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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage, which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in entrepreneurship from grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Time is an ingredient in all entrepreneurial endeavours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Factory Records

To visit a modern tech startup workplace is to walk into a room with a dozen songs playing simultaneously but to hear none of them. Everyone is sat beavering away with headphones on, alone in their own world. It has never been easier to tune in to your own customised soundtrack.

Not all music is created equal, especially when there’s work to be done. How should you choose the best soundtrack for working? Which songs will help you get energised, focused, or creative – or even just carry you through a very long day? Listen up, the research is compelling:

  • 61% of employees who listen to music at work do so to make them happier and more productive
  • 88% of employees produce more accurate work when listening to music
  • 63% of doctors listen to music in the operating room when performing surgery

Private listening to music in the workplace is only possible because of headphones, and it was French engineer Ernest Mercadier who registered the first patent for the first in-ear headphones in 1891. Nathaniel Baldwin developed ‘radio earphones’ in 1910, upgraded by John Koss in 1958, who invented the first pair of stereo headphones.

Fast-forward to 1979, and Sony introduced the Walkman portable cassette player, which reigned supreme until Apple’s iPod launched in 2001, and then we had Sound Cloud (2007). It’s interesting to look at the incremental innovation that brings us forward to today, and options such as Spotify, Beats and Apple Music.

But before headphones, there has always been music at work. For example Sea Shanties – how important were these to shipping? The saying in maritime circles was that a good chanteyman is worth ten sailors on a line in terms of aiding productivity.

Elsewhere, in the Scottish Highlands, Waulking was the intensive and repetitive process of thickening tweed, which was made easier by workers collaborating in acappella songs as they worked. In Scandinavia, Kulning is a herding call like yodeling, using high tones to carry voices across the landscape by shepherds, whilst The Song of the Volga Boatmen – that song that goes yo, heave-ho – is familiar to everyone, as a team worked together.

Finding the perfect playlist isn’t easy. With endless streaming music possibilities at our fingertips, it can be hard to nail down just the right tunes to get the wheels turning in your head. But there is an obvious source of innovation thinking for your music to inspire your listening and your startup mindset, and that’s from Factory Records.

It was in 1978 that Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton and Alan Eramus founded Factory Records in Manchester, joined by Martin Hannett (Producer) and Peter Saville (Designer). It was the catalyst of creative Manchester culture, home to great Manchester bands such as Joy Divison (subsequently New Order), A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, The Stockholm Monsters and latterly Happy Mondays.

Wilson started the company with the inheritance of £12,000 left to him by his mum. Factory started in the Russell club in Moss Side, and released their first EP, A Factory Sampler, featuring acts that played at the club, in 1979. Joy Division, headliners at the club many times, recorded the first album released by Factory, Unknown Pleasures.

The Factory brand became renowned for quirky innovations, none more so than its cataloguing and numbering of everything it produced with a unique reference number. Numbers, not necessarily in chronological order, were allocated to albums, posters, and even places: Joy Division’s Closer was numbered FACT 25, the Haçienda club was FAC 51.

Wilson was an entrepreneurial tour de force, his efforts, antics, shenanigans and eternal spouting off to anyone who would listen, about tales and talent from his beloved metropolis in the north are legendary. He had a romantic, missionary zeal to make an impression and a worldly confidence rarely seen in Manchester.

The ubiquitous Wilson entered my life through What’s On, his weekly teatime music show on Granada TV. He featured non-mainstream new music on his fifteen-minute slot on the regional evening news programme. Seeing the enigmatic Howard Devoto for the very first time on early evening TV whilst my mum was frying chips in the kitchen, is something that is indelibly etched onto my fading memory.

He constantly shape-shifted in his lusty pursuit of the next thing. Too big for his own boots, full of himself, banging on about his pet subjects like a broken record, yet he had a real genius for processing the discoveries and inventiveness of others. There are two particularly iconic aspects of Wilson’s story that stand out.

