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…

If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we Learn from Loyalty Cards?


Open your wallet.

Go ahead. Open your wallet. Or your purse. I’m conducting an experiment.

I am prepared to wager that in there – along with the photograph of your children and the credit cards – are two or three loyalty cards. I don’t mean your Tesco Clubcard – I mean the ones that are stamped. The loyalty cards from coffee shops, bakeries and your enterprising local burger restaurant.

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…And I’m prepared to make a second wager: that all those loyalty cards – that need eight or ten stamps before you get your free bagel or burger – have just one or two stamps on them. That you thought, ‘hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll do that’ and then quickly lost interest.

You’re not alone: that’s archetypal human behaviour – but according to an article in the Harvard Business Review it’s behaviour that may offer business owners and managers an insight into how to improve results from their teams.

Interestingly, it flies in the face of most current business thinking, especially when it comes to setting and achieving goals.

The modern trend is towards flexible working. As I wrote recently, the evidence suggests that teams allowed to work flexibly are both happier and more productive. And unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people have a preference for flexibility when it comes to goals. As the HBR puts it, ‘Adopting a somewhat elastic approach to setting goals allows us some future wiggle room.’

But it you want to achieve a major goal, then the article suggests you’re much more likely to do so with a rigid and restrictive structure for the necessary steps.

And this is where loyalty cards – and yoghurt – come in.

Professor Szu-chi Huang and her colleagues in the marketing department at Stanford University conducted research on the effectiveness of loyalty cards at a local yoghurt shop. It was the standard offer: a free yoghurt after six purchases.

There were two separate offers – the ‘flexible’ one, where customers were free to buy any yoghurts they liked, and a far more restrictive one, where customers had to purchase specific yoghurts in a specific order.

Unsurprisingly, there was far more take-up of the ‘flexible’ offer. Rather more surprisingly, those customers opting for the restrictive offer were nearly twice as likely to complete six purchases and get the free yoghurt. (And before you think it’s just one yoghurt shop near Stanford University, YesMyWine, the largest imported wine platform in the world, has reported similar results with special offers.)

The academics at Stanford suggested that the result was because customers responded to not having to make a decision: that in our ‘information-overload, decision-fatigued’ society people will appreciate something that gives them the chance to make fewer decisions. They go on from that to draw a conclusion for business: that once a goal has been decided on, managers should be rigid in the steps needed to accomplish it – in effect, take any decisions away from the team.

I’m not so sure. First of all I’d argue that people who sign up for a ‘restrictive’ offer are more committed in the first place and therefore more likely to ‘see it through.’ Secondly, my experience of managing large teams suggests that the real answer is “it depends.”

Specifically, it depends on the experience and capabilities of your senior team. If you’re looking to achieve significant change and/or achieve a major goal then, yes, there needs to be a detailed, step-by-step approach with a list of actions and a series of deadlines.

But if you have a ‘details guy’ in the team, my advice is delegate it to the details guy: it’s almost always better to ‘trust and delegate.’ But if you don’t have a details guy, then the actions and deadlines become your job: what’s absolutely certain is that they cannot be left to chance.

So there I am, disagreeing with learned academics at the world’s third-ranked university. I’d be fascinated to hear your views on this: and yes, let’s discuss it over a coffee. I can’t miss a chance to double my number of stamps…

Nine Pregnant Women


One of the things I do every other Wednesday is read Suzanne Burnett’s blog.

Many people reading this will know Suzanne – a mixture of successful businesswoman and farmer’s wife with a healthy dollop of insight and common sense. And this week, with a quote in her blog that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s from legendary American investor Warren Buffet:

No matter how great the talents or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t make a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant.

The year is ticking by. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, now is the time to start making plans for next year. But plans – not ‘wish list’ – is the key word.

Remember that it’s ‘SMART:’ specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And the most important word in there is ‘realistic.’

Over the years – both in the corporate world and as owner of TAB York – I’ve seen thousands of business plans produced at this time of year. By March of the following year a significant number of those plans lay abandoned, hastily pushed to the back of the filing cabinet, their creators denying all responsibility for them.

