You Don’t Need to be Outstanding


…Or ground-breaking. Or develop a wonder-drug. Or an app that no-one’s ever dreamed of before.

If you want to be successful in business, you don’t need to do any of those things.

You just need to be 10% better than your competitors.

And now let’s travel back in time. The year is 1985. The place is Seattle. A husband and wife are having a conversation…

Wife: This is madness. I’m pregnant with our first child and you want to throw in a good job and start a business based on a trip to Italy!

Husband: Yes

Wife: And how much do you need?

Husband: $400,000

Wife: Do we have $400,000?

Husband: You know we don’t

Wife: So you’re going to borrow the money. You’re going to risk everything – including the future of our child – because you want to open a coffee shop. Like the world needs another coffee shop. For God’s sake, Howard, you have a good job with Starbucks…

If you haven’t guessed, the husband was Howard Schultz – then just about to sink $400,000 of borrowed money into Il Giornale, a coffee shop based on a trip to Italy – where they sold excellent expressos, where coffee shops acted as meeting places and where there were 200,000 of them. Two years later the original Starbucks management decided to focus on Peet’s Coffee and Tea and sold its Starbucks retail units to Schultz and Il Giornale for $3.8m. The rest, as they say…

But in many ways, Mrs Schultz was right. The world didn’t need another coffee shop.

The world didn’t need another operating system either. Windows? IBM, Atari – about half a dozen companies already had operating systems.

Neither did it need another social network. It already had Friendster and My Space.

And with seven search engines already operating, the world most certainly didn’t need Google…

But Howard Schultz – along with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – knew he could do it better.

And that’s true of 99% of the business successes I’ve seen. For every one ‘why has nobody thought of that before’ idea, there are 99 businesses that have succeeded by simply doing it better.

best

Unless you’re a creative genius, the very-high-chances are that the business idea you’ve just had has already been thought of. In fact, as soon as you’ve had the idea you’ll find that everyone is doing it.

That is not the time to be discouraged. Exactly the opposite: all you’ve done is proved that there’s a demand for your idea. Now, you simply need to go out there and consistently deliver a better product or service.

Starbucks isn’t significantly better than its rivals. But – as I’ll describe next week – the remorseless attention to detail that Howard Schultz ingrained in the company’s DNA means it is that crucial 10% better in several key areas.

Let me finish by returning to that conversation between Mr and Mrs Schultz. The numbers and the business may be different, but I’ll wager heavily that a lot of people reading this blog had exactly that conversation.

And no – the world didn’t need your business. But like Howard Schultz, you had the drive and the vision to believe that you could be 10% better: the 10% that makes all the difference.

The world didn’t need another peer-to-peer business coaching company either. After all, anyone can get together with a few friends and create a mastermind group. Just make sure the group is a good fit, commit to meeting each month, find someone to coach you and you’re away…

Except it’s not quite that easy.

Like Starbucks, Google and Facebook, I absolutely believe TAB does it that crucial 10% better. It’s what makes our business model so successful – and if you’re not a member of TAB York, it’s what could add the vital 10% that would make all the difference to your business.

The Cream of the Cream


I’ll never forget the first time. It was a Riesling.

Until then I’d bought my wine from the supermarket, the choice largely dictated by my budget. But that first mouthful… it wasn’t liquid. It was like rolling something solid round your mouth. It was totally different to any wine I’d drunk before. It wasn’t simply ‘better;’ it was a different dimension.

WineBeautyShot-Riesling

I’ll never forget my first mouthful of real Italian pizza, eaten on my honeymoon in Rome. Nothing had ever tasted that good.

And I’ll never forget the moment I first held my son. Love? Nothing could have prepared me for it…

Wine, food, your family: all capable of being better than you could possibly have imagined.

And the people you hire can be exactly the same.

Let me return to last week’s post for a minute:

If I look around the TAB boardroom tables, the members who’ve been really successful over the past 12 months are the ones who’ve hired 9/10 talent, not 7/10 talent. That’s the one key reason I’d identify for their success.

