Startups 1-2-3-4 Go!

The Clash, the eponymous self-titled debut album by The Clash, was released 40 years ago last week, on 8 April 1977. How time passes by. It is widely celebrated as one of the greatest punk albums of all time, and one of the best debut albums. It was a record that made you sit up and take notice. It set the template for punk with its sharp shock songs full of passion and angry lyrics that were snapshots of the UK’s decay at the time.

The songs are short and intense, the speed-freaked brain of punk set to the tinniest, most frantic guitars trapped on vinyl. Rich in social commentary, attacking the fraught political and economic climate at the time, the collection of fifteen songs was unusually musically varied for a punk band, with reggae and early rock and roll influences plainly evident.

Despite all the hoopla over the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, a generation of disenfranchised, angry youth faced a grim reality of a dystopian future. In the latter 1970s, punk was the soundtrack for this alienated rage, an anti-establishment outreach of raucous, haywire impulses. Yet it remains timelessly inspiring. If you’ve never listened to this album, put it on your 100 albums to listen to before I go to heaven list.

Like a business startup, the Clash had raw energy, raw ideas and an attitude to take everything and everyone on. The classic line up which emerged from the creative tension of forming a band – Strummer-Jones-Simonon-Headon – made their mark. Each member brought a different influence, whether it was Joe’s folk lyricism, Mick’s rock adulation, Paul’s Brixton-born reggae, or Topper’s driving percussion, what you got was a unique blend.

Most of the first album was conceived on the 18th floor of a council high rise on London’s Harrow Road, in a flat rented by co-founder Mick Jones’ grandmother, who frequently went to see their live concerts. The songs were written over a twelve-day period, three four-day sessions Thursday-to-Sunday, beginning 10 February 1977, and recorded over three consecutive weekends at a cost of £3k.

The cover artwork was designed by Polish artist Rosław Szaybo, the album’s front cover photo, shot by Kate Simon, taken in the alleyway opposite the front door of the band’s ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ building in Camden Market. The picture of the charging police on the rear cover, shot by Rocco Macauly, was taken during the August 1976 riot at the Notting Hill Carnival – the inspiration for the track White Riot, their debut single.

The Clash wanted a riot of their own, and so they created one, not in the streets with bricks and bottles but on stage and in the studio with guitars and words. It may be an old fashioned thought now that a record can change the world, but it did and still stands up to this day as a brilliant document of the turbulent times, a luminous and revolutionary record.

I bought the record (one of those shiny vinyl things) and still have it close to hand to this day. It’s battered and scratched, the sleeve torn and frayed, but it’s a key part of my personal social history, but history relevant to now some 40 years on.

It was a platform to challenge prejudice, both without and within, that we could dance to, or jump about to. The first thing I ever liked about The Clash before I had even heard a tune was their name. In those heady days of mid-teens at parties of school mates, The Clash’s debut album was played over and over again. I recall one in particular as we all pogoed in the front room, every word to every song was sung as if our lives depended on it. The neighbours called the police because of the noise. This was a band capturing the moment. So were we.

Today, The Clash, their story and output, remains one of the most important signposts of my formative years. For five years, their lyrics, politicised and bristling with social conscience, had a far-reaching and ultimately enduring influence. They caught my ear and imagination, their mixture of politics and music shaped my beliefs and tastes.

Their musical experimentation and rebellious attitude was utterly inspirational and positive. For me, there remains a sense of urgency and anarchic inventiveness in their songs that roots them in the great musical moments of the late C20th. The songs more than stand the test of time, reminding you that music should speak to the politics, opinions and issues of society of the day.

So, I must admit, I still harbour a bit of attitude when it comes to Joe Strummer and company. A debut album like a stick of dynamite, it had heart and soul. I immediately got their vibe and saw their potential to speak to people. If you were lucky enough to see them, I don’t think you ever forgot it.

As I get older, it’s hard to separate songs from the memories we associate with them. People and places we used to know suddenly come rushing back with tremendous clarity after just a flurry of notes and words sung by a familiar voice you hear on the radio.

You don’t hear The Clash on the radio these days, but I can’t really tell you how much it meant to me back in 1977. I had a tear in my eye then, and I do now thinking about it. Everybody would sing along, loud. Those guys were a huge influence. It’s about appropriating anger. It’s what we should be doing. And suddenly (except for perhaps a bit of knew-joint pain and a few locks of grey hair) it’s as if no time has passed at all.

Fast forward, this first album remains an echo of the exhortation created more than 40 years ago. It speaks to entrepreneurs that you can write your own music, your own story, you can do it for yourself. On their record sleeves they printed: ‘Made by the Clash’. That says it all. Frustrated entrepreneurs, doing it for themselves.

Today, there is almost unlimited digitally fuelled competition for ears and pennies. For musicians, buskers or professionals, it has never been easy to turn tunes into cash and make a living. Social media enables direct-to-fan relationships, but the double-edged sword of technology is the mass-market digital noise reverberating from iTunes to Spotify to Soundcloud, where new bands can’t compete due to the social marketing voice and reach of the established artists.

You have to shout loud and spend lots to be heard. There are only so many iTunes/Starbucks ‘free track of the week’ cards to go around, so what are the strategy lessons from The Clash for startups today, to get yourself noticed as a new business in a crowded, market place as a newcomer?

Stand for something, be true to your purpose The Clash did whatever they wanted, great bands have that sense of purpose. They have a set of values and they remain true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who share those same values. Like a band, put some voice in your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your earlier advocates realise that they could miss out on something unique and special, they won’t want to miss it, and will in fact share it.

Being different matters more than being better The Clash became successful because they were different. We had never seen anything like them before, they grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music at the outset. It’s like building an MVP – be different, stand out from the crowd, offer something different. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks – pivot.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t just about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great startups like Uber and Airbnb don’t simply sell products, they sell experiences which add value, and we buy into. Give your customers a really great, memorable experience instead of pitching them another me2 product. Social media is a force because it enables connectivity and community, conversations about experiences happen, creating word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your customers to connect and share their experience.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? The Clash were loud. I mean loud, really loud. Their records were meant to be played so everyone down the street could hear it. Well, I thought so. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, your product content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Be bold, and tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Established customer know your history, new audiences want your hits Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more. Always generate new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver repeated content, engage your audience with innovation and create new reasons for people to come back to you.

Ensure your band has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s values in front for all to see. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility. What do you stand for as a leader? Make it part of your brand.

Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional. Be an original, not a replica.

Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. Is your business logo iconic and noticeable?

Harness nostalgia with innovation Great music enshrines an artist with the amber glow of posterity. Today, vibrant retrospectives of digitally remastered content show the artist has transcended their time and that they can now be appreciated outside of the context of their era. Recordings from the past sit comfortably with tunes from the present. In business terms, it’s where your moments from the past meet today’s innovation, you have to leverage the past whilst also pushing the future to stay current.

So that was The Clash in 1977. A new generation raised its voice. Loud, clear, fast, innovative and straight in the face of the establishment. And forty years later this knockout record still sounds furious and roars mighty and still inspires. The restless heart and honest soul of one of the few bands that mattered will never vanish.

