Networking tips for startup founders

Manchester’s tech startup community is bursting with events, meet-ups, workshops, hackathons and networking talks. Getting out there and connecting with like-minded folks is an essential activity for a startup, and building a great network is key to the success of any entrepreneur. Almost every breakfast, lunch and evening it seems is packed with invitations and opportunities to hang out at popular hubs and co-working spaces.

Don’t get me wrong, depending on your level of introversion, they can be a lot of fun, and you can meet some thought-provoking people and build vital connections. Then again, if you’re not careful, you could also spend most of the week chasing every single gathering of coffee and croissants, beer and pizza, using valuable time that you could and should be spending, you know, actually working on your startup.

Throughout it’s rich historic tapestry of disruption, growth and innovation, Manchester has seen many iconic meetings in the city, and this list is sure to give you inspiration for your next get-together in Manchester:

Charles Rolls & Henry Royce After Royce built a car in his factory in Cook Street, a meeting was set up with Rolls at the Midland Hotel in 1904. Rolls was impressed by the cars that Royce had made and agreed to take them, branding them ‘Rolls-Royce’. The combination of Rolls’ wealth and Royce’s engineering expertise spawned the creation of one of the most iconic car and engineering brands of all time, as Rolls-Royce Limited setup in 1906.

Marx & Engels It was in Manchester in the mid C19th that the Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met to discuss revolution and the theory of communism. The desk and alcove where Marx and Engels worked and studied at Chetham’s Library in 1845 are still there today and remain unaltered. It truly was a meeting that shaped the world.

Graphene Fridays Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, at the University of Manchester, often held ‘Friday night experiments’ where they would try out experimental science. One Friday, the two scientists removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with sticky tape and noticed that some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments they managed to create flakes, which were just one atom thick – and had successfully isolated graphene for the first time.

Women’s Social and Political Union A meeting at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement, at the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union. This historically significant building was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her family who led the Suffragette campaign and ‘Votes for Women’.

The Free Trade Hall, June 4, 1976 This was a gig that changed the face of Manchester culture forever, The Sex Pistols show defined music for generations to come. In the audience were future members Joy Divison (Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook), two founders of Factory Records (Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and one Steven Morrissey, who would form The Smiths.

Whilst we’d all give our right arm to be at meeting that would create such an impact to move our business forward, I can assure you that you simply do not need to attend 99% of the networking events you see cluttering your diary.

In fact, many respected entrepreneurs built their businesses from the ground up without jumping at every networking event they came across in their city. They chose instead to focus on building their businesses and gaining their customers’ trust, before eventually earning the respect of those they want to meet and establish relationships with.

One example is Mark Zuckerberg, who chose to focus on growing his social network independently into something of value, teaming up with just a couple of friends from Harvard to build it up in the early days. For two years he kept his head down, didn’t seek funding; he didn’t flock to every event to talk about and evangelise his idea.

Another example of entrepreneurs who focused first on ensuring their startup had real market value before attempting to build relationships with other entrepreneurs were the Whats App co-founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Steve Jobs also never spent his days attending a bunch of networking events. He and Steve Wozniak spent all their time building and improving their product.

These examples demonstrate that instead of jumping around to every event before you have any traction with your own business, build your startup and let networking organically follow. Yes, get out of the building, but do so to test your ideas and validate your learning.

Our natural tendency is to see successful people as reflections of our own desires and values, and I see many embryonic startup founders beating a trail to every event, almost addicted to going to and being seen at networking occasions. This creates false expectations that will eventually cause a detrimental emotional reaction. It’s often the smaller, quiet moments on your own in startup life that create the biggest impact, which is often overlooked.

So, here are some thoughts to help guide your selection of which networking events you should attend:

Attend industry-specific networking events What business does a computer scientist have in an energy networking event? If it’s to meet prospects that may invest in their tech-related startup, they may have already wasted a lot of time. Anyone there is probably only interested in anything energy related. Attending a networking event outside of your own direct industry should be done if your tech solution could either directly solve a problem in that field, or if you were specifically invited. Otherwise, stay at home and work.

