Startup lessons from the tortoise & the hare: go fast, go slow

The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the memorable Aesop’s Fables, the story of a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise. But tired of the hare’s boastful behaviour, the tortoise challenges him to a race.

Look at me! said the hare, look how fast I can run, he boasted. The hare was very fast and knew it. So when the tortoise agreed to race him, the other animals didn’t think the tortoise stood a chance.

The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, looks back to see the tortoise is so far behind him that he decides to rest under a tree, falling asleep. He is later awakened by the cheers of the other animals as the tortoise crosses the finishing line first – the hare had slept too long and allowed the tortoise to pass him, and slowly but steadily, had arrived before him.

Would that happen in real life? Could a tortoise really beat a hare in a race? And what if the race were a metaphor for a business startup, what’s the best tactic – steady progress or go-for-it-all-in-dash? First, we need to consider what kind of race it is. Different races have different requirements. If we break it down into three races, all might have quite different results:

– In a sprint, given that it can reach speeds of 60km/h, the hare would win hands down.

– If it was an endurance race, it might be more even – tortoises have the ability to persevere through harsh conditions over long distances. However, the same goes for hares, who are also well adapted to extreme conditions.

– If it’s a long-term race, the tortoise wins. In the evolutionary race, hares have been around for 40 million years, whereas tortoises 200 million. Couple this with their long lifespan, and the tortoise comes out ahead.

But there is another factor we could consider: the distance travelled over a lifetime. Given its long lifespan, would the tortoise travel further? If we consider that a giant tortoise might travel 120km in one year, over say a lifespan of 100 years, they would travel 12,000 km.

A hare would smash that in one year if they were running at their top speed for three hours of each day. That would come out at 65,000km a year, but anybody who has spent time outside knows that hares spend most of their time running in circles.

In the simplest terms, no metaphors, the tortoise would win if it depends on how long the race is. If the race was over a day, the tortoise doesn’t have any chance, but over its long lifetime, my money is on the tortoise. Clearly it’s difficult to compare the two animals like-for-like when you consider all the variables, but the biological evidence suggests there is some truth to Aesop’s fable: slow and steady can win a race over a lifetime.

So, back to the startup analogy, pity the tortoise you may think. Steady, careful, slowly-but-surely, the ways of the tortoise seem quaint in the face of an onslaught of hares running amok. The tortoise is the old business model, cautious and slow to react, whereas the hare is the epitome of the entrepreneur, dashing around, energised creating new businesses models or disrupting old ones.

How many times do we find ourselves living as the hare rather than the tortoise? We define goals, become excited, pursue them with fervour, and, then all too often, get distracted and forget them and leap into the next challenge.

The story teaches us the virtue of setting and maintaining a pace to achieve our goals. How do we balance the pursuit of our startup dreams between speeding away and burning out like the hare and plodding along like the tortoise, afraid we won’t ever get there? I think we all know deep down the tortoise is, undoubtedly the winner of the race, but the hare has its place too. The fundamental task in achieving our goals is breaking them down into many smaller goals and assigning ‘tortoise’ or ‘hare’ characteristics to them.

The tortoise represents our overall, long-term startup goals and the planning that is required to achieve them. These are not goals that can be completed tomorrow. You must set a pace for yourself to reach these landmarks by breaking them down into smaller, more easily attainable goals. It is through this slow and calculated process that you will build the framework that will guide your decisions towards the end result

We know, certainly, that we can’t sustain ourselves trying to sprint our way to a finish line that could be years away, so where does the hare and his hyperactive tendencies come into play for us? Well, since we took our time when we started off and carefully pieced together an outline that breaks down our goals into bite size pieces, we can now pursue each of them, one by one, with lightning pace.

The tortoise teaches us that a slow, methodical pace is what will efficiently take us long distances. The hare teaches us that agility and quickness is useful for short term impact and bursts of activity when needed. Be it big or small, make it a point to take one step forward every day.

So, here are a few lessons I learned from this popular fable to take into my startup thinking.

Lesson 1: Sometime we take too long to make decisions

The hare did not think out his plan clearly, but he acted when he saw his opportunity. The lesson here is though he probably had many failures, he learned a valuable lesson that would take him through life. Then again, you can’t get anywhere if you’re still sitting at the starting line when others are pushing forward!

Lesson 2: It’s ok to make mistakes, they only make you more aware

The hare learned to be more thoughtful, and that being the fastest does not always equate to being the winner. You have to take a holistic view to your startup, otherwise you become inefficient and a short term focus means you don’t achieve your long term goals.

Lesson 3: Competition is not always between you and someone else

As we saw for the hare, his only competitor was really himself and his own thinking. Our beliefs, his being ‘I am the fastest so I can lie around and take a nap’, was his downfall. Some of us think this way as well, I am the best, strongest, etc. so I don’t really need to learn more, do more or expend extra energy to accomplish the next task. Complacency, as we see in the tale, leads to failure.

Lesson 4: Slow and steady really does win the race

The tortoise was a perfect example of this, even in the face of sure defeat he persisted. He kept going and never ever looked back. Persistence will take your further than boasting or fear any day. You already won it in your mind, that’s where it all begins.

Lesson 5: Don’t worry about the startup next to you, just run your own race. 

There’s no denying the need for speed, start-ups spend more time on their pivots, learning and moving forward and need to make decisions quickly. This experience may not bring speed per se, but it does bring a greater ability to reflect and put into perspective what is happening around you an respond quickly.

Of course, startups are all about growth, but speed isn’t necessarily the only virtue to consider. The thing about startup growth rate is that it’s inherently unsustainable. Sure, your revenue will keep growing, but as your revenue continues to increase, your growth rate will inevitably diminish.

So if the success of your startup is measured by your growth rate, how do you know if you’re growing fast enough? It’s back to the tortoise and the hare again, what is the race being run – and it’s important to run your own race.

Lesson 6: Go slow, then go fast

We hear it all the time speed, speed, speed, speed. Speed is important, but it’s your own speed. But while I fully believe that getting a product into customers’ hands fast is critical to the success of any startup, if you try to do it insanely fast, you’re going to make so many mistakes that, ultimately, you’ll slow yourself down.

It isn’t all about velocity. It isn’t all about time to market or even about first-mover advantages. It’s about laying the necessary groundwork for your startup success, even if doing so takes longer than you’d like.

It’s about going slowly at the start when it comes to your funding. Everybody wants to jump right into investor meetings. Don’t do that. Go take the time to really understand your business model, how you want to pitch it and who invests in companies of your style and genre. Really do your homework on who is going to be potentially the right fit to invest in your business.

With your customer validation and your product-market fit, you can go fast when it really counts, but go slow at first. There are challenges that come with making assumptions about your customers first-hand. Go and test your idea with two or three early users of your prototype, who will give instant validation on what you’re doing.

Of course, that results in an imperfect understanding of your business model. You have to go find the naysayers. You have to go flesh out ten, maybe twenty different customers. Depending on your market, it’s going to be a different number of customers.

Going slowly at first ultimately enables you to go faster in the long run. If you don’t know who your customers are, you end up spending a lot of time and funds on people that probably aren’t going to buy your solution.

Also, let your newfound understanding of your customers inform your development of the product or service you’ll offer. Once you’ve fleshed out your different customers, find out what they really need. That’s at the core of it. That’s how you start to build your value proposition, and that’s how you start to learn how to differentiate yourself. That’s how you learn what your go-to-market strategy is going to be, and your pricing strategy.

Every new venture that survives the first few iterations of its business model starts to drift away from their entrepreneurial thinking and assumes they have achieved the path to longevity, but no startup can afford to lose the agility, flexibility, and innovation of the early days and thirst for experimentation – so keep the mindset of the hare.

Whatever your pace of growth, short or medium term objectives, the lessons from the race run between the tortoise and the hare offer real learnings around focus, decision making, tactics and how complacency can undermine you. However, the real message for your startup business is that in reality, it’s not a competition with another business that matters, rather it’s a competition with yourself.