Make your startup like The Clash, with positive attitudes and energy, belief that you can achieve something new and spectacular. This mindset and behaviour enthuses and influences others around you as to the possibilities that you have envisaged.

Ensure your startup has the vitality, focus and aims to make a difference. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, be audacious. Life is all about progression from good to great. Push yourself to be there. Make some noise – 1-2-3-4 Go!

Startup metrics for customer traction

Start-ups are unique because of their ability to scale fast, and typically go through three stages – traction, transition and growth. Each of these stages requires different priorities that are reflected in different objectives, strategies, team etc.

In the early stages of your startup, you’ll have to manage so many tasks that you’ll often be overwhelmed with what needs to get done. But instead of being paralysed by what appears like an endless amount of work, know that you really only have one goal: traction.

The North Star has been used for navigation since man began sailing, and applying it as a metaphor to startups is useful to get clarity in the maelstrom of things to do. For me, your North Star is determined by answering the question:

How many people are getting authentic value from our product?

It’s a simple goal and easy to measure. I use ‘authentic value’ to avoid the ‘vanity metrics’ I’ll refer to later. The moment when a user gets authentic value means you are getting traction, and we can anticipate revenue, and when you have paying customers, you have a chance to turn your startup from an experiment into a business.

Simply, traction refers to the initial progress of a startup, seeking product-market fit, gaining market share and mind-share from its target audience.

You don’t necessarily need to be profitable to show traction, maintaining consistent growth in other metrics besides profit such as daily active users, monthly active users, monthly signups, or a decrease in churn rate are all indicators that your startup is gaining traction. Just as traction is important to you, it is important to potential investors too.

One of the first steps in generating traction is finding what the real drivers of your business growth are, which may take some time to discover, and developing processes to maximise each driver. When you have clearly defined processes, potential investors will also have a better picture of how your startup will progress in relation to the general landscape of the marketplace.

If you achieve success in the traction stage, you’ll have forward movement in the important metrics that drive your business. While being nimble allowed you to experiment during the early days of your startup – finding what moves the needle of your initial growth, testing different offerings, and nailing down your product-market fit – your aim is to maximise what makes you unique and what makes you valuable to customers.

Getting traction is hard. You’ll be working more ‘in’ your business than ‘on’ your business, and there is a dilemma: fundamentally, your focus has to be on customers, but the inclination is on product development.

What failed startups don’t have are enough customers, and it’s customers that investors are most focused on. When you’re talking to investors about your startup, it’s pretty much all about your traction, growth and velocity, and small numbers can have a big impact on their thinking. Is ‘20%’ enough for the big questions?

It’s important you’re on top of your numbers, and you can speak their language, so immerse yourself in your financial model and get as comfortable about churn, attraction, burn, runway, CAC and LTV, as you are your customer pitch. There are a lot of metrics and KPIs that startup founders are expected to have at the tips of their fingers, the vital signs that you live with day to day. These numbers show you have clear view of your key growth drivers.

In reality, the numbers should just confirm your instinct on performance and progress, but often they produce a reality check of where you are on the runway, offering a balance to the emotional ‘feel’ of what represents real progress on growth aspirations.

In my experience, startup founders can fall into the habit of innocently deceiving themselves with their own view on data, by only focusing on the KPIs and data that sounds positive and offers a positive outlook. We all have cognitive bias, tending to hone in on the metrics we know are improving over time, and ones that sound impressive without much context.

For example, I’ve seen startups ignore the hard stats of monthly active user numbers, but talk about the number of web site visits or downloads of white papers. Beware of ‘vanity metrics’ such as these, they don’t provide any meaningful indication regarding customer traction, pricing and cashflow – the metrics by which you should be making decisions. Focus on metrics and numbers that you can improve, and that inform you on your direction of travel in a meaningful, clear way.

To me, the indicators that matter most in the life of an embryonic startup are about customer development and attraction: customer acquisition, retention and conversion. If you don’t have a handle on these numbers, then you’re simply fiddling round the edges, and your actions will make far less of an impact on growth direction, velocity and scaling ambitions.

These measures, when combined, inform you about customer traction, offering data points to give a clear picture of the underlying growth: how many customers have found your product (acquisition), how long do your customers stay with your product (retention), and how many of these customers are willing to pay for the product (conversion)?

These data points define the sales funnel, starting with acquisition, a signpost indicator that there is customer value proposition in your offering. Acquisition doesn’t have to be expensive, it can be organic and relatively clunky and have some friction in the process, because at this stage it’s still about validated learning and building on your MVP.

Once you have initial users, your focus is on retention. What is the monthly churn rate – how many leave your product after the first month? If they stay a month, how much longer are they likely to stay? Your retention rate has a major impact on building your user base, and the scaling, and ultimately the width and depth of customer revenue.

If retention is low, then the work of acquiring new users will continually get more expensive in order to grow revenues as you’ll have to continually spend more and more to acquire new users. Investors want to see the opposite trend: as your customer base grows, unit cost of customer acquisition, on average, should decline.

Retaining more users obviously provides an ongoing growing population to convert to recurring annuity revenues or other monetisation strategies, and with opportunities to grow the business by broadcasting to, and engaging with, a wider audience, enabling more visibility on social media, and a range of use cases.

Once you have optimised user retention, you can start working on both ends of your sales funnel, bring more users in, and converting more of them to paying customers. But focusing on converting users, when your retention numbers are low, will yield few results, and over time, those results will diminish without strong retention numbers.

So recognising that whilst there are lots of moving parts in your startup, which you need to stay on top of, a focus on customers forms the core of a dashboard of basic metrics. Over time, new financially based metrics can be plugged-in as it’s important to put an emphasis on the numbers you need to actively improve profitability.

But that’s the key: don’t use numbers to measure a startup financially at the outset, use them to guide and drive growth ambitions and the direction of travel and development of your business model.

Equally there is a ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ orientation to metrics, some track was has happened, others can be used to look forward. Don’t start tracking things having made a change, start tracking before the change occurs. Progressions are far more important than numbers without any context: what was that number last month, compared to this month? How has it changed? What is the growth curve? Is it static? Is it dynamic?

Use your numbers to ask questions, the things you need to know to be sure that what you’re doing is having any effect at all. It is difficult to prioritise product and customer growth: Should we write a new feature? Remove a feature? Fix a bug? Redesign a user interface? Remove a step in the sign-up process? Write a blog post? Offer an e-book for a lead nurturing campaign? Change pricing? Hire a customer support person?

So having set your North Star and its associated metric, what are the key drivers to focus upon, the moving parts which will get you to where you want to be: How many people are getting authentic value from our product?

I’ve always liked the ‘startup metrics for pirates’ – AARRR metrics – developed by Dave McClure, which represent all of the behaviours of your customers which drive to your North Star:

  • Acquisition: the customer finds you
  • Activation: the user interacts with you
  • Retention: the user likes you
  • Referral: the user recommends you
  • Revenue: the user pays you

You need to break down these five metrics on your product and analyse them separately, so that you can optimise each of them. It’s important to understand AARRR, because only when you understand all the metrics, you will understand each of the moving parts in your startup, so you don’t guess and make the wrong assumptions.

