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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial learning journey: restlessness & reinvention of Radiohead

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

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

We like music because it makes us feel good. In 2001, neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Canada used magnetic resonance imaging to show that people listening to music they liked had activated brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from sex, good food and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

A surge of dopamine enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions, but it’s not the whole story. Our emotional response to music may be conditioned by many other factors too – if we are hearing it alone or in a crowd, for example, or if we associate a particular piece with a past experience – Temptation by New Order; Susan, they’re playing our tune.

So you have an epiphany that gives you goosebumps as your brain floods with dopamine. Over the years I recall when I first heard the opening bars of a number of Radiohead songs, and something just happened. I just felt this rush of emotion come through me. It was so intense. I had to concentrate on the song and the pleasure it gave me.

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 like Radiohead keep their music fresh, so that it appeals to existing fans and yet at the same time grows their audience? It’s a challenge for any business.

Radiohead is an English band formed in Oxford in 1985 by five school friends. Initially the band were called On a Friday, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. In late 1991, after a chance meeting between band member Colin Greenwood and EMI’s A&R representative at Our Price, the record shop where Greenwood worked, they signed a six-album recording contract with EMI. At the request of EMI, the band changed their name – Radiohead was taken from the song Radio Head on the Talking Heads album, True Stories.

Since their formation, Radiohead have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Thom Yorke, the essential spark of innovation in the band. Yorke’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances cutting a strangely solitary figure, making him look like a man in the throes of a tortuous titanic confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces. Yorke’s vocals trail through those atmospherics with angst and despair of a tortured performer.

Radiohead released their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool last year, an eleven track gem. As with each of the previous eight albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, expansive sounds, themes of modern alienation and C20th classical.

Radiohead are in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y but without the ostentatious commerciality driven by the marketing machine. They are a serious band that make serious music, a touchstone for adventurous music, yet you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Just like Joy Division, they are seen by many as morose, gloomy harbingers of doom and introspective sensibilities, purporting monochrome view of the world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for me there are toe tapping and sing-a-long moments a plenty. Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope.

So I keep listening to Radiohead. We all like music for different reasons – tunes, lyrics, live gigs etc., but for me Radiohead articulate a sentiment and voice that has something to say that resonates, be it political, a perspective on social conscience or simply a point of view, the nagging suspicion that some fundamental stuff needs shouting about and that someone else, somewhere else, needed help and that society should be doing do more. I guess it’s C21st protest music.

Nine albums in, thirty years together as a band, how do you keep your product innovation and keep pushing the ambition? What can we learn from Radiohead in terms of their business model, thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective, at a time when the music industry has been disrupted by digital like no other? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Radiohead tat should spark a startup.

Passion – do it because you love doing it Thom Yorke wasn’t thinking of building a global brand and business when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a very basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.

Put in 10,000 hours before you expect to make a difference Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers. He states that to be good at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to hone your skills. Radiohead were gigging for seven years before they released their first record; in business you have to craft and refine your offering before customers notice.

Radiohead are ingenious, wonderful musicians, and they really put the hours in, so much so, that Thom Yorke often complains of 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.

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

Each member of the band has also undertaken a series of independent, solo projects, collaborating with a range of artists. This builds a sense of both free-spirit and freedom yet unity, free thinkers who then regroup to do something together that is better, having had time to breath and explore individually.

Restlessness & reinvention Radiohead 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.

In 2007, when CD sales were taking a major hit due to illegal downloads, they offered their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a download directly from their website, avoiding all the middlemen, and let fans choose what they wanted to pay, including the option of nothing. About one third did choose the free option, but the average donation for the two months this offer was available was $8.00. It turned into a huge financial success.

Novelty Their passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in their music, imagery and style, even when if it is critically maligned. Radiohead nurture and cultivate their audience through innovative online marketing – check outhttp://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/11/radiohead-polyfauna-app-iphone-ipad-android Paying attention to your customers is the essence of any business.

