Our Glass is Half Full


Well, we have a form of words. But as many commentators have already written, ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ No matter, the Brexit talks can stumble forward to the next hurdle…

Meanwhile Donald Trump has antagonised 95% of the world by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire ICBMs on an almost daily basis, Germany doesn’t seem to have an effective government and China is threatening to take over the world. Oh, and the financial world will surely be rocked any day now when the Bitcoin bubble explodes.

Make plans for 2018? Only a madman would think of starting – or expanding – a business.

Welcome to the madhouse.

A recent report from accountants UHY Hacker Young revealed that more businesses were established in the UK last year than in any of the world’s other developed economies. Hacker Young put the number of new businesses at 218,000 – a 6% increase on 2015.

But across the road at the Institute of Directors they are three times as bullish, saying that 650,000 businesses were created last year. I suspect that Hacker Young are counting limited companies and the IoD are counting companies and those registering as self-employed. Whatever way you look at the stats and whatever measure you choose, it’s a remarkable statement of confidence in both the individual entrepreneur’s determination to succeed and the future of the UK.

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And yes, of course confidence comes naturally to an entrepreneur. What is remarkable – and heart-warming – is not just the number of start-ups but the absolute conviction that they will succeed. In the IoD survey 83% of those who replied said they felt optimistic about next year – whereas just 5% were optimistic about the wider UK economy.

Of course concerns remain – chief among them being lack of access to finance and lack of information about the government help available for start-ups and those looking to expand their businesses. Awareness of the British Business Bank, for example, was just 17%. Clearly the Government needs to do rather more to get its message across…

Closer to home, I see the same optimism around the TAB boardroom tables. Optimism, coupled with a steely determination to make it happen. Everyone acknowledges that the road is going to be bumpy – but everyone in the TAB family is determined that next year will be an outstanding success.

As for me, twelve months ago I was the owner of TAB York – and someone who was keeping very quiet about some very complicated negotiations. You all now know how they turned out: to say that 2017 has been an eventful year for me is one of the year’s great understatements!

However much I thought I knew what running TAB UK would be like the reality has been very different. Easier than TAB York? Harder? Neither: simply very different and very exciting – and I see more opportunities for us to grow with every passing day.

I’ve been especially struck by how much our TAB members up and down the UK want to be part of the wider TAB community and how keen they are to meet other TAB members, whether that’s from their own region, the wider UK or internationally.

The ten months since February have been a sharp learning curve for me and I couldn’t have climbed the curve without the support of my brilliant co-director Mags, the amazing team at the Harrogate head office or – as always – the love, support and encouragement of my team at home. I hope all of you know how much I appreciate you.

…Which brings me, misty eyed, to the change I was going to announce. I have been writing this blog every week since 2010. I have absolutely enjoyed it and if you’d told me in 2010 that I could have found something to write about every week for roughly 7½ years I’d have said you were mad. Proof positive that, one bite at a time, you can eat the elephant…

However, my new role as MD of TAB UK has afforded me a broader canvas than writing as owner of TAB York. I hope you’ve noticed the posts becoming slightly longer and taking a wider view of the economy and the future. Necessarily these longer posts take more writing, so from next year I’m going to move to updating the blog fortnightly, starting – after a good break for Xmas and New Year – on Friday January 12th. I’m also going to have more of a theme running through the blog: alternating posts between what you might loosely term an ‘overview’ of business and the economy, with a TAB view of the entrepreneur’s journey – from making the decision to go it alone to signing the final contract and walking into the sunset…

In the meantime have a wonderful Christmas and – on behalf of all of us here at TAB HQ – I hope that 2018 brings everything you would wish for.

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Panto Season Comes Early


The scene: an Alternative Board meeting, anywhere in the UK. We’re going round the table, updating each other on progress. It’s Dave’s turn…

TAB franchisee          So, Dave, bring us up to date. How’s it going?

Dave                           Yeah, good. The MD’s coming over at the weekend and we should finally be able to sort it all out. Few wrinkles to iron out in Ireland but we’re getting there

TAB veteran               You said last time that your two divisions in Ireland couldn’t agree on anything…

Dave                           Well, technically, yes. But we’re getting there

TF                                So you’re all set to abandon your current deals and go it alone?