The truth is that many startups make the same mistake of thinking if something doesn’t work, it must be everything, or they just guess the wrong reason why their business is not working. The truth is, any part of a customer’s experience can influence them. Here are some other metrics to consider, my own 5C Scorecard:

Customer Numbers A simple, binary index, set and measured for each period, provides visibility, clarity and simplicity of your North Star.

Conversion Rate to be a very telling KPI in that it reveals a combination of the company’s ability to sell its products to its customers and the customers’ desire for the product. It is particularly instructive to track and review Conversion Rate over time and regularly run experiments to improve.

Customer Acquisition Cost (‘CAC’) CAC is the unit cost of spend on sales and marketing, on average, to acquire a new customer. This tells us about the efficiency and effectiveness of our marketing efforts, although it’s more meaningful when combined with other metrics detailed below, and when measured over time.

Customer Retention Rate indicates the percentage of paying customers who remain paying customers during a given time period. The converse to retention rate is Churn (or Attrition), the percentage of customers you lose in a given period. When you see high retention rates over an indicative time period, you know you have a sticky product that is keeping customers happy. This is also an indicator of capital efficiency.

Customer Lifetime Value (‘CLTV’) is the measurement of the net value of an average customer over the estimated life of the relationship. Improving the ratio of CLTV/CAC is critical to building a sustainable company.

There is also one financial metric you need to keep a track on at this stage:

Cash Burn This is simply the net cashflow per month and is critical to the survival of any startup. Runway is the measure of the amount of time until have in terms of cash, expressed in terms of months.

Short Runways cause entrepreneurs to be myopic and removes the liberty to tweak and iterate when necessary. It also forces them to focus on the next fundraising round instead of on growing the business. It’s a separate discussion from this blog, but fund raising should be focused on milestones, not the runway.

I’ve ignored the usual financial metrics – revenue growth, gross and net margin, as you must not be limited to the KPIs themselves, for they are merely measurements of outcomes. You must have an understanding of what levers can be pulled towards achievement of your North Star, which is then reflected in KPIs. The focus should not be on the KPIs themselves, but the meaning behind them and knowing what impacts each one.

Once we set our direction by the North Star and check-in on the underpinning metrics on a daily and weekly basis, you give yourself a mechanism for deciding where to focus your time to move your business forward, and for me, that’s all about how many customers see authentic value in your offering.

Lessons from sporting comebacks for business startups

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time. Yet, if you have had a setback, a comeback may seem impossible to you. Life is full of stumbles, no matter who you are. Financial problems, health issues, loss of a loved one – they may visit all of us. The challenge is how you overcome your setback. How do you dig in and hit back?

It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you down into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have changed their minds and backed out of a deal, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.

Of course, we all love those great sporting comebacks when a team or individual looks down-and-out on the ropes, the scoreboard showing the game is over yet somehow they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them.

What are the lessons startups can take from the great sporting comebacks in terms of resilience, mental toughness and handling pressure in the moment?  Let’s look at a few of the most memorable turnarounds in sport, and then the lessons to takeaway for startup thinking.

Recently, we’ve had Barcelona pulling off the biggest Champions League comeback ever to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain. Faced with a 0-4 deficit following the first leg in Paris, Barca won the second leg 6-1, with three of the goals coming from the 88th minute onwards.

The New England Patriots became Super Bowl champions again in February by fighting back from 25 points behind to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. In an extraordinary finale to the most challenging season of his career, Tom Brady inspired the Patriots and confirmed he was the best quarterback the sport has ever seen with a fifth Super Bowl crown.

Back in 1981, Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley when Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second Test team to win after following-on.

Further back, the result Charlton 7-6 Huddersfield, in Division 2, 1957 wasn’t an end-to-end ding-dong. Ten-man Charlton trailed Huddersfield 1-5 with less than 30 minutes on the clock. And just this weekend, Exeter were 0-3 to Yeovil with two minutes to go in League Three, but scored three goals in two minutes to earn an unexpected 3-3 draw.

All memorable and some with global attention, but for me, a local rugby game is the greatest sporting comeback of all time, and helped shape my thinking on startup recovery lessons.

Local rugby clubs capture the spirit of community, everyone coming together for something they love. The effort and commitment is there to be seen at the ‘grassroots’ of the game. It’s here in the junior teams youngsters get their first taste of the great game, teaching children the core skills of rugby whilst developing valuable life skills like teamwork, sportsmanship and respect.

Rossendale RUFC are based in Rawtenstall, just up the road from the market, with a club house and pitches nestling in the scenic hillside, with stunning views looking down the valley to Manchester. On March 4 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable fightback from a 0-28 points deficit, against Kendal, in a National League 3 North game.

In a classic game of two halves, Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win, and maintain second place in the division. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly against their Northern counterparts, going in at half-time with a 0-21 deficit, and it seemed all hope was lost when Kendal scored their fourth try of the game shortly after the break. However, Fraser Lyndsay scored Rossendale’s first try and his first of two in the final half hour giving his side a ray of hope. Alex Isherwood, Nick Flynn and Curtis Strong added three more tries, as well as three out of five conversions from Steve Nutt, ensured victory was snatched from certain defeat.

At 0-28 down, generally speaking there’s no coming back. But the belief in the team and never say die attitude, once they scored, kick started the most remarkable sporting comeback I’ve ever seen. It was an 18-man effort with the substitutes; there was no one player who made the win, it was all of them, together.

Rugby is a physical game – the former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of humour and camaraderie in a rugby team – Gareth Chilcott, on retiring in his last England game said I’m off for a quiet pint now, followed by 17 noisy ones! Just half a session then Gareth?

Comeback stories like this are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own comeback in the face of adversity. For me, the passion, team spirit, togetherness and winning mindsets in rugby rise above anything I’ve ever done and taught me more about teamwork, effort, humanity, drinking and tomfoolery than anything else I’ve experienced. If you meet someone else who’s played rugby, you’ll probably like them and get on with them. Like Frank Menduca from Adelaide.

I went to the World Cup 2007 tournament in France with my son James, the highlight being England 23 Australia 17 in the Quarter-Final in Marseille. Memories of raw French steak, ham & cheese toasties and fine Belgian lager for breakfast, Welsh fans with ‘Fiji’ taped over ‘Wales’ on their shirts supporting Fiji in the Quarter Final versus South Africa. And an encounter with Frank Menduca, an Aussie bear.

Resting for a beer after the game with our group amongst a noisy throng of England fans on one of the many street bars, a posse of Aussies hulked around the corner. Cue Waltzing Matilda from the England fans. Jubilation versus despondency. One of the Aussies, the leader of their pack and a huge man mountain caught my eye and pointed a finger at me. You’re for it now dad! said James, moving slowly so as to hide behind me like Simba behind Mufasa!

The Aussie man-mountain came up to me, at least six inches taller than me, something I’m not used to. He stared intently into my face. Then let out a wail and a cry We lost, I need a hug! and embraced me as a long lost relative. Mayhem broke out again, as around twenty grown up men embraced each other. Man love. You had to be there.

