If it Ain’t Broke…

You’re the one who had the idea.

You’re the one who persuaded the bank. Convinced your wife to put your house on the line.

You’re the one who went in early. Stayed late. Made sacrifices.

You’re the one who took the difficult decisions. Sat down with Bill and explained – as gently as you could – that his future wasn’t with the business.

You’re the one whose energy, drive, commitment – and sometimes your sheer force of will – has taken the company to where it is now.

And now, Sir or Madam, I am telling you to do nothing. Play golf. Have another day at York races. Walk the Pilgrim Way.

“What?” you splutter. “That’s ridiculous advice. I need to be there. Hands-on, constantly fine-tuning the business, ever-present.”


No, you don’t. Let me explain…

Several times over the last few years I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs along these lines: “I’ve got nothing to do, Ed. Everything’s under control. I could walk out for a day. For a week, a month even. Things would still run smoothly.”

Are the entrepreneurs happy about that? No, they see it as a sign of failure.

But it’s not failure. It’s exactly the opposite: a sign of success.

I’ve written about this before, but if you haven’t built a business you can walk away from then you haven’t built a business. Because one day you’re going to sell the business and if it is entirely dependent on you – if you are the business – then you have nothing to sell.

Entrepreneurs are driven, passionate, committed people. They love working and they love working hard. Secretly, they’re never happier than when they have to set the alarm for 4:30.

But businesses are constantly evolving. No business goes upwards in a straight line. There are always steps and plateaus. And one of those plateaus might suddenly see you with nothing to do. Trust me, it won’t last. Every time an entrepreneur has said, “Ed, I’ve nothing to do,” it’s been followed one, three or six months later by, “Ed, I’ve never been busier.”

In the short term, though, the hiatus can be a real problem for the entrepreneur. They’re conditioned to see doing nothing – not constantly running at 100mph, not being there all the time – as a sign of failure.

They start to feel guilty, start to think they’ve missed something. And sooner or later they start to make changes for the sake of making changes.

Tap ‘entrepreneur doing nothing’ into Google and the search engine doesn’t believe you. By the third listing it has defaulted to the norm: ‘Why nothing less than 100% can ever be enough.’

Once you’ve built your business to a certain size, your job changes. It’s another topic I’ve covered previously – and I’ll be writing about it again next week – but your job is no longer to work in your business, it is to work on your business. Clients and customers still need to see you, but they do not need to see you behind the counter – or whatever you equivalent of a counter is.

Working on your business means a lot more thinking time and a lot less ‘doing’ time. Initially, it can be a difficult transition – but let me repeat: resist the urge to meddle, to look for problems where none exist.

And if you do find yourself with nothing to do, remember it’s not a sign that your business is broken. It is not a reason for you to feel guilty. It’s a sign of success. So enjoy it. Take time off and re-charge your batteries. Spend time with your family. Give something back to your local community. You deserve the break – and don’t worry: you’ll soon be smiling quietly to yourself and re-setting the alarm clock…

Dealing with the Dark Side

A great half term, a brilliant family holiday and – like my trip to Australia – absolute confirmation of why I run my own business.

But as I wrote two weeks ago, it’s time to consider the darker side of being an entrepreneur. How to cope when it’s all going wrong.

So my Google search was fairly straightforward – and back came the regulation 26.7m results. Almost without exception they failed to address my query.

Coping with failure is the key for entrepreneurial success. Don’t see it as a failure; see it as a learning experience.

That’s all very fine. It’s easy to trot out the old clichés, and all successful entrepreneurs have had their share of failure. Equally, you’d expect the vast majority of articles about entrepreneurship to be unremittingly positive.

But this blog has always sought to address the real world. Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic people, but everyone running a business will – sooner or later – go through tough times.


We’ll go through times when we wonder if we’ve made the right decision, we’ll go through times when the old security of the corporate world seems remarkably seductive – and we’ll go through times when we wonder if the price is worth paying, both for us and the family we’ve dragged along on the journey.

