Lessons in entrepreneurial thinking from Greek philosophy

Many of the everyday fundamentals of our Western lifestyles owe a debt of gratitude to the Ancient Greeks – democracy, drama, all-action blockbuster war epics, and lying around thinking about stuff, or philosophising as it’s known. All beloved activities in the Eastern Mediterranean 2,500 years ago, and all still popular today in our house – as well as other aspects of their culture including souvlaki, retsina, lashings of taramasalata and a big, chunky feta salad.

Greek dancing and plate smashing are optional and mostly accidental at home, but my affection for all-things Greek stems from the fact that I met my future wife as a student whilst on holiday in Corfu back in the halcyon summer of 1984.

A Greek holiday romance which blossomed to the sun drenched sounds of bouzouki, fuelled by dolmades and lashings of ouzo, and survived the return flight home, as did the irrepressible deities etched on some hideous cheap pottery bought as presents. Dôs moi pâ stô, kaì tàn gân kīnā́sō.

So every time we have Greek food – yesterday Moussaka’s had an extra fluffy topping of cheese and béchamel sauce – the Greek influence on our way of life and their pioneering attitudes once again came into my thoughts.

The Greeks were thinkers, half decent too, and there is no doubt Greek philosophy can help us understand more about ourselves as entrepreneurs. Accomplished entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel credit their philosophy backgrounds for their success, and after all, many of the qualities that make outstanding entrepreneurs are the same for philosophers – both require clear, critical thinking and strong communication skills to socialise their ideas to a wider audience.

Although today’s entrepreneurs obviously live a very different way of life than Plato did, a lot of what he had to stay still applies to what we all long for: to be happier and more content in our day-to-day living. Three quotes from his writing struck a chord with me when thinking about this blog as being very relevant to startup thinking:

Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something With so many opportunities to voice your opinions online and in public these days, it can be difficult to just sit with your own thoughts. Plato reminds us that we should only speak when it is of benefit, and not just to toot our own horns.

The beginning is the most important part of your work. Make a start! All to often we put off doing good work and losing opportunities left, right, and centre because we never start. Fear stands in the way for some, but Plato encourages us to just get our hands dirty and see what transpires. Even if we fail, at least we know the outcome. Never starting doesn’t teach us anything.

If a man neglects education he walks lame to the end of his life. Entrepreneurial life is full of amazing things to learn and opportunities for new experience, but you have to take them. Don’t cut yourself off from all the things that are out there just waiting to be consumed and understood by you in your search for revenue, a startup is much more about learning than money.

Philosophers have a reputation for freewheeling thinking, open minded and thoughtful, but maybe metaphysical, lost in the context of their times, so is there any relevance for today’s startup entrepreneurs? Look again, I find that, in reality, the Greek philosophers were very realistic and pragmatic. They understood that things often go the opposite of the way that we want them to go, so they’re resilient, and it’s all about thinking things through and reflecting. Doing so will make you a more successful, thoughtful and self-assured entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur, adopting some of these philosophical approaches can transform negative emotions into a sense of perspective and prepare you to have the right state of mind. At its heart it’s about controlling things, which are in your power to control and ditching the rest. So let’s look at the traits of Plato and others, and how we can benefit from their philosophical outlook on life for our startups.

They love of debate An important trait that all philosophers have is the ability to follow an argument all the way to the end. As an entrepreneur, it’s an essential skill, for example, if you’re sitting in front of a potential customer.

Equally, healthy discussion becomes more important when your business starts to grow, debate is often the key to finding the most effective course of action from a range of options. Encouraging your team to share a different point of view is healthy. Remember, you’re not trying to win arguments (‘be right’), rather, you’re trying to find the best path forward (‘get it right), so embracing other perspectives is powerful.

They’re comfortable with the uncomfortable As an entrepreneur, you have to make decisions on issues that aren’t always conveniently shaped in black and white,  you have to get comfortable working in an environment of uncertainty and unknowns – if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

It’s a steep learning curve ploughing your way forward in a startup, but for philosophers, ambiguity is nothing new. Embracing it teaches you to manage uncertainty and stay calm. As an entrepreneur, you’re always, in the words of Walt Whitman, conquering, holding, daring, venturing.

You’ll likely spend a lot of your time operating in the unknown, so you’ll need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. Next time you find yourself at a fork in the road, think about making a decision with 51% confidence, simply look at the balance of outcomes and make a judgement call. While it’s not ideal, it’s far better than procrastinating and waiting for ideal or easy solutions that never present themselves.

They see the big picture in the smallest details If you can’t see the big picture, you’re lacking direction and consequently can end up going randomly anywhere, wasting time and energy. It’s easy to get sidetracked by details and suddenly find yourself struggling in the long grass.

Taking a more philosophical approach helps you envision how smaller decisions will eventually fit into bigger ones, playing back your thinking. One way to ensure that you’re always on the right track is to step back, reflect and go back to your vision and big picture, and your broader horizon, and consider how minor tweaks might affect your future expansion plans.

They keep their emotions in check Your passion makes the difference as an entrepreneur to what you do, but never confuse enthusiasm with capability. In philosophy, you learn to detach from your emotions and make decisions with sound logic. As an entrepreneur, that’s a valuable lesson, since it’s easy to fall in love with a new idea, and overlook obvious flaws.

They dissect complex problems Einstein said, If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. This thinking highlights a skill that philosophers have mastered: the ability to break down complex problems into simpler ones.

As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to solve complex problems early and often on your startup journey. You’ll have a leg up if you can break the big stuff down into digestible pieces, rather than trying to solve it all at once.

Recently the philosophical approach of Stoicism has become an influence on entrepreneurial thinking. Stoicism is a philosophical practice considered to be a complete way of life. It focuses on these four core principles:

  • Make the best use of your time
  • Be the master of your emotions
  • Walk the path of virtue
  • Develop self-mastery

In the increasingly competitive, confusing and complex digital world, the key is stripping back the nonsense and keeping things simple and straight forward, it’s vital we focus on the signals and not the noise.

Stoicism reminds us that amidst this maelstrom, we are required to be mindful, fully present and aware, and exercise self-control, rather than being lost to emotion and lost to random thought processes. It can build the resilience and state of mind required to rebound from knockbacks.

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind, so lets look at the four tenets of Stoicism and how they impact an entrepreneur.

Make the best use of time Some periods of time are snatched from us, some are stolen and some simply seep away. Yet the most shameful loss is the loss due to carelessness – Seneca

Seneca reminds us to not waste our time because time is precious. In other words, live your life with intention and be the master over your time. Be clear with your intentions for the day and be firm on getting goals complete. Design your week in a way that makes sense for you

Be the master of your emotions The Stoics teach us that unpredictable things happen in our lives that we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to events. Responding (as opposed to reacting) requires you to be in control of your emotions and thoughts, and in control of your daily habits.

Entrepreneurs often have to figure out a way to make something possible within all the things that are impossible, and can’t waste time complaining or blaming because of deadlines to meet – we have too much on our plate to worry about that.

Take time to think before responding to pressure and avoiding immediate reaction is a difficult style to develop, but invaluable. If you’re frustrated with a business situation or a chain of events that is seemingly running away from you, close your laptop and go outside, calming your emotions will help you to think more clearly.

Walk the path of virtue As a startup entrepreneur, there will be plenty of ethical dilemmas in your company, requiring you to make difficult choices. Take a moment to think through the possible ways you could respond, and consequences. Cross out the negative responses and circle the positive ones. These are your virtuous reactions.

Develop self-mastery The Greeks famously called this form of self-discipline askesis. Seneca writes It is precisely in these days that we need to discipline our spirit… for the spirit gives the strongest proof of its resolve by not being attracted or distracted by pleasures which lead to self-indulgence.

Developing self-mastery and rigorous self-discipline enables you to become a master over your time and your actions, and can result in incredible helpful outcomes. Zeno said Man conquers the world by conquering himself. The core of his philosophy consists of virtue, tolerance, and self-control.

Entrepreneurs need to be able to achieve goals within specific time periods, they want to see quick results. That’s not to say you can’t have any self indulgence, though, we are human, but taking a more thoughtful approach adopting some of the lessons from Greek philosophers has merit. Instead of the usual headlong rush into getting stuff done, take a deep breath, open your mind and speak the future into being.

As an entrepreneur, if you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the start. However, if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then as an entrepreneur you will probably write melodrama and romance.

Which takes me back to Corfu, August 1984. In the middle of a relentless hot sunny day, I relaxed under an awning outside of a cafe biting into a goat’s cheese and carrot marmalade sandwich, the Mediterranean sea breeze blowing gently, starting a discourse which has become a constant, lifetime conversation with a girl from Oldham. We danced outside the Vassilopoulos supermarket I recall, but that’s another blog.

Manchester entrepreneurs: Martin Hannett

Last week saw the 38th anniversary of Manchester band Joy Division finishing working with producer Martin Hannett on their second and final studio album Closer. For both the band and Hannett, it was career-defining work.