Startups: be ready for killer questions in your investor conversations

There’s lots of advice about what make a great pitch deck for a startup founder meeting potential investors. However, to me they are simply the obvious things, what about the killer, more subtle questions, the ones that could make you stumble or your less confident of your response? Also, flip that thought, what can you do to make your conversation different and create a striking first impression?

While it’s impossible to control an investor meeting’s outcome, thoughtful preparation gives you the best shot at making your conversation impactful and memorable. Smart people ask smart questions, so be prepared as your fundraising meetings will be a significant learning curve, as each will be different.

Sometimes tough question appear innocuous, others get your heart pumping, mouth dry and speech stuttering! Knowing how to improvise and being able to think on your feet is a skill that includes the ability to give impromptu remarks, as well as to answer unexpected questions well.

Investors ask pointed questions to obtain information, but there are other reasons behind them. What they really want, in many cases, is to get a feel for your attitude towards a certain subject, and how knowledgeable, confident and trustworthy you are. They are investing it you, after all.

It’s simply not possible to learn a scripted presentation, however, it is possible to hone your improvisation skills by learning methods to give structured answers, no matter what you’re asked. The best tactic is planning and preparation, assume the pitch meeting is not going to be a breeze, and then, in the heat of the moment, give yourself the opportunity for a thoughtful response or to grab the agenda of the conversation.

So let me share you some of the killer questions in fundraising conversations which have made me think over the years, and suggestions on a response.

1. Why you? In essence, an investor is asking What is your Founder-Market-Fit? They want to see you have a compelling and unique insight, and understand what about your thinking is contrarian i.e. why your startup will win.

Founder-market fit is an indicator of a match between the founder and the problem they are going after. Domain insights and experience really matter, investors won’t want to fund accidental founders or pay for you to learn about an industry. Investors like to back folks who have a good chance of success, so convincing you’re the right person to invest in will be the challenge you face. Do you think you’re the best person to lead the company, now and in the long run?  – is an emotive and direct on-the-spot question. Are you personally investible?

There will be questions about your judgement and how shrewd you are. For example, if you look back in a year and things haven’t gone as well as expected, what will be the reason?  Thinking about why we would fail appears negative, but it’s all about having the foresight to stand back and not be blinded by headstrong thoughts.

2. What if? One of the biggest challenges you get pitching is what I call the ‘Godzilla problem’ – for tech, it’s You could do this, but what if Google decides tomorrow they’re going to launch this?

It’s a difficult question, because what are you going to say? You can’t sit there and bluff that Google are not going to do it. The investor’s response can then be That may be true right now, but they may change their mind once they see it’s working for you.

There’s no response to that, because if Google decide to do it you are toast. With investors, there is a scale between fear and greed, and they’re looking to see where you are on this spectrum – because they are on it too, albeit from the other side of the table. They toggle between I’m really excited about this company, we can make money to It’s not for me, this one thing could happen and they’re finished. 

Don’t respond that they shouldn’t be fearful. You’re almost telling them that their fear is irrational. The wrong answer is ‘that won’t happen’. The best response is along the lines of You know, that may be right. Google may come and do that, but this is such a great opportunity that if they don’t, we are going to be in a great place. 

3. What’s your Blue Ocean? When pitching, many entrepreneurs focus on the size of the ‘total addressable market’ and the market share they believe they can capture. That may seem sensible, but talking about the total market is invariably too broad to be useful.

Nearly every market is a frenzy of Red Ocean, so it’s not just about communicating the size of your market, you have to show investors where the Blue Ocean is, and that you have found an entry point that others haven’t. In doing this, your articulate your value proposition early in the discussion, and investors are going to listen to you closely.

Another thing to consider is how much of an advantage existing market share provide for incumbents in that market. For example, Hilton’s lead in the hotel industry’s over Airbnb in terms of assets was not much of an advantage, because Airbnb was built on an asset-light marketplace model.

So, tailor your pitch specifically to the segment of the market where you can most immediately get a foothold, gain traction, and build a sustainable customer base.

4. How do you stack up against X, the market leader? How are you going to compete against them?  The context here is that they want to know how you are going to move the needle to a sustainable, 10X advantage. They accept you have potential with your innovation in a ‘David v Goliath play’. What they want to hear is how you think you compare, one-on-one.

First of all, never brush off any competitor as being irrelevant as either too big or complacent, It’s a lazy and arrogant response. For many years Microsoft were derided by tech entrepreneurs as a bloated, irrelevant dinosaur – today besides the Office Suite, they own Xbox, the Surface range, LinkedIn, Skype, Azure, Hololens and are leaders in cloud computing.

Recognise every solution, even inferior solutions, as legitimate competitive threats. One approach is to focus the thinking on a particular aspect of problem-solution fit around user experience. Your answer could offer a compelling strategy that neutralises rivals by overcoming or changing key aspects of user behaviour that will give you sustainable traction.

5. Unpack your technology As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, how can we predict which future technologies will become a reality, and have a real impact on our lives? A founder who can unpack their tech innovation in clearly understandable language with clarity, common sense, logic and avoid hype, will gain respect from an investor.

There are three key factors you need to provide insight on:

·     The context in which your new technology emerges

·     The viability of the technology innovation

·     The barriers to the technology’s success

Where incumbents dominate a market with their marketing or distribution power, a new technology has to be extremely good or desirable if it is to displace them. In some instances – such as Amazon in retail, Uber in the taxi sector – the failure of incumbents to harness new technologies has allowed startups to disrupt them.  Walk the investor through the customer journey, where your new tech creates value, and what you need to do to make it happen.

6. Discuss the barriers to sales growth There are many common barriers to the adoption of new technology, which are a hindrance to growth. For example, privacy and trust regarding data. A second common hurdle is inertia, customers need a certain level of service, convenience, and price compression before widespread adoption of new technology happens.

Gartner’s hype cycle, in which new technologies generally navigate a long ‘trough of disillusionment’ after early adoption before widespread consumer adoption, invokes this phenomenon – more specifically, the vested interests of competitors in owning their relationship with their customers

For enterprise startups in particular, you have to know not only what a customer wants to buy, but also what the appropriate pricing strategy is and how your product integrates with others, if needed. Identify the tipping point. The holy grail of tech innovation is predicting the likelihood and timing of the tipping point between a technology remaining an optional product for most consumers and it becoming a must-have.

Startup founders willing to go through the R&D process are likely to spot trends and navigate the sales journey, taking the best course of action at the right time. This is what investors will buy into.

7. Automate Your Demo Investor meetings are an opportunity to showcase you tech product, but also leave you open to epic tech failures that can trigger doubt in the minds of funders. Try to minimise the risk by automating your demo.

Resist the temptation to give an impromptu demo on request. Rather than trying to navigate an embryonic product in an uncertain environment, either build a clickable prototype, make a product video with a good narrative voice over, or show sharp wireframes of the concept, developing a series of screenshots of the user journey and experience.

Automating the demo also prevents you from wandering off to show bells and whistles that may not be critical. Prepare a use case in advance so you know exactly what you want to show – a scenario that involves a target customer should be enough to properly preview the model, so choose the most relevant and effective one.

8. Why now?  Timing is everything, and really understanding Why now? for your startup is vital. The startup graveyard is full of examples of things too early or too late to market – yet Uber wasn’t the first to think of on-demand rides, and AirBnB wasn’t the first to let people host visitors in their homes.

When investors are asking Why Now? they are focused on understanding the market opportunity, dynamics, and context – the factors that will make a difference between success or failure. In responding, be confident but not strident. You only launch once – a moment in time where the technology and customer demand align to create the conditions for a startup to flourish.

You need to make a strong case for the timing of your startup as often, investors will have heard of something similar to your idea before. Pitching the timing as much as the idea can help them decide to invest, even if they passed on a similar idea before. Why now?? is one of the most important questions for the entrepreneur to have a good answer to.

Investors are looking for markets where there has been a recent inflection point, which can be driven by a shift in consumer behaviour, a regulatory change – or your new tech innovation. What’s the market opportunity and why now? What is the economic impetus for this product today? What is the tech catalyst that you’re introducing, enabling the new product experience?