Firstly, in 1982, Factory and New Order opened The Haçienda nightclub, converting a Victorian textile warehouse. Although successful in terms of attendance, and attracting a lot of praise for Ben Kelly’s interior design, the club lost money due to poor commercial management. It does, however, have a permanent place in Britain’s social cultural history.

Secondly, in 1983 New Order’s Blue Monday (FAC 73) became an international hit and the best selling twelve-inch record of all time. Unfortunately the label again failed commercially, since the original sleeve, die-cut and designed to look like a floppy disk, was so costly to make that the label lost money on every copy sold.

It all fell apart in 1992, and Factory was declared bankrupt in November.  The Haçienda closed in 1997 and the building demolished, replaced by a luxury apartment block. Peter Hook, bass player with New Order, has six guitars made using wood from the Haçienda’s dancefloor.

The founders of Factory put Manchester back on the map, as a collection of ideas, as a place at the edge of reason, with audacity and a series of headlines and punchlines, just as Manchester had emerged originally in C19th. The C20th version was invented by a rousing collective of dreamers, schemers, writers, musicians and fantasists.

The moors meets machinery meets mental turbulence of the music, Factory Records had an aesthetic, and gave amplification to a sense of audacity, a lucid soundtrack of innovation and genuine disruption. The Factory Records syndicate built a fantastic blueprint for the idea of generating personal and artistic freedom.

Talking Head’s guitarist Tina Weymouth, once remarked of Factory: I grew up in New York in the Seventies, and I’ve seen a lot of people who live life on the edge, but I’ve never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is.

Despite many questionable decisions and the ultimate failure, Factory remains a moment of time in music and Manchester’s history of innovative startup ventures, so what can we learn about their spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition?? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Factory Records that should spark a startup today.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Factory were revered for their Do-It-Yourself abilities. They made it up as they went along, like a startup they had to find their market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where their audience was.

The Factory ‘product’ was simple and raw. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen.

Belief Factory took on an established industry with major labels in control and broke the rules with their own thinking. In doing so, they changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. They had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit measured in cultural terms, if not financial. Factory made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

Authenticity inspires customers Factory started with bold artistic expression of their own, truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. They inspired a revolution. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. What’s your signature tune and tone of voice?

Just copying something is no good, unless you just want to be a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. Peter Saville’s design made Factory stand out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

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

Factory’s enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and delightful tunes, soundtracks, innovation and design locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

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

This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Factory’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose The founders of Factory had a vision, strong minded and did whatever they wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. It was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations.

The founders never rested on their laurels, they retained the mix of spirit, drive, and passion, more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

Of course, the Factory Records startup failed, through inadequate commercial management. It didn’t lack for innovation, maybe a bit more common sense could have prevailed, maybe too much experimentation.

Of the founders, Wilson, Gretton and Hannett are no longer with us, having all died young, but the legacy of Factory remains. Their pioneering thinking helped transform a defiant collective of musicians into an iconic collection of records on an iconic record label that brought the sound of Manchester to the masses.

People drop out of the history of a life as of a land, though their work or their influence remains – a quote from Manchester Man, a novel written by Isabella Banks, 1876, and words on Wilson’s tombstone. That’s a great epitaph to any entrepreneurial endeavour.

Don’t let nostalgia become inertia and hold back your innovation

I was at a wedding reception last Saturday, where the groom was from Rawtenstall and the bride from Haugesund, Norway. It was held in a Methodist Hall with dark wood tables and chairs, dimly lit by candles, but set alight with a vibrant atmosphere of celebration and noise, born from the warmth and intimacy of belonging and togetherness that humanity creates.

It was a Norwegian wedding, so on each table was a huge basket of fjellbrød – a nutritious Norwegian bread (there are all sorts of seeds in it, made from a mixture of whole-wheat and rye flour and rolled oats) and an even bigger bowl of fresh shrimps. I was looking forward to getting stuck into the quivering crustaceous flesh.