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

TabVet                        So what deals have you got lined up to replace them?

Dave                           Well, technically, none

2nd TabVet                 Sorry if I’m missing something here but isn’t that … well, just a touch risky?

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

TF                                OK, so what impact is this all going to have on the company?

Dave                           Huh?

TF                                About six months ago you said you were doing an impact analysis on the effect this would all have. On every division of the company

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

2nd TabVet                  Me too. Remember asking if you thought you could get it done in time

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

TF                                It was so in depth that you haven’t finished it yet?

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

TF                                So you’re telling us, with our experience in business, that you are planning a major, major overhaul of your business, abandoning trading relationships you’ve had for forty years, you have nothing ready to replace them – except hope – and you have done no analysis at all of the impact it might have on your company?

Dave                           Well, technically…

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The TAB blog is politically neutral. And whatever my personal views, I try to be strictly neutral on Brexit. The blog is not, however, common-sense neutral. And when I read the stories coming out of the Committee on Exiting the European Union (let’s just call it the Brexit Committee, shall we?) on Wednesday I was, bluntly, staggered.

Were the UK Government – in the shape of Dave – a member of any TAB board (and frankly, Mrs May, right now I think it would be money well spent) he would not have survived the meeting. I can think of no instance in my seven years with TAB UK in which a member has gone ahead with a radical overhaul of his business without doing some seriously in-depth analysis of the potential impact. If a member of TAB York had acted in that way I would have questioned whether I was any good at my job.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, David Davis sat down in front of the Brexit Select Committee and said that Her Majesty’s Government had done no significant work on the impact Brexit might have on major parts of the UK economy.

Translate that into business terms. If you had tasked your finance director with doing these impact assessments and six months later he came back and said he hadn’t started then there would only be one outcome. He’d be clearing his office the same day. Even if he hadn’t been tasked with doing the work – but hadn’t shown the initiative to do the assessments – the end result would be the same.

David Davis has argued that there is no point in preparing impact assessments because the scale of change will be so big. Again, if you translate that into business, it’s just nonsense. “We’re going to make major changes in the company – a complete change of direction. And because the changes are going to be so big we’ve decided not to bother making any plans.”

Yep, that would go down well with your TAB colleagues.

Enough lampooning politicians. Sadly, they’re an easy target. There must be a reason for the Government’s failure to carry out due diligence…

Theresa May – the MD in our example – famously campaigned for Remain in 2016. A few weeks later she was roundly declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She had seen the shareholders get rid of the previous MD and give her the job – with a clear mandate to deliver something she’d very recently campaigned against.

This is the time of year when I traditionally write about planning for next year. And that’s where the lessons of Brexit apply. Because if you don’t absolutely believe in your plans, targets and goals – if they don’t reflect what you want both for the business and as an individual – then you’ll end up exactly where Theresa May and David Davis now find themselves. Trying to deliver a plan that you don’t believe in and, consequently, controlled by external events – when it should be the other way round.

That’s it for this week. Next week will be the last post of the year and I’ll be looking forward optimistically to 2018. And also announcing a change…

Three Ideas we Must get our Heads Round in 2018


It’s generally believed that the oldest board game that has been continuously played is Go, dating back to China more than 2,500 years ago. For those of you that haven’t played, the aim is to surround more territory than your opponent. The game is played on a 19 x19 grid and it’s far more complex than chess: the number of possible moves is put at 2 x 10170 – or, more simply, there are more potential moves in one game than there are atoms in the universe.

So quite a lot.

Anyway, last month Google-owned DeepMind introduced AlphaGo Zero, their latest evolution of a computer programme which defeated the Go World Champion earlier this year. You remember those possible moves? More than there were atoms in the universe? The programme mastered them all in less than 72 hours – with no human help.