When investors aim a tough question our way, the box of frogs goes off in our heads, leaping around in mayhem, impacting our ability to think rationally and offer anything other than a jibberish response of the first thing that comes into your head.

The critical thing is connecting your conversation in a calm, confident and assured manner. People listen when they’re engaged. It’s about the nuts and bolts of your delivery, making your content credible and informative, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room.

The anatomy of being memorable in an investor pitch means it’s important to bust your own biases. Investors are simply asking ‘Make me believe by showing me you know what you’re talking about’. Give yourself the best opportunity by considering the above approach, and most of all, be well prepared.

Startup lessons in strategy & execution from Led By Donkeys

Well, January 31 came and we left the European Union, and already the schism between Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier on constitutional, economic and cultural consequences is apparent. Putting aside your political views, one aspect of the Brexit campaign that start-ups can learn from is the stunning communication strategy of one political lobbying group, Led By Donkeys, itself a startup venture formed to join the Brexit debate.

Formed in December 2018, Led By Donkeys is a British anti-Brexit political campaign group which used satire targeted at pro-Brexit politicians, calling out ‘thermonuclear hypocrisy’. Led By Donkeys’ main campaign consisted of billboards containing past tweets by pro-Brexit politicians, which appeared to undermine the politicians’ current political position, or clearly have not stood the test of time.

The campaign was initially run as a guerrilla marketing operation, in which Led By Donkeys posters were plastered over existing adverts. It was then expanded into a crowdfunded campaign, which purchased advertising space on hundreds of billboards across the UK.

Later the group staged real-life stunts, including projecting messages on iconic places such as the Houses of Parliament and the White Cliffs of Dover, carving giant tweets and messages on beaches and fields, and directing crowds to unfurl huge flags at marches. The videos of these stunts were subsequently viewed millions of times on social media. Led By Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 ‘Social Purpose Awards’.

In December 2018, two years after the Referendum, four friends were discussing their frustrations with the Brexit situation in the pub. The four founders – Oliver Knowles, Ben Stewart, James Sadri and Will Rose all have a connection with environmental campaign group Greenpeace. In the Referendum, they had all voted ‘remain’. They were laughing in disbelief as they passed a phone around displaying a David Cameron tweet from 2015, saying Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.

While brainstorming how the tweet could be preserved, one of them noticed a billboard outside. They decided to print it out and paste it up. Each of them then chose a pro-Brexit politician they despised the most and looked for their ‘most offensive lies, lunacy and hypocrisy’ to go on billboards too.

Rose designed the posters, whilst Sadri came up with Lions led by donkeys, a phrase referring to soldiers in WWI who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. They thought it described the relationship between the British people and their Brexit leaders well.

Rose shortened it to #LedByDonkeys. The activists bought a ladder, high-visibility jackets to look legitimate, a bucket, a roller and wallpaper paste, and late at night on 8 January 2019 they illegally plastered the David Cameron tweet over an existing advert on a billboard. They posted a photo of the billboard to their new Twitter account and asked The Guardian journalist Marina Hyde to retweet it – resulting in #LedByDonkeys trending. Within a day their billboard poster was removed.

The group then illegally pasted the other four original tweets on billboards around London, aiming to spark a discussion about the promises of leading Brexiteers. They chose Dover, a pro-Brexit constituency, as their next location. They selected four additional historical Brexiteer statements, among which was Dominic Raab’s 2018 statement I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this but … we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

On 16 January 2019, they tweeted photos of the four Dover billboards, along with the message A busy night on the Brexit frontline. We’ve covered Dover in the historic quotes of the people responsible for this chaos. Britain is a nation #LedByDonkeys. This was the moment when they went viral. The next day all four posters were removed by the billboard company.

The activists deplored the tribalism triggered by Brexit and agreed that going national was needed. Their followers suggested that they set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to legitimately fund billboards. Initially the group resisted this, believing that their acts being illegal was an important part of the activism of the project.

They also feared they would have to give up their anonymity, but crowdfunder.co.uk confirmed they could stay anonymous, and set a fundraising target of £10k. It was reached within three hours. By November the group had raised £500k and became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history.

But their campaign of holding pro-Brexit politicians accountable for past promises and exposing their flipflopping views did not achieve their goal. The pro-Brexit parties won the majority of seats in the General Election, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. That day, Led By Donkeys projected a video message to the EU on the White Cliffs of Dover featuring WWII veterans expressing sadness about leaving the EU and hope that one day Britain will be together with Europe again. The video of the projection was seen a million times on Brexit Day. Follow this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1_zs2ezzvpiR26ZiEqj4l9PsX55PalHj5

As a startup, Led By Donkeys made its mark. The creative thinking was brilliant in its meditative simplicity, the campaign was witty and subversive. In just twelve months, four blokes armed with a £90 ladder from B&Q, four hi-vis jackets and a bucket of wallpaper paste reached over 300 billboards and an audience of 30 million – what are the lessons for other startup ventures?

1.     Have a purpose

Britain voted ‘leave’ in June 2016, since when the UK political system has been in turmoil. Like many others, four everyday blokes had a chat about it in the pub, but rather than just getting angry, they decided to do something about it.

Politicians had either been liberal with the truth or changed their minds so much that it was difficult to know where they stood. They aimed to fill the void that had opened up in the usually balanced UK political landscape. It was missing a nugget of truth and a splash of British humour.

2.     Know your strategy

The idea was simple: uncover the truth, in the format of a Tweet you can’t delete. Going though the social feeds, interviews and articles of Brexit-supporting politicians’ to reveal their claims about Brexit in the past and contrast them with the stark reality we found ourselves in. These would be displayed publicly across the UK, focusing on pro-Brexit areas.

Led By Donkeys opted for a humble screengrab as their design of choice. These were displayed loud and proud on billboards, poster sites and digital advertising vans, plus later in the campaign, took projections to key locations across Europe including Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Glastonbury Festival and the EU Parliament itself in Brussels.

3.     Be clear in your tactics and agile on timing

Led By Donkeys gave people a voice when they needed it most. They responded to events on a daily basis, consistently picking up the Leave protagonists with killer timing and wit, all of which galvanised their supporters and strengthened their reach, which in turn drove funding into their Crowdfunder cause.

Key locations around the country were identified: where Brexit tensions were at their highest, political leaders were based or key Brexit events were taking place. Meanwhile, at the People’s March in central London, their massive banner became the defining image, making headlines worldwide. When the Brexit Party announced their intention to stand in the European elections without a published manifesto, the quartet dutifully obliged by pasting previous political statements on billboards across the UK.

As campaigners, they developed objectives and a critical pathway and a tactics to meet those objectives. They injected passion and edge into the national conversation, even if they admitted that the viscosity of their wallpaper paste was way off at times. The campaign was challenging, thought-provoking, timing and speed was of the essence. They hit the mark every single day.

4.     Focus on intelligent thinking to shape your content

They brought the Greenpeace ethos of the mindbomb of campaigning, where one single picture can shift people’s perceptions. Humour played a key part too, making fun of politicians broke through the partisan atmosphere.

They not only made fun of Brexiteers, they also ridiculed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his ambivalent stance on Brexit with an empty billboard. They left three cans of spray paint and a stepladder by the poster as an encouragement for passers-by to write their own comments. They also worked with artist Cold War Steve to collaborate on a billboard site at the Glastonbury Festival.

When the EU were considering giving the UK an extension to the original deadline of 29 March 2019, Led By Donkeys used a giant projector to display a video on the White Cliffs of Dover. Their goal was to ask the EU leaders for much more time, so that there could be a second referendum. The video displayed an SOS in blue, with the ‘O’ made up of yellow stars, to mimic the EU flag. EU leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted back the next day that it was “quite something to see the White Cliffs of Dover turn blue”.

In the final week before the General Election, they crowdfunded £250k within 24 hours to run anti-Brexit ads on Facebook. Three ads were each viewed more than one million times. The group organised the carving of a giant message on a Devon beach, with six doctors and nurses writing You can’t trust Boris Johnson with our NHS. GPS technology was used to draw the outlines of the letters and Johnson. The NHS staff filled it in.

