Startup leadership lessons from A&E

At 10.15 am, semi-reluctantly, I was helped out of the back of the ambulance with an itchy grey blanket draped around me, and stepped into the Accident and Emergency Department. Within minutes I was sat on a bed as a nurse took me through a questionnaire in a calm, structured fashion that ranged from the names of my next of kin to denominational preferences. I joined the club and signed the forms.

From somewhere another nurse appeared and proceeded to take my blood pressure and pulse, strapping and tightening a wide black band around my left upper arm with needless ferocity. She smiled in a friendly and reassuring way, committing the findings to a chart with such nonchalance to suggest that only the most dramatic irregularities could ever give her occasion for anxiety.

She turned her attention to my temperature and pressed a small device onto my forehead, its digital reading consulted and apparently satisfactory. I recalled the old days when an instrument was placed under your tongue and shaken three time, similar to a backhand flick in a ping-pong match.

Am I going to survive? I asked. You’ve got a temperature was the response. I thought everyone had a temperature? I enquired, but she looked away ignoring my attempt at humour.

Next a white-coated consultant arrived to put me through my paces, standing beside the bed and silently scanned the reports. He spent the next few minutes still in silence, as he prodded, squeezed and kneaded my abdomen and lungs, his eyes reflecting inner contemplation of what he was encountered.

The diagnosis was pneumonia, and I was detained for two days of observation. An overnight stay gave me a snap shot of hospital life, with its byzantine array of moving parts layered on top of the unpredictable rhythms of patient comings and goings. I could see that a hospital is in a permanent state of flux.

Bound by paperwork, short on hands, sleep and energy, nurses are never short on caring or love of humanity. Equally, I concluded that the character of a physician is just as important as the medical knowledge he or she possesses. Whilst nurses are the hospitality of the hospital, leadership from the physicians is reassuring and offers firm guidance.

Being at the centre of emergency clinical service delivery, physicians are an ideal leadership role model for crisis leadership in a startup, which shares the same characteristics of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty typical of the environment.

While medicine typically focuses on decision-making at the individual physician–patient level, A&E leadership involves stepping back and examining problems at a higher level with an immediacy that adds pressure, requiring the ability to view issues broadly and systemically. This has immediate parallels to a crisis in a startup, arising from either customer, cash or staff challenges.

The person who assumes the role of leader in either crisis setting must be able to readily analyse a complex environment, to make informed decisions rapidly, and be capable of ongoing assessment and adaptation to unfamiliar and rapidly changing conditions. So what are the leadership traits I observed during my 48 hours under medical care, that are needed for a crisis in a startup?

Trait 1: Operate with clear vision and values This is important for every leader in any situation. Since the primary focus of physicians is on their professionalism and practice, the importance of this trait increases intensely during emergency scenarios, when uncertainty and time pressure emphasise the need for an almost automatic judgement, responses and calls to action.

Trait 2: Take a moment to figure out what’s going on Often the first response when you get into a crisis if that everyone starts talking at once. The chatter is a nervous response, not constructive, so you have to quickly assert your judgement to impose order and leadership on a chaotic situation. Do nothing maybe the best immediate response until you’ve assessed the moment. I saw physicians putting order into noise, creating a structured analysis.

Trait 3: Listen Leadership means asking and listening, rather than doing the talking all the time. It’s trusting the people who know best at that moment in time. Your job is to quieten the noise of your own point of view in order to hear those with relevant information, and apply judgement. I observed some great action listening skills.

Trait 4: Act promptly, not hurriedly Following on from the points above, I saw doctors providing direction and responding to the situation in a timely fashion, but not acting hurriedly. You can act with deliberateness as well as speed. Be quick but don’t hurry. The antichaos effect is important for startup leaders in their decision-making, even when it may be tempting to back out, and avoid knee jerking to a quick-fix solution.

Trait 5: Demonstrate control When things are happening quickly, a leader must assume control even though they may not have control – that is you can control the response. A leader puts herself into the action and brings the people and resources to bear. If trouble strikes, you can direct the response with the perspective that comes from seeing the situation as a whole and the conditions that are having an impact. I saw a lot of this during my time in A&E.

Trait 6: Keep loose A hallmark of a leader in a crisis situation is their ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. She must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline folks who know what’s happening. The measure of a leader is often tested during a crisis, and those leaders who can engage directly, but still maintain their sense of perspective, are the ones that will help the organisation perform.

Trait 7: Communication and collaboration as a strategy Physicians’ daily focus is primarily one-on-one patient interaction. During emergency situations, leading effective team work in the heat of the moment demands coordination from everyone. Here, leadership is about developing the personal qualities of communication to work effectively with others.

Trait 8: Managing people and building their endurance During the frantic activity I saw in tense emergency moments, there was also time taken to continuously look after the team even in a disorganised setting, checking in with everyone as individuals to ensure they were both performing, but also mentally and emotionally coping.

Trait 9: Being assertive never ever involves shouting There is a need for emphatic, potent and unequivocal decision making in the moments of crisis, but shouting out orders doesn’t have a place in any workplace situation. Leaders, build trust which builds respect. No one likes a know it all and a leader is not that.

But in some cases, it isn’t the crisis itself that causes an organisation to flounder, too often it’s the leaders response to the crisis that causes the greatest damage. It’s a time when competent leaders prove their mettle and when pretenders reveal their impotence.

Trait 10: Control your own emotions In times of crisis, leaders invariably find themselves in the midst of a stressful and tense atmosphere. There are enormous mental, physical and psychological pressures that can lead you to become agitated or perhaps even lose patience with those around you. It may appear that giving up is the easier way.

Instead, stop and realise that you have a lot more control than you think you do. Now is the time to take charge of your thoughts, emotions and the way you deal with problems. Allowing emotions to get the better of you can cause your team to lose faith in your abilities, they can interpret this as a loss of control.

The lessons from my observations as in A&E for startups are that leaders should embrace the uncertainty, keep your nerves steady and your head on, keep your tone level and take some immediate and firm actions to control the crisis. Lead to get the situation into perspective.

Calmly and firmly share the facts, speak the truth, and avoid making the crises worse with excuses or made-up stories to your team – face the reality of what’s in front of you. Your colleagues and customers alike will appreciate your straight-forward, upfront candour, confidence and calm as you discover yourself in the midst of rough waters. Your calm is going to help the situation to be resolved with dignity and will rub off on everybody else.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, how skilled your team is, or how careful you are in the process, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or accidentally push a massive bug to your software. You might realise a horrible defect in your product just after a new shipment goes out, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best early customers.

Crises like these are individually preventable but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your startup on the line. Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. You never let a serious crisis go to waste – what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. What you shouldn’t do is let a crisis become a crisis about your leadership.

Startups are like the A&E hospital ward in which I found myself last year, in that they will find themselves facing unexpected situations. The problem or crisis may strike during any juncture, and it may occur in any form. In spite of taking all of the necessary steps and strategies for management, a crisis might catch a startup completely unprepared and unaware, and it’s the calibre of the leaders that most often makes the difference.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Avoid the distractions of startup culture and hype, believe in yourself

Based on the decade of experience of being involved in tech startups as a founder, advisor and investor, I can say without doubt that the cacophony of startup hullabaloo is getting louder than ever. It’s a dangerous elephant in the room. The brouhaha is becoming an epidemic.

Really, what does super excited mean, other than referring to an eight year-old on Christmas Day? I asked a founder last week what his value proposition was: Bitcoin crypto-ecosphere incubating API-friendly functionality he replied with a straight face, although I did detect the mad-eyed Jack Nicholson face from the scene in The Shining where he puts an axe through the bathroom door. Here’s Johnny was lurking within.

