Avoid the ’emperor’s new clothes’​ hallucination of startup unicorns

In a matter of weeks, WeWork, one of the world’s most highly valued private companies and an emblem of venture-backed unicorns, had become a casualty of consensual hallucination between a bombastic startup founder, and investors who seemingly shopped at the tailor who makes emperor’s new clothes.

WeWork was valued at $47bn, a staggering amount for a company that lost $1.9bn on revenues of $1.8bn last year. It’s now postponed its IPO. Softbank, the majority 29% shareholder, has a gaping hole in its $100bn Vision Fund, and departed founder Adam Neumann has left a toxic waste to clean-up behind him – but with $750m in his pockets for his efforts.

In frothy capital markets such a romantic delusion is possible, where the charisma and audacity of the founder is more alluring than spreadsheets, and venture capitalists jostle with each other to write cheques of $100m. However, for me the fundamental flaw here is that capital isn’t a strategy – which has been the WeWork and unicorn operating model.

SoftBank has been acting like it’s the 1850s Californian gold rush all over again, where the hubris of megalomaniacal founder Neumann seduced their ambition, such that they ignored the usual red flags highlighting the need for diligence in startup business models. So, here’s my summary of the WeWork story, and then my thoughts on its impact for startups in Manchester.

In 2008, Neumann was subletting part of his office space to save rent, and convinced his landlord to let him take over an empty space in one of the landlord’s nearby buildings. He divided it up into semi-communal offices, and rented them out. The original space, Green Desk, was an instant hit. The landlord wanted to expand it to his other properties, but Neumann decided to do his own thing and opened the first WeWork in 2010 in NYC. WeWork was thus born as a co-working space.

In 2017WeWork opened its 200th location in Singapore, and Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, a Japanese company reinvented as a VC. In 2016, SoftBank had launched the $100bn Vision Fund, backed by $45bn from the Saudi Arabian government. Son told Neumann he had precisely twelve minutes for a meeting, after which Son sketched out a deal to invest $4.4bn. Son told Neumann to make WeWork ten times bigger than your original plan and to recognise that being crazy is better than being smart. Neumann didn’t hold back.

Today, WeWork is the largest private occupier of office space in London, New York and Washington. In central London, it has more branches than McDonalds. It has become the biggest and fastest-moving force in what many see as the future of work and remote working. But disrupting the world of commercial property required capital, and Neumann excelled at pitching his vision, raising $12bn.

WeWork could simply be described as a leasing company, renting desks to startups and freelancers. However, the IPO filing describes it as a community company, a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success. This sounds like self-important deluded jargon, and therein lies the root of the problem.

Neumann declared that WeWork’s valuation and size are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue. He maintained that categorising WeWork as a property concern was too limiting. For example: WeWork Mars is in our pipeline, Neumann declared. He said he’d met with Elon Musk and offered the company’s services supporting Musk’s future Mars missions. He forgot to add that Musk wasn’t interested.

So, what are the lessons for startups in Manchester from this debacle? It is important, as there are four existing and a fifth WeWork office being built in the city.

1.     Startup valuations

Are Unicorns overvalued? In a recent survey, Yes said 91% of VCs who don’t have any Unicorns in their portfolio; and Yes said 92% of the VCs who do. The spiralling prices of tech startups have been based on unsustainable rates of assumed rocketing growth. Uber, once considered the biggest and fastest unicorn of all, lost $5.2bn in Q2. Uber’s growth has been spectacular, but there is something unreal about a company losing $40k a second.

Takeaway: We need to blend the reckless ambition of founders with the sober adult supervision of investors. Show your startup has a genuine edge and innovation, an ambitious customer scaling roadmap, but also a credible strategy to achieve cash generation – and don’t get greedy on your valuation.

2.     Attracting investors

Asked whether they make a gut decision to invest in a fledgling company rather than relying on analysis, 44% of VCs said yes. Some 9% admitted they didn’t use financial metrics to back this up.

Takeaway: Scale unit economics. A startup is a bet on a business model attaining the scale/critical mass beyond which the unit economics starts making sense. Focus on determining the economic drivers of success, not throwing out outrageous revenue projections, and build a growth story around this. WeWork failed to demonstrate any economies of scale.

3.     Growth strategy

SoftBank’s cash infusion helped WeWork cover the increasing costs of its whirlwind growth. WeWork spent heavily to fill the desks it was adding – they bought out new tenants from their existing leases, and provided a year rent free. There was thus a spiralling chasm growing between revenue and costs. WeWork’s occupancy rate went up, but the deals made it difficult to determine the natural demand and price point for its product.

Takeaway: Think of scaling as building the base of a pyramid, the foundation upon which everything else is built, and you know that it will hold. Focus on building your architecture in an intelligent way that will allow you to grow to realise your potential, without over taxing your cash or endangering your roadmap.

4.     Set and hit your (proper) metrics

WeWork has consistently been wildly off its forecasts. Their forecasted profits in their original pitch deck are: $14m (2014), $64m (2015), $237m (2016) $542m (2017), and $1bn for 2018. It hasn’t made a profit yet.

Finding normal accounting a bit boring? WeWork published a financial metric it called Community-adjusted EBITDA – a proven accountancy way of measuring a company’s performance, but Community-adjusted excluded many costs, claiming they would disappear once it reached maturity in an attempt to show it could make a profit. The Financial Times dubbed WeWork’s doctored version perhaps the most infamous financial metric of a generation.

Takeaway: The hype superseded numbers. It was accounting jujitsu at its finest. At some point, startup gestalt of overpromise and underdeliver can paint founders into a corner where they begin massaging numbers. Simply, set and hit your metrics to get trust and confidence from investors.

5.     Know the risks in your business model

WeWork isn’t a commercial property firm renting desks, it’s a Space as a Service (SAAS) firm according to Neumann; but ultimately it is a property based business model, signing long leases even though their own subleases to customers are short. The IPO prospectus disclosed $47bn in future lease obligations and forecast $3bn in revenue this year. What could go wrong?

Takeaway: In all markets, the market leader gets an unfair advantage because casual and unsophisticated customers choose the leader because it feels easier and safer. But your strategy is not to wish and dream of becoming a big fish. The strategy is to pick a small enough pond. By engaging with the smallest viable audience, you gain the reputation and trust you need to move to ever-bigger audiences.

6.     Have a vision and purpose, but don’t hallucinate

Until recently the image of an entrepreneur was of a thrifty workaholic toiling away long hours. But Neumann was more emperor than entrepreneur. In such cases, attention invariably focuses on the founders’ hubris. Their rise and fall is the stuff of barnstorming, bestseller novels. Ultimately, they fall off their pedestal because the foundations lack a sense of reality.

Takeaway: The startup world is filled with the idolatry of winners, constantly promoted on Instagram, creating a high many then chase. The ‘startup founder’ badge, the spoils, coupled with the false narrative that we live in a meritocracy, have dulled our sense of reality.

We’re kidding everyone. We’re deluding ourselves. We’ve lost sight of what’s important. We’ve lost ourselves. We’re addicted to growth at all costs. Emulate the tortoise, not the hare. I’ve always preferred opportunities where time is an ally, not an enemy.

7.     Blitzscale doesn’t work

The folly begins with a sound idea. Startups need scale to become global. The ideas spread quickly, because of network effects, and the more people use a service, the better it gets. The fastest growing firms like WeWork ‘blitzscale’, they attempt to disrupt a whole industry before anyone can stop them, raising fortunes to acquire users – at any cost.

But ultimately, unless you can finance your growth from a growing revenue stream, Blitzscaling means you need investors with very deep pockets. And you usually need more money than you thought, because you’ll need further funding to recover from the mistakes you’re likely to make along the way.

The fast-paced Blitzscaling process is marked by organisational chaos – Zuckerberg’s move fast and break things mantra at Facebook means every week is an emergency – and that’s what insiders said about WeWork. For every company like Paypal that pull off that feat of hypergrowth without knowing where the money would come from, there is a graveyard of startups that never figured it out. The risks of potentially disastrous defeat are ignored.

Hoffman and Yeh, architects of ‘Blitzscaling’ explain the conditions in which it makes sense, which includes having a sustainable competitive advantage and high gross margins, so that the business will generate positive cash flow and profits when it does get to scale. This is good advice, but it didn’t apply to the WeWork model.

Takeaway: There maybe a hard landing here. Startups with no recognisable route to profitability will find it harder to get cash, even before WeWork’s fiasco the taps were being tightened. Blitzscaling may become a dirty word. It’s a do-or-die approach. Cash-burning firms may find themselves stranded. For your startup, don’t fall for the hype.

8.     Leadership red flags

I’m stunned at how Neumann’s sheer force of personality kept the obvious questions about WeWork’s future viability at bay. The cult of personality provided for an outsized view of his own leadership capabilities, and frankly a delusional view of the firm’s role in society. Also, WeWork looked to some like an old-boys’ club, the management ranks were sprinkled with Neumann’s friends and extended-family members.

Neumann sold $750m of his shares. I understand the need for some liquidity and to diversify holdings, but three-quarters of a billion dollars? He was on the brink of becoming a decabillionaire.

Takeaway: If my daughter informed me she’s dating a premiership footballer, that would be a red flag. The vacuum of leadership and governance transparency in WeWork has undermined the often fragile startup leadership culture that investors tolerate and accept.

