A Brave New World – at least for TAB Members

Clearly I am going mad. That’s the only possible explanation for a world in which people phone the police because their local KFC has run out of chicken. It’s enough to turn a man into Disgusted of South Milford and make him write to the Telegraph…

Assuming the nation survives being rocked to its foundations by the bargain bucket turning into the empty bucket there are rather more serious issues to deal with. Theresa May has just announced a ‘far reaching review’ of the student loan system. As our two boys get older it’s a subject I increasingly read about – and as far as I can see the current student loan system is broken. It must be the only loan where you can make your contractual payments and still see your debt increasing. Shylock would have been green with envy.

Meanwhile the Government is selling student loan debt for 50p in the pound, having already written off around £7bn – a sum equivalent to the capital budget of the NHS. The current system appears to work for neither borrower nor lender.

So some fairly shabby decision making in both big business and Government. Thank goodness artificial intelligence is marching to the rescue. Decision to make in your own business? Sit back, leave it to machine learning and the algorithms and know you’ll have the right decision in the time it previously took to sharpen your pencil.

When you first contemplate robotics, machine learning & Artificial Intelligence the headlines are nothing but doom and gloom. Robots are coming for financial services jobs first. AI to cut a swathe through middle management.


And, most chillingly of all, the report from management consultants McKinsey that AI and robotics will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030. AI and robotics undoubtedly will take plenty of jobs. A robot arm can dispense your fries perfectly well – clearly not your chicken though. It doesn’t get sick, doesn’t need a holiday and most certainly doesn’t need including in the company pension scheme.

But let’s dig a little deeper: do technological changes necessarily lead to unemployment and – just as importantly – what do these changes mean for those of us running a business? At the beginning of the 19th Century the Luddites began smashing up weaving machinery, fearing that the traditional skills would be lost and – closer to home – that they’d lose their jobs. Mill owners took to shooting the protesters and the movement was only ultimately supressed with military force. There have been plenty of periods of unemployment in the ensuing 200 years – and all too often the first reaction has been to blame the machines.

There is plenty of evidence though, that technology creates as many jobs as it destroys. There is not a finite amount of labour: it does not follow that because technology removes one job, someone is irreversibly unemployed. The same technology may well create another job. In fact, a recent report on Silicon Valley concluded that for every job lost to automation and AI, four were created.

So where should you work if you don’t want a robot to steal your job? The answer – according to an article in City AM and sitting nicely with Silicon Valley – is in the creative sector, which is forecast to create 1,000 ‘robot-proof’ jobs a week right up to 2030. The creative sector has grown twice as fast as other sectors in this decade, and London now has 90,000 creative businesses. Clearly plenty of those are going to be one-man businesses but that is still a significant number and an increasingly important contribution to UK plc.

But it’s not just the creative sector that offers protection against the march of robots and AI. There’s also the small matter of starting your own business: never say never, but it is hard to see a time when a machine will replicate the drive, desire, enthusiasm – and potential to create wealth – of the entrepreneur, especially those sitting round TAB tables up and down the UK.

As a few of you know, I have just been away for a week’s skiing. A holiday always gives you time to think – and not always about why your sons are going downhill far faster than you are. Change is undoubtedly coming and change will be – to use the current buzzword – ‘disruptive.’ Some companies will be disrupted right out of business. But I am absolutely convinced that no group of entrepreneurs is better equipped to meet, and benefit from, change that those in TAB UK. Yes, they’re awash with drive, desire and enthusiasm – but also with a willingness to question and accept new ways of doing things. As Robert Kennedy famously said, “To see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’”

Which sadly, brings me back to government and education. At the weekend, I was watching this short video featuring a clip from Jack Ma, co-founder and CEO of Alibaba. His message was short and simple: manufacturing no longer equals jobs. As he put it, “It’s not made in China, it’s made on the internet.” In the same way that we urgently need to reform student loans, so we urgently need to reform education. It depresses me to see that so much of the work Dan and Rory do is the same work that I did.