Closer was released by Factory Records on July 18, 1980, posthumously following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, two months earlier. Today, Closer is widely recognised as one of the most significant albums of the early 1980s, with Hannett acknowledged as the architect of the dark, distinctive sound.

The songs on Closer were drawn from two distinct periods. The earlier guitar-driven compositions were written during the latter half of 1979, the album’s other songs were written in early 1980, including more prominent use of synthesisers, driven by Hannett’s burgeoning influence.

It’s an exercise in dark controlled passion, the music stands up on its own as the band’s epitaph. The almost suffocating, claustrophobic yet creative world of Curtis is evident in the lyrics, even more austere, haunting, and inventive than its predecessor, Unknown Pleasures. It is Joy Division’s finest work, a start-to-finish masterpiece, a flawless encapsulation of everything the group sought to achieve.

During the Closer sessions Hannett would go even further with his work refining Curtis’ vocals. Alongside working on Love Will Tear Us Apart, this took the music stylistically into something more sombre, subtle, whose lyrical content was in hindsight indicative of what was to come to pass two months later.

Young men in dark silhouettes, some darker than others, looking inwards, looking out, discovering the same horror and describing it with the same dark strokes of deeply meaningful music. The music and tonal production levels swoop up and down unpredictably, never standing still, never resting. The astonishing variety is schemed and architected by Martin Hannett, giving the music the space and the air it needs.

The album covers the Joy Division spectrum of that moment with a sense of morbid hopelessness. See it for yourself. Judge for yourself. But don’t take it too serious (we all take it too serious sometimes). Closer is breath taking music, a sharing of something. Created by Joy Division. Made by Martin Hannett.

James Martin Hannett (31 May 1948– 18 April 1991), initially credited as Martin Zero, was an English record producer and an original partner/director at Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. His distinctive production style utilised unorthodox sound recording and technology, and has been described as sparse, spatial, and cavernous.

Born in Manchester, Hannett was raised in a working class family in Miles Platting. He went to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, where he earned a degree in chemistry but chose not to pursue the profession. Hannett’s uncle was a bass player and gave his nephew a bass guitar when he was fourteen, sparking his interest in music. His production work began with home made animation film soundtracks, moving next to mixing live sound at local pub gigs.

Always a music head (he was forever rebuilding his hi-fi), Hannett found time to learn bass guitar, mix live sound, and work as a roadie. Eventually he would quit his day job to run Music Force, a musicians’ co-operative who booked gigs (including the iconic Manchester venue Band on the Wall), arranged PA hire, and also operated a lucrative fly-posting business.

Punk induced the birth of three significant record labels in Manchester: New Hormones, Rabid, and latterly Factory. Hannett was a founder of Rabid. He first attracted attention in 1977, when, as Martin Zero, he produced the first independent punk record, the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP. Under the same moniker he produced early records by Salford punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

The rising producer first worked with Joy Division on two tracks contributed by the band to the Factory Sample EP, recorded in October 1978, then went on to do his career defining work with the band in 1979 to 1980. Thereafter, New Order, Magazine, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses all came under his influence.

However, the death of Curtis hit him hard, and after Factory, Hannett’s career declined due to his heavy drinking and drug use, especially heroin. Hannett died 18 April, 1991 aged 42 in Manchester, as a result of heart failure. His headstone at Manchester Southern Cemetery pays him tribute as the creator of The Manchester Sound, a fitting tribute to a true musical visionary.

The truth is, without his spark of production genius, Joy Division could have ended up as just another ’80s post-punk band, and British music might have missed out on one of its defining sounds. So, what made Hannett one of the most entrepreneurial, creative and innovative Producers of his time, with a legacy and reputation that has endured almost forty years?

Be prepared to experiment.

Hannett’s production techniques incorporated new looping technology to treat musical notes with an array of filters, echoes and delays. Hannett had a collection of echo devices, which he had amassed and called his ‘bluetop echo and delay boxes’. He was ahead of the game technically.

Legend has it that he once forced Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris to take apart his drum kit during a recording session and reassemble it, with parts from a toilet. He reputedly had Morris set up his kit on a first floor flat roof outside the fire escape, and also in a cotton mill lift, seeking experimental new sounds.

He also built a device made to recreate the beats he heard in his head – which in turn came from the old air compressors in the huge empty and decaying Manchester factories.

Other favoured tricks in Zero’s sonic arsenal included reverb, phasing, compression, repeat echoes, deliberate overload, and the Marshall time modulator – anything, indeed, that created space, weirdness and sonic holograms. Hannett’s unorthodox and experimental production methods resulted in drum sounds mixed with synthesisers that were complex and highly distinctive.

Have high ambition – without compromise.

In the image of industrial Manchester, giving Joy Division that dark, empty, distinctive atmosphere, Hannett was obsessive in his attention to detail and quest for getting things right.

After making his name with Rabid Records, Hannett hit his stride with Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. The prolific partnership saw massive success, famously producing Joy Division’s classic song Love Will Tear Us Apart. Originally recorded in 1979, Hannett disliked the original version, as did frontman Ian Curtis, and it was redone in 1980. The process highlights Hannett’s search for perfection, particularly with percussion and vocals.

Drummer Stephen Morris recalls how Hannett called him back to the studio in the early hours of the morning to re-record drum sounds after spending the entire day creating the original sound. Hannett’s ambition was to be different yet worked on finishing the sound until he got it exactly as he wanted it.

Be relentless

As for Hannett’s studio regime, musicians were discouraged from entering his working area, or participating in mixing – if ever they dared.

Peter Hook, bassist of Joy Division and New Order described Hannett’s working style. Martin didn’t give a fuck about making a successful record. All he wanted to do was experiment. His attitude was that you get loads of drugs, lock the door of the studio and stay in there all night and you see what you’ve got the next morning. And you keep doing that until it’s done.

Hannett himself was unwilling – or unable – to define his trademark style: A certain disorder in the treble range? I don’t know, I can’t tell you. All I know is that I am relentless, I keep going until I find what I want to find.

Radio sessions aside, over the course of around eight separate recording sessions Hannett would produce every studio track released by Joy Division, including subsequent singles Atmosphere and Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Be a catalyst for others

Hannett felt able to adopt the sometimes confrontational role of catalyst in relation to ‘his’ bands. He just seemed to have the knack of putting everything in the right setting. He works in a totally different way to any other producer we’ve recorded with. He doesn’t even re-play the songs on the tape very much. He has it all in his head. He’s a weird bloke but we work really well with him. I had been stuck in a rut and I needed someone like that to show me some sort of light. Martin was just the right person.

Hannett’s unique blend of sound and chemistry lead to many labelling the producer a ‘musical alchemist’. It was almost alchemy. He was fascinated by chemicals and musical explosions, he was an alchemist of noise. It was his great gift and also his great curse.

This DIY approach to production was a hallmark of Hannett’s style, making a mockery of the megabucks music mogul-driven industry, reflecting the startup ethos and philosophy of Factory Records.

Hannett’s career embarked on a downward trajectory after 1982. For the rest of his time, his production work covered a disparate array of minor records, Sadly, by this time Hannett’s own drug habit was out of control, resulting in five years of narcotic exile, trapped in a chemical stupor.

As a Producer, Martin Hannett’s dazzling golden age was all too brief, lasting from the autumn of 1978 to the middle of 1981. Too leftfield and obsessive to sustain a mainstream career, and tied to his home city for long periods by drug dependence, Hannett was a musical entrepreneur and genius.

The Mancunian record Producer helped transform a defiant collective of musicians into an iconic collection of records on an iconic record label that brought the sound of Manchester to the masses. Described as petulant, moody, overbearing, a pain in the arse, he was a pioneer, he wasn’t messing about. Martin did it 100%.

Hannett rated Closer as his most complete production. Nearly forty years on, give it a listen. The untimely death of singer Ian Curtis in May 1980 hit him hard spiritually and mentally, and perhaps contributed to his subsequent decline. Be that as it may, the peerless Joy Division catalogue remains the body of work for which Martin Hannett is best remembered, a true innovator and entrepreneur of Manchester.

 

 

Put customer centric thinking at the heart of your business model

One of the great entrepreneurs of the C20th, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, died last month. He created a business, founded when he was just seventeen, that today has commercial reach and a cultural impact that very few consumer products could hope to attain.

Kamprad was an entrepreneurial schoolboy. He bought pencils and matches in bulk which he resold to classmates for profit, moving onto fish then Christmas cards trading. When he was seventeen, he borrowed money from his father – who was convinced that he was giving money for Ingvar’s’ studies – and opened IKEA, hatching the plan at his Uncle Ernst’s kitchen table.

Initially it was a mail-order furniture business, but facing a price war against his business, he flummoxed rivals by opening a showroom – the first IKEA furniture showroom opened in 1953 in Älmhult, Sweden, so customers could see and touch IKEA home furnishings before purchasing them.

To attract prospective customers, he also promised a free cup of coffee and a bun to everyone. Imagine his surprise when this modest event attracted more than a thousand people! Nevertheless, everyone got a cup of coffee and a bun. The idea of opening a fast food restaurant in each store was born.