5.     Adopt multi-channel communication

Led By Donkeys became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history, enabling it to have a huge impact in the crowded Brexit narrative.

  • 340,000 followers in total on social media. They follow no one.
  • Reach of 3m on Twitter, with over 1.5m retweets and 3m likes
  • Viewed over 2m times on YouTube
  • The physical poster sites have reached 30 million people.
  • Staggering editorial media reach of 1,400,000,000.

Their provocative marketing campaign flew in the face of modern media trends, using traditional ‘paper and paste’ billboards for illicit messaging, not fast-turnaround, digital screens. There is a trinity of outdoor imagery, online sharing and public interaction in local communities that was at the heart of their approach. Creating political street theatre up and down the country allowed them to hack the local and regional media and to get a conversation going on local community Facebook groups.

Led By Donkeys eschewed the civil disobedience-style approach of Extinction Rebellion but believed strongly in the value of participation to counter apathy and dejection. Their multi-channel communication approach ensured their reach, broadcast and social media footprint resonated with both original and user generated content.

It had its faults, but the EU was a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. That’s over, and for now the domestic agenda is English nationalism, set by Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet of mocking grins, whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back from Led Donkeys.

They have vowed to continue their campaign to secure honest, democratic communication from our politicians. Make sure your startup adopts the vision, passion, strategy and tactics of Led By Donkeys, and who knows you’ll make your own mark too in under 12 months.

‘Dream of painting, then paint your dream’ – inspiration for entrepreneurs from Van Gogh

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagined how physics worked in the real world, instead of formulas drawn on a chalkboard.

When he was 16 he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light – how it would travel and how it would bend? He contemplated gravity by imagining bowling balls and billiard balls competing for space on a trampoline surface.

Gedankenerfahrung means ‘thought experiment’, daydreaming. Imagination has nothing to do with physics, but Einstein’s imagination is what made him a genius physicist, connecting his math skills to his dreaming in a way that let him see what others could not.

Entrepreneurs have something of this too, outlier success comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist, where fantasy and reality merged in some of his most enduring paintings. With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Van Gogh was a fanatic about light, giving the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers remains one of the most popular still life in the history of art.

But he was also enthralled with night time. The painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paint­ings, but in paintings such as his iconic The Starry Night, painted while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, his touch is more restrained and you really see his craftsmanship and endeavour.

Van Gogh’s was only an artist for the last decade of his life. Before painting pictures that would adorn the walls of the most celebrated museums, he tried (and failed) at three other careers. He spent the final years of his life traveling through Belgium, Holland, and France in pursuit of his artistic vision.

Alone in a studio or in the fields, Van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He had initially absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to see the work of contemporaries and frequent cafés and exhibitions.

There, having encountered young painters like Gauguin, as well as older artists such as Monet, the brighter colours and the expressive force he’d been searching for erupted. He painted feverishly. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

After neighbours petitioned the police, he was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields.

Van Gogh never thought his paintings would become such stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting The Starry Night and died two days later. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealised village. Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, Van Gogh’s night pictures take on added significance, for it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that Van Gogh often looked for solace.

The night scenes captured his interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination. He lived at night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés or meditated over the rich associations he saw in the night sky.

It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest. The Starry Night he considered a failed attempt at abstraction. Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

The Starry Night was painted in Van Gogh’s ground-floor studio in the asylum, a view which he painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, depicted at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The Starry Night is the only nocturne in the series of views.

Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to influence artists to the present day. His unstable, impulsive personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist, using gestural application of paint and symbolic colours to express subjective emotions.

Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Van Gogh, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. Modern day entrepreneurial behaviours mirror Van Gogh’s, so what we can learn from his attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh to illustrate his entrepreneurial attitudes.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. Van Gogh’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Van Gogh never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success he pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Van Gogh was a thinker, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising your own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking. Never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight.

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

The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? 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. Like Van Gogh, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness?

The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Be bold and experiment If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced When a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Van Gogh left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Value critique There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke. Being different and disruptive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other opinions. Artists are accustomed to hearing direct critique, incorporating feedback into their work, and defending their choices.

Practicing accepting critique can vastly improve not only your products but your entire startup process. This is what stands at the basis of the Lean Startup Method — get feedback, iterate, improve and continue with speed in order to one day get it right.

Take pride in your work Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. Van Gogh strove for perfection, to create something that resonated with his identity, a personal statement about himself. The products, content, and service you provide from your startup should be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t settle for ‘good enough’. Van Gogh told other artists to Make sure it’s so good it doesn’t die with you, and you can apply that to any product or service.

Keep working – do it for yourself One must work and dare if one really wants to live. Don’t let anyone’s opinion of your work stop you from doing what you are so driven to do. The work will evolve. Don’t ever try to deliberately force your work to fit the desires of the masses. First and foremost, focus on your practice. Second, make sure you have a strong, cohesive body of work. Third, make your presence known.

Prioritise consistency over heroic efforts For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together People often assume that art is a part-time muse-fuelled blitz, pouring out genius. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort.

It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Both the artist and entrepreneur must get their ideas and products into the marketplace and into the hands of customers. We don’t know the artist who kept their art at home hidden away. The same is true of entrepreneurs who we admire – they got out of the building and their ideas into the hands of customers.

For Van Gogh, it ended in tragedy at the young age of 37 with a self-induced gunshot to the abdomen. During his life, Van Gogh produced some of the most revolutionary works of art the world has ever known. What’s holding your entrepreneurial dream? Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

Lessons on personal branding from Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais delivered his fifth and final hosting of the Golden Globes ceremony last week, with a scabrous opening monologue that left the attending celebrities squirming in their seats. Gervais’ opening diatribe wasn’t kind to his targets, but we knew what to expect from his previous performances.

He reminded the audience of his job to entertain and prepared the stars in attendance for the worst, with a clear let’s have a laugh at your expense. No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. Gervais capacity to offend great swathes of an audience with a single utterance is pretty much unrivalled.

But the emperor has no clothes, and with a few pointed jokes, Gervais pierced their collective delusion, exposing the hypocrisy of Hollywood. He has retained the brutality and joke-writing brilliance of his early work, but applied it to socio-politics over celebrity, Gervais is the appalling, apocalyptic comic-poet our era demands.

The criticism levelled at Gervais is that he’s turned into – or perhaps always was – his Office alter ego David Brent, which at least goes to show what an unforgettable comic monster Brent was in the first place, a management busybody with delusions of charisma, fronting a pioneering cringe comedy and still-brilliant mockumentary nailing the pettiness and desolation of workplace life.

We’ve got a little bit of David Brent in all of us. We all sometimes mistake popularity with respect. We all want to be liked. We all wonder whether our perception of ourselves is exactly the same as the rest of the world’s. And we all want to feel that we belong.

The creator and star of The Office, Extras, Derek, and the critically acclaimed recent hit After Life, Gervais has won countless awards. His hit series The Office is the most successful British comedy of all time, shown in more than 90 countries, which he co-wrote and co-directed with friend and collaborator, Stephen Merchant. For me, his film Life on the Road and TV series Idiot Abroad are timeless, comedy classics.

His words flow and fizz with vocal energy. He does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist, his big idea is that life should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect an audience with his enthusiasm: isn’t this interesting? He’s almost an anthropologist.

This seems not to have been an ideological commitment so much as an expression of contrarianism, extracting glib homilies from the messy stuff of real life – if Gervais were to be parachuted into the Antarctic, it would take roughly twenty minutes before the penguins were lining up to peck his lights out.

It is true that he sometimes presses his stories too militantly and can jam together materials too disparate to cohere, but for the most part the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the sharp angle or the deceptively trivial incident to blow things up out of all proportions.

Gervais is playfully intelligent, in a time of antagonistic debate and polarised opinion, he has something to say and is worth listening too. If you had to identify the comedian who captures the moment of today, it would be Gervais. In a world of literalists high on certainty and short on humour, I value his teasing, sprite-like presence more than ever. If he does not embody the zeitgeist, maybe that’s because the zeitgeist has grown so pompous.