As a result, the balance of power may shift from founders to investors, as whilst no one wants to crush a creator’s zest, for a while at least, there could be fewer high-risk innovations funded. The key takeaway here is build your leadership team and culture as much as your brand and product.

The salutary lesson from the trauma of WeWork is that common sense has prevailed, and the free rocket fuel stoking the tech startup mania may be rationed, rewarding firms that will generate cash or profit. This will cause a shift away from the quest for growth at all costs towards more responsible stewardship of startup capital to improve runway growth.

The goal for startups should be to make their ventures sustainable, not just explosive. After years in which VCs have cast themselves as infallible Merlins, it is good to see investors shouting when an entrepreneur, for all his charisma, cannot demonstrate how they’ll zoom from unprofitability to massive profitability in a way that’s not obvious to the naked eye – the tailor making the Emperor’s new clothes has a lot to answer for.

Startups – improv and all that jazz

I’ve been a clumsy, enthusiastic saxophone player for several years now, able to knock out a few recognisable tunes and get folks’ toes tapping. They say ‘don’t play the saxophone, let it play you’ – but sometimes I just can’t get a decent sound out and it sounds like a deranged parrot. As Miles Davis said, ‘Anybody can play. The note is only 20%; the attitude of the person who plays it is 80%’ – so I continue to give it a go.

As part of learning the sax, you have to be able to improvise, playing jamming ‘free flow’ sessions to stretch your style, and speed of thought, playing chord progressions as spontaneous practice. Alas my concrete fingers constrain my dexterity, but playing sax is fun, relaxing and energises me.

My favourite saxophonist is the late American John Coltrane, also known as Trane. Coltrane pioneered the use of modes in jazz and was at the forefront of free jazz. He played with some of the greatest jazz exponents, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.

Growing up in North Carolina, in the 1930s, he benefited from a musically family: his mother sang and played piano; his father played clarinet and violin. But during his seventh grade, Coltrane’s fortunes took a tragic turn. Within six months, his maternal grandfather, father, and maternal grandmother all passed away. John became tortured by his inability to remember what his father looked like. In this emotional vacuum, Coltrane threw himself into the alto sax.

When his family moved to Philadelphia in 1943, Coltrane found himself in a cauldron of jazz and a breeding ground of the hard bop style. He soon began a journeyman’s life, gigging with cocktail trios and R&B combos. At the Granoff Studios in Philadelphia, he took a course of music theory and lessons. Coltrane arrived early in the morning and remained through the evening.

Practicing at home, as the night wore on, he would finger but not blow into the instrument so that he could quicken his reflexes without waking his neighbours. Coltrane’s perfectionism was legendary. Borrowing exercises from a pianist, he stunned fellow musicians by forcing his fingers to navigate arpeggios, trills, and wide leaps in melody.

In 1955 his career took off. Miles Davis hired Coltrane into his quintet, gambling on a 29 year-old with a jagged style and a heroin habit. The quintet’s albums Round About Midnight and Cookin’ were landmarks, but Davis grew aggravated with Coltrane’s unreliability. In 1957 Davis fired him.

The dismissal was a shock. In its aftermath, he experienced what he called “a spiritual awakening” and quit drugs and alcohol. Under the influence of pianist Thelonious Monk, Coltrane started obsessing over harmonic variation. “I would go as far as possible on one phrase,” he said, “until I ran out of ideas.” His style was dubbed “sheets of sound”.

With modal forms, Coltrane found a way to combine side-slipping chromatic movement with more lyrical lines. The end result was the sound of a saxophone flitting, hovering, baiting the rhythm section, then colliding with it head-on in a moment of harmonic convergence.

His greatest recording success, A Love Supreme (1964), was a jazz blockbuster with over a million copies sold. It solidified Coltrane’s innovator status. In one of jazz’s defining moments, Coltrane conjugated its leading four-note motive through every register and key, then gravitated back to the original key to chant the four-syllable mantra, “a love supreme.”

After A Love Supreme, Coltrane went further with his experimentation. His music became even more exploratory, dropping the rhythmic pulse that had structured even his most wayward previous ventures. Coltrane began bridging out to a new generation of free jazzers. And then, on July 17, 1967, he died of liver cancer.

To truly know Coltrane’s work is to hear every note in context, my favourites being his chord substitution cycles known as ‘Coltrane changes’, heard on Giant Steps, generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any jazz composition. His development of these altered chord progression cycles led to further experimentation with improvised melody and harmony that he continued throughout his career.

Coltrane’s rich productivity of releases left behind a considerable body in unreleased work that has been posthumously issued. He won the 1981 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance for Bye Bye Blackbirds, a live recording made in 1962, and he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, twenty five years after his death. Coltrane lives on, in 100 albums on iTunes.

Coltrane was a jazz entrepreneur, he did what any startup leader does: he improvised, inventing novel responses and taking calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net on any guaranteed outcomes. Coltrane didn’t dwell on mistakes or stifle ideas – like entrepreneurs in today’s hurried, harried, innovative and fertile world of startups, he made it happen.

Coltrane believed that musical creativity was an act of discovery. He knew that spontaneous creativity was the business of jazz. With less than 1% of the notes on the written page, he made up the rest on the fly – no going back to correct mistakes or rethink a passage.

In his revelatory book, Yes to the Mess, jazz pianist and management student Frank Barrett shows how this improvisational ‘jazz mind-set’ and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective startup leadership. He describes how like skilled jazz players, startup leaders need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other.

So let’s look at the lessons startup entrepreneurs can take from Coltrane:

Playing it safe gets you nowhere If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation for disruptive technology.

Jazz follows a basic chord progression with a simple beginning, middle and end. In startups, we also start with minimal structures. Iterations begin as prototypes progress and then final aesthetics, allowing us to identify what works and what doesn’t throughout the iterative phases of product innovation.

Make it matter in live performances A favourite saying of jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis was: If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation. It’s what you do with the notes that counts. Reach beyond your comfort zone.

Listening to those around you is more important than what you play yourself If you’re the one talking, you’re not learning anything. Listen, absorb what you hear, and use the information to make a conscious choice about whatever you’re facing.

In jazz, performers vary their sounds and provoke others to respond, creating new music through collaboration. Similarly in startups, there is constant ideation and creation to disrupt, to simplify the complicated and generate new ideas. This collaboration happens best when everyone is working and listening together.

A jazz player listens in two special ways. Firstly, they ‘listen with generosity’, listening for the beauty, brilliance and ingenuity of their band mates, encouraging the expression of their virtuoso talents. Secondly, they ‘listen to the silence’ between the notes. In business, listening rather than talking is a key skill. In your startup, listen closely so you can move as one.

There’s a time to stand out as a soloist and a time to be a team player You rocked a project. However, it’s more likely the case that your team rocked a project, together. Katie was on top of the customer pitch, Sue got the product demo sorted, James nailed the process map. The best startup leaders are those that make others sound and look good.

In jazz, it is common for individual performers to alternate between lead and supporting roles in a single performance. Startups should employ a similar approach to develop the team and bring new thinking to the fore.

Expect surprises and adversity, since jazz (and startup life) is about how you respond If running a startup was always smooth sailing, and it followed the notes on the score, everyone would do it. The old adage applies, that ‘a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’, so anticipate hurdles and maximise learning from them.

Jazz has its roots form being–in the-moment collaborative innovation, just like the act of starting and growing ventures. If you’re not actively seeking new challenges and ways to expand your horizons, living the ups and downs, you are falling behind.

Don’t seek growth alone There is no such thing as a mistake in jazz – come and listen to me play! Coltrane built a constant change of pace to create new sounds. Startups should also embrace errors and accept new possibilities as they adapt, solve problems and learn.

Jazz musicians feed off of each other to inspire. Startups should foster similar innovation by embracing chance encounters and conversations. A microcosm of spontaneous moments nurtures an aesthetic of openness and surprise.

Jazz, like a startup, is about pitting your wits in the heat of the moment. Just watch the different solos and see how the other members support the soloist and you will be surprised on the amount of dynamic emotion that is created. If you’re a startup founder, grow your business by growing your team.

Find your own sound: rely on minimal structure and maximum autonomy Jazz musicians prepare themselves to be spontaneous. Startups must do the same. To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is an underpinning structure to the apparent randomness is a long tradition of education and practice.

Coltrane played jazz as smooth and cool, and as a rage; his solos never seemed to begin or end. Coltrane wasn’t methodical, but wasn’t messy either. His saxophone playing was a conversation, a give and take, a connection and a dialogue between himself, his instrument and his audience. Coltrane knew this instinctively, he used innovation to find his own sound.

Coltrane teaches us that you have to find what’s right for you, leading to finding your own place of uniqueness. Trying to be what others want you to be will lead ultimately to failure. You have to find what you do best, and find what is best about you, for you.

What Coltrane and entrepreneurs share is the ability to address complexity and thrive while playing in the messy, fertile space of uncertainty, ambiguity and promise. He said, I start in the middle of a musical sentence, and move in both directions at once.

His spirit of adventure, desire for improvisation and innovation captures the essence of an entrepreneur: don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. Improv makes you present in the moment. You listen, you’re attentive. You’re not acting, so much as reacting, which is what you’re doing in startup life all the time.

Don’t have wool in your ears, be driven by curiosity

Unconscious habits stop us from being more productive, none more so than our compulsion to check a smartphone screen, explicitly designed to exploit our addictive psychology. This is not the result of passive addiction or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius, Jeff Hammerbacher, took the job as first research scientist at Facebook and created the original algorithm that tracked our online behaviours.