And the main reason for that was simple: the goals and targets weren’t realistic – and it had quickly become apparent that they weren’t realistic.

But faced with that blank piece of paper the temptation to be too ambitious – or to please the boss peering over your shoulder – is almost overwhelming.

Yes, yes, I know. ‘Better to shoot at the moon and hit an eagle.’ But sometimes we need to put Norman Vincent Peale on hold and listen to Thoreau as well: ‘If you build your castles in the air that’s where they should be: now put the foundations under them.’

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Or as Warren Buffet said, ‘some things take time.’

Many TAB members have made tremendous strides this year: may will do the same in 2017. But there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘No. Next year’s a year when we need to put the foundations in place for 2018.’

One of the key factors in building a successful team – both inside and outside your business – is finding people who’ll tell you the truth. I love my job: the opportunity it gives me to say “this is how it could be” – to see someone recognise the possibilities in their life and their work – is immensely fulfilling. But I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t unfailingly honest with people. And sometimes that means urging caution: if the immediate job is to fix the cash-flow, nothing matters until that’s done.

So as well as holding up a mirror saying ‘this is how it could be,’ sometimes I have to say, ‘this is how it really is. Let’s fix it.’

As you may have noticed, the debate about Brexit rumbles on. As I write, the legality of invoking Article 50 is being tested in the courts. Clinton and Trump are having a mild-mannered disagreement. Russia, China… the world is going to be a challenging place in 2017 and if that coincides with a year of consolidation for your business, that’s fine. I’ll support you 100% of the way.

No business is on a constantly upward path. At some time we all need to pause and consolidate before we jump to the next level. Almost always, business growth is a series of steps – in turnover, staffing levels and the quality of your team.

It’s my job – helped by your colleagues round the TAB table – to help you make those steps, and to help you recognise the right time to take the steps. So don’t worry if it isn’t next year: setting unrealistic and over-ambitious goals might satisfy your ego in October, but it could cost you a whole year when you quietly shelve the plans in March.

No, you can’t make a baby in a month. And you can’t build a business in one unrealistic year: everything worthwhile takes time.

Should We Worry about Germany?


No, I haven’t travelled back to the 1930s. Or to extra time in 1966

But in this era of increasing globalisation – and especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote – ‘should we worry about Germany’ is a valid question. Specifically, should companies in North Yorkshire worry about European competitors poaching their top talent?

There was an interesting – and disturbing – article on the BBC business pages earlier this month. The gist of it, drawing extensively on quotes from the fund manager Neil Woodford, was that the UK is “appallingly bad” at funding tech start-ups. Small companies aren’t receiving the funding they need to grow: “We’ve been appallingly bad at giving these minnows the long-term capital they need,” said Woodford.

So if start-ups can’t get the funding and support they need in the UK, where will they go? And will talented young people become disillusioned and be tempted abroad?

There’s been no shortage of articles recently championing Germany – and Berlin in particular – as the likely new ‘start-up capital of Europe.’ ‘Berlin to usurp London’ as Geektime put it. No doubt about it: the coming years are going to be exciting for my TAB colleagues in Berlin: ‘Guten Morgen’ to Frank, Thomas and Ralf.

But it’s not just Berlin: the website EU-startups lists the top 15 start-up hubs in Europe: the UK has just one on the list and – post-Brexit – the situation won’t improve.

The anecdotal evidence is there as well: every friend I have with older, university educated children says the same thing. The children all voted Remain, and they all see their future in the UK as a part of Europe, not in the UK as an isolated country. “Two days after the vote he came home for the weekend and told me he wanted to live in Berlin,” as one person lamented to me.

So could the UK – and more pertinently could you – start to lose top talent to Europe?

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It’s not a danger we should under-estimate. Taking Berlin as an example, the arguments in favour of moving are well-rehearsed: the cost of renting around half what it is in London and a pool of talent from all over Europe. And Germany is by any standards a remarkably successful economy – a trade surplus of €20bn or thereabouts month after month after month. Some parts of the Eurozone may be struggling but the German ‘engine’ keeps on running.