It’s a cultural shift where we’re seeing the image and status of being an entrepreneur as having more meaning than the outputs they create. It’s in every place that wants to be a tech hub, everyone that wants to be a tech millionaire before they’ve really put a shift in and before they’ve hit 25.

I read an article that highlighted ‘The App Effect’ as the root of all this evil, anyone and everyone wants a shot at the startup game. People want to build an app before having an idea. The Peter Pan Generation.

The nap-rooms, free food, colourful furniture, they all create the image-before-action trend, and indulge people on the possibility of making money before any truly hard work. Google is amazing tech, but they didn’t start with nap-rooms or free food to employees. The culture seems to perpetuate itself. Everything nowadays is a startup.

Then there’s the ‘Uber for X’ phenomenon, folks proudly announce themselves as the on-demand, sharing-economy solution for: pet sitting, laundry, car-washes etc. I’ve even had someone pitch me ‘Uber for underwear’, but that’s not worth sharing. The list is an endless set to the value of n. But at least it’s replaced the i-laundry, i-car wash, i-tutor phase.

There are that many disruptive blockchain Uber foxes (apparently it means riding on the back of the success of a more established business) going to be a white horse like creature with single horn in Manchester, that I’m going to launch a Startup Bullshit Bingo app to play on the Met or walking around Spinningfields. Pity it’s not a Valley. As you were, Manchester.

We’re bootstrapping 101 evangelists. Enough, I could let you have more, but what is the impact of this startup hullabaloo culture? It is deception in various forms such as outlandish exaggeration, warping of reality or just talking in a way that gives an inaccurate picture of how your startup is actually doing. It’s the lies you tell yourself, and this self-deception is akin to self-harm, that concerns me most.

So let’s be clear: startups are starting level companies based on new ideas. It’s a label, nothing more than a time adjective for businesses. Yet it has turned into a tech-cool-hipster way of doing business and it’s a label people yearn for – but how can a ‘business’ that is four years old, with no revenue or customers, still call itself a startup? How can an idea in heads and on paper only be worth £1m?

All of this eager desire to carry that image is helping to establish the Endup Culture, because they are ignoring the fundamentals of any business, and equally, downplaying that the striving in hardship and graft that is the reality of startups, is not for everyone. It’s grit not glamour.

That’s not to say that the real startup culture isn’t valuable, the culture and ambition that stands for exploring the blank canvas of unsolved problems is worthwhile. There are brilliant ideas out there.

But this hype and bravado comes at a price. It’s chipping away at the key things you really need – self-belief and hard work. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Believing or just even exposing yourself to this noise is an insidious trap. At its heart, it makes you blinded, you second guess yourself and take your eye off the only thing that actually matters: focusing relentlessly on knowing your customers and delivering value to them.

As founders, we necessarily have to believe it’s possible when we don’t know, but the hype around tech startups is creating a schism from the underlying reality. It’s too easy to fall into a routine where you’re always pitching a bright tomorrow, attending all the meet-ups and networking events, living in the startup eco-system bubble, but in reality not focused on head-down, sleeves rolled-up and doing the hard yards. The success of others should be motivating, but you have to put the hours in. Hope is not a strategy.

The problem comes when we distort the truth about our current situation (warts and all) to believe the hype we tell others and indeed ourselves. It increases the feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome, and feeds the lie that you’re the only one who is struggling with the basics. So how can you avoid this hot-air and accept the brutal reality of pragmatism required to get a startup off the ground?

First, know that every founder struggles to the point of despair. You’re not alone in feeling like this despite what you may hear from others. Second, start by being honest with yourself and avoid the seduction of the rhetoric. Close your ears. I don’t believe startup life needs to be about hiding bad news and pretending everything is shiny. It’s about balance, being in the moment, doing and being the best you can.

Launching a startup is a special kind of personal commitment, which will invariably bring profound reminders of your purpose and challenges as a human being. A startup is about finding what matters to you. Then there’s the contradiction between your thinking and reality once you’re into it. These paradoxes and tensions are the very drivers that spur us on.

What counts is not the status of ‘startup’, but the endeavour and joy in the work, so define your purpose and success on your own terms. Don’t indulge yourself in the noise of others, recognise your own dilemmas, because if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, why bother in the first place?

Accept, that it carries risk and there is no safety net, but don’t listen to the bravado of others, listen to your own voice. At some point, you’ll feel that you are fully invested – emotion, energy, time – but quitting is not a remote possibility. Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, you need to dodge the most obvious startup cliché, and at all costs avoid granting yourself the status of the victim.

Living on your own wits as a solo artist in the spirit of individualism, don’t look to the left or the right to blame others, look at yourself. The gung-ho bravado of startup culture is masking the reality and undermining the truth: it’s sheer bloody hard work.

Think about it this way: What’s important to me is not the hype of others; but my opinion of myself. You have to have belief in many things, for yourself, by yourself, to make your startup a success. Let’s look at some of these beliefs.

Belief in self: First and foremost, simply believe in your ability. You can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. Don’t hope you can beat the odds, believe wholeheartedly that you will. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt, yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane.

One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Ditch the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, the cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude.

Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of entrepreneurs. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champions, who treat failure as a motivation. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in your vision: Your vision is bigger than anything in the moment, it’s what got you started, what keeps you going. Hold your vision and make small steps, no matter how dark the clouds. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s belief in your vision that determines your continued direction and ultimately success.

Tech startups are now a symbol of C21st cool, and founders are hipsters. It’s hard to tell if an idea is any good, but there’s a clear distinction between naivety and pretence. Call startups on reality. If you bring value, you win customers. Otherwise, you don’t. How did we lose sight of that?

Startups bear too much of an image culture, and many founders are too anxious for the status badge. The bravado and hype is damaging, you need to detach from it. I know folks who attend every single network event and yet don’t do much real work. Why? Because it’s cool to be seen at these events. But talking about what you’re doing are all the time just leads to complacency.

If you’ve got this far with this blog, you’ve recognised my somewhat cynical view of everything helps because it keeps you grounded. As Jason Fried says, avoid the trap, it’s signals versus noise. Staying grounded allows you to maintain a focus on shipping. Celebrating equals shipping. It’s not sexy, but shipping pays the bills.

Working for a startup can be amazing, amidst all the uncertainty and frustrations lies the understanding that succeeding means you are moving the needle on something that you enjoy doing. When you connect to the silence within you, and find your self-belief, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you. Respect yourself. Don’t screw it up by being distracted by all the startup hype.

The future is unwritten, so make your mark

Rebel’s Wood is a young forest on the Atlantic-facing North West side of the Isle of Skye. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Bracadale is this beautiful woodland of native broad leaf trees, predominantly Birch, Alder, Rowan, Oak and Willow. This healthy young forest is doing well after taking a while to poke their heads above the bracken, due to the slow growing conditions of the far North.

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

Joe Strummer was a pioneering musician. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a mélange of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice.

After releasing a final album in 1985, the Clash broke up for good, and Strummer went into a personal wilderness for over a decade. Returning with what was to be his final music venture, with a new band, The Mescaleros, Strummer was reborn. Remarkably, his final music displays a steadfast work ethic and creativity, experimentation and innovation in his musicianship.

Strummer and The Mescaleros recorded three innovative albums, which showcase a renewed, vibrant Strummer producing music radically different from his previous work.  More insightful and mature, here is a collection of stunning compositions and poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects.

