The Murky World of the Dark Web


I’m starting this post on Tuesday 12th November. A month today, the UK will go to the polls in the first December General Election since 1923 – and the battle lines are being very firmly drawn. 

Depending on your point of view there is now a hard right axis of Trump/Johnson/Farage that – bolstered with a clear majority in the new parliament – will deliver the hardest of hard Brexits and sell the NHS to the American drug companies by Easter. 

Or you read John McDonnell’s plans for the economy in general and your business in particular and think that nothing is too high a price to pay to avoid Jeremy Corbyn walking through the door of 10 Downing Street. 

And this morning former First Lady and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has waded into the debate. She is demanding that the UK government immediately publish the report into alleged Russian involvement in British politics. 

I’ll leave you to argue the rights and wrongs of that – just as I’m sure you have your own opinions on alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential race. Conspiracy theories – tales of mysterious hackers, the folly of allowing Huawei to build your 5G network – are everywhere. 

Central to many of these conspiracy theories is the so called ‘Dark Web:’ the place you go to satisfy the demands that cannot be met on the normal web. Where you search for the services that are not covered by Amazon Prime…

The Dark Web is, of course, the preserve of criminals, their customers and the law enforcement agencies that chase them. Law abiding people like you and me have nothing to fear from it – and need never go near it. 

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. We may all need to add, ‘Learn more about the Dark Web and the threat it poses to my business’ to our to-do lists. So we’d better make a start…

What exactly is the Dark Web? 

Simply put, it’s an area of the internet only accessible with specific software, such as Tor and I2P, which are designed to conceal your identity. Tor was originally set up by the US Navy to protect military intelligence: now it is widely used to protect the identity and location of millions of users.  

So is the Dark Web just for criminals? 

Well if you’re a fan of the Trump/Johnson/Farage conspiracy theory you’ll certainly view the BBC as a criminal organisation… They recently launched on the Dark Web, in a bid to beat censorship in countries like China. Facebook – another company looking to expand its reach in countries where freedom of speech is restricted – is already there. 

Neither is it true that criminals only use the Dark Web. There is plenty of criminal activity on the normal web, especially in countries where law enforcement is lax. There are also – apparently – multiple criminal forums that exist on the everyday web, but which are heavily encrypted and password protected. 

This is known as the ‘deep web’ and it’s commonly suggested that the Dark Web and the deep web account for perhaps 95% of total online content. The internet is effectively like an iceberg: the bulk of it is hidden from normal users. 

I thought they were trying to take down the Dark Web? 

Yes: the most famous – or notorious – marketplace was Silk Road, and that was closed down by the FBI and Europol in 2014, with its founder sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There have been other successful ‘take down’ operations since then and, on the face of it, the good guys are making progress. 

To be successful criminal marketplaces need the same as any other business: they need to gain trust, they need to build a reputation and they need to deliver what they promise to deliver. Very clearly, the more their activities are disrupted the more they will struggle to do this. 

So should we still worry? 

Sadly, the answer is ‘yes.’ Criminal activity is constantly evolving and anything that can be traded for profit is a target. That includes usernames, passwords, bank account and credit card details, intellectual property and employee information. And once data like intellectual property is gone it is gone for good. You find out someone in say, China, has stolen your intellectual property: let’s be blunt, there is virtually nothing you can do about it. 

Worryingly, it takes a business an average nine months to discover that a data breach has occurred. During that time everyone is at risk: the employer, the staff and the customers. And, of course, the cash. 

That’s why 2020 is going to be a year when taking your security seriously – checking your security as frequently as you check your KPIs – is going to be crucial. The name of your dog will no longer do as your password. And let’s stop something that is all too common in business: having company information sent to personal e-mail addresses ‘just because it’s a lot easier.’ 

If 95% of the internet is hidden from normal users, it is logical to assume that somewhere within that 95% are threats to your business. 

So you have not won the lottery you didn’t enter: there is not a parcel you didn’t order waiting for you at the airport and – hopefully – your business did not have an entry in that international trade directory you’ve never heard of. 

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is claiming it is the victim of a cyber attack from Russia and Brazil. Not so, replies the National Cyber Security Centre. As I said, mysterious hackers everywhere. Just do everything you can to make sure they don’t knock on your door…

Learning from an Old Greek


Ah, politicians. Don’t you just love them? 