Build IP If you are an entrepreneur or aspiring musician, you have made the decision that you are someone that wants to make a mark on the world you live in, live by your own rules and create your own life. Your innovations and intellectual property are your lifeblood. Radiohead are shrewd and carefully manage their IP, the copyright to their songs and music is the greatest revenue earner from licensing.

Yet, they’ve worked without a record deal since leaving EMI in 2003, in an effort to ‘get out of the comfort zone’, and maintain their independence. They must be the best unsigned band in the world. Their last three albums have been released by independent label XL Recordings.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Radiohead are not productive – nine albums in thirty years, two in the last decade and five years prior to the last A Moon Shaped Pool. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. Radiohead 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 Radiohead is a talented musician in their own right, everything is balanced and nobody gets into overdoses of egos. 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.

As time marches on, Yorke looks a little like Ming the Merciless reborn as a compassionate yoga instructor. Although their commercial peak maybe behind them, Radiohead continue to release new albums that are liberally sprinkled with strong songs. Unperturbed by changes of fashion, these albums sell to faithful fans who actually pay money for music, almost an anachronism in the age of digital downloads and Spotify.

The formula for Radiohead’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.

I know they are an acquired taste and not everyone’s cup of tea, but people like Thom Yorke are intrinsically motivated to innovate their craft, and reflect the guile, graft and learning journey of any entrepreneur. Yorke is a talented, spirited man, an aggrieved, affronted isolated figure whose rage was borne of annoyance at the status quo. He is driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too, to do their own thing and make their mark.

Thinking about High Growth sat in a Temperance Bar in Rawtenstall

A Temperance Bar is a type of bar, found particularly during the C19th and early C20th, that did not serve alcoholic beverages. A number of such bars were established in conjunction with the Temperance Society, advocating a moderate approach to life, especially concerning the abstinence from alcohol.

Temperance Bars with full temperance licences (allowing them to serve on Sundays, despite English trading laws at the time) were once common in many high streets in the North of England. The movement had a massive following, fuelled mainly by Methodists. These bars were the first outlet for Vimto, also serving brews such as black beer and raisin tonic, blood tonic, dandelion and burdock, herb bitters and sarsaparilla.

The temperance movement (one foot in front of the other please) began in 1835 in Preston, amid concerns about the Industrial Revolution’s equally industrial levels of alcoholism. Although prohibition was never formalised in the UK in the same way it was by our supposedly sober cousins in America, a wave of non-alcoholic bars began popping up in most towns to guard against the dangers of heavy drinking.

In their heyday, temperance drinks were not only seen as delicious non-boozy tipple, but were thought to have health benefits: ginger for soothing nausea or colds, sarsaparilla and dandelion for detoxifying. I’m a little sceptical: according to family folklore, my gran’s deafness was caused when my great grandfather decided to shun the doctor and treat her ear infection with his herbal linctures.

Some of the most famous Temperance Bars carried the Fitzpatrick family name. The Fitzpatricks, a family from Ireland, came over to Lancashire in the 1880s. A family of herbalists, they turned to building a family-run chain of shops throughout Lancashire. These shops dealt in their non-alcoholic drinks, sold herbal remedies, and cordial bottles.

At their peak, the Fitzpatrick family owned twenty-four shops, all brewing drinks to the original recipes brought over from Ireland. However, as new drinks came over from America, the Temperance Bars slowly waned away. Today, Fitzpatrick’s Herbal Health in Rawtenstall is the last Temperance Bar in the country.

The Rawtenstall bar has been thought of with affection by generations of the town’s residents. It is notable for its old copper hot water dispenser, which was originally a fixture at the Astoria Ballroom in Rawtenstall. It has also won awards as the country’s ‘Best Sarsaparilla Brewer’, and for its dandelion & burdock.

The bar has recently reopened after four weeks refurbishment, with a fresher, brighter look and product innovations on the menu However, it has maintained its traditional offerings, past traditions and family-run ethos. The bar retains many of its original fixtures and fittings, including the ceramic tap barrels and shelves lined with jars of medicinal herbs. Mr. Fitzpatrick would be proud.