About three hours, ten pints, a giant hot dog eating competition (individual and relay – well done James, second place behind Frank’s son) and a raucous singing competition later, we parted. Ten yards down the road, the Englishmen broke into the apocryphal Rolf Harris anthem. Tie me Kangaroo down sport.

But back to comebacks, and Rossendale’s recent victory 31-28 from a 0-28 deficit. How did they find the physical resolve, the mental tenacity, the resilience to recover from a scoreboard of defeat to one illuminating victory, and how can we take this lessons into our startup thinking?

Hold a clear vision The Rossendale team has a clear purpose – to win the National League 3 North, which sets the direction for each game. Winning and losing in sport is very clear cut, but when you’re down in a game, the vision has to be clear enough that the team can pursue it as a focus to clear the mind.

Composure Nothing gives you more advantage over in the heat of the moment as to remain composed, focused and unruffled. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire for – what do I need to do? It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience.

Get a new plan You’re way off your original plan, so you need to reframe with agile thinking, developing a revised plan to accomplish your goals as the situation changes. An agile plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are progressing forward. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

Don’t doubt yourself Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a plan we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome. Dare to believe you can be the best.

It’s never over until it’s over Even when the position was seemingly hopeless at 0-28, and 26-28 in injury time, Rossendale believed. They didn’t give up. The moment you accepts defeat, it’s over. For another example of this – watch the you tube video of British athlete Christine Ohuruogu beating Amantle Monsho in the 2013 World Championships 400m final. With 100m left she was 10m adrift, with 10m left she was still behind, but on the line she caught her competitor and won gold.

Face reality You have to stand still, take in the moment and acknowledge that things aren’t working as intended and made changes. As Einstein said one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Difficult as they can be, changes are sometimes necessary. The cumulative impact of several small improvements is usually greater than finding one big change – because often there isn’t a big thing to find.

Focus on yourself When the chips are down and the team needs to produce peak performance levels, it has to be automatic. Top sportspeople always report that the victory was earned through training and practice. When things are tough it’s tempting to focus on what the competition are doing to be ahead but instead it’s important to focus on yourself. Compete with others but focus on you.

Leadership The role of leadership in a crisis is to be the catalyst. Ground everyone emotionally, get heads cleared, and look everyone in the eye. Then go for it. Once the spark has been fired, everyone needs to join the movement so that the fire spreads and takes hold. There’s a point at which a critical mass is reached and the team as a whole mobilises. The power of the doubting Thomases is replaced by the power of believers that it can be done.

Play on the complacency of the opposition There’s something else worth remembering. Teams lose when they think they’re already won. When Manchester United won the European Champions League in 1999, scoring twice in the final two minutes to turn around a 1-0 deficit, the Bayern Munich players were already celebrating. When Christine Ohuruogu won her gold medal, Amantle Montsho thought she had won and eased up on the line. Complacency often kills victory.

So Rossendale’s First XV bounced back from likely defeat to an unlikely victory. For a startup, there are many lessons from this remarkable turnaround as outlined above. Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. Live in the solution, not the problem.

Curiosity, sheep and unknown unknowns

Habits can be a good and bad thing for an entrepreneur, giving a clear sense of focus, a rhythm and guidance to keep heading for the north star to make stuff happen, and yet paradoxically, the wrong habits end up ultimately in addiction to doing the wrong things repeatedly.

We’ve all got an addiction, which stops us from doing more productive things. As a youngster, I remember visiting the various seaside piers in the north-west of England where the capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed was the engine of the gambling tourist economy. It was only a bit of fun, but feeding those 10p coins into the slots at a pace, well, they were never to be seen again.

But despite this, you went back and fed them time and time again. The slot machines were in an environment designed to keep people playing until they had spent up. Of course, these days we’re all captive to a smartphone screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximise ‘time-on-device’ every waking moment, everywhere we go.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius named Jeff Hammerbacher took the job as first research scientist at a startup called Facebook. Hammerbacher states: the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to keep people clicking through.

Digital addiction is quiet subtle because it’s an immersive user experience, but habit forming. When you get to the end of an episode of Blue Planet on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on, and this tech driven addiction is everywhere. Facebook works on the premise you are vulnerable to social approval, and that ‘likes’ will draw you in repeatedly. The habit of ‘second-screen’ simply feeds and cultivates this dislocated dance.

Similarly, LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine  – somebody wants to know me – even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a an auto-menu of suggested contacts – or simply a recruiter trolling you. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

What concerns me most about this growing trend is it’s turning us all into sheep. I live in the East Lancashire hills surrounded by them. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line, whilst humans keep each other in line.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may have heard or even expressed yourself, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to build an ability to just be ourselves and be thinking and not be doing something banal like smartphone addition – it’s the sheep equivalent of simply standing there for following the herd. That’s what the smartphones are taking away. Underneath in your life there’s that thing, that forever empty, that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. That’s why I think that people text and drive because they don’t want to be alone for a second and be thinking for themselves.

In this vision we are all trapped in a Mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want, and paradoxically users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions, working around issues to be more curious, more cognisant of what we don’t know, and more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time on our smartphones browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions can help spark the innovative ideas that many startups bring to market. In my research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat and the recent startups like Netflix, Square and Airbnb you find that some curious soul looked at an existing problem and asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, and how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is my favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

When we open ourselves fully to our curious natures, we are able to ponder without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and expansion. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broader mindset startups need. So how should we go about promoting a culture of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model? It’s essential to be curious about several things:

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other as they work to create a cohesive but flexible unit. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job role.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and their business model, and the mechanics of their businesses. You need an external focus beyond nice words, mastering the ‘seeing and feeling’ of the customer, be curious about your customers: ‘what would the customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

You work harder on what you’re curious about When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a whole universe of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about people, about trends taking hold, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people always ask questions and search for answers. Their minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: A culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief in following his curiosity that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history on 12 February 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about ‘known knowns’,’known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ in relation to Iraq.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those four sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology. Let’s take a look at these four sets of word pairs as they relate to curiosity.

Known Knowns In a perfect world, known knowns would be facts based on lean startup experiments, customer development, product testing etc. Known knowns would provide reliable and valid facts and evidence on which decisions could be based. However, most known knowns are not really known knowns, they are a small category of knowledge.

Known Unknowns These are variables we are fully aware of but have no reliable data to accurately describe. This is a large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about what we really know and do not know. Therefore, we are very likely to underestimate the number of unknowns that surround us. Do we truly understand the variables that drive the success of our brands?

Unknown Unknowns These are the blind spots—the problems, issues, and variables of which we have no awareness, information of knowledge. These are often the most dangerous variables and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise. Strong emotions and rigid opinions can blind us to obvious truths. We need to listen, accept, and learn find that such research can reveal many of the unknown unknowns.

Unknown Knowns There are things we know but don’t know we know. This is a strange category, and one might argue is an impossible category, a contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, “Of course. I know that. This relates back to an earlier assertion that people think they know more than they actually know. Once facts are presented, we easily can delude ourselves into thinking we already knew the information.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

I’ve learned that following my curiosity is the best thing to do. I’ve doubled down on curiosity. I read books I’m curious about. The best example is Steve Jobs, and how he dropped in on that calligraphy class, and how he was captivated by the letterforms. It had no practical application at the time, but he was curious, and then he built in all of that typography into the first Mac. You can’t connect the dots moving forward.

