How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is unwritten, so make your mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial creativity: find something only you can say

Creativity, the generation of new and useful ideas, is the catalyst for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs need to spark everyday with new ideas to craft a winning proposition for customers.

Creativity is also a means of navigating the uncertainties, constraints and challenges that starting and growing an embryonic business involves. As Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop said, Nobody talks about entrepreneurship as survival, but that’s exactly what it is and what nurtures creative thinking.

The drive for survival is as strong as it is for success, but how do entrepreneurs sustain their original thinking and flair beyond that initial ‘eureka’ moment? I’ve always been interested in the sustainability of creative ventures from an entrepreneurial perspective. Take musicians, for example, how do they keep their creative spark?

Like any business, a band is focused on new products and developing its fan base. As musical tastes change and new bands and sounds capture the imagination of the public, how does an established band keep their music fresh, so that it appeals to existing fans and yet at the same time grows their audience? It’s a similar challenge for any business.

More than 35 years after their first release, James, the indie band from Manchester, have continuously evolved to remain as relevant as ever, with their fifteenth album released on Friday, Living in Extraordinary Times.

Since their formation, James have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Tim Booth, the essential spark of creativity. Booth’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances make him an enigmatic figure, dancing like a man in the throes of a tortuous tantric confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring masterpieces. Booth’s vocals trail through those atmospherics with angst and love of a talented performer.

Living in Extraordinary Times is a sixteen-track gem. As with each of their previous albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their creative style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, expansive sounds, themes of modern alienation and C21st classical.

Goateed and with his head shaven, Booth now looks a little like Ming the Merciless reborn as a more compassionate yoga instructor. He makes serious yet adventurous music, you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Something about James inspires a disorienting kind of hope. They are ingenious, intelligent, talented, wonderful musicians, and they really put the hours in, so much so, that Booth often comments on how physically draining it is making a record. That commitment is driven by inspiration, by determination, by hunger. That’s what we’re all after to make our startup different. The standout quality of James is their pure creativity, keeping an edge on their lyrics and standout, memorable tunes.

The title of their latest release may make reference to the utter chaos created by the election of a buffoon to the office of President of the United States, but James go beyond overtly political lyricism, it’s a record varied in tone and rhythm, capturing a band who are experimenting and sounding rejuvenated.

Although their commercial peak coincided with the Madchester era into the 90s, James continues to release new albums that are liberally sprinkled with strong songs. Unperturbed by changes of fashion, these albums sell in reasonable quantities, to faithful fans who actually pay money for music.

So how do you keep your creativity and  innovation and keep pushing the ambition? What can we learn from James in terms of their thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective. Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from James that should spark a startup.

Open mindedness James’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their creative 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 James has never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each release has emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

A clear dividing line between important work and busy work James are not productive – fifteen albums in thirty-five years. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. James have always sounded like a band in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on their laurels.

It’s about the team Each member of James is a talented musician in their own right, everything is balanced and nobody gets into overdoses of egos.Bottom of FormTop of Form It It always seems like they’re one step ahead of the game, not to mention that their popularity hasn’t really got in the way of creativity. They have not exactly mellowed with age, either. Most of their songs come about through improvisation, and from chaos and noise you suddenly get some music.

The formula for James’s endurance is like a restless entrepreneur, never resting on their laurels, they retain the mix of uplifting, anthemic melodies with craftily serious lyrics. Amazingly now in their fourth decade, their enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and often fragile words and on-stage presence. Their albums are always fine soundtracks to life’s more dramatic moments locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

Musicians like Tim Booth are intrinsically motivated to innovate their craft, and reflect the guile, graft and learning journey of any entrepreneur. Booth is a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

But what exactly makes creativity so crucial and important in an entrepreneur’s work life? Entrepreneurs link the creative mind and the business mind, what comes first? This question is similar to: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The debate involves which aspect the entrepreneur chooses to handle first – the creative or the practical side of the process.

So, you’ve got a great idea. But somewhere along the way, your brain just fizzles. You’ve got no energy left to finish what you started. It’s happened to us all. You need to stay creative, but it’s just not happening. The inspiration that got you started is gone.