First they give us 3½ years of uncertainty and inactivity, then they force me to re-write the introduction to the blog. 

Whichever way you voted in the Referendum I doubt that any of us – reflecting on the morning of June 24th 2016 – could have imagined that the issue would still be unresolved nearly 3½ years later. And it looked set to continue…

So I wrote my introduction for this week along those lines. More uncertainty for business, nothing settled until January 31st at the earliest, no business could operate in such a way…

Damn it, I even used a couple of quotes from Shakespeare! 

‘Your own fault for writing early in the week, Ed,’ you’ll say – and you’re probably right. But at least now there is some certainty on the horizon. The General Election will be held on December 12th. Whatever anyone claims, the Election will be about Brexit, the battle lines are drawn and I suspect, and hope, that it will produce a clear result – and finally, some certainty for our businesses. 

And now let me – if only for the sake of my own sanity – turn to something much more uplifting. Sunday, in case you missed it, was National Mentoring Day. 

Mentor was originally the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. Today we all instinctively understand the term – someone who shares his knowledge and advice with a younger colleague. 

As well as mentoring each other at the monthly meetings, one of the things that gives me the most satisfaction in business is how often I see TAB members sharing their knowledge and experience. That doesn’t just happen in TAB UK – I see it wherever I go, in Europe and the US, and I’m absolutely certain it happens in every other country in the TAB family. 

Credit where credit is due. It was an article in City AM that brought National Mentoring Day to my attention. In the article the author shared his ‘top tips’ for mentoring. Let me highlight three that are always relevant. 

“Just do stuff. Sometimes, to get momentum into your business or your life you should stop thinking too deeply and just get on with it.” 

We all know the phrase ‘paralysis by analysis.’ We’ve all heard Tony Soprano say ‘the wrong decision is better than indecision.’ Your plans will never be perfect: it will never go exactly as you forecast. You need to make a start and adapt as you go along. As I’ve written many times on this blog, we’re living in the age of ‘Ready, fire, aim’ – not ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ 

As I have also written many times (‘countless’ is probably a more accurate word) never forget the KPIs. “Failing to focus on the numbers and key business metrics when times are good.” 

Business would be so easy without human nature. The orders are coming in, the bank balance is moving in the right direction. It is all too easy to think that the KPIs can be skipped this month, that they’re no longer as important as they once were. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Even in the good times the KPIs are crucial. Even if your bank balance is moving inexorably upwards, is that wholly down to one client or customer? Things can change very, very quickly.

Let me choose just one more. “Not unlocking the incredible potential in people. Not asking for help.” 

It’s cited in the article as a mistake that people keep repeating. And it’s right – we all go through stages in our business careers where, for whatever reason, we don’t simply say, ‘I could do with some help.’ But I think it goes further than that. As you build your business the team around you will be your most valuable asset. 

Set them free. And you will find that they are incredibly talented. So delegate, delegate, delegate and – as I wrote a few weeks ago – do everything you can to make sure they are working in the areas where they are the most productive. 

One final comment – possibly from my personal soapbox! Mentoring is absolutely about sharing experiences and advice. What it’s not about is being all-knowing and all-powerful. 

It’s tempting, when someone is hanging on your every word, to believe you know everything there is to know about everything. (As all parents realise, the only people who really do know everything about everything are teenagers…)

The best mentors – and I’m pleased to include my TAB colleagues in this – know  their limits. They’re not afraid to say, ‘This is my area of expertise. But if you want to know about X then I’m not the person to speak to. But I can introduce you to someone…’ 

If a mentor does stray outside his area of expertise, the person being mentored won’t know that. They’ll still rely on the mentor’s judgement: that’s why the best mentors are honest about the limits of their knowledge. 

That’s it for this week – and where did the year go? Here we are at November 1st which – as many of you will know – is All Saints’ Day. But just as Sunday was National Mentoring Day, November 1st has a few other ‘days’ going for it. 

November 1st is Cook for your Pets Day. It’s World Vegan Day. My 900 words may not be a major contribution to literature but it’s also Authors’ Day. And November 1st is Love your Lawyer Day – so I should have at least two or three happy readers…

A Tale of Four Leaders


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise-Bright-Fields

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

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

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…

Increasingly Productive – just not Officially…


Well there you are. The Ed Reid Blog scores again.

