Does Profit Matter Any More?


That seems a ridiculous headline. Of course profit matters. Of course profit will always matter. Without your business making a profit, how are you going to pay the mortgage? Not to mention all the other mortgages that now depend on you.

But bear with me. I think there are some worrying straws in the wind… 

Flipping briefly through the news headlines on Wednesday lunchtime two stories struck me. 

This month will see the Wall Street debut of Uber, which is generally expected to be valued at $90bn – that’s around £70bn. But Uber – as the eager shareholders queue up – now says it ‘may never make a profit.’

Meanwhile here in the UK, hapless Transport Minister Chris Grayling has cancelled the contracts with the ferry companies that he’d put in place in case of a No Deal Brexit. The cost to the taxpayer? Just £50m…

Uber, Slack and Pinterest 

Uber was founded in March 2009. We’ve all taken an Uber, we all jealously guard our 5* – or close to 5* – passenger rating. To say that the company has ‘disrupted’ the taxi and private hire industry is one of the world’s greatest understatements and its IPO has been long awaited. Early estimates of $120bn have been scaled back to $90bn. But as above, that’s £70bn – or more than 15 times the value of Marks and Spencer’s which, despite its recent problems, still made a significant profit in its last six months’ trading. 

But now Uber says it ‘may not achieve profitability.’ The company says that annual sales rose to $11.2bn and losses narrowed to $3bn. But, it warned, it expects operating expenses to “increase significantly.” 

Meanwhile, shares in Pinterest – best described as a ‘social scrapbook’ – soared 28% on its first day of trading, valuing the company at $16bn. The good news is that last year losses at Pinterest fell to $62m, down from $181m two years previously. But the company is heavily dependent on advertising and warned that a downturn in the economy could harm it. In fact, Pinterest warned that it would “incur operating losses in the future and may never achieve or maintain profitability.” 

And then we come to Slack. Most of us have used – or seen someone use – Slack, which does a handy job of replacing intra-office e-mail. What do you know? Slack is filing for an IPO and expects to be valued at $7bn. The good news is that revenue is growing rapidly – up 82% to $400m in its latest financial year. But is it making a profit? What do you think? Losses for the last year were $139m. Like so many tech firms, Slack is spending money to make money. Or to drive revenue growth…

No wonder they’re called unicorns 

As many of you know, a ‘unicorn’ is the term applied to a tech start-up that’s valued at a billion dollars. A unicorn is also a mythical animal and you just have to wonder if some of these valuations have far more to do with myth than reality. 

Call me old-fashioned but I thought the purpose of a business was to make profits? To do it ethically, to give back to the local community, to grow the people within your company: but at the end of the day have the bottom line in black, not red. Damn it, in the olden days you bought shares – invested in companies – because they made a profit and paid a dividend to their shareholders. 

But increasingly the businesses that make the news seem to be valued on fashion and potential. On market share or revenue growth or potential earnings in 2023. And I think that’s a worrying trend…

A short detour into the public sector

At the beginning of last year, Carillion collapsed. Despite the warning signs, Government ministers continued to ply it with contracts. The inevitable eventually happened – and when Carillion went bust it owed money to 30,000 small businesses. 

Now we have Crossrail delayed until 2020 at the earliest and a massive overspend is looking far more likely. I doubt there is a person reading this blog who expects HS2 to be delivered on time and within budget. Maybe there was a reason HS2 hired 17 PR agencies

And as I mentioned above, Chris Grayling has just cancelled the No Deal contracts with the ferry companies, landing the taxpayer – you and me – with a £50m bill for which we have received nothing at all. 

Why all this matters

As every single member of TAB UK knows, Tesco do not accept market share or your projected 2023 earnings in exchange for bread and cheese. Neither do projected earnings pay wages. 

Why does profit matter – apart from the fact that it buys bread and cheese and pays wages? It matters because profit is how you keep score. It’s how you say, ‘we’re doing this right: ‘we’re doing it better than last year’ and ‘we’re competent to run the business.’  

When Mags and I were buying TAB UK the organisations who supplied the funds were rightly concerned with two things. Could we service the borrowing – that is, could we generate the necessary cash – and would we make a profit? 

That is something that certainly feeds through to the TAB boards. Profit, cash flow and margins are the key metrics. And if yours are moving in the wrong direction then your colleagues around the table will be very quick to ask what you’re doing about it. 

But once we get away from the idea that profit matters then things start to slip – and slip quickly. Profit goes hand in hand with fiscal responsibility. Does Wall Street care that Uber, Slack and Pinterest are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and may never make a profit? Apparently not. 

