A Glimpse of the Future


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.

That’s a quote from last week’s post – and the inspiration for those two lines came from the second episode of Westworld.

One scene really struck a chord with me: it went to the heart of everything I do, and I’d like to expand on it this week.

I’m aware some of you may not have seen Westworld, so I’ll tread carefully. In the scene the increasingly desperate writer, Sizemore, presents a scheme for Westworld’s ‘greatest narrative yet.’ There’ll be maidens to seduce, Indians to kill and unnamed horrors that I’m not going to mention in a Friday morning blog post.

“Above all,” claims Sizemore, “It’ll show the guests who they really are.”

He’s shot down by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the owner of Westworld.

The guests aren’t looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

Sometimes you’re watching a film, reading a book or listening to a song and there’s a line that absolutely hits home. That’s how it was for me last Tuesday. Hopkins captured not only the essence of Westworld, but also the essence of what I do for a living.

The entrepreneurs I speak to aren’t looking to be told who they are, or where their business is now. They already know that. They want a glimpse of who they could be: of how far they could take their business – and how far the business could take them.

The first time I meet someone, that’s all I can offer – a glimpse.

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What do I want in return? First and foremost, I want an entrepreneur with courage. Someone who – to quote Bobby Kennedy – is willing “not to see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ But to see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’”

So it’s not someone who wants to gamble on the future, or even someone who’s endlessly positive and always sees the glass as half-full. What I’m looking for is an open mind: a willingness to step outside their comfort zone and the realisation (even though they might not be acting on it then) that you cannot become the person you want to be by continuing to be the person you are.

My job is to say, ‘”This is how it could be, for you and the company.”

I’m giving the entrepreneur permission to think about the future: I’m saying, “There’s the door, it’s OK to walk through it.”

In one of his TED talks Simon Sinek makes a significant point: Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a plan’ – much less, ‘I have a business plan’ – he said “I have a dream.”

Giving people permission to dream – and a setting in which they can dream – is what a great TAB board does. Make no mistake, sitting there at your desk, being the person you’ve always been, isn’t conducive to dreaming. In order to think differently – to see things as they could be – you need to move out of your everyday environment.

Good leaders spend their time encouraging others: giving them the means and the encouragement to grow. But someone needs to tell the leaders they can grow as well: that it’s OK for them to dream, that they don’t always need to be the detached pragmatist running the company. That they can be who they could be.

So when I say, “This is how it could be” I’m opening the door and offering a glimpse of what’s on the other side. Hopefully the entrepreneur will walk through the door, where she’ll find half a dozen like-minded people waiting for her.

But going through that door can be painful. Because you’ll need to have a couple of conversations: one with your team, admitting that maybe you don’t have all the answers. And one – which I’ll tackle next week – with your spouse or partner, saying that you have room to grow: that you’ve had a dream, and you’re going to pursue it…

Five Days Good, Four Days Better


I’ve written about the length of your working week two or three times this year. Specifically, I’ve discussed the difference keeping Monday mornings free has made to my effectiveness and my weekends – and the simple fact that ‘throwing hours at it’ is never the answer. Once you go over 50 hours a week the evidence is very clear: you become less, not more, effective.

I’m not alone with my ‘Monday mornings’ – or Fridays as they are for several Board members.

So I was intrigued when I came across this article in Cap X: ‘Why a four day week isn’t good for your health.’

The article is by Allard Dembe, Professor of Public Health at Ohio State University. The four day week is the Holy Grail he says: it gives more leisure time and family time – and significant cost savings for business.

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He points out that many big companies have tried the four day – or ‘compressed’ – week. It’s not just Amazon and Google, Professor. Plenty of businesses I work with in North Yorkshire encourage flexible working, recognising that they’re in the results business, not the hours business.

In his article Dembe concedes some of the advantages of the four day week: but ultimately maintains that the evidence suggests it isn’t good, either for employees or for companies.

He states – rightly – that the same amount of work needs to be done. In simple terms, five days of eight hours translate to four days of 10 hours. And it’s the extra two hours – tacked on at the beginning or end of the day – that draw his fire. “All hours,” he says, “are not created equal,” citing studies showing that longer working days can contribute to ill-health later in life. And he questions whether a ten hour day is worth it if it means losing time with your children for four days of the week.

And as you’d expect from a professor of public health, he also points out that workplace accidents happen when we’re tired.

I’m not going to put Professor Dembe’s article in the same category as Liam Fox’s assertion that we’re all ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf’ – a claim I note he didn’t make at the Conservative conference – but I do fundamentally disagree with it, especially for the entrepreneur.

He makes some valid points, but there’s a simple fact: flexible working is here to stay. The challenge for anyone running a business is to find working arrangements that work for all the members of your team. You have to do that: the top talent that you want – and need – is increasingly demanding flexible working.

But even more importantly, I think flexible working is essential for you: for the entrepreneur.

Yes, we carry our phone and our iPads and we access Dropbox. And yes, that means work is never more than a couple of taps or clicks away. But it also means we have far greater flexibility – that we can both work when it suits us and work around family commitments and our work/life balance.