When I was growing up, dandelion and burdock was the social tipple of choice. Darkly mellow with just enough fizz and a pleasing aniseedy aftertaste, I used to drink it at my grandma’s house in Manchester – which we would gulp down with Jacobs orange Club biscuits. She would prop the bottle on the doorstep outside, ready for the man who collected the empties.

Apparently, dandelion and burdock dates back to the days of St Thomas Aquinas and it’s back, along with other old-style temperance drinks gracing much fancier menus than the chippies of my youth. For example, at the St Pancras Booking Office Bar at the London station, you can sip sarsaparilla or blood tonic whilst snacking on crispy calamari and parmesan chips.

The drinks may appear simple, but are unbelievably complicated. Sarsaparilla, for example, involves an intricate blend of sarsaparilla root, anise, liquorice, nutmeg, molasses, cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, lemon juice and other botanical extracts.

But back to Fitzpatrick’s. This quirky Pennines apothecary, with its ceramic tap barrels and jars of botanical herbs and roots holds a special lure, with its ghostly inhabitants, unknown pasts and general eccentricity. Come rain, shine or old-fashioned drizzle, it will restore you, warm your cockles, quench your thirst and satisfy your need for quirkiness.

However, the fact that it is the last temperance hostelry shows you have to keep moving and innovate, otherwise your market evaporates as your customer preferences change or alternative products take your marker. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. It’s a call to action, which has resonance with the turbulence in most markets today. You simply can’t stand still, the need is to stay agile with a relevant value proposition and viable business model.

But most businesses hesitate to adopt new thinking, instead they focus on hunkering down and a low-key ‘back to basics’ approach, defaulting to a risk-reduction focus rather than a growth mindset. Whilst this often secures bottom-line improvement, it is unsustainable and rarely offers anything more than short-term expediency.

It impedes curiosity and experimentation, and stifles thinking beyond the immediate time horizon. However, whilst organisations may regard seeking breakthroughs as too steep a challenge and are content with simply maintaining their business, research shows that focusing on short-term aspirations typically yields only short-term results, whilst those seeking significant breakthroughs will both identify the big ideas and also generate closer, incremental ideas along the way.

It’s about holding an ‘innovation mindset’. Over time, I’ve developed a pretty keen sense of whether or not my efforts with clients will be successful, and one of the biggest red flags that tells me I’m in trouble is hearing this phrase: That’s the way we’ve always done things.

I can’t think of a single sentence that’s more antithetical to growth and innovation than the blind acceptance that some things can’t be changed within an organisation. It’s a sentiment few companies can afford to indulge, but transforming an organisation from innovation-averse to forward-thinking isn’t always an easy road to navigate.

And that’s where you need an entrepreneurial leader, so lets say if someone was to build a passenger-carrying rocket for joy rides into space and offer you a ticket, would you go? Of course you would, especially if Richard Branson was involved.

He’s a live wire, someone with a can do, will do attitude who doesn’t let short-term difficulties become traumatic, although I’ve had some mixed experience with Virgin Atlantic – the last time I flew the rate of progress through the lounge to board the plane was so slow that technically I was classified as a missing person. However, his innovation in mass-market long haul flights has had an impact, and of course, very customer focussed.

But let’s consider Branson himself. In the last twenty years, barely a week passed when we weren’t treated to the spectacle of Branson’s mouse like whiskery chops being winched to safety from some vast expanse of ocean. His speedboats kept running into logs of wood or his balloons too heavy for sustained flight.

However, I like the way he’s made it in business without a pinstripe suit or an obvious predilection for golf, and despite the often-disastrous attempts to go across the Pacific on a tea tray or up Everest on a washing machine, I do like the way he keeps on trying, his boldness and give it-a-go attitude. He’s also dyslexic, so overcome that significant personal challenge too.

He may be a publicity-seeker, but he’ll get us in space with Virgin Galactic. My concern wouldn’t be the perilous spins, loud bangs and crashes of Branson’s previous failures as I sat in my seat, but rather the expectation that every passenger will have to conform to Branson’s relaxed style and only allowed to fly in jumpers and corduroys, and his beardy face beaming out doing the safety procedure promo. He’s got nice teeth though.

