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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is unwritten, so make your mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.

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

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

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

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

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

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

Go fishing with Einstein to improve your entrepreneurial thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Get back to basics – serve great food

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

2. The dining experience

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

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

3. The restaurant ambience

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

4. Personalisation

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

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

5. Something unique

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

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

6. The price factor

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

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

7. Perfect timing

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

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

8. Keep a clear head

Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of pizza eaters and food being sent from the oven, staff have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and frenzy. Resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the pizza.

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

9. Enjoy the oxygen

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

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

10. Make the closing memorable

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

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

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

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

Focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your startup business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice. Why do we work so hard to fit in, when we were born to stand out?

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