The place filled up quickly as we got to work on the shrimps, emptying the flimsy shells faster than a fishwife. The cold bits of pink flesh were washed down with Lervig Aktiebryggeri Stout. At 13%, no wonder the Vikings were fierce fighters. Then, just before I disappeared completely behind a pile of husks, a hush fell over the room and in strode a large bearded man.

He introduced himself as Toralf, a lubricous man with a hangdog expression, he took to the stage. He was a standup comedian. Interesting wedding entertainment! As he was from Norway, half the gathering didn’t get a word, but I was not concerned, as I was busy scoffing. Shrimps.

Toralf was going down well, but not half as well as the shrimps. You could have covered me in Thousand Island dressing, laid me on a bed of lettuce and I’d have passed for the starter on any menu.

I’d struck upon a conversation with a bloke from Utsire, which I found out was a lump of rock in the North Sea off the west coast of Norway. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to a Norwegian before. After chatting, he said he had to go – and reappeared on stage as the band struck up, a Norwegian folk ensemble. The room was filled with whirling figures, their rosy cheeks shining, caught in the candlelight, eyes flashing and laughter rising above the music.

A (brave) Norwegian woman whisked me from my seat and whirled me around the dance floor. Given that I dance about as well as a squirrel plays the piano, this was a selfless act on her part. My shrimp ‘n ale fuelled attempts at shaking my booty in a lithe and groovy way went well, even if I say so myself. The lady was Wenche (pronounced ‘Venker’), from Stavanger. I thought they had played in the UEFA Cup some years ago but Wenche didn’t know. End of conversation.

Norwegian folk music filled the room, and Wenche gave me a running commentary on the instrumental, vocals and dancing. I learned that as a rule, instrumental folk music is dance music (slåtter), whilst Norwegian folk dances are social dances and usually performed by couples, although there are a number of solo dances as well, such as the halling.

We lurched into traditional wedding dances (bygdedans), then the band moved into Sami music centered around a particular vocal style called joik, the sound comparable to the traditional chanting of the Native Americans Indians.

Exhausted, the lights came on, the night had to end, the floor awash with folks awash with shrimp. The air was warm with laughter and back-slapping. Brexit? hey, I prefer the Norwegian model.

It was a great night, a throwback to memories of parties of my youth. It was a traditional, if somewhat ‘old fashioned’ event, filled with nostalgia and away from i-this and i-that, just talking and enjoying good company, storytelling, banter and people being people. Twenty years ago I’m sure Toralf and Wenche could become pen pals, but today we’d probably default to a WhatsApp group.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home. Whilst we mostly regard nostalgia as warm memories of an evocative past, it was initially recognised as a real medical condition, often a pre-cursor to depression.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward. It’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. But there’s no room for nostalgia in today’s business, nowhere more so than on the High Street where many established brands have disappeared as consumer preferences, choices and options moved forward, and they didn’t, locked in their business models of yesteryear.

Nostalgia can add value to brands that tap into their heritage and yet be relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – but generally nostalgia makes you hold onto the status quo, become closed minded to change and complacent, and you take your eye of the ball.

Recent examples include Psion, developers of the Palm Pilot had what seemed an amazing power of organising your diary and phone book electronically. Sadly, Psion failed to spot early enough that mobile phones were catching them up and would soon incorporate all that and more.

Related to this, as the mobile phones of the 1980s became smaller, Nokia quickly became synonymous with small, practical mobiles. Sadly for the Finnish company, it failed to see the growing importance of internet-enabled smartphones, and a decade’s technical advantage was eroded.

Nostalgia creates inertia. The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation to challenge what has always worked – Kodak are perhaps the prime example of this. The world’s biggest film company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, beaten by the digital revolution. The only problem is, the enemy started within.

George Eastman, the company’s founder, invented roll film which replaced photographic plates and allowed photography to become a hobby of the masses. Kodak did not quite own the C20th, but it did become the curator of our memories.