I cannot over-emphasise that point. The difference between a 7/10 member of your team and a 9/10 member is the difference between the supermarket and that bottle of Riesling. It’s the difference between the ante-natal class and holding your new-born baby.

When you’re running a business it’s your job to lead. It’s your job to have the vision. And it’s your job to make sure you hire the very best people and manage them effectively.

Why? Why should you hire the best people? Is it really worth paying the extra? After all, it’s not just salary: there’s a pension, employer’s NIC – and quite possibly the sensitivities of the rest of your team.

Yes, it is worth paying the extra.

Everything I have ever seen – both in the corporate world and as the owner of TAB York – and every discussion I’ve ever had on the subject convinces me that the answer is ‘yes.’ But don’t just take my word for it. In his book, Leading Apple with Steve Jobs, Jay Elliot detailed Jobs’ strategy for hiring ‘A list players:’

I noticed the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream … A small team of A+ players can run rings round a giant team of B and C players.

OK, I may take issue with the ratio: 50 or 100 times seems excessive. But can an ‘A+ player’ accomplish twice what the average performer can accomplish? Easily. Five times? Yes. The curve is exponential: as talent increases, accomplishments and results rise rapidly.

…And when you put A+ players together, the results are explosive. This is Walter Isaacson, quoting Jobs in the The Exclusive Biography:

I’ve learned over the years that when you have really good people you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things you can get them to do great things. The original Mac team taught me that A+ players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B grade work.

That’s a really important point. In fact, it’s two really important points. If you invest the money and hire real talent, they’ll raise the game of everyone they work with. And they’ll raise your game as well. That quote is exactly right: top performers don’t tolerate ‘B grade work’ – and having your name above the door doesn’t exempt you from that.

So I emphatically believe it’s worth paying the extra. Trying to economise on your team is madness. We tell our children to buy Le Creuset as soon as they can afford it – “you’ll be appreciating the quality long after you’ve forgotten the price” – and then try and skimp on our staff.

Your team are going to determine the success or failure of your business every bit as much as anything you do. Some of the members of TAB York have achieved stellar success over the last 12 months. As I’ve said above, the one factor they’ve had in common is that the owners of those business have had the insight – and the courage – to hire the ‘cream of the cream.’ In my mind there’s no question: hiring ‘A+ players’ is the best investment any business can make.

Are We All Artisans Now?


Here’s a simple experiment. You can do it at home.

Pop the words Yorkshire Artisan into Google. What do you expect to see? Bread? Cheese? Jams, pickles and chutneys? After all, it’s impossible to wander round Malton Food Market without being assailed on all sides by artisans…

And Google doesn’t disappoint. There they all are. Artisan Fireplace Design. Artisan Loft Conversions. Artisan Home Improvements.

Hang on, you say, that’s wrong. You can’t have ‘artisan loft conversions.’ It’s just… well, it’s just not right.

And in one sense, I agree with you. Say the word ‘artisan’ and I immediately think of bread. Then my thoughts turn very quickly to cheese and chutney. (Quite possibly to a glass of red wine as well: clearly Christmas is coming…)

My thoughts emphatically don’t turn to fireplaces, lofts or home improvements of any kind. So maybe I should here and now nominate ‘artisan’ as the most overused word of 2016.

Except that ‘artisan’ may be exactly the right word – and a very important word for your business as we enter the New Year. Let me turn to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Artisan: a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand

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The implication – for me – is that an artisan is someone who really cares: who’ll invest not only his talent, but his time. Someone who won’t go home until his customer is completely happy. So I make absolutely no apology for once again using a link to this beautiful video – the making of a carpenter’s axe, a video that defines investing your talent and your time.

But most people reading this blog don’t make axes. They work in a nice, warm office. First thing in the morning they fire up the Apple Mac, not the forge. Does the word artisan have any relevance to them? Can an accountant be an artisan? A PR company?