Kamprad focus was customer centric, but specifically on a do-it-yourself ethic for customers – the company’s name was a do-it-yourself job, too, it stands for Ingvar Kamprad, from Elmtaryd (his family’s farm) in Agunnary, a village in the Smaland region of southern Sweden. His own motto, based on a strong work ethic, was that most things remain to be done, and he built this into the ethos of his customer offering too.

Kamprad’s impact on everyday living has rivalled that of Henry Ford and his mass-produced motor car. Furniture used to be costly, clunky and heavy, and you kept it for many years. For the cash-strapped and newly nesting, fitting out a home could cost many months’ salary. IKEA made domesticity not just affordable and functional, but fun.

Out went the hand-me-downs and junk-shop make-dos, in came the cool, tasteful, egalitarian look and feel of modern Sweden. Airy, sparse, uncluttered – a little bland maybe, but hard to dislike. The Billy bookcase is perhaps the archetypal IKEA product, dreamed up in 1978 by designer Gillis Lundgren. Now there are 60-odd million in the world, nearly one for every 100 people – not bad for a humble bookcase.

Light and bright, basic but cheerful, like the furniture, IKEA’s 400-plus outlets also run on the same central principle: customers do as much of the work as possible, in the belief they are enjoying the experience and saving money. You drive to a distant out-of-town warehouse. Inside, you enter a structured journey through a busy maze – the route is controlled, no shortcuts allowed – where every twist reveals new furniture, artfully arranged with cheerfully coloured accessories to exude a contemporary relaxed lifestyle.

The low prices make you buy, so you load up your trolley with impulse purchases that you don’t really need – a clock, a bin, plants, lampshades and more tea lights than you will ever use. You lug heavy cardboard boxes holding flat packed furniture into your car and reward yourself for your thrift and good taste with meatballs slathered with lingonberry jam. Then you drive home and assemble your prizes. You rejoice in the bargains and the variety of purchases.

There is no doubt that Kamprad reinvented the shopping experience with the product and the store, but Kamprad’s biggest innovation, and the cornerstone of his value proposition, was that consumer inconvenience was a problem worth solving. However, he approached it the opposite to most brands that build their reputations around a set of distinguishing positives and unique differences they provide for their customers.

By 1952, Ingvar already had a 100-page furniture catalogue, but had not yet hit on the idea of flat-packing. That came as he and his company’s fourth employee – designer of the Billy bookcase, Gillis Lundgren – were packing a car with furniture for a catalogue photo shoot. This table takes up too much darn space, Gillis said. We should unscrew the legs.

Kamprad realised that furniture could be flat-packed to significantly reduce the cost of delivery, which were among the product’s largest cost drivers, to make the customer self-service journey complete. Table legs are unwieldy, so why not just take them off?

Except, now every customer buying furniture has to assemble it – and there are many moving parts to some of IKEA’s complicated furniture items. From personal experience, there can easily be fifty or more steps involved in the construction of the piece, with an instruction guide that remains as confusing as ever. I’ve assembled many cupboards with nothing but an Allen key, metal bolts, baffling instructions and sweat. And swear words.

But Kamprad and his team knew that with the right price, product mix and user-centered focus, consumers would see IKEA as a destination shopping experience. Given the locations, they had to bring their cars anyway, and having self-selected their pieces, taking their purchases home made an attractive and complete transaction cycle.

They also understood that unlike a grocery store, furniture shopping is not a daily or weekly occurrence, and so people were comfortable investing significant time at the store when they finally did make the trip. That’s one of the reasons that IKEA has restaurants serving meatballs as simply, the more time consumers had in the store, the more they spent.

It seems trying to cram flat-pack furniture into your car, missing screws, and the ensuing marital tensions, haven’t been enough to put people off. IKEA has a 12% market share in the UK, outstripping rivals such as Argos, John Lewis and sofa retailer DFS.

So, Kamprad’s IKEA experiment focused on a simple, core value proposition – well designed, reasonable quality furniture at reasonable prices, supporting his vision ‘to create a better everyday life for many people’. He consistently developed and scaled, but the fundamental premise was to make customer experience the brand differentiator. Having grounded his business model around the customer, what are the other aspects of Kamprad’s entrepreneurial flair that we can learn from?

1.     Give your customers context

IKEA offered a completely new concept. It wasn’t just what they were selling that was different, but how it was selling it: You come here, you walk through this maze this way round, then you pick it up in the warehouse, and then you take it home, and you build it. It is a really prescriptive way of doing stuff where the customer has to invest time, contrarian ever more so with the advent of online shopping, but dictating a customer’s journey in this way had never been done before.

It’s this very journey of course that frustrates many of its customers, with the baffling warren of mocked-up rooms, floor arrows, and no glimpse of the outside world to help you orient yourself – is far from accidental. But the key to IKEA’s strategy is suggesting to the customer that they are in charge – they give you your own pencil, paper and trolley, there’s only a smattering of staff, and there’s no hard-sell from sales assistants.

Every IKEA store is a showroom, where not only sofas and cupboards are exhibited, but any little things of everyday life too – tablecloths, curtains, towels and candle holders. The visitor can see ten children’s rooms, and then twenty-five dining rooms or living rooms and so on.

Having imagined what a particular furniture set-up would look like in their own home, a customer can then go for it to the self-serve warehouse. The customer then transports the furniture in comfortable packages to his home and then assembles it by reading clear and sensible instructions.

As e-commerce scales, shoppers need incentive to come into stores. With its elaborate showroom and cafeteria, IKEA has become a unique destination for shoppers. While many retailers enter shopping centres hoping for traffic, IKEA is a standalone store that shoppers seek out with a specific goal in mind, as the context is made clear for them.

2. Understand the experience your customers want

Kamprad said that his vision for IKEA was a company that would make life easier for its customers. He built a furniture company, which acted like supermarket.

Most of us have gone to one of IKEA’s unmistakable giant blue and yellow stores, wandered through its carefully-designed if somewhat labyrinthine paths, tasted its Swedish meatballs and bought and assembled its modernist furniture. They attract us in the thousands. How? They understand the customers and the experience brilliantly.

IKEA designers are among the foremost anthropologists of home life. Designers create rooms for eight types of people, from four stages of childhood, through to ‘living single/starting out’, ‘living single/established’, ‘living together/starting out’ and ‘living together/established’. IKEA does endless research on each category.

IKEA also has ethnographers who conduct field research into the domestic life of different regions through home visits, interviews, and panels. While the researchers’ ‘Life at Home’ consumer insights research goes to the development of new products.

This makes the IKEA brand different. When you’re authentic about your distinctiveness, your passion will attract those who love your products and going to be a lot easier to build up your audience.

3.     Focus on getting good, not making it big

Kamprad focused on getting good at business before he tried to get big at business.  Many people want growth as their objective. The new web design agency wants to work for major companies, not work in relative obscurity while mastering his craft.

But if you only focus on short-term wins and results, then it can be very easy to get distracted from doing the work required to build the skills you need to grow and scale, and it’s the ability to scale that matters. The process is more important than the outcome at early stage startups. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

Research of over seventy famous composers and revealed that not a single one of these musical geniuses produced a famous musical piece before year ten of their career. This period of little recognition and hard work – referred to as the ‘ten years of silence’ is very similar to the period that Kamprad spent selling matches before launching his IKEA vision.

4.     Don’t let your business model become stale

IKEA is beginning to respond to some of their most recognised customer frustrations. For example, you can now order some bulkier items online for home delivery, and they recently bought US start-up Task Rabbit, which helps you hire people to do flat-pack furniture assembly.

Responding to the growth in online shopping, it has also started experimenting with selling through other online retailers, and running directly counter to its original out-of-town model, also testing a smaller, city centre store format as well as order and pick-up points in town centres, as part of a wider push to become more accessible to shoppers.

Travelling to the out-of-town store, plus the long queues are, ironically, part of IKEA’s winning strategy. The experience is so time consuming that we tend to buy more to avoid having to return in the near future. However, giving the customer online options with the convenience, simplicity and control offers a different shopping experience, backed by the same product sentiment.

5.      Innovation can be about efficiency

The Billy is a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that is all you want from it, or it is a blank canvas for creativity. It demonstrates that innovation in the modern economy is not just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems.

The Billy bookcase isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative. The Billy innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost, all while producing something that looks inoffensive and does the job.

Thrift is the core of IKEA’s corporate culture, you can trace it back to the company’s origins in Smaland, a poor region in southern Sweden whose inhabitants, like Kamprad, are “stubborn, cost-conscious and ingenious at making a living with very little”.

Innovation in IKEA is about efficiency, economy and effectiveness – recently designer Tom Dixon has joined forces with IKEA to offer a 28-piece modular furniture collection, perfect for adapting compact city homes to your needs – and all about the customer.

Kamprad’s forward-thinking customer focused strategy made IKEA the top furniture seller in the world, maintaining the customer-centric concept from its original foundations in every part of the company and its business model. It is the entrepreneurial eye for this business model innovation, and scaling the execution, that are Kamprad’s legacy for other entrepreneurs to admire.

