Uber and Out?


The time: the future 

The scene: the Wastelands.

Two vagrants huddle round a slowly dying fire. There’s a super-highway in the far distance, sleek cars heading to an even-sleeker city. 

Tom: Is that all we’ve got? 

Dave: (holding up a rat) All we caught in the trap

Tom: Guess that’s it then

(Tom drives a skewer through the rat. He holds it over the fire. But the fire will go out long before the rat cooks properly…)

Dave: My anniversary today. Three years. 

Tom: Yeah? Must be closer to four for me

Dave: What did you do? 

Tom: Sent some food back in a restaurant. Chicken wasn’t cooked. But they still gave me one star. Took my rating down below four. You? 

Dave: TAB Conference. Too many beers. Threw up in an Uber. Letter arrived two days later. Can still see the words…

Tom: Me too. ‘Your behaviour has fallen below the rating required to continue in society. You have a week to put your affairs in order…

Tom and Dave together:   …You will be escorted to the city gates.’

If you have never used Uber, it’s simple. You download the app, and use it to call a cab (more correctly, a private hire vehicle). The app tells you the name of your driver, the type of car he is driving, the registration number and when it will arrive. A map shows you exactly where your cab is. 

As many of you know, we had a family holiday in California this summer – a state that is about as far from the Wastelands as it is possible to get. But it is the state where Uber was founded less than ten years ago – and where Uber leads, society may one day follow…

You don’t pay the driver – Uber drivers do not accept cash – and the money is taken direct from your bank account. And then, when the ride is finished, you rate the driver and – crucially – the driver rates you as a passenger. 

Phew. I’m rated at 5 stars by Uber and yes, I do what I can to protect that rating. As more than one driver said to us in California, “If someone’s rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t pick them up.”

It used to be said that ‘the customer is always right.’ Well, as businesses start to rate their customers that old maxim is disappearing out of the window. 

I am giving no secrets away when I say we do that at TAB. We want the product we deliver to be the best it possibly can be – and it is a product that depends on mutual trust and co-operation. It also depends on a mutual contribution: if someone consistently fails to prepare for meetings, then they lessen the value and experience of the meetings for the other participants. If the 7thmember of a TAB board is not preparing properly, we owe it to the other six members of that board to take some action – and we do. 

What we don’t have, of course, is an app that rates TAB members. I can just hear our Uber driver, ‘If a couple of Board members are rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t join that Board…’ 

But I believe that where Uber leads other businesses willfollow: that the idea of businesses rating customers will become commonplace. 

As my boys get older, I become increasingly fascinated by the developments that will shape their future. They will shop almost exclusively online: they will use Uber – and I think they will be entirely comfortable with the idea of rating a service and being rated as a consumer. 

At this stage in a post I usually have a sentence along the lines of ‘so what lessons can we draw for our businesses?’ For once, I’m not sure: maybe it’s a topic for a few boards to consider…

But I am absolutely certain that ‘ratings’ will play an ever increasing role in all our futures. We may be a few years away from Tom and Dave being consigned to the Wastelands, but the penalties of a ‘low social rating’ may be closer than you think. 

And before you say it is a big leap from getting a low rating on Uber to being thrown out of society: that I’m painting a dystopian vision of the future that is never going to happen – or that I’ve written this on a Friday night after one Shiraz too many – consider this. 

China has already introduced a social rating system, and people are already being penalised. People’s routine behaviour is being rated and scored and the data is being accumulated and used.

A high score can lead to perks – lower energy bills, a better rate of interest on your savings – while a low score can see penalties imposed. Your children might not qualify for certain schools, or you might be denied rail or air travel within the country. 

That, I think, is sinister and Orwellian in equal measure: but once the tech exists, it is almost always used. So you, and your business, need to be aware of the developments. 

Uber came along and ‘disrupted’ the taxi business – and I, for one, am delighted that it did. Similarly Amazon has ‘disrupted’ our high streets. But link Amazon’s tracking with Uber’s popularisation of ratings and there are implications for all our futures. 

A Brave New World indeed…

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The Seven Ages of the Entrepreneur


I like a nice drop o’ Shakespeare…

Macbeth’s my favourite, but as far as speeches go, I’m drawn to As You Like It, and Jaques’ speech to Duke Senior, which many of you will know…

All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts/His acts being seven ages. 

This idea of the world as a stage wasn’t new, even in the 16thCentury. Shakespeare borrowed it from the Greek dramatists, who no doubt borrowed it from someone even earlier. 