The simple fact is that machines are going to surpass human intellect in any given intellectual task: right now, the AI community believes that 2060 is a reasonable estimate for its arrival – but not so long ago driverless cars weren’t going to be on our roads until 2040…

We all need to get our heads round Artificial Intelligence and we need to do it quickly. Worryingly US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he isn’t worried about AI and automation: it’s so far away apparently, “that it’s not even on my radar screen.” Presumably he’s not yet read McKinsey’s report saying that robots will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030…

Meanwhile Home Secretary Amber Rudd cheerfully stands up at the Conservative Conference and admits she doesn’t really know how encryption works.

Well no – we don’t need our Home Secretary to pop back to her bedroom after a Cabinet meeting and do a bit of coding. But it would be useful if our political leaders had a vague idea of what’s coming down the track. Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook most certainly do know what’s coming – and it is going to impact your business.

Let me give you a simple example. I don’t know how many possible ‘moves’ there are in deciding whether to lend you or me £250,000 to buy a new house or build that new factory. I do know that it is significantly less than the number of atoms in the universe. I’m acutely aware that sooner rather than later I’m going to need to offer Dan and Rory some careers advice: bank manager may not be top of the list.

Now a rather more basic idea that far too many people still need to tackle: like AI it needs to be on your to-do list at the start of 2018 and crossed off it by the end of the year. The very basic idea is equal pay.

I was reading a salary comparison produced by a TAB member: very clearly, women in North Yorkshire – even in senior roles in the professions – are paid less than men. One line in the report leapt out at me. In comparison to men, women effectively work for nothing from November 7th onwards.

Just say the following out loud. “I’m sorry, you’re bald, we’re going to pay you 80% of what we pay people with hair.” Or try this: “Yes, well, obviously it would have been £3,000 a year more but you’ve got ginger hair…”

…And if you still have a problem with equal pay, go and sort it out now. Equal pay is ethical, it makes business sense and – bluntly – it is just the right thing to do.

And the last idea? Disruption. Henry Ford disrupted horses, Uber disrupted taxis and – as above – AI and ‘fintech’ are going to painfully and permanently disrupt traditional banking. Oh, and the nice, cosy world inhabited by Gillette and Wilkinson Sword and impossibly good-looking men with impossibly smooth chiselled jaws? I’m very sorry, but the Dollar Shave Club is coming to the UK.

Whatever industry you are in – and not for one minute do I exempt peer-to-peer coaching from the list – it is going to be disrupted. We need to be the disruptors, not the disrupted. At the very least, we need to be thinking a long way outside the box, so that we’re prepared when the Dollar Shave Club – or its equivalent – appears on our horizon.

The Irresistible Rise of the Entrepreneur


Mid-November. Dark, cold, gloomy. You leave your house in the dark, you come home in the dark. It’s freezing, the fog hangs in the Vale of York – and only the brave travel from Pickering to Whitby without a clove of garlic and a silver bullet in the car…

November is by common consent the most depressing month of the year: which is why I am going to write one of my most upbeat blog posts, celebrating the irresistible – and very optimistic – rise of the British entrepreneur.

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It’s not just November: the bickering continues around the Brexit negotiations; the Bank of England have said inflation will remain high, placing more pressure on wages; we have a rudderless Government and an Opposition committed to turning us into Venezuela.

Despite all this, the optimism, endeavour and commitment of the British entrepreneur continue to shine through.

New research from the Hampshire Trust Bank and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has revealed that the number of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK has grown by almost a quarter over the last five years. The FSB now puts the number of private sector businesses at 5.5m.

Leading the way in the CEBR survey was the ‘office administration and business sector’ with the number of SMEs increasing by 76% between 2011 and 2016. Second place went to ‘human health services’ with a 50% rise.

The cynic might retort that this is not real growth; it is simply people becoming virtual assistants or personal trainers.

But it is Friday morning: the glass is not so much half full as running over. Every business has to start somewhere: Apple was once a college dropout building a computer in his garage. Virgin was once someone who left school at 16 selling records in a student magazine.

Small businesses are unquestionably good for the economy – they are innovative, they drive growth and they stimulate local economies. If Tesco want a shop fitting out they use a national firm: if it is the local florist, then there’s work for the local electrician, joiner, glazer and plumber.

