James Martin: entrepreneurial passion, practice, product – and pans

Entrepreneurial TV chef James Martin is hitting the road again, this time exploring the food of Great Britain, his travels will be documented in twenty episodes of what looks like the ultimate culinary road trip for any foodie. The first four episodes were broadcast last week covering Scotland, the highlights being the Highlands and Edinburgh sessions with Scottish Michelin starred chef Tom Kitchin. No honestly, that’s his name.

James Martin is one of my favourite chefs. He has been a constant presence in our house through his books, and having presented some of the most popular TV cooking shows, including the entertaining Saturday Kitchen.

His passion for food began when his father took the role of catering manager at the Castle Howard estate, and then aged thirteen, a trip to the South of France in an HGV gave him the opportunity to experience food and wine in some of the best chateaux in France – and he was hooked.

He started his formal catering training at Scarborough Technical College, and was Student of the Year three years running.  After college, he worked in London under the guidance of chefs including Antony Worrall Thompson and Marco Pierre White. He also travelled around France working in chateaux kitchens and gaining experience in Michelin star establishments.

His TV career began in 1996, and in 2006, he became the presenter of the BBC One show Saturday Kitchen, making it a Saturday morning staple which regularly attracted 3.5 million viewers. Recently he has been on our screens touring James Martin’s American Adventure and James Martin’s French Adventure.

As if this wasn’t enough, James Martin Manchester restaurant opened in 2013, listed in The Sunday Times Top 100 UK Restaurants for 2015/16, and in 2017 he opened The Kitchen Cookery School at Chewton Glen. A premium café, James Martin Kitchen, offers sit down dining and grab and go options at Stansted Airport, inside Debenhams at intu Lakeside, Manchester Piccadilly station and Glasgow Airport.

And there’s more. He developed the menus for Thomas Cook airlines, covering three million in-flight meals they serve each year. He is also Executive Chef for Virgin Trains East Coast, designing and developing their First-Class menus. He endorses a range of kitchen appliances with Wahl, kitchenware with Stellar and has large collection of stylish and modern tableware with Denby Pottery.

Putting aside his multi-channel revenue streams and brand building, there’s something truly inspirational about seeing the level of James’ effort and passion laid bare when cooking.  I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

Forget being in a rock band, I’ve always wanted to be in a top restaurant kitchen. That feels like a rock star adrenalin rush. I want to hang out with the dudes in the kitchen and cook like that. I’ll even wash the pots just to be there. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock and Johnny, to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein.

I love cooking at home, if you came round to my kitchen you’d have an amazing time, there’s nothing that my old battered tins of herbs and spices can’t improve. Take the home made artisan sausages I craft. Seasoned with Italian spices, seared in hot avocado cooking oil. Oh and rhubarb. I love rhubarb. I can’t get enough of rhubarb. Rhubarb and okra sweet and sour soup, a classic Vietnamese dish, or Danish rhubarb cake with cardamom and custard, and my signature dish, pan-fried mackerel with rhubarb coleslaw.

James Martin shows passion, creativity and expertise, and a genuine love of his craft and what he does. How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this? Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort with occasional bursts. We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. Martin steps out of his comfort zone in the glare of national television and bares his soul. And sometimes his sole.

As always when looking at entrepreneurial endeavours like this, I try to find lessons we can take into our startup thinking. Here’s what I’ve learned from James Martin:

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes celebrity chefs try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be radically different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and more often than not, the simple, well-prepared dish with an inspired twist ends up the better meal. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans  Martin is an experienced chef, but you can see the thinking and planning that goes into a ‘performance’ of his TV cooking demonstrations. He thinks through each and every small activity from the ingredients required, to the time allocated and how he presents the finished offering. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital. You can see on his live shows that Martin is an agile thinker.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in scaling a startup venture. The pressure of live TV cooking is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Chefs know the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product. The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve. We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the preparation of each dish, Martin is frequently tasting and thus testing the current status of the cooking. Sometimes trust in your own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business. Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Time is an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and final presentation – an aspect Martin obsesses over – it’s vital each item is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. Time is an ingredient in cooking, Timing is everything for entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into your products One of the criteria for putting a dish onto his menus is that the item evokes emotion for Martin. So far in his current TV series, we’ve had scallops cooked on an outdoor BBQ in Stromness, Arbroath smokie scotch eggs, and homemade crumpets with lobster, spinach and samphire. Each captures the imagination, Emotion engages customers is a key lesson for all entrepreneurs.

Continuous product iteration Martin subscribes to the practice of constant innovation, and works in an environment where his dishes can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree given the kitchen offers the opportunity for frequent experimentation, so gives him advantage. But if you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, like Martin, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate, a habit and instinct all entrepreneurs need. You only learn by doing.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer, a chef – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but Martin is as much an entrepreneur as a tech product inventor.

Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. Right beside you are your creative tools – the knives, the whisk, the oven. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire.

Business life occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

What chefs like James Martin do is take the spark of a new idea, curate and test it, and make it a reality. A little bit of intuition, passion, planning and magic creates an opportunity to win customers, that others don’t see. That that’s entrepreneurial thinking, in any walk of life.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? The value of introverts & extroverts in your startup team

Many startups are driven by two co-creators, working in unison with joined-up thinking and ambition. It’s great to see how they spark and bounce off each other, with complimentary skills and personalities, providing a balanced perspective on the entrepreneurial opportunity.

Most of us are familiar with ‘dynamic duos’- Batman & Robin, Lennon & McCartney, Laurel & Hardy – and in the business world, Hewlett & Packard, Brin & Page, Jobs & Wozniak. The individual characteristics, the chemistry and rapport behind these collaborations ensured that their talents fused to create something remarkable.

Having experienced a number of founder double acts in the startups I’ve worked with, I’m intrigued as to how often one founder is full of beans, spontaneous and vocal, whilst the other is more cautious, more focused on risk, and more thoughtful – the extrovert-introvert combination is common.

The terms introvert and extrovert are consistently, by popular consensus, painted as two polarised pictures of the extremely shy and the extremely confident. The Myers-Briggs personality test marks you as an ‘E’ or ‘I’, categorising you as either an introvert or an extrovert, designed to explain motivational and behavioural drivers.

First categorised by Carl Jung in the 1920s, an introvert is most commonly defined as someone who gets their energy from time spent alone rather than socialising. Unlike their extrovert counterparts (who get energy from other people), introverts are typically introspective, quiet (but not necessarily shy), and observant. Almost everyone can be squeezed into one of two boxes, but it turns out that many of us are essentially ambiverts.