And once or twice in our entrepreneurial careers, we’ll go through times when the ship seems to be heading for the rocks.

So the question is, how do you cope? I’m not talking about the practical here – solving the immediate problems, keeping everyone informed, stringent cost control – I’m talking about you.

How does the entrepreneur cope when the easiest decision might be to wave the white flag? How do you stop yourself going mad? How do you put on a brave face and focus on sports day, not on what is – or isn’t – happening back at the office?

If that’s what you’re going through right now, here are five strategies that work. These themes are remarkably common in talking to entrepreneurs who’ve ‘been there, done that’ – and eventually steered the ship away from rocks.

Remind yourself why you started

…And remind yourself that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You started because you wanted to build something and you wanted to define your own future. Creating anything that worthwhile will involve some pain – and remember the old adage: ‘the only thing harder than carrying on is giving up.’

Take the opportunity to make changes

Tough times can be an opportunity as well: take the chance to make some hard decisions about what’s really working and what’s not working. That might be parts of the business – or it might be people. Sometimes difficult times force you to make the decisions you’ve been putting off for far too long.

Keep the end in mind

This is self-explanatory. Remind yourself why you started this journey – and remind yourself where it’s going to end. That can be incredibly difficult when you’re fire-fighting, but force yourself to do it. Lift your eyes up and look at the eventual destination. Trust me, when the fires are out, you’ll be more determined than ever to reach it.


Do some exercise, release some endorphins. No problem was ever solved by eating junk food and gaining half a stone. Get out there in the fresh air, walk up a hill and somehow it puts problems into perspective – and often presents a solution.

…And talk

You’re not the only parent whose teenage daughter has just slammed the door and walked off into the night – and you’re not the only entrepreneur who’s ever had this problem. There is an absolute wealth of experience around any TAB boardroom table, and I’d be amazed if one of the members hasn’t experienced – and solved – whatever problem is facing you right now.

And next week I’ll take a look at one of those problems – one that everyone building a business faces sooner or later. Until then, have a great weekend.


How to Succeed in 2016 – in Thirty Seconds…

We’ve all heard the term ‘elevator pitch’ – a short, succinct and persuasive sales pitch, traditionally delivered in the space of an elevator ride. Once upon a time that was two minutes: let’s adjust for today’s lifts and say 30 seconds…

I was talking to someone who specialises in bringing entrepreneurs with great ideas face to face with significant investors. “To be honest,” he said, “The elevator pitch is dead. These days there are so many good ideas – the market is so competitive – that investors want to see a serious proposal. And that includes a working website or an embryo app.”

Point taken. But call me old-fashioned. As I never tire of saying, you must be able to define your business in a few (three at the most) short, sharp sentences. Just ask my old friend, the fitness coach for pregnant women in Kensington.

What started me on elevators? I came across this video on the BBC business site. It’s young entrepreneurs making ten second pitches at the recent Dublin Web Summit. Well, I’ve watched it twice now and all I can remember is ‘electric scooters.’

In fairness, ten seconds is a remarkably short time. And they probably didn’t have much chance to prepare.

But what about 30 seconds? The elevator pitch? There are plenty of times when we all have to describe our business in that time. And yet very few people manage to be short, succinct, persuasive – and memorable.

You can say a lot in 30 seconds. If you’re making a speech you’ll speak at between 120 and 140 words per minute. So 30 seconds gives you 60-70 words.

So here’s the challenge. Can you do that? Short, succinct and everything else in 30 seconds.


Of course, that means there’s no hiding place. Can I describe The Alternative Board in 30 seconds? Here goes:

What do a builder, a manufacturer and the owner of a software company have in common? The insight and experience to help each other achieve their vision. The Alternative Board makes this possible for business owners like you.

I’ll anxiously wait for the comments, criticism and corrections…

But in the meantime, there’s an even more important 30 seconds looming for all of us.