What are the ways that you can get those creative juices flowing again and reboot your startup? An entrepreneur cannot rely upon occasional ‘light bulb’ creative moments to achieve greatness, you have to keep going. What are the ways you can boost your entrepreneurial creativity? Here are some thoughts.

Step away from the screen Sometimes the best thing you can do to refresh your brain is to step away from your laptop and mobile phone, and just brainstorm freehand on a whiteboard. Visualising concepts, data and ideas is an incredibly powerful tool to get you thinking. Get off the phone, go in a room together with your team, and use a whiteboard until your hand hurts.

Work backwards Set a long-term vision first, then create a plan for how to achieve it. When it comes to solving problems, and keeping your creative spark bright, working backwards can provide a more unique and often smarter solution. Don’t worry about the ‘how?’, nor searching on the ‘what?’, instead keep a focus on your ‘why’ – your road map will literally unfold itself and creative ideas will fall from the long term vision.

Keep notes on everything Writing down everything, no matter how small or insignificant, might save you one day. Go back to the white board or idea board to keep your ideas prominent, and constantly writing and rewriting words and phrases. Read then everyday, look at the words. Take a picture before you remove your ideas, and keep them in a journal, old ideas often have a second life.

Take breaks Working yourself ragged isn’t good for your health or creativity. Boost your entrepreneurial creativity by taking a few deliberate breaks every couple of hours or so to relax and refresh. It might be just what you need to push yourself over that last mental hump, unleashing your creativity. It’s important to know when to keep working and when to take an extra five minutes for making the next pot of coffee.

Get up and do It Sometimes the best way to boost your creativity is to just go ahead and plunge into a creative endeavour, if only to see what happens. Don’t let fear become a paralysis. You can worry forever if you or your ideas are good enough. Instead of sitting and wondering how you can make yourself creative, just go ahead and do it.

Take a bird’s eye view Take a few steps back and try to see things from a different viewpoint. Being able to separate yourself from the stress of troubling situations means being able to reach smarter and more creative solutions. Simply, get used to dealing with your entrepreneurial endeavour with the ebb and flow of every day uncertainty – use creativity as a means to manage the uncertainty, from a top own view.

Don’t forget to analyse Coming back to your ideas later and researching them to make them more complete is a great way to make your solutions more solid and boost your entrepreneurial creativity. This often provides more creative solutions. Not all of your ideas are going to be wonderful. It’s important to go through and weed out the bad ones to give the good ideas room to grow.

Rejuvenating your creative spirit can also be achieved by looking to others, their creativity can stimulate your own thoughts, like listening to music. So back to James.  Most bands of James’s vintage are on the nostalgia circuit, playing old hits to ageing fans. But James are not ready for heritage status yet.

With the anger and frustration that’s being vented on their latest release it’s as though as they get older, James is channelling the spirit of punk, subverting expectations and forever doing everything on their own terms. Having joined James in 1982 as a drama student, Tim Booth remains an entertainingly theatrical singer, a vibrant statement of continuing creative intent.

Find something only you can say. That’s what every entrepreneur must do, use creativity to shape their own agenda and make their mark. Creativity is the root of entrepreneurship, it’s not just a skill but also an attitude, a rebellious desire to be different. Ideas are at the core of the modern economy, use your creativity to shape your future, keep yourself open for the power of possibility. As Pablo Picasso said, Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.

There’s no room for ego driven Machiavellians in your startup team

One of the key drivers of an effective startup is the alignment, collaboration and shared values of the team. There is no room for slackers, know-it-alls, passengers, backstabbers or Machiavellian egos. But what happens when the behaviour of one individual puts themselves and their personal interests above the business and team?

We all know the damage and acrimony they can cause to a team’s morale and reputation, but how do you repair and recover from the destructive action of such an individual? Boris Johnson is a good example of such a renegade. He’s always stood outside from his collective responsibility, even at the top table in Government as Foreign Secretary. With his cultivated air of toffish buffoonery, he was a man out of time and place with C21st team oriented culture.