And more and more we see the same attitude in the public sector. Chris Grayling has just tossed away £50m of our money. Well, let’s keep the maths simple: assuming a nurse is paid £25,000 a year that £50m would have paid for 2,000 nurses. 

But here we are, increasingly slipping into a parallel universe where profit and fiscal responsibility seem unimportant. Someone needs to stand up and say that profit will alwaysmatter – before another 30,000 small businesses pay the price. 

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It’s Time to take Two Steps Back…


This is the last blog post I’ll write before the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Spreadsheet Phil – stands up to deliver his Budget speech on Monday October 29th

As always there will be plenty of warm words: ‘fairness,’ ‘opportunity,’ ‘safety net’ and – if the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Conference was any indication – the beginning of the ‘end of austerity.’ No matter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says it will cost £19bn– inevitably meaning higher taxes and higher spending.

I am a little frustrated (my entry for the Understatement of the Year Award) when it comes to the incompetence and lack of business acumen of our elected politicians. Virgin were allowed to walk away from the East Coast franchise but have just shared a £52m dividend from the West Coast franchise. Tell me, please, which ‘high flyer’ negotiated that particular arrangement. 

As the saying goes, ‘give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ But goodness me, it is difficult at the moment. 

Back to the Budget, and another word you will need on your Philip Hammond bingo card is ‘productivity.’ It was a favourite of George Osborne’s as he regularly bemoaned the UK’s poor productivity and his successor will no doubt make the same point. UK productivity – essentially, a country’s GDP divided by the total productive hours – has not improved for ten years. It is still at the levels it was before the financial crisis. 

How can that be? Compared to other countries in the G7, the UK’s productivity is poor. The ‘productivity gap’ – the amount we lag behind the other major industrialised countries – is consistently around 16% in ‘output per hour worked.’ If you measure productivity in ‘output per worker’ terms then the gap is even higher – rising to 16.6%. And where the productivity on other G7 countries has improved since the economic downturn, the UK’s has not.

That is hard to understand. The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies not just in Europe, but in the world. And virtually every business in the TAB UK family – even if they are not at the leading edge of innovation – is simply too busy to worry about any productivity gap. 

So why the problem? 

Writing in City AM, Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, suggests that we should all ‘think like a small businessto solve the productivity puzzle.’ That rather than looking to do ‘the same with less’ businesses should instead look to do ‘more with the same.’ 

In many ways that goes right to the heart of what we’re trying to do with TAB UK. I have been writing this blog for a long time but one of the earliest – and now one of the most perennial – themes has been the need for business owners to work ‘on’ their business as much as they work ‘in’ their business. 

It is by no means a new idea – Michael Gerber first wrote about the e-myth in the mid-80s and my battered copy of The E-Myth Revisitedwas published in 1995 – but the principle of working on your business is as important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more important. 

Despite the fact that the world is demonstrably changing at an ever-faster pace, people remain resistant to change. It’s human nature (especially as you get older, according to my sons…) 

Right now people are also taking the labour market into account. UK unemployment has just come down by another 47,000 in the three months to August and there is a real shortage of talented people. So if a small business has some of those talented people, it is understandable that business owners are reluctant to disturb the status quo. 

But as the last post on Uber showed, sooner or later all our status quos will be disturbed. We either manage change ourselves or some outside agent takes it out of our control. 

There is, of course, a second part to the quote I used above. ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – and the courage to change the things I can.’

Change takes time and it takes work. Initially it will almost certainly feel like two steps back – and the three steps forward may seem a long way off. But now, more than ever, we need the courage to change those things we can change. Let’s see if the Chancellor has that courage a week on Monday…

Uber and Out?


The time: the future 

The scene: the Wastelands.

Two vagrants huddle round a slowly dying fire. There’s a super-highway in the far distance, sleek cars heading to an even-sleeker city. 

Tom: Is that all we’ve got? 

Dave: (holding up a rat) All we caught in the trap

Tom: Guess that’s it then

(Tom drives a skewer through the rat. He holds it over the fire. But the fire will go out long before the rat cooks properly…)

Dave: My anniversary today. Three years. 

Tom: Yeah? Must be closer to four for me

Dave: What did you do? 

Tom: Sent some food back in a restaurant. Chicken wasn’t cooked. But they still gave me one star. Took my rating down below four. You? 

Dave: TAB Conference. Too many beers. Threw up in an Uber. Letter arrived two days later. Can still see the words…

Tom: Me too. ‘Your behaviour has fallen below the rating required to continue in society. You have a week to put your affairs in order…

Tom and Dave together:   …You will be escorted to the city gates.’

If you have never used Uber, it’s simple. You download the app, and use it to call a cab (more correctly, a private hire vehicle). The app tells you the name of your driver, the type of car he is driving, the registration number and when it will arrive. A map shows you exactly where your cab is. 