Attend activity based events Activity-based networking events involve you directly in the entrepreneurial process. Carrying out tasks with co-entrepreneurs offers some genuine peer-group learning and reflection. Don’t just go to events and listen to people talking about themselves. How will this take you forward? Participating in an activity, doing something with someone, means a short-lived partnership that means hands-on, in the moment thinking, that can end up laying the groundwork for learning and a pivot in your product.

Attend invitation-based networking events Invite-only events usually have top quality guests present with something meaningful and relevant to say. Knowing that an event is packed only with people invited makes it a lot easier for people to build relationships with others they meet. If a person you’ve identified as someone to meet is attending, then hustling the ticket is a great bet for you. Remember, even though most in the startup world are pretty chummy with each other, this is business. Time is an essential ingredient in all startups, make it count. Rather than appealing to your emotions in a bid to sprout a friendship, appeal instead to your self-interest.

Research who you want to meet Before you attend an event, research the speakers and others entrepreneurs in attendance. Prioritise who you want to get to know, as this will help you craft a plan to make the most of the event. The goal of attending any networking event is to build quality relationships, this involves you approaching and talking to people who would add value to your thinking and your business. Knowing who to engage in a conversation largely requires a preset plan before you arrive.

Even better, people enjoy people via some exchange of value. When you try to impress with nothing to back it up, the relationship you thought you were building will fizzle away. What can you add to their thinking? The people we surround ourselves with at the outset of our venture are too important for us to be hasty or wasteful with our time and energy. They can determine a lot in our future, so be focused on the potential for making connections that could trigger both customer acquisition and growth opportunities.

Network with a purpose Do not go to a networking meeting aimlessly. Have a purpose. Your goal is to meet people that you can help and people who can help you. You do not know who they are yet so you have to mix with a fair number to improve your chances. But you must have an overall goal. It helps other people to help you if they know what you are looking for.

The old saying, ‘It is not what you know; it is who you know’ is true, you can significantly increase your chances of success in almost any field if you know or can get in touch with the right people. This is the power of networking, but it has to be focused. Frankly, I’m fed up of be asked to play in ‘name check entrepreneur bingo’ – do you know Mr X, or Mrs Y? What’s the point?

You must target networking events where you can determine that you’ll have a chance for real conversations. Too many of these events involve quick chats, exchange of details about each other’s’ businesses, and move on. How many have offered real follow-up value?

Prepare your introduction Sounds obvious, but do you have a crafted and elegant introduction, as this is the best way to start the conversation. You don’t just go barging in and start talking about your startup being an investment opportunity, and don’t make it sound like an elevator pitch. Be polite and friendly, let them know who they’re talking to, make it personal, warm and interesting.

After a clam introduction, talk about something they’ve done that has amazed you when you learned or read about it. Doing this will make the person more open to you, knowing one of their products or services has had an impact. Show your curiosity, make yourself someone genuinely worth knowing.

Next, find something in common, that will start to create a deeper connection and build trust. Also, instead of just imposing your ideas and thoughts dominating the conversation, spend more time asking intelligent questions and listening to the replies than talking about yourself.

Understand that it involves more than exchanging business cards. Your challenge is to build a human connection. That means you’re not doing all the talking, but encouraging give and take with good, insightful questions that show you sincerely are interested in how the other person thinks. It also means you pay attention to the answers. There is no value in a pocket of business cards at the end of the event if you haven’t agreed to a follow up.

Circulate and know when to get out A key message for introverts who are uncomfortable with networking, or extraverts who get deep into a conversation quickly and dominate – don’t stay the whole time making comfortable small talk with the first group you meet. After a while make a polite excuse and move around the room spending say ten to fifteen minutes with each new person. You will find that you can leave conversations without being brusque. Networking means circulating and people at the meeting are aware of this.

Your time is better spent, and a much better connection made, when you linger with those where you’ve sparked good give-and-take. Get out gracefully, when you feel you’ve been cornered by someone who isn’t a good match.