To know whether something is worth doing, or to know whether something was worth having been done, you need a metric for success. Next time you’re deciding what’s worth doing, try this metric. Ask yourself: What am I most curious about? I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time?

The probability of startup success

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

My most recent reunion saw the absence of Mr Evans, my former maths teacher. I did four ‘A’ levels at maths, I saw as much of him almost as my mum and dad in those two years. He was my John Keating, the Robin Williams character from Dead Poets Society. Not quite the O Captain, My Captain moment from the Walt Whitman poem, but Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. Well, that’s what he used to say, starting my life-long hobby of collecting Albert Einstein quotes.

I still remember the main school entrance and the huge columns by the door, wooden floors and marble fireplaces in the classrooms. The grounds were amazing, with over ten rugby pitches, lots of trees and rhododendrons all over the place. A vivid memory is of lying under a tree one-summer dinnertime, looking up through its branches into the bright blue sky.

The sunlight is catching the leaves at different angles so that my eyes flicker from open patch of colour to the next, the verdant foliage displaying a host of verdant hues. (I thought I would try to get ‘verdant’ into this paragraph, as my English teachers always believed there were no signs of creative talent. Though I probably shouldn’t have used ‘verdant’ twice).

As far as schoolwork was concerned I was unexceptional until I completed my ‘O’ levels, then Boom! Learning became a serious business.  I ditched the foreign languages – declining nouns and adjectives and conjugating verbs. English had been fine, I enjoyed the class time reading, Jerome K Jerome Three Men in a Boat has stuck with me forever, but French was bewildering, you had to make strange noises I’d never heard before and twist your mouth into a new shapes. The sounds seem to bear no relation to the words on the page to me.

History? What’s the point? Why was I being told King Alfred burned the cakes? Why, if he was king, was he doing the cooking for goodness sake? And King Canute, what was he up to, chatting away to the sea? None of it made sense to me. Worst of all was Scripture. It actually frightened me. It seemed to be filled with random politeness. Thou shalt no covert thy neighbour’s ox. Are you joking?

I was always able to do long division in my head, a four-digit number dividend by a three-digit number was easy, I could see the numbers and the workings out. I enjoyed the step up from ‘O’ level to ‘A’ level maths and the need to be able to learn and reproduce mathematical proofs. Truth is I was a bit of a geek but masked it well.

In maths, a proof is a deductive argument for a mathematical statement. In the argument, other previously established statements, such as theorems, can be used. In principle, a proof can be traced back to self-evident or assumed statements, known as axioms, along with accepted rules of inference. So there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a head full of numbers means I’ve always toyed with probability, and startup life is about making a choice between things that are within your control versus the things that you feel are outside your control, and those things that just happen, against the odds.

But what are the odds of success in a business start-up? Everyone knows that launching and living in a start-up is risky, but few appreciate just how the odds of success are stacked against you, so how do you increase the odds of your start-up success? Here are a few thoughts.

Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured world-views, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs. To convert your passion into a tangible business, emphasise a business strategy that makes financial sense based on a compelling story, covering how the elements of your business will come together in a way that is cashflow positive. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions – the numbers fall out from this.

Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an inner phenomenon, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market and with customers. To turn your passion into customers, emphasise the addressable market, always think about your business from the perspective of the customer, and execute on your market opportunity by placing a priority on your customer’s perception of value. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

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

Be agile The most important feature of your startup is your open-mindedness to learning and being agile, be prepared to iterate based on the MVP. To succeed, a new venture needs both iteration and agility. Establish an ongoing process for translating ideas into actions and results, followed by evaluation. Test and adapt your concept as early as possible. Work on continually improving the fit between your big idea and the marketplace.

Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ mind-set, and map out implications of alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in getting to a ‘business as usual’ model. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 20,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. But more than that, delegation empowers the team, accountability creates a team that rises to the occasion and often thinks of solutions you would not have considered.

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

For example, suppose you identify five key risks, and you think you’ve eliminated 90% of the risk in each category:

  • A 90% chance there is a real market need
  • A 90% chance that you’ve sized your addressable market
  • A 90% chance that you can implement your innovation
  • A 90% chance that you can sell it for more than it costs you to make it
  • A 90% chance that you have assembled the right team

You might take comfort that any one of these risk factors presents just a 20% chance of adversity, however, the probability of surviving all five risk factors is 90% × 90% × 90% × 90% × 90% = 59%

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

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

There are strategies and tactics you can follow to increase the chances of success as outlined above, but alas, being able to recount Euclid’s proof of Pythagoras theorem isn’t one of them, so I’d best pack that 1980 maths lesson away in the file marked ‘nostalgia’.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from the baristas of NYC

The first time I visited New York, I was warned about three things: to be constantly aware of personal safety, to forget about tea as they only serve coffee, and, in the interests of political correctness (and, potentially, personal safety), never offer criticism of the President.

It was 1986 and for a week I walked around hyper vigilant for muggers, making no eye contact with strangers I passed on the street. When I needed a caffeine fix, I deliberately asked for a coffee with milk. And as for politics, the most political minded I got was that I wondered at times what The Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through Congress.

More than 30 years on, the change in a few decades is pronounced; time has made the city safer and seemingly better caffeinated. No comment on the President. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, there are hundreds of independent coffee shops. I am sitting in one, Five Leaves, a bistro-café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on a crisp winter’s morning. In the cool light it is bursting with vibrancy: brightly coloured eggs, salmon and, everywhere, the unmistakable green of smashed avocado.

So many features of this airy cafe are familiar to others in the city – the distressed faded, almost run-down decor, the subtle scent of vinegar-laced boiling water for poaching eggs, and its packed with customers. Then the heavily tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into one of his arms. I overhead the chat: I had to learn how to make 400 coffees in a morning.

The decor is pared back, with tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space. A small kitchen sends out freshly made artisan breakfast meals 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, tasty. The cafe’s vibe is warm and welcoming, with around ten staff overseeing a customer base that comes and goes with amazing frequency.

What you see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech behemoths that have emerged from NYC, the wave of independent coffee shops are the playgrounds of barista entrepreneurs. The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea 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.

In small independent coffee shops, the man or woman serving your flat white is often the proprietor, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. 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.

My week in New York, visiting my son was a great experience. I managed to get some work done too, commuting in with him on the L train, enjoying the hustle and bustle, sight and sounds, but most of all I got into the habit of seeking out the artisan independent coffee shops mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

I watched baristas operate as true entrepreneurs. From beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprised me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There was sincere recognition and rapport between barista and customer. So much so, that in most cafes I visited, the baristas recognised the customer and what coffee they wanted before they asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

New York does coffee. Coffee served quickly, exactly like the customer asks for it. Coffee places like Five Leaves do it right. They know what people want. The baristas are prepared. Baristas serve two functions in this equation. Baristas make the coffee the way the customer likes the coffee, but before they do that, they listen and recognise what they customer wants. They serve the very important function of listening. This made me stop in my tracks, because I didn’t realise just how much practice it takes to listen. It’s a vital piece in the customer relationship, over and above the coffee itself.