Today is November 13th. Christmas Day is exactly six weeks away. 52 days from now we’ll stumble back to our desks to start another year. And the single biggest key to success in 2016 is simple: knowing what you want to achieve.

So here’s another 30 second challenge: can you define your goals for the coming year in that time? Can you clearly, simply and unequivocally say what you want to achieve? If you can’t – even if you have a long wish-list tucked away somewhere in Evernote – you’re in trouble.

So once again, Ed, nowhere to hide…

In 2016 I want to provide an even better experience for my current board members. And I want to help 10 more business owners in York get more out of their business and their life.

That’s 35 words: the definition of TAB was 38. So the definitions are short – and for me, they’re memorable. Every second of every day, I know what I want to achieve next year. And everything flows backwards from there: the marketing I need to do, the people I need to speak to… Everything.

Doing those two exercises will be some of the most useful time you’ll spend between now and the end of the year. And when you flick the office lights on in just over seven weeks’ time you’ll be focused on what’s relevant and what’s going to move you towards your goals. Equally importantly, the 30 second definitions will tell you what’s irrelevant: what’s simply vanity or window-dressing.

One final point. I’ve always loved the research that comes with writing this blog. I learn something new every week. In a sign that I need to get out more I found myself wondering if 30 seconds was about right for a lift. So I just Googled world’s fastest elevator. In a sign that a lot of people need to get out more there were 838,000 results. Here you go – the Shanghai Tower. And if that’s where you decide to make your elevator pitch, you’d better be going to the penthouse…

Have a great weekend.

Three Things You Simply Can’t Accept

I’m constantly struck by the similarity between being a Dad and being a boss.

Dan – my eldest son – is nearly 13 and fairly soon he’s going to casually slip the word ‘party’ into a conversation. A party involving alcohol, girls and collecting him the next morning…

That’s fine. It’s a natural part of growing up. We’ve all been there and we’ve all made the discovery that beer, wine and vodka isn’t a winning combination. But there are going to be rules, and they’re going to go something like this:

Wherever you are, whatever time it is, whatever state you’re in – if there’s a problem we’ll come and get you. If you get into trouble, tell us. Whatever’s happened, we can deal with it. But you have to be honest with us. We can cope with the truth: we can’t deal with it if you lie to us.

…Which brings me neatly on to being a boss and building your business. Because if you’re going to build a successful company then there are certain things your employees can’t do; that you simply can’t accept. There have to be rules that can’t be broken and boundaries that can’t be crossed.

I’m indebted to an article in Inc for giving me the idea for this post – and you can read the full version here. Thinking back to all the companies I’ve worked for and the teams I’ve managed I’ve picked out three actions/behaviours/habits that I simply couldn’t condone – and which unchecked will do incalculable harm to your business.


I’m not talking about employee theft here, or companies distorting their accounts. I’m talking about the basic honesty which is essential to running any business: telling the truth, even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

It’s an exact parallel with the conversations I’ll have with the boys one day. Whatever’s happened, however bad it is, if you’re the boss you need to be told. I can think of very few situations in my business life that couldn’t be put right, providing they were acted on immediately. And very often if you do simply hold your hands up, apologise and put it right you can actually strengthen your relationship with a client or customer. But you need to know immediately: and you need someone in your team to tell you the bad news, not your client.

That means you need to create a climate where mistakes are tolerated and seen as a learning experience. It’s a cliché, but it’s correct: the man who never made a mistake never made anything.


I won’t speak ill of him – well, not too much anyway – as he died recently. But I used to work with someone who simply sucked the life out of the office. He made the Dementors look like Anthony Robbins and he will now be complaining that his harp hasn’t been tuned properly. Or that the pitchfork is too sharp…

Most of the members of TAB York and the people that read this blog run SMEs with relatively small teams – up to say, 15 people. In a company that size one negative person can have an insidious effect and spread demoralisation like the flu.