Joe Root hits the highest ever score by someone captaining England for the first time, and it’s the first win over South Africa at Lords since the average house cost £2,530 and a season ticket to watch Manchester United was £8-10-0d. I tell you, I’m wasting my time writing business blogs…

But the ECB haven’t phoned me, my invoice for ‘sports psychology coaching’ remains resolutely unpaid so here I am – considering the UK’s fairly dismal productivity figures.

productivity

Last week the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that the productivity of UK workers had dropped to levels last seen before the financial crisis – hourly output is now 0.4% below the peak recorded at the end of 2007.

We’ve all known for some time that UK productivity lags behind its major competitors such as the US, France and Germany. A quick glance at the world productivity ‘league table’ shows the UK languishing in 13th place. Norway lead the way, from Luxembourg and the United States, but the UK is scarcely ahead of those sun-kissed holiday destinations where everything closes for the afternoon.

The UK has recovered well since the 2008 crisis but – according to the learned pundits and commentators – that is a product of more people working, and of people working longer hours, rather than a function of increased productivity. Kamal Ahmed, BBC Economics Editor, wrote, “Today’s figures are bad to the point of shocking. [The figures] take the UK’s ability to create wealth back below the level of 2007 – and if an economy cannot create wealth, then tax receipts, the mainstay of government income, will weaken.” Others have blamed underinvestment, the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the current political situation, and sluggish wage growth.

But you know what? I think it may be time to reach for one of the more valuable business tools – a healthy pinch of salt.

Because as I look around me, I don’t see falling productivity. I see exactly the opposite. Virtually every business I work with is busier than they’ve ever been.

Yes, there’s uncertainty: but when has there not been uncertainty for the entrepreneur? And no, the vast majority of the people I work with didn’t vote for Brexit: but they’ve moved on. People running businesses are no longer fighting last year’s war: they’ve accepted the result and they’re now looking to future.

For all the despondency from much of the media, I’d say the ‘optimism index’ among owners and directors of SMEs is high. They’re certainly working hard enough: according to this story in City AM half of them took fewer than six days off last year. (Don’t worry, I’ll be taking them to task in the coming weeks…)

So I’m sceptical about the productivity figures. Traditionally, a country’s productivity is calculated by a splendidly complex formula with references to 2005 and 2013 comparators.

I suspect that we may need a new metric: the nature of productivity is changing. Web designers, app developers, SEO experts – there are plenty of jobs now which did not exist ten years ago and which don’t lend themselves to traditional ‘output’ measurements. London remains the tech capital of Europe and more people are working across borders: it may be that productivity is simply getting harder to measure by the previously used methods.

Then there are the regional differences – output per hour worked in London’s financial and insurance sectors was around seven times higher than in the regions with the lowest industrial productivity – and, even more importantly, the company-by-company differences. I am absolutely certain that if we had a ‘TAB UK productivity index’ we would be right at the top of any league table. I like to think a small part of that is because TAB keeps people focused on being productive, not on being busy.

As Paul J Meyer, founder of the Leadership Management Institute said, “Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning and focused effort.”

I don’t know anyone who captures that more than the TAB UK members, and it has been a real privilege to meet more and more of them over the last few months. I couldn’t be more excited about all our – very productive – futures.

What can we learn from Emmanuel Macron?


Meet the new boss. Definitely not the same as the old boss…

After a year of campaigning we have a new man in the Elysee Palace: Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France with 66% of the votes cast and the youngest leader of the country since Napoleon.

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Judging by some of the paeans of praise for the new President, all of France’s problems – indeed, all of Europe’s – have been solved. In reality, Macron faces huge problems with French unemployment, domestic security, the creaking French pension system and – not least – Brexit.

There’s also the small matter of his En Marche movement not having any MPs. Macron is due to appoint a Prime Minister next week but it may be a short-lived appointment. If he doesn’t win a majority in next month’s parliamentary elections then he could well be forced to appoint a new PM from the largest – possibly opposition – party.

And then there’s the votes: or lack of them. Yes, he won 66% of the votes cast, but on the lowest turnout since 1969. What’s more, between 10% and 11% of those that did go to the polls spoiled their ballot paper. That’s not someone sitting up in bed, reaching for their smartphone and clicking ‘none of the above.’ That’s someone getting up, getting dressed and making a conscious effort to reject both the candidates.