The contrast is often quite stark, and I now have a model – as seen in AA Milne’s Winning the PoohTiggers and Eeyores. Now whilst this insight won’t get me onto the academic staff at Harvard, I think it works to highlight one aspect of entrepreneurial culture that delivers success – Tiggers and Eeyores are opposites on the ‘act or think first?’ spectrum.

In 100-Acre Wood, the fictional land inhabited by Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the series of children’s stories by author A. A. Milne, they are the contrasting positive and negative thinking personalities, but behind the high energy of Tigger and the gloominess of Eeyore, there are subtle nuances we can take into a startup context.

Eeyore is the loveable, downbeat and somewhat gloomy donkey, his glass is always half-empty. He spots the dark cloud rather than the silver lining for sure. Eeyore doesn’t expect too much of himself or too many exciting things to happen, therefore remains quiet and subdued most of the time. That in no ways means he isn’t an intelligent animal, he is actually knowledgeable, but keeps himself to himself.

By stark contrast, Tigger – That’s T – I – Double Guh – Er! – is the alter-ego, a bouncy, hyperactive, exuberant personality. He acts on impulse and will dash rather than walk, but that impulsive leap and rush more often than not see him jumping around without taking measure of his surroundings. This at times leads to mishaps and causes utter mayhem – not least to himself.

We all know many entrepreneurs who are Tiggers – energisers, positive thinkers who love a constant challenge. They get bored easily and often half-complete stuff as their interest is distracted by a new idea. Sometimes their enthusiasm is over powering and irritates Eeyores, so much so that they’ll probably hold more stubbornly to their opinions, and may become even more gloomy to counter-balance Tiggers’ positivity.

By contrast, Eeyores want to be more grounded and ‘realistic’, but Tiggers may find this over cautious approach negative, because they fear the downbeat emotions are catching and they dread being sucked into pessimism. Tiggers often act Tiggerish because they’re trying to keep that Tigger flame alive against the Eeyore calm.

As Tiggers fear being dragged down by the Eeyores, Eeyores feel resentful and irritated by the Tiggers’ constant chirpiness. For both Tiggers and Eeyores, a good strategy is not to try to make conversions. These efforts are depleting, frustrating and polarising.

A Tigger could be a great entrepreneur because he doesn’t mind trying new things, and doesn’t fear failure. If it doesn’t work out, he will simply bounce onto the next new idea, undaunted. Balancing this, whilst Eeyore can be seen as negative, but he’s actually cautious and not gullible – he won’t fall for a ‘too good to be true’ opportunity – so a good foil for a Tigger in a founder duo.

As an example of the Tigger and Eeyore combination, look at the example of Apple, which we’ve come to associate with the big personality and very vocal Steve Jobs – co-founder Steve Wozniak, a sworn champion of the creative value of working alone, was just as indispensable in building the iconic company. The two contrasted and complemented one another.

The norm is that introverted people are generally more comfortable with solitude, but perhaps Susan Cain changed opinions with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Indeed introverts have emerged as leaders in every arena – one-quarter of all US Presidents – including Jefferson, Lincoln, and Barack Obama – were identified introverts of varying degree.

In the business world, some of the most successful founders, inventors and technologists are introverts, including the likes of Edison, Gates, Musk and Zuckerberg, and the research into the business impact of introverts is revealing.

A Harvard study found that, while extroverts excelled at leading passive teams (employees who simply follow commands), they were far less effective in leading ‘proactive’ teams, where everyone contributes ideas. Introverts are more effective than extroverts in leading proactive teams because they don’t feel threatened by collaborative input, are more receptive to suggestions, and listen more carefully.

Researchers analysed 57 managers and 374 employees at 130 branches of a major pizza chain and found that franchises led by introverts were 20% more profitable than franchises led by extroverts. In another study, researchers broke 163 students into 56 groups – some led by an introvert, and others by an extrovert – and had the teams fold as many t-shirts as they could in ten minutes. They concluded that teams led by the introverts were up to 28% more productive.

Back to the founder duo combination, the two contrasting personalities like Jobs and Woznicak, working collaboratively epitomise the old saying ‘two heads are better than one’. So what are the principles we should all look for in Eeyores and Tiggers to reflect upon the introvert-extrovert difference, and get the best from their two contrasting perspectives when working alongside one or both personalities in a startup?

1.     Emotional intelligence, not emotional mastery

The better you’re able to communicate with others and form strong connections, the better you’ll navigate a startup. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t unusually cool-headed people who can contain their emotions and avoid reacting irrationally. Rather, they’ve built strong relationships with their staff, suppliers, and customers, and it’s those interpersonal networks that do the emotional heavy lifting when times get tough. The emotional intelligence that it takes to sustain these bonds can prove decisive, be it the energy and passion of an extrovert, or the quiet, thoughtful style that builds respect and trust by introverts.

2.     Self-reliance

If the idea of starting from scratch with a partner and having to rely on yourself frightens you, coping with the ups and downs of the startup experience might be difficult. No matter how their personalities differ, successful entrepreneurs know how to keep going despite the inevitable discomfort of uncertainty and going outside their comfort zones.

This doesn’t mean extroverts win through with their boundless self-confidence though. We tend to romanticise extroverted founders who show outsize confidence, but many in reality grapple with self-doubt internally all the time. The real key is about being able to function well in spite of feeling uncertain.

Successful entrepreneurs have a greater fear of being stuck in their comfort zones and not reaching their potential. It isn’t that facing ongoing uncertainty is a thrilling or threatening experience, or that every successful entrepreneur has unshakable confidence in spades. It’s that no matter what challenges come their way, they believe it’s in their own power to determine their future. That instinct for self-reliance is key – so both extroverts and introverts need to develop self-esteem and believe in themselves, whatever their external personnas.

3.     Willingness to be wrong

This is tough for both personality types. All successful startup founders are curious people, constantly on the lookout for better, more efficient, innovative ways of doing things. Less conspicuous is an underlying trait of the willingness to scrap their assumptions and test a totally different idea.

Some extroverted entrepreneurs may carry an air of certainty and self-assurance, but chances are they’re more willing to admit to being wrong than you might imagine. For an introvert, quiet, internal assessment and analysis enables them to come to their own conclusions, albeit from a different perspective.

4.     Trust in their intuition

Successful founders see and act on opportunities even when they don’t see the complete picture. To fill in the blanks and blind spots just enough in order to be able to act, they need to have a high level of trust in their own intuition.

It’s easy to misinterpret an introvert’s internal processing and quiet demeanour as disinterest. But in reality, most introverts are just methodical thinkers. For an extrovert, what appears to be a cavalier approach is just behaviour based on self-belief that they can get there.