As many of you know, we had a family holiday in California this summer – a state that is about as far from the Wastelands as it is possible to get. But it is the state where Uber was founded less than ten years ago – and where Uber leads, society may one day follow…

You don’t pay the driver – Uber drivers do not accept cash – and the money is taken direct from your bank account. And then, when the ride is finished, you rate the driver and – crucially – the driver rates you as a passenger. 

Phew. I’m rated at 5 stars by Uber and yes, I do what I can to protect that rating. As more than one driver said to us in California, “If someone’s rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t pick them up.”

It used to be said that ‘the customer is always right.’ Well, as businesses start to rate their customers that old maxim is disappearing out of the window. 

I am giving no secrets away when I say we do that at TAB. We want the product we deliver to be the best it possibly can be – and it is a product that depends on mutual trust and co-operation. It also depends on a mutual contribution: if someone consistently fails to prepare for meetings, then they lessen the value and experience of the meetings for the other participants. If the 7thmember of a TAB board is not preparing properly, we owe it to the other six members of that board to take some action – and we do. 

What we don’t have, of course, is an app that rates TAB members. I can just hear our Uber driver, ‘If a couple of Board members are rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t join that Board…’ 

But I believe that where Uber leads other businesses willfollow: that the idea of businesses rating customers will become commonplace. 

As my boys get older, I become increasingly fascinated by the developments that will shape their future. They will shop almost exclusively online: they will use Uber – and I think they will be entirely comfortable with the idea of rating a service and being rated as a consumer. 

At this stage in a post I usually have a sentence along the lines of ‘so what lessons can we draw for our businesses?’ For once, I’m not sure: maybe it’s a topic for a few boards to consider…

But I am absolutely certain that ‘ratings’ will play an ever increasing role in all our futures. We may be a few years away from Tom and Dave being consigned to the Wastelands, but the penalties of a ‘low social rating’ may be closer than you think. 

And before you say it is a big leap from getting a low rating on Uber to being thrown out of society: that I’m painting a dystopian vision of the future that is never going to happen – or that I’ve written this on a Friday night after one Shiraz too many – consider this. 

China has already introduced a social rating system, and people are already being penalised. People’s routine behaviour is being rated and scored and the data is being accumulated and used.

A high score can lead to perks – lower energy bills, a better rate of interest on your savings – while a low score can see penalties imposed. Your children might not qualify for certain schools, or you might be denied rail or air travel within the country. 

That, I think, is sinister and Orwellian in equal measure: but once the tech exists, it is almost always used. So you, and your business, need to be aware of the developments. 

Uber came along and ‘disrupted’ the taxi business – and I, for one, am delighted that it did. Similarly Amazon has ‘disrupted’ our high streets. But link Amazon’s tracking with Uber’s popularisation of ratings and there are implications for all our futures. 

A Brave New World indeed…

Are you Still the Best Person?


There’s no better story of the new, disruptive economy than Uber. What could be more set in stone than your local taxi company? But along comes Uber, along comes an iPhone app and everything is different.

Equally there could be no more archetypal disruptive entrepreneur than Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Travis Cordell Kalanick is 40. He dropped out of UCLA (obviously: dropping out is mandatory for the disruptive entrepreneur).

His first business venture – with partners – was a multimedia search engine and file sharing company called Scour, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

Next came Red Swoosh, another peer-to-peer file sharing company. Red Swoosh struggled: Kalanick went three years without a salary, had to move back into his parents’ home and at one point owed the IRS $110,000. All the company’s engineers left and our hero was forced to move to Thailand as a cost saving measure. But in 2007 Akamai Technologies bought the company for $19m.

In 2009 Kalanick joined forces with Garrett Camp, co-founder of Stumble Upon, to develop a ride sharing app called Uber. And the rest as they say…

Uber now operates in 66 countries and more than 500 cities around the world. Wiki lists Kalanick’s net worth at $6.3bn. Presumably he’s not living at home any more.

But neither is Kalanick still at Uber. On June 20th he resigned as CEO after multiple shareholders demanded his resignation. We’ve all read the stories: let’s just file them under ‘abrasive personality.’

Looking at Kalanick’s early struggles he ticks every box for an entrepreneur. Dropped out of college, saw the future, first venture failed, money problems, do whatever it takes, absolute persistence, never lost faith in himself and – eventually – jackpot!

We can all imagine some of the scenes: we may not have ticked all the same boxes in our own entrepreneurial careers, but we’ve ticked enough to imagine Kalanick’s journey. And to empathise with it…

But now he’s gone. And his departure from Uber prompts an interesting question.