Follow Up You’ve invested time in getting to the event, three days after making a new connection, give them a call and re-introduce yourself. If you don’t follow up, where is the return on your investment? This is the chance to meet for a more purposeful one-to-one conversation. It is important to stick to the three-day follow up rule, as any time longer than that may diminish the relationship established at the event.

Some sort of follow-up is important, though this will depend on the quality of the connection – the extent to which you really ‘click’ personally and professionally. What’s important to remember is that the best relationships are mutually beneficial, so the first meeting is just that, you have to nurture the connection: the more you put into it, the more will come back to you.

Attending every networking event ultimately robs you of the time you could have spent building your startup and understanding your customers. You become part of the ‘celebratory startup circuit’ where you have to see and be seen. Whilst you can get inspiration from hearing about the journey of others, it’s actually perspiration – your own – that will ultimately move your business forward.

Realistic expectations are only part of doing networking right. It’s also important to understand that doing it right takes time. Focus on quality and forging genuine friendships, respect, trust and rapport, not ‘contacts’, or being able to say ‘I was there’ at an event.

I’ve met so many who have opened doors for me and remained in my life both personally and professionally. After a while, networking doesn’t feel like ‘networking.’ It’s both serendipitous and unpredictable, and something that just naturally becomes part of your work life and your personal life.

However, don’t keep score, it’s not about the ‘who and how many’, rather connect with people because there is value, and nurture the relationships that will truly help propel you towards accomplishing great things. Ultimately, focus on having in-depth conversations with fewer people about subjects relevant to your growth.

Curiosity, sheep and unknown unknowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur. If you can get into a position where you sit at the intersection of a sizeable market, build a high-performing team and create a great product, this is your time. This is the age of the 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.

Those startups with global ambitions combine scalable, pre-built components from public cloud vendors, API services and the open source community, and deploy them on open platforms. Platform openness means fewer barriers between a startup and its customers and fewer technical dependencies, and thus scaling can be reached earlier – Uber and Airbnb show this.

A rising new generation of global tech firms are now officially the most valuable companies in the world: Apple, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, 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, each of which reached the global top twenty ranks this year. 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. For me, 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 Business Days of Christmas’

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for mot 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?

I’ve based My ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ 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.

So enjoy ‘The Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ – but don’t over think the past twelve months, you can’t change the past but you can shape the future. Words make you think, music makes you feel, a song make you feel a thought. It is after all, a great Christmas carol.

The past, the present, the future: take a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge this Christmas

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on 19 December 1843. It tells the story of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The story’s message of forgiveness, generosity, hope and redemption resonates to this day, it possesses life and business lessons that are every bit as relevant as they were in Victorian England. It is also responsible for giving us many of our holiday customs, including the name ‘Scrooge’ for a miser, the exclamation ‘Bah, humbug!’ and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself.

The core of the story is how Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable, self-focused businessman is transformed into a generous and joyful human being, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner who died seven Christmases ago, a tormented ghost to reveal the fate that awaits a terrified but recalcitrant Scrooge.

He informs Scrooge on Christmas Eve that those who do not walk among their fellow humans and treat them with care are condemned to forever walk the earth as spirits who can only observe the things they would now mend, the people they would like to help.

He also drags a chain with heavy moneyboxes and padlocks on it as he walks in spirit form and tells Scrooge that he forged the very fetters he must wear for all eternity while he was alive and indifferent to the needs of those around him.

Scrooge learns that the chain he has forged is a fearsome thing that dwarfs the one Marley must drag behind him. The ghost offers to help Scrooge and tells him that three spirits will visit him to help in his possible salvation.

What follows are visits by three spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Each spirit guides Scrooge through his own experiences and illuminates the experiences of the people whose lives Scrooge has touched. The spirits succeed, and Scrooge is transformed by their visitations.

Business might be the furthest thing from your mind at this time of year, but as we all gather around the Christmas tree and dinner table it is worth reflecting on the values that A Christmas Carol highlights, and the insights it offers to enrich our business thinking:

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us the value of perspective. While in the company of the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge visits Mr. Fezziwig’s warehouse, where he was an apprentice, just in time for their annual Christmas party. What ensues is an evening of joy, laughter, feasting, music and dancing that awakens a long denied aspect of Scrooge’s personality.