Both personality types assess potential, risk and outcomes from their own perspectives, one may then share that with the enthusiasm of a Tigger, one more cautiously as in Eeyore’s style, but both are trusting their own judgement and assessment.

5.     Be radically open-minded

The biggest barriers to good decision-making are your blind spots and self doubt. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about you and your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions.

For both extroverts and introverts, practice open-mindedness. If you can recognise that you have blind spots, consider the possibility that others might see something better than you, don’t be stubborn. A fresh pair of eyes can add value to your thinking and unpack a possible different forward path you hadn’t spotted. Being open-minded can be energising and unblock your thinking, and help you deal better with ‘not knowing’.

This avoids either bluffing (the extrovert response) or doubting yourself and doing nothing – the introvert response. Triangulate your view with believable people who are willing to help inform and shape your opinions.

So, if you’re startup stumbles, with panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, don’t simply ignore the signals on the one hand and rush on like Tigger, or spiral down and convince yourself you’re doomed as Eeyore would have you believe. Don’t drink from a glass half-full of rash, unbridled optimism as feted by Tigger, or sit morosely like Eeyore with a hang-donkey expression, moping around in the corner, add a bit of balance.

We must look for the opportunity in every difficulty like Tigger, instead of being paralysed at the thought of the difficulty in every opportunity like Eeyore, but whilst fortune favours the brave and audacious, don’t be foolhardy, leaping without looking isn’t a strategy. Nobody told Dick Fosbury the first time he leapt backwards, but he knew the height of the bar.

Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. Failing is an overstated hobby, another glorification in the dictionary of entrepreneurial hyperbole.

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

Stages in the startup growth cycle

Growing up and getting older is something that happens to us all, whether we are consciously aware of the aging process or not. We are born, and then immediately starts a period of physical, mental and emotional growth taking us from a new born through childhood, merging to the teenage years and then adulthood milestones.

Throughout, this journey remains personal and subject to flux, both good and bad things happen, opportunism and fate both intervene and have a hand on points of inflextion. Of course, upon reaching adulthood the aging process continues (it accelerates!) and we reach another watershed, that of old age.

Hopefully we enjoy a lifespan over a good number of years. It’s a deeply personal and unique journey, life stages filled with learning, health, relationship and cultural influences, psychological changes and expectations.

Birth happens as a result of the chance encounter nine months earlier of Jack Sperm and Jill Egg, the throw of random dice. the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid.

From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test and losing your virginity, casting your first vote…to first job, marriage, first house, kids, life is a series of milestones as time passes.

Startup ventures have similar stages of growth just as the human development lifecycle, although obviously a different set of laws apply, but there are chronological steps of business growth milestones akin to the stages in the human journey.

Being born: problem-solution fit

The starting point is the momentous event of birth that emphatically announces your arrival. Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day.

What was the genesis of your startup? Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark in business.

At the very beginning of the startup lifecycle, you’ve got your idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess how viable your startup is likely to be. At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second part, then you’ve got problem-solution fit and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing with potential users.

Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. At the outset, walking involves conscious intent, like the seismic convulsion twelve months earlier, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move.

Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension.

Be careful your first articulation of your startup with potential users is a clear conversation, not babble. This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk your idea with potential customers and there will be noise.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk.  Once you’ve validated your MVP and confirmed customer pain points with traction, focus on building a customer base and get out of the building into the market.

Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, it’s not like starting to grow armpit hair or adopting social norms, it’s about consciously learning to do something, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before.

Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment when conviction meets doubt is that leap from dependence to independence, self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, getting out into the market and winning customers to prove your value proposition. As Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, no longer stationary, tottering to balance on two unsure legs, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, to focus on the wide horizon ahead, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions, with options of straight on, or turning left then right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

Your MVP gains traction, you’re learning and iterating, you’ve got paying customers, they buy again and keep using your product on a regular basis. These are the signs of product/market fit, an elusive entrepreneurial goal.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. It’s about building trust with yourself on that bike, pushing off, ready to go, and enjoying exceptional experiences.

Facial hair: scaling

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew stubble, overnight, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly. The rite of passage that is the first shave at the onset of puberty is monumental. Hormones central. Frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. Here are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

After the Victorian mania for chest-covering growths and mutton-chop whiskers (also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips), the early C20th trend was clean-shaven. It was always assumed that beards were camouflage for something: a scar, or a weak chin.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Businesses in this puberty stage often see rapid changes in their business model, as venturing out into the market, fumbling and discovering, offers lessons building a repeatable, scalable sales model and customer acquisition process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

Your first kiss: high-growth

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation, anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending.

In Shakespeare’s words, a kiss becomes poetry, a pleasing rhyme between two faces that tenderly meet, the poetic, sensual ceremony, a ritual and romantic interlude. For unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang. Kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

In the startup growth cycle as you’re growing and scaling, you’re metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt from those that say no – as it is in real life. When you’re seventeen, you aren’t really serious, just enjoy the moment, but that’s when the high-growth kicks in.

Summary

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order. Some businesses may see astronomical growth and the jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable and at times, unruly.

Everyone’s biological clock has its own time line, likewise your startup. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans, and in reality, your startup plan will not survive its first encounter with a customer.

Positivity, confidence and persistence are key in life generally, so never give up on yourself in startup mode. Equally to succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone, and that’s no different in a startup either.

Lessons from Stan & Ollie for startup founder duos

I went to the cinema Friday evening for the first showing of Stan & Ollie, a biographical comedy-drama based on the lives of the comedy double act Laurel and Hardy. Starring Steve Coogan and John Reilly, the film pays tribute to the beloved entertainers with an affectionate recreation of their final, ill-fated UK tour of 1953.

A moving look at the burdens and blessings of a creative bond between the two, for much of the time watching the film you feel it’s the real duo, so thoroughly conceived are the actors’ physicality and performances. The film is sincere, reaffirming the charm and inspiration of the greatest comedy duo of all time, the simplicity of their slapstick humour and routines is just so funny – time after time!

Watching their films with a child’s optimism, I always think everything would work out well for the duo, and they wouldn’t get pied or smacked in the face, or poked in the eye. Their catchphrase – well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into – seems to sum up a pair whose friendship survives the severest trials. There is a warmth and companionship to them that is universal and as emblematic of the duo as their bowler hats and their Dance of the Cuckoos theme song.

After a long spell in separate acting careers, they made more than 100 short and full-length films together. Stan and Ollie created a weird, beautiful ballet of physicality and humour. I marvel at Stan’s quiet grace and Ollie’s perfect timing. Their film partnership lasted from 1927 to 1951, but at their very best – with masterpiece shorts such Towed in a Hole, Tit for Tat and Big Business and longer movies such as Way Out West and Sons of the Desert – they created sublime and timeless works of art.