On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit gig for striking fire fighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones, his former partner in The Clash was in the audience, and in an impromptu act, joined the band on stage to play a few classic Clash tunes. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together. But within three weeks, Strummer was dead.

Strummer made his mark, redefining music, and reaffirming the principles of committed, intelligent political and social commentary and opposition through music. For someone who used his music to galvanize and promote progressive action, his final performance was most fitting.

In three weeks time, on 28 September, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 will be released, featuring some unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This will be the last time we will hear from Joe Strummer.

Strummer was dynamic, controversial and confrontational. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talismanic musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity. Originality was a trait characterising both the man and musician.

His brutally confessional and outspoken work was a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his death, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making commercial music.

Strummer’s ideology of constant innovation and originality in his craft is very rare. His zest and restlessness puts him alongside the names we associate with C21st tech entrepreneurship and innovation, people who’ve built amazing digital services, devices, new business models or social-media platforms. Like them, Strummer wanted to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity, but through his music rather than tech.

Strummer had the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation and individuality. Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein, Bowie, Jobs and Musk.

It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. Imagination leads us to accomplish our greatest achievements. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are. That’s entrepreneurship. It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are, and be it the best way you know how.

So how do you do this? Here are some thoughts as to what made Strummer the individual, his entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from him, with parallels to the tech innovators who surround us today.

Start small Bootstrapping and learning your craft, with a strong work ethic and determination, will always give you the foundations to make your dream a reality. You have to make a start, make it happen for yourself. Strummer never forgot where it all started for him: I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99 I think, and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play Johnny B. Goode. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and Johnny B. Goode. And that’s how I started.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Strummer is that no matter what the obstacles, he never gave up. He was exceptionally self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed determination to continue and keep moving forward through all challenges. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Strummer wanted to be the best, get his voice heard above everyone else. He had something to say. He was ready to take big risks when there were no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in him or his music, but this did not dent his self-belief. He just kept going – keep the big vision, take small steps – and then with The Mescaleros he went again, saw success. Nothing is impossible.

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.

Strummer’s enormous ambition to do what everyone said couldn’t be done far exceeded everyone around him. He was in dispute with his record company for eight years, and released no new music, yet he kept fighting. He aimed for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

Build prototypes Joe’s risk-taking and creativity always had a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. He prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle.

For each finished track, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.

He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lied in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

Alongside Strummer’s thinking, I’ve always held JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit as inspiring about choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

The future is unwritten There were moments when Strummer wanted to be left with his thoughts. He liked being alone, he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard. He once said Thinking is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But according to his wife Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil. He would say, ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’ And I would go: ‘No you’re not, you’re just staying up!'”

The future is unwritten is a headline quote just before his death, which captures the essence of Strummer and entrepreneurs, restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. He was an individual, in every sense of the word.

In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

Directions to Rebel’s Wood – From Dunvegan follow the A836 South for half a mile; turn right onto the B884 and follow for half a mile; turn left to Orbost (signposted) and follow for two miles. Park in the yard and follow on foot the track to Bharcasig (Barabhaig) and continue south to the site.

Go fishing with Einstein to improve your entrepreneurial thinking

I remember it well. Sitting still, staring practically hypnotised by the little red stick – the float – in the water, willing it to twitch. I was with my granddad and dad, on the canal bank. And then, when it did, that magical moment, not quite believing it. Did it really happen, or did I imagine it? It twitches again, bobs down and goes under. You pick up the rod and strike. Yes! A connection via a thin nylon thread to a fish. We’re on!

I haven’t been fishing for years, but all of this came back to me watching Gone Fishing recently, with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, two of my comedy icons from the 1990s. They made me laugh out loud then – and again on the new programme.

Paul Whitehouse was part of the team behind The Fast Show, inspired to have a go at comedy when working as a plasterer in the house where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were living. Characters of Ron Manager, Ken, one of the ‘Suit You Sir’ tailors and Ted were his forte.

Bob Mortimer is best known for working with Vic Reeves as Vic and Bob, developing a nightclub variety show format in Vic Reeves Big Night Out, and Shooting Stars, a comedy panel quiz show which ran from 1993 to 2011. Both were truly trailblazing – and utterly chaotic.

Whitehouse and Mortimer have more in common than just their love of laughter. They have both suffered complex heart diseases – Paul had three stents, Bob a triple bypass – and that was the back story of the series, a poignant reminder of the passage of time and how priorities change from a pair who in their prime, were responsible for the transformation of the British comedy landscape.

The pair’s friendship stretches back decades. Whitehouse reached out after learning Mortimer was in the doldrums following heart surgery, thinking a tour of the country’s finest fishing spots might help Bob’s recovery, relax them both and along the way maybe they would learn something new about each other.

In this funny and poignant six-part series, we eavesdrop as they reconnect and share their personal experiences. They also fish, and talk nonsense. A lot. On soggy riverbanks, they candidly discuss everything you can imagine, while trying to catch some fish with the excitement of a bobbing float.

Of course, it’s not really about fishing, but about friendship and getting older and reminiscing, joking about mortality and life. There are even impressions: Bob does his De Niro. It’s fine until he starts talking. Stick to silent De Niro, Bob (although, actually, a bad impression is funnier than a good one).

It was lovely television, warm, funny, and human. They shared nostalgia for their youth and revealed how they recently came face to face with their own mortality – passing a graveyard, they muse about the future and chat to a local vicar about death, and their own funerals.

Whilst modern friendships revolve around text messages and social media, it was a joy to witness friendship taken back to basics, banter without much actually happening, ambling around sharing experiences. There was something soothing and reaffirming in the embrace of the moment, the vocal joshing and the comfortable company of an old friend.

Gone Fishing was a breath of fresh air, escapist bliss. There’s a simple, endearing pleasure in watching excitable men fly-fishing in a gently bubbling river, while a group of meandering cows trudge past to the opposite bank.

Bob maintained the upbeat whimsy and sense of irreverence, Paul channels real pathos and is quietly contemplative at times. This is a wry, funny look at the reality of life on the wrong side of 50 of two men lamenting the passage of time.

In the final episode, they decide to try and catch a pike, which is perhaps not the best idea for two men of a certain age with heart problems. To close, facing the future, they write a eulogy for each other as the sun sets on their final fishing expedition. Hopefully a second series beckons, if you missed it, go back on catch-up TV, it’s well worth it.

Everyone experiences fatigue, anxiety and poor health at some point in his or her daily life, and you need coping mechanisms to help you deal with the issues and feel better mentally and emotionally. Fishing might be just what you need!

There are undeniable psychological benefits of fishing that can help you feel better on an emotional and mental level. Looking at Paul and Bob, you don’t typically catch a fish every five minutes, but the calming water helps you relax as you unplug and connect with nature, enjoying a peaceful and quiet environment.

No one is around, there’s nothing to bother you, it’s just you, open water, the fish and fresh air. Above all, the openness gives you some perspective on what is really important, and on what makes you happy.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of fishing lodged in my psyche, as entrepreneurs we need time and space to think and get stuff out of our heads, a place to look at the horizon and keep us fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Fishing strikes me as the perfect place to think and reflect about your business challenges, the stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it.

Where’s your favourite place to do your best thinking? Mine’s a deserted, windswept, isolated beach with just the dog to talk to. It’s hard for me to put into words why I like the beach so much, it’s just everything about it is renewing for me, almost like therapy. Beach Therapy. Perfect beaches, perfect water, perfect rock pools, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

You cannot exist in isolation, but there’s nothing I like more than to take myself off for some thinking time on the beach. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.  Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way.