I was reading an article in Social Media Examiner. Various industry experts making ‘bold predictions’ for 2016. Apparently we’ll all be so tied up shooting videos for our websites/social channels that we’ll be too busy to see any clients: but one prediction did stand out. It was from acknowledged whiz Neal Schaffer:

I see [companies] looking at ways to become more human, authentic and transparent with their engagement within social media communities.

What?

Let me go back to a post I wrote at the beginning of April: Business Lessons from a $10,000 Bag. I think it’s one of the most important posts of this year. And in the conclusion I made exactly that point:

In an increasingly impersonal world personal is more important than ever.

(Just send me the cheque for five grand, the first class plane tickets and I’ll see you at SxSW.)

In 2016 ‘personal’ will be more important than it’s ever been. Increasingly, it’s not going to be B2B or B2C – it will be H2H. Human to human.

So, yes, we should all be claiming to be artisans next year. A skilled worker: someone that makes things – or makes things happen. Someone that invests his talent and his time – and who doesn’t go home until his customers or clients are completely happy.

Business Lessons in a Bacon Sandwich


For the sake of my host the hotel shall remain nameless. As will the ‘event.’

But it took place early in the morning, which meant that a bacon sandwich was an integral part of the proceedings.

Or maybe not…

A particularly un-riveting presentation finished. I marched towards the food, seeking some consolation.

I’m a reasonable chap: I’m not one of these people who insist his bacon has a precisely calibrated degree of crispiness. But, nameless hotel chef, I do like it to be cooked. Not sliced from the pig’s back and dangled somewhere near a source of heat for a few seconds.

No. I’m sorry. I simply couldn’t eat that. So sausage sandwich it was. After all, you can’t ruin a sausage sandwich – even if the bread did have that mass-produced-and-probably-yesterday’s look.

Nope, you can’t ruin a sausage sandwich. But this wasn’t a sausage. It was lukewarm cardboard in a plastic skin.

So where was this ‘event’ held? As above, it has to remain nameless. But it wasn’t Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop and Breakfast Bar. It was a hotel: part of a chain and one that frequently caters for functions.

Let’s be charitable: it was early in the morning, it may not have been the head chef at work.

But damn it, a bacon sandwich is as basic as it gets. Anyone can make a good bacon sandwich. It’s simple (he said, triggering the most heated debate the blog has seen…)

  • Bacon from the local butcher – grilled in my view
  • Bread from the local baker – buttered if you insist, and thick enough for the…
  • Tomatoes – in a perfect world grilled and from your own garden. Failing that, plum tomatoes, which means Napolina, not Tesco’s

The point I’m making is this: a bacon or sausage sandwich is a ridiculously simple thing to get right. I can do it: you can do it. But if a hotel can’t do it, I have no confidence that it can do anything. Could I ever recommend that hotel to friends or business colleagues staying in the area? Not in a million years.

And that’s an essential message for all of us…

…Because sometimes we’re all in danger of forgetting the basics.

Yes, the numbers look good; yes, we’re well on with plans for 2016; and yes, we’ve just booked two of the team on that leadership development programme. Awesome, all guns blazing and mutual congratulations all round.

But there’s a list of calls you need to return. And did you thank Geoff for that referral he gave you? Or apologise to Fiona for being late to the meeting?

They’re things you’d never have done when you started the business…

We’re all guilty of letting little things slip. If you like, of concentrating on Saturday’s wedding and forgetting Friday morning’s bacon sandwiches. But the man eating the lukewarm cardboard has a daughter who’ll get married one day: and he knows one hotel that won’t be quoting for the reception.

For me, there are three things that are the ‘bacon sandwiches’ of my business. In truth, they’ve got nothing to do with business: they’re basic good manners. But for me they’re part of making sure I’m in control – and if I’m in control, I’ll get the big things right as well.