Clearly the trick is not to hire them in the first place: the other antidote is to lead. You cannot be negative in a small team if the company is ambitious, knows where it is going and everyone is busy. And that’s your job. As I’ve said many times in this blog, before you see a client, buy any stock or worry about the cash flow your first job is to lead. It’s to say, ‘That’s where we’re going. Follow me. And if you don’t like the destination or you don’t like the pace were going at, there’s the door.”


‘It’ll do’ won’t do and ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough. It takes 80% of your time to do something that’s ‘good enough’ and the other 20% to do something that’s outstanding. If you allow a culture of mediocrity to take hold it will spread rapidly through the company.

I was once in a restaurant with someone who’d built a very successful business. He called the manager over and pointed out that his glass wasn’t clean. “You want 100% of my money,” he said. “I want 100% of your attention.” That seems a fair summary: a dirty glass is ‘good enough’ – it’ll hold a drink. But in a serious restaurant, it clearly isn’t good enough and never will be.

Those are my three deadly sins from the article in Inc: there’s one more which I’ll cover in depth next week. But in your view they may not be the worst offenders: I’d love to hear your opinions. What are the habits and behaviours the owner of an SME simply can’t allow?

On Stress – and Tony Blair…

Well, it’s taken 186 blogs and 120,900 words but this week I finally turn to Tony Blair for business advice. ‘Never say never’ as the old adage goes…

The advice – I’ll come to the exact words later – was from his counselling of Rebekah Brooks during the phone-hacking trial. Irrespective of whether we think Rebekah Brooks is guilty or innocent there’s one thing we can agree on – she’s under a tremendous amount of stress.

You don’t need me to tell you that too much stress, especially when it’s prolonged, can play havoc with your physical and mental health. The trouble is that stress is inevitable – especially if you’re running a business.

And that’s fine: moderate amounts of stress are good for us. Studies show that intermittent stress keeps the brain alert and makes us perform better. I’d go so far as to say that there are plenty of TAB members who need some stress in their lives. “If there isn’t any stress I realise that I go out of my way to create it,” is a not-untypical quote.

After all, it’s not so long ago that TAB members would have spent their days in caves picking nits off each other – before they went out to hunt something that was horned and dangerous. We’re genetically programmed to need some stress – just not too much.

But supposing you can’t do anything about it – that whether it’s business or personal, your stress levels are in the red zone? You still have to run your business – so how do you cope? In JFK’s words, how do you maintain “grace under pressure?”

I’ve been reading an article in Forbes magazine by Travis Bradberry, one of their regular contributors. How Successful People Stay Calm is the title and you can read it here.

Bradberry outlines a number of ‘coping’ mechanisms and strategies, among them:

  • Successful people appreciate what they have
  • They avoid asking ‘what if?’
  • They stay positive
  • They disconnect
  • They sleep
  • And they use their support system

Let me pick up on just three of those. People who cope well with stress avoid asking ‘what if?’ Dead right. Deal with what you can deal with. Deal with the situation as it is now. Don’t drive yourself mad imagining a catastrophe: in my experience it invariably doesn’t happen.

They disconnect. It’s difficult to do but it’s invaluable. Whatever the crisis raging at work, you almost certainly can’t do anything about it at 8pm on Sunday. So don’t try. Read to your children instead. Drink a bottle of wine with your wife. Do something that’s really important.

And at last we come to Tony Blair. One of the best ways of coping with prolonged stress is to make sure you sleep properly. In the now-infamous e-mail Blair told Brooks, ‘keep strong and definitely (take) sleeping pills.’

How you get to sleep is up to you, but our former leader was right – if you’re under extreme pressure, you need to sleep properly. A crisis at work – like most things – will ultimately pass: the key thing is to make sure that you’re still standing when it has passed.

