station those driverless cars are going to take in all the information they need from the smart cities they are driving through. Quite how those driverless cars will fare when the passenger wants to go into the desolate British countryside is another matter…

The cloud and security

Very clearly, 5G will see everything heading up to the ‘cloud.’ And that’s fine – being able to access everything you need wherever you are – apart from the countryside and the seaside, of course – is vital for business. But so is security, and 5G has understandably given rise to plenty of security fears, especially where the Chinese company Huaweiis concerned.

Like 3G and 4G before it, 5G is unquestionably going to change lives, businesses and industries. Five or six years from now I will be writing about a $100bn company that hasn’t been founded yet. Like Uber, it will no doubt cause a ‘crisis’ in one sector of the economy. But we all know the old saying: the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters – danger and opportunity. 

Have a wonderful Easter. The blog will now revert to its traditional Friday, and will be back on May 3rd

It’s Time to take Two Steps Back…


This is the last blog post I’ll write before the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Spreadsheet Phil – stands up to deliver his Budget speech on Monday October 29th

As always there will be plenty of warm words: ‘fairness,’ ‘opportunity,’ ‘safety net’ and – if the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Conference was any indication – the beginning of the ‘end of austerity.’ No matter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says it will cost £19bn– inevitably meaning higher taxes and higher spending.

I am a little frustrated (my entry for the Understatement of the Year Award) when it comes to the incompetence and lack of business acumen of our elected politicians. Virgin were allowed to walk away from the East Coast franchise but have just shared a £52m dividend from the West Coast franchise. Tell me, please, which ‘high flyer’ negotiated that particular arrangement. 

As the saying goes, ‘give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ But goodness me, it is difficult at the moment. 

Back to the Budget, and another word you will need on your Philip Hammond bingo card is ‘productivity.’ It was a favourite of George Osborne’s as he regularly bemoaned the UK’s poor productivity and his successor will no doubt make the same point. UK productivity – essentially, a country’s GDP divided by the total productive hours – has not improved for ten years. It is still at the levels it was before the financial crisis. 

How can that be? Compared to other countries in the G7, the UK’s productivity is poor. The ‘productivity gap’ – the amount we lag behind the other major industrialised countries – is consistently around 16% in ‘output per hour worked.’ If you measure productivity in ‘output per worker’ terms then the gap is even higher – rising to 16.6%. And where the productivity on other G7 countries has improved since the economic downturn, the UK’s has not.

That is hard to understand. The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies not just in Europe, but in the world. And virtually every business in the TAB UK family – even if they are not at the leading edge of innovation – is simply too busy to worry about any productivity gap. 

So why the problem? 

Writing in City AM, Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, suggests that we should all ‘think like a small businessto solve the productivity puzzle.’ That rather than looking to do ‘the same with less’ businesses should instead look to do ‘more with the same.’ 

In many ways that goes right to the heart of what we’re trying to do with TAB UK. I have been writing this blog for a long time but one of the earliest – and now one of the most perennial – themes has been the need for business owners to work ‘on’ their business as much as they work ‘in’ their business. 

It is by no means a new idea – Michael Gerber first wrote about the e-myth in the mid-80s and my battered copy of The E-Myth Revisitedwas published in 1995 – but the principle of working on your business is as important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more important. 

Despite the fact that the world is demonstrably changing at an ever-faster pace, people remain resistant to change. It’s human nature (especially as you get older, according to my sons…) 

Right now people are also taking the labour market into account. UK unemployment has just come down by another 47,000 in the three months to August and there is a real shortage of talented people. So if a small business has some of those talented people, it is understandable that business owners are reluctant to disturb the status quo. 

But as the last post on Uber showed, sooner or later all our status quos will be disturbed. We either manage change ourselves or some outside agent takes it out of our control. 

There is, of course, a second part to the quote I used above. ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – and the courage to change the things I can.’

Change takes time and it takes work. Initially it will almost certainly feel like two steps back – and the three steps forward may seem a long way off. But now, more than ever, we need the courage to change those things we can change. Let’s see if the Chancellor has that courage a week on Monday…

Xi Jinping is on the March. Should we be Worried?


One of my more serious posts this, and it doesn’t come much more serious than the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party held last week in Beijing.

The Chinese capital is a fair old distance from the UK – 4,978 miles from TAB HQ in Harrogate if Google is to be believed – so should we really worry about what’s happening there? Wouldn’t we be better off just concentrating on our businesses?