Curiosity and innovation: the entrepreneurial mindset of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking died last week aged 76, having battled motor neurone disease to become one of the most respected and best-known scientists of our age. A man of great humour, he became a popular ambassador for science and was always keen to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work.

He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man, whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His book A Brief History of Time – a layman’s guide to cosmology – became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it.

Was it mere coincidence that he was born 300 years to the day after Galileo Galileo died, in Oxford on 8 January 1942? After gaining a first-class degree in physics from Oxford, he went on to Cambridge for postgrad research in cosmology. While at Cambridge, aged 21, he was diagnosed with muscle-wasting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, which was to leave him almost completely paralysed.

In 1964, his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life, but the disease progressed more slowly than expected. However, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, and as his condition worsened, he had to resort to speaking through a voice synthesiser and communicating by moving his eyebrows.

He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment, as once he could no longer write down equations, theories had to be translated into geometry in his head. After a tracheotomy in 1985, the ocean of his thinking had to be forced through a cumbersome and narrow technological aperture. His words necessarily became fewer, and emerged in a voice that was both robotic, and curiously laden with emotion – and frequently humour.

Undeterred by his condition, from 1979 to 2009, he was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. In his day job, it was Black Holes in particular that he studied. He gave his name to ‘Hawking radiation’, which was not observed in his lifetime, which was why he never won a Nobel prize, but the link it provided between the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics was rich food for physicists’ imaginations.

He spent much of his career trying to find a way to reconcile Einstein’s theory with quantum physics, and produce a Theory of Everything, and it was this work that attracted most public attention and awareness through a successful film, with Eddie Redmayne taking on the role of the scientist in what was an inspiring biopic of Hawking.

He also impacted popular culture, staring in The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Futurama, and became the only person to play themselves on Star Trek where he played poker with Einstein and Newton.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease ignited a fresh sense of purpose. Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, he once said.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science, millions have had their horizons widened by his best-selling books, and even more have been inspired by his unique example of achievement against all the odds, a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Whilst we mourn the loss of one of the greatest scientists, creators and thinkers of C20th, here are a few things we could learn from this man about approaching the challenges in our startup businesses, based on some of the inspirational things he said.

Curiosity does not kill the cat Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.

Why did Hawking reach such great heights? Because he never stopped asking questions. I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer. Curiosity and asking questions can take you to new places, overcoming self-made barriers. Curiosity keeps you innovating, growing, and moving forward.

Time is your most precious resource I have so much that I want to do. I hate wasting time.

For someone whose life expectancy was supposed to be only 24 years, Hawking worked hard to make sure every minute of his life was used to create something great. Hawking proved time and again that life can give us great things if one is brave enough dream, believe and work hard.

In Hawking’s research about time, he remarked that it is impossible to turn back the clock. Never waste your time doing things that do not take you forward. Never waste your time doing things that do not help you grow.

Let nothing stop you from doing what you can do Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

Hawking’s inability to speak did not stop him at any point in his life. Adapting to the environment around you, and using it to reach your goal is the sign of intelligence. Minor hiccups should not stop you from moving ahead, adapt to the change facing you, reroute and move forwards.

My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.

Obstacles are inevitable and uncontrollable. What you can control is your ability to use your strengths, without focusing too much on the hurdles and roadblocks.

Have a purpose Never give up work, Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.

Never be idle. There is always something that needs to be completed, find what you like and make it your driving force, your passion. When you enjoy doing something, it is no longer work. Don’t just keep the hands busy, keep the mind active as well.

I want my books sold on airport bookstalls, reflects Hawking’s humour, but passion for share his work. Hawking never took a day in his life, whether good or bad, for granted. He embraced life as it was and moved ahead, every single day. He advocated the mantra of living in the now and embracing the uncertainty.

Never give up It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else. Sometimes it is years before I see the way forward.

In the case of information loss and black holes, it was 29 years until Hawking had the answer he wanted. If there is just one take away from Stephen Hawking’s illustrious life, it is to never, ever stop trying. Give up and nothing seems possible in life. If he had given up right when he was diagnosed, then the world would have truly lost one of the greatest revolutionaries.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science. Millions have had their horizons widened by his books. Many have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Be an optimist There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope. My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.

He had a very enviable wish to keep going and the ability to summon all his reserves, all his energy, all his mental focus and press them all into that goal of keeping going. Gone but never forgotten, Stephen Hawking’s demise will leave a vacuum in the field of science. But his research throughout the years has given physicists and cosmologists of today a path forward.

Humour is important to keep a balance The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.

Hawking will forever be associated with the concept of Black Holes, a complex and intriguing mental challenge as any you can imagine. He had a searing intellect to converse with the most mentally demanding matters but communicate them to everyone:

Einstein was wrong when he said, ‘God does not play dice’. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.

Hawking tells me to think about what you’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world.

Hawking constantly lived in the future. When we talk about taking time to reflect and ponder about the future and new ideas for our startup, this is exactly what we have to do. In Hawking terms, we need to work on the business, not in the business.  But don’t just sit there and daydream, think and picture the alternate realities – realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your thinking – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference.

No philosophy that puts humanity anywhere near the centre of things can ignore the thinking of Hawking and its relevance to our everyday attitudes of hope, optimism and endeavour. All that remains is to huddle together in the face of the overwhelmingness of reality. Yet the sight of one huddled man in a wheelchair constantly probing, boldly and even cheekily demonstrating the infinite reach of the human mind, gave people some hope to grasp, as he always wished it would.

The message is that Black Holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out…

As a man who overcame such incredible obstacles and lived such a brave and amazing life, this advice couldn’t come from a better place.

Entrepreneurial heroes: John McGeoch

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. It triggers a mental reaction, our moods vibrate in response to what we’re listening too. We can set free profound emotions with the intensity with which music affects the nerves and impacts our consciousness, and at the same time uncovering the hidden sound by bringing silence to life.

The music I like is for me, the isolation of being in one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing yourself in the moment or to memories of past, feeling, life, motion and emotion, good and bad. Music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetises us to the present yet contains within itself all that ever was and ever will be.

When I first dropped a needle on the LP Real Life by Magazine back in 1978, I was hooked for life. Whenever I subsequently put it on the turntable, then the CD and now the digital file, I recall the advice given on the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: To be played at maximum volume – and then I do.

Magazine are one of my favourite bands, not least because of their brilliant guitarist, John McGeoch. Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of his death, aged 48. He died in his sleep. His CV encompasses some of the most innovative, influential and respected music with a number of bands of the post-punk era, notably Magazine, Visage, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Public Image Limited.

Testimonies from leading guitarists today go some way to illustrate the extent of his contribution – Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood cite him as a ‘big influence’, John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers said that he taught himself to play ‘learning all John McGeoch’s stuff in Magazine and Siouxsie and The Banshees’, whilst Jonny Marr cites him as a favourite.

The late 1970s were a time of re-invention in British popular music, and McGeoch demonstrated a talent for expressive, textured chords and brooding rhythms. Born in Greenock, in 1955, John McGeoch moved to the Manchester area in his teens. In 1975 he attended Manchester Polytechnic, where he completed a degree in fine art.

In April 1977, he answered a small ad placed in a record shop by Howard Devoto who had just left the Buzzcocks after the Spiral Scratch EP and was looking for musicians ‘to play slow music again which would transcend the limitations of three-chord punk’.

Devoto found what he was looking for in McGeoch and the pair formed Magazine, along with Barry Adamson, Bob Dickinson and Martin Jackson. They made their live début at the Electric Circus in Manchester and their eerie appearance and moody sound caught the attention of Virgin Records.

In January 1978, the urgent, menacing debut single Shot By Both Sides made the lower reaches of the Top Forty while Real Life, Magazine’s seminal album début, made the charts. A great foil to Devoto and Formula, McGeoch shone in that setting and Magazine released a string of classic tunes, all co-written by the guitarist.

Howard Devoto created darkly literate songs of icy alienation, violence and psychological nonconformity. McGeoch, using flangers, a chorus effect and a percussive arpeggio technique to achieve his influential new sounds, complimented him perfectly. Nothing, and I do mean nothing else sounded like Magazine did when their remarkable album, Real Life, was released.

For such a young man, the prematurely-balding Devoto’s deeply cynical lyrics betrayed an intense and often-self loathing inner life. As a poet he was particularly adept at portraying insanity, social alienation and toxic anxiety. The music from McGeoch was simultaneously jagged and angular.

McGeoch played on Magazine’s first three albums, Real Life (1978), Secondhand Daylight (1979) and The Correct Use of Soap (1980). Truly, Magazine were one of the most instrumentally formidable bands of their day. McGeoch quit the band in 1980, shortly after the release of the third album, frustrated about their lack of commercial success despite being popular with music critics. Devoto subsequently disbanded Magazine, finding no suitable guitarist to replace McGeoch.