The Music Box, which won the 1932 Oscar for best short comedy, sums up the futility of much of human endeavour. It is a modern-day Sisyphus tale, as two men, totally unsuited for the task, have to move a heavy mechanical piano from the bottom of a steep hill to the top. Each time the piano slips away and goes bouncing back down the 147 steps you laugh as much as you cry. Do they succeed? Well, of course not!

Ollie had a superb repertoire of close-up expressions: his eyes speak of his stoicism amid the despair, registering disgust and frustration at Stan’s blunders.  Hardy’s skill was no accident: it was founded on paying close attention to fellow humans. As a youngster, he had helped his single mother run a hotel and liked to sit in the lobby and watching people walk by.

My favourite scene is the epic custard-pie fight in The Battle of the Century. They bought 4,000 pies – genuine cherry, blueberry and banana –and devised a stunning sequence, which brought pie-throwing to apotheosis. There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but thousands and thousands of pies.

The modern comedy double act has its origins in C19th music hall and vaudeville. Initially, a man would ‘stand up’ with a comedian, and simply repeat the comic’s lines, developing into what we know as a straight man today.

When Weber and Fields emerged in the late 1800s, the first famous comedy duo, the dynamic had evolved into two individuals bantering and cross-talking. Often, things got rowdy between them and slapstick violence featured. Indeed, Weber and Fields were particularly adept at arguing, and this became a common element of double act routines. The characters on the stage just never got along no matter what, and audiences loved it.

In the early C20th, things took a shift, with Gallagher and Sheen the leading duo emphasising less slapstick and more singing. Then along came Stan and Ollie, initially paired together in 1927 and the inter-play of their double act reset the format.

Their characters were clearly friends, and as unintentionally destructive as they were, you knew their friendship would be intact at the end of every film, despite the frequency with which their efforts met with failure, resulting in many a ‘fine mess’.

The Stan and Ollie model stuck, for Abbott & Costello, Morecambe & Wise. They set the formula for those duos we’ve latterly grown up with – Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, French & Saunders, Dan Akroyd & John Belushi, to Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer.

I’ve always enjoyed comedy-duo double acts, and I’ve recently been researching the psychology and relationship in them, and parallels with startup co-founder dynamics. Will it be bonding, soul mates for life and success, or the start of melancholy, cold winters of recriminations, slammed doors and sending emails in a cold silence?

Hooking up with a partner launching a new business is just like a comedy duo, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships, their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration. Many were long-time friends, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times more likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder for your startup, and why will it work?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, whilst the other wants to make money only, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries. If it’s by discussion and logic, things will work, it one wants control, it won’t

Focus on what you’re good at Dividing workload based on complimentary yet different skills gives focus and productivity, effort based on mutual strengths means you’re able to progress the day-to-day work while continuing to evolve many aspects of the business. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own. It’s just one more weapon on your arsenal.

Double your odds Having a business partner doubles your odds of being in the right place at any given time. Whether it’s an important event where you need to talk to dozens of people or simultaneous meetings on opposite sides of town, having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as you is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once.

Provide you with a sounding board Starting a business means a bumps may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle unexpected hurdles and have more fun with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are great, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone that is going through the exact same process as you are, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Serve as a backstop when you have an off day We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides a backstop for those days, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Balance the extremes and point out the blindspots Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, often in a hurry and always moving forward, but they can also face obstacles. It helps to have someone to balance the extremes we all face along the way. We all have blind spots in how we manage and implement projects. Having a co-founder gives you a peer that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see.

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is often behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

In reality it is the shared mind-set that captures the essence of what makes entrepreneurial duos work – in comedy or in business. Everyone talks about the ‘one builds, one sells’ complimentary skillset, but it’s really about the mind-set.

You may not want the tomfoolery of Laurel & Hardy, the anarchy of Reeves & Mortimer, the frenzy of Morecambe & Wise nor the jukebox antics of Akroyd & Belushi in your co-founder business relationship, but if the strength and purpose of startup co-founder relationships is as innovative and productive as these comedy duos, then you’ll have created something special.

Mitigating the risks of Brexit for your tech startup

It took Theresa May eighteen months to reach a deal with the EU, but it Parliament less than a month to throw it out by a wide margin, most MPs believing that her imperfect compromise is worse than the status quo. The paralysis is such that the government has largely given up arguing that its deal will be good for the country, instead insisting that it is what democracy demands.

May’s ‘progress’ in negotiations has been a pantomime of democracy. Neverendum. The risk is real. Britain faces years of trade negotiations with the EU, involving more painful trade-offs between prosperity and control. All the while, the country will be falling further behind its potential.

Voters were swept off their feet by the promises of the Leave campaign, only to discover that the future relationship was that promised. Those with long-standing delusions about what Brexit would mean have been forced to swallow a dose of reality. It’s chaotic. May has appointed her third Brexit secretary as her own backbenchers are feverishly plotting to bring her down. Labour’s position is hopelessly unclear.

With negotiating time almost up, Britain has the imperfect deal that it was always going to get. Promises of having cake and eating it have given way to a less appetising offering. Yet among Brexiteers, one hopeful fantasy lives on: the idea that, if all else fails, Britain can prosper outside the EU without signing a deal at all.

If May wonders how this dire outcome has come to be more popular than her deal, she should start by re-reading her own speeches. Her mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ was supposed to persuade the EU to give Britain better terms. It didn’t work. But it struck a chord at home.

The draft withdrawal agreement of 585 pages will guide future talks. Will we agree a Norway-style relationship or a deal modelled on Switzerland or Canada? In truth the EU27 will be in control, with Britain having few cards to play, and the process of ratifying a deal with Britain will be tortuous.

What we do know, is that the ongoing uncertainty and rhetoric of Brexit heading into 2019 will create volatility in sentiment, confidence, investment decisions and currencies, that will influence both business and consumer spending and buying power. So how will this impact tech startups?

Whether you’re a Eurosceptic or a Europhile, the UK startup environment has a supportive investor tax regime, a good intellectual property regulations and amazing talent from across Europe, but there are challenges ahead created by Brexit.

Everyone is looking for the headline that everything is fine or everything is catastrophic, and actually it’s somewhere in-between. At a high level, the potential winners will include those startups that are exporters, whilst potential losers are importers and foreign workers in the UK.