As the evening wanes, and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are pouring out their hearts in praise of Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit provokes Scrooge to reflect briefly and regretfully on the mistreatment suffered by his employee, Bob Cratchit as a result of his own behaviour.

The contrast to Fezziwig’s leadership, in his sincerity and consistency is plain to see. Fezziwig’s leadership is born of high regard for the people he employs, the Christmas party serves as a celebration of relationship that are already rich and rewarding.

Perspective gives us a sense of what really matters. You must be able to recall, in the heat of the moment, what is most important. If perspective is lost then it is easy to get lost in the transactions of the moment, in doing what is easy rather than what is right, or with a longer term view for your business. Perspective enables us to view our business at a more strategic level, and in doing so, offers greater awareness and options.

The Ghost of Christmas Present provides the second insight to Scrooge and that is the importance of knowing current reality, seeing where you stand in the moment of today. The ghost helps him observe the lives and intentions of others, he gets to see how his employees interact with their family and discovers that the youngest is a little boy, Tiny Tim who is crippled and sickly of body but great in spirit.

The wealthy business-owner could not hold a candle to the brilliant light of Tiny Tim’s heroic spirit and loving heart. The child’s example touched the old miser’s heart. Scrooge was inspired to admit his mistakes and open his heart by Tim’s spirit, in spite of living in a crippled and declining body.

Scrooge sees what he is missing in the moment and how his way of thinking and behaving impact not only his life but also the lives of others. As a business leader, you must know where you stand if you are to form any realistic plans and make positive changes.

Although we can’t accurately predict every factor that will affect business even one year into the future, we need to starting to think now about the possible long-term influences that will change our business, and where the gaps are. In order to prepare your business model today for the future, it’s time to start thinking further into the future now – but you do need a firm grip on reality today in order to move forward.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come The third insight is the need to be brave and seek a transformation for the future. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a forlorn, unkempt grave site, Scrooge sees his own name written there on the gravestone. He begs the spirit to give him another chance. Part of what Scrooge learns is that his deeds have directed his future. His greed caused him to give up the love of his life. He recognises he needs to change.

After the visits by the three spirits, Scrooge sees what his greed has cost him. He sees people who have so much less than he does and yet that they are far happier than he. As a result of this insight, he is motivated to contribute to charity and to speak kindly to everyone he meets.

He even promotes Bob Cratchit to the position of partner. Scrooge had a faithful employee in Bob Cratchit, but he treated him with disrespect. Scrooge rarely gave the man a day off and even begrudged him burning enough coal to keep warm while he worked.

After the three visits however, Scrooge realises it is not too late to radically change his life. When Cratchit arrives at work a bit late on the day after Christmas, apologising by saying he fears he was ‘making rather merry’ the day before, Scrooge tries to reprimand him. However, the former old miser can hardly contain his newfound joy. Not only does he forgive the infrequent tardiness, but he offers Crachit a pay rise.

The business insights and lessons from A Christmas Carol are clear: first, step back and gain perspective in order to know what is most important; second, take an honest look at your current reality in order to know where you stand. Finally, understand that you have to look forward at all times, and identify where you want to be, and make adjustments – no matter how uncomfortable – to ensure the changes you need to make are enacted.

If we look at this a little closer and at the same time stand back, what are the personal lessons we can all take from A Christmas Carol as we head into the Christmas break? We all know that holidays are good for us, giving time to reflect and evaluate the past year, where we currently stand, and what we can see ahead. However, many of us do not take time off to reflect, we are constantly ‘on’, solving problems, in front of us putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, but in truth, running too fast.

A holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get some sun. But above all, you constantly reflect, absorb and learn. So, what are the key lessons?

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. Whatever you say your priorities, 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.