Last week he saved us further damage from his grotesque incompetence, showing flagrant disregard for cabinet collective responsibility and exposing himself as a self-serving charlatan, making even his resignation a set piece of rhetorical bombast for the British public.

A man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience or scruple, his ambition and superficial charm far outstrip his judgment or principles. Characterised by a calculated appeal his own self-worth, he will always be remembered as the man who made promises on the side of a bus that he had no intention of keeping. The casual dishonesty has had devastating consequences.

His resignation serves as a perfect metaphor for the tragedy and hypocrisy of Brexit, leaving the Government and its strategy up the proverbial creek, a recklessness that looks like courage in the eyes of his supporters, but which destabilises and sabotages the work of policy making and diplomacy.

Johnson has a long-proven record of mendacity, duplicity, dishonesty and careerism – he merely saw another opening in his Ophidian career and took it, never knowingly taking a leap into the abyss. Just as a fragile basis for Brexit negotiation emerges, his selfish drive for attention threatens that.

So how do you counter this sort of behaviour if it was to happen in your startup team? Say your maverick sales leader, always temperamental and prone to doing their own thing and frequently at loggerheads with you, storms out over a spat over pricing on a sizeable deal – the final act of a dysfunctional relationship, claiming a ‘disagreement over strategy’ yet in reality, the intimacy of a startup required more humility and collegiate thinking.

It creates unrest and destabilises the team – just like the Government, a bunch of people who are individually all smart and competent, but somehow as a team just aren’t together. So why is it that things come off the rails? The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure, and identified five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: an individual is unwilling to be vulnerable within the group, and creates a sense of self-imposed isolation from the team
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate, ultimately is not bought into the team based decision making process or outcomes
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation – everyone knows it, but it remains unspoken, thus creating discord and fractured trust
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour, which sets low standards – again, looking to protect their own position and not sit alongside colleagues
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Recognise these traits? So how do you regroup and reunite the team when a rebel causes such a self-destructive explosion? For me, whilst it’s the individuals operating with different mindsets within the team that causes the dysfunctional schisms, the place to start is with results.

Talk to your team about the results that they need to be getting that it isn’t getting, removing discussion about the disruptor, and you develop agreement among the team on the outcomes, which is what a team is all about – working together to achieve something. And then you get to ask the question, what’s happening in our team that prevents us from getting the results that we all believe we need? You need to instigate a transparent dialogue on performance.

So, you start to work backward, and from results you go to the question of behaviours: how are we acting in a way that is preventing us from getting the results we need and the work relationships we need? You start to identify the behaviours that are associated with an ineffective mindset.

Then you work backward one more step, which is to help the team identify how the mindset that they’re operating from is generating these behaviours which is getting them the results different from the results we’ve agreed we all want. So it’s a two or three step process, but it starts with the results.

Leaders are generally better at being transparent than they are curious in terms of looking to address these mindset issues, better at sharing their point of view than expressing curiosity about how other people think about the situation, or what they think about what the point of view is that they’ve just expressed.

The reason that it’s so important to ask questions is that’s the way in which you begin to surface what is on everyone’s minds, helping shape and opening up the new team culture as to what their concerns and motivations are. If you don’t do that, you’re just guessing that what you have in your head about your team is right, and if you plan a strategy based on that, it’s very easy to be off the mark and for your strategy to fail.

Part of being transparent is sharing what you’re thinking, and sharing how you got there, essentially, making your private reasoning public so people can share their reasoning with you and react to yours. Having removed a poisonous ego from the team, don’t replace that ego with yours. Leadership is about helping the team identify where they need to go to next, not imposing your own solution.

Having started an open dialogue to repair the broken culture, you are on the way to reestablishing trust in the organisation. Trust is everything, it is the bedrock when building a high performing startup team. Trust is the knowledge that people can be trusted to do the right thing when things go wrong.

Creating a culture where bravado is absent builds a continuous self-appraisal and peer review of how things are being done, and is a powerful way to increase accountability that will drive performance and trust. As the leader you want to get the balance right – you are taking charge without taking over, giving a sense of purpose. There are some specific actions to accelerate the recovery into your startup, such that the walk out of a big ego is soon forgotten.