Neither was the idea of ‘seven ages’ new: in Shakespeare’s case, infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, the justice, the lean and slippered pantaloon and – finally – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. 

Which, of course, raises a simple question for me, and for any man:which age am I at? 

Am I a soldier, still ‘seeking my reputation, even in the canon’s mouth?’ Or am I now the justice? In fair round belly with good capon lined/With eyes severe and beard of formal cut/Full of wise saws and modern instances. 

Perhaps more to the point, what age am I as an entrepreneur?

There are, I think, seven ages of the entrepreneur, just as Shakespeare had seven ages of man. Let’s see if we can define them – although, sorry, I won’t be doing it in iambic pentameters…

Pushing your breakfast round the plate 

My story of the first age of the entrepreneur is well-known now. If it’s characterised by one word, that word was ‘frustration.’ 

‘There has to be a better way.’ ‘What am I doing in Milton Keynes when my son is in the nativity play?’ 

The first age of the entrepreneur is the age when you decideto be an entrepreneur: when you make the decision that – for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer – you are going to be in charge of your own destiny.

“Doesn’t Daddy have a job any more?” 

And running through all those seven ages is a common thread: your family, the people you love, the people you are doing it for. Ultimately – as I intimated last week – ‘family’ comes to mean a lot more than immediate family. I’m very, very conscious now that my family – the people for whom I feel a responsibility – is far wider than the three people in South Milford, but when you start your journey, you musttake your immediate family with you. 

Your partner will need to come to terms with the fact that – for now at least – her security has gone. She may suddenly be the main breadwinner. And you’ll need to explain to your children that yes, Daddy doeshave a job – ‘and the reason I’m working in the spare room, sweetheart, is that nothing is more important than collecting you from school.’ 

A man and a lad 

I remember this from years ago – before I became a ‘coach’ and I was just giving advice to a friend. “There was me an’ a lad,” he said. “And I was doing alright. Now there’s me an’ seven lads and an office manager and I’m not making any more money.”

This is a key age for the entrepreneur. It’s the age where you learn two valuable lessons: businesses progress in steps, not straight lines and – much more importantly – you can’t go back. If the first age is characterised by ‘frustration’ the third age of the entrepreneur is characterised by ‘unemployable.’ You wake up one morning and realise that you’ve changed too much. You cannot go back to your old, corporate world. As you turn round, the bridge is burning brightly. 

The man who couldn’t play frisbee any more 

The title of this age is taken from one of my favourite blog posts. Just as you wake up one morning and realise that you can’t go back, so you wake up and realise that you’re no longer ‘one of the lads.’ You’re the leader, your job is to lead and – sooner or later – that means difficult decisions, quite possibly affecting someone’s career, family and mortgage. That’s when the loneliness of the entrepreneur hits home – and it’s when The Alternative Board appears on your radar. When you realise that the only person who truly understands is another successful entrepreneur. 

Make Good Art 

If ‘The Man who Couldn’t Play Frisbee’ was one of my favourite blogs this one – blog post no. 99 – possibly still ranks as my absolute favourite. The title came from a commencement address which writer Neil Gaimangave to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012. 

His message was simple: ‘make good art.’ Whatever you do, that is your art – and you should do it to the very best of your ability. And that’s where you are as an entrepreneur. Your business is established, you’ve accepted that you can’t play frisbee any more – your children even believe you have a proper job again! And every day, you are striving for excellence. Whatever your business does – from web to widgets – you ‘make good art’ and you do it consistently and remorselessly. 

Building something serious 

Remember those steps? Businesses progress not in a straight line but in a series of steps? ‘Good art’ may now consist of a lot of time with solicitors, bankers and accountants. 

But one morning you wake up and realise that you havetaken another step. Maybe your profits or your turnover have hit a level you once considered impossible: maybe your staff levels have done the same. Either way, you’re no longer just a business, you’re part of the community – maybe part of the regional or national business community. Which means that suddenly there are demands on your time which start to take you away from the business, and – although you don’t realise it immediately – prepare you for the final age of the entrepreneur. 

Giving Back

That little girl who wondered if ‘Daddy still had a proper job?’ Well, she’s all grown up now and – despite your best efforts – you can no longer convince yourself you’re 39…

It’s time to sell the business, pass it on to the team you’ve built or maybe even stand aside for your son or daughter. But that doesn’t mean your time as an entrepreneur is at an end. Far from it: and this is one of the key lessons I learned from Paul. 