And they’re enterprising: soon after the Brexit vote many of London’s start-up technology companies began receiving letters from Berlin. A promotional bus from Berlin drove round the streets of Shoreditch. As Berlin senator Cornelia Yzer put it: “We’re a vibrant city, we attract talent from all over the world. Maybe it’s the right location for a London based company … to make sure they’re part of the EU in future.”

London today, York tomorrow? After all, if you’re going to be part of ‘Generation Rent’ you might as well be paying a lot less rent…

I don’t think so.

York remains an outstanding place to start – and build – a business. As we’ll see at York Business Week in November, there’s a real buzz about the place, a real sense that anything is possible. In many ways the atmosphere in York reminds me of the almost tangible feeling of potential in Denver.

And York has plenty to offer start-ups with The Hub, The Catalyst and the business support available at the Eco Centre.

But talent is scarce – and in greater demand than it’s ever been. Some businesses in York have to fight against the ‘lure’ of Leeds, never mind Berlin!

So the onus – as ever – is on you. Another buck stops on your desk…

The best way to recruit and retain the best talent – whatever the competition – is to lead. That means setting out a clear direction for your company, involving everyone, delegating, recognising your team’s achievements and, above all, making sure they all buy into your vision.

Do that successfully and the burghers of Berlin can drive as many buses as they like round the York ring road!

Travelling Hopefully – and Productively


Robert Louis Stevenson did more than write Treasure Island.

He’s also responsible for a saying that we’ll all be familiar with:

Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.

Or in its more colloquial form, ‘It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.’

But in my view there’s something even better than travelling hopefully – and that’s travelling hopefully and productively.

At the risk of my wife reading this – especially when she may just have ‘Ed Xmas presents’ on her shopping list – I must confess that I love travelling long distances on my own. (“No problem at all, darling. Look, here’s a one-way flight to Argentina…”)

Long journeys are not just a chance to work productively, they’re a chance to think productively as well.

I first realised this on a train from Newcastle to London. I was in my final year at university: going for the first of many job interviews. For once there wasn’t a drunken football fan trying to shower me with a can of Tennent’s. The coach – in the days before quiet coaches were invented – was quiet. No-one sat opposite me.

…And as the train trundled into King’s Cross, I realised that not only had I done a lot of work on the journey, I’d done a lot of thinking as well. I was much clearer about what I wanted to do when I graduated: I knew the direction I wanted my life to take.

Ever since then I’ve seen every journey as an opportunity. And yes, I know that’s the sort of cliché you see on motivational posters. It just happens to be true in my case.

This quote is taken from The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton. It’s a slightly longer quote than I like to use in the blog, but it exactly sums up what travel does for me – and why.

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. Large thoughts [require] large views, new thoughts new places. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do.

It is not necessarily at home that we encounter our true selves. The furniture insists we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life.

What the author is saying – far more eloquently than I can – is what I say at this time every year. You need to spend a day – on your own – planning for next year. It needs to be a day when your dreams run free: when you free yourself from the practical and dream about the possible.

de Botton is right. You can’t do this at home or in the office. The furniture doesn’t change: you see what you always see and somehow it makes you think what you’ve always thought.

So last weekend I took a little journey and I did a little thinking. I popped over to Oz for the weekend. Yes, you read it correctly. Sydney, Australia.

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It was my sister’s 40th birthday. “Wouldn’t it be great…” her husband had said to me. Yes, I thought, it would be great. And aside from seeing the look on Fiona’s face when she opened her door, two other things were great:

  • Having the freedom – in terms of both time and money – to ‘pop over to Oz’ for the weekend was an affirmation that I made the right decision when I started TAB York six years ago. It was absolute confirmation that running your own business can lead not just to material rewards, but also to something far more precious: the freedom to spend time with the people you love.
  • And I spent a lot of time thinking. Big thoughts do require big spaces – and there are no bigger spaces than the ones you see from 35,000 feet.