There is an emotional connection to Kodak for many people in that you could find their product and name in virtually every household. But 1986 was the year when Kodak, a company that for so long was the emblem of American industrial innovation, began to be eaten by others, notably from Japan, who learnt to innovate, and more quickly.

Kodak was the great inventor. In 1900, it unveiled the Box Brownie camera. You push the button, we do the rest, ran the advertising. Kodachrome film, the standard for movie-makers as well as generations of still photographers because of its incredible definition and archival longevity, was introduced in 1936 and only went out of production 2009.

Nor should we forget the Instamatic, the camera with the little cartridges of film that spared us the fumbling of trying to get film to spool properly. Between 1963 and 1970 Kodak sold 50 million of them.

The trouble began with the decline of film photography. In the 1990s, Kodak poured billions into developing technology for taking pictures using mobile phones and other digital devices. But it held back from developing digital cameras for the mass market for fear of killing its existing film business. Others rushed in.

So who invented the digital camera? Ironically, Kodak did or, rather, a company engineer called Steve Sasson, who put together a toaster-sized contraption that could save images using electronic circuits. The images were transferred onto a tape cassette and were viewable by attaching the camera to a TV screen, a process that took 23 seconds.

It was an astonishing achievement. And it happened in 1975. Sasson was met with blank faces when he unveiled the device. For Kodak’s leaders, going digital meant killing film, smashing the company’s golden egg to make way for the new. Sasson saw in hindsight that he had not exactly won them over when he unveiled his invention.

In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, he called it Film-less Photography. Talk about killing heritage and nostalgia! Other manufacturers, notably Fuji, were nibbling at Kodak’s dominance: at the 1984 Olympics it was Fuji that supplied the official film, after Kodak declined the opportunity.

In 1976, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the US and 85% of the cameras. Historians may one day conclude that most of the company’s unravelling can be traced to the failure of its leaders to recognise the huge potential of Sasson’s invention. But this is what we do…you can imagine the fear going through the minds in the Kodak boardroom.

So, Kodak developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but could not breakaway from the shackles of their heritage and their nostalgic anchors to launch or sell it, because of fear of the effects on their existing film market.

Reflecting on Kodak, how does this reshape your marketing thinking, because there is a lesson not just in innovation, but also a case for challenging the traditional marketing solutions most businesses adopt arising from their decline.

C20th marketing has been dominated by Jerome McCarthy’s 4P model – Product, Place, Price, Promotion – but its legacy has created a culture that focuses on the product’s attributes, neglecting its value and appeal to customers from the customer’s perspective.

Richard Ettenson completed a five-year study involving more than 500 organisations and found that the 4P model undercuts the current needs of business in three ways:

  • It stresses product technology and quality, even though these are no longer differentiators.
  • It under emphasises the need to build a robust case for the superior value of a solution compared to others
  • It distracts from leveraging their advantage as a trusted source of service, support and advice – attributes in addition to the product

From his research, Ettenson developed a new marketing model for C21st, Solutions, Access, Value, Education:

  • Products to Solutions Define the offering by the needs they meet and benefits provided, not their features, functions or technological superiority.
  • Place to Access Develop an integrated multi-channel presence that considers customers’ entire purchase journey, instead of individual purchase locations and channels.
  • Price to Value Articulate the benefits relative to price, rather than stressing how price relates to cost or competitor prices.
  • Promotion to Education Provide information relevant to customer’s specific needs at each point in the purchase cycle, rather than relying on general advertising, PR and selling activities.

There’s little doubt that marketers who continue to embrace the 4P model and mind-set risk getting locked into a repetitive and increasingly unproductive technological arms race – just as Kodak. There’s no doubt with the advent of digital media and changing customer expectations, there are some fundamental strands to marketing today around creating meaningful conversations, communicating value and developing an online community.

The future rewards those that press on, experiment and have a go. You need to have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three periods – that which was, which is, and which will be.