What concerns me most about this behaviour is it’s turning us all into sheep. Where I live I’m surrounded by hills, and surrounded by sheep. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line. But we’re in danger of following the herd ourselves.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may think, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to be heard rather than one of the herd, to build the habit to be ourselves and be thinking, not doing something banal like smartphone addition, trapped in a repeatable mobius loop of technological determinism.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions and more cognisant of what we don’t know. We need to be more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their selfie photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions helps spark the innovative ideas that startups bring to market. In my own research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat, you find some curious soul looked at an existing problem, asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is a favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just taken, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

More recently, Steve Jobs’ curiosity for design sensibility became an essential part of Apple’s core culture and product differentiator. His genius may be outside the reach of most of us, but his quest for understanding is worth emulating.

When we open ourselves fully to our curiosity, we are able to think without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and experimenting. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broad, open mindset startups need.

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery and learning, continually building upon itself, allowing your mind to open to new ideas, fuelling our imagination. It’s fundamental to our success, it shapes your instinct to explore which should grow into an instinct for inquiry, and it ultimately helps you discover amazing things about what you can do now and in the future.

A curious mind can relate and connect ideas better. Maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to find get the answers you seek. Your curiosity will develop into an amazing discovery. Something you will easily identify with and can pursue further. Curiosity can give you more and better building blocks to develop creative solutions. It fuels the soul and drives innovation.

So how do you create and sustain a culture and the mindsets of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model, when the pressure is on in a race to simply get things done? Instead of the think-build-ship routine which quickly becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, adopt more of the build-measure-learn heartbeat, with its essential focus to be curious about feedback, learning and iteration, on several levels:

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about other people, their thinking, about trends, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and how your offering in turns helps your customers’ customers. You need an external focus beyond winning the next customer, and see them as a source of innovation: ‘what would an existing or new customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

Assume nothing, question everything Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. Brilliant ideas can come out of a better question. Einstein reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question. Start asking better questions to find the right answers.

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job.

Be curious about what you’re working on When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a world of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people’s minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curious minds connect information better Leonardo da Vinci was insanely curious.His observation and belief that ‘everything connects’ informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: a culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history back in 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns in relation to the military conflict in Iraq:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those three sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

Curiosity has been a major factor behind many scientific and technological discoveries and the advancement of human development. It’s never too late to starting focusing on developing curiosity instincts. Begin practicing mindfulness and be conscious of your immediate surroundings. Be curious about things you usually ignore.

Following your curiosity can lead to the breakthrough ideas you have been waiting for as a startup founder, but you can only harness and make the most of curiosity if you recognise and accept the need to make time for it. As Walt Disney said, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Back to sheep. I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time? But don’t be a sheep. Either you get eaten by a wolf today or else the shepherd saves you from the wolf so he can sell you to the butcher tomorrow. Assumptions are quick exits for lazy minds that like to graze out in the fields without bother. So ask yourself, What am I most curious about?

The importance of trust between startup founders and investors

Most startup founders have an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to the future of their venture. They’re always in sales mode – to themselves, early customers and investors, and the world in general. Startups that are on the brink of huge success are often also on the brink of spectacular failure, the line between the two extremes is often wafer thin.

Early stage startups, by definition, are almost always missing something as they iterate on product-market fit. Meanwhile, early stage angel investors can often see past these shortcomings due to their experience and learnings from their own mistakes, and provide the care and nurturing to founders needed to unlock success.

Investors focusing on early-stage startups understand this reality and accept the associated risks in anticipation of making bets on founders working on ‘10X’ ideas to realise outsized rewards. This relationship between founders and investors is a key ingredient to startup success, and isn’t just from a commercial perspective, but at a personal level – rapport, respect, mentoring and trust are vital.

Early stage investors invest because they believe in the founder at a personal level. There is something about you, and your idea that convinced them that you could make it happen. Usually, it is just a feeling and not some tangible thing they can put their finger on. Ironically, most angel investors will imagine a future version of a startup far more enticing than most sane founders are willing to pitch.

The startup game isn’t for everyone – it isn’t really for most people. At the end of the day the most likely outcome is failure, even angel investors expect most of their bets in startups to fail. In this cauldron of uncertainty and high-stakes, the most important element of the founder-investor relationship is trust.

Startup founders have the singular authority to address high-stakes challenges and make tough decisions. However, to a large extent their autonomy rests on the willingness of the investors to cede it to them. In other words, it depends a lot on investor’s trust. Leaders who violate that trust soon find themselves ousted – Travis Kalanick, whose brash and at times inappropriate behaviour repeatedly raised eyebrows at Uber, was blamed for creating a toxic culture and forced to resign by an investor revolt.

Founder trust has also been eroded by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. In April 2018, Zuckerberg was before Congress and questioned about Facebook’s commitment to data privacy after it came to light that the company had exposed the personal data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica. Then in September 2018, Facebook admitted that hackers had gained access to personal information of 50 million users. Then a New York Times investigation revealed Facebook had given Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon access to its users’ personal data, including in some cases their private messages.

So when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would launch a dating app, I shook my head. And then they announced releasing an app that allowed people to share photos and make video calls. Why would anyone trust Facebook with personal data on something as sensitive as dating, or with a camera and microphone given its horrible track record?

Our need to trust and be trusted has a very real economic impact. More than that, it deeply affects the fabric of society. If we can’t trust other people, we’ll avoid interacting with them, which will make it hard to build anything, solve problems, or innovate.

Startup founders can’t build trust unless they understand the three fundamental promises they make to investors and the resulting responsibilities: economic – to provide value to customers that enhance their lives; legal – that they will follow the letter and the spirit of the law; ethics – investors want founders to behave with integrity.

To investors, if founders repay the trust of investment made by delivering the above promises, it means returns; and to society, it means growth and prosperity. But trust is fragile, it waxes and wanes. It means being competent, playing fair, and most of all, acknowledging and, if necessary, remediating, all the impact your decisions have, whether intended or not. Of course, it’s not always possible as a founder to make decisions that completely delight investors, but it is possible to make decisions that keep faith with and retain the trust they have in you, by being authentic and acting with integrity at all times.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means bringing the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in making a business case for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfil that. Once you act this out, you need to remember this image because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. That you are interacting daily on a superficial level is odd, as betraying trust means betraying yourself.

Thinking about authenticity made me aware of my own conversations I’d been involved in as an angel investor, and recall the awkward situations where I considered my trust had been abused. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face to face conversation, and once these behaviours have lapsed, trust is broken and I’m done with that relationship.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being original doesn’t mean you will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing your underlying principles and values – being totally clear about who you are, your purpose and what you stand for. When your rhetoric gets out of sync with your values, you lose your integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.

So I’ve used trust as a key part in assessing my appetite to work with startup founders, and my experience is that it is a hallmark of high-performing startups – employees are more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, put in greater discretionary effort, are less likely to leave, and are healthier than those working in low-trust ventures. Startups that build trust among their customers are rewarded with greater loyalty and higher sales, and negotiators who build trust with each other are more likely to find value-creating deals.

I’ve developed an approach to assess the trustworthiness of founders on five dimensions: competence, motives, means, impact and sincerity. I’ve found that founders who demonstrate these five dimensions can deepen the trust others place in them and foster stronger relationships. Conversely, founders who don’t pay attention to them can easily behave in ways that undermine trust, often without even realising it.

For me, motives and sincerity are the essential qualities I look for, they make up the moral or ethical domain of trust, the areas where I judge founders on the choices they make, whether it’s whose interests they serve (motives), how they go about achieving their goals (means), or whether they own all the effects they have on others (impact).

By understanding the behaviours that underlie trust, startup founders are better able to elevate the level of trust that investors feel toward them, and for me this can be captured into the following three elements:

Positive relationship trust is in part based on the extent to which a founder is able to create a positive relationship with investors. To instil trust a founder must:

  • Be empathetic to the concerns of investors
  • Be open minded and listen to advice
  • Respond to feedback in a constructive way

Good judgement the extent to which a founder is able to show balanced judgement, shrewdness and perceptiveness gives an investor confidence. This means:

  • They show balanced judgement when making decisions
  • Creating conviction when expressing their ideas and opinions
  • Can anticipate and respond quickly to problems, offering solutions

Consistency The final element of trust is the extent to which founders walk their talk and do what they say they will do. Investors rate and respect a startup leader highly if they:

  • Are a role model and set a good example at all times
  • Follow through on their commitments and keep promises.
  • Act in the best interests of everyone, not just themselves

Watching the current political discourse (and deadlock and chaos), I experience a longing for an authentic discussion of the core values that ought to be guiding us as a society. I feel that we are morally adrift, that we do not have a clear sense of how to ground our identities and actions to ultimate values that transcend time and place.

That is not to say that our society is largely immoral. Just amoral, lacking a clear compass or foundational guide at a critical time. Instead of a moral compass, people are constructing their own moral decisions. They don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t seem to know that they are doing the right things with their lives. They don’t seem to know what the right things are.

And that’s a parallel to startup culture, where founders pursue their own unilateral agenda, failing to ground their perspective in a moral perspective and the legal and ethical commitment they made to angel investors who gave them their first chance. I’m seeing founders following a loose, poorly defined moral individualism that, for many, bleeds into an extreme moral relativism.