Either way, the size of his audiences suggests that even in the era of taking sides, many people positively enjoy his stepping over the line, provocation, picking targets and outrage culture, in and out of parody too fast at times to keep up. His message is simple but stark: speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — from the head or heart on your terms. Deliver a message or something creative that isn’t prettied up and restrained and it’ll have a far greater impact.

Gervais’ personal attributes and characteristics have created a definitive ‘personal brand’, a deliberate strategy, making his mark, making himself memorable and standing out from the crowd. Creating a ‘personal brand’ is a positive way to stand out in an increasingly competitive startup world. The term ‘personal brand’ first appeared in August 1997 in an article by management guru and author Tom Peters, who wrote, We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Personal branding is simply the way in which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their value, and then leveraging with consistent behaviour. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts to establish reputation and credibility – ‘it’s what they are famous for’.

Let’s look at this in a little more using Gervais as the exemplar, how do you build a This is me brand to help you be memorable and help answer the customer’s question Why should I buy from you?

Be first with a purpose A personal brand is synonymous with your reputation, the way others see you. Are you famous for? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What thoughts come to mind as soon as someone hears your name? People recognise your name, what you offer and what you’re about. It answers the question how does working with me help them? Like Gervais, entrepreneurs have a purpose and ‘make the main thing, the main thing’.

Live in your learning zone The world is changing fast, make sure you are constantly learning and identify an area where you will be better than others, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Concentrate on your expertise. Once you have identified and developed this, make the most of it by seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve created. Not to boast, but to demonstrate if you’ve genuinely innovated, people are will want to know about it.

It takes time to build your personal brand. If you fail to stay relevant, all of your effort will be wasted. If you’re not growing, then you’re stagnating, and that’s the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur.

Focus on the things that make you different What makes you, you? Concentrate on the positives on both personal as well as professional level. Consider the way you react in everyday situations, whether it’s the way you communicate, your creativity, or the way you think and process information. Become really, really good at what differentiates you, or be so good they can’t ignore you – there is only one Ricky Gervais!

Make yourself visible This does not mean claiming undue credit or being anything less than humble, it means focusing on having a high-impact that will likely have visible results, knocking them for six and sharing the results. Blow your own trumpet, but be consistent – every move you make either reinforces your brand or violates it. Also participate in larger conversations and encourage those around you, it’s less about broadcasting yourself per se, and more about reinforcing your personal brand.

Work harder than everyone else Nothing is a substitute for hard work. Look around: How many people are working as hard as they can? Very few. The best way to stand out is to out-work everyone else. It’s also the easiest way, because you’ll be the only one trying. Gervais is a great example of this, now approaching twenty years of relentless creativity, huge work ethic and productivity.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic noise, pressure of the event and the audience reaction at the Golden Globes, Gervais kept a clear head. In the heat of the moment, he cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus on his performance, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks when the game action is paused. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. You can see in Gervais’ performances he too uses this technique, pausing to enjoy the audience reaction and to reground himself, reaffirming his personal brand persona.

Keep moving forward Like Gervais, entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, but also reinvention. Anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill. Reinvention is key, applying learning and a focus on the next gig.

Building a personal brand is about developing an understanding of your true self, and then sharing that with the world. Take your mask off and don’t be afraid of being vulnerable as you develop this. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be yourself. The more you try to be like other people, the more you will recede into the mass of the background noise.

Take note of Ricky Gervais’ personal brand, don’t be afraid to let your own character show in what you do and in how you present yourself. Sure, you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’re not in this to win a popularity contest, but to stand out from the crowd and connect to a target audience.

Give your 2020 tech startup vision a higher purpose

Well, we’re a few days into a new decade. Now the 2020s begin, but to be honest, I’m still bewildered and concussed by the political and cultural blast waves that detonated throughout the final years of the last decade to give much thought to the next ten years that stand before us.

I’m now living in the seventh decade of my life. Moments like these make you stand still, not lamenting or wishing for time-travel back to those yearned-for days of past as this really is little more than nostalgic comfort food. No, it’s about thinking about what I’m going to do to shape my future in the next decade. Looking back ten years to 2010, it is difficult to understand how we got from there to here, but it is easy to see why we are punch-drunk.

Only yesterday, Facebook was just a way of tracking down old friends, rather than an existential threat to our liberal democracy. Only yesterday the prospect of Scottish independence seemed unlikely. Only yesterday we would have dismissed the idea that foodbanks, homelessness and poverty were deep fault lines in a civilised society. When a true retrospective of the third decade of C21st is written, I hope the dystopian future I fear never materialised.

At the beginning of the last decade, the 2010 Nobel physics prize was awarded to University of Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a material made of a single lattice layer of carbon atoms that had remarkable abilities to transmit heat and electricity while also being extremely strong. Ten years on, nothing much has emerged from graphene, but we continue to rely upon tech to offer a vision of a brighter future.

Tech doesn’t always deliver, but recall that a little over 50 years ago we were just putting a man on the moon, and in 2020 we can instantly stream a personalised gallery of TV shows, so can tech help create and sustain a bright new decade? As the 2020s dawn, for me, optimism is in short supply.

The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together and hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy.

Similarly the Internet. The architecture of the Internet is about choice, that’s where the resilience and ubiquity comes from. On the other hand, the business of the Internet is about monopolies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google. FAAMG – the acronym for the big five tech companies coined by Goldman Sachs, are bringing sociocultural evolution at scale and at full speed with such significant network effects that they are creating infinite financial returns for their investors.

Like you, I love and use this tech (not Facebook, due to lack of trust), we voluntarily choose to engage because it’s better, cheaper, faster than doing it somewhere else – but also because they are now part of our ‘normal life’. But then, I think abut my privacy and cynicism kicks in and suddenly, the monopoly isn’t about serving us, it’s about how innovative tech startups have turned into corporations serving their investors.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we were told back in 2010 that the web and social media had brought us to the threshold of a new and almost utopian society. The technology available to all democratised society. In reality, this delusional optimism in which the democratising potential of tech driven social media was to be empirically disappointing.

Going back a decade, the hit movie of 2010 was Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, which dramatised the relationships between the founders of Facebook. What in 2010 seemed like a dark take on a new tech and social phenomenon now feels like a prescient foreshadowing of a decade that was to come – a decade that ended with Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg called to appear before a Congressional committee to defend his company’s behaviour and practices.

Investors move and energise today’s tech, and what capitalism values, our world does more of. In the last decade tech has become an integral part of what we might call a ‘normal life’, but is this true? Now, no matter where we stand on the socioeconomic ladder, the future of the ‘normal life’ doesn’t look so certain. In the developed world our current form of capitalism is failing to produce an increasing standard of living for most of its citizens. It’s time for an upgrade.

Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism – and thus tech investment – has to be made to serve human ends and goals. We could create an entirely new parallel economy around social good driven by tech. Most of the entrepreneurs and technologists I know are champing at the bit to work on our problems. We can harness the country’s ingenuity and energy to improve millions of lives with tech.

We’re in a slow-moving crisis that is about to speed up. Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about our ability to hold this debate, and come up with honest answers. Yet there is something reassuring about this, a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all, and history still argues, on the whole, for optimism.

Don’t get me wrong, the digital transformation since 2010 has helped improve our lives, whilst also creating a darker, sinister side, but on balance calls for the deployment of more technology, not less. So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment. To be alive in the tech-rich 2020s is probably to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.

The search for new opportunities and ideas is at the heart of human progress, but what is the best way to carry out that search with the help of tech? The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on tech innovation in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.

The question becomes what matters to us beyond money, and how can tech help us achieve this? How can we change tech so that it focuses on what humans really want and not the needs from capitalism – for the many, not the few.

Doing this decade retrospective, there is one key issue that stood out for me: data. This was the decade when we became obsessed with taking 10,000 steps a day. According to science, the health benefits are moot but that didn’t stop firms like Fitbit and Garmin coaxing us into wearing fitness trackers packed with accelerometers and sensors. These data-harvesting devices track our locations, our heart rates, our sleeping patterns and our exercise habits. Who gets the most use from this torrent of data – individuals or the tech companies – is debatable.