Don’t look backward, you’re not going that way. The past is both a wonderful and an awful thing, both our best friend and our worst enemy, depending on how you look at it. There will be times throughout our business lives that we don’t want to remember, and there will be times that we won’t ever want to forget, but we can’t continue to dwell on the past that we can’t change.

As Walt Disney said, Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

My shrimp feast was a throw back to days gone by, but you can spend your life living forwards whilst looking backwards over your shoulder.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Inspector Morse

When I read my first Enid Blyton Famous Five mystery at six years old I was hooked on crime and detective novels. By the time I was in my early teens, I was working my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories and my mum’s collection of Dick Francis books, adding to those each birthday and Christmas when I received book tokens.

On top of that, every time I visited a jumble sale I’d be stocking up my bookshelf, devouring the likes of PD James and Raymond Chandler. Latterly the Ian Rankin novels around the Inspector Rebus character are my must-reads.

To this day, I’m unable to walk past a second-hand bookshop. Crime novels put the balance back in life – the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys win after solving the puzzle. You know that the villain will be apprehended by the time you reach the last page, the detective will have solved the mystery, and all will be right with the world.

But it’s the excitement between the first page in the last and trying to work out who the bad guy is, or how they will be stopped, before the detective does. Crime novels puts puzzle-solving at the centre of everything, stocking up on clues but never quite giving all the answers. The reader is driven by quests for conclusive information and happy endings.

The skills of a good detective mirror some of those of an entrepreneur – active listening, critical thinking, problem solving, and good observation skills, combined with astuteness and intuition to develop insights quickly by piecing together myriad pieces of information to see a pattern or picture.

My favourite detective character is Inspector Morse, which was a popular television series based on the novels by Colin Dexter. It starred John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse, with Kevin Whately as his assistant Sergeant Lewis.

The first of the Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written by Dexter because with his wife Dorothy and children, he was on holiday in North Wales at a time when the rain never stopped. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, and decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better.

Over the next 18 months, he carried on writing the book in longhand, and had it typed up – as he did all his future novels. Once he found a winning character and setting, Dexter resigned from his teaching post and set about writing Morse novels for a living. There were thirteen novels in the Morse series, four of which won awards. The last was The Remorseful Day (1999), in which he killed Morse off.

Dexter gave Morse an idiosyncratic character with his own interests – a fondness for Mozart and Wagner, pleasure in cryptic crossword puzzles, real ales and single malt whisky. Morse’s first name, Endeavour, is revealed on only one occasion, when he explains to a lady friend that his father was obsessed with Captain James Cook, so he was named after HMS Endeavour.

Morse was a brilliant detective, but unlike many classic sleuths, he often struggled with his cases. Curmudgeonly but entertaining, Morse solved murders by deep thinking, often stimulated by ironic circumstances and chance remarks made by his sidekick Lewis, which gave him inspiration late in the day to bring the case to an end.

He was a highly credible detective despite ignoring forensic science and not being able to stand the sight of blood. He had a penchant for drinking while working, and subsisted on quickly downed pints of ale in pubs, usually bought by Lewis, who struggled to keep up.

Morse was all about observation and gave the utmost importance to details. His strategy was simple – observe, deduce and eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how mad it might seem, must be the truth.

Observance is a great tool for an entrepreneur to notice the detail and trends in a market, then knowing when and where to tap into an opportunity. You need the eye to see what others don’t and utilise it before everyone else does. The traits of an enquiring mind, stimulating exploration and discovery constitute significant activities for entrepreneurs, with their instinct, curiosity and search for solutions to problems.

Like detectives, entrepreneurs search for a hidden truth. Even with a breakthrough for a new product, you will need to understand what will be required to get customers to buy and pay for it. Often there are incorrect assumptions masking the path to success – it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we think we know that aren’t so.

Before entrepreneurs begin working on their business venture, they need to do some detective work on the market, customers, pricing, marketing etc. Entrepreneurs who do their delving before setting up a new business are more likely to succeed in the long term, rather than launching blindly.