1. Set the vision, and establish milestones to achieving the vision As leader, it’s down to you to set the goal for the group. It doesn’t have to be a vision with a capital ‘V’, just paint a picture of what you want to accomplish over the next few years.

You don’t want you’re team saying what the heck are we doing? Where is this leading us? The vision also needs milestones. People want to know how they’re doing in relation to their goal. Milestones let you tell them.

2. Agree on ‘rules of the road’ Basically, how are we going to run his business now we’ve got the bad egg out of the way? Try out new ways of talking and listening, routines and styles. Refresh to remove the old chunky ways of working, put some personal freedom of voices, choices and space into the working environment and set a new rhythm, whilst also focusing on the results everyone has signed up to deliver.

3. Build new structures and processes that enable creative collaboration When attempting to carve new realities, explicitly encourage your startup team to start experimenting again with different thoughts, relationships, and actions in order to learn what happens and what works. The emphasis is less on getting things right the first time and more on being attentive to feedback, adjusting, and trying again. Put learning back into the heart of the business agenda.

4. Think of your work as a craft, not an assembly line Maybe things had got tense and too serious, and the pressure valve opened up as a result of pent up anxiety. In describing China’s transition toward a socialist market economy, former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping used an evocative image of discovering, rather than planning and solidifying everything before starting: We are crossing the river by feeling for stones.

This is a lovely analogy of thinking about progress, so maybe take a step back and refocus more on creativity and innovation than simply ‘getting stuff done’ and scaling.

5. Sense and respond In a startup it’s important to ‘feel the pulse’, being in touch with everyone to have a sense for the hidden and silent things. Schedule regular informal face time with each of your team, don’t underestimate the importance of ‘checking in’. When it doesn’t happen, you can see the team start to gradually drift into their own quiet corners.

In a startup team there is a high degree of flux at any moment in time. There is no paradigm, no precedent, there is nothing. You have to carve it. To carve a new world means to bring forth something new by patiently and gradually working, with a sensitive hands-on connection, with the particular reality in front of you. It means the opposite of imposing a fully formed idea of what you think must be. Don’t lead the metaphorical charge, lead the thinking.

When we collaborate, by sharing ideas we strengthen relationships, joined up thinking creates momentum and a sense of purpose. Working together, we achieve so much more. Losing a Machiavellian personality, no matter how selfish and destructive they are, will cause immediate challenges and uncertainty, but in reality, many like Boris Johnson are energy sappers, not energisers to the team. But you can recover, and move forward.

Everyone matters in a startup. If you’ve got a Boris Johnson in yours, just reflect on their real impact on results, morale and teamship. Read the signals above the noise. Remove the egos. For Boris, what passed for disarming eccentricity was ultimately exposed as cringemaking incompetence. Long ago, it became that the veneer of faux levity and badinage encased no hidden depth in a constant night of the long knives. His ego saw himself in Churchillian terms, whereas for me, I cast him as a character for a remake of Blackadder, in a blond wig.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941 of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your island bookshelf.

10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEOs face in the ‘build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’

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.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: looking backwards to move forwards

I don’t want a holiday in the sun, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. I echo John Lydon’s philosophy when thinking about my holidays and breaks, avoiding those vanity-fuelled sun-worshipping folks slotted by the swimming pool from 8am to 6pm and do-not-move fills my head.

Where to go for Easter? I fancied Mexico, simply from the colour of their shirts and the players’ names in the coming World Cup – Jose de Jesus Corona, the goalkeeper, why weren’t my parents more imaginative? The town of Oaxaca caught my attention, but it was out of season. Were we in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve, it would be the great Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes celebration. Got to be there.

I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. Apart from that, I’m easily pleased. Thailand beckoned from social media pushes, but then I read a piece warning travellers not to take a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The warning was inside the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines – a bit late if you’re on the final approach to Bangkok airport.

But I wanted to avoid the sun. For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon, as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called ‘North-of-England olive’ after two weeks away abroad, but would more accurately be described as ‘Lancashire white’ – not to be confused with the potato of the same name.