I said I’d only pick up on three of those points: that’s because I hope I can take the last point as read. Of course you should use your support network – and hopefully you’ll know that you have the ideal support network round the TAB boardroom table. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as my Grandma used to say. A problem shared with eight of your peers is one that’s well on its way to not being a problem for much longer.

And with that it’s time to leave my cave and take this week’s stress out on a squash ball. Enjoy your weekend – and make sure it’s stress-free…

Winning Awards is Good for You

Glamorous actress, golden envelope, the audience all household names. She opens the envelope, pauses dramatically…

“And the winner is…”

Well not quite. But in the real world the rest of us inhabit the TAB Member Awards at Oulton Hall were close enough. And as I hinted last week, three of the four awards were won by board members from TAB York – and I am absolutely delighted for them.

In fact, I’m more than delighted. All the parents reading this blog will know exactly what I mean: you’d far rather see your children win something than win an award yourself. My business is just the same: I have in the past won TAB Bod of the Year. And that was lovely – but nowhere near as lovely as seeing my members collect richly deserved awards.

So without further delay, the roll of honour:

TAB Member Contribution Award – Chris Wilson of Tailormade Conference Management
TAB Community Award – Simon Hudson of Cloud 2
TAB Member Achievement Award – Rachel Goddard of Intandem Communications

To them – and to several other York members who came damn close – congratulations.

So that’s nice. Chris, Simon and Rachel marched up and received their awards, shook hands, sat down and hopefully will be in the running again next year. But back to work the next day, folks – awards are nice, but they don’t change the fundamentals of your business. Or do they?

I was talking to Rachel after the ceremony. Not immediately afterwards, when the euphoria of winning was still rushing round her bloodstream, but a few days afterwards – when problems with clients and suppliers had brought her back to earth.

I don’t think I’m giving away too many confidences if I say that one of the reasons for Rachel winning her award was that she’d had to make a very big – and very difficult – business decision during the past year. “I sat in this office and agonised about that decision,” Rachel said. “Then I went home and agonised some more. And the next day I came to the office and started agonising again.”

Everyone who runs a business can empathise with that. If you’re self-employed, if you’re running a business, then you’re never alone. If you’ve a major problem in the business, it’s with you wherever you go.

Fortunately, if you’re a member of a TAB Board, you don’t have to deal with the problem alone. “The other members of my board were great,” Rachel said. “That is, they asked me the questions I didn’t want asking but knew I had to answer. I remember one question in particular: it pinpointed the exact problem I had to solve.”

Rachel worked through the difficult decision and her business has moved forward significantly. Hence the award, now sitting proudly on the window sill in her office.

“You know the best thing about that award?” Rachel said. “It means someone else noticed. Someone else recognised what I had to do. And that recognition feels astonishingly good. I’m proud of myself – and it’s helped my team see what we’ve achieved as a business.”

And that’s why awards matter. This blog has often touched on ‘the lonely entrepreneur.’ Sooner or later difficult decisions have to be taken and when that happens the buck stops resolutely and defiantly on your desk. Sometimes you can feel very alone.

But an award like Rachel’s says that other people did notice: that they’re impressed by what you did and that you deserve the recognition.

So if you’ve the chance of an award in your industry – go for it. Yes, you might have to spend some time on a submission, telling the judges what you’ve done and why you deserve the award. But it will be time well spent.

As Chris, Simon and Rachel will tell you, there’s no better feeling than hearing your name announced – immediately after, “And the winner is…”

Saying ‘no.’ But saying it effectively…

Well, I must say I could have stayed in Ireland over Easter. Somehow the fact that it was so cold outside made staying inside with the Guinness even more attractive…

But duty calls – and on Wednesday I found myself having a very typical conversation with a Board member.