The emerging reflections on right and wrong generally reflect weak thinking and provide a fragile basis upon which to build robust businesses. Moreover, founders behaving like this do not rely on any moral traditions or philosophical ethics to make decisions. Instead, the basic position is for each individual to make up their own rules and do what is good for them.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal integrity, the state of being honest, and respecting trust given. The golden rule: don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong or right, that is determined by each person, their experience, their perspective. And of course, we have laws. They pretty much cover it.

I believe that in healthy humans there is an inner compass that guides right from wrong. It may get modified through various lenses of philosophy, religion, and culture, but I think integrity and not causing harm by breaking trust are pretty universal. Unfortunately, it is also possible to get estranged from that compass, the influence of others, circumstances and opportunity may divert us from the path we know to be right.

For founders, it can be hard not to diverge from the path guided and shaped by trustworthiness with their early stage investors if they can see a quick personal gain. However, look in the mirror, and can you reconcile breaking the trust given to you? For certain, it is good to stay in balance and in touch with being a founder your investors trust, as much as you can.

For me, I am never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again, and tell myself that the mended whole is as good as new. What is broken is broken, and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it, and see the broken pieces to remind me that you broke my trust.

Leading a startup in times of political & economic uncertainty

The current global economic indicators make uncomfortable reading, even before the impact of Brexit is factored in. The UK’s Q2 GDP figures recorded the first quarterly fall since 2012, indicating the economy going into reverse. As investment and exports continued to fall, the conclusion is an economy stalling at best.

Consumer spending and government expenditure are currently keeping the economy afloat, a pattern we have seen for a while. Boris Johnson seems intent on easing the public purse strings, announcing a new commitment to spending money every day on health, education, social care and crime. However, this contradicts his tax cutting promises – you simply can’t have a high spend, low tax financial strategy. His numbers don’t add up.

So we are likely to see a growing imbalance in the UK economy, as rising consumer spending and government expenditure offset declines in investment and exports, and the risk of ‘no-deal’ and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit stalls investment. The Bank of England’s low interest rate policy is exacerbating these imbalances too, by supporting borrowing and encouraging savers to look for more risky investments because the returns on bank and building society deposits are so poor.

A Brexit-driven recession in the UK may be avoided, but there is still little clarity on whether the UK will be in or out of the EU come November, making Brexit the big story for the economy with this uncertainty. Johnson has begun to brace us for a no-deal Brexit, ramping up public spending by £2.1bn on preparations including stockpiling of medicines, and a public awareness campaign about potential disruptions.

Businesses remain largely unprepared for a disastrous cliff-edge no-deal and are in sit-and-wait mode, while the CBI continue to speak out against the ongoing economic chaos. At the same time, inflation unexpectedly rose above the Bank of England’s 2% target in July, putting renewed pressure on British households as the cost of living increased.

Also in July, the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9% while the number of unemployed rose by 37,000. The number of vacancies – which had been on the rise since 2012 – started falling at the start of the year and continues to fall. This suggests that the UK labour market has started to turn down and that weaker economic growth and the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit could be starting to impact the job market, although the jobless rate remains at the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The average British worker still earns less than they did in 2007. In place of rising wages, consumption is being driven by growing unsecured household debt, which is now the highest we’ve ever seen in the UK. With incomes low, savings drained and debt levels high, a turn in the business cycle will mean financial hardship for families.

Outside of UK specific issues, the global economy is slowing at the end of a ten-year-long weak recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Germany has fallen into negative growth and is heading towards recession. In the US, Trump’s confrontational strategy to a trade war with China is having a negative impact on both countries. Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up the threats of tariffs on each other, dragging down global trade volumes and economic growth.

It all adds up to fearing the worst that the first global recession since the crash of 2008 is just around the corner. Recessions usually happen every ten to fifteen years: business confidence drops, investment declines, employment stalls and demand shrinks. Eleven years on from the crisis of 2008, expectations are that the next recession is unlikely to be a repeat of the last crash, as while there are risks to financial stability, none will impact the economy in the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

So, let’s draw breath on the economic analysis. As a startup entrepreneur looking for meaning in this analysis, the information has contradictions, a mix of emotion, biases and cold-eyed calculation, yet expresses something about both the mood of investors and the temper of the times. Yes a recession is so far a fear, not a reality, but it is evident firms are struggling to get to grips with uncertainty, and anxiety could turn to alarm.

Often danger signals are ignored until too late. America’s decade-long expansion is the oldest on record so whatever economists say, a downturn feels overdue. For me, the portents are evident, confidence is being eroded and the storm clouds are gathering. My fear is that we’ll have a torpid economy at best, that is prone to curtailing innovation, entrepreneurship and startup investment.

There’s just no way to completely prepare for future uncertainty facing your business, simply understand that circumstances change and unforeseeable events occur, and you can make smart choices to prepare well. Not only will this provide you some peace of mind that you’re as ready as you can be, but you’re more likely to respond quickly and more effectively when trouble strikes, so here are some practical tips designed to help your startup prepare for the unknowns.

1. Stay in the now It’s easy to get caught up in your own startup bubble, but that’s a trap to avoid. One of the best ways to combat uncertainty is to stay abreast of economic indicators, as highlighted above. By being aware of the general state of the economy, and how economic forecasts might affect your business, you can put yourself a step ahead of others.

A forward-thinking entrepreneur understands the value of analysis, and not just ‘gut instinct’ intuition. Are you consistently reviewing your business strategy assumptions, value proposition and pricing to ensure they remain valid?

2. Prepare for multiple outcomes It’s wise to stop assuming a single outcome will turn up as the conclusion of a situation. You should prepare for multiple outcomes regardless of what you expect. Foresight enables you to respond effectively. The best way to prepare is to include your team in the planning process, you’ll get fresh, unique perspectives that are more likely to result in critical and innovative thinking.

There isn’t a crystal ball to help you predict the future, and there are many factors completely out of your control. Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. For example, focus on product improvements, customer communications, experiment with pricing and new marketing strategies.

3. Build relationships to create opportunities to grow In times of uncertainty, is a spreadsheet going to help you regain solid footing? It’s possible, but unlikely. The best investment you can make for future stability is relationship building to help weather the rough patches.

What are the signals telling you it’s time to be different and bold? Signals to watch for regarding customers are: Are your regular customers asking you for new things? How are new product/new customer sales against forecasts? When your regulars ask for new offerings they’ve shown you the direction where you’re likely to succeed.

4. Know your numbers When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it’s essential that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers, cashflow and KPIs so you can make the appropriate changes quickly. Also, sit down with your sales team daily. This will help you pinpoint the messages to be taken between ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators.

5. Regain control of your time Evaluating how you and your team spend your time helps you stay focused on the tasks that grow your business. For example, spending time writing content means you must understand what the timing and targets are for following up leads.

What’s more, tracking your time keeps you in control. It’s like weeding your garden; if you don’t stay on top of the weeds, they’ll eventually consume your entire garden. Also you should automate and delegate as much as possible so you can focus on those aspects of the business where you can personally make a difference.

6. Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured spectacles, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs, being positive on the upsides and conveniently ignoring the downsides. In times of uncertainty, to convert your passion into tangible business, emphasise a strategy that makes financial sense based on how the elements of your business will come together. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions. The numbers fall out from this.

7. Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an essential ingredient, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market with customers. To turn your passion into revenue, always think about your business from the customer’s perspective. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

8. Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ and ‘What if?’ mind-set, and map out alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in resetting a ‘business as usual’ model in turbulent times. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

9. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 10,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

10. Don’t be too opportunistic, don’t be too defensive Strike a balance. Adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach is likely to maximise the chances of you surviving a period of uncertainty. Recognising that cost-cutting is necessary to survival while also understanding the role investment and innovation plays in long-term growth, is key to steering your business through choppy waters.

A balanced strategy accepts the reality of the present and reacts accordingly, while also preparing for the future. You can not only survive uncertain times, but also learn valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead for longer term success. Judicious investment, proactive innovation, increased operational efficiency, refocused propositions, honed processes and competitive advancement are all possible when it’s tough going, there are silver linings.

So, are you preparing for the potential recession into which your startup maybe heading in the next six months? Don’t ignore how much is beyond your control nor take your focus off of what is within your control. Develop the resilience, flexibility and competitive edge to ride through the rough waters and come out in good-nick, ready and aligned for when sailing becomes smooth.

Strategic readiness comes through a combination of awareness, flexibility, strong navigational leadership, resilience, collaborative working, considered learning, ongoing innovation and agility. Now is the time to act. Make the necessary adjustments to your business now to help prevent it becoming another statistic of an uncertain environment.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about, but you can research and keep your ear to the ground too – the process of planning is important – but in the end you have to work from your instinct and be fearless. When you’re feeling the apprehension about the horizon, that will help you manage the ambiguity of an unknown future and forge ahead in confidence.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of a future lies in the present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to take a risk to see your dream into reality, even if the waters are choppy. Security is mostly superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The rock ‘n roll entrepreneurial spirit of Dave Grohl

I have a wish-I-did-what-you-do-for-a-living man crush on Dave Grohl, founder and lead singer of the Foo Fighters. I have cycled through many musical heroes, from Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer to Tim Booth. Whenever I hear Grohl perform or talk, I marvel at his intelligence and zest for his craft. Of course, everyone’s on a mission to be themselves at the deepest level, but I sometimes wish my job was doing what this guy does.

Music gives Grohl his spiritual conviction to ferociously animate himself. He founded The Foo Fighters as a one-man project following the dissolution of Nirvana after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The band took its name from the UFOs and various aerial phenomena reported by aircraft pilots in WWII – which were known as ‘foo fighters’.