Earlier this year I mentioned the tendency to think in the same way if you’re in the same place. It’s almost impossible to think strategically about your business if you’re at your desk, ensnared in what Stephen Covey described as “the thick of thin things.” That’s why I’m an absolute advocate of spending working time away from your desk, be that Friday, Monday morning or whenever best suits you.

Working at home – or in the coffee shop – gives you space to think and to emphatically work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business.

As the Scottish poet said, “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view.” As the English business coach says, “’Tis distance lends perspective to the business.”

And that perspective is one of the most crucial factors in making your business a success. So don’t be afraid to work from home one day a week or to shorten your working week: in the long run it can only benefit you and your business.

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!

The Next Level


I was watching the test match at the weekend. Specifically, I was watching Joe Root as – for the second time in the match – he got out playing a shot he emphatically shouldn’t have played.

Joe Root is one of the most naturally talented batsmen I’ve seen – probably the most talented if you only consider England players. And in his short career, he’s not been short of accolades. ‘Could be the best we’ve ever seen.’ ‘He’ll break every record there is.’

But I wonder…

Because as I watched Root casually swat a long hop from Rahat Ali into the grateful hands of Yasir Shah, I wondered if he really wanted to be one of the game’s greats. Or merely very, very good.

Whatever sport you watch, there are people with incredible natural talent. But talent doesn’t always translate into the record books. And everyone reading this blog has watched a sporting event and thought, ‘Why is this person not playing/competing at a higher level?’

Not for the first time, I was struck by the ever-present parallels between sport and business. There are some incredibly talented entrepreneurs out there: some of them right at the top of the tree – but some of them working ‘a long way below their pay grade.’

There are others who may not have been the sharpest tool in the box. But they’ve kept pushing themselves, kept learning, kept setting new targets.

I’ve written many times that the progression of a business is never a straight line. It’s never a graph going inexorably upwards. More often than not it’s a series of plateaus. Reach a level, consolidate, take the next step, reach a new level, consolidate…

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The more time I spend working with entrepreneurs, the more I think it’s the same for them. Reach a certain level – quite possibly the level that was the original goal – there’s a period of consolidation, and then one morning the light bulb goes on again: ‘I’m capable of more than this. I can go to the next level.’

Not for one minute am I saying that you must move to the next level. Goodness knows, no-one has written the phrase work/life balance more than me. But equally, you don’t want to watch the sun go down one day thinking, “If only…”

And my experience of working with entrepreneurs tells me that once the light bulb has gone on, you have to act. Otherwise frustration and boredom set in – and as I’ve written previously, they are few more dangerous forces than a bored entrepreneur…

Moving to the next level is one of the key areas where TAB can help. Yes, we’ll always make sure that your work/life balance stays well and truly balanced. But once you’ve decided to make that move, the support of your peers becomes invaluable – both consciously and subconsciously.

Clearly your fellow board members can help: there’s almost certain to be someone around the table who’s made the same decision: who’s asked themselves the same questions you’re now asking.

And rest assured I’ll do everything in my power to help. There’ll come a day when I’m watching the sun go down: rest assured that I have no intention of letting my mind drift back to any TAB York members and thinking ‘if only…’

But it’s the subconscious side that fascinates me…

I’ve seen this happen several times.

Someone around the TAB table makes a major announcement. They’ve clearly moved to a different level.

Across the table an expression changes. There’s a momentary raising of the eyebrows. Then the eyes narrow. The focus intensifies. The lightbulb goes on. ‘Good’ is no longer good enough. An entrepreneur has made the decision to move to the next level.

Let’s see if an England batsman makes the same decision over the next five days…

Hitting the Right Note


Well, well. The pundits and the pollsters had it completely wrong and here’s David Cameron with a workable majority. What’s more, the new business secretary is hanging a picture of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Stand by for five years of a low tax/high enterprise economy.

But let’s not get carried away. What Harold Macmillan called ‘events, dear boy, events’ will inevitably come along. And as George Osborne has said on many occasions, the UK cannot be immune to what’s going on in Europe and the rest of the world. So when you factor in the slowdown in the Eurozone, the worrying figures from China, the uncertainty of the European Referendum and the noises from North of the Border there’ll be plenty to keep the Prime Minster and the journalists busy. Most importantly though, it looks like we’ll be able to get on with our businesses without our hands being tied by any more red tape. As Francisco says at the opening of Hamlet, ‘For this relief much thanks.’

Enough of politics: I’m sure you can wait until 2020 to watch the next Leaders’ Debate. Let’s turn our attention to something rather more restful: music.

I was at an Institute of Directors meeting at York University the other week. It was the usual stuff – and then someone made a comment which really made me sit up and take notice: ‘music undergraduates make some of the best entrepreneurs.’

The speaker’s rationale was that music undergrads do a wide variety of jobs to fund their degrees – and hence they’re exposed to a lot of businesses. But I thought it must go further than that – especially as I remembered writing this post about the lessons we could learn from the rapper, record producer and hugely successful entrepreneur Jay-Z.

Was Jay-Z a one-off? Or does musical ability go hand in hand with entrepreneurial ability? It certainly seemed to as the next day the papers were full of stories about Gene Simmons – ‘the financial powerhouse behind Kiss’ – and his net worth of $300m.