Sorted out my to-do lists over Easter, Ed
– And…
– They’re too long. Way too long. I got quite depressed
– So…
– I’m going to have to find a way to cut them down. I simply cannot keep on getting up earlier and earlier in the morning
– No, you can’t
– And there were too many jobs on there… I don’t know – that were there just to make me feel good
– Did they earn you any money or advance your business?
– No, none of them
– Well then…

In truth he knew the outcome of the conversation before it had even started. He needed to say ‘no’ more often – and the simple fact is that most people reading this blog will need to say ‘no’ more often.

I wrote the other week that certain business facts are fundamental, and they bear repeating over and over again. Saying ‘no’ is one of them – and we all need to be reminded from time to time. I’m certainly no exception to that rule.

The trouble is we all want to be liked and we all want to help people – and the easiest way to do that is to say ‘yes.’ And damn it, it’s nice to be asked. Whose ego doesn’t need stroking occasionally?

But you can’t do it. There are only so many hours in the day. You cannot go on “getting up earlier and earlier.” And there’s also the small matter of your family to think about. So you need to learn to say ‘no.’

But I don’t think that’s enough – I think you need to learn to say no positively, in a way that builds your authority and leaves the person asking actually feeling good about hearing ‘no.’ Here are some suggestions and phrases that might help you do that:

• Don’t ever give the impression that you might say ‘yes’ if you think the answer will be ‘no.’ If you’re not absolutely sure you can commit to something err on the side of saying no, even if you have to check first.
• Say ‘no’ quickly. Everyone likes a ‘yes’ – but a quick ‘no’ is infinitely preferable to a long, drawn-out ‘maybe.’ From everyone’s point of view
• Suggest someone else. “I’m sorry, it’s just not possible at the moment. But have you thought about asking …”
• “I’d love to do it. But I’m busy with my clients at the moment and I simply couldn’t do it justice.” I like that phrase. It builds-up, rather than diminishes, what you’re being asked to do. You’re not saying ‘no’ because you can’t be bothered; you’re saying ‘no’ because the job is important and demands more than you can give at the moment.
• “I’d love to do it but I’ve got some major commitments coming up that I need to focus my attention on…” That’s fine – again the job is important, but you have to prioritise your time.

I think there’s an interesting parallel here with the recent blog about having the confidence to promote yourself. Once you realise that you’re actually doing someone a favour by saying ‘no’ you’ll become much better at it. No-one gains if you are simply too stressed to think straight. So learn to be ruthless with your time and everyone will benefit.

To go back to a point I’ve made many times in this blog and to quote the late Stephen Covey: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is your business. Saying ‘no’ – but learning to say it effectively – may well be one of your most productive ways to build that business.

I Don’t Want to Win

It’s good to be back – and I have to tell you, I missed the blog. This was the longest break since the blog began and somehow Fridays weren’t quite the same…

If you don’t mind, I’m going to hark back to the Olympics, because there was a discussion in the BBC studio on the final Saturday of the Games that I’ve been thinking about for the past two weeks. It goes right to the heart of my thinking, and right to the heart of everything that TAB is about.

It’s the final of the Women’s 800m final. South African athlete Caster Semenya comes from a long way back to take second place. “A poorly judged race,” says Steve Cram. “She left it too late.”

One of the pundits takes a slightly different view. “I just wonder,” muses Colin Jackson, “With everything that’s gone on in her life, did she prefer to finish second?”

Michael Johnson almost explodes. Gold medal winner, world record holder, he simply can’t conceive of anyone wanting to finish second.

John Inverdale asks Jackson to elaborate. “Absolutely,” he replies. “In my time in athletics I knew plenty of athletes who had it all. Who could have won gold, but they settled for silver.”

Inverdale is astonished: but then Denise Lewis chimes in. “Winning brings pressure,” she says. “It’s high profile. Publicity. The demand to do it again.”

Those discussions in the athletics studio were one of the highlights of the Games for me. Full marks to Inverdale for taking the discussions into sometimes-murky waters. And full marks to the BBC for letting him.