McGeoch moonlighted as a session musician with Bauhaus and Generation X before joining Siouxsie and The Banshees. It was with the arrival of McGeoch in early 1980 that Siouxsie’s imagination appeared to take flight on a series of rich and innovative records that confirmed the band as the progenitors of a genre of mournful, introspective music. It was arguably Siouxsie’s most creative and successful spell. He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist the Banshees ever had.

McGeoch produced dense textures using a combination of signal processing, such as chorus and phasing, and a distinctive combination of picking and using open-stringed drones. When The Cure’s Robert Smith was drafted into The Banshees to fill in for an ill McGeoch, he struggled to play the guitarist’s complex parts.

However, McGeoch suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stresses of touring, and collapsed on stage at a Madrid concert. This marked the end of his time with the band. McGeoch then joined Public Image Ltd in 1986. McGeoch had been an admirer of PiL, particularly John Lydon’s lyrics. McGeoch remained with PiL until they disbanded in 1992, making him the longest-serving member apart from Lydon.

In 1992, McGeoch was invited by Björk’s Icelandic band, the Sugarcubes, to play guitar on their Stick Around for Joy album. After this, he gave up performing and trained as a nurse in 1995, and then lived in America for a decade, returning just before his death.

He was a distinctive player, greatly admired for his use of textures rather than his solos, but able to dream up dramatic riffs and chord changes and blistering fills. The Magazine track Because I’m Frightened and Spellbound by Siouxsie would have to be considered the ultimate performances for McGeoch, as he plays solos through both entire songs. A technical aspect of his style was creating the illusion that no part of his hands were ever moving, including his fingers.

John McGeoch was without doubt one of the greatest post-punk guitar players. The simple and subtle, yet tinkering on the edge type of playing was the perfect foil for Devoto’s lyrics, he inspired Siouxsie to new levels of creativity, and gave shape to Lydon’s angst and anger in his lyrics. I can’t think of another guitarist from that era who was as innovative as John McGeoch, the Mozart of his generation. So I keep listening to him

As an artist, how do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? What can we learn from John McGeoch in terms of his thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from him that should spark a startup.

Passion – do it because you love it John McGeoch wasn’t thinking of anything else other than personal fulfilment when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.

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

Restlessness & reinvention McGeoch never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each period in a new band he emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork McGeoch wasn’t really productive, although his time with the Banshees saw him at his most creative. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. McGeoch always sounded like someone in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on his laurels.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose McGeoch was strong minded and did whatever he wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values. Like a musician, put a tone of voice into your startup and stamp it with your personality.

Being different matters more than being better McGeoch became successful because he was different. He 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. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Don’t copy other people’s work 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 your own 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. McGeoch had his own style and image too – what’s yours?

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

His enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and delightful tunes, and memories of an on-stage presence. His tunes are always fine soundtracks to my life’s more dramatic moments locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

McGeoch teaches us that you have to be authentically yourself, to find what’s right for you, leading from your own place of uniqueness. Trying to be what others want you to be will lead ultimately to failure. You have to find what you do best, and find what is best about you.

The formula for his endurance is like a restless entrepreneur, never resting on their laurels, they retain the mix of uplifting, anthemic melodies with craftily serious lyrics in a business context. McGeoch was a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

You start to feel old when your heroes begin to die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for me, John McGeoch was an inspiration as any entrepreneur with his spirit of innovation and creativity.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the startup life cycle

So, you’re on the journey from idea to product, through startup to a high growth business. Each stage of the startup lifecycle brings a set of obstacles and challenges to deal with and overcome. You have to be alert and flexible in your thinking, adapting your strategy as you progress, different approaches are needed for each stage.

Your startup leaps through stages of growth just as our own human development lifecycle. Birth begins when we shoot out into the light. From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test, casting your first vote…life is a series of milestones.

The story of your life, and life to be lived, is a series of chronological steps, so what are the parallel steps in your natural development and your start-up life journey?

Stage One – Being born: problem-solution fit

Birth marks the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid. Yet perhaps life starts with conception, followed by the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. What was the genesis of your startup, the moment of passion that created that ‘eureka’ moment?

Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day. Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark. You’ve got your business idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess just how viable your startup is likely to be.

In some ways, this is the soul-searching phase. It’s where you take a step back and experiment with the feasibility of your business idea, and also ask yourself if you have what it takes to make it a success.

At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? and Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second, then you’ve got problem-solution fit, and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing your idea.

Stage Two – Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. Man crawls, walks upright and then resorts to a walking stick. Walking involves unconscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

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

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension – so be careful your first articulation of your startup is a clear conversation, not babble!

This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent going back-and-forth, tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be noise and some trip up and painful moments too.

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

There is a big gap between what early adopters expect from a product, and what the bigger chunk of the market actually needs. The main reason behind ‘startup infanticide’ is the failure to identify and overcome this gap.

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm best describes the Grand Canyon that every adventurous entrepreneur must leap over to ‘get to the market’. The Chasm is the region of uncertainty a business goes through before it gets to product/market fit. And the shortest way to get there is by actively listening to the customer and implementing the promised features on schedule.

Stage Three – Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

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

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

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

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, winning customers to prove your value proposition. You’re now creating you own forward momentum, but as Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, an epic contradiction from just a minute ago when to stay balanced you had to stay still, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, not knowing to self-belief, just like learning to ride a bike you focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions and with options of turning left rather than right.

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

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. An engaged user community is the fastest way to get to any startup to the next stage.

Stage Four – Facial hair: scale

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew a moustache. Well, not exactly, it was stubble, but the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly, and it got me thinking back to that first shave at the onset of puberty. The rite of passage seems monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

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

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

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

Startups in this puberty stage often see rapid growth as the business model is emerging and you build a repeatable customer process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

This is perhaps the most important stage in the lifecycle of a startup, getting to a point where customers can comfortably whip out their wallets and pay for the service they receive on a regular basis, scaling is a tipping point of capability and capacity.

Stage Five – Your first kiss: maturity

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

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending. Unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang.

You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, rational speech is cut off as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

Understanding your position in the startup lifecycle as you hit maturity might help you keep your feet on the ground whilst metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. Now is not the time to get giddy, emotional and let your feet to leave the ground. However, it is the time to develop proper long-term relationships based on trust and value.

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order – everyone’s biological clock has its own unique time line. Some see astronomical growth – for example Airbnb – whilst others’ jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, or a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable.

As John Lennon says, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans. However, based on my experience, many startups will see a growth journey that has some resemblance to the stages defined above, and awareness may help you anticipate what is coming next, and how you can best prepare yourself.

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language; next year’s words await another voice

Thinking about ourselves – our feelings, our past, our hopes and dreams – is something that most of us spend a good deal of effort trying to avoid when working in a startup venture. We keep away from thinking about ourselves because much of what we could discover threatens to be uncomfortable and awkward. We might discover how much there was to feel inadequate, and guilty on account of recalling the many errors and misjudgements we have made.

We just want to get on with making stuff happen, rather than reflecting upon ourselves. We have a lot to hide. It is part of the human tragedy that we are such natural self-deceivers. Two are worth focusing on in particular: our habit of thinking too much, and the opposite, our proclivity for thinking too little.

When we think too much, we are filling our minds with impressive ideas, which blatantly announce our intelligence but subtly ensure we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of reflection and critique, upon which our development of our startup nevertheless rests. Our minds are crammed with arcane data. We tend to over think and thus over complicate things.

Then there is our habit of thinking too little. Here we pretend that we are simpler than we really are and that too much psychology might be nonsense and fuss about nothing. Just do stuff. Get on with it. We lean on a version of robust common sense to ward off intimations of our own potential awkward complexity. We imply that not thinking very much is evidence of a superior kind of intelligence – we’re smart and rely on gut instinct.

We deploy bluff strategies and sideline avenues of personal investigation as unduly wasting time, implying that to lift the lid further could never be fruitful. We use the practical mood of Monday morning 9am to ward off the complex insights of 3am the previous night, when we unpick the entire fabric of our existence against the backdrop of a million stars. Deploying an attitude of vigorous common sense, we strive to make our moments of radical disquiet seem like aberrations – rather than the central occasions of insight they might actually be.

However, at the start of a new year, having had holiday downtime from the frantic life of a startup, we need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our self deception of ‘just do it’. We cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut off large portions of our minds and end up stubborn tetchy and defensive. Our neglect of the awkward sides of self-evaluation buckles our very being, revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have.

Self-critique is a precondition as a measure of sanity as a startup leader. Two weeks in, how has the new year started for you? Now is the time to get the balance right. We have renewed vim and vigour to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in, energy and intention to get stuff done. However, rather than throwing yourself in like a whirling dervish, stepping back and reflecting on what is truly timely and important is more beneficial.

Now is the time to get the balance of thinking and doing in place. Time is an ingredient in every entrepreneurial endeavour. At the start of the twelve month journey, my preference is to initially focus as to 80% thinking, 20% doing, and then having got my thinking straight, flip this into 20% thinking, 80% doing. Here are my thoughts as to what can make a difference as the year stands before us.