What was the best tech invention of the decade? For me it has to be the Amazon Echo ‘smart’ speaker, although I’m torn with cynicism again because it represented the moment when tech finally broke through the last barrier protecting our privacy – our homes. Alexa exploited our fatal attraction to convenience, and what data insights it provides to Amazon.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry, at the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, and internet giants are becoming the new banks.

So we enter the 2020s free from any delusions about tech and social media. Concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before – the blight of industrialisation was decried in the C19th by Luddites, Romantics and Socialists, who worried about the displacement of skilled artisans, the spoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.

Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Tech unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety, when its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several emerging technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of pessimism.

However, maybe my pessimism is overdone. I’ve spent the last two weeks immersed in books, benedictine and time away from my screens, and become unduly sceptical. After all, worries about screen time should be weighed against the substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible.

On the doorstep of a new decade, humanity is simultaneously continuing history’s greatest technological evolution and in the throes of grave social and ecological crises. As the climate and environmental crisis accelerates and population inequality rises, it has also never been more clear just how much the world’s wellbeing will depend upon the decisions of tech entrepreneurs.

Will we harness tech for benevolent ends, prioritising investment in sustainability and social good? Or will we chase the quickest financial gain, opting for the pursuit of breakneck growth over righting the ship?

If tech is to help fix the world, it must first halt a worrying trend – blitzscaling. The aim of this strategy is not to drive innovation or develop impactful new technologies but to sell the next round of investors on an impressive growth rate, thereby increasing the company valuation and making the existing investors richer. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The increasingly evident dangers of ‘hypergrowth equals valuation markup’ philosophy surely means the startup innovation ecosystem has to reject it, upstart entrepreneurs should not hop on the bandwagon, and instead focus on impactful socially responsible innovation.

There has never been a better time for tech entrepreneurs and investors to make a huge impact, with a moral imperative to empower businesses that can have a positive impact on humanity. We must start funding and supporting more entrepreneurs building solutions to problems like poverty, affordable healthcare, mental health and wellbeing, climate change, and deliver sustainable development goals.

These ‘impact startups’ can generate economic opportunity and returns, but if we realign the innovation focus around building companies with a positive social impact, and not just focus on near term financial gains, the better. So start a fire, enthral an audience, begin a movement, seize an opportunity, redefine the rules and shape our future. The more you understand of the world the better you can answer its challenges and how your tech idea can make a contribution.

We are all to some extent culpable for this misalignment of the innovation startup ecosystem, complicit in building and reinforcing the current environment. I know my own organisation can do more to inspire and empower entrepreneurs building impactful businesses, and in 2020 we will. I hope others will choose to do the same. It’s a balance of pessimism versus progress, but when we focus exclusively on profitability, tech loses its humanity.

As a startup founder, your future is unwritten

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

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 17 years ago yesterday, December 22, 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

Joe Strummer was a pioneering, enterprising musician, one of a special few. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a variety of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political and social activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice. I wonder what he’d make of our country today.

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

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

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

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

In 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released, featuring previously unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This was the last time we heard from Joe Strummer.

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

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

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

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

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

So, how to remember Joe Strummer, as the seventeenth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician into our startup business thinking?

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

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

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

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. Strummer was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy, giving me inspiration.

It’s Christmas 2019. The offices are empty, the roads are quiet. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever. Take a leaf our of Joe’s book, and remember as a startup founder, your future is unwritten. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

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

Lessons for startups from the craft gin innovators

Gin has overtaken vodka to become the most popular spirit in Britain, evolving from the home-made C18th gut-rotting drink that was the scourge of the poor, to the tipple of colonial civilisation, and now the many-splendoured glories and choices of hipster watering holes.

We don’t know exactly what went into the strong water made of juniper that the diarist Samuel Pepys knocked back on October 10, 1663, but it did the trick he said, allaying his constipation. A couple of decades later, gin’s popularity exploded, after the introduction of jenever, a Dutch and Belgian liquor. Originally a medicine made of juniper berries, William of Orange, brought the tipple with him from Holland when he took the throne.

This was the time of the gin craze. More than half of London’s drinking establishments were gin emporiums. Parliament reacted by passing various laws to control the drinking and production of gin, and by the 1850s, things had calmed down.

The enthusiasm for the spirit, nicknamed ‘mother’s ruin’, took a different turn in the 1800s when colonialists in India used it to make malaria prevention more palatable. The antimalarial quinine, derived from the bark of cinchona trees, was effective but tasted awful, so colonialists mixed it with sugar and gin to cut the intense bitterness. The gin and tonic was born.

Today, surging popularity and wide-open competition has led to consumer’s conflation of gin with gin liqueurs. Many products are pushing or breaking the boundaries of established definitions in a period of genesis for the industry. We have a bewildering array of craft distilleries along with spas and hotels devoted to selling gin parties, gin menus, ginvent calendars.

The passion for all things gin has resulted in 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. Nearly fifty opened last year. A total of 47m bottles worth £1.2bn were served up last year, enough for 1.32bn gin and tonics. The craze has even reached BBC Radio 4’s series The Archers, where Toby Fairbrother produced Scruff Gin, flavoured with his own mix of botanicals.

Torn between a Tommyrotter and a Cathouse Pink? Can’t tell the difference between a Spirit Hound and an Ugly Dog? You’re not alone! There are now gins of every shade, for every social occasion. By any reckoning, the demand for the juniper-flavoured spirit made by small-scale craft and artisan producers has been a freakish phenomenon, reaching a market outside traditional gin drinkers.

We have Monkey 47, a gin from the Black Forest of Germany, which has become something of a cult, largely on the ground of its botanicals. Not a big deal, you might say, given that botanicals are in every gin – they are the ingredients – floral, herbal, spicy etc. that, via an alchemy provide each brand with its singular magic. In most gins, the number of botanicals tends to stay in the single figures. Not in Monkey 47, though, whose name is a statistical boast. Personally, I can’t even think of forty-seven botanicals!

Few innovations have been more successful than Hendrick’s gin, thanks in part to its apothecary-style bottles. Hendrick’s is part of William Grant & Sons, a Scottish firm that owns Glenfiddich, so has some marketing muscle. Gin aficionados and new producers alike owe a huge amount to Hendrick’s as the category’s real trailblazer.

Developed in 1999, Hendrick’s launched its gin product, with the inclusion of two unlikely essences, rose petal and cucumber, and started the ball rolling in the new market with two factors, premium pricing and taste. The pricing factor together with high quality packaging served to signal to consumers that the stodgy old gin image was gone. As to taste, Hendrick’s was among the first to move out of citrus and herbaceous into a novel new flavour for gin.

This was followed by the emergence of the micro-brewery and craft ale renaissance, which has seen the alcohol market undergo a major shift in the last few years. We’re drinking fewer units, less often but still spending more. For more and more consumers, a night out means a couple of cocktails or fine craft ale that’ll look great on Instagram. In this sector as with others, it’s become as much about the experience as the product.

So that’s the back story, what lessons can we learn from how gin producers found new ways to excite and engage with more and new consumers, for other startup ventures introducing new products?

Understand your product’s market position Gin benefits from being versatile, and thus a more interesting product than vodka. When mixing in simple drinks or fancy cocktails, it’s possible to bring out different aspects of the gin by choice of ingredient, or indeed bring out different elements from the cocktail by trying it with different gins.

Gin is also more affordable when compared to a lot of spirits. Aged spirits command a premium due to time spent in the barrel, angels share etc., where as gin is a relatively quick spirit to make, therefore the price tends to be lower meaning it’s a more accessible category to explore.

Be agile in your product thinking Whilst it is not at easy to produce a great gin, the production time is relatively short, with no need for aging like fine whisky and wine. This has allowed producers to be agile, moving to swiftly rise with the demand and to create new products.

With gin simply being defined by having juniper as the prominent flavour, it allows for experimentation and diversity in the market. This not only gives it broad appeal to people’s different tastes, it allows distilleries to rapidly create powerful narratives around their new gins that capture consumers’ interest.