The parallels between business and sport are well documented – and ‘what an Olympic gold medallist can teach you about business success’ has become a well-worn path. If one of us isn’t eating rubber chicken and listening to Jess Ennis in the next six months I’ll be astonished…

But maybe there’s another parallel here: maybe there’s an interesting parallel with the athletes Colin Jackson knows – the ones who were prepared to settle for second place.

Do I know people in business who’ve achieved less than they’re capable of? Absolutely. Do I know people who could have been the MD of a PLC or run their own businesses and made a fortune? Yes – how long do you want the list to be?

Do these people think of themselves as failures? Are they unhappy? Almost without exception, no.

There’s an old saying, ‘Take what you want from life – and pay for it.’ While I was in France with my family and while I was in Denver without them, I realised how much they mean to me – and how precious the time with my boys is. Not long now and Dan will be a teenager: Rory is growing up fast. Dav and I are already noticing that we have more time on our own than we used to, and that’s only going to increase.

So yes, I’m determined to make TAB York a huge success and I’m determined to help you all build your business – but there’s something else that I’m determined to help you get right, and that’s your work/life balance.

That’s not to say I’ll sit idly by in a 1:1 while you say, “I think I’ll miss all my targets this month, Ed.” But it is to say that ‘take my children camping’ is every bit as valid a target as ‘double our sales of widgets.’

So yes – I know plenty of people in business who didn’t achieve as much as they could have done. By the same token, I know plenty of people who have achieved every bit of material and corporate success they ever wanted. But in far too many cases it’s come at too great a price. All too often they’ve reached the summit – only to look down on the wreckage of their family life.

Business is great – but on its own, it’s not enough. By all means climb the mountain – and decide how high you want to go. But take the people you love with you. And if I can help, I will.

Make Good Art

This is blog post #99 and I’m feeling reflective. I’ve been reading a speech, thinking about creativity and pondering the importance of industrial flooring.

Let’s start with the speech. Here’s the link, and I commend it to you. The speech is by British author Neil Gaiman, and it’s his keynote speech to the University of the Arts from a couple of weeks ago. (If you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman he writes horror, science fiction and dark fantasy and, trust me, has been seriously successful.)

His central point in the speech is simple: “Make good art.”

‘Hang on,’ you’re thinking. ‘What has art got to do with me? I’m a widget manufacturer. I run a proper business. Nothing to do with the arts.’

And on the surface, you’d be right. You might be a solicitor or an accountant: you might run a facilities management company; you might install industrial flooring – and on the surface, you’d be right. Art has nothing to do with you.

You might also feel a little bit resentful. All this money being poured into media centres. People calling themselves ‘creatives’ running around making bonfires out of their suits and ties, telling us that the only way the economy can be saved is to have more web designers and more social media consultants.

This is Yorkshire, damn it. Get out there and manufacture something.

Except that whatever you do, that’s your art.

I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t draw, I can’t design. But I can advise someone on how to run their business: I can help them get the most out of their business and their personal life. That’s my art.

If you can re-structure a company’s cash flow; negotiate an employment contract; guarantee that an event for 2,000 people runs smoothly or make sure the hospital flooring is safe to walk on…that’s your art.

And now Neil Gaiman speaks to all of us. Because the messages he was giving to the students at the University of the Arts are the same messages that have run through this blog from the first post to the 99th post.

Get out there and make a start. Have faith in yourself. If you don’t believe – if you do it purely for the money – it probably won’t be successful. Make mistakes: just make sure you learn from them. Above all, be persistent: whatever your art is, “Make good art” and carry on making it. Here’s how Neil put it:

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Neil Gaiman finishes his speech with the best piece of advice he ever received – and is man enough to admit that he ignored it. He was signing books at a writers’ convention. The queue was enormous. Stephen King saw the queue and said to him, “This is really great. You should enjoy it.”