However, I gave up and defaulted to my favourite bolt-hole, and we were off. To North Wales. The seabirds calling as the wind carries them overhead, the unmistakable scent of salty water in the air as the tide slowly inches its way up onto the shore. North Wales has everything, a place that inspires, a place that appeals to all the senses – a place to see, hear, taste, smell and feel. It is a place to get away from it all.

My favourite spot, Penmon, is a promontory on the south-east tip of Anglesey. It is the site of a monastery and C12th church. Walls near the well next to the church may be part of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales. Penmon also has a fantastic stony beach and Trwyn Du Lighthouse lies between Black Point, near Penmon and Ynys Seriol, or Puffin Island

We operate in a fast paced life setting, driven by technology. Taking time-off with yourself once in a while will help chalk out your priorities in front of you. It gives you a clearer perspective on how you wish your life and business to pan out, focusing on the right and amending the wrong turns. I’ve always iterated that self-reflection helps you clear out the unnecessary from your mind, encouraging you to focus on the necessary.

We all have a tendency to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. A break brings that back and more. I feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and that’s not been the case for a while. Break time gives you more authentic life rhythm and a focus on things that matter. A friend once described his brain as a washing machine, hurling and tumbling the information that hit him from all directions.

We all face challenges differently. Some internalise stuff and become paralysed, some push on without looking back. Bottom line, there’s a time and place for both an emotional and logical assessment each time you press pause to avoid a stumble. Entrepreneurs should remember that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

The time you take away is an investment in being able to do better work when you’re back, and it’s about asking yourself the right questions. For example, Am I preparing for a better tomorrow? Am I sleeping off the right thoughts? How well am I maintaining my own perspective? How well am I mastering my time? Have I developed an honest philosophy with myself?

Good questions always lead to great answers. So having unpacked and decluttered my mind, and having no access to the Internet, here are my ‘thinking outloud’ takeaway reflections from my Easter break, a stream of random consciousness and musings that I hope give you some insight into my thinking on how to help your own entrepreneurial journey.

1. The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. If you say your priorities are your partner or your kids or your health or learning, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

2. To know what you think, write it down Not having technology and having to write things down myself in a notebook, to let it see light, was the best way for me to clarify what I was actually thinking about during the break. Writing is the painting of the voice said Voltaire. I realised that getting back to writing was the best way to talk without being interrupted.

3. Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity Having to think for myself, with just radio but no Internet access, made me curious. You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did.

4. Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on a break gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, give yourself some space.

5. Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

6. Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

7. Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s book, 168 hours: you have more time than you think from the local charity shop. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

8. You never know where you are on the big wheel You never know what’s coming, you have to have some faith that your moment is coming, but you don’t need to be Speedy Gonzalez all the time. Travel has many joys, luggage is not one of them. Live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we need more awareness and clarity.

9. Sitting idle and doing nothing Sitting idle and doing nothing is often viewed as a bad habit, yet researchers have shown that there are several advantages of ‘doing nothing’. Electrical activity in the brain that seems to set certain sorts of memories is more continuous and frequent amid downtime, offering your brain a reprieve from work without completely surrendering cognizance.

10. Walk the dog three times a day on the beach It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. The best listener has fur and four legs. In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi-human – the point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

I could live like Robinson Crusoe. A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the wood and other incongruous objects washed up by the ocean, all stirred my thinking. For me, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write postcards of notes to self. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.

Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way. The sounds of surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, it opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to think a problem through.

Sometimes our perception of a situation can blind-spot us. Walking whilst thinking and having no other voices other than your own in your head helps to provide perspective on a situation, and assists our brains in properly processing it in a way that fosters a healthy outlook. This allows us to function better and get more done. When you start to think about the things that have caught your eye and are important to your thinking, you gain the ability to start to process them against your own sense of purpose.

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

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.

Adventures in entrepreneurship: No Map. No Guide. No Limits.

A couple of weeks ago saw the ‘Beast from the East’ meet ‘Storm Emma’, causing the UK’s worst weather in years. Snow chaos disrupted travel with hundreds of drivers stranded, hospital operations cancelled and closed schools across the UK, as the Met Office issued ‘red alert’ warnings of risk to life.