We need our leaders to act like TAB members: accept the change that is coming and prepare for it. To not only ask ‘Why not?’ but also to ask, ‘What can we do to be ready for it?’


Happy New Year. You’re a Hero…

Happy New Year – and welcome to my first blog post of 2018. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and I hope you’re now well and truly back in ‘work mode.’ I know a few people who had trouble remembering their own names last week, let alone remember what they did for a living…

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I’m going to take a slightly different approach with the blog this year, with longer pieces published every fortnight. I’m also going to alternate the posts between a TAB view of ‘the entrepreneur’s journey’ and a wider look at the economy, business trends and what the stable geniuses that make policy have in store for us.

So congratulations: you’re a hero.


Last year, as I flew to Denver, I found myself reading about ‘the hero’s journey:’ the classic, storytelling structure that underpins so many novels and films. I’ve re-read the article a few times since – and it’s an almost exact parallel with the journey we take as entrepreneurs.

How does the hero’s journey start? It starts in the ordinary world. Harry Potter lives under the stairs. Peter Parker is a nerdy student bullied by his classmates. Frodo lives in the Shire and visits Bilbo Baggins. Ed Reid has a secure job, a company car, and a decent salary.

Then something happens: the inciting incident, or the ‘call to adventure.’ Letters from Hogwarts start arriving, Peter Parker gets bitten, Gandalf tells Frodo he must destroy the One Ring… Oh, and Ed Reid eats his breakfast in Newport Pagnell service station, wishes he was with his family and thinks, ‘There has to be something better than this.’

Initially, our hero refuses the call. ‘I’m just Harry, I can’t be a wizard.’ Peter Parker decides that winning cash at a wrestling match is the best use of his new powers. And Frodo is reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the Shire.

…Just as so many of us were reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the corporate world. We had mortgages, commitments, wives, children, a future with the company.

But we knew that there had to be something better…

I was reading an article on Richard Branson over Christmas – on an Australian site, the internet is a wonderful thing – and he was talking about most businesses being “born out of frustration” that the existing players aren’t doing a good enough job.

It’s important that you know instinctively that you can do it better (than someone else). If you can come up with an idea that will have a positive impact the figures will follow. It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare.

I take his point – but isn’t it also the point that most, if not all, entrepreneurial careers are born out of a sense of frustration? How many people reading this have had their own ‘Newport Pagnell moment?’ (Not quite ‘the road to Damascus’ but you know what I mean…)

As I sat and ate my breakfast I thought, ‘There has to be something better than this. What am I doing here when I should be with my family?’

So yes, my entrepreneurial career was absolutely born out of frustration. I was frustrated that I wasn’t seeing my children grow up and I wasn’t spending enough time with my wife. And I knew that I was ready to create and build my own business.

Yes, of course there were frustrations with the company I was working for. But the frustrations that drove me to start TAB York were internal, not external. I strongly suspect that holds good for 95% of people reading this blog and – if the figures are to be believed – it will hold good for a record number of people in the UK this year.

But what about the second part of Branson’s quote? It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare. Sadly, that’s not true of small businesses. Four in ten don’t make it through the first five years.

What is very rare, is entrepreneurs who are members of The Alternative Board not making it. Over the last nine months I sat in on any number of TAB meetings – and I never ceased to be amazed at the wisdom, knowledge and laser-like insight of our TAB members. It was a privilege to watch them in action and I can’t wait for more of the same in the coming year.

…As they continue on their hero’s journey.

They’ll be tested by their enemies (Snape, then Voldemort: the Green Goblin, Sauron, business competitors), face their final battles and eventually – in the classic ending – ‘return with the elixir.’ Harry ultimately defeats Voldemort, Peter Parker embraces his role as Spiderman and Frodo and Sam return to the Shire.

And you? You think back to that morning at Newport Pagnell – and know with absolute certainty that you made the right decision.

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.


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.

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…


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.


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.


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.’


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.


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.


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…’