The espresso they serve is exactingly made, very tasty, and perfectly portioned with milk that’s just hot and foamy enough. For those looking to try something new, there’s a rotating selection of boutique, in-season beans at a higher price tag. Along with cortados and lattes, you’ll find the slightly more obscure shakerato, espresso shaken over ice and served with simple syrup and an orange twist.

But, back to the practice of listening. It’s a lot like the practice of delivering great coffee. Listen to what baristas say: I have that grande decaf mocha for you, when you’re ready; Tall skim cappucinno on the bar, just for you.  A little extra touch. No matter how crowded and busy the queue, they talk to their customers, and in talking with the customers, they learn about them.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, maybe the game plan is simply consistency, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit.

All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic queues in the coffee shop, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from their training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Baristas may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it feels like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers.

For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. 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.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sprinting in a five-minute 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 play when on the pitch.

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, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

I’ve seen the baristas do this too, spending a quiet moment to themselves to reflect on the success of their business that morning, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

Put accuracy before power Business is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That’s a great analogy for any entrepreneur who’s chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won’t matter.

This is how the independent coffee shops 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.

Keep moving forward Although entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

Many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

People’s desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of people in a hurry, but where baristas showcased the art form of artisan beverage making, everyone was happy to wait. Much like the subway artists in NYC, the barista craft is an art form to behold, performed with purpose.

I saw tonnes of guile, grit, creativity and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard working baristas who were putting a long shift in, they knew that today was a step forward to success and may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision was vital to success.

It’s tough out there and the pace is fast, but like any entrepreneur they had discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and doing towards their goals.

Give yourself more time to think

Where’s your favourite place to do your best thinking? Mine’s a deserted, windswept, isolated beach. 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.

But no one can live without relationships. You may withdraw into the mountains, become a monk, a sannyasi, wander off into the desert by yourself, but you are related. You cannot escape from that fact. You cannot exist in isolation, but there’s nothing I like more than to take myself off for some thinking time on the beach.

A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the incongruous objects washed up by the ocean, all stir my thinking. For me, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write postcards of notes to self. 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. The sounds of surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, it opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to think a problem through.

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?

John D. Rockefeller is one of the most successful businessmen of all time, yet he was also a recluse, spending most of his time by himself. He rarely spoke, deliberately making himself inaccessible and staying quiet when in meetings. A refinery worker who occasionally had Rockefeller’s ear once remarked: He lets everybody else talk, while he sits back and says nothing. But he seems to remember everything, and when he does begin he puts everything in its proper place.

When asked about his silence during meetings, Rockefeller often recited a poem: A wise old owl lived in an oak, The more he saw the less he spoke, The less he spoke, the more he heard, Why aren’t we all like that old bird?

The more I read about him the more I realise he figured out something that now applies to all entrepreneurs today. Rockefeller was in the oil business, but his job wasn’t to drill wells, load trains, or move barrels. It was to make good decisions, and making decisions requires more than anything else, quiet time alone in your own head to think things through. Rockefeller’s product wasn’t what he did with this hands, or even his words. It was what he figured out inside his head. So that’s where he spent most of his time and energy.

This was unique back in his day, as most jobs during Rockefeller’s time required doing things with your hands. In 1870, 81% of jobs were in agriculture, crafts or manufacturing, according to economist Robert Gordon. Few professions relied on a worker’s brain. You didn’t think, you laboured.

Today, that’s flipped. Some 38% of jobs are now designated as ‘managers, officials, and professionals’ – decision-making jobs. Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on thoughts as much as actions.

However, do we ever get enough thinking time? It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the most productive use of a knowledge-worker’s time could be sitting on a couch, or in a coffee shop – or on a beach walking. But it’s so clear that it is. Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the bath. On a walk. On a train, or simply hanging out on the weekend.

Look at famous thinkers who didn’t have to impress anyone by looking busy, and you see a theme: they spent a lot of time doing stuff that didn’t look like work, but in fact was what they were about.

Albert Einstein put it this way: I take time to go for long walks on the beach 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.

Mozart felt the same way: When I am traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep – it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

Bill Gates got his best work done on his ‘Think Week’, a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology.

The practice of entrepreneurial thinking is integral to understanding entrepreneurial learning and startup development. This learning is socially embedded and provides the entrepreneur with human and social knowledge resources. With an understanding of the dynamics and nuances of entrepreneurial learning, is there scope to more fully figure out how to develop entrepreneurial competencies, and thus the chances of startup success?

Entrepreneurs learn through doing, not just thinking, developing and sharing stories of their ventures, and through social interactions within their dynamic environment – which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’. This creates the ideal setting for the delivery and assessment of practice based action learning in the realistic context of the entrepreneurial world.

We know having time to think is an important practice in making sense of the startup idea formulation, and in sharing thinking with others, it is difficult to decouple learning process and content from context, where the context mirrors the equivocal, multi-faceted and multi-directional nature of the challenges encountered by startups.

My biggest takeaways from thinking and walking on the beach are about the stop-start nature of entrepreneurial learning regarding experimentation and reflection. So, when I’ve started out on the sands with a problem to resolve in my head, here’s how I approach a stroll on the beach:

Don’t fear the blank page You don’t need to create a fully crafted solution, you just need to sketch something in your mind to make a start. Give yourself permission to experiment, play around with material and make a mess in your head.

Above all, stop caring about the outcome. It doesn’t have to be great, but exists as something that catches your attention that moment. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your mental venturing endeavours.

Brings clarity to your thinking I always have a notebook with me to log my stream of random consciousness – and that in turn sparks more new ideas. Writing is thinking. It forces you to examine your thoughts more critically and provides an opportunity to work through and gain clarity on the ideas, giving them some structure by having second or third thoughts about an original idea, that might otherwise sit as rolling tumbleweed in your head.

By noting those spur-of-the-moment ideas and random insights that you want to remember later, your racing thoughts become recorded and not lost on the hamster wheel of everyday stuff.

You get to know yourself Thinking whilst alone on the beach is a record of personal reflection. Taking time to shut out the loudness of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. The process of pouring out your unadulterated conversations in your head is both satisfying and motivating.

Fine ideas can pop up at the strangest times but they tend not to stay for long in your head, so you need to capture them or they are gone in the wind.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down in the rough that would otherwise have been swept out the door with the ordinary dust of the filtered mind. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has proven, writing expressively can uplift both your mind and body.

It improves your memory My memory is like a leaking bucket. Active thinking and having conversations in my head expressively improves working memory, like replaying a film from our mental archives. Recording the ins and outs of your thinking gives more for future signposting, a way to keep sight of what happened behind you that has given you a sense of direction and momentum.

Unlocks your creativity You can nurture what was a small seedling into a sequoia of brilliance. I have definitely done my most original thinking alone. It frees up thinking space to gain clarity on what to do next. By becoming mindful with what you are thinking, you can move yourself from knowing into a doing state.

Because you’re in a direct and unfiltered dialogue with your own thinking, it can be both a clearing-house and incubator where you tap into your imagination and unleash your creativity and ideas, a jumping ground to transform from the light bulb brain sketch into reality.