Like the micro-breweries, some gin distilleries have been going the extra mile to reflect their locality, using botanicals that are locally foraged and distilled. The Botanist is a prime example, distilled from twenty-two types of berries, barks, seeds and peels found on the Isle of Islay in Scotland.

Put innovation and experimentation at your core Gin has the power to transport the drinker through the powers of taste and smell. One of the reasons craft gin has proved so successful is because it’s quick and easy to tweak and tailor as highlighted earlier. There isn’t really another spirit category in which you can commission your own product so easily. With gin, it’s a matter of days before it can be on the market.

This enables experimentation, making your own gin experiences and bespoke offerings for anything from hotels and restaurants to events. Distilleries will also continue to experiment with distillation techniques and barrel ageing, for instance, to increase depth of flavour. They will also get more and more creative with the flavours and botanicals they use, to create new and unexpected flavour profiles.

It seems that the more theatrical that producers can make their botanical constituents in their gin, the more success they have. This seems to have replicated the growth in wine sales. When it comes to the actual wine in the bottle, one of the biggest innovations was the move by supermarkets to start promoting wine by their grape variety and not brands per se, to engage with shoppers. It is arguably what kick started our love affair with Pinot Grigio.

Use storytelling to build advocacy Hendricks tells a great story, using nostalgia of a bygone era, while positioning as a contemporary, exciting and innovative product – a blend of the old and the new. Skilful storytelling is essential, partly because premium gins are sold at a high price point.

The Hendricks storytelling was about selling something more than just a better taste – the experience, a ‘proper’ gin and tonic, a gin that deserves to be savoured – it needs to work in a loud, busy bar when somebody asks What’s a good gin? A truly great story can be distilled down to an instantly appealing point of difference.

There are many examples that show new demand can be built by a new product with a good story and a bit of audacity. For example, long before craft gin was a thing, Grey Goose won itself a huge share of the premium vodka category.

The brand had a great story, a beautifully made, unabashedly French vodka from the Cognac region. Determined to take on Absolut, which dominated Grey Goose’s category in the US, the brand almost doubled its retail price overnight. The genius behind this was Sidney Frank, the man who also turned Jagermeister from a herbal digestif for German grandmothers into the booze half of a Jagerbomb.

I think that provenance had a lot to do with the success of craft gins. Those interested in buying things locally, or from specific regions liked the idea of gins with firm roots. They bought into the story of where they’re produced and the people that produce them, giving a strong connection to the products.

Know your customers as individuals The craft gin boom follows a surge in demand for locally made small scale beers, as the hipster generation seeks drinks with a more interesting taste created by individuals rather than faceless international corporations. Who are these consumers?

When launching Hendricks, their marketing identified ‘The Activist Consumer’, defining their characteristics, which are driven by lifestyle trends:

·     Always seeking to identify optimal experiences and the best products for the moment.

·     Exploring the ethical ramifications of their choices.

·     Multi sensory experiences enable brands to differentiate their interface with consumers.

·     Dreams of extremes: embrace moments that transport them outside their comfort zones.

·     Augmented crafted products, through a mix of ingredients, craft and ‘mixology’

·     Tangible transparency: brands that share consumers values and beliefs

·    Seek to combine high-speed gratification with balancing their always-on lives.

Personalised choice, allows brands to connect with their customers using multi-sensory techniques can all contribute to the higher-level experiences that people are looking for. The aim is always to surprise and delight your consumers.

Whether it’s a lavender infused gin and tonic or a spit-roasted pineapple gin with ice, there are now seemingly endless ways to drink gin that go beyond the standard G&T. This growth has been helped by a string of new brands, flavours and innovations entering the market, and now Amazon has joined in, further establishing its direction of travel in the grocery sector with the launch of its own premium gin brand – Tovess will retail for £24.99 and is described as offering a ‘smooth Mediterranean taste’.

There are lessons for us all in the attitudes of gin entrepreneurs, their world is everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A strong sense of the possible is essential to driving innovation that in turn leads to success. Whilst the image of the swashbuckling adventure-hungry risk-taking buccaneering entrepreneur is somewhat of a caricature, positive energy and exuberance are key, and the new gin innovators have it in buckets.

We all need to have new ideas, different ones, about what’s changing in our market, and how those changes could disrupt our business model. You also need to think about how you can disrupt yourself.

We need to live with the future customers and in the future markets of our business, we need to work on the business, not in the business. The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.

We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your business 2.0 – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference. But whatever the trigger, take a leaf from the craft gin folks, pushing limits and challenging conventions, live craft.

Changing lifestyles factors are driving the growth of the companies in gin industry, driving product strategy from a customer’s point of view and with customer-based insights, to ensure the business model is as robust as it can be.

The macro lesson is this: focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice.

Startup lessons in branding…from Amazon & Bovril

In 1937, the world’s first-ever live football match was transmitted by the BBC. Arsenal faced Arsenal Reserves in a training match at Highbury, the only ground the Beeb could reach from their Alexandra Palace studio with their big roll of cable.

Eighty-two years on, Amazon joined the fray. Enter Jeff Bezos, the man who sold the world back to itself in cardboard boxes whilst overseeing the digital logistics of the human race. Amazon Prime will stream its initial package of twenty Premier League games across December. Coverage started last week, bookended by a simulcast of five games on Wednesday night and then six more on Boxing Day.

A mob-handed posse of 43 talking punditry heads have been hired in a reassuringly glossy package, underminned only by the prospect of substandard UK streaming speeds. Amazon is nothing if not a mind-bogglingly expert cash-raking machine.  With the entry of a third major broadcaster of Premier League football, it remains a late-stage capitalist play offering a macabre dislocated digital dance of choice.

Amazon is now a ubiquitous household brand, offering much more than ordering books online. In talking with a friend last week, it was clear she has a personal relationship with Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon’s Echo. She talks to Alexa about the weather, films, restaurant reservations and the temperature she wants the house to be. She acknowledges that the more she interacts with Alexa, the more she buys on Amazon, from electronics, deals of the day, to everyday household items.

Alexa, in concert with Prime, has become more indispensable to her life than the mobile phone. Through Alexa, Echo and Prime, Amazon is creating an on-demand, personalised, signature experience and is becoming the world leader in delivering on its brand promise: the Earth’s biggest selection and most customer-centric company.

Amazon is betting that Alexa and Echo will drive consumers to interact with, and ultimately purchase more, with Amazon and Prime. The smarter Alexa becomes at knowing your needs, preferences and behaviours, the better she is at delivering a seamless experience – and the better experience she delivers, the more indispensable she becomes to consumers’ lives. Imagine the levels of customer loyalty it could achieve.

We are living in an on-demand world, led by companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb, but Amazon is redefining what my experience should be. Customer obsession is one of the hallmarks of brands that stand apart from the rest – think Apple too – but Amazon is the brand I am obsessing over right now.

So how can a startup build a brand like Amazon? Ok, you don’t have deep pockets, so let’s take a step back, way back, and look at how a foodstuff brand forged its own market position and reputation, and combine the learnings from traditional product marketing with today’s digital tools.

Bovril is the brand to learn from – yes, that thick, black, glossy, meat-based extract – enjoyed with butter on toast, or with hot water as a beef tea. It has been an iconic brand for over a century. Now owned by Unilever, it’s been in our kitchen cupboard for donkeys’ years, with its reassuringly heavy cauldron-shaped jar, chunky red lid and no-nonsense red label.

Just over a century ago, a revolution took place in the food industry, when the boom in urban population fuelled a need for the mass production of affordable, non-perishable foodstuffs in cans and jars. Advances in processing and preservation of foodstuffs saw the emergence of branded convenience foods, marketed as nourishing and nutritious.

Bovril was one of these, created by John Lawson Johnston, a C19th Edinburgh butcher with an interest in dietetics. Shortly after emigrating to Canada, Johnson won a contract to supply one million cans of beef to Napoleon III’s Army, following their defeat due to starvation during the 1871 siege of Paris. The challenge was that he couldn’t source enough beef.

So Johnston produced an extract made by heating carcasses of cattle and reducing the liquids that came off into a residue mixed with powdered dried meat – and Johnston’s Fluid Beef was supplied. He subsequently tweaked the recipe, and in 1886 Bovril was born.