Yet today offers a strange paradox: our knowledge and understanding of complexities in the world expands dramatically, yet the time to think and analyse is getting smaller and smaller. How do you make time to think?

Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the bath, on a walk, on a train, doing the garden – or fishing. Albert Einstein put it this way: I take time to go for long walks so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualise what goes on in my imagination.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.  His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Just imagine you had the opportunity to share a conversation with Einstein to shape your entrepreneurial thinking. It struck me a great place to spend time doing this, just chatting, would be on a boat or a river, as Paul and Bob did. The moments to share, reflect, listen and learn would be the ultimate mentoring experience, so here’s my Fishing with Einstein, in his own words, about his thoughts on how to make a difference with your own thinking:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed, but what made Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin be great innovators was they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Einstein kept pushing the boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experiments to undertake, he had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction.

Einstein tells us to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem? He said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So, Einstein as your fishing companion, taking the time to reflect, thinking differently and not just sitting there and daydreaming. It’s about picturing the alternatives and working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the entrepreneurial revolution before it finds you.

We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, so get yourself fishing, and see where it takes you and your thinking. As Paul Whitehouse said, last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.

Bootstrap your startup: chase customers not investors, revenue not rounds

In recent years, the term tech entrepreneur has been glamorised to the status of celebrity, creating a cohort of Silicon Valley wannabees. There is real dignity and romance to entrepreneurship, but there is now a mantra that if you don’t have pretense of an ambition for Eating The World, raising millions and becoming a unicorn, then you’re not a real tech startup.

I have a nagging sense that the zeal for being disruptive and x10 growth isn’t the only air a startup can breathe, but they are crowding out other motives. Part of the problem seems to be that the millennium kids aren’t content to merely put a dent in their own universe, rather they have to put a dent in the universe.

In this atmosphere, the term startup has turned into an obsession with unicorns, a whole generation of entrepreneurs enthralled by the prospect of being transformed into a mythical creature. This fairytale ideal is being reinforced at every turn and an inappropriate yearning for the Mecca of Silicon Valley.

This saccharine rhetoric around entrepreneurship today hides an extraordinarily rapid switch in the balance of power between startup founders and investors that marks the early frontier days of a tech startup. The mindset has shifted. Investors have won.

Why have they won? Well, the gung-ho sentiment of ‘raise money, raise money, if you don’t you’re not a genuine entrepreneur’ has killed off the simple do-it-for-yourself bootstrapping ambition. I find this sentiment a vacuous rationalisation of the grim economic realities – most startups don’t raise money. In fact, most don’t need it.

There are still entrepreneurs wily enough to stay outside of the system and play the game on their own terms, but for the most part, the collapse of the balance of power is not a good thing as it is stifling the real driver of entrepreneurship: entrepreneurs should chase customers, not investors; they should chase revenue not rounds.

They have a vision, but they end up on a different path that effectively makes them mercenaries for hire. They are prospecting for gold in someone else’s Klondike, rather than being self-driven mavericks shooting for their own moon themselves. It’s a path that promises jackpots, but actually creates an agenda simply linked to financial return for someone else, not innovation, creativity or product-market fit.

Startup funding, when applied with wisdom, can work for entrepreneurs. Applied naively, it is a back-seat driving mechanism with which investors can micromanage. By codifying the entrepreneurial insight with investors, it allows investors far greater visibility into operational realities, steering and controlling velocity by their control authority via board seats.

Bootstrapping has been discarded for other people’s money, which changes everything.  In accepting venture funding as the de facto model for growth, entrepreneurs have handed control to investors with an episodic narrative that encourages a short-term focus and rush to exit, and not a long-term building and learning journey.

It’s hard to carry on a conversation with most startup founders these days without hearing the word ‘round’ – their eyeballs fixating on money. Once you take the money, it’s a debt owed, with all the nagging reciprocity that comes with it. Don’t just accept this definition of ‘success is the next round’ because everyone else is cheering that. The chorus of the masses is loud, and that’s seductively alluring. But let’s take a step back.

The real question is why did you launch your startup?  I don’t believe most people are solely motivated by fawning over the latest hockey stick phenomenon. Bedazzled maybe, but I invite you to dig deeper and explore your original motivation.

In the US, Shark Tank and at home, Dragons’ Den celebrate entrepreneurship as reality TV, looking for folks to build the perennial Next Big Thing and scoring a heart-warming Techcrunch story. The winner is pumped to deliver that 10x return, well aware the aim is to clear a somewhat extraordinarily high fence.

Curiously, the hand-wringing camp usually wins.  Lest you feel inclined to be snarky about this plot, consider this: What the entrepreneur is gambling for is not the space trip and big fortune, but merely survival. There are very few winners. It also involves a massive amount of self-delusion. This narrative works as patronising sarcasm precisely because the standardised term sheet marks the promise of Emperor’s New Gold.

Many startups go for raising money just because it’s available. But most of them shouldn’t. The reasons for wanting the money – because it will make growth and hiring easier – are not enough. To be sure, there is no single right or wrong answer for everyone, but don’t take money just because it’s there.

That funding will be the most expensive cash you ever buy. But beyond that, cash is addictive. If you let investor funding become the driver for your business early on, it’s very difficult to wean yourself off of it as you grow. Many people who think they need that outcome in order to live the startup life that they want are quite simply wrong.

You’re selling your startup vision and business model to investors. Why not take all of that energy and hustle that requires to build yourself a better business, and have long-term impact? Instead of selling to investors, sell to customers. Think about ways to increase revenue – build your brand, increase your prices, upsell on added value, get new customers in the door. Make your startup its’ own financial backer.

Consider for a moment that a funding round wasn’t an option available to you. The alternative is bootstrapping. You may see slower growth and far more hard work on your part, yet for me, this is ultimately more rewarding.

But the common view is you need to turn to investors who will hand over funds. However, this rarely occurs, and you’ll likely waste your time, effort and money on pitch development in the process. Instead, bootstrapping affords far more opportunities:

  • You’ll stay passionate about your startup and discover key talents you didn’t know you had. Don’t be quick to hire when you can do the work yourself. Putting in more sweat instead of hiring others, especially in the early days, will help keep your costs down.
  • Later, bootstrapping is likely to attract the right talent. You’ll bring in people who can actually push you forward because you’ll have better insight into who you need.
  • You retain control today, and in the future. You don’t have to sell equity for investor compensation. It also ensures all of your cash generated from profit remains in your pocket, not investors.
  • Most importantly, without investor financing, you’ll grow a better company that’s less dependent on pleasing investors and more likely to develop the type of product or service your customers need.

Bootstrapping can be challenging and hard work, but it nearly always affords startup founders with a better end result. In a survey conducted by Quartz Media on why startups fail, it was evident that funded startups were more likely to run out of money than those bootstrapping, because they were more judicious and focused on the decisions better. There is clear evidence that external funding distracts founders.

Independence isn’t missed until it’s gone, in the sense that external money dictates your journey. The motive, for me, of doing my own thing means rejecting the definition of success proposed by the San Franciscan economic model of Get Big. All this may sound like I have a lack of aspiration. I like to call it modest, realistic, achievable.

It’s a designed experience and a deliberate pursuit that recognises beyond a certain level of financial success, the trappings of a blow-out success aren’t nearly as high up the Maslovian pyramid of priorities as people think.

Let investors keep their money under their mattress for someone else. When you take money from investors their business model becomes yours. Einstein said compound interest is the eight wonder of the world. Morality pitted against the compound leverage of capital is often outmatched, but there are people building profitable startups outside the sphere of the venture capital dominion that have little systemic need to tell their story.