Many of those people will have been supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU platform had many similarities with Marine Le Pen’s message. Many voters do not see Macron as a ‘brave new dawn.’ To them, he was simply the least-bad of the two candidates on offer, with one poll suggesting 43% of voters supported him purely to thwart Le Pen.

But despite all that, what Macron achieved was remarkable. He launched En Marche (On the move) in his home town of Amiens on 6th April 2016, little more than a year ago. He didn’t announce his bid for the Presidency until November. The rest, as they say, is history…

So are there any lessons we can take from the success of the former Minister for the Economy and Finance and one-time Rothschilds banker? The English speaking, German loving politician that “Europe has been waiting for…”

First and foremost, Macron represents change. Conspiracy theorists may criticise him as a creation of pro-banking, pro-globalisation elites, but the French election was notable for its rejection of the established parties. I think that’s reflective of an attitude to change that’s all around us: look at the way traditional industries and professions – banking, the law, accountancy – are now being shaken up by new technology. If your pitch to your customers is ‘we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way’ you’re going to find people responding with, ‘I’m sorry, I’m bored.’ The old way may still work, but there is an entirely different class of consumer out there, who wants to interact with you in an entirely new way.

Macron, apparently, has always been different. At school, according to one of his former classmates, while other boys watched TV and played football, Macron read classic French literature and wrote a novel about Spanish conquistadors. He had, said the classmate, “Olympic intelligence.”

I’m not sure I know what ‘Olympic intelligence’ means, but I do know that some of the very best operators I have ever worked with were multi-dimensional. They had deep and genuine interests outside work: what Denis Healey famously referred to as ‘hinterland.’ This not only made them fascinating people to work with, it also gave them a sense of perspective, and a different way of looking at business problems.

…And, of course, Macron represents a fresh start: someone without baggage. As a general rule I’m an advocate of promotion from within. Occasionally though, you need to go outside and bring someone in who represents a break with the past, an entirely different way of looking at the problems and the opportunities. Whether Emmanuel Macron can do that remains to be seen: I, for one, will be hoping that his En Marche movement gains enough seats on 11th and 18th June to at least give him a real chance.

In many ways I can see similarities between En Marche and TAB. You can’t call TAB a movement, but can most definitely term it a community. Yes, of course there’s a bottom line to take care of and a cheque to send to HMRC. But we’re driven by ideals, not by profit. It’s about changing lives, not about dividends to shareholders.

Let me finish by returning to those murky conspiracy theories. All conspiracy theorists will have heard of Bilderberg – along with the Illuminati and the Freemasons one of three secret, shadowy organisations that rule the world. Emmanuel Macron was a Bilderberg attendee in 2014, along with one Edward M. Balls.

Unlike the Masons, members of Bilderberg do not have a secret handshake: instead, they reveal themselves to each other with a series of very slight, very subtle ‘moves.’ How unfortunate that these ‘moves’ were leaked so publicly

365 Wasted Days


Hesitantly, the young graduate trainee approached the seen-it-all sales manager to proffer his excuse…

“I just don’t think it was the right time for them. Maybe next month…”

The sales manager sighed. The lad showed promise, but he needed to learn a basic truth. “You know what, Ed?” he said. “There’s never a right time.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well quite clearly no-one’s ever going to buy anything in January. Just recovering from Christmas and hiding from their credit card bills. February it’s too damn cold. March and April it’s Easter and they’re all doing DIY or out in the garden. May they’re thinking about summer holidays. June there’s always the World Cup or the Olympics. July and August they’ve gone on holiday; September they’re recovering from the holiday. October it gets dark. Everyone’s always depressed in November and December’s written off because of Christmas.”

“So…”

“So there’s never a right time. Go back and see them, Ed. Explain that there is a right time and the right time is now.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation and over the last 20 years I’ve quoted it word for word to several potential customers. I was reminded of it last week when the news broke that Theresa May would be demanding our attendance at the polling stations on June 8th.

Yes, the election – and Brexit – is going to happen. Clearly Theresa May wants her own mandate and equally clearly she doesn’t want to be bound by David Cameron’s election pledges.

Sir Martin Sorrell was being interviewed on TV and failing to hide his irritation. The election, he said, was “another excuse” for people in business to stop making decisions. The run-up to the election would see an inevitable slowdown in the economy: “another 50 wasted days” as Sorrell termed it.