I touched down in Leeds yesterday morning. I was tired and I was jet-lagged: but I was delighted to have seen Fi. And I came back with some very big plans for next year: I can’t wait to share them with you…

Mr Motivator


For any fledgling business it’s a pivotal moment. 8/30 one Monday morning and someone nervously opens the office door. Your first member of staff reporting for work. Day one. And it will never be the same again…

And as that great business thinker, Spiderman, would have said, ‘With your first member of staff comes great responsibility.’ He or she is going to need paying – at the same time every month, not when the cash flow can stand it: they’re going to need training and – if they’re going to help you move to the next level – from time to time they’re going to need motivating…

I’ve written about motivation before: but it’s one of those subjects that’s worth re-visiting. So for this week, here are my five favourite ways that owners of SMEs can motivate – and get the best out of – their team.

Vision

As I’ve written many times on this blog, you’re the leader and your job is to lead. Winning new clients, dealing with suppliers, sorting out the finance – they’re all crucial parts of running your business: but first and foremost you’re the boss, the CEO, the guv’nor. First and foremost your job is to say, “There’s the promised land; that’s where we’re going. Follow me.” If you don’t do that, then you simply can’t expect your team to be motivated. Their simple question, ‘Are we going anywhere?’ will be very quickly followed by a simple answer: ‘Yes. The door. Where’s my CV?’

Feedback

There are some interesting stats from the USA. Gallup conducted a year long survey of American workers – and found that 70% don’t believe they’re engaged at work. Chief reason for this? Lack of feedback from their boss. A global survey by Towers Watson found that a majority of people planning to change jobs cited infrequent and ineffective communication as one of the main reasons for their dissatisfaction. So feedback’s essential – and that can include criticism, as long as it is positive, constructive and – see the point above – it is clearly part of the company’s overall direction.

Lead by Example

‘I’d never ask my men to do something I wouldn’t do myself’ may be one of the oldest clichés in the book but it remains true – especially in business. If you’re not committed, you can’t expect your team to be committed. The same goes for punctuality, looking after the clients and taking the trouble to get it right. If you don’t, they won’t.

Trust Them

Many members of TAB York will tell you that delegation was one of the hardest skills they had to learn. Yes, it is your business – and yes, you probably can do everything. But if you’re going to build a successful team and a successful business you’re going to need to trust your team and empower them. Nothing motivates people more than knowing that their boss trusts them and will back their judgement.

Appreciate their work/life balance

Remember why you started the business? You wanted to be in control of your time: you didn’t want to miss the Nativity Play because some distant head office had decreed that you should go to a waste-of-time conference in an anonymous hotel off an anonymous motorway. Your team are no different – and as flexible working becomes more and more the norm they’re going to expect to be at those not-to-be-repeated family events. Without doubt the most successful teams I see when I visit the TAB York members are the ones where the boss really understands that everyone’s work/life balance is crucial.

Five simple ways to make sure you motivate your team. I could easily have taken the list up to a dozen, but these five are the ones that I’ve seen work consistently for SME’s. If there’s a crucial one that you think I’ve missed, let me know. In the meantime, have a brilliant weekend.

So Here It Is…


Merry Christmas.

But before you all burst into a rousing chorus of Slade, let’s try and finish the business for 2014…

As I wrote last week, December isn’t a normal month: it’s a month for taking stock, having some fun and saying ‘thank you.’

And with six days to go – yep, I miss the days when my boys used to count down to Christmas in ‘sleeps’ – it’s time for the last of those three.

It seems a long time ago – certainly a lot longer than 11 months – when I started the year by encouraging you to ‘think the unthinkable’ and get rid of a significant number of your clients or customers: the unprofitable ones. Here’s what I wrote:

I think 2014 represents a major opportunity for all of us. There are clear signs that the economy is recovering and the evidence – both analytical and anecdotal – points to a year where significant growth is possible. But you can’t do that if you’re wasting a lot of your time dealing with unprofitable clients – or profitable clients who simply suck the life out of you.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure about the first part of that paragraph now: there are worrying signs for the global economy and the UK isn’t immune to what’s happening in the rest of the world. But damn it, there have always been worrying signs for some part of the global economy. Whatever winds are blowing, if you’ve planned and prepared properly, if you know what you want to achieve and you’re absolutely focused then you’ll succeed in the coming year.