Blizzards, strong winds and drifting snow created some of the most testing weather experienced in the UK for years as temperatures plunged. The red warning – meaning ‘Widespread damage, travel and power disruption and risk to life is likely’ – was only the third such warning the Met Office has issued since the system came into force in 2011.

The dramatic weather also saw numerous examples of good deeds. Many 4×4 drivers volunteered to ferry around health workers or get supplies to people who were stranded. At home, sheep and deer in the garden coming down from the hillside seeking food and shelter kept the dog on full alert and full voice.

These extreme weather conditions reminded me of the images and achievements of famous explorers of the Polar Regions, filled with stories of entrepreneurial courage and endurance, as well as triumph and tragedy.

There’s an amazing list of adventurers – from Britons Ross, Shackleton and Scott, to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian, Australian Douglas Mawson, American Robert Peary, back to Erik the Red, a wild Icelandic youth, who discovered and settled Greenland. Then there’s Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first person to have reached both the North and South Poles.

Aside from the mentality of wanting to endure such extreme physical hardship in the pursuit of a dream, the thinking, behaviour and spirit of adventure of explorers such as Amundsen manifests itself in the focus, determination and flair of modern day entrepreneurs.

Successful explorers and entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they aren’t afraid of failure. The fear of failure can easily overpower your ability to take action and secure opportunities, yet faced with uncertainty, odds stacked against them and often an initial plan in tatters, intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs seek to pursue their goals with zeal and endeavour.

Close your eyes, imagine this: a little tent moves in the wind, under a harsh looking dark sky, snow in the air. You’ve pitched your tent becoming the first human ever to reach the South Pole. The image of that tent depicts perhaps one of the most important and dangerous places anyone has ever slept.

At 3pm December 14, 1911 Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. The tent and the camp surrounding it were given the name Polheim, which translates as Home at the Pole, by Amundsen. It was the temporary home of the pioneering crew who pitched the first ever tent at the South Pole.

Amundsen won the race to the Pole ahead of Scott, yet poignantly it was Scott’s crew that took the last ever picture of the camp – they rested there until starting off on their tragic return journey. Since they left, 105 years ago, the tent has never been seen and probably won’t be seen ever again.

Amundsen became the first man to lead a successful expedition to the South Pole, arriving about a month before Scott. He began a career studying medicine at the University of Oslo, but dropped out in order to go to sea. His first Antarctic trip was in 1899 when he was one of the first party to over winter in Antarctica. Here he established his credentials as a leader and as a resourceful expeditioner.

Amundsen left Christiana, Norway in August 1910 with provisions for two years and nearly a hundred Greenland sled dogs that were to be the key in his team’s subsequent success in reaching the South Pole.

The Fram and Amundsen’s party reached Antarctica and landfall at the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911 where a winter base was established. Depots were established between then and April when the sun set for the long Antarctic winter night, depots of stores that would be used in the push to reach the South Pole the following spring.

The winter was passed in orderly industriousness while the party prepared for the polar journey as well as settling into winter routines to maintain morale and make sure the men were kept occupied. Amundsen understood the importance of preparation for the winter and of maintaining spirits particularly during the dark days of winter.

The weather however was a constant source of frustration. When eventually Amundsen and his team of five men set off each with a sledge pulled by thirteen dogs. They made good progress feeding the dogs on seal meat and blubber. The men’s rations were meagre in quality, but sufficient in quantity.

Plans were made for the final push to the Pole based on setting out with dogs that would be systematically shot and fed to the remainder. They struggled on against poor weather, blizzards and bad snow conditions, which took their toll on both dogs and men.

At 3pm on Friday, December 14, 1911 the party arrived at the South Pole. They erected a small tent and placed inside it a letter and then set off back to their winter base. They arrived 39 days later with all five men and 11 dogs “hale and hearty”.

The party that had reached the South Pole first was: Roald Amundsen, Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre H. Hassel, Oscar Wisting. Truly innovators, truly entrepreneurs. They had done something nobody else had done before.

Amundsen continued his explorations in the Arctic becoming more and more interested in flying and airship travel. Alas he disappeared with no trace in 1928 while searching for the survivors of an airship crash in the Arctic.