The web is the greatest entrepreneurial platform ever invented. Lowest barriers of entry, greatest reach ever. Examine and interrogate your motivations, reject the money if you dare. Recognise that a startup doing something useful that dents your own universe is plenty. Curb your ambition. Live happily ever after.

Recognise your thirst for venture capital is vanity capital. Entrepreneurship is an emotion of ambition. Venture capital appeals to another emotion – greed. Stop chasing investors and start chasing customers. Avoid the time wasted for attracting investors, managing their expectations and getting through to the next round of funding.

I appreciate that some projects have high capital costs, but this focus can distract you from your far more important and ultimately the only source of funds that matters – your customers.

Every startup has a limited runway and investment can help extend that, external funding is a temporary fix to give sufficient time to test and perfect your business model. But there’s something refreshingly clear about having no external funding and no investors to keep happy, allowing you to focus 100% on your customers.

If you can satisfy them, and they pay for it, you’re in business. If they don’t, you’re not. It cuts to the chase a lot faster. When you are forced to rely on your customers it puts you in direct contact with them and you quickly find out exactly what they want and don’t want. It’s amazing how quickly you learn what is necessary and what’s not when your funds are so limited.

For me, the steady advance of this ‘round x’ philosophy is destroying the very concept of entrepreneurship, founders mistakenly believe that fundraising is a substitute for selling to actual customers. Let’s stop all this craziness. You need validation from customers willing to pay for your solution. Your key to economic independence isn’t reliance on outside investors, it’s the creation of a customer base that believes in you and your offering.

It can be done: Hewlett-Packard started with just $538 and a garage. That was a lot of money in 1936 when the company was founded, but that equates to about $7,500 in today’s currency.

Bootstrapping out of your own pocket is difficult, but for me, ultimately more fulfilling – you did it on your own terms and your own effort. It’s by no means impossible to give up a chunk of your personal life today for the sake of your future self.

Ultimately, bootstrapping is making an investment in yourself, by yourself, for yourself. In a startup, hope is the fuel of progress. Focus your entrepreneurial endeavours and progress based on your passion, your ideas and your ideals, not other people’s money.

Make your startup stand out from the crowd like Johnny Dough’s

It’s the classic story, we’ve all heard before – a 38 year-old geologist from Llandudno is working for a Canadian mining company in Ethiopia when he suddenly thinks…Pizza! Well, probably not the most common of occurrences, but that’s exactly what happened to man behind Johnny Dough’s Wood-Fired Pizza restaurants, Morgan Austin.

It’s February 2015. After much research, planning and van-converting, startup Johnny Dough’s Wood-Fired Pizza was created, serving quality, fresh pizzas in minutes to Llandudno locals and tourists, as well as at festivals around North Wales, from his mobile van. The journey to provide delicious, freshly-made pizzas in just a few minutes had begun.

Fast forward to May 2016. It became clear that the demand for his pizzas, made quickly and with fresh local ingredients, was never going to be satisfied with just a van, so in partnership with fellow entrepreneur Jon Hughes, their first restaurant was opened in Llandudno town centre.

With an expanded menu, including some local twists like Great Orme Goat’s Cheese, Menai Strait Mussels Marinière and Anglesey Sheep Shish Kebab pizzas, the new restaurant hit the ground running and quickly became a favourite and welcome addition to the town’s tourism sector.

Step forward again to March 2018. As the reputation of Johnny Dough’s spread, the time came to look for another premises. So when The Bridge pub in Conwy became available, it re-opened as Johnny Dough’s at The Bridge. The combination of the range of local real ales, artisan gins and Johnny’s wood-fired signature cooking style made for a winning combination and very quickly this second location became a thriving venue.

As I now spend most of my leisure time in nearby Deganwy, Johnny Dough’s has become a firm favourite on my eating destinations list. From the moment you open the door and smell the wood smoke oven, you know you are in for a treat.

So many features of this airy eatery are striking. The vibe is warm and welcoming. The decor is pared back, with bare wood tables and brick walls. A small kitchen with an open wood oven sends out freshly made artisan pizzas that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall. And in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, everyone finds them as tasty as I do.

What you see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech behemoths that dominate our everyday lives – the wave of independent restaurants and coffee shops are the playgrounds of true entrepreneurs, where effort and endeavour is given in pursuit of their craft and dreams.

The pizza-entrepreneur Morgan Austin is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea into a startup reality. They need to do their research, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it. Then the hard part – find, win and keep customers, and get a share of their wallet on a regular basis.

The small independent restaurateur has to juggle everything from preparing the food to building a brand to mastering social media to managing suppliers and recruiting and training staff. They are operating in a highly competitive market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue.

I’ve watched Johnny Dough’s operate with true entrepreneurial flair. From dough to pizza to serving on branded greaseproof paper atop of wooden pizza trays, offering signature pizza designs and recipes, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy and authenticity.

What makes you choose a restaurant? The food menu obviously, but what about the location, seating – including how far apart the tables are, service, the staff, the general ambience and of course the price. But many of these factors are about experience and given the growth in numbers and genres of cafes and restaurants, how do you stand out from the crowd?

Restaurants have to make us want to go there, whether for a quick lunch, dinner with friends or a special occasion meal. But what makes one better than the other?  What I find off-putting is drab, tired décor, ear-splitting background music and tables packed too tightly in a small space. Some restaurants are so keen to squeeze in as many diners as possible, that on occasions I’ve sat so close to the next table that I could have joined in their conversation!

I also stay clear of those complex menus where Heston Blumenthal influences can be seen – smoked haddock risotto is one of my favourites, but I saw it on a menu last week with peach sauce, and that was simply a step too far. You can do all kinds of things to be noticed, but many of them don’t make the right lasting impression to make customers return. I find restaurants confuse novelty for innovation.

For me, a restaurant’s atmosphere sets the stage. It’s about more than just a dining room away from home. As diners, we are investing in a package deal of food, drink and feel-good factor and, while the memory of what we ate might fade over time, the other aspects of the experience remain.

So how does Johnny Dough’s stand out from the crowd? Here are some reflections from my recent visit – Farmhouse pizza and Conwy Welsh Pride ale by the way, heartily recommended – that can be taken into any startup venture.

1. Get back to basics – serve great food

When people walk through the restaurant doors, they are expecting to enjoy their meal. Setting high standards when it comes to the food quality is vital and it is important to ensure that customers get the same quality every time to earn a restaurant a good reputation, causing customers to make return visits.

2. The dining experience

Apart from serving good food, customers look for a good overall experience. Johnny Dough’s staff help to enhance the guest experience through being courteous and maintaining a great attitude. They are knowledgeable about the cuisine, address issues promptly and make sure that the food and drinks get to the customers in a timely manner.

The layout and classic look of the restaurant allows a relaxed ambiance to come through. You’ve got a lot of space on the table and between each table. Customers can have their own intimacy and not join in the next table conversation.

3. The restaurant ambience

The atmosphere can go a long way in determining whether customers keep coming back. Atmosphere comes from guests, their conversations, the buzz, the clinking of glasses. It’s a very relaxed environment and Johnny Dough’s understand ambiance is harnessed. The atmosphere is relaxed, fun and easy going. Conwy is a vibrant tourist destination, and people on holiday want the feel good factor to continue.

4. Personalisation

Personalisation has become the key to business success, as increasingly consumers expect a service crafted for them as individual consumers. People go out to eat under many different circumstances, and a restaurateur and staff need to read what people want on that particular service, because the way you treat this table may be completely different to that table.