The name Bovril was an inspired name, marrying together meat, myth and magic. The first part of the word ‘bo’ comes from the Latin for Ox and the second part ‘vril’ from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s science fiction novel, The Coming Race, in which the Vril-ya were an underground people with awesome powers.

Bovril hit the sweet spot for Victorian consumers. Amid the temperance and health movements, it was promoted as a constitution-boosting, meaty superfood, a drink that was alcohol-free but not namby-pamby. It had a dark, macho look and a meaty, macho smell. Where is Bovril today? It’s still on the supermarket shelves but in many homes the squat black bottle slumbers at the back of the kitchen cupboard. The brand is owned by food giant Unilever and sales tick over at a modest three and a half million jars every year.

So on one side of this blog Bovril, an established brand with heritage and longevity. The contrast couldn’t be starker to Amazon, a tech behemoth rampaging its way seemingly into any market it wants using tech and data as their go-to-market weapon, a company less than twenty-five years old.

Start-ups must balance their focus on their target market, while also pushing an innovation edge. As a traditional brand, how do you innovate (experiment) in new areas while maintaining strong execution on your core business? If you’re a start-up, your creativity, agility, and risk-taking are your hallmarks but you have to invest on building a brand to trust too. So let’s combine the marketing and brand building lessons of Bovril and Amazon, what are the key six lessons here?

1. Segmentation, targeting, positioning 

Amazon uses demographic and psychographic data to segment its markets, based on actual purchase behaviour, with micro-level segmentation on each individual customer, enabling them to convert web site visitors into long-term, high-value repeat customers.

From the start, Bovril was heavily advertised through campaigns that tapped into the mood of the public. It was British and the company worked hard to make sure it was a food of choice of the army – it was patriotic and nutritious. Bovril was cannily marketed as a food that could make the infirm well, the elderly strong, and the young healthy.

Takeaway: Be clear with your purpose and connect with people as individuals, crafting a brand message that resonates with your vision.

2. Customer analysis

Amazon’s target market is people who use e-commerce portals and comfortable with online shopping. The majority of their customers have busy lives and find it convenient to purchase online rather than visiting a physical outlet, to save time and money.

Bovril became a staple for thousands of football supporters up and down the country, gulping down steaming hot cups of the stuff, easing the chill of a winter’s afternoon and sometimes the pain of conceding a goal. After all, it’s what the good old Thermos flask was invented for. This widened their customer base and generated repeat business from habits – every Saturday afternoon.

Takeaway: Answer one simple question – What’s the special thing only YOU can do that your customers will miss out on if you never existed? Understand your customers’ problems and how you can solve them, then ensure you provide enough touchpoints for repeat purchases, building customer retention and loyalty.

3. Distribution strategy

Amazon understands that the most important thing customers want is the quick delivery of products ordered, and has more than 55 fulfilment centres in the UK – this does not include Amazon’s new ‘under-the-tent’ strategy of using existing vendor warehouse space for consumer-packaged goods to quickly serve customers. Their strategy of improving their distribution network enables Amazon to continually connect quickly with more customers as they scale.

In Bovril’s case, by 1888, over 3,000 pubs, grocers and chemists were selling the product, and it became so popular that an electric advertising sign was erected in London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1909. However, advertising was only part of the story. The company needed to source beef extract and protein, which meant working with ranchers overseas, with shipping lines and hundreds of retailers. The Bovril company was adept at building networks with people of influence.

Takeaway: Ensure your startup has clear routes to catalysing a market, enabling rapid, simple and quality connections that reach both your customer audience and suppliers. Create a brand promise and experience, create a real tone of voice that energies your network.

4. Build Brand equity

From being an e-book provider to emerging as the second largest e-commerce company in the world, Amazon has steadily made its brand stronger. Amazon broadcasts using television commercials and billboards, online advertising networks and search engine marketing. Bezos had this in mind when creating the company, deciding that it should start with an ‘a’.

For Bovril, inventor Johnston’s also enjoyed publicity – on Christmas Day 1902, near the South Pole, Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton supped on a cup of Bovril after a chilling march.

Advertising also connected Bovril to the fashionable and popular physical culture movement by getting sporting celebrities to endorse the brand. One of these, the world’s strongest man at the turn of the C20th, an Adonis-like star called Eugen Sandow, had developed his rippling muscles so that his body resembled a classical sculpture which he showed off to enormous crowds in the music halls – claiming Bovril game him the physique.

Bovril as a product has hit a few blips, with horse-meat scandals during the late 1800s, and in 1906 sales of Bovril dipped as result of public horror at the appalling human and animal conditions in the massive Chicago meat processing plants, whilst the BSE crisis in the 2000s also hit demand.

Takeaway: Build your brand reputation, and illustrate for engagement. Differentiate yourself and create your image – but go beyond a logo.

5. Product

Amazon initially started with books, and became the largest book seller in the world. Now, it is a multi-product gregarious feeder, satisfying consumer demand for almost everything.

In 2004, Unilver removed beef ingredients from the Bovril formula, in response to the growing popularity of vegetarianism, religious dietary requirements, and public concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (‘BSE’). In 2006 they reversed that decision and reintroduced beef ingredients to the Bovril formula.

Takeaway: Great brands have great products, they stand for something that they extend as a ‘promise’, and they’re consistent about their values in everything they do. Keep your product thinking agile and relevant to future markets.

6. Promotion

Amazon can be seen to rely on the best source of promotion there is – word of mouth. People telling others about the site, or mentioning it in a positive way is a sure way to have new future customers. We all marvel at the next day delivery – even on a Sunday. While Bovril used to be marketed using symbolism of beef, today its advertising taps into Britishness as symbolised by energetic outdoor pursuits in all weathers.

Takeaway: Show your identity, and be memorable. Effective branding builds reputation and trust. Determine who you want to be, create a narrative, be authentic but defy expectations.

Bezo’s forward-thinking strategy makes Amazon one of the world’s top brands, maintaining the customer-centric concept from its original foundations in every part of the company and its business model. It is the entrepreneurial eye for customer innovation, and scaling the execution, that are Bezo’s legacy for other entrepreneurs to admire.

For Bovril, reflect that people don’t necessarily buy just what your product is. They’re buying into your story, the values you have and the experience you will give them. You’re not just buying a foodstuff that they’ve had for years, they’re buying interactions with you.

How playing chess improves your startup game

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 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, aggression that was also composure.

When a chess player looks at the board, he does not see a static mosaic of contrasting, patterned squares, but a magnetic field of forces, charged with energy, potential and intrigue. A game of chess opens in a state of balanced equilibrium, and if the optimal move is made with each play, a draw is all but assured.

Norwegian Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion, holding the title since 2013. His peak Elo rating – the ratings given to chess players corresponding to their performance over the best five-year span of their career – of 2882, achieved in 2014, is the highest in history, ahead of Gary Kasparov at 2851.

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 last World Chess Championship in 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, chess title matches feature two equally matched grandmasters competing at an extremely high level.

You start the game with a set of pieces, from king to pawns, each with their own ability and position, each has their own purpose. 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 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. Aim to be bold, but have some thoughts around what the early stages of your business could look like. Of course, early encounters with customers reshapes your thinking, so be prepared to be flexible and respond to feedback.

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 periods initially of no more three months, with objectives and key milestones, things are just too volatile to plan too far ahead. As you navigate what it often a turbulent first phase, what you should be doing in the second phase will emerge. Continue with innovation at the core, but listen to customers.

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. Where do you want to be in three years? Make a start, and try to make every day a step in the right direction towards your horizon.

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 or experience you have, and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential. It’s a balance between inspiration and perspiration, blue sky thinking and washing the pots. It’s dreaming, plus hard yards.

Attack An attacking strategy doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or recklessly lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective in chess, and creating long-term weaknesses in your 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 in chess, as in business, is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position, then execution and delivery that secures a deal.

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, 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.

He highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the middle game, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the chess game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but then at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense. Carlsen illustrates that the unlimited number of subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

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.