When an entrepreneur sells his business, very often he gets a new lease of life. Because there’s a new generation of entrepreneurs who need coaching, guiding and mentoring. There are challenges and opportunities in your local community. The entrepreneur’s age of giving back can be the best age of them all…

So where am I? Unquestionably I’m ‘building something serious.’ If TAB York took me through the first five ages of the entrepreneur, TAB UK is the sixth (and yes, complete with bankers, solicitors and accountants…)

And – together with the extended ‘family’ I talked about earlier – we are unquestionably building something very serious. 

So let me end exactly where I began, with Shakespeare. ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ said Macbeth, again using the stage as a metaphor for life.

Macbeth ends the speech with ‘signifying nothing.’ But for TAB UK, ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ signifies a verybright future. I couldn’t be more excited about our plans for the years ahead and I couldn’t be more excited about the people I’m privileged to work with every day.

A Question of Trust


Two weeks ago I was heading to Denver, for the annual TAB conference.

The plane was circling Denver International, I could see the Mile High Stadium in the distance and I was feeling reflective.

It was 9 years since I’d first flown to Denver. I’d come as someone who’d just bought the TAB franchise for York. I’d pushed my breakfast round my plate in the service station, told myself there had to be a better way, looked at a hundred different businesses and opted for TAB.

“Are you sure?” my wife had said, looking at our newly increased mortgage and feeling the serious pressure to keep working.

“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.”

But let me be honest. During that initial training in Denver I had some doubts. Would sceptical businessmen in the UK really pay for peer to peer coaching? And I’d bought the York franchise – surrounded myself with hard-bitten Tykes, people with a reputation for being careful wi’ t’ brass…

To use a well-worn cliché, the rest is history. Building TAB York was hard work, but it was simply the most rewarding experience of my business life. And I am now privileged to be in the same position with TAB UK.

This was my second conference as the MD of TAB UK. Looking back to last year, here’s what I wrote about the 2017 Conference:

The long flight took me to Denver, for TAB’s annual conference – as many of you know, one of my favourite weeks of the year. It was great to meet so many old friends and (as always with TAB) make plenty of new ones. The best part of it for me? It was simply going back to basics. After the whirlwind of becoming the MD of TAB UK – after spending so many hours with solicitors, bankers and accountants – it was wonderful to be reminded of the simple truth of why we do what we do.

And later in the post…

TAB is now in 16 countries and is becoming a truly international organisation. The latest country to launch is India.

Well, that needs updating for a start. TAB is now active in 19 countries and we duly had our ‘national CEOs’ meeting – which prompted an obvious question at the start of our two days together. ‘Is 19 too many for a meaningful meeting, especially as an increasing number of people don’t have English as a first language?’

The answer – which was obvious in the first few minutes – was an emphatic ‘no.’ The reason was simple – and in many ways that reason was the main message I took away from Denver this year.

Summed up in one word it was ‘trust.’

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Trust is simply at the heart of what TAB is, what it stands for and the benefits it delivers to everyone in the ‘family.’ (Yes, another cliché but with TAB it just happens to be true.)

The annual conference means a lot of old friends for me – of course trust exists with them. It’s like the very best relationship with someone you’ve known all your life. You may only see them for three days out of 365 but instantly you pick up the conversation where you left it a year ago.

But this year there were a lot of new friends as well, especially those who’d made the significant decision to buy the franchise for a whole country. And what struck me was how immediate the trust was with them.

The atmosphere for our two days CEO meeting was unbelievably positive. We shared, we co-operated, we exchanged ideas and we trusted each other implicitly. Language barriers? They simply melted away.

So when I talked about ‘back to basics’ last year, what I was really talking about was trust – just about the most basic, and essential, human currency.

It’s the willingness to sit round a table with half a dozen other people and tell them the most detailed information about your business and – in many cases – to open up to them in a way you haven’t opened up to your professional advisers, your bank manager or even your partner.

I’ll confess it now: that was another worry of mine all those years ago. Would one Board meeting be much like the last one? Were there a finite number of business problems to solve? Would a Board – would I – eventually go stale?

I know now that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m renewed on a weekly basis as I meet with the TAB franchisees in the UK and continue my work with individual TAB members. And once a year I get a double-espresso shot of renewal in Denver – this year from the most important business commodity there will ever be.

Be Brave


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Four Leaders


I have, of course, stolen the title from Charles Dickens. As your English teacher drummed into you, his Tale of Two Cities begins with one of the most memorable opening lines there is: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

For those of us in the TAB UK community, the last few weeks have simply been the worst of times. As many of you will know, Paul Dickinson, the founder of TAB UK and a man to whom I owe an immeasurable personal debt, died 2 weeks ago. His funeral is today.