1. Review and refocus your long-term growth goals We trip up and get blinded by what is in our immediate line of sight. Whilst ‘getting stuff done’ and execution is a key startup principle, everything should be linked to your purpose – your ‘Why?’ – and your vision.

Of course, no strategy survives as a business plan document no matter how finely crafted, things never turn out exactly as you imagine or hope them to be, but it’s important for your growth strategy to know your north star and your direction of travel to inform and guide everyday activity.

Begin by reviewing the growth strides that you made in the previous twelve months. Did you make progress toward your purpose, vision, key goals and objectives? What worked, what didn’t, what got left behind and forgotten? It’s a chance to refocus and ensure you realign everything towards your long-term aims.

2. Pick out the vital few energising short-term growth goals The long-term goals that you have determined as future strategic milestones should inform the immediate near-term goals. This can include month-to-month customer, new hire and product releases, and weekly activity goals around networking.

You can work backwards, taking your 2018 goals into quarterly metrics, so the weeks, months, quarters and year really takes shape. In doing this, your near-term goals should energise you, as you continue investing time into your startup, they will provide short-term payback, and results reward and excite you for your efforts. Remember that if you aren’t excited and confident about your startup, it will be difficult to inspire others to be.

Take stock of your schedule. Is each of your workdays oriented that will allow you to grow long-term aspects of your business? Ensure that each day has periods blocked out for thinking – growth isn’t all about doing.

3. Start every day with an ‘at zero’ mindset Each day is like getting on a bike, every new ride starts with getting in the saddle, the wheels are still. We start again. Every day the odometer shows zero. Where shall we go today, what’s our plan to reach a daily goal?

For both cycling and startup growth, measurement is vital, observing visible progress is motivating. Feeling like you have 80% of the work ahead makes the daily contribution to the goal important, it’s a step forward, but avoid complacency; once your direction is set, begin each day with a blank slate.

Hold the big vision but make small steps with discipline, clarity and focus.

4. Make a long-term commitment Startup founders have unbridled ambition but they are also prone to the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ – they look for the next new opportunity and ditch their current choices. Yes, we often need to pivot when user feedback and iterative learning informs us to do so, but you have to muscle through the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ by making a commitment.

Don’t fall into the trap of setting goals in short-term cycles. Nothing happens in six months, it takes two years to become an overnight success. When you make bets, you need to go all in and think long-term. During that time, you’re not allowed to think anything other than I’m going to make this idea succeed.

Avoid distractions. Gather the courage to stick to the things that are important to you. We are all easily swayed by what others think.

5. Demonstrate your passion Orient towards personal growth and learning, rather than money and glory. In the early days, founders of tech giants like Apple and HP started from a love of computing. At the time, there wasn’t any money to be made doing what they were doing.

These startups started from pure passion. Do what you love and love what you do. The right reason to start a business is not the money or the prestige, but the chance to follow your dreams and do something remarkable. Your early customers look for passion, and that starts with the startup pitch.

Put passion into every customer conversation. When pitching, hook potential customers with a deeply personal story about why you are doing what you’re doing and building the company. The best pitches are visceral, emotional and personal. You feel the passion from that founder.

6. Build with scale in mind Often startups struggle to get beyond early adoption. This may be due to a lack of understanding of the market, but also the inability to thoroughly map out a path of success. Learn to dream big and have the ambition to develop a high growth business model of scale.

While it’s important to start small and build an MVP with a simple use case, keep in mind that you are developing a product in order to maximise growth and build something of significance.

Entrepreneurs who understand economies of scale from the very start can envision potential challenges far earlier, allowing them to develop truly innovative products that have a wide-ranging impact. At the start of this year, what are the key drivers to scale your business? Don’t lower your sights, focus on the horizon and do the tough stuff first.

7. Make each connection count At the start of a new year, reach out and make more critical customer conversations happen, refresh your thinking about making each connection count:

  • Impart personal energy and warmth in every interaction to make each conversation memorable
  • Listen with intent, not simply waiting to speak
  • Be a trusted advisor, show credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. Trust underpins every relationship
  • Always offer something of value before expecting or asking for something in return. Key to this is not focusing on reciprocity.
  • End every meeting where you’d like to start next time
  • Prepare for every meeting. Magic happens when your sincerity is powered by diligent preparation.

8. Avoid ‘Frankenstein Days’ Everyday you can do something. It’s extremely tempting to try and do it all. But ‘doing it all’ is as impossible as it is impractical.

It’s so easy, no matter how experienced and organised you are, to end up with ‘Frankenstein Days’ because you’re taken on too much at once, without a clear sense of what’s most important.

Focusing isn’t simply about avoiding the temptation to multitask until a priority is complete, it means truly understanding what you want to accomplish and centre your activities for the day entirely around that.

9. Focus on the intention of your work I have an uncanny ability to juggle many important projects and priorities without losing focus, this emphasis on what I call ‘intentional work’ has helped me on rigorous prioritisation and execution.

I spend a lot of time making sure there is real clarity of intent before digging into specifics and implementation. Focus is really about aligning with your purpose – whether it be your purpose on a specific project or your higher overall purpose for your startup.

When actions reflect intentions, you’re in alignment with your personal mission. Only then can you truly progress and grow.

10. Roll your sleeves up, put your hands into the engine Startup life isn’t about traveling in a straight line and enjoying the ride, you have to build in the flexibility to change course and get stuck in, hands-in, from the outset. Hands-in means you pay rapt attention and learn how you need to turn the rudder.

  • Speak your mind when something is bothering you.
  • Pay attention to things in the moment.
  • A lot. Don’t limit yourself to what’s on the Internet – they still print actual books you know.
  • Forget what you see online: real life is happening right in front of your eyes. Go out and live it, make it happen
  • You can’t be a spectator, double down on actions that will help you reach your intentions.

I’ve always been an advocate of making it happen for myself, I don’t look to others to sort me out. Note to self: it doesn’t matter where you came from, all that matters is where you are going. Think big, life’s too short to think small. We become what we think about. Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of curiosity.

Don’t be too timid and squeamish about uncertainty and not having a detailed plan, all startup life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. As T S Eliot said, last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice – but before you speak, think about it properly first.

The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

It’s a great time to be a tech startup entrepreneur. If you can get into a position where you’re pitching at a sizeable market, build a high-performing team and creating an innovative product, this is your time. This is the age of the tech startup, the leverage afforded to startup founders today is immeasurably greater than that previous generations due to the internet.

Startups can be global from the outset, addressable markets have multiplied through the reach of direct-to-consumer distribution channels of app stores and cloud platforms, superceding physical borders and boundaries of time.

A rising new generation of global tech firms are now officially the most valuable companies in the world: Apple, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook. We’re living a staggering rotation of economic value, out with the incumbent companies in financial services, industrial, and consumer products, replaced by companies centered around software, data and technology-enabled services.

Whilst these firms were all Silicon Valley startups, don’t blink, because coming over the horizon from the East are a set of equally formidable tech giants in Tencent, Alibaba, and China Mobile. These companies are fast adopting and inventing new bases of value that support lucrative scale, from networks, data, and the interconnection of communities, consumers and businesses.

None of the new tech giants endured gruelling hundred-year-company-building efforts. The median age of the new guard is closer to 15–20 years, versus 75–100 years for the incumbents who ruled the decades before. Joining these ranks just doesn’t require the sort of multi-generational company building we’ve seen before – the internet has created their markets.

The internet creates new opportunities for value creation. With a focus on disciplined and sustainable growth from clear business model leverage, this means thinking early and often about how to architect product and distribution together as a single, efficient offering. ‘Product’ is no longer just the bits of software, it’s also how the software is sold, supported and made successful with future revenue goals and product roadmaps in mind. Currently, the focus is around data-centricity, artificial intelligence, machine learning and intelligent workflow.

Against the backdrop of the march and ubiquity of tech sector growth and its reach into our everyday lives, we have the stark contrast of the humanity and traditions of Christmas. It’s almost a throwback experience to where time has stood still.  It’s about mince pies and mulled wine, time spent with family and friends, when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

Indeed, throughout December, I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere from radio commercials and shopping centres, but especially in carol services where it’s live music performance, not digital downloads. Everywhere you go, you can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas, and relevance to today’s tech driven economy?

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

However, my thoughts are that you can enjoy the traditions of Christmas as a tech entrepreneur by using the twelve days of Christmas in a relaxed but constructive way, taking advantage of the holiday to take reflection in a quiet, calm moment to yourself, have a time out for some clear thinking when out for an early morning walk and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months without the fear of those unanswered emails lurking in your inbox.

So here are my actions for the ‘Twelve Days of a tech startup Christmas’

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

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The new order of tech companies show how the balance shifts dramatically is short time frames. In order to become the best business you can be, start with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? What is their persona? Why should customers buy from you and not others? Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach. The same actions as last year will get you the same results – if you’re lucky.

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

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

Day Five: Revitalise Is the new year the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience? Could you layer on new capabilities to enhance stable underlying core processes to improve customer engagement? Analytics are another common area of focus – introducing cognitive techniques to better meet descriptive reporting needs and introduce predictive and prescriptive capabilities could take you forward. Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation, don’t sell – what are their unmet needs?