Well, by the time you read this there’ll only be 41 more days to waste – but he may have underestimated the problem. My old sales manager would have understand it perfectly…

‘You’re right, Ed. First and foremost no-one can possibly take a decision before Macron is confirmed as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. Then there’s our election. But by then we’re into the summer holidays. And as soon we’re back from summer there’s the German election to worry about: if Angela Merkel is defeated it’ll be chaos. Then there’s Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Budget (assuming he’s still Chancellor). I mean seriously, given the hints there have been about tax rises it’s safer to wait and see. Then it’s Christmas and staggering back to work in January. And by February/March we’ll have had six months of serious Brexit negotiations with the new German government. It makes sense to wait and see how those are playing out. And then it’s Easter again on April 1st 2018. You’ve nailed it: no-one can possibly make any decisions for at least a year…’

50 wasted days? More like 365.

timer

As we all know, there are always reasons not to take decisions. They might be macro – political, economic – or micro, such as staff problems and cash flow, but they’ll always be there.

But making decisions is our job. It’s what we signed up for when we sat in the motorway services, pushed our breakfast round the plate and decided there had to be a better way. Business is about making decisions – and as that as that well-known pioneer of the waste management industry, Anthony Soprano Snr., put it, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

He’s right: you can correct a wrong decision. Indecision eats away at you and your business until it does far more damage than a wrong decision.

But making decisions isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Tony Soprano again: “Every decision you make affects every facet of every other thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Alternative Board, and have seven other people to offer their input and their experience and – nine times out of ten – help you make the right decision.

But having last week recommended that the boss of United Airlines joins TAB, perhaps I’ll just stop short of suggesting a new member for TAB New Jersey…

The Best Bargaining Chips


It’s now nine days since Theresa May formally triggered Brexit, beginning two years of long and complex negotiations with the remaining 27 members of the EU. Whichever way you voted last June there’ll be days when you’re elated and days when you despair. Right now, only one thing is certain – the word ‘negotiation’ is never going to be far from the headlines…

Negotiate-Settlement-Agreement1

It’s certainly played a central part in my life of late, with the lengthy negotiations to buy TAB UK – and what I suspect may be even lengthier negotiations as my sons go through their teenage years. So you’ll be in for ten? I was thinking more like midnight, Dad…

While I await the grey hair and the whispered ‘was that the front door?’ conversation with my wife, let’s take a look at some of the basic principles of negotiation – and then next week I’ll build on those principles by discussing the rather more thorny question of negotiating with a friend – exactly what I was doing when I bought TAB UK.

First things first: unless you’re in a Moroccan bazaar, negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

I’ve always tried to go into any negotiations with three positions: my optimum (sell the car for £20,000); desirable (happy with £19,000) and my essential, bottom line price (I can’t accept less than £17,500).

Your ‘opposition’ – I don’t like to use the word but you know what I mean – will have those three in the reverse order. They’d be very happy to buy your car for £16,500, prepared to pay £18,000 and the maximum they’d pay before walking away would be £19,000.

In the scenario above it’s likely that the car would be sold for around £18,000 – assuming both negotiators are equally skilled.

So what do I mean by a ‘skilled negotiator?’ Looking back over my time in business there are probably four principles I’ve seen that work effectively and consistently: in my view, anyone applying these principles is a skilled negotiator.

  • The first thing is to keep the big picture in mind – and leave your ego at the door. I’ve seen too many negotiations fail because people got bogged down in petty details or tried to score points. It’s not just about demanding, “What’s your bottom line?” It’s also about discovering the other person’s ODE – optimum, desirable, essential. If you can operate within those parameters then you have scope to build – or strengthen – a long term relationship.
  • Sooner or later we all have to negotiate with someone we don’t like: someone who changes his mind, can’t make a decision, can’t remember what decision he did make – or all three. The answer is simple: concentrate on the issues, not the personalities. Stick to what you want, and be patient. It may well happen – as happened to me two or three times – that you sigh, mentally prepare yourself for another frustrating day, sit down at the table – and find a new face opposite you. All the problems vanish and the negotiations are wrapped up in a couple of hours. ‘Keep the main thing the main thing’ applies just as much in negotiation as it does in building your business: and the ‘main thing’ is what you want, not the failings of the person opposite you.
  • And don’t get emotional. At least, not for real. Any emotion is fine as long as you are in control of it. But don’t let yourself get angry, frustrated or sarcastic. And don’t get bored: we’re not talking about smoke-filled committee rooms where the old style politicos turned up with flask and sandwiches and simply bored their opponents into submission – but sometimes you do need to settle in for the long haul.
  • Finally, if you’re talking money, think in real money. We all know the traditional approach of breaking it down into ‘silly money:’ Look, you’re going to have this car for three years. £1,000 is 91p a day: two trips to Starbucks a week. Are you going to let that stand between you and a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow? A £1,000 is £1,000 however you break it down – which brings me back to my original point about optimum/desirable/essential price points. There has to be a point at which you walk away. If you cannot accept less than £17,500 for your car then you cannot sell it for £17,499 – if nothing else determines that, your self-respect should.