  • First of all, I say ‘thank you.’ It takes no time to write a quick thank you note and yet so few people do it. Without question a genuine ‘thank you’ note is the best marketing any business can do.
  • I stay in touch. Everyone in any form of sales business will tell you of the client/customer they lost touch with or wrote off as hopeless. Suddenly they’re your competitor’s top client. Stay in touch and catch up over coffee: it is so easy, and it consistently pays dividends.
  • And, as Louis XVIII taught us, ‘punctuality is the courtesy of kings.’ I simply do not know any successful person who is consistently late. I know plenty who are consistently five or ten minutes early to the point of OCD. So I pride myself on being on time: nope, it’s not always the easiest thing in North Yorkshire, especially at harvest time, but like the other two, it’s an integral part of my business – and who I am.

With that, have a great weekend – and now let battle commence. I’ll await the flood of angry e-mails from the brown sauce brigade…

Business Lessons from a $10,000 Bag


I’d like you to treat yourself over Easter. Take 16 minutes, somewhere comfortable, no interruptions, maybe a glass of wine – and watch two videos.

The first one is the making of an axe: the second another craftsman, this time making kitchen knives. Both of them are things of absolute beauty – and I was reminded of them last week when I read this story about a $10,000 bag.

No-one needs a $10,000 bag as hand luggage. A couple of weeks after Children in Need you might well argue that paying $10,000 for a bag is simply immoral.

Then again, there are plenty of people who’ll pay that much for a hand-made, everything-sourced-in-America, unique piece of luggage. Is making those bags a viable business model? Absolutely.

But I think it goes deeper than a simple argument about whether anyone should pay that much for a bag – or whether the Chicago entrepreneur behind the bags is going to make his fortune.

We live in a global economy. If I’m setting up a new business I can hop on to Fiverr and hire a web designer in India, a copywriter in the Philippines and an SEO expert in Russia. And yet if there’s one word that gives a client or a customer confidence, then increasingly I think that word is ‘local.’

As you might expect, over the course of my business career I’ve spent a few nights in hotels. Name a chain, I’ve stayed in it – quite possibly twenty or thirty times. Some of the experiences have been excellent: some really well-managed hotels that catered for everything the business traveller could want. So why do I now go out of my way to avoid hotel chains? It’s because I want a personal, local experience – and so do millions of other people. Just look at the success of a site like airbnb. I want to stay somewhere I can talk to the owner and where I know ‘all our food sourced locally’ doesn’t mean a weekly drive to the cash and carry.

Let me give you another example: supermarkets. About a year ago I watched the white foam ooze out of the bacon I was grilling and thought, ‘no more.’ Ever since, I’ve bought our meat from the local butcher – and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. Yes, it costs a little more, but I can look at the blackboard hanging up in the shop and see exactly where my meat is from and when it was slaughtered.

And yet the nation’s supermarkets insist on competing on price. Live better for less. Every little helps. Did they ever think that just once an ad saying, No, they’re not the cheapest. But they’re 100% pure beef might work? I refer you to McDonald’s vs. Shake Shack, ladies and gentlemen.

But ‘local’ and ‘handmade’ are all very well if you’re a B&B or a butcher – and I’m fairly certain that no members of TAB York have a sideline making axes or kitchen knives. So what do I mean – and how can you benefit – if you’re a PR company or an accountant or a corporate lawyer? There are three main points:

  • In an increasingly impersonal world personal is more important than ever. For me ‘local’ means personal. People still want to buy from people and, if possible, they’d like to talk to the boss at some point. As the old cliché goes, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • The beliefs and values of your company are increasingly crucial. What shines through with the axe, the knives and the $10,000 bag is the absolute passion of the people involved. It’s not a business, it’s a calling. So make sure that clients and customers know your company stands for something: make sure they know the story of why you believe.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid: if you’re providing a premium service or making a premium product, don’t be afraid to charge a premium price. It’s easy to think ‘the market in North Yorkshire won’t stand it.’ You’ll be surprised – and there’s a whole world beyond North Yorkshire that’s been waiting for you…

With that, I’m off to enjoy Easter. Make sure you do the same: have a brilliant weekend and the blog will be back on Friday 10th.