While Brexit is a ground-breaking event in the history of Europe, geopolitics, and global economy, modern agile companies have long ago surpassed the constraints of state borders and work permits. However, lets’ look at four key challenges from Brexit for tech startups, and mitigation strategies

Workforce

It’s already tough to hire good developers and engineers. While UK tech startups do create jobs for British citizens, part of the skills shortage has been filled by European immigration. We could potentially lose a large part of the startup workforce if regulations make it tough for EU nationals to stay in the UK.

Around one in five tech workers in the UK are from the EU. It’s likely that the current freedom of movement that allows EU citizens to work in the UK with few limitations will come to an end after Brexit. That’s going to make it harder to attract staff from the EU, and to keep workers who are already here.

Talent is the life blood of start-ups. You cannot build a startup if you cannot attract the best talent. While Brexit could be frustrating we might have a larger talent pool to choose from – a lack of European migrants doesn’t necessarily mean a complete migration halt. Brexit will open doors to non-EU countries, and whilst overseas talent is important, we have to invest more in terms of home-grown talent too.

Finance

The adjustments the financial services industry must undertake arguably pose a bigger challenge than the immediate geo-political uncertainty casting a shadow over the labour market to startups.

Startups looking for additional funding or support may have a harder time when pitching, but there are still plenty of options for growth.  While UK investors are cautious, EU investors are taking advantage to promote their own economic stability. This may mean a drift to Berlin and other cities offering greater entrepreneurial incentives.

As the UK exits Europe, businesses will lose access to funds that come directly from EU membership. The European Investment Bank, for example, has invested over €31.3bn in the UK economy of which 17% funded innovation and SMEs. In the tech and life sciences sector, the European Investment Fund is a key source of finance, supporting 27,700 SMEs.

A weakened pound and higher inflation after the final Brexit terms are agreed could lead to higher costs. A holistic view thus gives a perspective of many uncertainties arising from Brexit regarding finance for startups.

Regulatory environment

Services make up about 80% of the UK’s tech exports, and the EU is its biggest export market, however, the UK Government is more focused on trade in physical goods. Without even a vague plan in place, tech companies can’t be sure about the rules that will govern trade. That means, for example, they could end up being required to comply with two sets of regulations – one to sell in the UK, one to sell in Europe – with different VAT and thus cashflow implications.

Another area of concern is data protection. Data of all sorts flows to, from and through the UK as a part of daily life, everything from IoT devices to cloud computing, and all of this data is currently governed by EU law. After Brexit, a new deal on data protection is needed otherwise those data flows could be disrupted or even stopped, with predictably chaotic consequences.

Market access

The UK has traditionally traded extensively with Europe, and access to European markets is crucial, it’s a two-way trade. Although many startups are still moving forward with their plans for Europe, loss of Single Market access could be damaging, so startups need to be looking at other parts of the world, which might be more financially viable.

Across the tech industry the picture is mixed. Those tech companies that mostly deal with US customers or suppliers are largely unaffected by Brexit, and if a mooted UK-US trade deal happens these companies may even see significant benefits. However, uncertainty on both demand and supply side is currently impacting many startups.

What can tech startups do?

The key to surviving the Brexit haze is flexibility and contingency planning as new rules are created. In the current uncertainty it can be difficult to plan, but that’s exactly what you need to do. It’s the act of planning, rather than the plan itself, which is the key. Robust, well-thought out business plans, showing that you’ve calculated upside and downside scenarios, will be crucial.

Whilst it can seem that every time you hear the news or open a newspaper, there’s more reason not to act, the fact is that if you have an innovative idea, the experience to see it through and the ability to make a robust business case for it, the UK remains one of the world’s most favourable environments for start-ups.

So what should a startup tech company be doing right now, with only a little information to guide them? It appears the advice, in classic British style, is a modified version of keep ‘calm and carry on’.

On one hand, startups are probably the most equipped to navigate whatever is yet to come, being adaptable, innovative, and nimble in their mindset. Every day brings with it a new challenge that small business owners never thought they would have to deal with.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs often have the least amount of experience and resources. Then there’s the emotional side of it. I have heard many entrepreneurs talking about the uncertainty of Brexit and saying they don’t need an additional gamble at the moment.

So here are some thoughts on how to navigate the future, pending our exit in March.

1. Understand your runway, and create a clear plan

The place to start is your current plan – and don’t create one of those fake plans aimed at investors, that won’t help you, craft a plan for YOU with realistic assumptions and meaningful goals.

Make a decision based on cash runway and velocity. Make decisions based on a new plan, not based on the plan you had before. This is probably the toughest thing you’d need to do as a founder, but there are times where you need to do it. Do it sooner rather than later, do it with respect, and ensure there is a balance of optimism and realism – hope is not a strategy.

2. Financial targets – be scrappy

First is the cash in the bank, and the second is the cash you expect to get from your customers. How certain are you in your revenue forecasts? Look at the number of customers, pricing, volumes you know are confirmed, and you sales funnel, pipeline and lead conversion times.

In general, switch into a scrappy mode, embrace that mentality. Review your costs – what can you cut? There is always extra stuff. Just get into the mode of cutting things that aren’t critical – activities that don’t add value to customers.

3. Review your hiring

Review your hiring plan. This is easy to control in times of uncertainty and whilst it means that you will grow slower, and the current team will have to do more work, it keeps fixed costs and demand on management time on hold.

Whilst I’m an advocate of continuous recruitment in terms of always being active in the market rather than seeking to hire for a specific role at a specific time, taking a three-month recruitment sabbatical at times of heightened uncertainty takes the pressure off making what are high-risk decisions.

4. Get customers faster and for longer

This may sound odd, because why wouldn’t you close customers faster anyway? The point is, think about friction points, anything that slows down your sales? Think about offering a price incentive for an annual payment versus monthly payments, and offer different price structures for longer contracts.

“‘Uncertainty’ and ‘opportunity’ are the two words I most closely associate with Brexit. However, on the back of uncertainty rides opportunity, which is where genuine entrepreneurs thrive. Now is not the time to hunker down on innovation, build rapport and relationships with new and existing customers alike with renewed zest.

Next steps…

At Disney, the shared understanding is that ‘nothing hurts the mouse’ – risk assessment and management is a key leadership focus, and so it should be for startups.

Precisely quantifying Brexit vulnerability is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce uncertainty. The goal is to develop ways of understanding key drivers and possibilities so that surprises aren’t so surprising. You have to hedge your bets, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and reduce decision making on the fly – take steps to minimise potential damage long before a crisis unfolds.

Many of the details of the policy and regulatory issues remain very unclear, but recent endorsements from tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook demonstrated that the UK is still an attractive location for tech business.

So, be steadfast in your resolve. Don’t take a wait-and-see approach, relying on being nimble to respond to however Brexit turns out, waiting for Brexit isn’t an option. Look at the four potential levers highlighted above – runway, finances, hiring and customers – and start making your plans today.