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

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

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to attract customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Have you changed your target market or delivery systems to expand your customer base? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view on our business, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. What does your brand stand for?

Day Nine: Replace Introduce new solutions for parts of the internal core that have been unchanged for many years. This may mean adopting new processes – have you considered the benefits of a cloud infrastructure? You should ideally use these pivots to revisit the business’s needs to service its customers better, building new capabilities that reflect how work should get done, not simply replicating how work used to get done on the old systems. Today it’s about the customer experience, engagement and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What business routines do you call over and over? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what new ideas and innovations have you introduced to refresh the business and keep heads up. Think inside out, think like a customer.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to modern operating environments (virtualised environments, cloud platforms). Unfortunately, these efforts are rarely ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling of each specific workload, but now is the time start with the thinking time available.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three to five years. Next decide what you must do to turn your vision into reality. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

So spend the break time on reflective thinking, seeking to learn from experience, making judgements on what has happened, and develop a questioning attitude and new perspectives. We need to identify areas for change and improvement, respond effectively to new challenges, and apply what we have learned to ensure results improve.

The reflective learning cycle is iterative, it doesn’t stop after one rotation, you apply what you learn, then continue to reflect and develop further. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

There is often no right answer, and some things may remain difficult to interpret. How did your actions affect the situation and how did the situation affect you? How do your observations today fit with the benefit of hindsight? Developing your reflective insights means stepping back and taking an honest critique of your own actions, behaviours and attitudes to consider what might be the results of doing things differently.

But don’t over think the past twelve months, you can’t change the past but you can shape the future. Words make you think, music makes you feel, a song make you feel a thought. It is after all, a great Christmas carol.

The importance of fika time to a startup

My newest venture, thestartupfactory.tech, https://thestartupfactory.tech/ has been up and running for three months now, and we’re in good nick, building our confidence, rhythm, spirit, cadence and culture. We’re a team of passionate folk who work with tech startups to turn their vision into a reality, enabling innovation and customer-centred thinking into their new tech product and business.

We’re entrepreneurs, software engineers, designers, analysts, and agile practitioners. We’re also bloggers, explorers, speakers, swimmers, dog lovers, coffee addicts, campers, walkers, musicians, gamers, footballers, readers, travellers, gardeners, parents, and optimists.

That list is about ‘who we are’. We bring our true selves to work. Our business is defined by who we are, our values and the culture we create. More grit than glamour, we’re built on the spirit and down-to-earthiness of Manchester, ‘factory’ being an acknowledgment of the industrial heritage of what made Manchester special, and also taking the disruption, innovation and ethos of one of the city’s most evocative businesses, Factory Records.

With an attitude of graft and guile, we are factory workers, we get our hands into the machinery of building a startup, we roll our sleeves up, get dirt under our nails and get stuck in.

The essential moving parts of any startup are the people capital, not the venture capital, as Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we’ve spent time thinking and building our culture ahead of any rush to market.

When setting out on our venture, we looked to other entrepreneurs for a steer as to what makes for a happy and healthy business. We found this quote from Jeff Bezos: Find the things that are important to you and invest heavily in those things.

So we created the Five Pillars, to stay focused on a list of meaningful things that created and sustained intimacy and interaction between us, and connected us at a personal level. I spend more time with the team that I do with my dog, so there had to be reason to be here.

So here is the list of Five Pillars, it’s on our web site.

Vision & Values

  • Our business is about people capital, not venture capital
  • Reach beyond your expectations, every day
  • First names are important, job titles are not
  • Trusting each other is the platform for everything we do
  • Everyone practices humility and self awareness, but also self-esteem
  • We know the mentality to be successful and we have it in abundance

Culture

  • No office hours, but minds always open
  • 40 hours a week maximum; 32 summer hours – 4 day weeks, July & August
  • Weekend starts 1pm Friday
  • We pay for one weekend holiday a year for everyone
  • Fresh fruit breakfast in the office every day; pay for a weekly ‘Hello Fresh’ shop once a month
  • Team social last Thursday of every month

Knowledge

  • Everyone has a personal R&D project
  • Host Lunch & Learns third Thursday in the month
  • Run four hackathons a year
  • Wednesday afternoon is your personal learning time
  • Everyone goes to one event a month; everyone has a monthly book allowance
  • Performance of the business is transparent to everyone

Social impact

  • Lead a Code school in Manchester for under 11s
  • Provide a platform for unemployed people to get back into work
  • Sponsor & help the homeless in Manchester
  • Mentor a Social Enterprise
  • Provide paid internship opportunities
  • Be an active contributor to Manchester Tech Trust

Success

  • We will keep our company small and intimate, with reasonable expectations
  • Our place of work is a welcoming oasis, not a chaotic kitchen
  • Anxiety is not a pre-requisite for progress
  • We are calm by choice and practice
  • Everything is about having a reasonable day, going home, and living your life
  • Success is looking at a visible horizon, and getting there in the long run

We’ve not done everything yet, there’s a few wrinkles and edges to sort as we’re not doing some things as well as we can, but the Five Pillars gives us clarity and purpose about our direction.

I’ve long been interested in entrepreneurial cultures and the underlying philosophies, how you create the conditions to spark a startup based on the emotional intelligence and connectivity of the people. We’re more reflective than rebels, and on crafting the Five Pillars came across a concept from Ikea, ‘fika’, which we’ve implemented.

At 9.45am every day, we have ‘fika’ time. We each stop what we are doing and huddle around a table, have a cup of tea or coffee, and just be with each other. We chat about anything and everything but work. Friday was about Chuck’s pending house move; James neglecting his desk cactus; Jake’s obsession with 3D printing; and my ridiculous new waistcoat wardrobe. We also get loud about curating our tsf.tech Spotify list.

What we sample is an experience and unique word at the heart of Swedish life and work – ‘fika’ (pronounced ‘fee-ka’). According to the Swedish Culture website it is described in this way:

Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time.

Coffee is traditionally at the heart of the fika. When coffee arrived in Sweden in 1685, it became so popular that it upset the rest of the import business. So much so that it was banned five times in Swedish history!

Fika is a combination of the Swedish colloquial word for cafe – fik – and coffee – kaffe. Who knows, perhaps the term fika served as a kind of code for those who took part in this once illegal activity. It is said that during the bans, Swedes were forced to drink their coffee secretly, out into the woods

Making time for fika is so sacred to Swedes that it’s built into many employee contracts. Some even say that the best ideas spring from fika breaks. We use fika time to cultivate an almost tactile sense of connection, here’s what we are trying to bring into our business.

Communicate frequently and constantly In tsf.tech we are always active on collaboration tools like Jira, Zoom and Slack instant messenger. Besides work content, we post links to interesting items, videos, learnings and stories. The point is that in the physical workplace we know we can relax and chat to people when we see them, but when we’re away from our work space and operating in the more detached digital world, we need to work harder at connecting, talking and feeling close. Fika gives us this.

Be open, vulnerable and honest Not every day is intense, but what works in the digital workplace is to reveal what matters to each of us. Speaking in your own authentic voice is essential. Honesty creates intimacy in digital worlds just as much as it does in the physical. Connecting becomes a deliberate rather than assumed experience. In tsf.tech we say that you do not need to be present physically but you do need to be present digitally, so if you can’t make fika face to face, connect using the tools.

Place your leadership front and centre The beauty of the digital workplace is that it has qualities that are impossible in the physical world. So take IKEA for example. In the physical world, their leaders cannot be everywhere in person having coffee and chatter with colleagues. But in the digital world, through real-time and other collaborative services, they can be ‘felt’ across far more frequently and with a much greater reach. But you have to invest time and authenticity in making it happen.

Use all the technology you can to bring you closer In tsf.tech we grab every new tool that may make us slicker and faster, as well as strengthen our bonds and connections. There is also a level of curiosity and experimenting. We do this because we like to be a ‘digital workplace lab’, we are in a position to experiment and innovate with new digital services in a way that large companies may not be. With all the team save myself under twenty-six, they are ‘digital natives’ and have a natural instinct for UX and gamification.

Make the social side of connection richer and deeper I dislike the term ‘social media’, it’s an oxymoron, because it drives isolated experience and consumption, it connects but doesn’t create engagement. Social for me is sitting next to someone and talking, and the things we talk about and do that are explicitly not work – they are social. Yes, we use social and online tools and the ways in which we use them are clear and distinct, engendering personal connection and relationships inside and outside the company. The point is we share our lives – issues, pets, families and homes. This generates the culture of closeness that the Swedes so value.

Use your own voice to talk and listen I mention voice particularly because on a phone call, Zoom or Webex we are talking and listening in reality. So far the only aspect of me as a human being that can be communicated digitally in the same way as if we are sitting together is my own voice, tone, intonation. I believe how we listen also matters hugely and when someone is listening to another person attentively, the talker can see that quality of listening. This is a key underpinning of fika.