Over the 47 weekly posts since then I’ve drawn on the management lessons of David Moyes, the incremental gains of Dave Brailsford and encouraged you to ignore the advice of Gordon Gekko. As well as reaching the significant milestone of blog post number 200. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and I hope at least some of it has been useful, encouraging or entertaining.

So thank you for reading the blog every week – and in particular, thank you for all the comments, whether they’ve been on the blog itself, by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or a casual aside in the pub. Anyone who writes a blog will tell you that it’s a slightly lonely business, so the comments mean a lot.

…And it goes without saying, thank you to the Board members of TAB York and to everyone at TAB head office in Harrogate. There are not many people who can say they roll out of bed every morning looking forward to their day. I’m one of them and I’m blessed to work with so many intelligent, inspiring, amusing, challenging, ambitious and – to use a simple but accurate word – good people.

Two particularly good people are my colleagues in TAB York, Jackie and Julia – who have emphatically added a new dimension to the business throughout the year. It’s been a pleasure to work with you: thank you for your support, energy and expertise.

Let me also say a word to my TAB colleagues in the UK. All the adjectives above apply – and maybe a few more… Thank you ladies and gentlemen: you have given me a memorable year. Thanks too for the exceptional welcome I receive from everyone at TAB in the States: the visits are always a highlight of my year.

Closer to home, a word to my boys, Dan and Rory – thanks for keeping me grounded and for reminding me what’s really important: Rugby World Cup on the Xbox. Make as many tackles as you like, guys. The Master will show you how it’s done over Christmas…

But my biggest thanks are reserved for my wife, Dav. Being the partner/husband/wife of an entrepreneur is not easy: there are long hours, occasional mood swings and times when you’re there but not there. No-one succeeds in business without an amazing person at their side – and I’ll say the rest somewhere other than the blog!

That’s it for 2014. The blog will return, refreshed and rarin’ to go on Friday January 9th. In the meantime have a truly lovely Christmas, and may the New Year bring everything you would wish for.

The Worst of Times


I was on the receiving end of a… I don’t know. I was going to say ‘rant’ but that’s not fair. It wasn’t quite a plea for help either: just an outpouring of frustration.

It was someone I’ve sort-of-known for about six months. He knows what I do: he runs what appears to be a successful business based a few miles outside York.

I’ve tried to reproduce Michael’s words more or less exactly as he spoke – and yes, obviously I’ve changed his name.

Ed, I desperately need to go away and think for a day. Somewhere there isn’t a sea of paperwork pursuing me. Where there isn’t a client on the phone, one of my staff with a problem – where everything I see doesn’t remind me of a job I haven’t done.

The trouble is, I need the same day for client work – I’m worried that I’ll lose new or existing clients by not doing enough work.

You know what, Ed? I’ve needed this ‘away day’ for about two years. I work most nights and every weekend. Even my holidays are work related. I’m having a few days away when I’m speaking at a conference and a few days in France – guess what, speaking at another conference.

I’ve got clients I need to develop and clients I need to get rid of. And what do I do about my staff? Six people depend on me to pay their mortgage every month. The business is ready to jump to the next level: that means taking on three, maybe four more people. Do I want to be responsible for four more mortgages?

I don’t know. Maybe finding an answer is a fantasy. Maybe this is the way it is until I retire or I’m carried out in a box. You want me to sum it all up in one sentence? I am a prisoner of my business. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy it. I’m not mining coal and I’m not banging widgets mindlessly together on a production line. But I know I could enjoy it a lot more. What’s that saying? I’m in the thick of things – and I need to find a way out. But I can’t see one.