Some interesting statistics also came out of HSBC’s second Essence of Enterprise report, which found British entrepreneurs looking to the future with confidence, on average expecting their businesses to grow by 62% over the next five years. Perhaps worryingly though, Britain is creating fewer technology start-ups than other countries – 17% compared to a global average of 24%. (And yet half of our schools still don’t offer a GCSE in Computer Science. Madness, Mrs May, madness…)

Perhaps the most interesting point to emerge from the HSBC report was on motivation. Today’s entrepreneurs are driven not solely by money (sometimes not even by money) but by a desire to have a positive impact on society – something which absolutely chimes with the philosophy of TAB, not just in this country but around the world.

What I find fantastic is that the entrepreneurial flame burns at both ends of the age spectrum. Over the last ten years the number of businesses run by the over 55s has risen by 63% – but that is eclipsed by the number of entrepreneurs past the theoretical retirement age. People over 65 now run 140% more businesses than they did ten years ago.

But if you want to be really encouraged, read this report on the festival of young entrepreneurs which has just taken place in London. It holds out so much hope for the future of the country – although with entrepreneurs as young as nine, it makes me feel positively old.

But someone who is even closer to a new hip (well, hopefully…) is Philip Hammond who, on Wednesday next week, will present the first Autumn Budget. He has a lot to do to build bridges with the small business community: many people are still angry at his ill-conceived raid on the self-employed in the last Budget.

So what do I want to see from the Budget? More than anything I want to see a Budget which shows the Government understands what it means to be an entrepreneur: that they understand the risks – both personal and financial – in setting up a small business. Entrepreneurs and SMEs are not a cash cow to be milked, they are a source of employment, innovation and growth. They are the future of the economy.

Let’s hope that the Chancellor recognises that – or he risks a lot of those very optimistic and ambitious young entrepreneurs deciding that Berlin, Lisbon or San Francisco might be a more attractive place to develop their business…

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


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

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

Maybe not…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Work/Life Support System


One of the facets of my new role within TAB is taking a wider view of the UK economy. That’s not to say I ignored it when I was owner of TAB York – but as MD of TAB UK I’m much more aware of the concerns and initiatives of organisations like the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses.

…And last week brought a worrying report from the FSB. Their latest Small Business Index – carried out in the summer and based on a survey of more than 1,200 members – found that optimism among entrepreneurs had fallen sharply. Most worryingly, 13% of those who responded to the survey were looking for a way out of their business, the highest figure since the FSB began measuring in 2012.

OK: let’s introduce an immediate word of caution. I suspect if I were a disgruntled entrepreneur, desperately looking to sell my business I’d be far more likely to complete a survey like this than if everything were going well and orders were flying out of the door.

But that said, these are the worst figures the FSB have seen for five years. Rents, regulations, taxation and what Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, described as “the ridiculous staircase tax” all contributed to the entrepreneurs’ dissatisfaction.

Inevitably rising costs and uncertainty surrounding Brexit also received honourable mentions and they all – with the notable exception of the UK’s very cheerful export sector – contributed to a sharp fall in the FSB’s ‘optimism index.’

I wonder though, if it doesn’t go deeper than that for many entrepreneurs.

I’ve written previously about the ever-increasing impact of flexible working. If you’re looking to build your team and attract – and retain – the very best talent then offering flexible working is a must. Flexible hours, the option of working from home and genuine regard for someone’s work/life balance are all key.

But flexible working cuts both ways. One company’s flexible day can very easily equate to someone else’s 16 hour day.

I am not saying that we should all go back to 9 to 5 – that’s never going to happen. You can’t turn the clock back and remove flexible working, any more than you can – let’s take a ridiculous example – turn the clock back and ban a safe, convenient, modern, technology-driven ride sharing app…

In the old days it was very simple: if you wanted to succeed in business, you had to meet people. Face-to-face contact was essential.