Provides perspective and purpose Sometimes our perception of a situation can blind-spot us. Walking whilst thinking and having no other voices other than your own in your head helps to provide perspective on a situation, and assists our brains in properly processing it in a way that fosters a healthy outlook. This allows us to function better and get more done.

When you start to think about the things that have caught your eye and are important to your thinking, you gain the ability to start to process them against your own sense of purpose.

Thinking on your own is, I believe, a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude, how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our inner voice and personal experiences, and fully inhabit our inner lives. It translates the inner to the outer. It just goes to prove that the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea

Focus: stop kidding yourself, you can’t give 110%

During a client conversation last week, I poured some water into a glass, and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy he said, to which I replied, Not really, I always give 110%.

But I made the point because its one of my favourite bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase five times already, trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you can only spill 100%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

You can still only give 100%. If your effort output has increased, you need to recalibrate, so what you before called 100% effort, should now be seen as 91% effort. If we act generously and find a way to uncap the effort limit by arguing that the percentage given relates to average not maximum effort – then in fact 110% isn’t trying that hard.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon before Christmas and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2017. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. In giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language this way?

Why do we set these unrealistic expectations for ourselves? What makes me think that I am the exception that I have any more than 100% of myself to give? We can’t perform two tasks at 100% efficiency, crickey, I can hardly do one thing at 100% efficiency. Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort.

As well-renowned basketball coach-come-philosopher John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being. You can only give the maximum effort (100%) and need a balance in that.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention now, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. The guidance includes a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own experience in startup ventures and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, or the ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback It’s easy to give negative feedback and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, focusing on another challenge and when you return, creating the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

So, instead of simply keeping going, trying to squeeze more out, continuing to deny yourself and the great mathematicians in the sky, instead look at Dave Brailsford’s Marginal Gains Strategy. Brailsford’s approach is to take a holistic view on what you do and determine how to achieve 1% improvement in everything. His premise is that the aggregation of small gains across the board adds up.

And he is right. The maths here is compelling, which is nice. If you do something better by 1% a day for a whole year, the aggregated gain is surprisingly significant: 1.01365 =37.78. The compound effect of a daily 1% improvement yields a multiplier of nearly 38 times your original performance output.

So, stop pushing yourself relentlessly and instead ask yourself: Where can I achieve an additional 1%? Look at where you can make a step-up, and create a focus on continuous improvement, not the end result. Brailsford did this with the Omnium team, were the World Record was 4.00 minutes. His challenge was: how do we achieve a performance time of 3.56 minutes? And they did just that.

Gamblers trust to luck, entrepreneurs trust in their own hard work. Maybe now with the focus on mental health and stress, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to increase your focus and accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make up for the times when you were not giving of your best. It just doesn’t work. Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future, until it all catches up on you.

In his fine article regarding nominal and ordinal bivariate statistics, Buchanan (1974) provided several criteria for a good statistic, and concluded: The percentage is the most useful statistic ever invented.

I’m not sure about that, but Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that. 100% means the whole thing. Everything. All of it. Your whole self. Nothing left. Nothing more.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: Dominique Ansel’s Cronuts

Everywhere you look in New York City today, you see tech or creative startup spaces. The chaotic, hardscrabble, overstuffed, raging, romping, intoxicating, alluring, terrifying melting pot that is New York inspires. There’s a history of creative disruption here that casts a shadow down Broadway and the Bowery for more than three centuries, with a host of entrepreneurial endeavours.

It’s a city with a rich heritage of business pioneers. Titans of C19th and C20th industry have a legacy marked by buildings bearing their name that dominate the skyline, their omnipresence provides a backdrop and frame of reference to those setting out today about making their own mark.

Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires a suspension of reality to clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been. The culture and history of NYC provides a great backdrop for this thinking.

The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set. So a mime artist dreamer and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar – it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s a state of mind, an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers. Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life.

Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire. What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel’s did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his New York bakery. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name and crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.

Last week I enjoyed a couple of Cronuts and coffee in his bakery café in a quiet stretch of Spring Street in Soho, New York. The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2016, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.

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

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

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

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

Believe me, they’re really, really good. The Cronut offers all the crumbly benefits of a croissant with the doughy sweetness of a doughnut. Sweet doesn’t really cover it – there’s a two Cronut limit, but eating any more would probably constitute a health hazard. Made with laminated dough, each Cronut is topped with a different colour of frosting and flavour, and each pastry is packed delicately, an elegant box in an elegant bag. If the only thing standing between you and opulence is five bucks and a long line, you might wait, too. But it was well worth the wait.

Ansel has a portfolio of innovative products he’s created – for example the Kouign Amann, a Breton inspired caramelised croissant with tender flaky layers on the inside and a crunchy caramelised shell a crispy shell on the outside. Then there is the Frozen S’more, inspired by the Turkish dondurma, made with Tahitian vanilla ice cream on the insider that’s covered in chocolate feulletine, then enveloped in honey marshmallow, placed on an applewood-smoked willow branch and torched to order.

This blog could evolve into a Masterchef critique, but I couldn’t help but think that his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some good entrepreneurship lessons. Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason.  He combines craft, nostalgia, analogies, complexity, surprise, shapes, interesting presentations, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations.  So what are the entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship?

Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and extreme freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations – an aspect Dominique obsesses over to deliver the best possible product – is that each item be served at the optimal moment, when it’s at its peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate.  Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.

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

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

Crossing the Atlantic to live and work in New York

Crossing the Atlantic to live and work in New York. Wow, what a sense of entrepreneurial adventure those ten words create! Grasping an opportunity like this, in pursuit of personal development and new professional experience is just as entrepreneurial as seeking to colonise Mars. The entrepreneurial spirit is the spirit of enterprise, an ambition to succeed, initiative in taking action, alertness to opportunity.

So my son, James, 25, a chip off the old block with the same attitude, spark and finely chiselled features as myself embarks on his own adventure, transplanting himself from Cake Solutions software development team in Manchester to the growing team in Union Square, mid-Manhattan.

There are many definitions of entrepreneurship, but I define it as essentially the act of having the ability to recognise an opportunity, shape a goal, and energise your ambition to make it happen. James has grasped an amazing opportunity to shape and write his own entrepreneurial story in New York.

New York’s skyline. Just the shapes, and the thought that made them, the will of man made visible. New York is a wellspring of inspiration, with action, romance, and fascinating strangers lurking around every corner. Ok, he may start wearing sneakers rather than trainers, develop an appetite for potato chips, and takeouts rather than takeaways and crisps, and talk about garbage instead of rubbish, but living in hipsterville Brooklyn is a great place to be right now. A life without dreaming is a life without meaning.

New York, the hustle bustle of the crowds and the traffic, a metaphor for the wrestling of humanity in all its dimensions, a place as tough, noisy and romantic as his home town of Rawtenstall. The Bowery, the High Line, Dominique Ansel’s Cronuts – a croissant and donut hybrid. Oh, but he’s gone there to work and learn too, on some of the coolest, most advanced software and technology you can have today.