At the end of last month Barry Dodd, an inspirational leader of the Yorkshire business community, died in a helicopter crash.

On May 3rd I wrote Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend, pondering a simple question: do you make sacrifices now, in the hope and expectation of a better future? Or do you live life to the full, accepting that the future may never arrive? Well, today I’ll be the one with the darker thoughts as I reflect on that question I asked six weeks ago.

I’ll also be reflecting on the nature of leadership.

If Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd taught us anything, it was that leaders can and do make a difference. And that their job is simple: it is to lead and take decisions.

On Tuesday night the House of Commons voted for what appears to be yet another fudge on the road to Brexit. We are – give or take a few days – a week away from the second anniversary of the Brexit referendum. It was held on 23rd June 2016: two years on we still have no clear idea of what shape Brexit will ultimately take.

As commentator Patrick Wintour wrote recently, referring to yet another squabble in Cabinet, it was “The apotheosis of May-ism. Her ministers unable to agree what it means to set a date for when they expect to stop kicking a can down the road.”

As everyone knows, I voted to remain in the EU. If the poll were re-run tomorrow I would vote the same way. But I am a democrat: I accept the result. And I am running a business: so let’s get on with it. No commercial organisation would tolerate – or could survive – such indecision.

Our job, as leaders, is to take decisions. It’s come to something when Tony Soprano talks more sense than the British Prime Minister but as he famously said, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

If you make no decision: if – as we see – you cannot decide what you want from a negotiation, then you will simply have to accept what you are offered.

I wonder what Paul and Barry would have made of it? Well, I know what Paul made of it as we chatted about the shambles frequently: it doesn’t bear repeating.

Say what you like about the 49th President of the United States. He doesn’t suffer from indecision. And suddenly here’s the leader of North Korea committing to a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd may not have approved of much that Donald Trump stands for – but they’d have recognised a successful negotiation.

Let me finish by returning to Dickens – and a personal note on Paul’s passing. Many of us know, ‘It was the best of times…’ Few of us know the next two lines. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

There is far too much foolishness in the world, so I’ll concentrate on wisdom – and the wisdom that Paul Dickinson passed on to me, including five very simple words: “Ed, just try smiling more.”

As I wrote in an earlier e-mail to the TAB UK family, smiling is pretty bloody tough right now – but I will try to take comfort from everything Paul gave me.

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His example, and the knowledge that he passed on to me, changed my life. He was, in the very best sense of the word, a leader. Paul had a vision, the courage to pursue that vision, and the charisma to take others with him on the journey.

That is the legacy he leaves us. And if we follow his example then – for both ourselves and our families – we will surely create the very best of times.

Don’t Join the Navy. Be a Pirate!


Of course we are always going to shop on the high street. Of course there will always be bank branches in town centres. Marks and Spencer closing branches? Don’t be ridiculous.

Suddenly, so many things that seemed absolute cornerstones of our life are – to use the modern phrase – being ‘disrupted.’

In fact, if you want to predict the future, there’s a very easy way to do it. Think the previously unthinkable.

If I look back to when I started TAB York and started writing this blog, the changes – in a relatively short space of time – have been remarkable. But I am prepared to wager a hefty sum that the pace of change over the next seven years will be far faster than it has been over the last seven.

So if you’re running a business – or planning to start one – then ‘innovate’ and ‘think differently’ have to be right there at the top of your list. As Steve Jobs put it, if you want to be successful, you can’t join the navy: you have to be a pirate.

MerchantsMarauders

So everything is changing.

Or is it? Because according to the hot new business book, 300 years ago things were, well, pretty much the same…

Three centuries ago, the world was surprisingly similar. The establishment was broken, there was a backdrop of international interconnected conflict and millennials of the day worried the rise of technology would crush employment as they knew it. So they left town and created new societies aboard ships – societies that pilfered and raped, yes, but that also included the systems we operate and abide by today.

The book is Be More Pirate, by entrepreneur-turned-author Sam Conniff Allende – you can read more of his views in City AM here.

I’ll take issue with some of his points – I’m fairly certain that it was the Roman legions, not pirates, who first came up with pension schemes and workplace compensation, for example – but he’s absolutely right in suggesting that the old ways of looking at things simply don’t work any more.

Much of what we have taken for granted for so long – as the high streets and the banks will testify – is starting to break.

So where does that leave mentoring and peer group coaching at a time when innovation is more important than ever? Where does that leave The Alternative Board UK?