Not so today: there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there – especially in the creative sector – who have never met their clients. “They’ve become my biggest client, Ed,” someone said to me the other day. “I think I’ve spoken to the MD twice on the phone. Everything else has been e-mail and Facebook messenger. I’ve got an address for invoicing but I’m not even sure where the MD’s based.”

That’s not unusual: for an increasing number of people running a business – whether they employ staff or not – equals sitting in front of a screen all day. And that must lead to more and more ‘lonely entrepreneurs.’

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Costs, taxation and ever increasing legislation all play their part in making the life of an entrepreneur difficult: but I just wonder how often loneliness is the final straw…

That’s why I believe the ‘work/life support system’ offered by The Alternative Board is so important: it’s why I believe the potential for us to grow in the future is so exciting. Some of you may have seen my recent profile in the Yorkshire Post – and yes, I absolutely believe that we can move from working with 350 business owners to over 1,000. And if we can do that we will very definitely benefit the UK economy.

But as I said in the article, sometimes as a business owner it’s difficult to know where to turn. I also said that I now realise how much I didn’t know when I started TAB York. One of the things I unquestionably didn’t know was how lonely life can be as an entrepreneur and how much having a support network can help.

Five years from now let’s hope the FSB are reporting that virtually no entrepreneurs are desperate to sell their businesses – and if TAB UK can play a part in that I’ll be absolutely delighted. Everyone needs friends: as the old saying has it, ‘Even the sharpest knife can’t cut it alone…’

Time to go into Reverse


Mentor: noun – an experienced and trusted adviser. Someone who gives an inexperienced or younger person help and advice over a period of time.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with the most famous mentor of them all…

But now the phrase on everyone’s lips is ‘reverse mentoring’ – because it’s not just young people that need training in the office.

What is reverse mentoring? To turn the dictionary definition around it is when an inexperienced or younger person gives an older, more experienced colleague help and advice. Why? One word: Snapchat. Another word: Instagram.

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As social media – and other developments such as gamification and virtual reality – come to play an increasingly important part in both the workplace and the customer journey, so Mr Older-Experienced can be left feeling, well… helpless.

But why do you need training in the office? Why not just ask your teenage children? If you’re asking that question I can only assume you don’t have teenage children. You cannot ask your teenage children. Sadly, I’m becoming all too familiar with their response. The long, drawn-out sigh. The raised eyes, the pained expression. ‘Oh God, I’ve got to explain it to the old person again…’

Back in the office there are some very successful advocates for reverse mentoring. Former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts credits it with helping her turn the company around and grow the brand value from $3bn to $11bn. John Lydon, MD of McKinsey Australia said that his tech-capability had increased tenfold – and he was able to understand the minds of a younger generation, and the emerging trends that came with them.

Why does reverse mentoring work? Because human nature all too often dictates that we spend too much time talking to people like us. People who are roughly the same age, from the same background and have the same views. Speaking to someone who’s younger than you, from a different background and significantly lower down the organisation chart can help you see the business from a new angle. In large companies it’s also a good way to identify future leaders: not just how much does someone know, but how good are they at communicating, and making the complex easy to understand.

The other great plus of reverse mentoring is that it creates a culture where everyone in the company is constantly learning – something you emphatically need to do today.

Depending on which projection you read, by the middle of the next decade millennials (people who entered the workforce around the turn of the century) will comprise up to 75% of employees. And yet most MDs and CEOs will still be significantly older.

So we’ll be hearing a lot more about reverse mentoring. I think it’s a great idea: looking back over my days in the corporate world, I can remember plenty of times when it would have helped me, my boss and – in the long term – the company. But I worry that too many organisations will introduce a reverse mentoring programme and simply pay it lip service – ‘this is the latest big thing apparently. I suppose we’d better give it a go’ – while carrying on doing what they’ve always done. And as I have said many times, if you always do what you have always done, these days you will no longer get what you have always got.

In many ways reverse mentoring has been part and parcel of TAB since I joined – even if we didn’t use the exact term. When I was running TAB York I always wanted my Boards to have a mix of ages and backgrounds – and it’s something I now encourage the franchisees in the UK to do. When someone brings a problem, challenge or opportunity to a monthly meeting it is absolutely invaluable for them to see it from different angles and different perspectives. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the old saying goes: a problem seen from seven different viewpoints is very often a problem solved.