Maybe not…

Napoleon famously said, “Let China sleep. When she wakes, the world will tremble.” Well, China most certainly is awake now, and last week President Xi Jinping was confirmed in power for another five years. While Europe was struggling to agree on when talks about talks about Brexit might begin, Xi was calmly laying out plans for China to dominate the world economy. No surprise that Forbes is now suggesting China will overtake America to become the biggest economy in the world as early as next year

But let’s step back a moment. Who is Xi Jinping? He may not have a perma-tan or a tower named after him, but it is arguable that China’s Xi Jinping is the real holder of the ‘most powerful man in the world’ title.

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Five years into a theoretical ten year term Xi is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Born on June 15th 1953 he is married to Peng Liyuan and has one daughter, who was educated at Harvard. His wife was formerly a very popular singer on Chinese TV and among her hits are those classic rock anthems, People from our Village, My Motherland and In the Field of Hope.

Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a hero of the Communist revolution and, as such, Xi enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a ‘red princeling.’ All that changed with Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution: his father was imprisoned, the family humiliated and one of his sisters committed suicide. At the age of 15 Xi was sent to the countryside to be re-educated. The story is that Xi lived in a cave in the mountains – but he survived and at the age of 22 he returned from the countryside, “full of confidence and with my life goals firm.”

With his father released from prison and rehabilitated, Xi joined the Communist Party and began a steady, if unspectacular, rise through the ranks. By his 50s he was a senior party leader, but someone still with a reputation for dull competency. When he became Communist party leader in 2012 he was very much a compromise choice – but since then he has ruthlessly consolidated his power. He is now unquestionably China’s strongest leader since Chairman Mao.

So while Theresa May was begging for help (according to Jean-Claude Juncker) and Jean-Claude Juncker was heading for the bar (according to David Davis) Xi Jinping – untroubled by petty irritations like democracy – was telling the delegates what was going to happen and sending them back to work. Specifically, he was telling them about ‘One Belt, One Road.’

China has a domestic population approaching 1.4bn – nearly one-fifth of the world population of 7.5bn (do not click the link: it is terrifying). But ‘One Belt, One Road’ – a huge infrastructure project – is intended to massively extend its economic reach, market and influence.

First mooted by Xi Jinping around 2013, the initiative will see China’s push into global economic affairs extending through a land based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, with the focus being on infrastructure investment, construction, railways and highways, automobiles, power and iron and steel.

The land based Belt runs across Asia and through Europe. The Maritime Road (yes, you would have thought that the ‘road’ would be on land…) reaches South East Asia, Oceania and North Africa. More than 65 countries, 4.4bn people (63% of the world’s population) and 29% of the world’s current GDP are in its path.

Sitting here in the West it is easy to see the Belt and Road initiative as simply a naked power grab. I think I’ll keep the blog out of geo-politics, but what’s undeniable is that it will give China access to vast natural resources and a huge pool of labour. And whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the situation, that is not a labour market wrapped in red tape about a national living wage or health and safety.

In the medium to long term that has to impact on manufacturing industry in the West – and as advances continue to be made in robotics and AI, it may end up impacting a lot more than manufacturing. China is awake, she is flexing her muscles and we may all have cause to tremble in the future.

Meanwhile let us finish with a word of sympathy for the delegates back at the Congress Hall – who may well have been glad to escape at the end. Xi Jinping spoke for 3 hours and 23 minutes to an audience that was by no means in the first flush of youth. What’s the Chinese for ‘comfort break?’ A four-hour TAB meeting needs at least one interval. But given that popping out in the leader’s speech was almost certainly a treasonable offence, you have to wonder how they coped…

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…

Increasingly Productive – just not Officially…


Well there you are. The Ed Reid Blog scores again.

Joe Root hits the highest ever score by someone captaining England for the first time, and it’s the first win over South Africa at Lords since the average house cost £2,530 and a season ticket to watch Manchester United was £8-10-0d. I tell you, I’m wasting my time writing business blogs…

But the ECB haven’t phoned me, my invoice for ‘sports psychology coaching’ remains resolutely unpaid so here I am – considering the UK’s fairly dismal productivity figures.

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Last week the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that the productivity of UK workers had dropped to levels last seen before the financial crisis – hourly output is now 0.4% below the peak recorded at the end of 2007.