So how can we train our entrepreneurial brains to think like Morse, with his detective behaviours and habits for investigation, deductive scrutiny and problem solving?

Be observant, and keep your mind sharp What makes Morse great is that he notices things that others miss – a key skill of entrepreneurs. Often the solution is right in front of our eyes, but some miss it. Sherlock Holmes once said It is my business to know what other people don’t know. To be valuable in startup business, you have to know what others don’t.

Morse thought useless information in his brain was like having boxes of junk in the attic, it only makes the stuff you need harder to find. Cluttering your mind with peripheral distractions can derail your focus, so keep your mind sharp and orientate simply on the matter in hand.

Remain objective Morse is impassive while on a case, he only looks at what the evidence suggests. He only speculates to create a hypothesis to test assumptions, not make decisions. Whether it’s a tight customer negotiation or a tough staffing decision, emotions can be your enemy in business. Be objective in your dealings and don’t let emotions cloud your judgment.

Always be imaginative Morse thinks outside the box, that is he pieces together seemingly ordinary and unrelated elements of a case into a cohesive story. One of the key requirements as a startup is to constantly innovate and separate your business from the pack, being distinctive requires a constant stream of good ideas and weaving them together to form your own story.

A mediocre detective, is one who fails to imagine new and different possibilities. Morse, on the other hand, has learned to look at data and recombine it in ways that will suggest new possibilities. Is my mind still open? Morse asks. Does this data somehow make me think of new ideas? In business, think of new approaches, think of things that you hadn’t thought of as possibilities and test them out.

Observe the details, pay attention to the basics When Sherlock Holmes famously quips that the solution of a case is elementary, he’s not simply dismissing the detective work as easy. Rather, he’s talking about elements, the essentials of a situation. As a physicist begins with the laws relevant to a problem, a detective begins with the framework, structure and facts of a case before adding in interpretation.

Likewise Morse, he can tell you a person’s entire story and background after the first meeting! He takes the meaning of due diligence to another level using his intuition, lateral thinking and rapidly draws conclusions from the known facts. He is mentally agile, confident in making decisions quickly.

Say it aloud Morse talks to Lewis about everything. The telling helps, it’s ‘thinking outloud’. Nothing helps clarify your thinking more than stating it to another person, it forces reflection. It mandates mindfulness. It forces you to consider each premise on its logical merits, allowing you to slow down your thinking.

Give yourself distance and quiet thinking time When Morse is dealing with a particularly thorny case, he occupies himself with another activity, for example, taking time out to deliberately listen to music. He also drinks, but that’s not a necessity! This is a way for Morse to constructively distract himself from his thinking, to sort through his thoughts, check in and reflect, packing and unpacking in a positively distractive way.

If you’re out there detecting all the time, you need to give yourself a break. It’s not just about getting some rest, the key is to allow your mind to filter the important observations from the inconsequential ones. Solitude gives you the opportunity for ‘quietness of mind’, to simply sit and think in peace and quiet.

Be actively passive when you’re talking to someone When Morse is listening to somebody, he’s not fussing with his iPhone. Morse focuses all of his faculties on the subject of observation and the conversation. He listens, as is his habit, undistracted by any other task. When he meets with someone, his total absorption in their presence is absolute.

Taking the leap into the rollercoaster ride that is entrepreneurship, it’s all too easy to do the easy things, however, if you’re serious about doing your own thing, it’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The real work you should be doing is asking yourself the difficult questions, those that typically mean looking outwards for the answers, and nothing is more important than testing your idea by collecting evidence.

Great entrepreneurship is a magic formula of skills, timing, hard work, and luck.  You have to parse all the facts, just like a detective looks at a broad range of facts – some circumstantial and some deductive – to deduce who committed the crime, as to whether a venture can progress.

Looking at his character, Morse had all the ingredients for being a disaster – he drank too much and was highly irregular in his investigation methods. But what rescued him time and again was his disciplined process and intelligence-lead approach, which allowed him to spot clues where none had seemingly existed.