But recall Fatal Attraction, you thought Glenn Close was dead, you relaxed and then, whoa, she reared up out of the bath with that big spiky knife. That’s one thing Branson doesn’t do. No, not lie in a bath of cold water pretending to be dead, love him or loathe him, he doesn’t sit back and think That’s it, I’ve had enough.

Obviously he doesn’t need the money, but he just keeps on with his self-belief and crashes into the next idea. He’s a disruptive force that never gives up and while his opponents are kept fully employed wondering what he is going to do, he is busy doing it, and its often something they hadn’t thought he’d do.

Based on this inspiration, research, my own intuition and experience, I’ve developed a blueprint for creating an innovation mindset, which I’ve called High Growth Anatomy, an assessment of you innovation dna. It’s a series of reflective questions, structured as to ‘Go’ and ‘No Go’. Evaluate yourself, what’s your ‘Go’ score?

Foresight or Hallucination?

  • We have clear and articulated goals based on our purpose, of where we want to be in the next 6, 12, 18 and 24 months;
  • We have some thoughts on where we are aiming to be, but it’s more of a wish list than a ‘lets make it happen’ plan.

Front-foot or Back-foot?

  • As a team we are moving forward all of the time;
  • As a team we are fire-fighting most of the time.

Clued-up or Clueless?

  • We are clear about how we make a difference in our market;
  • We are unclear about how to stand out in our market.

Dexterous or Clumsy?

  • We are agile in our business, we ‘seize’ the moment with alacrity;
  • We are blunderers, unable to move quickly or with grace.

Leaning-forward or Leaning-back?

  • We are restless thinkers, learning, imaging the future, eager to grow;
  • We are thinking about our future, but out time is spent living today.

Web-enabled or Webbed-feet?

  • We have a clearly articulated digital strategy in our business model;
  • We use the Internet and social media, but have no digital vision.

Harmonious or Mutinous?

  • We are all wearing the same jersey, pushing together in the same direction, one heart and one voice;
  • We’re a collection of tribes and opinions, connected but not united.

Curious or Cautious?

  • We develop lots of new things, some of them work, some don’t, but we’re always ready to experiment;
  • We generally keep trying things until they don’t work, then think of something new to have a go at.

Heads-up or Head-down?

  • When faced with a threat we respond rapidly and decisively;
  • When faced with a threat, we often step back and wheel-spin.

Fresh thinkers or Copy cats?

  • We are creative and restless, innovation is a core behaviour;
  • We don’t have a point of difference in our business model.

Stickability or Bendability?

  • When something is not going to plan, we reflect, adjust and kick on with renewed enthusiasm;
  • When initiatives do not work, we tend to give up and go back to what we know.

Kinship or Coldfish?

  • We actively pay attention to building our culture, values and spirit;
  • We do not pay attention to our internal culture – it just happens.

Connectivity or Disconnected?

  • We are hot wired, we’re all linked-in and linked-up;
  • Our organisation is not well co-ordinated – we’re disconnected and decoupled.

Insights or Blindspots?

  • We have a very good knowledge of our customers, their customers and our competitors;
  • We have an ad-hoc knowledge of our customers, their customers and our competitors.

These are uncertain times with Brexit, Trumponomics and a General Election. Companies are struggling to find the right balance between caution and optimism. No one knows what will happen next, and it is crazy to operate your business as though you do. But the more volatile the times, the more essential it is to keep your options open. Thus, taking less risk (closing down innovation options) is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

There are lessons for us all in the history of Fitzpatrick’s, decline and renewal, and the entrepreneurial attitude of Branson, where everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A strong sense of the possible is essential to driving innovation that in turn leads to success. Whilst the image of the swashbuckling adventure-hungry risk-taking buccaneering entrepreneur is somewhat of a caricature, positive energy and exuberance makes a refreshing change, as the news is a constant stream of maudlin and misery.

Things don’t just happen. You’re sure to get somewhere if you walk long enough isn’t the answer. Hope isn’t a strategy. It’s about strategic readiness, agility, clarity, direction and velocity and then execution. Sit down, have a glass of dandelion and burdock, and ask yourself the High Growth Anatomy questions and reflect on how to create your own future, before someone does that for you.