We also have a ‘Your Voice’ item on our fortnightly team meeting agenda, when I encourage sharing ourselves with each other about how work ‘feels’. We also challenge each other and have debates and even arguments when needed at fika time, but we do that using our own voices because our vocal cords and tone of voice are such a powerful and distinct part of who we each are.

Meet in person when you can and make it matter Sometimes for some meetings this is not possible, but using opportunities to meet face-to-face does make a difference. It’s easy to default to the smart tech tools, but if we can meet in person, it adds to the richness of relationship, looking people in the eye and getting a sense of their body language is of much more value to see how we are.

While fika is good for mental and physical wellness, offering a period of calmness in a busy working day schedule, it can also help us to stay focused in the long run. Research has shown that taking breaks increases productivity. Sometimes, during the middle of a task, you might be stuck. With fika, you can have a break, come back refreshed and look at things from a different perspective. We insist that work talk is prohibited in fika. It forces you away from your work so you can re-evaluate things, come back refreshed and prioritise tasks when you do return.

So another year, another Scandinavian lifestyle trend. In 2016, the UK was fascinated by the Danish practice of hygge (finding the simple pleasure everyday life). For me, fika is an opportunity to slow down, come together for a face-to-face and interact. The social aspect of work is incredibly important.

The essential part is making a little space in your day to take a break. In our modern, hectic lifestyles, this is the part that is important: that we take a few moments to slow down in our day and make time to just sit and appreciate the moment.

So, perhaps there are aspects of the IKEA fika around coffee and cake that you can create inside your own digital enabled workplace, like we have in tsf.tech, to enable you to enjoy that atmosphere and chemistry of connection the Swedes love so much. The only part missing so far for us is the cake, but I guess we’ll just have to wait for Jake’s 3D printing of food and add that to the digital workplace menu at tsf.tech fika meetings.

Startup stories: David v Goliath, where agility beats scale

The next time you hear a ‘David versus Goliath’ business story, where an emerging startup has knocked over a large, established enterprise, don’t think of an underdog that got lucky. Instead, think of a confident competitor who is more than happy to be underestimated, and used it’s own unique capabilities to out wit and out manoeuvre a larger entity.

David’s victory over Goliath, in 1 Samuel Chapter 17 of the Old Testament is the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, a nine feet tall giant wearing full body armour and the champion of the Philistines, challenged the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. But Saul, the King of Israel, and all the Israelites were afraid.

One day David was sent to the battle lines by his father to bring back news of his brothers. David was probably just a young teenager at the time. While there, David heard Goliath shouting his daily defiance, and he saw the great fear stirred within the men of Israel.

David hears that Saul has promised to reward any man who defeats Goliath, and accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his armour; David declines, dressed in his simple tunic, carrying his shepherd’s staff, sling, and a pouch full of stones, David approached Goliath. The giant cursed at him, hurling threats and insults.

David and Goliath confront each other, Goliath with his armour and shield, David with his staff and sling. David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might, and hits Goliath in the centre of his forehead. Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David cuts off his head.

David then took Goliath’s sword, killed him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. The Israelites pursued, chasing and killing them and plundering their camp.

In popular culture, we refer to the outcome of this battle when a smaller entity has overcome a much larger adversary, and victory is held to be an anomaly. But it is not, Davids win all the time.

The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft looked at every war fought in the past 200 years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5% of the cases. That is a remarkable fact, especially when the result is in the context of the sample of conflicts analysed was where one side was at least ten times as powerful in terms of armed might and population as its opponent – even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

Why, what happened? Simply, the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded.

Entrepreneurs perpetually play the role of David against their Goliath competitors, and, just like their biblical counterpart, small businesses can defeat their large competitors by outmanoeuvring, out-imagining, and outperforming them. The business lesson is this: when underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win.

Entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to operate as insurgents against their entrenched corporate competitors, because they’re more willing to take risks, challenge the conventions about how commercial battles are supposed to be fought, and are generally more alert and agile.

Large companies build assets of all sorts in anticipation of large-scale engagements, serving mass markets, but, despite their size and strength, they can be lumbering in their decision making an getting new products to market, rarely prepared to confront nimble and fast-moving adversaries that refuse to challenge them on the battlefield of their own design.

Possibly the best example is Airbnb. Large companies are often scaled to compete in the mass market, often paying less attention to niches, which can still be lucrative. All you have to do is take advantage of their ego, serve these small niches with passion and customer service, and you’ll win business.

So what’s the strategic mindset of a David in today’s market? Here are some thoughts.

Expect to win David had faith that Goliath could be defeated. Faith is simply the ability to act despite tremendous doubt. As an entrepreneur, you must never see your competitors as infallible. You must see a possibility to out perform them. If you execute and implement your competitive strategy with this mindset, success will be yours.

Self-Belief In David and Goliath the Israelites had faith that Goliath will someday be defeated but only David had the self-belief that he was the one to do it. As an entrepreneur, you must believe your business can do it. Ask yourself why not?

Another way to strengthen your self-belief is by drawing courage and inspiration from your past achievements and track record. David drew courage from his past achievement of killing a bear and a lion.

Leverage Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth, said Archimedes. Leverage is simply the ability to do more with less, and ask yourself: how can I position my business to compete favourably with fewer resources?

David knew Goliath was stronger, more skilled. He won by sheer courage, determination and focus. David asked the question; how can I defeat Goliath without engaging him in a hand-to-hand combat? That answer came in the form of leverage. That leverage was his sling.

For a small business, leverage can be in the form of personal commitment, energy and timing of response, personalised service and agile thinking. In fact, there are many ways to surpass your competitors using leverage as a tool.

Velocity Your greatest and most powerful business survival strategy is going to be the speed at which you handle the speed of change. Goliath was armed with a shield, spear and a sword but David had only a sling and a stone. Now what was the difference?

The weapons of both had the potential to kill but the difference emerged in their speed. David’s weapon was lighter and smaller, it had the ability to reach its target faster than that of Goliath. The sling and stone had the power of speed. How fast is your plan and how fast is your strategy?

Agile Strategy David’s strategy and tactics surprised Goliath, he wasn’t expecting to be confronted by such an opponent, and David’s agile outwitted and outsmarted Goliath’s ego and complacency. He wanted it more, and made it happen for himself.

Now in the game of business, you must develop a smart strategy to help you achieve your aim. You will note that David was strategic in his approach towards Goliath. His strategy was to subdue Goliath with minimal effort. To ensure the successful implementation of this strategy, David employed the following tactics:

  • He picked five stones instead of one just in case the first stone didn’t make the hit.
  • He avoided engaging Goliath in a hand to hand combat
  • He exploited Goliath’s ego and over confidence
  • He aimed at achieving his goal with the first shot
  • He took Goliath by surprise and caught him off guard

Focus on the customer as an individual Giant companies suffer when they lose touch with the granularity and simplicity of their business model, they become complacent and lazy about their approach to customers. Often the giants will make compromises in quality and service, thinking customers won’t swap to a smaller operator. Often they’re not close enough to their customer. Some distant manager adjusts a few numbers on a spreadsheet, but customers react and in a click of decimal points, they switch to a rival.

The value of an individual customer is always greater for small businesses than for large corporations, and understood as such. Your business is important to me. Make each customer feel they are your only customer, and the only thing that matters in that moment.

The primary reason is that small businesses are able to feel their own pulse, the stream of day-to-day events as they occur, you feel all of these things as they happen and can react and direct accordingly. This high level of sensitivity is unique to small businesses. The pulse gives you a sixth sense for change and how to retain your customers.

Play to your own strengths Big competitors’ perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages, David is a lowly shepherd boy, and yet he’s the only person willing to fight Goliath. He also refuses to wear armour. Why? Because David realises that heavy armour weighs a warrior down. Goliath could easily kill David with his sword, but only if David were foolish enough to walk right up to Goliath. Of course, that’s the last thing David plans to do.

The final misconception is the idea that David goes into battle with only a sling. But it’s a highly effective weapon David has used many times to protect his flocks from wild animals. He’s not going to fight Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, he’s using his experience and expertise to fight on his own terms, Goliath can’t counter this. When David lines up, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

That’s exactly what David did, walks right up to Goliath (but still far enough away that Goliath’s swords and javelin are useless) and kills Goliath with a single shot to the head. Recall, the scene in Indiana Jones shoots the intimidating Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark – he made the most of the moment on his own terms

Take a look at the story again. The lesson isn’t simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might nevertheless win by chance. Instead, understand that the real keys to competition are sometimes obscured by our misconceptions. Perceiving them correctly can amount to a new basis of advantage.

Are you facing what you believe to be a giant problem or impossible situation? Stop for a minute and refocus. Can you see the situation more clearly from David’s vantage point?

Just be yourself and use the familiar skills and talents you have. Look at the challenge from a different perspective – lean forward, how can I win? – we see more clearly, and we can fight more effectively – rather than leaning back with anxiety. What is our strategy that they can’t counter, don’t take the battle on their terms, create the conditions where you have an unfair advantage on your terms, reframe the debate.