I know an embarrassing amount about Grohl. I could talk your ears off. For example, did you know Dave was the fifth drummer in Nirvana? I always think of that when I’m playing air drums in the car to Everlong – I’ll get my breakthrough I tell myself, I can be patient.

Following the release of Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, featuring Grohl as the only musician – so he consequently played every instrument – Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, as well as Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear to complete the line-up.

The band made its live public debut on February 23, 1995, at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. Goldsmith quit during the recording of the group’s second album, The Colour and the Shape (1997), when most of the drum parts were re-recorded by Grohl himself. Smear’s departure followed soon afterward, though he appeared with the band on live shows, and rejoined as a full-time member in 2011.

The Colour and the Shape is an amazing record, including top tunes such as Monkey Wrench, Everlong, My Hero, and Walking After You. Before its release, Taylor Hawkins joined as drummer, followed by Chris Shiflett as lead guitarist. Fast forward to September 2017, and session and touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee joined as a full member, to complete the lineup.

At their loudest and most animated, Foo Fighters are noisemakers and musicians. Their grinding sheds a spark, which leads to an explosion, which leads to a crescendo. Grohl’s music combines the beauty of minimalism, the importance of music that’s stripped down, and a wall of noise. Foo Fighters tunes are marked by the technique of shifting between quiet verses and loud, sing-along choruses, huge guitars, powerful hooks.

They have the lure of punk with the energy and immediacy, the need to thrash stuff around, but at the same time, we’re all suckers for a beautiful melody. Often it’s a punishing industrial noise, a clattering din, but Grohl is an idiosyncratic figure in a world that tends towards the cookie-cutter.

Grohl is a whirling dervish on stage, and they frequently play concerts for over three hours. He’s a story of sheer passion. For example, on June 12, 2015, Grohl fell from the concert stage in Gothenburg, during the second song of the Foo Fighters’ set, and broke his leg. The band played without Grohl while he received medical attention; Grohl then returned to the stage, sitting in a chair to perform the last two hours of the band’s set while a medic tended to his leg.

The band are deep into their musicianship, and at gigs, each member tips their hat to their heroes – from Queen to The Stones to John Lennon – but the best I’ve seen was Pat Smear leading the band into a quick dash through the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. When they play, it’s blood and guts. I love their dissonance and the chaos.

Startup founders – as any band founders like Grohl – who want to follow any kind of memorable, meaningful path for their venture or for culture writ large, can’t settle for cheap radio-play solutions, or settle for a ‘one-hit wonder’ mentality.

To create real cultural touchstones, we have to understand that there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is no cheat. No corners to cut. No app store elevation to a speedy triumph. Because let’s face it, the majority of chart-toppers fail to occupy a place in the collective memory as we someday record it. However, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on April 10, 2014, twenty years after the death of Cobain, so Grohl already has a legacy.

In business terms, you don’t need another ‘hit’, you need to define your vision and ‘what does success look like?’ aligned around specific outcomes. To build companies that create real customer loyalty, credibility, or a following like a band – measured either by word of mouth or clear metrics – you have to build experiences.

Not just products. Not pixel-perfect screens, it’s the human experience that matters most. How people think and feel when they use the thing you’ve built, hyper-memorable encounters, real human experience. It’s like those memorable concerts you’ll never forget. It’s only these kinds of experiences that any of us are likely to enjoy with relish or gusto in a year or two to ensure repeat purchases.

At this stage in the feverish, casino-like startup game, it’s a lottery at best. It’s not about memes, it’s about moments. Not ‘friends’, or ‘followers’ or ‘connections’, but faces. Physical, real-world experiences that complement our lives online, extending it emotionally and naturally, in way that we now need and crave more than ever before. Remember, in this rock-star era of startups, the ‘concert’ is monumentally more rewarding than the record. For customers. For audiences. For people.

After the death of Cobain, Grohl did not wallow in grief. He refocused and put himself back into the music. I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life. I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music and I enjoy trying to sing, and there’s nothing anyone can really do to discourage me.

Which means maybe it’s time to find that loud, noisy and energised version of the Dave Grohl in you, in the here and now. And if you can’t, start banging out some version of it in your garage as a start. So, let me count you in to some startup lessons from Dave Grohl. Ready? 1-2-3-4…

Be punk, not perfect Dave started out as the drummer in the punk band Scream. He began drumming on the pillows on his bed as a kid, and then took the rhythm that flowed through him on the road by the time he was seventeen. He never took drum lessons or guitar lessons. Actually he took one drum lesson and the teacher tried to get him to change the way he held the sticks. That was the end of drum lessons.

He’s a self-taught guitarist, too. Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album by himself, playing every instrument, in five days. The music he writes and performs is far from perfect, but it’s perfectly him. Passion and emotion are great, ugly, beautiful channels to push your creativity out into the world. No lessons required.

Be a doer Grohl knew what he wanted to do from a young age. However, his family couldn’t afford a drum kit so he would arrange his pillows on his bed and hit them hard enough to make the sounds he wanted. There will always be barriers, but it’s how we overcome them that matter.

Sometimes we feel like going it alone is the hardest thing, but it often results in the most rewarding work. Grohl’s got deep roots in the punk scene, which has a strong tether to the do-it-yourself mentality. Grohl talks about his realisation that he could make it happen with his own hands:

At 13 years old, I realised that I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts. I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong, because it was all mine.

Grohl isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, show off his feather-tattooed arms, and get to work. So what about you?

Find your passion The idea is just to make music and make good records. There’s not so much career ambition as there is personal ambition… …When you go in to make an album, you want it to be better than the last, you want it to be the best thing you’ve ever done, and you want to stretch yourself musically.

Molly’s Lips was his first Nirvana recording, a session for John Peel’s BBC Radio show. He’d made a start. Grohl is confident in his own shoes. He knows who he is: It’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last.

Keep your family close To be an effective leader, it can’t be all about the work. A balanced life is a full life, and Grohl obviously enjoys having those closest to him, close to him.

Family commitments are important, keep a balance. It’s often the reason many can’t chase their dreams. Grohl’s a devoted and dedicated father, so he built a studio at home so that he could walk his three daughters to school whilst he wasn’t on tour before getting to work. Now, you often see one of his daughters get up on stage with him at most gigs.

Get stuff done From his early work from Scream, as the drummer for Nirvana and the last twenty-five years as the enigmatic frontman of the Foo Fighters, the output of music and songs that have Grohl’s fingerprints on is stunning.

By his own admission, he can literally not sit still. Whilst band mates enjoy a much needed rest, he often fills that time with side projects and collaborations. Volume can speak volumes, and whilst it’s important to maintain quality, sometimes we need to just get stuff done. So avoid procrastination. Either crack on and finish it, or scrap it and move on.

Care … genuinely In May 2006, Grohl sent a note of support to the two trapped miners in the Beaconsfield mine collapse, in Australia. In the initial days following the collapse one of the men requested an iPod with the Foo Fighters album In Your Honour to be sent down to them through a small hole.

Grohl’s note read, in part, Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?

One of the miners took up his offer, joining Grohl for a drink after a Foo Fighters acoustic concert in Sydney. Grohl wrote a tribute instrumental piece for the next album. The song, Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners, appears on Foo Fighters’ 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for Dave Grohl, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Everlong.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice like Dave Grohl. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Thomas Telford

For thousands of years the only way to cross the Menai Strait to Anglesey from the North Wales mainland was to walk it at low tide, a perilous experience at the best of times, or to make an equally hazardous ferry crossing. But on January 30 1826, as bands played and locals waved flags and cheered, the Menai Suspension Bridge formally opened, the world’s first modern suspension bridge.

Last Saturday, August 10, marked the two hundredth anniversary of when work had begun building the iconic bridge in 1819, led by Thomas Telford. He had been given the task of improving the London to Dublin journey via the Holyhead road, a route that became the A5. Completing the bridge shaved nine hours on the London to Holyhead journey, and was immeasurably safer.

Because of the high banks and fast flowing waters of the Strait, it would have been difficult to build piers on the shifting sands of the seabed, and they would have obstructed navigation. Also, the bridge had to be high enough to allow the passage of the tall ships of the day. In view of this, Telford proposed that a suspension bridge should be built.

Construction of the bridge began with the towers either side of the Strait. Made from limestone quarried at nearby Penmon, they were brought by barge to the site. The towers were of hollow construction, reinforced with metal girders and stanchions inside. The problem of spanning the 600ft Straits was solved by creating sixteen giant chain cables made from iron, each of them weighing 121 tons.

The cables were strung from the towers across the water in huge loops. In order to stop them rusting, the cables were soaked in linseed oil and then painted. The stonework on the towers was finished in 1824, five years after it had begun. Stringing the giant cables took a further two years. The magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge was called the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car.

I was about eight years old when I first stood on the bridge where Telford once stood. It was my grandfather, Sydney Brookes, born on Anglesey, who taught me to love the bridge, with it’s industrial history, that produced such a magical sight. This was to be my first encounter with the Scottish stonemason-architect-engineer-entrepreneur, Thomas Telford, and his achievements have stood out in my mind since.

Telford is a role model for any modern day innovator and pioneer, designing and building an enormous chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain, revered by engineers and industrial archaeologists alike. Born at Glendinning, Eskdale, Scotland in 1757, his father John was a shepherd and died in November the same year. He received elementary education at the local school and also helped out with various jobs around the area. He was known locally as ‘Laughing Tam’.