Mentors, surely, are part of the established order? It will be a fairly safe bet that the mentor will have more grey hair – or less hair – than the person being mentored. It’s easy to think that the mentor will simply say, “Aye well, ’appen it were done this way when I were a lad and there’s nowt new tha’ knows…” Or words to that effect.

And you could very easily make the accusation that a peer board doesn’t encourage innovation. People are drawing on their own tried and trusted experience and – with a board of six or seven – there must be an inclination to find the common ground in the middle.

In my experience, exactly the reverse is true. The one thing a good mentor knows is that there’s a great deal he doesn’t know. He knows that there is plenty that’s new – and keeps up to date with social and technological changes.

And I am constantly amazed by the cutting edge knowledge of TAB members: yes, even the ones with grey (or very little) hair. In fact, far from a TAB board producing a consensus of ‘safe’ advice, exactly the opposite is true. There is a real willingness to think outside the box and look for innovative solutions when you are discussing a different business to your own. To use a pirate analogy, the shackles are off.

It is then the job of the TAB coach – a job they do superbly well – to make sure that nothing is off the table. That the brave, innovative and outright hard questions get asked – and that they are taken seriously and answered.

So yes, the world is changing at an ever-faster pace. But watching a TAB board meet the challenges of that change is an exhilarating and very, very rewarding experience.

The Board members may be a rum bunch, but none of them parrot the company line.

I’m here all week…

Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


You know me. Cutting edge info, state of the art tech, firmly focused on the future.

So let’s go back to 1841. And then take inspiration from Dad’s Army.

Go right back to 1841 and the first census showed that 20% of the UK’s population were engaged in agriculture, and another 20% were in domestic service.

Fast forward a few decades and millions of people were employed in the ‘horse economy.’ They made saddles, shod the horses, built the carriages and – yes – collected the dung.

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

But then Edison invented the long-lasting electric light bulb. Henry Ford brought us mass production of the motor car – and the sons of people who’d been employed in the horse economy became panel beaters, paint sprayers and mechanics.

Fast forward again. Right up to today. And if you work in retail, or you own a shop, then the news this week could not be worse. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), March and April saw an “unprecedented” decline in footfall – the number of people visiting the nations’ shops. Over the two months footfall was down by 4.8%.

The town centre vacancy rate – the number of empty shops – rose to 9.2% with every area of the UK (except Central London) reporting an increase. A spokesman for the BRC said, “Not since the depths of the recession in 2009 has footfall over March and April declined to such a degree. Even then the drop was less severe at 3.8%.”

Are we seeing the slow death of retail? Quite possibly.

Similarly – as I’ve written previously – artificial intelligence and financial technology (aided by blockchain) are going spell the slow death of the high street bank in a great many towns. “Working in a bank, sir,” will no longer be an acceptable answer to your careers master.

The doom-mongers are having a field day. “This time it really is different,” they say, as they welcome the Four Horsemen of the Robocalypse – Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Unemployment and Bankruptcy.

And if you believe the worst forecasts, they’re right.

The darkest claims – from two American economists – suggest that 47% of all jobs could disappear. Using the same methodology the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the figure at closer to 10%.

That is still a massive figure – in round numbers there are 32m people employed in the UK. The social and economic consequences of 3.2m people becoming unemployed do not bear thinking about.

That’s assuming you believe in the ‘Lump of Labour.’ It’s Friday morning and you probably don’t want a large slice of economic theory, so I will deal with it in less than 50 words.

The theory in question is the ‘Lump of Labour’ theory: there is a finite amount of labour (the ‘lump’) that needs doing. If new machines are invented that do some of that labour, then jobs are necessarily lost.

That’s the theory. But as we have seen throughout history, new inventions and new technology create new jobs. Yes, the motor car did serious damage to the horse economy – but ultimately it created more jobs and more wealth than the horse economy could ever have done.

So yes, right now we may be seeing the slow death of retail and the high street banks – but what we are also seeing is simply change – as there has always been change.

And who adapts to change? Entrepreneurs: the people reading the blog this morning.

Changes in technology are going to wipe out jobs. But bright, innovative, hard-working people are going to use those changes to create new jobs. The banks may be going, but fintech (financial technology) will create 100,000 new jobs by the end of the next decade.

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Artificial intelligence ? Let me turn to one of the leading management thinkers of the last century. I refer, of course, to Lance-Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army. As the clips shows, he summed it up perfectly. Artificial intelligence will inevitably render some current jobs irrelevant: but it will open up a host of other avenues. I am certain that both my boys will – at some point in their careers – be working in jobs which simply don’t exist at the moment.