Use the twelve days of Christmas​ for reflection on your future self

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.

As entrepreneurs, it’s applicable to how we focus our time in our working lives, but as we approach the Christmas holidays, and the humanity and traditions of the festive period, it relates to the days and hours free to spend with family and friends too. It’s a twelve-day period when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere, from radio commercials and shopping centres. You can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas and how we spend our days?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby children had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6, as the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realised.

But back to Ann Dillard’s quote and how you spend you days. You can use the twelve days of Christmas to work on your business, rather than in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Take advantage of the downtime for reflection, clear and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months.

In order to give this some structure, here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have in the ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’.

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve twelve months ago by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to look forward. What are you aiming for? What does success looks like in 12 months time? What are you going to do differently this time that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The balance shifts dramatically is short time frames, so restart with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? What is their persona? Why should customers buy from you and not others? Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach.

Day Three: Rebalance The results of your entrepreneurial risk taking should be freedom and fulfilment, not continuous hard work and a feeling of déjà vu. Dedicate time to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. If it’s all about the business of today, who is steering the business of tomorrow? Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of competitors? Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term gain. Revisit your business strategy and model to ensure they are capable to building a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.

Day Five: Revitalise Now is the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience. How can you improve customer engagement? Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation – what are their unmet needs?

Day Six: Refinance The best businesses are also the best financed. Now is the time to take a hard look at your financial strategy and cash needs. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years without changing it, but over time, this becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities. Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where re the skills and people gaps for the next 12 months?

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to win customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. Are you clear in what your brand stands for?

Day Nine: Replace: When was the last time you checked in on your internal processes? Are there opportunities to engage and educate customers better? Today it’s about the customer experience, and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What doe you stand for? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what have you done to refresh the culture and inspire your people based on vision, purpose and values? Think inside out, think about purpose, and share it again.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to cloud platforms, providing scale and agility. These efforts are rarely quick ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling, but now is the time start with the thinking time available about the efficiency and effectiveness of your technology.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you loving and living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three years. That’s only thirty-six pay days. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

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.

When you look back at the previous twelve months, 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. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

Many years ago, in my more adventurous youth during university holidays, I was part of a rally of cars driving through the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of the trails that we drove through were precarious and dangerous. We had to stop many times to rest and assess our path.

On one rest stop, I woke up to a misty morning and made myself a cup of tea on our camping stove. As the sun began to rise, I carried my tea to the edge of the road to take in the vista below covered in swirling mist.

And that’s when I noticed a lone monk perched on the edge of the precipice, deep in meditation. I wondered if he had been there all night. As the rays of the sun slowly filled the valley with light, the monk came out of his reverie. He stood up and stretched, still on the edge. He looked at the rising sun, let out a deep breath and turned around to climb back up the road. I was fascinated.

As he came up to the road, I approached him and asked him wasn’t it dangerous being so close to the edge of the abyss. He responded, Are we all not just two minutes from the abyss anyway?

I realised at that moment how right he was. Most of us don’t recognise this or acknowledge it. What we all want is to harness the power of time, to slow it down, speed it up, recapture it or simply make it count. But the only time any of us can truly master is right now.

That morning in the Himalayas, I learned a very important lesson. Instead of coasting through life waiting for life to happen to me, I woke up to the importance of living my life with a sense of urgency, clarity and focus.

If something is important enough to you, then why wait for a specific date? There’s no guarantee that something won’t change or detract you from it before that date. All you have is now. We should get up every morning and count ourselves fortunate for having another shot at making a difference, but with urgency. I leave you with these lines from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run that defines a sense of urgency brilliantly.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

So, use the twelve days of Christmas as a time of reflection. A time to look back at how the year has gone, and what you’re going to shape for yourself in the coming year. I urge you to think about your NOW. Let that urgency fuel actions that lead to deeper connections, a higher purpose, and finding your passion and joy. Use the twelve days to make a difference to yourself and your business next year.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The history of chess is a history of metaphors and moral lessons. Underlying a game of chess is an abstract structure of rules and relative powers, which can be quite mind-boggling. The game emerged in C5th India, but it wasn’t until the C19th, when the set was standardised into the Staunton version we play today.

To follow a professional game is to get lost in a swamp of algebraic options and notations. When the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen against Donald Byrne in the so-called ‘game of the century’ in 1956, it was considered one of the finest moves in chess history – a greatness not quite communicated by Be6

Chess is an endless pursuit, a game of longevity with logical consequences and sly entrapment. After sacrificing his queen, another 24 moves later, Fischer won – a result, he’d worked out, that was inevitable if he let his queen go. It was sacrifice that was also attack, violence that was also composure.

When a chess player looks at the board, he does not see a static mosaic, but a magnetic field of forces, charged with energy, potential and intrigue. A game of chess opens in a state of equilibrium, and if the optimal move is made with each play, a draw is all but assured. At the elite, grandmaster level, more than half of contests are drawn.

Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen is a Norwegian chess grandmaster and the current World Chess Champion. His peak Elo rating of 2882, achieved in 2014, is the highest in history. Carlsen became World Champion in 2013, retained his title the following year, and won both the World Rapid Championship and World Blitz Championship thus becoming the first player to simultaneously hold all three titles.

Magnus tries to put the accent on play, less on preparation, and is seen as combining the talents of two of the all time greats, Karpov and Fischer. He’s known for getting his positions then holding on with a bulldog bite. Exhausting for opponents, one of his most feared qualities is his ‘nettlesomeness’ – his creative moves pressurise opponents into mistakes. Carlsen’s endgame prowess has been described as among the greatest in history.

The World Chess Championship of 2018 began with a series of twelve games played under classical time controls, the traditional slow pace of play. Carlsen failed to win a single one of his contests against the challenger, American Fabiano Caruana, but fortunately for the Norwegian, Caruana never reached a checkmate or extracted a resignation either.

With each of the dozen classical games ending in a draw, the match moved to a series of faster-paced tiebreakers, starting with a series of four ‘rapid’ games, in which players are allotted less than one-quarter the thinking time of the classical format. Carlsen, the stronger competitor in speedier formats, won the first three games to clinch the tiebreaker and retain his title.

To the casual observer, three weeks of drawn games may sound excruciatingly boring, but like a football match with smart, impregnable defences, or a baseball World Series studded with scoreless pitching duels, the chess title match featured two equally matched grandmasters competing at an extremely high level.