It’s now four and a half years since the first person joined TAB York and it’s been a while since I’ve had a conversation like that one with Michael. The more I thought about it, the more important I realised the conversation was – for me it was a real ‘back to basics’ reminder of why people join TAB.

The focus of TAB is on improving your business and getting results – and making sure that your work/life balanced stays balanced. ‘I work most nights and every weekend’ isn’t a phrase I want my members to use because ultimately it means that something – work or your personal life – has to give: and along the way you’ll be too tired to make effective decisions.

One of the things that really struck me about Michael’s comments was how lonely he sounded – and as we’ve said many times, no-one really understands the pressures and strains on the owner of an SME apart from another owner of an SME.

Over the last four years that’s one of the best things to emerge from TAB York: you don’t have to fight fires or make tough decisions on your own. The collective wisdom of the Board is there to help and ultimately that gives the members real peace of mind. Eight heads are most definitely better than one.

…And eight heads will hold you accountable as well. I’d love Michael to join one of our Boards and discuss his plans for taking his business to the next level – and for finding something a lot more rewarding to do with his weekends. Board members hold each other accountable for business and personal goals and they’re equally important – and equally rewarding.

I’m now off for a (hopefully!) rewarding week in France, so the blog will likewise be going on holiday next week. I’ll be back – no doubt feeling even more reflective – on Friday, August 22nd. If you’re also packing and waving goodbye to the office, have a brilliant time.

Short, Sharp – and Successful?


‘Medical experts’ have just announced that short, sharp bursts are the answer. As you get older it’s not long spells of exercise you need: it’s short bursts of concentrated, maximum effort. That’s the key to staying healthy and getting the most out of life.

…And according to an article I’ve just been reading by American entrepreneur Chris Winfield, the same is true in business. If you want to get more done – or the same amount done in half the time – the answer isn’t to work slowly and methodically down your to-do list. It’s to blitz it with short, concentrated bursts of effort where you’re 100% focused on your work: no internet, no making a coffee, no re-arranging every pencil on your desk.

This was the article I alluded to in last week’s post – and thank you for all the feedback to that one. I’ll be collating all the tips and tricks in a future post (and obviously leaving out a couple of the too-easily-distracted confessions).

To business for this week – and the idea Chris Winfield is using is the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late eighties (and as the seasoned travellers among you will know, named after the Italian word for tomato).

It’s an incredibly simple technique and works on the principle that frequent breaks can improve mental agility and make you more – not less – productive.

If you haven’t come across it before you break your work down into intervals known as ‘pomodori.’ Traditionally these intervals are 25 minutes long, and are followed by a five minute break. That said, I know someone who uses 15 minute intervals and someone else (obviously a three Weetabix man) who uses a 45 minute interval. Whatever works for you.

During your 25 minutes the idea is that you work on one task, without distraction, and then – after four pomodori – you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

I like this technique, and in some ways it reminds me of the traditional advice steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was dispensing over a hundred years ago: work on your most important task until it’s done – and then move on to number two…

Where Chris Winfield’s adaptation of the Pomodoro Technique varies is in the way he chooses the tasks for his concentrated bursts:

The reality is that I’m a human being, living in a world full of other humans. I have emotions I don’t control and I often get tired. Some tasks I simply don’t feel like doing, even though I know they’re important and possibly urgent. To make this work long term I had to learn to accept these things, working with rather than against them.

He also moved from a five day working week to a seven day week, accepting that not everything could – or should – be done between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. The net result? Winfield claimed to have cut his working week to 16.7 hours whilst achieving just as much as he had done previously – and to feeling a lot less stressed.

The Pomodoro Technique might not work for everyone – but it’s worth trying. The two Board members I mentioned above absolutely swear by it. And as the old saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. That holds good for your to-do list and your personal organisation as much as it does for your sales techniques and your stock control.

Next week is the last week before I go on holiday – when I come back we’ll be more than half way through August and the end of the year will be in sight. So I’ll be looking at what you (and I) still need to do in the remaining four months of the year – and considering what’s the best period of time for business planning. A week? A month? A year? Or do we go really long term and look at three to five years…