With that have a lovely weekend in the (forecast) sunshine and I’ll be back next week with the more personal side of negotiation. And my apologies to anyone who does own a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow…

Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?


Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

Agile-leader

Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.

New Year: New Quotes


Good evening/morning – and a very, very happy new year. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that you’re now ready to enjoy a truly stellar year.

…And if I sound enthusiastic and positive, it’s because I am. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to any year as much as I’m looking forward to 2017. (Ah – damn it. Apart from the year I got married, of course. Only four lines into a new year and I put my foot in it…)

For me – and I hope for all of us – 2017 is going to be full of challenges and opportunities. And isn’t that what life and business is all about?

So let’s start the year with some inspirational words. Anyone who’s been in business for a while will have read all the standard Steve Jobs/Henry Ford quotes: so I’ve done a little digging to see if I can find some you might not have come across before. Hopefully one or two of them will kick-start a very successful year for you.

deep-quote

The first one is from Jake Nickell, the CEO of Threadless. I try not to make any decision I’m not excited about.

I couldn’t agree more. If I turn to someone in a TAB meeting and they say, “I’ve had this idea. I think it’s OK and it might make some money,” then I guarantee that in six months it will have been quietly shelved or – much more likely – it will have turned into a problem and be losing money.

If, on the other hand, my Board member is so excited she needs to stand up when she starts talking about her new idea; if she’s waking up to make notes on it at three in the morning – then we might just have something that changes a business and/or a life. You’re an entrepreneur: having ideas is what you do. You only need to act on the ones you’re passionate about.

The vast majority of us will have seen ads for Under Armour when we’ve been watching sport. Here’s what founder and CEO Kevin Plank has to say: There’s an entrepreneur right now, scared to death, making excuses, saying, “It’s not the right time yet.” There’s no such thing as a good time. Get out of your garage and go take a chance and start your business.

Or as Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, put it, If you wait until there’s another case study in your industry you’ll be too late.

There are 101 reasons not to do anything new in 2017. Worries about Brexit. What will Trump do? Elections in Europe. The possible collapse of the Chinese credit boom…

But there are 101 reasons not to do anything in every year. If you’ve had a great idea; if it keeps you awake at night; if you have the support of your peers round the TAB table… Then, as the iconic Nike ad said, Just do it.

Who’s up next? Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEO of PepsiCo. I cannot just expect the organisation to improve if I don’t improve myself and lift the organisation. That [is] a constant.

I’m not sure there’s much I can add to that. Today – more than ever – you simply have to go on learning and improving. If you stand still your business will stand still – and as I’ve written many times, once a business stands still and starts to stagnate, it’s the beginning of the end.

Fiddlesticks. I’m going to have to admit defeat: I can’t get away without a Steve Jobs quote after all. But here’s one you might not have come across.

Jobs was giving a small, private presentation about the iTunes music store to some independent record label people. At the end of the presentation they were all bursting with ideas and features that could be added. “Wait,” Jobs said. “I know you have a thousand ideas. So do we. But innovation isn’t about saying ‘yes’ to everything. It’s about saying ‘no’ to all but the most crucial features.”

Why do I like that story so much? Simply because you can take ‘innovation’ out and replace it with ‘success.’ And if you want a recipe for success in 2017, that’s it. Make decisions that excite you, don’t wait to put them into action, constantly improve yourself – and above all, say ‘no’ to everything that’s not crucial to your own success and the success of your business.