In chess, every piece serves a purpose. You start the game with a set of pieces, from king to pawns, each with their own ability and position. Novice players push forward immediately with their back row, trying to get their most valuable pieces into win positions early. Experienced players, however, know that it is the pattern of all their pieces working in concert that creates reliable success.

Master chess players see the unfolding patterns of the board over time, thinking not in terms of one piece or one move, but in terms of the entire board over dozens of moves. This ability to analyse actions and their outcomes, combined with skilled pattern recognition, is what defines strategy.

The objective is to play the board, not just your plan. When playing chess your opponent is trying to predict and undermine you, applying their own strategy to capture more pieces, so, what do you do? One crucial skill is the importance of taking time for reflection. It’s in reflection that the brain has time to learn, to process new information, to recognise patterns, and recall previous successful moves.

I see many similarities between chess and running a startup business from the strategy, thinking and tactics behind the game. Let’s look at the lessons and learnings we can take from Carlsen and his recent Word Championship success.

The first phase in a chess game: the opening As Carlsen shows, the purpose of the opening isn’t just to get immediately ahead, rather it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for a startup, but equally don’t rush.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for or have our opponents out foxed us and we’re playing catch-up? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame. In a startup it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan thinking in period of three months, with objectives and key milestones.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down by mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Carlsen’s approach is a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

In a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for them and experiment and have the nerve to try them when you find them, but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. Carlsen makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. Having a vision for your startup is just as important.

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective in chess, and creating long-term weaknesses in our opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a Carlsen is his ability to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

In chess, the defender has to race around to cover the threats, but against constant pressure the job soon becomes impossible. Moving to cover one breach creates another until something cracks and the attack breaks through.

In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more weak spots. So a large part of using the initiative is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Carlsen reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

In business, going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations. No neon sign appears to say that there is a big opportunity right around the corner, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

When you are winning, don’t get complacent Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine, success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to superiority, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes, a feeling that anything is good enough. Our egos want to believe that we won brilliantly against tough competition, not that we were lucky and ‘right time, right place’, but typically, however, the winner is just the player who made the next-to-last mistake.

Carlsen shows that if we’re going to get the most out of our talent we have to be prepared to have a game plan, practice, think on the spot, analyse ourselves critically and improve our weakest points. The easiest thing is to rely on talent and focus only on what we do well. It’s true that you want to play to your strengths, but if there is too much of an imbalance growth is limited. In business, the fastest way to improve overall is to work on your total game, and all the constituent parts.

Chess is a mental game, that requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this we can take the thought that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and agile thinking that will bring success.

Imagine

I remember hearing the lyrics to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds as one of the first songs that made me stop and really listen, and from that day, John Lennon was one someone I followed. Lennon was dynamic, controversial, radical, and confrontational plus a whole lot more. There is so much more that he shared with the world apart from his music.

Therein lies a depth of his wisdom. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity.

John was always one to say what was on his mind and never one to shy away from controversy. Living in the US, the Nixon administration had Lennon under its watchful eye throughout the first half of the 1970s. Speaking out against the Vietnam War and mingling with anarchists made Lennon a target of Nixon’s White House. Already paranoid, Nixon thought the influence Lennon had on America’s youth was enough to damage him politically, and he sought to deport John back to England.

After four years, the case was finally thrown out and Lennon got his Green Card on July 27, 1976. Standing on the courthouse steps moments after receiving his permanent residency, Lennon was asked if he harboured a grudge against the Nixon Administration for tapping his phone, putting him under surveillance and mounting a multi-year attempt to deport him. Without missing a beat, John smiled and said, Time wounds all heels, as ever spontaneous, witty and reflective.

Lennon grew up in a working-class family in Liverpool. His parents, Julia and Fred, separated before he was two. Lennon saw his father only twice in the next 20 years, and went to live with his mother’s sister. When Lennon was 17, his mother was killed by a bus. In the summer of 1956 he met Paul McCartney, and they began writing songs together. As The Beatles, they were one of the C20th cultural icons. But life moves on, and John’s relationship with Yoko Ono and his interest in global social and political issues saw him stand back from music.

However, in September 1980, Lennon and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. A series of revealing interviews were published. (Just Like) Starting Over hit number one, and there was talk of a possible world tour. But on December 8, 1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark Chapman, a fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.

Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were 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 murder, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. I don’t think John would have been content playing his guitar at weddings and parties in Liverpool. He was amongst the earliest adopters of a global perspective, embracing new ideas and culture. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making music.

Lennon’s risk-taking and creativity are clearly evident, but there was always a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. Lennon prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle. Lennon thought big. Even in the early days when starting out he used to say To the toppermost of the poppermost! and he believed it. Lennon aimed high and got there, in no small part because he believed he would get there.

He was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else 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.

Here, in his own words, are some reflections on how his attitude and thinking offers inspiration for startup entrepreneurs.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans Blink and an opportunity will pass you by. Startup life is never a direct route, it weaves, twists and turns. But if you have a goal, a dream or a plan in place, it acts as a compass that keeps you on track, no matter what detours need to be taken along the way.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted Lennon was a thinker, he had a thirst for knowledge, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising you own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking, never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight

A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality Dreams are no fun if you keep them to yourself, dreams are meant to be shared. Startups with co-founders, like-minded entrepreneurs collaborating, have proven to be a better basis for launching successful businesses, rather than a solo founder venturing alone, so share your dream.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination Reality plus a sprinkle of imagination, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it and imagine by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are Stop listening to what others say you are. You are what you are. Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. I just believe in me Lennon once said, and he meant it. Have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known; nothing you can see that isn’t shown; nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be… Nothing happens by accident, and what appears to be the greatest mistake will in retrospect be the pivot to your startup. Find something you love and do it better than anyone else. Lennon was inspired by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. He took the music from these pioneers and put his own touch and Liverpudlian spin on it. The outcome? It was an entirely new take on a genre, which no one was expecting.

There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done John seemed to live in chaos, he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on, and often he couldn’t articulate his ideas well. But John was an agitator, he was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing.  Keep working, it makes you happy. Whether you’re a musician or a software developer or own a local bakery or retail store, you have to keep working no matter what.

If there’s such a thing as genius — I am one Create the unexpected, and be confident in yourself to make it happen. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity in this album is incredible. From the beautiful melodies of Julia and Blackbird to the pounding beats of Helter Skelter and Revolution, it is truly unexpected. The Beatles were the first artists to record in stereo. They were the first band to experiment in the studio. They were the first band to list lyrics on their album.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Lennon did, and give an insight into the depth of your uniqueness?

What we’ve got to do is keep hope alive, because without it we’ll sink. I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way Risk failure by aiming for the sky. Lennon fits this description well, he didn’t conform to an orthodox style. In fact, like many great musicians, he held his instrument the wrong way. He experimented with made-up chords, new concepts – and had some celebrated failures in the process.