You should enjoy it – because the journey is what makes it all worthwhile. Ricky Gervais was on TV the other night. He was asked about the large pile of folding stuff now nestling snugly in his bank account. I forget his exact words: it was late, and I’d had a couple of Shiraz smoothies. But his point was simple: the journey – the hardships, the disappointments, the knock-backs – had made it worthwhile. If he’d won the lottery, it couldn’t have compared.

So at blog post #99 the message from me is as simple as it ever was. Whatever you do, ‘make good art.’ And above all, enjoy the journey.

How to keep the Cash Flowing

If you’d opened the papers last Friday you’d have been forgiven for wondering if it was worth carrying on. Moody’s had downgraded their ratings on Lloyds TSB and RBS; Tory backbenchers were muttering about ‘not supporting the banks indefinitely’ and the Governor of the Bank of England was discussing “the worst crisis ever.”

A sense of perspective may be called for. People aren’t (yet) marching from Jarrow to London and that same Friday evening quite a few of us would have watched the England game on our plasma TVs. And yet in one sense, Mervyn King is right to talk about a ‘crisis.’ For SMEs, getting paid seems to be more difficult than it has ever been.

This is the one theme that crops up time and time again in Board meetings. It’s even mentioned in the taster sessions I run for potential Board members – where you might expect people to be slightly more reticent about discussing cash flow. Finding the work is straightforward: getting paid for doing the work is becoming more and more problematic.

If you’re running a small business, there’s one inescapable fact. The cash flow has to keep flowing. So here are a dozen suggestions aimed at helping you manage your cash flow and keeping the amount of money people owe you under control.

1. You must keep score. Even if it is only on an Excel spreadsheet you need to know how much cash is outstanding and how long it has been outstanding for

2. Before you do any work for anyone you need to set out clearly what you’re going to do and when you expect to get paid. If you haven’t checked and updated your terms and conditions for a while, now would be a good time to do it. If you don’t have a T&C, get your finger out and write one

3. Learn to recognize the warning signs. Someone asking for 30 days when they’ve agreed to pay on delivery is not a good sign. Saying “I can’t pay until my bookkeeper comes in” doesn’t wash either. And despite the proliferation of internet banking, I have yet to meet anyone who genuinely doesn’t have a cheque book

4. If they haven’t paid for job number one, don’t start job number two. No exceptions

5. Now more than ever you cannot allow one client to account for too big a percentage of your turnover. Even more importantly, don’t have too much money outstanding from one client or customer

6. If your client or customer is overseas, then they must (and that’s MUST) pay at least a 50% deposit up-front. Frankly, payment in full would be more sensible – you’re doing the work; let them take the risk

7. One for the creative sector: explain that if they pay on time they’ll get a far better job from you (this is true for every ‘creative’ I’ve spoken to)

8. It’s 5x easier to get new business from an existing client etc etc – but an existing client who pays on time is now worth his/her weight in gold. Make sure you give your existing clients outstanding service – you can’t afford to damage your cash flow by losing existing clients

9. Invoices for less than £100 should be paid in advance or on delivery. It is simply not worth your time having to chase small amounts

10. And if they pay you the same amount every month, why isn’t it on a standing order? Then you know the day it’s supposed to arrive and you can stop worrying.

11. Don’t be afraid of staged payments. In fact, sell them to your client as a benefit. They’ll start paying you sooner, and you’ve a built in ‘early-warning system.’ Plus, there’s a good chance they’ll settle up more quickly, as the final payment will be less.

12. Finally, let your clients know how you’re going to communicate with them regarding payments. One of my Board members swears by the following system:

• A week before the invoice is due, they send an e-mail reminder
• If something is unpaid on its due date, they always ring to check there isn’t a problem
• And once it’s overdue, they use the phone – not an e-mail

I hope that helps. I suspect that getting paid is going to remain the number one problem plaguing SMEs for some time to come – so if anyone has anything to add, or a foolproof system that works for them, we’d all be delighted to hear it.