Like an entrepreneur, he had his idiosyncrasies and own way of doing things. One quote attributed to him captures this entrepreneurial flair underpinning his detective instincts: The secret of a happy life, Lewis, is to know when to stop and then to go that little bit further. I stumble about. That’s what I do. Sometimes I stumble in the right direction.

Entrepreneurial learning: every silver lining has a cloud

Elon Musk has been subject to a wave of self-created criticism lately. His claim that he had a deal to take electric-car maker Tesla private at $420 a share, his ongoing Twitter spat with the cave rescuer of a youth soccer team in Thailand, and his joint-smoking appearance on a radio podcast have made him look vulnerable, troubled and tarnished his reputation.

Despite the ensuing turbulence and apparent flaws in his ability to control his emotions, Musk remains one of the most vital entrepreneurial talents we have today. His ingenuity and dedication continuously bring fresh and progressive ideas to bear. Solar City, Tesla and SpaceX – all his ventures have a bright, if challenging future. He is the world’s most daring entrepreneur and a rare business leader who is interested in mankind as a whole and wants to explore how tech can change the world we live in for the better.

Musk sold online payments firm Paypal for $1.5bn ten years ago and has evolved into an iconic entrepreneur, capturing the public imagination as a crazy-mad-genius figure – part industrialist, scientist, philanthropist, superhero, known for his ability to come up with out-of-this-world ambitions and then pursue them with vigour, emotion, intelligence and self-discipline – until now, maybe.

Most take Musk’s wild ambitions and boasts about the future he will create with a pinch of salt. His companies have missed deadlines and recorded massive financial losses. However, the popularity of Tesla’s electric cars, and the launch of Falcon Heavy earlier this year capped a string of successes that make you think, maybe he can pull this off.

Musk is the epitome of entrepreneurial bravado, endeavour and ego, human folly and genius rolled into one. Musk’s adventures are vibrant and audacious, but there has never been a time when the spirit of innovation hasn’t been burning bright and yanked back, when each of his ventures facing crisis and things not going in his favour.

For Musk, every silver lining has had a cloud. His career is overflowing with setbacks. Very few people could bounce back from being ousted as CEO of their own company and getting fired while on honeymoon (Paypal), and survive a major car crash, personal bankruptcy and cerebral malaria. As much as his hits inspire, his misses offer valuable lessons to startup founders everywhere.

His passion found its calling when in 2004, Musk invested heavily in Tesla, founded a year earlier by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Tesla is a quixotic venture, a niche electric car company in a nation addicted to petrol. Having received hefty Government bailouts, in 2010 it became the first American car company to float on the stock market since Ford in 1956, and his focus on renewable energy solutions kicked in.

Musk is an irrepressible Howard Hughes like figure, but his timeline reveals a whopping sixteen failures since 1995 on his journey to date. That’s nearly an obstacle every eighteen months, at least one every other year – Space X had sixteen successful launches in 2017, but then Tesla recalled 123,000 cars in 2018.

Musk’s hurdles relay a documentary of epic failures, but he’s endured, so how did he turn things around? We know all about resilience – the stories of James Dyson (he spent five years working on a prototype for his bagless vacuum and built 5127 prototypes which just didn’t make the cut) and Joanne Rowling, with twelve rejections of the Harry Potter scripts.

Professor Melissa Schilling, from New York University’s Stern School of Business, has been watching Musk’s escapades and recorded her thoughts about him in Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.

Musk is one of eight innovators whose traits, foibles and genius she focused on – together with Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Dean Kamen, Nicola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Steve Jobs. What made these folk so spectacularly inventive? Schilling illustrates the following traits these innovators –

Grit They all had grit. Their successes seem to have been attained through sheer force of will, investing remarkable effort and persistence in executing their ideas, often in the face of failure and opposition. Every breakthrough innovator demonstrates extraordinary unrelenting effort and persistence.