We’ve all known for some time that UK productivity lags behind its major competitors such as the US, France and Germany. A quick glance at the world productivity ‘league table’ shows the UK languishing in 13th place. Norway lead the way, from Luxembourg and the United States, but the UK is scarcely ahead of those sun-kissed holiday destinations where everything closes for the afternoon.

The UK has recovered well since the 2008 crisis but – according to the learned pundits and commentators – that is a product of more people working, and of people working longer hours, rather than a function of increased productivity. Kamal Ahmed, BBC Economics Editor, wrote, “Today’s figures are bad to the point of shocking. [The figures] take the UK’s ability to create wealth back below the level of 2007 – and if an economy cannot create wealth, then tax receipts, the mainstay of government income, will weaken.” Others have blamed underinvestment, the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the current political situation, and sluggish wage growth.

But you know what? I think it may be time to reach for one of the more valuable business tools – a healthy pinch of salt.

Because as I look around me, I don’t see falling productivity. I see exactly the opposite. Virtually every business I work with is busier than they’ve ever been.

Yes, there’s uncertainty: but when has there not been uncertainty for the entrepreneur? And no, the vast majority of the people I work with didn’t vote for Brexit: but they’ve moved on. People running businesses are no longer fighting last year’s war: they’ve accepted the result and they’re now looking to future.

For all the despondency from much of the media, I’d say the ‘optimism index’ among owners and directors of SMEs is high. They’re certainly working hard enough: according to this story in City AM half of them took fewer than six days off last year. (Don’t worry, I’ll be taking them to task in the coming weeks…)

So I’m sceptical about the productivity figures. Traditionally, a country’s productivity is calculated by a splendidly complex formula with references to 2005 and 2013 comparators.

I suspect that we may need a new metric: the nature of productivity is changing. Web designers, app developers, SEO experts – there are plenty of jobs now which did not exist ten years ago and which don’t lend themselves to traditional ‘output’ measurements. London remains the tech capital of Europe and more people are working across borders: it may be that productivity is simply getting harder to measure by the previously used methods.

Then there are the regional differences – output per hour worked in London’s financial and insurance sectors was around seven times higher than in the regions with the lowest industrial productivity – and, even more importantly, the company-by-company differences. I am absolutely certain that if we had a ‘TAB UK productivity index’ we would be right at the top of any league table. I like to think a small part of that is because TAB keeps people focused on being productive, not on being busy.

As Paul J Meyer, founder of the Leadership Management Institute said, “Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning and focused effort.”

I don’t know anyone who captures that more than the TAB UK members, and it has been a real privilege to meet more and more of them over the last few months. I couldn’t be more excited about all our – very productive – futures.

My First 100 Days


It’s not often I compare myself to Donald Trump – well, not this side of the psychiatrist’s couch – but he’s famously completed 100 days in the White House and I’ve now completed 100 days in my new role as the MD of The Alternative Board in the UK.

I haven’t pulled out of any climate change agreements, sacked anyone or threatened wholesale renegotiation of every trade deal that’s ever been made. Instead I’ve worked with some brilliant people and generally had the privilege of running an organisation that changes people’s lives. So thank you once again to everyone who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who keeps making it happen on a daily basis.

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Quite obviously, I’ve had to get used to a few changes. I’m not driving round North Yorkshire anywhere near as much: I see a lot less of Costa Coffee at Clifton Moor…

I’m now in the office at Harrogate for 2½ days a week, working as part of a team of six. I didn’t realise I’d missed the office ‘buzz’ so much. That’s a bonus that I hadn’t anticipated.

…And I’ve discovered another, equally unexpected but far more important bonus. Every month Mags and I are in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

We always go on the train – and it’s a brilliant place to work. (But why, he asked innocently, could I get a mobile signal under Hong Kong harbour ten years ago but still can’t get one on the train between Huddersfield and Stalybridge? I’ll vote for whoever has that in their manifesto…)

As I was saying, a brilliant place to work – and to pick up on a point from last week, it’s a great place to work on the business. By definition you can’t work in the business, so Mags and I have time to discuss strategy, make plans and generally do all the things phones, meetings and the need to pop out for a sandwich stop you doing.

I’ve always liked working on the train. I’ve written before that if you want to think differently you need to be in a different physical location and I get some of my best work done on trains and in cafés, ploughing through as much paperwork between York and King’s Cross as I would in a full day at my desk.