I’m not going to change the way I look or the way I feel to conform to anything. I’ve always been a freak. Focus on your strengths, and be different. Lennon found his calling and focused on his passion. Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it. Perhaps this is what Albert Einstein meant when he said Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.

John is the man who encouraged us all to Imagine, and that’s key for any startup entrepreneur – to imagine your future product, your future business, your future self. Everything you can imagine is real, said Picasso, painting is just another way of keeping a diary – the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Imagine is your vision, the preview of your startup life’s coming attractions. Your imagination is everything.

Finally, reflect on this, one of my favourite Lennon quotes, which captures the attitude, mindset and self-belief needed by any entrepreneur, to fit alongside their imagination:

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Time is an ingredient in all entrepreneurial endeavours

Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been.  Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.

Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and personal passions, it’s the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set.

So a creative mime artist and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar – it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke – but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer, a chef – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers.

Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire.

What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his bakery in New York’s Soho neighbourhood. The pastry resembles a doughnut and is made from croissant-like dough, which is filled with flavoured cream and fried in grapeseed oil.

On that night, a blogger from Grub Street, the online restaurant blog fro New York magazine, reported on the new pastry. The post resulted in much interest – 140,000 links to the blog post. The first day Ansell made 30, the next, 45. By the third day with than 100 people queuing, the line stretched back over four blocks.

It took him three months and more than ten variations to perfect the recipe he’s used ever since. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name as crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.

With its flaky croissant and custard interior and fried, sugar-dipped exterior, it was bound to be popular, but no one could have predicted the ensuing, pastry-flecked frenzy. The not-so-secret Cronut recipe is now plastered all over the internet, but would-be imitators will need their piping bags and patience at the ready – it takes three days to make, thanks in part to the laminated dough. This is rolled together with a block of chilled butter to form layers, and needs a lengthy rest in the fridge.

Ansel takes things to the next level, however. Each batch of Cronuts takes Ansel and his team approximately three days to prepare. Day one consists of mixing the dough, then letting it ferment and rest overnight. Day two, butter is incorporated, and hundreds of sheets of dough are layered together before the dough rests again.

On day three, the dough is cut, formed into the Cronut shape, and left to ferment again. Once each has tripled in size, Cronut by Cronut is fried in grapeseed oil, filled with cream, rolled in sugar, and finished with a glaze. The secret of the Cronut has been solved. It takes three days and a lot of sugar, butter and graft.

And he’s not just a one-trick pony. There’s the DKA, his take on a Breton pastry, which is a caramelised croissant, with a soft flaky interior. There’s the frozen S’more, an ice-cream block wrapped in chocolate, then enrobed in marshmallow and frozen. There’s his soufflé inside a brioche shell and his shot glass fashioned from chocolate chip cookies. Ansel is the king of happy bakers.

The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2018, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.

Prior to starting his own business, Dominique was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship French restaurant in NYC. During his six years there, he was part of the team that led the restaurant to receive its first four-star New York Times Rating and three Michelin stars. He also spent seven years at the venerable French bakery Fauchon, where he lead the charge of international expansion and helped set up shops in Russia, Egypt, Kuwait and other locations around the world.

Despite his ritzy resumé, the ‘Cronut King’ comes from humble origins. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris. His father was a factory worker, and the family couldn’t afford college, so Dominique began working at 16, training to be a chef and saving money.

At 19, he left home to complete a mandatory year of service in the French military, where he worked as a cook. After returning home he headed to Paris, not knowing anyone, and landed the job at Fauchon, where he quickly worked his way up from a temporary holiday season staffer to traveling the world and being in charge of international expansion.

With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. With successful bakeries in London and Tokyo following New York off the back of the Cronut, he must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most virally popular pastry of its time.

Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason. He combines craft, complexity, surprise, presentation, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations. I think his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some great entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship.

Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations – an aspect Dominique obsesses over – it takes three days for a Cronut to be prepared, then it’s vital each is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into products One of the screening criteria for what makes a product onto his menu is that the item evokes emotions, often nostalgic emotions tied to childhood, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about, or memories of summer camping the Frozen S’mores evoke, or the memories of milk and cookies after school his milk filled chocolate chip cookie shots evoke, or the traditional little pastries from Bordeaux, France called cannelés. Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.

Multisensory innovation Ansel’s creations have textural and temperature contrasts, like the liquid milk and soft cookies, or the S’mores with the soft honey marshmallow exterior, smooth and creamy ice cream inside and the crisp chocolate feuilletine that separate the warm marshmallow exterior from the cold, creamy ice cream inside. Capturing the customer’s imagination is vital for a startup with a new product to market.

Continuous product iteration Ansel’s is always searching for ways to make his products even better, he subscribes to the notion, and works in an environment where the products can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree, so gives him advantage. Build a culture where there is a focus on continuous development and iteration.

Be a relentless learner Ansel’s evidences the appetite for learning that is seen in many successful entrepreneurs. Given how accomplished he is, you’d think there wasn’t much room for improvement, yet he feels there is so much more to try and do and create in his field. Build an ethos to always keep moving, innovating, learning, and growing.

Use your team as a source of new ideas Ansel constantly brainstorms with his staff. The menu changes every 6-8 weeks, so the teams are always coming up with new ideas together. He schedules regular tasting with to give feedback on new menu ideas and what ultimately ends up being added. Use your team’s knowledge and experience as a source of innovation.

Combine ideas The Cronut pastries are not only a creative take on donuts and croissants, but also French and American cultures, combining a classic French pastry with America’s love for the familiar flavours of a caramel, chocolate and peanut combinations.  Keep an on open mind to serendipity.

Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate.

Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.

Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking broadly, about all the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of visiting his establishments special, different, memorable, and wonderful. In a recent interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.

Ansel is dedicated to finding new ways to surprise, delight, and inspire through his desserts. With innovation and creativity at the heart of his work, he has brought a refreshing uniqueness to the world of pastry. Voted the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2017, as well as being honoured with the prestigious Ordre du Mérite Agricole, one of the highest honours in France, he is a true entrepreneur, always thinking about how he can touch people with food in a different way to stimulate them.

His bakery restricts daily Cronut output to around 350 per day, and though the line has shortened considerably, there will still be, on average, between 60 and 100 people waiting in the Cronut line when the doors open every morning at 8am.  There is a new Cronut flavour every other month – there have been 36 since its debut on the menu.

We live in an age where you can make anything possible. If you have an idea, just go for it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, because the perfect opportunity is now.