Johnny Dough’s menu includes an option for children to create their own pizza of choice, that’s a great USP and marketing strategy, the ultimate focus on the individual in today’s ‘pay-as-you-go’ economy.

5. Something unique

Most people are looking for something different when they decide to dine out. A great restaurant promises to offer something that is not available elsewhere. If providing good food and service is all that a restaurant can offer, that is nothing new.

A great restaurant will have one or several unique features that will stand out in the patrons mind and this creates a competitive advantage. Johnny Dough’s capture and create their competitive advantage by bundling together a number of unique features to differentiate their offering.

6. The price factor

The price is an important consideration when people are dining out and it takes into account different characteristics of the restaurant offering. People pay for the overall experience, not just the food and that is why some restaurants charge much more than others – and why some are always filled to capacity night after night. Customers expect prices to reflect the type of food, level of service and the overall atmosphere of the restaurant.

Johnny Dough’s offer a value for money experience compared to other venues in Conwy, and to the international pizza brands. Pricing shapes an expectation in a customer’s mind, and Johnny Dough deliver on that expectation.

7. Perfect timing

The co-ordination between the kitchen and table is a well-orchestrated ballet at a restaurant, you never want to see your meal slowly congealing under a heat lamp waiting to be served, nor having your plates whisked away and replaced by the next course while you’re in final mid-chew.

The tempo is good, just enough time to savour the experience before eating, and relaxing afterwards. Timing in delivery, is everything.

8. Keep a clear head

Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of pizza eaters and food being sent from the oven, 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 pizza.

As an entrepreneur, patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and do stuff. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision. In the frenzy, treat every customer as if they are your only customer, and they will recognise it.

9. Enjoy the oxygen

Top athletes use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills in an intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in competition.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection to collect their thoughts. The staff at Johnny Dough’s did this, spending quiet moments to themselves to reflect on the success of their business, what’s working and what’s not, and also enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

10. Make the closing memorable

So how do you close off a transaction such that is starts a relationship, and a customer returns? Johnny Dough’s give you the bill in a small brown envelope with the words THE DAMAGE – get yer dough out.

The last touchpoint with the customer uses humour, reinforces the brand with simple language, and makes the payment memorable – you recall the final act, not the price, it focuses the customer on value and experience, not cost. Simple, but clever!

This is how the independent pizza and coffee outlets win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that. These are great basics for any startup venture.

Going along with the crowd may be mentally reassuring, but it is more fulfilling to follow your own unique desires and modes of expression. Value your own individuality.

Focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your startup 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. Why do we work so hard to fit in, when we were born to stand out?

Finally, don’t take my words for it, check it out! https://johnnydoughs.com/

Beat the odds: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.

School reunions are funny things, you quickly rewind back to when you were 18 and awkward and gangly and clumsy, not that I’ve changed that much since then anyway. However, my recent reunion was really quite poignant, former teachers who had such an influencing and formative impact on me are now of an age that each year fewer of them remain alive or are well enough to attend.

My most recent reunion saw the absence of Mr Evans, my former maths teacher. I did three ‘A’ levels at maths, I saw as much of him almost as my mum and dad in those two years. He was my John Keating, the Robin Williams character from Dead Poets Society. Not quite the O Captain, My Captain moment from the Walt Whitman poem, but Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.

I still remember the main school entrance and the huge columns by the door, wooden floors and marble fireplaces in the classrooms. The grounds were amazing, with over ten rugby pitches, lots of trees and rhododendrons all over the place. Seem to recall secret snogging and not so secret scrapping went on in the garden areas.

As far as schoolwork was concerned I was unexceptional until I completed my ‘O’ levels, then Boom! Learning became a serious business. I ditched the foreign languages – declining nouns and adjectives and conjugating verbs. English had been fine, I enjoyed the class time reading, Jerome K Jerome Three Men in a Boat has stuck with me forever, but French was bewildering, you had to make strange noises I’d never heard before and twist your mouth into a new shapes.

History? What’s the point? Why was I being told King Alfred burned the cakes? Why, if he was king, was he doing the cooking for goodness sake?. Worst of all was Scripture. It actually frightened me. It seemed to be filled with random politeness. Thou shalt no covert thy neighbour’s ox. Are you joking?

I was able to do long division in my head, a four-digit number dividend by a three-digit number was easy, I could see the expansion of quadratic equations and calculus? It was made in heaven. I enjoyed the need to be able to learn and reproduce mathematical proofs, Fibonacci, Pascal’s triangle, probability and Archimedes.

I recall one late, Friday afternoon in December, 1980. The lesson was about Pythagorean theorem and Euclid’s proof. The homework was come prepared to stand up in front of the class and write the proof on the blackboard. But no, I’d been distracted and not done it.

True to form, he walked into the classroom, threw the chalk casually over to me and asked me to parade my knowledge on Pythagoras, and sat down with his back to the blackboard. Silence. No hurried scuffing of chalk on said blackboard as I unpacked my thinking. Within twenty seconds he knew I hadn’t done the work. Tumbleweed passed gently through the room.

And then something magical happened: Brookes, if you care to go to the bookcase on the far wall, second shelf up, take the sixth book from the left, the one with the red cover, and turn to page 134, the fourth paragraph onwards will help you. So off I went, found the book as described and there, page 134, was a perfect recount of Euclid’s Proof.

I stood there and copied out the proof onto the blackboard. It was one of the most stressful episodes in my life since my journey in my mother’s birth canal. To this date, I still carry round a scruffy bit of paper, now fading and in tatters, with the Euclid’s proof. But it was the moment the appetite for learning, curiosity and being mentally agile was borne in me, that day has lived with me ever since. Evans’s passion for knowledge, knowing where the book was, the shelf, the page, the paragraph was inspirational.

So I left school with a head full of numbers, and there is one further learning from school that has really stuck in my mind that involves maths, but is history really. During the English Civil War, Cromwell’s own troops often fell out amongst themselves, and they were never more troublesome than on 15 December 1647, at the first rendezvous of the New Model Army where there was a mutiny leading to the formation of the Levellers.

Now, like any leader facing a mutiny, Cromwell was in a difficult situation. Cromwell’s answer was to arrest and try the ringleaders in a hastily convened court martial and then let fate play a role. There were three identified instigators, and each was summarily convicted and sentenced to death.

Cromwell needed to make only one example, so he made the three men play a deadly game. Each in turn threw dice to see who would live and who would die. The lowest score fell to Private Richard Arnold. He was shot on the spot.

What an outcome from the roll of the dice! Whilst the situation wasn’t one in which he had much time to consider the probability of certain scores, I’ve always wished I was there in a Blackadder sort of way, as surely it would have been helpful for Private Arnold to know the odds of success or otherwise as he stepped up to throw the dice in the ultimate game of chance? I could have told him his chances as he held the dice, and his life, in his hands.

We don’t know Private Arnold’s score, but seven (17%) is the most common combined result when you roll two dice, and two and twelve (3%) are the least probable, and you will likely roll a pair of doubles one out of every six rolls. I suspect Private Arnold rolled the dice and hoped for the best.

Some startup owners just roll the dice and hope for the best too, not evaluating risk or assessing uncertainty, they simply ignore the odds. Decisions are either made at random, or left to chance. Often they get the same outcome as Private Arnold.

What are the odds that your new idea will succeed? If it does, what will the returns be? One of the challenges in startups is that we simply don’t know, which means that if we want to innovate successfully, you not only have to deal with uncertainty, you must seek it out. We can’t use not knowing as an excuse to not act – because we never know.