Aged fourteen he was apprenticed to a stone mason, and examples of his work can still be seen in Langholm and Westerkirk areas today. In 1780 he moved to Edinburgh and worked around Princes Street. In 1782 he travelled to London and gained promotion to a first class mason. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard as a supervisor, where he developed his design and project management skills.

In 1815 he was commissioned to improve the route from London to Holyhead, which included major works such as Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed, Nant Ffrancon pass in Snowdonia, and the Menai Bridge. The commission was extended to include the Bangor to Chester road, which involved the headland roads and tunnels at a Penmaenmawr and Penmaenbach, the embankment crossing the Conwy estuary and the Conwy Suspension bridge. The whole commission was completed in 1826.

He constructed the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte, which carries the Llangollen canal across the Dee Valley in a long iron trough. The aqueduct opened only a few weeks after the battle of Trafalgar, with a flag-flying ceremony that echoed the mood of a nation that was being melded together by industrialisation and military victories. Telford was in the vanguard of this movement, building things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom.

Telford grew from a poor shepherd boy from the Borders to become a self-made man and an audacious visionary. In his seventy seven years, the iron-willed Telford worked on many ambitious projects, including ninety-three large bridges and aqueducts. He cut the great waterway, the Caledonian Canal, from sea to sea across the top of Scotland. He constructed more than a dozen road schemes in England and Wales.

He was the architect of over thirty churches in Scotland, worked on water works, improved river navigation and devised drainage schemes. Towards the end of his life he surveyed early railway routes, and died in 1834 just as railways were spreading across the country.

Telford shaped the lives of the Victorian civil engineers who followed him and led the Royal Institution which still guides the engineering profession. Almost everything he built is still in use. An intensely private man, Telford never married or had children, but he was an amateur poet who sent his verses to Robert Burns, a contemporary. He was also a friend and travelling companion of the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who came up with his soubriquet – Colossus of Roads.

He was always on the move, hugely energetic, a man in a hurry to get things done. He wasn’t an inventor, but he was brilliant at seeing possibilities in a project, then finding the right people. One of the joys of his work is that pretty much everything he built was beautifully designed and architected, not simply functional. People cared about the beauty of structures then in a way they don’t now – Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about one of his iron bridges.

Telford advanced the art of building in iron, with many of his bridges remaining in use today. He is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, known as the man who joined up the kingdom, not only as an engineer, but as an entrepreneur who could take risks, who knew about design, financing, business, and the importance of teamwork to evolve superior engineering feats at a rapid pace.

So as we admire his finest legacy spanning the Menai Strait some two hundred years after the first block went in place, what can we take from the heritage and spirit of endeavour from Thomas Telford, into our C21st entrepreneurial ventures?

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Telford was that no matter what the obstacle was, he never gave up. Telford was exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Telford had a clear vision of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desired. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Telford targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and had no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Telford’s enormous ambition -to do what everyone said couldn’t be done – far exceeded the vision of everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aimed for breakthroughs and the big picture every time. He brought revolutionary thinking into engineering advancement.

Work on the ground level Telford possessed the ability to think at the system level of design. He knew exactly what he wanted and sat with his team, he was the connection between the vision and engineers’ interest. Telford seemed to be a taskmaster but his attitude set the culture of the team and project. He believed in getting his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. This pragmatic style of leadership never goes amiss in a startup.

Belief in self-analysis Telford believed in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He thought that people did not think critically enough – and it is one of the reasons for startup failure, founders often take too many things for granted without enough basis in their business model and market assumptions. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a potentially bad solution.

Being a competent engineer requires you to solve complex problems and navigate around difficult situations when they arise, a useful skill for any entrepreneur. There is little structure and lots of complexity in engineering projects that you need to navigate daily, as someone who is running a start up. You have to assess risks and challenges wisely, and pivot when required.

For both engineers and entrepreneurs, reflection and self-conscious analysis are essential. Both need to examine their projects to prototype better solutions, make changes quickly and persevere even if challenges seem great.

Problem Solving skills Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many entrepreneurs started their companies in a garage – from Apple, Amazon to Harley-Davidson. For many, the idea of a garage is synonymous with tinkering, and you can imagine Telford working through different versions of his thinking – given many of his engineering feats were ‘firsts’ in terms of design and solution

Analysing a problem from a “What if… then” point of view allows a startup founder to face a challenge with an open mind and to reach an educated solution. If the solution is not met, the experiment is not a failure; it is simply restarted.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Not a phrase around at the time of Telford, but it’s a phrase that captures the inspirational work of Elon Musk, and it applies to Telford. Part of Telford’s ability to motivate his team to do great things was his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drove each of his engineering ventures. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every project Telford completed was focused on his vision and backed by a Master Plan. Have a vision, make it happen.

Musk says I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.

This is the ideology of Telford, and though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built amazing operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve, or indeed Telford delivered.

Telford was Britain’s greatest civil engineer, who can take the credit for much of the industrial revolution’s sublime architecture. His achievements were truly remarkable. Throughout his life he remained a peripatetic bachelor, hurrying from one job to the next, writing instructions and plans from country inns by candlelight.

The roads and bridges he built carried fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, built the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to new lives in North America: all of them were his.

Telford had the entrepreneurial spark. He was more than just ideas and allure. Telford was a rare business leader who was interested in mankind as a whole and wanted to explore how engineering could change the world he lived in. The Menai Suspension Bridge is a remarkable testimony to this spirit, and his entrepreneurial endeavours.

Greggs: an agile approach to strategy & business model thinking

John Gregg founded his bakery business in 1939, selling eggs and yeast from his bicycle in Newcastle. The business grew, and his son Ian joined his father and mother, selling pies from his van to miners’ wives. They opened their first shop in Gosforth in 1951.

When John died in 1964, the bakery was taken over by Ian, and major expansion began, including the acquisitions of other bakeries such as the Bakers Oven chain from Allied Bakeries in 1994.

Greggs grew to be the largest bakery chain in the UK, home of the bacon sandwich and a coffee for two quid special offer which, disappointingly, is now £2.10 (a friend told me, honestly), famous for pies and pasties and everything you firmly resolved on December 31 would never touch your lips again.

A couple of years ago, Greggs fell victim to adverse PR about its product range and customer base. Oh how the Prêt crowd sniggered into their avocado and crayfish salads. Yet plucky old Greggs just got its head down and kept growing. ‘It’s a northern thing’ no longer serves as an explanation. The patronising notion that Greggs’s popularity is inversely proportional to the nation’s economic fortunes also fails to explain its steady expansion.

Today Greggs generate £1m a week from sales of coffee. It has repositioned the brand from an ordinary bakery-to-take-home to a high growth food-on-the-go entity, meeting changing customer demands and evolving food culture.

A new strategy was introduced in 2013 under CEO Roger Whitehouse, formerly Head of M&S Food, which focused on four pillars: Great tasting freshly prepared food; best customer experience; competitive supply chain; first class support teams.

Whitehouse introduced a ‘restless dissatisfaction’ approach to compliment the traditional business values, ensuring the business would never stand still after recovering from a period of stagnation. He implemented some radical changes, including closing the in-store bakeries, and introducing the ‘Balanced Choice’ range of products with less than four hundred calories, healthier options to the traditional product range.

And it’s worked. Having launched the first vegan sausage roll in January, last week the company announced a 50% rise in profits to £40.6m in the first half of 2019. The business is handing shareholders a £35m special dividend after total sales rose 14.7% to £546m.

In 2016, Greggs weren’t in the takeaway breakfast market but now only McDonalds sells more takeaway breakfasts. With a Fairtrade Expresso, it has overtaken Starbucks to become the third-largest takeaway coffee seller, behind Costa and McDonalds, while only Tesco sells more sandwiches.

So what are the lessons from the success of Greggs changing its business strategy and model that we take into our startup thinking?

1.     Be agile in how you connect with customers

Greggs expects to pass 2,000 outlets this year, 65% are on high streets, with the remaining 35% located in retail and office parks and in travel locations such as railway stations and petrol forecourts. The aim is to change the emphasis of the business so that it is 60% non-high street by the time it has 2,500 shops.

Part of this is having many of its stores open earlier and close later, in order to target those going to and coming back from work, expanding its breakfast menu to suit, and with ‘Greggs à la carte’ stores to open late to 9pm to lure evening takeaway diners.

As well as its new drive-through locations, the company is trialing a click-and-collect service, as well home and office delivery by Just Eat and Deliveroo. They aim to integrate click-and-collect and delivery services with the company’s Greggs Rewards app, which offers free drinks and birthday treats.

Greggs has previously failed with new ideas such as Greggs Moment, a coffee shop-style outlet with seating, and the Greggs Delivered service, which is only available in Newcastle and Manchester city centres, three years after it launched. However, the business is now at a scale where it can experiment without too much risk.

Takeaway: Greggs route to market strategy is to based on expanding their reach to enhance customer convenience, a ‘fish where they swim’ strategy, reducing the barriers between themselves and their customers, uplifting the customer experience and making the ability to connect and purchase convenient.

2.     Build your brand to face your market

Greggs has in recent years persistently bucked the wider trend on UK high streets, where most retailers are struggling to compete as sales shift online and the cost of running stores rises.

In 2013, Greggs began to transition out of the bakery market with the reasoning that it couldn’t compete with supermarkets, switching to focusing solely on the ‘food on the go’ market after discovering that 80% of its business was with that market. They stopped selling bread in 2015.