Work ethic They pursue their projects with remarkable zeal, often working extremely long hours, sleep less and at great personal cost – Musk has been divorced three times. Most of them worked tirelessly because they found work extremely rewarding and experience the pleasure of ‘flow’ from working incredibly hard (i.e. work was autotelic, rewarding for its own sake).

Self-efficacy The eight studied all exhibited extreme faith in their ability to overcome obstacles from an early age. Steve Jobs had a ‘reality distortion field’, such great faith in his own capacity for reasoning and insight that he felt free to disregard the ‘rules’ that constrained others. This faith in themselves enabled them to think big, fearlessly tackling projects that seemed impossible to others, believing in their ability to overcome obstacles.

Almost all of these innovators exhibited what would have been considered hubris, except that once they deliver on something, it’s not considered hubris anymore, it’s considered self-efficacy. They almost all were considered quite arrogant. Even Marie Curie was considered arrogant, not in an outspoken way like Jobs or Musk, but arrogant in that she was going to persist in doing things despite the fact that, as a woman, she wasn’t particularly welcome in business or science.

Self-reinforcing effect Perseverance and self-efficacy can be self-reinforcing: those who persevere at tasks are more likely to accomplish them, reinforcing their confidence in their ability to achieve what they set out to do. Numerous studies have shown that self-efficacy can lead to greater risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Idealist All are driven by passionate idealism, a consuming goal that was more important than their own comfort or reputation. Idealism helps focus innovators by making their long-term purpose very clear, helping them to make choices among the competing demands of their attention. It also pushes them to work with intensity even in the face of criticism or failure.

Ego defence Idealism provides a level of ego defence. It helps the innovator to persevere in the face of harsh criticism that many people would find decimating. Idealistic innovators believe that the goals they are pursuing are extremely important and intrinsically honourable and valuable, so they are better able to disregard harsh judgment or failure as merely transitory burdens to be endured.

Having the mentality of a survivor, not a victim, when dealing with any potential crisis, is essential. Avoid thinking like a victim of circumstance and instead look for ways to resolve the problem. While the situation may be unavoidable, you can still stay focused on a positive outcome. Musk is notorious for his ability to press on with ideas despite what other people tell him. Naysayers abound when innovators want to try things nobody has ever done.

Be a constant learner Musk reads the way most people watch TV. Musk is the definition of a bookworm. An avid reader from a young age, when he was in grade school he was reading ten hours a day. All those studied by Schilling’s were fuelled by intrinsic motivation, a true love of learning and invested heavily in self-education, avid and omnivorous readers.

Self-education Following on from the above, all were avid consumers of knowledge, but they followed their own rhythms rather than structured teaching. A surprisingly large portion of breakthrough innovators are autodidacts and excelled more outside the classroom than inside. That is because they do not accept the norms. Norms of consensus are dangerous to innovation and reveal the advantages of helping people to embrace their weird sides.

High level of social detachment Many exhibit a marked sense of ‘separateness’, perceiving themselves as different or disconnected from the crowd. By not belonging, they were buffered from the norms that help to bring groups of people to consensus, and thus are less exposed to conventional wisdom, and their ideas can develop less influenced by those shared by the crowd. When an individual is not well integrated into the social fabric, there is less to lose by being unconventional.

So, please make yourself uncomfortable. Becoming a successful entrepreneur is never a straight line. There are lots of ups and downs and zigzags along the way. As it turns out, how you emotionally handle the downs is key. As Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

But what’s the fun of living a life when you know the outcome already and it’s steady away? Ok, if you never try, you never have to deal with the pain and hurt of failure I’ll give you that. But is that a reason to not do something? Life is also not a contest of ‘my problems are worse than yours’. If it’s attention that you want, get a dog.

There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to work. Why do you want to work? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future you are creating for yourself?

Ever silver lining has a cloud as Musk has found out, but when something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.

Startup leadership lessons from A&E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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