Although luck is involved and factors into the outcome, strategy plays a more important role in the long-term managing the odds from the roll of the dice. In a changing world, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. So take calculated risks, be a wizard of odds. That is quite different from being rash and just rolling the dice and leaving everything left to chance.

Having a head full of numbers means I’ve always toyed with probability, and startup life is about making a choice between things that are within your control versus the things that you feel are outside your control, and those things that just happen, against the odds. Everyone knows that launching and living in a start-up is risky, but few appreciate just how the odds of success are stacked against you, so how do you increase the odds of your start-up success? Here are a few thoughts.

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 ignoring the downsides. To convert your passion into a tangible business, emphasise a business strategy that makes financial sense based on a compelling story, covering 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.

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 a viable business, 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?

Develop an MVP A core component in a start-up journey is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, you can work on tuning the engine. Use your MVP as a process for engaging customers in dialogue, focus on conversations not revenue. Work on continually improving the fit between your big idea and the marketplace, and individual customers.

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 getting to a ‘business as usual’ model. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 20,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus at all times on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

You can’t beat the odds. The ability to scale a start-up is about many factors. The are many challenges. Individually, they may seem manageable, but collectively, they represent a test for any startup business model.

For example, suppose you identify five key risks, and you think you’ve eliminated 90% of the risk in each category. You might take comfort that any one of these risk factors presents just a 10% chance of adversity, however, the probability of surviving all five risk factors is 59%.

Surprising, isn’t it, five factors, each mitigated by 90%, but an outcome of just 60% of success? Just a notch above 50:50. However, if there are another five key risk factors, again each mitigated by 90%, then the chance of success is just 35%.

The stark insight here is that a start-up that is good at managing individual risks has a marginal chance of survival. The probability shows the underlying challenge. The odds are stacked heavily against a start-up, which is why the rate of failure is startlingly high – 75% according to some surveys.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about. You can research and 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 of it on 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 a present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to start questioning the status quo of all things and take a risk to see your dream into reality.  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 very nature of startup life is uncertainty. Sometimes we fail, other times we succeed, but there is evolution in continuing to go forward. Don’t settle for a false sense of security by shrinking from the right risks. Live bold and have a daring adventure every day: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.Beat the odds: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.

Entrepreneurial creativity: find something only you can say

Creativity, the generation of new and useful ideas, is the catalyst for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs need to spark everyday with new ideas to craft a winning proposition for customers.

Creativity is also a means of navigating the uncertainties, constraints and challenges that starting and growing an embryonic business involves. As Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop said, Nobody talks about entrepreneurship as survival, but that’s exactly what it is and what nurtures creative thinking.

The drive for survival is as strong as it is for success, but how do entrepreneurs sustain their original thinking and flair beyond that initial ‘eureka’ moment? I’ve always been interested in the sustainability of creative ventures from an entrepreneurial perspective. Take musicians, for example, how do they keep their creative spark?

Like any business, a band is focused on new products and developing its fan base. As musical tastes change and new bands and sounds capture the imagination of the public, how does an established band keep their music fresh, so that it appeals to existing fans and yet at the same time grows their audience? It’s a similar challenge for any business.

More than 35 years after their first release, James, the indie band from Manchester, have continuously evolved to remain as relevant as ever, with their fifteenth album released on Friday, Living in Extraordinary Times.

Since their formation, James have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Tim Booth, the essential spark of creativity. Booth’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances make him an enigmatic figure, dancing like a man in the throes of a tortuous tantric confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring masterpieces. Booth’s vocals trail through those atmospherics with angst and love of a talented performer.

Living in Extraordinary Times is a sixteen-track gem. As with each of their previous albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their creative style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, expansive sounds, themes of modern alienation and C21st classical.

Goateed and with his head shaven, Booth now looks a little like Ming the Merciless reborn as a more compassionate yoga instructor. He makes serious yet adventurous music, you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Something about James inspires a disorienting kind of hope. They are ingenious, intelligent, talented, wonderful musicians, and they really put the hours in, so much so, that Booth often comments on how physically draining it is making a record. That commitment is driven by inspiration, by determination, by hunger. That’s what we’re all after to make our startup different. The standout quality of James is their pure creativity, keeping an edge on their lyrics and standout, memorable tunes.

The title of their latest release may make reference to the utter chaos created by the election of a buffoon to the office of President of the United States, but James go beyond overtly political lyricism, it’s a record varied in tone and rhythm, capturing a band who are experimenting and sounding rejuvenated.

Although their commercial peak coincided with the Madchester era into the 90s, James continues to release new albums that are liberally sprinkled with strong songs. Unperturbed by changes of fashion, these albums sell in reasonable quantities, to faithful fans who actually pay money for music.

So how do you keep your creativity and  innovation and keep pushing the ambition? What can we learn from James in terms of their thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective. Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from James that should spark a startup.

Open mindedness James’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their creative uniqueness is the product of constant change and combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely their own, with a prowess for throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

Restlessness & reinvention James has never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each release has emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

A clear dividing line between important work and busy work James are not productive – fifteen albums in thirty-five years. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. James have always sounded like a band in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on their laurels.

It’s about the team Each member of James is a talented musician in their own right, everything is balanced and nobody gets into overdoses of egos.Bottom of FormTop of Form It It always seems like they’re one step ahead of the game, not to mention that their popularity hasn’t really got in the way of creativity. They have not exactly mellowed with age, either. Most of their songs come about through improvisation, and from chaos and noise you suddenly get some music.

The formula for James’s endurance is like a restless entrepreneur, never resting on their laurels, they retain the mix of uplifting, anthemic melodies with craftily serious lyrics. Amazingly now in their fourth decade, their enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and often fragile words and on-stage presence. Their albums are always fine soundtracks to life’s more dramatic moments locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

Musicians like Tim Booth are intrinsically motivated to innovate their craft, and reflect the guile, graft and learning journey of any entrepreneur. Booth is a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

But what exactly makes creativity so crucial and important in an entrepreneur’s work life? Entrepreneurs link the creative mind and the business mind, what comes first? This question is similar to: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The debate involves which aspect the entrepreneur chooses to handle first – the creative or the practical side of the process.

So, you’ve got a great idea. But somewhere along the way, your brain just fizzles. You’ve got no energy left to finish what you started. It’s happened to us all. You need to stay creative, but it’s just not happening. The inspiration that got you started is gone.

What are the ways that you can get those creative juices flowing again and reboot your startup? An entrepreneur cannot rely upon occasional ‘light bulb’ creative moments to achieve greatness, you have to keep going. What are the ways you can boost your entrepreneurial creativity? Here are some thoughts.

Step away from the screen Sometimes the best thing you can do to refresh your brain is to step away from your laptop and mobile phone, and just brainstorm freehand on a whiteboard. Visualising concepts, data and ideas is an incredibly powerful tool to get you thinking. Get off the phone, go in a room together with your team, and use a whiteboard until your hand hurts.

Work backwards Set a long-term vision first, then create a plan for how to achieve it. When it comes to solving problems, and keeping your creative spark bright, working backwards can provide a more unique and often smarter solution. Don’t worry about the ‘how?’, nor searching on the ‘what?’, instead keep a focus on your ‘why’ – your road map will literally unfold itself and creative ideas will fall from the long term vision.

Keep notes on everything Writing down everything, no matter how small or insignificant, might save you one day. Go back to the white board or idea board to keep your ideas prominent, and constantly writing and rewriting words and phrases. Read then everyday, look at the words. Take a picture before you remove your ideas, and keep them in a journal, old ideas often have a second life.