The first four minutes: the growth mindset of entrepreneurs

It’s 63 years ago – 6 May 1954 – that Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. Inspired by Sydney Wooderson, who set the British record set at 4 minutes 4.2 seconds on 9 September 1945, Bannister started his running career in the autumn of 1946.

He had never previously worn running spikes or run on a track, but he showed promise in running a mile in 1947 in 4 minutes 24.6 seconds on only three weekly half-hour training sessions. He was selected as an Olympic possible in 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete.

Over the next few years, improving but chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train more seriously. In 1951, Bannister ran 4 minutes 8.3 seconds, then won a mile race on 14 July in 4 minutes 7.8 seconds at the AAA Championships before 47,000 people.

After failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister set himself a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.  On 2 May 1953, he ran 4 minutes 3.6 seconds, shattering Wooderson’s 1945 standard. This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach, said Bannister.

Other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close, notably American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy, who ran 4 minutes 2.0 seconds. Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts and was certain his Australian rival would succeed. Bannister knew he had to make his bid.

6 May 1954. Aged 25, Bannister had begun his day at a hospital in London as a junior doctor, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash. He took a mid-morning train from Paddington to Oxford, nervous about the rainy, windy conditions that afternoon

With winds up to 25mph, Bannister said that he favoured not running, and would try again at another meet. Just before the start, he looked across at a church in the distance and noticed the flag of St George was moving but starting to slow. The wind died. The conditions were far from perfect, but Bannister knew at least one obstacle had been eased. As the run began, the conditions did worsen, with a crosswind growing, but by then Bannister was in his stride.

The race went off as scheduled at 6pm with Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher providing the pacing. Brasher led for the first two laps, Bannister stayed close and then as the race reached lap three, Chataway came through to maintain the pace. The time at three-quarters was 3 minutes 0.5 seconds but Bannister knew he had to bide his time.

Bannister began his last lap, needing to run it in 59 seconds. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with about 275 yards to go (just over a half-lap). He flew past Chataway onto the last straight and threw everything at the challenge ahead, his tall, powerful style driving him on. Could he do it? He knew this was it. The world stood still. It was just him and the track. He was being carried by history.

The announcement came. The announcer excited the crowd by delaying the proclamation of the time Bannister ran as long as possible:

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which – subject to ratification – will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement.

Bannister’s time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He’d done what so many believed was impossible. But Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days, Landy beat his time on 21 June in Turku, Finland, with a time of 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. Bannister went on to win the 1,500m at the 1954 European Championships with a record in a time of 3 minutes 43.8 seconds. He then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology.

It was doubted that a man could break the four-minute barrier for the mile. Experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a 4-minute mile. It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.

As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body. It took a sense of extreme certainty for Bannister to do what was considered un-doable. He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without seeing any proof that it could be done.

Once he crashed through that barrier, the rest of the world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely – 24 people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.

Once Bannister proved that once you stop believing something is impossible, it becomes possible. He decided to change things. He refused to settle. When no one believed his goals were possible. When his competitors were hot on his heels, he picked up his pace. He took things into his own hands, and decided to tell a better story. And in doing so – he did the impossible.

Bannister undoubtedly had a growth mindset, now an established learning theory from the work of Carol Dweck whose research-based model showed the impact of mindsets. She unpacked how a person’s mindset sets the stage for either performance goals or learning goals.

A person with a performance goal might be worried about looking smart all the time, and avoid challenging work. On the other hand, a person with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.

Dweck became interested in people’s attitudes about failure. Dweck noticed that some people rebounded while others seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behaviour of thousands, Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and ability. When people believe they can get improve, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

Bannister’s achievements support Dweck’s model of the fixed versus growth mindset shows how one’s beliefs about your own underlying potential impacts actual achievement. At the same time, neuroscience discoveries were gaining traction, researchers began to understand the link between mindsets and achievement. It turns out, if you believe your brain can grow, you behave differently.

Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.