Why is that?

Why do so many of us enjoy working in locations like that, and why are we so productive? And yes, I have been known to play a ‘café soundtrack’ on YouTube when I’m working in the office.

Early studies suggested that it was what’s known as ‘the audience effect:’ that we work better when we have someone to work with and/or compete with – witness the peloton in the Tour de France.

But according to an article in New Scientist, what applies to Team Sky doesn’t – for once – apply to us. The answer, apparently, is that hard work is contagious.

A study was done which involved sitting people doing different tasks next to each other: neither could see what the other was working on. When A’s task was made more difficult B started to work harder as well, as he or she responded to subtle cues like body posture and breathing.

I’ve often talked to TAB members who say their number one criteria for hiring another member of their team is work ethic: now it looks like there’s real evidence to back up that good old gut feeling.

…Except, of course, the evidence also suggests that I shouldn’t be on the train or in the coffee shop. I should be where people are working really hard. So I may hold future meetings in the library at Leeds University – and if it’s still the same as in my undergraduate days, on the same floor as the law students…

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…

New Year: New Quotes


Good evening/morning – and a very, very happy new year. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that you’re now ready to enjoy a truly stellar year.

…And if I sound enthusiastic and positive, it’s because I am. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to any year as much as I’m looking forward to 2017. (Ah – damn it. Apart from the year I got married, of course. Only four lines into a new year and I put my foot in it…)

For me – and I hope for all of us – 2017 is going to be full of challenges and opportunities. And isn’t that what life and business is all about?

So let’s start the year with some inspirational words. Anyone who’s been in business for a while will have read all the standard Steve Jobs/Henry Ford quotes: so I’ve done a little digging to see if I can find some you might not have come across before. Hopefully one or two of them will kick-start a very successful year for you.

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The first one is from Jake Nickell, the CEO of Threadless. I try not to make any decision I’m not excited about.

I couldn’t agree more. If I turn to someone in a TAB meeting and they say, “I’ve had this idea. I think it’s OK and it might make some money,” then I guarantee that in six months it will have been quietly shelved or – much more likely – it will have turned into a problem and be losing money.

If, on the other hand, my Board member is so excited she needs to stand up when she starts talking about her new idea; if she’s waking up to make notes on it at three in the morning – then we might just have something that changes a business and/or a life. You’re an entrepreneur: having ideas is what you do. You only need to act on the ones you’re passionate about.

The vast majority of us will have seen ads for Under Armour when we’ve been watching sport. Here’s what founder and CEO Kevin Plank has to say: There’s an entrepreneur right now, scared to death, making excuses, saying, “It’s not the right time yet.” There’s no such thing as a good time. Get out of your garage and go take a chance and start your business.

Or as Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, put it, If you wait until there’s another case study in your industry you’ll be too late.

There are 101 reasons not to do anything new in 2017. Worries about Brexit. What will Trump do? Elections in Europe. The possible collapse of the Chinese credit boom…

But there are 101 reasons not to do anything in every year. If you’ve had a great idea; if it keeps you awake at night; if you have the support of your peers round the TAB table… Then, as the iconic Nike ad said, Just do it.

Who’s up next? Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEO of PepsiCo. I cannot just expect the organisation to improve if I don’t improve myself and lift the organisation. That [is] a constant.

I’m not sure there’s much I can add to that. Today – more than ever – you simply have to go on learning and improving. If you stand still your business will stand still – and as I’ve written many times, once a business stands still and starts to stagnate, it’s the beginning of the end.

Fiddlesticks. I’m going to have to admit defeat: I can’t get away without a Steve Jobs quote after all. But here’s one you might not have come across.

Jobs was giving a small, private presentation about the iTunes music store to some independent record label people. At the end of the presentation they were all bursting with ideas and features that could be added. “Wait,” Jobs said. “I know you have a thousand ideas. So do we. But innovation isn’t about saying ‘yes’ to everything. It’s about saying ‘no’ to all but the most crucial features.”

Why do I like that story so much? Simply because you can take ‘innovation’ out and replace it with ‘success.’ And if you want a recipe for success in 2017, that’s it. Make decisions that excite you, don’t wait to put them into action, constantly improve yourself – and above all, say ‘no’ to everything that’s not crucial to your own success and the success of your business.