A study from Michigan State University suggested that successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to have had music lessons as children – but that might simply be because their parents could afford music lessons. I did some more research and gradually four key characteristics emerged that are common to both musicians and entrepreneurs:

  • You cannot become a successful musician unless you’re prepared to listen – to your own work, to constructive criticism and, above all, to feedback from fans
  • You’ve got to experiment – and you’ll almost certainly need to overcome repeated failure
  • You’ll need to collaborate with other people
  • And finally – as Gene Simmons graphically illustrates – you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors

No entrepreneur can succeed without ticking those four boxes – but let me pick up on the last two points in more detail.

Firstly, musicians – and entrepreneurs – need to collaborate. Well, if anyone reading this blog has ever played in a band (or even the school orchestra…) you’ll know that once the collaboration goes, so does the band. The ability to collaborate successfully is going to become an increasingly important skill for the entrepreneur. Over the next five years we’re going to see more and more people starting their own business – we’re all going to be working with freelancers more, and in many cases those freelancers are going to be people we’ve never met. Skype may become the business equivalent of practising in the garage, as successful collaboration increasingly becomes key to building a business.

Secondly, brand – or identity, or USP. Call it what you will. Every successful musician has a recognisable brand – and they know their target market. Whether it’s Jay-Z, Kiss or One Direction (sorry) they all know their market and the brand is tailored to it. Let me give you a simple example. Why does a band need a logo if it’s not a brand? And some of those logos (AC/DC, the Stones, the Who – off the top of my head) are among the most instantly recognisable logos anywhere.

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So maybe the traditional MBA course needs a module on music appreciation as well as supply and demand curves? Maybe there needs to be less emphasis on left brain logic, and more on right brain creativity? Let me know your thoughts. I’ll be in the garage, looking for my old guitar…

Peanuts, Monkeys and Frozen Custard


Let’s consider one of the major global economic indices. Not the FT-SE 100, the Dow Jones or the Chinese Purchasing Managers’ Index: let’s consider sales of McDonald’s burgers.

2014 was a disastrous year for McDonald’s: it was dogged by scandals and sales fell around the world. “The best thing about 2014 for McDonald’s is that it’s over,” said entrepreneur.com. But worse was to follow with the Wall Street Journal reporting that same-store sales were down 4% in February.

Meanwhile, consider Shake Shack. You may not have heard of Shake Shack. You will. It’s just had a ridiculously successful debut on Wall Street, valuing the chain of 63 outlets at over $1bn and raising more than $100m for future expansion. Two things struck me as I was reading about Shake Shack: first of all customers spend significantly more than the industry average and secondly, they’re committed to paying wages which are also well above the industry average. Could the two be related? Of course they could.

If you look at chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s in the US the emphasis is on speed and price. The average meal may cost as little as $5, with virtually all the food prepared off-site: workers then ‘assemble the ingredients.’ Recently this sector has been losing out – as McDonald’s sales testify – to the ‘fast casual’ chains, where the emphasis is on fresher food that is prepared on site: quality and sustainability are far more important than price.

This changed emphasis is crucial to the ‘millennials’ – the 80m strong consumer base that every marketer is desperate to reach. The change in emphasis also means that higher quality staff are required – and hence the higher wages paid by Shake Shack and another operation you’re going to hear about, the splendidly named Moo Cluck Moo.

Paying higher wages “is the right thing to do,” according to Bryan Parker, co-founder of Moo Cluck Moo. “It empowers our people, we don’t have to babysit our staff and we have low turnover as a result.”

Is there a lesson for us in this? Emphatically, yes.

You’re building your business. You can’t do it all alone – so you need to build a great team. And we’ve all been there. It is hugely tempting to look at the cost of wages at the end of every month and think you could save some money. Increasingly, I think that mindset will be positively damaging to your business.

If there’s one absolute fact I see as I deal with the members of TAB York and other clients it’s this: talented people are becoming increasingly hard to find. If you’ve got one – or better yet, if you have a team of them – then you need to do all you can to keep them, develop them and motivate them. And skimping on wages doesn’t achieve any of those three.

Bear something else in mind: talented people are not only hard to find, they’re expensive to replace. What’s it cost to recruit, train and ‘bed in’ a new person? My rough rule of thumb in industry used to be a year’s salary. And if you’re the owner of an SME the cost of your time may push it even higher than that.

Nope. Good, talented, hard-working and loyal staff are priceless. If you’re going to reach your goals, they’re the people that will be with you on the journey. Being afraid – or unwilling – to pay them what they’re worth is the falsest of false economies.

52% of fast food workers in the US earn wages that are below the poverty line. Shake Shack pays its staff in New York a starting salary of $10 an hour: a 25% increase on the State minimum wage. “We believe this enables us to attract a higher calibre employee and this translates directly to a better guest service,” the firm said when it floated. It translates to a better bottom line as well. It’s a lesson you can’t ignore.

…And I won’t be ignoring Shake Shack next time I’m in the States. A Smoke Shack burger, fries, Shackmeister beer – and obviously, frozen custard to finish it off!