Change is undoubtedly happening at a faster pace than ever before, but change does not necessarily equal bad news. The old cliché about the Chinese character for ‘crisis/change’ being made up of ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ may not (sadly for business trainers up and down the land) be true, but the coming technological changes will offer a plethora of tremendous business opportunities.

And no-one is better placed to profit from that change and those opportunities than the members of TAB UK. All we ask is that the Government creates a climate that fosters innovation and enterprise, that rewards risk and long-term investment in your business. If we have that, then I have absolutely no doubt that TAB members will more than play their part in building the businesses of tomorrow, creating both jobs and wealth.

Trouble Down Under – and what it can teach us


Monday March 26th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday April 5th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Entrepreneur’s Journey: Taking the First Steps


So you’ve done it. You’ve pushed your breakfast round the plate, wondered why you weren’t with your family and said, ‘That’s it. There has to be a better way.’

And a few days later you’ve burned your bridges – or at least written a letter which can be boiled down to two words: ‘I resign.’

Child Climbing Steps

You’ve committed yourself to the entrepreneur’s journey. Now you need to take the first steps: you need to write a business plan and you need to raise some money.

The chances are that you’d already ‘written’ a business plan before you wrote your resignation letter. I’ve seen potential entrepreneurs – for now, still employed – with business plans at every stage of completion: from neatly bound, carefully worded documents complete with a three year cash flow forecast – to four lines on the back of the proverbial envelope.

For some people the lead up to the resignation letter is calculated and carefully worked out. For others – as it was for me – it’s the moment when that gnawing sense of unease suddenly crystallises. When there really does ‘have to be something better than this – and it has to be now.’

Most of us know the basics of a good business plan – but I am always conscious that this blog is also being read by people who haven’t yet been tempted to tell the MD what they really think… So let me recap the essential details of a business plan:

· What are you going to do? Simply put, what’s the business about?

· What are your goals and objectives?

· Why are you the person to make it work?

· What’s the market? And what’s your marketing plan?

· Who are your competitors? What makes you different?

· If you’re designing and/or developing a product, what are your plans for that?

· Operations and management: how will the business function on a day to day basis?

· How much money do you need? If you’re investing money in the business, where is that coming from? And if you’re borrowing money, how are you going to pay it back?

· And lastly some numbers – projected profit and loss and cash flow forecasts

Those are the basics – but this is The Alternative Board. We’re about a lot more than the basics. We’re about keeping your work/life balance well and truly balanced. About the business working for you, not – as the vast majority of entrepreneurs find – you

working for the business. So your business plan needs to contain something else – something you need to get right from the outset.

Your business plan needs to contain two commitments – to yourself and to your family. To yourself a commitment that you’ll take time off, that you’ll make the time to keep fit – mentally and physically – and that you’ll invest time and money in self-improvement. Because if you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Secondly, a commitment to the people you love. That you’ll be there for them. That you won’t have your body at home and your soul back at the office. However high up the mountain you climb, the view is a lot better if you’re sharing it with someone.

I also like to see a business plan contain a statement of values: this is what we believe in, these are the ethics that underpin the business. Your business needs to be profitable: it needs to be one you’re proud of as well.

And now let me backtrack to the business plan. Because there at the bottom is the thorny question of finance. How much money do you need to start the business? Where is it going to come from and – if you’re borrowing the money – what are you going to use for security? Despite the increasing popularity of new initiatives like Funding Circle, Kickstarter campaigns and venture capital investors, the bank is still far and away the most popular option – and the bank will ask for security. Personal guarantees are never far away for the owners of most SMEs and in many cases, neither is your house.

This is the moment when the price of building your business really hits home. This is the moment when you say to your husband/wife/partner, ‘The house is on the line. The bank want some security and, I’m sorry, that means the house.’

That’s a difficult moment for your relationship. The house you bought together, where you’re raising your family: the house you have plans for… Suddenly there’s the spectre of someone else holding the keys: of a letter arriving from the bank politely inviting you to move out. However much someone loves you, that’s a difficult moment. It’s the moment you realise it’s not just you that will be paying the price.

Which is why that line in the business plan is so important. Time with your family. Yes, you’re building a business – but making sure you don’t miss the Nativity Play is every bit as important. Fortunately, you’re among friends: everyone at TAB UK is committed to making sure you’re sitting proudly in the front row.

Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.

Carillion

Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.