Are you still the best person to run your company?

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When I pushed my breakfast round my plate in Newport Pagnell services and decided to work for myself there were two main motivations. They were frustration: “There has to be something better than this,” and family: “Someone else is dictating how much time I spend with my wife and children.”

In some ways I was luckier than most embryonic entrepreneurs: my experience told me I could manage and motivate a team. But I wasn’t thinking about that in Newport Pagnell: what – after proposing to my wife – has turned out to be the best decision of my life was motivated purely by frustration at what I was then going through, and a determination to be there as my boys were growing up.

I suspect the vast, overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are the same. We all started by saying, ‘I want to create something, I want to be in control of my own life, I want to build a future for my family.’ We didn’t say, ‘Oh yes, I have the skills necessary to lead a team of 30.’ Famously, even Mark Zuckerberg had to learn how to manage Facebook.

So the skills you had then – vision, a willingness to take risks (with both your career and your family), persistence and that sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed – may not be the skills you need now. In fact, there’s no ‘may’ about it. Maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make great managers: you may have been the only person who could have started your business, but are you the best person to keep it going? Is it time for the visionary to make way for the general manager?

I’m not going to answer the question: I’m simply going to state that it is one of the most interesting and fundamental questions we’ll all face as our businesses grow, and one we’ll all need to ask ourselves. As I talk to the other TAB franchisees and to more and more business owners who are nearing the end of their entrepreneurial careers, it’s a question which increasingly fascinates me. We can never stand still: we’re always growing, developing and learning. Whether it is internal change or external change, the challenges we face this year are never the same as the challenges we faced last year.

That’s why you need friends. Whether it is your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table, your other franchisees or my team here at head office, they’ll always be there with advice, insight – and the occasional reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously…

Are You Selling Sugared Water?


Last week I was reflecting on the American Presidential race and the nature of leadership:

The title doesn’t make you a leader: neither does the biggest office or the reserved parking space. What makes a leader is the ability to bring your ideas to life – to paint a picture of the future your team can see and believe.

Let me continue that theme this week – and take a more detailed look at the one quality all great leaders have in common. Vision.

We live at a time when the future is more uncertain than ever, whether it’s economically (slowdown in China, Brexit), politically (US election, tension everywhere you can think of), socially (refugee crisis) – or the constant and ever-faster pace of change in technology.

Predicting the future is almost impossible.

And yet there are some astonishing success stories in business. The famous quote from Robert Kennedy is more relevant than ever:

There are those that look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’

So did Mark Zuckerberg when he wondered if his Harvard dating app couldn’t go a step or two further.

So did Pierre Omidyar when he wondered if there wasn’t a better way of buying and selling and founded eBay.

So did Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp when they wondered if the traditional taxi business might be due for a shake-up and founded Uber.

Jonathan Swift – taking a break from Gulliver’s Travels – famously wrote that ‘vision is the art of seeing things invisible.’ That’s what Zuckerberg & Co did: they saw things that were invisible to everyone else.

And that’s what Steve Jobs did in 1983 when he asked John Sculley, then the President of Pepsi-Cola, his famous question: Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

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Let me pause, and look at the other side of the coin for a moment. Let’s take one example of leaders without vision. I’m prepared to wager that the vast majority of people reading this blog have owned a Nokia mobile phone. How many of us own Nokias now?

Ten years ago the word Nokia was synonymous with the mobile phone. Does anyone know what the company does today? Did the company’s leaders have a vision of the future? I seriously doubt it. As the Harvard Business Review said, “they were acting like leaders – reassuring, calm, confident, giving fine speeches – [but they] were not being leaders.” And they woke up one morning to find everyone holding an iPhone or the latest Samsung.

What are the implications of all this for our businesses in North Yorkshire? That in our changing world leadership and vision is more important than ever. That while you may well make money selling sugared water, real and lasting success comes from seeing – and realising – your vision. To quote the Business Review again, “a leader’s fundamental role isn’t merely to perform the same tasks as yesterday, just more efficiently: it is to re-define the idea of performance entirely.”

The role of the leaders isn’t to take power, it’s to give power. It’s to create a vision, a purpose, that’s so exciting that your team can’t help but buy into it – then you give them the power to achieve. And suddenly you’re no longer selling sugared water – you’re changing part of the world. As the old cliché goes, you’re not predicting your future, you’re creating it.

…And as another old cliché goes, ‘All work and no play makes Ed a dull boy.’ So with the half-term holidays looming the blog will be taking a break next week as we head for the ski slopes. I’ll be back on Friday 26th looking at a darker facet of leadership – coping emotionally when the ship is heading for the rocks…