With that, I’m going to leave you for a fortnight. Next week I’m on holiday and the week after I’m joining TAB colleagues from around the world in Denver. But first, a holiday with Dav and the boys: hopefully without the sighs and the pained expressions…

David and Goliath? It could be TAB vs. Amazon…


If you saw the news last week you may have seen that there was – very briefly – a change at the top of the league table. Specifically, at the top of the Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Amazon shares rose ahead of their results and for one day – July 27th – Jeff Bezos was the richest person in the world. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the company’s results were disappointing. Despite revenue for the three months to June rising to $38bn (25% up on the same period last year) earnings-per-share were down as the company chased growth. The shares slipped back by 2% and that was enough. Bill Gates was back at number one and poor old Jeff was struggling to get by on $89bn.

But wherever Jeff Bezos is in the rich list, Amazon has become an integral part of all our lives. I’ve touched several times on the decline of the traditional high street: whatever your feelings about that, Amazon has played a central role in it. And the company is chasing yet more growth – $14bn to buy Whole Foods, for example, as it goes head-to-head with Walmart.

Right now Amazon seems to be looking to dominate just about every sector you can think of: quoted in City AM an American fund manager said, “What you’re buying [Amazon shares] for is revenue growth and market share – and Amazon is making great progress.”

And now to another story that caught my attention. ‘Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial eco-system encouraging start-ups.’ Basically it’s a simple story: Edinburgh has brought all the key ingredients together to allow people to start businesses and to encourage those businesses to grow – a talented workforce, public sector and academic support, access to finance, affordable space and quality of life.

For me, the two stories are closely connected. Amazon and the other tech giants are going on a spending spree. That is going to bring benefits: both Amazon and Google are committed to massive new developments in London that will create thousands of jobs. But it will also come at a price, and that price may well be paid by our local shops and communities.

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And yes, I use Amazon. Of course I do. Someone recommends a book, you find it in 10 seconds, click, it’s bought. But I am acutely conscious that if I shop with Amazon the money does not stay in my local community. South Milford does not have a book shop: I’d hate to think that in a few years The Village Store (no, the marketing committee didn’t spend long on the name…) had disappeared because we’d all decided Amazon was the best place to buy Weetabix, dog food and loo rolls.

This is where I think entrepreneurs have a significant role to play. We are firmly rooted in our local communities and I’m really keen to encourage the 400 business owners in the TAB community to play their part in creating ‘entrepreneurial eco-systems’ like the one in Edinburgh. One of the things that TAB members do well is bring people together: not just other TAB members, but people from banking, regional development, education and other sectors. If we can develop that, then we can play our part in building and nurturing successful local economies.

Technology isn’t going away. Any day now you’re going to look up into the sky and watch a delivery from an Amazon drone. And if you think that’s impressive the Chinese version of Amazon claims to deliver in 15 minutes: not even worth nipping out to the shops at lunchtime…

Local businesses and local communities are going to need all the help they can get. I’m proud to know that TAB members will play a central role in providing that help – and no-one is better qualified.

PS Should you need either of these vital items the Chinese Amazon will apparently also deliver a Vietnamese bride and/or a live scorpion. A whole new meaning to ‘something for the weekend…’

Eddie and Jacob: the Unlikely Lads


Every day 300,000 people use Southern Rail: every day, a good proportion of those people are subject to overcrowded trains, delays or cancellations – or all three. Management blames the unions: the unions blame the management and now the owners of Southern Rail have been fined £13.4m – which has only increased the bitterness between the two sides.

But it’s not all doom and gloom at head office: Southern Rail have unwittingly discovered a social media star.