Take breaks Working yourself ragged isn’t good for your health or creativity. Boost your entrepreneurial creativity by taking a few deliberate breaks every couple of hours or so to relax and refresh. It might be just what you need to push yourself over that last mental hump, unleashing your creativity. It’s important to know when to keep working and when to take an extra five minutes for making the next pot of coffee.

Get up and do It Sometimes the best way to boost your creativity is to just go ahead and plunge into a creative endeavour, if only to see what happens. Don’t let fear become a paralysis. You can worry forever if you or your ideas are good enough. Instead of sitting and wondering how you can make yourself creative, just go ahead and do it.

Take a bird’s eye view Take a few steps back and try to see things from a different viewpoint. Being able to separate yourself from the stress of troubling situations means being able to reach smarter and more creative solutions. Simply, get used to dealing with your entrepreneurial endeavour with the ebb and flow of every day uncertainty – use creativity as a means to manage the uncertainty, from a top own view.

Don’t forget to analyse Coming back to your ideas later and researching them to make them more complete is a great way to make your solutions more solid and boost your entrepreneurial creativity. This often provides more creative solutions. Not all of your ideas are going to be wonderful. It’s important to go through and weed out the bad ones to give the good ideas room to grow.

Rejuvenating your creative spirit can also be achieved by looking to others, their creativity can stimulate your own thoughts, like listening to music. So back to James.  Most bands of James’s vintage are on the nostalgia circuit, playing old hits to ageing fans. But James are not ready for heritage status yet.

With the anger and frustration that’s being vented on their latest release it’s as though as they get older, James is channelling the spirit of punk, subverting expectations and forever doing everything on their own terms. Having joined James in 1982 as a drama student, Tim Booth remains an entertainingly theatrical singer, a vibrant statement of continuing creative intent.

Find something only you can say. That’s what every entrepreneur must do, use creativity to shape their own agenda and make their mark. Creativity is the root of entrepreneurship, it’s not just a skill but also an attitude, a rebellious desire to be different. Ideas are at the core of the modern economy, use your creativity to shape your future, keep yourself open for the power of possibility. As Pablo Picasso said, Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.

Common sense is the genius of humanity: the voice of Jason Fried

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a web applications company based in Chicago, has a philosophy to startup tech that is clear, articulate and makes complete sense. Fried pushes back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as fundamentally flawed.

Why do we often refer to the pace of our workplace as ‘crazy’? I hear this all the time when talking with startups, the need for 12+ hour days, working into the early hours two nights a week, and over weekends too. While this has been accepted as the ‘new normal’ in many tech startup workplaces, Fried’s approach is to simply turn this on its head and debunk the myth.

And it’s not just what he says as a spectator, commentating from outside in. To stereotype Fried as just another dreamer would be a mistake. Fried’s company not only has millions of users for its products such as Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, and Backpack, but it has been profitable from day one, and chased customers, not investors – it remains privately funded by the founders.

Basecamp was founded as 37signals in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim as a web design company. David Hansson joined later, and was instrumental in developing the open source web application framework, Ruby on Rails.

The company was originally named after the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. There are apparently billions of signals and sources of noise in space, but, according to Horowitz, there are 37 signals that remain unexplained.

Fried’s story is a personal entrepreneurial journey of creating answers to problems he had, then scaling the solutions into products to sell.  His first product came from the early days of having an AOL account and dial up modem. He was looking for software to organise his personal music collection, didn’t find anything that appealed, so set out to make his own.

He found FileMaker Pro, then made a music-organising database for himself, designing his own graphical interfaces around the standard database elements. He called it ‘Audiofile’ and uploading it to AOL, he asked people to pay $20 if they liked it – and they did!

And that was how Fried’s software startup journey started, the last twenty years have been based on that experience, and today Basecamp is the same thing – the team make products for themselves that they sell to other people. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems they have!

So, looking at Fried’s blogs, published on https://m.signalvnoise.com/ and https://medium.com/@jasonfried, and his books Rework, Remote, Getting Real – and the forthcoming It doesn’t have to be crazy at work – what are the key takeaways from Fried’s philosophies? Here are some thoughts, based around his own words.

1.     Be a calm company

For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their normal. At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing workdays into a series of fleeting work moments, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.

It is no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers.

The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Tuesday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.

Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis – an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth – is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way

So build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that lead to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement.

No hair on fire. Build calm. As a tech company you’re supposed to be playing the hustle game. But Fried has Basecamp working at 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour, four-day weeks in the summer. The workplace is more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen.

Basecamp focus on doing just a few things. It seems everyone else is trying to do new and innovative stuff. They are more focused on usefulness rather than innovation. We take our inspiration from things like the stapler and paper clip. It might not be as sexy and newsworthy, but it gives us the opportunity to be around for a long period of time.

2.     Love Mondays

It’s actually more Fridays I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it.

Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week has to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, before reality pummels your spirit.

I think the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-type stuff. No digging into the mountain of overdue emails, no ‘just checking in’. Let the weekend be a desert for work and Mondays will seem like an oasis.

Of course, that’s if you actually like what you do and who you do it with. If neither of those things are true, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: Why are neither of those things true? Then take steps to remedy the situation once that question grows old (and before you do).

Turning Mondays into a delight rather than a dread is really all about moderation. Humans are designed for balance. The best recipe is a mix, not a single-ingredient sludge. Take the weekend to enjoy an exclusive plate of not-work, and wake up hungry for Monday’s fresh serving.

3.     Being tired isn’t a badge of honour

Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. Rest be damned, they say , there’s an endless amount of work to do. People pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausted. They’re just too tired to notice that their work has suffered because of it.

I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Scientists suggest that your ability to think declines on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.

And there’s more to not getting enough sleep than compromising your own health and creativity. It affects the people around you. When you’re short on sleep, you’re short on patience, less tolerant, less understanding. It’s harder to relate and to pay attention for sustained periods of time.

If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify sustained lack of sleep? The only people who try to do so are tired and not thinking straight.

One argument I hear a lot about working long hours is that when you’re just getting started, you have to give it everything you’ve got. I understand that feeling. And there’s certainly some truth to it. Yes, sometimes emergencies require extra hours and you need to make an extra push. That happens. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary. Such cases should be the exception, not the rule.

But people don’t stop working that way. We’re creatures of habit. The things you do when you start doing something tend to be the things you continue to do. If you work long hours at the beginning, and that’s all you know, you can easily condition yourself to think this is the only way to operate. I’ve seen so many entrepreneurs burn out following this pattern.

So it’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better, and be a better person. Sleep is great for creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?

In the long run, work is not more important than sleep. If you aren’t sure how important sleep is, think about this: You’ll die faster without sleep than you will without food. And, on balance, very few problems need to be solved at the 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning.

4.     Give it five minutes

You don’t have to be first or loudest with an opinion – as if being first means something. Wanting to be the first and loudest voice really means you are not thinking hard enough about the problem. The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.

Man, give it five minutes. It’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give ideas some time to set in. ‘Five minutes’ represents ‘think, not react’. Come into a discussion looking to learn, not prove something. There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions, to learn.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. Dismissing other people’s ideas is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is think about it, let it marinate, explore it, mull it over, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.

So next time you hear something, or someone, talk, pitch or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or won’t work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.

So, four interesting perspectives from Fried that run counter to the hullabaloo we see in tech startup mantra on the street.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple – here’s a beautiful way to put it: leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfillment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, with intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph. I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow incredibly slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

I’ve not always been able to run myself by Fried’s philosophies, but for the last decade his common sense, people-centric, purpose and principles lead approach has been my yardstick. Go on, give it a go yourself.