Greggs has worked hard at getting consumers to think about it as a food-on-the-go chain, developing ideas such as online ordering for collection and home delivery, developing strategic partnerships with their supply chain to focus on the four key pillars of their strategy.

They are more in touch with where the customers are today. It has managed to cater to new markets without being overly ambitious. The builder can still come off the building site and get a hot pasty, but there are also salads. The decor is still recognisable even if it has been upgraded and the older traditional customers still feel comfortable.

Takeaway: Many businesses want profit as their objective. But if you only focus on short-term wins and results, you get distracted from doing the work required to build the skills you need to grow and scale, and it’s the ability to scale that matters. The process is more important than the outcome at early stages of a change of strategy. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

3.     Look forwards, not backwards with your product offering

Greggs sells 1.5 million sausage rolls a week but created the new vegan option due to public demand after an online petition signed by 20,000 people. In recent years Greggs has been innovating within its product range to appeal to a broader range of customers. Its ‘Balanced Choice’ healthy eating range, introduced in 2014, offers options including wraps and salads, all below 400 calories. It also sells gluten-free and several vegan lines.

The company also believes it can take advantage of rising demand for food ‘customisation’, driven by allergies and ‘food avoidance’ preferences, and its stores now make sandwiches to request.

One in eight new customers have bought a vegan sausage roll in 2019, which has overtaken doughnuts and other pastries to become a bestseller. The traditional sausage rolls remain at number one – with its 96 layers of light, crisp puff pastry – but there are more vegan products in development, including a vegan doughnut. It’s worked, such that Ginsters released their own vegan product for the first time in its 52-year history.

Takeaway: Greggs has been bold in its response to the adverse publicity on its offering and changing food culture. Aligning your product strategy with a focused brand image and route to market is core to any business model.

4.     Be clear about your marketing message & tone of voice

Before the Greggs vegan sausage rolls went on sale, TV presenter Piers Morgan sent out a tweet: Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns. The tone of the company’s response: Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you – friendly but with a slight edge, was perfectly attuned to the ironic, self-confident marketing Greggs has adopted, a James Bond-inspired, droll putdown that was the perfect riposte.

Their hilariously portentous launch video – part of a build-up that parodied the release of a new iPhone model with journalists sent vegan rolls in mock iPhone packaging and stores sold sausage roll phone cases – meant that for days Twitter was engulfed with people talking about a £1 bakery product.

The vegan sausage roll campaign, officially launched to support the Veganuary campaign that encouraged people to give up animal products for a month, followed other memorable promotions include a Valentine’s Day campaign offering ‘romantic’ £15 candlelit dinners in Greggs shops, and a spoof ‘Gregory and Gregory’ event, and one faux pas: a 2017 advent calendar tableau of a sausage roll in a manger. After complaints Greggs apologised and reprinted with a different scene featuring Christmas muffins.

Takeaway: Greggs found its distinctive marketing style in 2012, when it saw off then-chancellor George Osborne’s proposed ‘pasty tax’ on hot takeaway food. Since then it has been consistent in its purposeful, structured and memorable content driven communication strategy, making the brand relevant to its target audience and differentiating its offering in an increasingly competitive market to reposition the brand.

5.     Don’t let your business model become stale

Innovation can be about efficiency. Look at Ikea, and The Billy bookcase. It’s a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that is all you want from it. The Billy isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative. The Billy innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost, all while producing something that does the job. It demonstrates that innovation in the modern economy is not just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems.

The Greggs shop environment has been improved and significant investments made in logistics and delivery systems to make them more efficient and scalable. In-store ordering moved to a centralised forecast and replenishment system rather than relying on shop teams filling in manual order forms, which resulted in order accuracy and improved availability for customers.

All shops are on a refurbishment programme (every seven years) to ensure they stay looking bright and welcoming. In-store point of sale and window displays remain key to Greggs’ marketing strategy, however, a loyalty app was also introduced.

Takeaway: innovation in Greggs is about efficiency, economy and effectiveness, searching for ways to make their products even better and affordable for their target market. A ‘back to basics’ focus on the business model reflects the culture and humility of the brand. Combined with brave decision making to implement change and execution in a consistent, simple and continuous manner has delivered the results.

6.     Ensure your folks keep clear heads

Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of customers at busy times, staff have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and frenzy. Resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the steak bakes.

When you go to a Greggs, the staff are so engaged in what they do its untrue, they are like whirling octopus serving customers, and they do it with good humour, bantering with regulars, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

With 10% of profits going to the Greggs Foundation to help fund Breakfast Clubs for children and over £1m raised annually for Children in Need, the vegan pastry has helped change the perception of Greggs, but fundamentally it’s a people business, about delivering service, experience and the community it operates.

Takeaway: So, focused on a simple, core value proposition – reasonable quality food at reasonable prices, consistently produced and scaled – but the fundamental premise is to make customer experience the brand differentiator.

Many takeout food companies are head-on competition to Greggs, but due to its focused marketing strategies highlighting choice, quality, nutrition & easy access, the company is able to create sustainable advantage.

Changing lifestyles, changing eating habits and increasing health awareness factors are affecting the growth of the companies in this industry. Greggs has set its strategy from a customer’s point of view and with customer-based insights, to ensure the business model is as robust as it can be.

Adopt Greggs’ agile approach to strategy and business model thinking, to focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice.

The innovation mindset of Alan Turing

Alan Turing is the founder father of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of today. But these words were not spoken in his own lifetime.

Turing, the progenitor of modern computing, is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand. Post war at Manchester University, his genius embraced the first vision of modern computing and seminal insights into what we know as ‘artificial intelligence’. As one of the most influential Bletchley Park code breakers of World War II, his cryptology yielded intelligence that hastened the Allied victory.

Turing has now been recognised for the enormous impact his work has had on how we live today, chosen by the Bank of England to be the new face of its £50 note. The note will include a table and mathematical formulas from his work, and also include a quote: This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.

The Bank of England has hidden a tribute too – on the banknote are the numbers 1010111111110010110011000, which is a binary code that can be converted into decimal numbers to reveal Turing’s birthday – 23061912 or June 23, 1912. The new polymer £50 note is expected to enter circulation by the end of 2021.

On June 7, 1954 Turing died a criminal, forced to endure chemical castration following a conviction under Britain’s Victorian laws against homosexuality. The UK Government subsequently apologised for his treatment in 2009, and he was granted a royal pardon in 2013. A coroner determined that he had taken his own life from cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside him. The motive for his apparent suicide remains unclear, but known homosexuals were denied security clearances, which meant that Turing could not be involved in secret work during the Cold War, leaving him excluded and embittered.

Turing’s name is associated with the top-secret wartime operations of code breakers at Bletchley Park, where he oversaw and inspired the effort to decrypt ciphers generated by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, which had once seemed impenetrable. The Germans themselves regarded the codes as unbreakable.

On declaration of war, Turing joined the Bletchley Park code breakers at the Government Code and Cypher School, the forerunner of GCHQ, working in makeshift huts. Turing’s section, ‘Hut 8′, deciphered Naval and in particular U-boat messages, and was a key unit at Bletchley.

Their greatest initial challenge was figuring out the method of encryption of the German Enigma device, which was invented twenty years earlier by Arthur Scherbius, a German electrical engineer who had patented it as a civilian machine to encrypt commercial messages. The machine worked by entering letters on a typewriter-like keyboard and then encoding them through a series of rotors to a light board, which showed the coded equivalents. The machine was said to be capable of generating almost 159 quintillion permutations.

At the time, German submarines were prowling the Atlantic, hunting Allied ships carrying vital cargo for the war effort. The Allies relied on the cryptologists to decode messages betraying the U-boat locations. By one estimate, Turing’s work may have cut the war short by two years. They allowed code breakers to decipher up to 4,000 messages a day.

By 1942, Turing was the genius loci at Bletchley, famous as ‘Prof’, shabby, nail-bitten, tie-less, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner, the source of many hilarious anecdotes about bicycles, gas masks, the foe of charlatans and status-seekers, relentless in long shift work. He was known for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by others.

In the last stage of the war (for which he was awarded an OBE) he created the ‘Universal Turing Machine, in effect the digital computer, a machine that would offer unlimited scope for practical progress towards embodying intelligence in an artificial form.

The concept of the Turing Machine has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability. Imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. The work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing Machine, namely the Universal Turing Machine, ‘one machine for all possible tasks’.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing Machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting the program as what the computer itself does. Additionally, the abstract Universal Turing Machine naturally exploits what was later seen as the ‘stored program’ concept essential to the modern computer: it embodies the crucial insight that symbols representing instructions are no different in kind from symbols representing numbers.

Turing’s post-war work at the University of Manchester on the first functioning British computers was hugely significant. He laid down principles that have moulded the historical record of the relationship between humans and machines. He was fascinated by the interplay between human thought processes and the computer, and spoke about ‘building a brain’.

At Manchester, Turing made highly significant contributions to the emerging field of computing, including the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory, publishing a seminal paper, On Computable Numbers, referred to as ‘the founding document of the computer age’.

His ‘Abbreviated Code Instructions’ marked the beginning of programming languages. Out of this came pioneering innovation on what would now be called neural nets, written to amplify his earlier suggestions that a sufficiently complex mechanical system could exhibit learning ability. This was never published in his lifetime.