So as we move on from the extreme weather at home, and can only imagine the conditions over 100 years ago that Amundsen faced, what are the lessons to be learned from him and his seemingly reckless cohort of fellow explorers for C21st entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own personal goals? What are the key traits in their attitude to adventure and pushing the boundaries that today’s entrepreneurs can look to replicate?

They don’t take a parachute When launching, most new business ventures face a significant risk on not knowing what they don’t know with little to no safety net.  Explorers like Amundsen anticipate a degree of trauma and failure along the way, but don’t have a prepared safety net. Instead they have an eternal optimism and positive mindset in their recovery, and have an ability to harness resources to build their own landing strip to catch themselves when they fall.

Don’t hold out for better opportunities Amundsen seized the moment, beating Scott to the Pole with better strategy, planning and execution. He endured terrible weather conditions. Entrepreneurs take advantage of new opportunities even when the conditions aren’t optimal, and when others don’t make a move. It gets them a step forward first, ahead of the game. Savvy entrepreneurs understand that it takes a little elbow grease and sharp elbows to achieve success.

Work effectively under pressure There’s nothing riskier than riding on top of a Saturn V rocket with enough chemical energy to be the equivalent of a small atomic bomb, not to mention the threat of being sucked into the vacuum of space. In 1969, that’s what Neil Armstrong faced as part of his journey to become the first person to walk on the moon. Similarly entrepreneurs focus on the bigger picture, they push through the pressure and ignore the side stories to get closer to accomplishing their goals.

Don’t let stuff cloud your vision In 2001, Erik Weilhenmayer became the first blind person to climb the summit of Everest. But he didn’t stop there. He scaled each continent’s tallest peak (known as the ‘Seven Summits’), and kayaked 277 miles on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The way you perceive challenges affects your ability to conquer them. The most successful entrepreneurs find work arounds when faced with apparently immovable barriers.

Take the road less travelled Ed Stafford holds the world record for walking the entire length of the Amazon River. His journey spanned over 4,000 miles, including an 18,000-foot mountain, taking over two years to complete. He documented every step of his expedition. For entrepreneurs, the road less travelled often holds the hidden opportunity. They are driven by curiosity and chart their own path to success without following the steps of others.

Accept failure with open arms It only takes one customer to say ‘yes’ to make launch of your startup a success, but don’t be surprised if your journey takes you somewhere different than where you set out for. Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson, Nansen, Scott – all had to conquer whatever unexpected obstacles they encountered along the way. As an entrepreneur you must be willing to take risks in order for your business to succeed. The biggest risk is not taking any risk – that is guaranteed to fail,

Desperation drives creativity After leaving most of the crew behind on Elephant Island on his Trans-Polar expedition of 1914-1916, Shackleton and a few men crossed the Atlantic on an 800 mile journey to seek help, in a glorified rowboat. Forced to improvise, they built a makeshift deck of canvas, and sealed the seams with seal blood. It held up–even through hurricane-force winds–and they reached their target.

For entrepreneurs, constraints of money, time and expertise go with the territory, but they’re also a beautiful thing because they force creativity and innovation. Challenges will arise that no planning can anticipate, but in the end, success is more than a customer invoice. The ‘how’ of the ingenuity and grit shown along the way can be just as important.

Known as ‘the last of the Vikings’, Amundsen was a lifelong adventurer with a gift for organisation and planning. An Amundsen camp lives on at the South Pole, and is among the most visible things there. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a US-run research station right near the South Pole.

The first of ten was but in 1956, and it became the first permanent human structure at the South Pole, setting down some of the first human presence on the entire continent. The original station has been upgraded a number of times in the last sixty years, but it has retained its name as a tribute to the men who raced to reach the place it now stands.

I think the parallels between an entrepreneur and an explorer are quite clear. It’s about having fire in your heart and ice in your veins, being bold, being brave and being true to yourself. No one is so brave that they are not troubled by something unexpected, anyone can be bold from a safe distance, but explorers and entrepreneurs embrace adversity: No Map. No Guide. No Limits.

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.