Life is what you make it, and the entrepreneurial spirit is vital if you are to step up from the ordinary. The entrepreneurial mindset, taking responsibility for yourself, dealing with the hot-and-the-cold, the nice-to-have and the have-not moments, in harsh (not virtual) reality.

Entrepreneurs know that opportunity is not a game, it’s a race, a test. Taking full responsibility in action. You have to accept responsibility for whatever happens, and you have to make it happen. As every investment prospectus says, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

The entrepreneurial spirit of leading a startup – or the startup of me – living on your own wits as a solo artist or striking out like James, is the spirit of individualism, the entrepreneurial self, full ownership and initiator of our own goals and actions. We speak of the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ as a set of character traits possessed by those who perform and live with a clear vision and purpose for themselves. In that sense, the entrepreneurial spirit is something that all of us can and should aspire to, pertaining to the pursuit of goals, self-ownership, and commitment to realising personal ambition.

Those folks holding an entrepreneurial outlook on life are aware that they must not only produce something of uniqueness and value, they also accept, that it carries risk and there is no safety net. Entrepreneurs are aware that economic change and its attendant risks are a fact of life. No one can entirely eliminate risk, but it can mitigated it by continually investing in your own knowledge and skills, making yourself relevant and rooted in the emergent future.

A key element to the entrepreneurial mindset is the need to build and maintain self-esteem, the emotional evaluation of your own worth, a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem is made up primarily of two things: respecting yourself and feeling capable. Every adjustment to these states of mind shouldn’t be viewed as a crisis, conscious learning doesn’t require the willingness to see it as suffering self-harm and reducing one’s self-esteem.

Reflection is a way to balance out the emotion. To overcome this self-doubt, you should define and measure your success in your own terms, because measuring success using quantitative measures is one dimensional and provides no insight in future worth or the value of investment put in to date.

At some point, you are probably fully invested – emotion, energy, time – into yourself, and so the concept of quitting, even during the toughest and most frustrating of times, is unthinkable but filling your head like an animated box of frogs. But quitting is not a remote possibility. During this stage of self-doubt, expect your determination to be renewed. Your entrepreneurial self is part of your personal identity now, and your commitment to it as a measure of your personal success is a high driver.

We’ve all had those quiet moments when we doubt ourselves, there are no shortage of black swans, those unknown unknowns.  But let the chips fall on the floor as they may, and do the hard stuff. As long as you’re honest with yourself and deal with it head-on, there’s nothing to fear from self-doubt. Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your entrepreneurial life, but define yourself. Build and hold your self-esteem.

The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden demonstrates compellingly why self-esteem is basic to entrepreneurial well-being regarding psychological health, achievement, personal happiness, and positive relationships. It was the culmination of a lifetime of clinical practice research and study, and is hailed as the most definitive work on the topic.

Branden introduces the six pillars as six action-based practices for daily living that provide the foundation for self-esteem, and explores the central importance of self-esteem in five areas: the workplace, parenting, education, psychotherapy, and the culture at large.

From a workplace ‘startup of me’ and entrepreneurship perspective, it’s an opportunity for self-reflection – but don’t over analyse. It forms a useful ‘conversation with myself’ structure. One thing that is important to grasp is that self-esteem is an indirect result of what you do. Branden breaks this down into the six practices highlighted below:

Live consciously This requires us to be fully in the present moment. This takes a bit of practice, because many of us are conditioned to disown the here and now, to survive what we have thought that we cannot handle. It’s about being comfortable with yourself, your persona, what you’ve achieved and what you stand for. Respect yourself at all times, what you’ve achieved and where you’re going.

Accept yourself We all have flaws and attributes, but you also have the opportunity to enhance who you are, by accepting everything about yourself. In fact, the only way to enhance who you are is to accept yourself. Don’t try to live in someone else’s skin or adopt their personality, simply be yourself for what you are. Measure your success by your own standards, not others.

Take responsibility for your experiences There’s a piece in the book which says: I have learned to be in conversations where I say to myself, “It comes down to ‘this is where you end, and I begin”. Giving yourself such an affirmation helps you to say what I will and will not experience, and this is quite liberating and fulfilling. Again it’s about asserting yourself to yourself – if you don’t respect you, no one else will. 

Assert who you are Like what you think, feel, believe, need, want and value is genuine, and don’t doubt yourself against some alter-ego or artificial model of what you want to be. Be comfortable with yourself.

Live purposefully Make an agreement with yourself to reach your highest potential, while you maintain balance in your life. You only get one chance, make it happen and realise your potential. Again, don’t covert or envy. Don’t look at the progress others are making, simply focus on your own model, execution and growth.

Maintain your integrity Know exactly what your principles and values are, and stick to them, no matter what others think or do. You started with a clear purpose in mind, don’t lose sight of it – it’s the ‘why I am doing this’ which is a vital reminder when you do hit the brick wall and doubt yourself.

The most beneficial effect of reflecting upon these six pillars of self-esteem is to make you more aware of what is important to you, and to keep honest with yourself. There is nothing irresponsible in choosing another pattern of life that works better. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit. The sense of self-ownership manifests itself in the kind of total autonomy, which involves a sense that the only person one answers to, ultimately, is oneself, to create our own sense of fulfilment and happiness.

In speaking of happiness, I do not mean momentary commercial and monetary success that gives a warm glow of physical pleasure. I mean the kind of satisfaction that comes from achieving the things we value across the whole course of our life. That kind of happiness is not the product of acting by whim or impulse.

I’m sure most of us want to move forward, but by definition, paying attention to the present keeps us where we are. Here’s the key: entrepreneurs spend time building and betting on their future even when there are more important things to do in the present. In other words, and this is the hard part, if you want to be productive in the future, you need to spend time doing things that have no payback in the present.

It’s up to you to go for it and make up your own mind. No one else can think for us, it is our responsibility to choose our own direction by first-hand thought independently. It is only these virtues that can help us navigate through the rolling waters of personal and business life. The entrepreneurial way of life is the human way.  The entrepreneurial spirit is a gift that inspires you to become the best you can be, the best version of yourself.

It’s all about knowing yourself, your capabilities and stretching yourself, being unreasonable with aspirations to achieve, competing against yourself, a trait you see in all entrepreneurs, the restless, relentless pursuit of achievement, stepping outside the comfort zone into the learning zone. I’m minded by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and the role of intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself, and the three elements of the motivation formula he identifies – autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy Our self-direction is a natural inclination. Pink asserts we’re all built with inner drive, some folks are just in a higher gear than others. James has never been passive and inert, he’s always gone hell-for-leather and go the extra mile as standard. Apparently this is because he has what Pink calls ‘autonomy driven motivation’. He’s curious about what he can achieve as a challenge to himself.

Mastery We want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language, new sporting technique or a musical instrument can be so frustrating at first. Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. Firstly, it is a mindset, in that we believe we can get better. Second, mastery is a pain, in that it involves not only working harder but working longer at the same thing. Finally, mastery is an asymptote, or a straight line that you may come close to but never reach. Learning is lifelong.

Purpose People who find purpose in their life unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.

So, as I look some 3,300 miles to the west, I’m minded by the words of Michael Stipe: It’s easier to leave then to be left behind. James, you’re doing it for yourself, so make it matter where it matters most, inside.