Meet Eddie…

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Eddie – sadly we do not know his second name – is 15 and was at Southern Rail on work experience. The decision was taken to put Eddie in charge of Southern Rail’s Twitter feed, which (as you might guess) is usually a seething hotbed of complaints, abuse and sarcasm. Showing that all the world’s ‘social media consultants’ are grossly overpaid, Eddie wasted no time in introducing himself:

Hi! Eddie here! Here on work experience and ready to answer your questions

Sensing that Eddie may not have the answer to why the 08:32 was delayed, overcrowded or cancelled, Southern Rail’s followers tried a different tack:

Hi Eddie! Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

A tough one: you suspect the traditional occupants of the customer service desk would have struggled. But Eddie was unfazed:

100 duck sized horses. A horse-sized duck would be pretty scary. You? Eddie

That’s a perfect response. In less than 140 characters Eddie answered the question, empathised with the customer and clearly identified himself. And after that he went from strength to strength…

Eddie – would you rather have rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands for the rest of your life?

Rollerblades for feet. I feel like I could get used to them pretty quickly and get places quicker.

Unlike Southern Rail someone darkly responded. But Eddie was on a roll, and by the end of his stint was even dishing out dietary advice.

Chicken fajitas or Thai green curry tonight? @Adam_W48 needed to know.

It has to be chicken fajitas Eddie replied with a wink.

For one day at least Southern Rail had given their customers something to smile about. But Eddie is not alone in being an unlikely star of the new media…

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Let me introduce you to an ever more surprising social media star – Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the MP for the 17th Century as he is frequently known. More correctly, the Eton and Oxford educated Mogg – the Moggster to his fans – is the Conservative MP for North Somerset. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Mogg doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. To many, he is what the New Statesman described as ‘a cartoonish toff.’ To others, he is a future Prime Minister – William Hill will offer you 16/1.

But Mogg also has 35,000 followers on Instagram (twice the number Theresa May has). He is not afraid to speak Latin and holds the record for the longest word ever used in the House of Commons (floccloccinaucinihilipilification – it means the habit of estimating something as worthless.) His sixth child was named Sixtus – the Guardian labelled him a ‘Tory sex machine’ – and he campaigns with his eldest son, both of them dressed in identical double-breasted suits.

You suspect that Eddie and Rees-Mogg could not be more different. But what they share is authenticity, and a willingness to answer a question. As Southern Rail casts around for excuses, as United Airlines tries to justify assaulting one of its own passengers and sundry corporate and government ‘spokesmen’ tell us what we all know is patently untrue, maybe business can learn a lesson from Eddie and the Right Honourable Member for the 17th Century. Customers are fed up with spin: more than ever they value the truth, openness, honesty and a willingness to engage.

If you have a problem, admit it. If you’re going to miss the delivery date, tell them. As the old saying goes, ‘The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. The lie pleases, but it doesn’t heal.’ I’d go further than that: all our businesses are about building long-term relationships. It is a central part of TAB’s message and beliefs.

The truth may hurt in the short-term, but in the long term it can strengthen a relationship. If you tell the truth when it clearly shows you in a bad light then you’re someone who can be trusted. Lies – or spin – may please in the short-term: you cannot build a long-term business on them.

…And I clearly cannot build a long term business as a sports psychologist. Time to eat humble pie: or humilem massae manducare as JRM would put it. You may have noticed a slightly triumphalist tone in the blog last week. A few words of advice for Joe Root, he scores 190 and England win the first test by 211 runs. Sadly, a week is a long time in the sports psychology business. The last time I checked (from behind the sofa) Joe Root’s off stump was lying flat on the ground and England were sliding to a massive 340 run defeat. No wonder the MCC didn’t pay my invoice…

Dear Prime Minister…


Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

This week I wanted to start with, ‘The dust has settled and we can get back to normal…’ But, apparently not: still no deal with the DUP and a Queen’s Speech which roughly translated as, ‘Sort it yourselves, I’m off to Ascot.’

Apparently many Conservative MPs are privately admitting to disappointment at the way the Prime Minister has handled the talks with the DUP. Ah well, it’s not as though she has any major negotiations coming up…

But sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

That’s it. Except that if you’re still struggling to cobble a government together give me a ring. I know plenty of owners of SME’s who are first-rate negotiators. 10 members of the DUP to sort out? They’d do it before breakfast…

Best regards

Ed