What’s the best way to get started with your growth mindset development? One way is to identify where you may have fixed mindset tendencies so that you can work to become more growth minded. We all live upon a continuum, and consistent self-assessment helps us become the person we want to be.

For some people, failure is the end of the world, but for others, it’s this exciting new opportunity. Instead of focusing on output, which can be seen as emblematic of a fixed mindset, think about the effort needed to improve. Thus the takeaway is it’s not the most talented, but those willing to keep going and overcome barriers that enjoy more success. Hard work brings results.

The boom and bust nature of startups often results in entrepreneurs being viewed simplistically as successes or failures based on the outcome of their startups. However, the real key to success is mindset, which allows entrepreneurship to be viewed as a journey rather than a distinct outcome.

Fixed mindsets attribute failure to a lack of innate ability, get beaten down by it and become much more risk averse and self-conscious. On the other hand, entrepreneurs with growth mindsets are better suited for the startup rollercoaster ride, as they learn from their experiences and don’t attribute failure to a fixed trait.

This leads them to be able to analyse problems more deeply and bounce back more effectively. In a growth mindset, there is a lot of truth in the saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It also happens to make you smarter.

Perennially innovative companies like Tesla, Apple and Amazon are distinguished by a learning culture that fosters curiosity, innovation and encourages risk taking. They realise that learning generates its own unpredictable rewards, rewards you will miss if you aim only at specific, measurable goals and disregard the roles of effort.

As a growth-mindset entrepreneur, your success is an incremental aggregate of many little ideas. Every new positive or negative data point should raise more questions. Why did customers like this product so much? Was this luck? The growth mindset engenders continuous innovation and improvement even in the face of success.

So, how do you cultivate a growth mindset?

1. Don’t be defined by what you already know rather identify with your current learning, have a learning path defined, have an appetite to learn and enjoy the learning process itself. Embrace the iterations of steps backward as much as the steps forward.

2. Enjoy lessons learned for what they are don’t focus just on the outcomes, no matter how significant they maybe. Instead, recognise milestones by learning from the effort it took to achieve them. Success and failure are both by-products of the learning journey and offer valuable lessons.

3. Don’t be self-defining fixed-mindset entrepreneurs are self-defined by their results. Growth-mindset entrepreneurs are never self-defining, rather they embrace the journey and trust results will follow. Growth mindset entrepreneurs show long-term resilience, repeated innovation and the necessary drive for future enduring success.

4. Hear the voice of a growth mindset entrepreneur in your head – challenges are exciting rather than threatening, here’s a chance to grow, think the growth potential in following this opportunity, even if it’s out of your comfort zone – just like the example of Bannister.

5. Focus on the process you can learn from the processes and improve for the next time. Don’t let yourself sink into fixed mindset thinking, worrying about a challenge, a setback, or a bad outcome, focus on how to improve the process so next time out the outcome may be different.

Many successful people, including Einstein and Edison, said they learned more from their failures than from their successes, many of their breakthroughs came after a number of failures that provided learning experiences.

The more we are organised around stretching and growing, and being comfortable with confusion and setbacks, the more we are going to create growth mindsets.

Your future only exists in your own mind. To own your future, you must always be taking steps to grow and make the future bigger than your past, always looking ahead at what’s possible. Having a bigger future is not about how much time you have left, it’s about what you do with that time.

Always maximise the value of your past as you move forward, and know that your past won’t become useful until you’re committed to having a future that’s even bigger. Like Bannister, I always expect the life ahead of me to be much bigger, more exciting, more motivating, more engaging, and more fascinating than anything I’ve achieved before.

Each of us needs to believe that within us is a sub-four-minute mile performance, where we cast aside all self-doubt  of the little voices in our head and refute the naysayers.

The first sub-four minute mile could have belonged to someone else, but Bannister wanted it more, he had a growth mindset. Three minutes and 59.4 seconds that changed history. Few other sporting moments have been crystallised in a nation’s memory in the same way as the first sub-four-minute mile. It’s still special too – more people have climbed Everest than run a sub-four-minute mile.

Startup metrics for customer traction

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

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

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

How many people are getting authentic value from our product?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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