At Manchester, Turing could perhaps have led the world in software development. His partly explored ideas included the use of mathematical logic for program checking, implementing logical calculus on the machine, and other ideas which, combined with his massive knowledge of combinatorial and statistical methods, could have set the agenda in computer science for years ahead.

This, however, he failed to do; his work on machine-code programming was produced only as a working manual, limited in scope. Instead, there followed a confused period, in which Turing hovered between new topics and old.

Out of this confused era arose, however, the most lucid and far-reaching expression of Turing’s philosophy of machine and Mind: his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950) showed the wit and drama of the Turing Test that has proved a lasting stimulus, a classic contribution to the philosophy and practice of Artificial Intelligence research.

Eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength that he showed in coping with difficult personal circumstances, no-one could have predicted his shabby treatment, which caused his demise.

Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the War victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013.

From Tesla, to Turing, to Jobs, to Musk, entrepreneurs’ vision and endeavour pushes civilisation forward. They are the driving force of human evolution, the vanguard of innovation leading us into the future. Innovators are not just those who run a business as entrepreneurs, an innovator is anybody who is consciously building the future that has an impact on society.

To create something truly original requires a sense of courage, curiosity and vision. The interesting paradox here is that often those who invent new things also have a healthy disrespect for what has already been achieved. They use the past not as a boundary, but as the frontier upon which to innovate.

In this sense, those seeking to innovate to find reassurance in the discomfort of originality, as those who strive to create new things are quickly confronted by the stark reality that we live in a world that finds comfort in doing what is tried and tested. The battle against conventional wisdom, therefore, becomes the innovator’s greatest encounter.

Turing’s scientific contributions are in line with many of history’s greats. It’s also easy to recognise many of Turing’s personality traits in today’s tech entrepreneurs who succeeded him. All are great dreamers, certainly, but they also possess a tenacious and sometimes intransigent character with regards to the realisation of their vision.

Turing’s is a parable of radical innovation that goes beyond incremental advances in search of great opportunities that have the potential to open up a nexus of possibilities for society. It is what Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One describes as 10x innovation, meaning that it provides a solution at least 10 times better than the current available solution.

Thiel points as examples to the Google algorithm, which was at least 10x more powerful than the others search engines that preceded it, as well as the Amazon platform, which offered at least 10x more books than any bookseller in the world. It is this kind of innovation, he notes, the world goes from a state of impossibility to a market reality.

Not many entrepreneurs today are working on 10x projects. Perhaps it is Elon Musk, with his SpaceX, Hyperloop and Tesla projects that will mark him out as the 10X innovator of the early C21st. The 10x innovation can sometimes be scary – recall the introduction of modern cinema in 1895 by the Lumière brothers, where the audience fled the room when they thought that the train in the movie would come out of the screen!

Fast-forward two decades from Turing’s death, to guys making personal computers in a garage in San Francisco in 1976. They had a name for their product and needed a logo. They idolised Turing’s ingenuity, genius and talent for putting together the first computer, and decided to honour him and comment on his persecution by removing a single bite from the apple graphic they had picked to represent their company.

And that’s how we got the iconic Apple logo on the back of all of our phones, computers, and iPods. Designer Rob Janoff says it was an easy choice, a tribute to Turing by Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs said the apple logo symbolises our use of computers to obtain knowledge and, ideally, enlighten the human race.

So the story goes – other theories – that the logo references Newton’s discovery of gravity also exist. The original apple logo from 1976 featured a hand drawn image of Isaac Newton under the tree where the apple fell with the copy: A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone. Perfectly sums up Apple, as pioneers.

Whatever the story of the Apple logo, everyone using a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program today, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine and his legacy of innovation.

We don’t celebrate Turing enough, probably in part because of his sexuality, and also probably because he was a computer scientist and mathematician. We don’t value that history enough either. For me, putting him on a banknote for the public to see everyday is a start. Better, put him in the school curriculum as an icon in the history of science.

Turing was a remarkable 10x innovator. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done, he once said of himself. Whatever you’re working on as an innovating entrepreneur today, this week, this month, look to the achievements and mindset of Alan Turing. You cannot climb uphill by thinking downhill thoughts. He didn’t stop to think how far he could go, neither should you.

Take a giant leap for your startup

On July 20, 1969, the world slowed down to watch a key moment in human history. Dinners went cold, families stayed up late, staring at their television sets. After a journey of eight days, three hours, eighteen minutes, thirty-five seconds Neil Armstrong walked a few steps down a ladder and placed his boot in the fine light-gray moon dust, followed by Buzz Aldrin. We were all standing there with them.

President Kennedy’s vision for putting a man on the moon stretched the best minds in aerospace to their limits and necessitating new ways of thinking and working – everything a startup needs to do.

It was incredible innovation, but it was also intimate. The Lunar Module was small – the two astronauts had 4.7m3 of pressurised volume between them, roughly twice the volume of a red telephone box. A tiny world, but a fully functioning spacecraft like none before it. Everything else on Apollo had been tried out at a smaller scale, but there had never been anything like the Lunar Module, designed to come down to land by its commander’s hand and eye in a place where nothing had landed before.

Humans going into space, the prospect of an unprecedented experience. Their hearts are beating fast. They see the moon surface in contours, pocked surface, hard-to-judge distances and near horizons, which gives them the ‘Earthrise’ view of Earth.

At the critical moment, Aldrin got a klaxon ringing in his earpiece. The console responded with error code 1202. Despite months of simulations, Aldrin didn’t know what this one meant; Armstrong, equally baffled, radioed Mission Control for clarification. The stress in his voice was audible. In that critical moment, hurtling like a paper plane toward the surface of the moon, the guidance computer had crashed.

The two men had trained for a computer error scenario, but it was up to Houston to make the call. When Mission Control heard Armstrong’s tense request for information, a well-rehearsed sequence of events played out. The scenario was a go – because below a 100 feet altitude an abort was no longer possible. Armstrong would be forced to attempt a landing even if his computer was malfunctioning.

He had little margin for error. On a hard crash landing, the astronauts might be killed; on a not-so-hard crash landing, the astronauts might survive, only to be stranded on the moon. In this nightmare scenario, Mission Control would bid Armstrong and Aldrin farewell, then cut communication as the two prepared to asphyxiate. Michael Collins, in the command module, would make the long journey back to Earth alone.

Imagine pulling the plug on the moon landing. Imagine not pulling the plug, then explaining to a nation and their families why two astronauts had been killed. By the time Houston relayed the message to Armstrong, almost 30 seconds had passed.

Armstrong resumed assessing the course to the landing area, from spending hours studying surface photographs, committing landmarks to memory. He’d noticed earlier that his trajectory was a little long, but before he could fully react, Aldrin queried the computer for altitude data. As before, he was answered by an alarm. The computer crashed again.

Back at Mission Control, was Don Eyles, 26 years old, who had programmed the software for the final descent. The first restart had alarmed Eyles. The second terrified him. This was not just a glitch but a crash. Eyles was out of the command loop, but he knew how the computer worked better than anyone. What Eyles deduced in that terrifying moment he would not reveal publicly for years to come: this scenario was not a go. It was an abort.

The console displayed nothing, just blank. Armstrong’s heart began to race, rising to 150 bpm, the same as a man at the end of a 100m sprint. With the moonscape zipping by outside his window, he was the closest any human had ever been to another world.

There were five computer crashes in four minutes. Mission Control went quiet, there was nothing useful left for them to say. Armstrong, following protocol, assumed manual control. He was going to have to eyeball it, piloting a malfunctioning spacecraft on an alien world.

He slowed the forward momentum, then rotated the legs toward the surface. Aldrin read aloud a steady stream of figures. With almost no fuel to spare, the Lunar Module dropped in slow motion to kiss the surface upright, and the particles of moondust hung suspended in the sunlight until the gentle lunar gravity pulled them back to rest.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, including a rest period of seven hours sleep. They blasted off back home, knocking over the American flag they had planted. They reunited with Collins, then three days later, splashed down in the Pacific.

Now, half a century after Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon, a new era of space exploration is beginning. Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will range from the big business of launching and maintaining swarms of communication satellites in low orbit to the niche one of tourism for the wealthy.

Back in 1969, I was there. I saw Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind in grainy black and white images on the television screen. I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for ‘Accountancy’ roles. I never got to ‘Astronaut’. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated Apollo seat.

Landing on the Moon is, for me, mankind’s greatest entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the anniversary of this extraordinary achievement for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

President John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon. To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic.

2. Have a sense of purpose

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases – Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down from the big vision into small steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

On descent to the moon, the Lunar Module’s computer died, threatening the landing sequence. Likely crash at an alarming velocity, Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If they hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go – Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

Without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risk, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a small founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required aligning the entire team with set priorities. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone assumes the same priorities. Create a communications plan, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do things, and were expected to go find out how to do it – Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience may seem counterintuitive, but NASA actively encouraged this – the average age of the Operations team was 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity to grow.

7. Keep asking questions

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your model, not one-time events, it is crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into this. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you – Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit.

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team.

Armstrong dared to dream. Life has its its twists and turns – he was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life for a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive. Now whether you’ve launched a brick-and-mortar startup or mobile app, taking an idea into a product is a miraculous one. Fifty years on we’re reminded of the legacy left behind.

Armstrong had the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit: We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said poet T.S. Eliot, capturing everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that makes them true entrepreneurs. What a giant leap for mankind they made. Now go and make a giant leap for your startup.