To know what you think, write it down I don’t see many people writing stuff down these days. For me, I am constantly scribbling ideas, comments, thoughts, notes, conversations into a notebook, to let it see light, it’s the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity 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. What are you curious about in your business?

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 holiday 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, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.

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

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 warp 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.

Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.

Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I read Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ recently. 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.

Ebenezer Scrooge shared the tendency we all have to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. The lesson from A Christmas Carol is be aware, alert and alive – live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Learn. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we all need more awareness and clarity.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, Scrooge vows near end of the story. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

Having re-read the book, and written this blog, I already feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and refocused, that’s not been the case for a while. So now ready with new things identified to learn and habits to unlearn, I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me. And the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and what I develop for myself will be so much better.

No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused, wrote Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The simple, yet eloquent story continues to teach us much about ourselves, and what it really means to be a successful person.

A train journey with Einstein: quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward.

It’s not the best way to see the land, travelling at speed on a train, walking has always been the appropriate pace for contemplation, but it can still be a pleasure. I would love to go to the Himalayas and cross over into Nepal to do the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

I like train journeys. I like their rhythm of the rail and the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of – for the moment, I know where I am going. I always travel in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward. There’s something special about the cadence of the movement, and keeping your eye on the horizon.

When I was a child, every train ride was an adventure, especially the trip to Scarborough. Not so much for where I was going, as for what I saw along the way. As the journey progressed, the scenery shifted from the hills grazed by sheep, to the patterns of man-made dry stone walls, then passing through through damp fields of dreamy cattle, over the hill and there was the sea.

I was fascinated with everything on the journey – the geology and landscape, people standing on platforms and people running for their trains, the ticket inspector and his stern demeanour, the throng urgently pushing to get on the train before the folks alighting could step onto the platform. I just soaked it in and the journey dovetailed with the rugged terrain, the wind and the water table – it’s a Northern thing. Who doesn’t feel a frisson at the thought of what you see out of a train window?

Today, trains are much faster than they were in my childhood, and the North Wales, North Yorkshire or Northumbrian landscapes I traverse on have lost much of their diversity. You can see too many business and retail parks from trains these days.

Yet, I am always surprised when a fellow passenger slumps into the seat next to me, plugs herself into a headset and starts rambling on about her day, presumably to some selfless good listener who likes the sound of her voice as much as she does herself. Look up, I want to say. Turn that thing off. There’s a world passing outside.

From planes you see clouds, from boats you see seabirds, from cars everything streaks past too fast to notice. But several authors have used the transitory moment of reflection on a train, when time seems to freeze as the landscape rushes by.

The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. Having read the book, to this day I’m always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together.

A while back, I read an interesting book that compared business life to a train ride or a series of train rides. Business life is like a train ride, it read. We get on. We ride. We get off. We get back on and ride some more. There are delays, some good journeys, some bad. At certain stops there are surprises. Some of these will translate into moments of joy, some will result in bad news. The direction of travel. Eventually we get to our destination.

However, many of my trains seem to get delayed and arrive late, perhaps reflecting the gap between what we want and what we can have in business. The paradox – and the most important point – is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want when we arrive at the next station, that we learn about our business.

I suppose in our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, less frustrated versions of ourselves. Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration. If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of train travel lodged in my psyche, where I create and hold on to various possible versions of my business self and possible outcomes – pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realising them might be, I do enjoy the tranquillity and time spent alone on my train journeys.

So that’s how I came to get the train to Edinburgh the other morning from Manchester. I needed time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. A day return with the train as my working space was just the job – sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Long, solo train journeys are the perfect place to think and reflect. This habit of personal, private reflection is something that I’ve developed in the past few years. It is a purposeful activity. It involves thinking about an experience and stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it. I use this to develop new perspectives. This drives learning and change, it is a way of working through issues and thinking of solutions, a way of improving the way you work.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, as part of my approach to reflection, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own and was able to visualise the main stages on the way to solving a problem. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.

What Einstein did, he did using tools available to all of us. He had no magic wand or secret subscription to Google. He used thinking tools and methods available to everyone, the same books and research journals available to all scientists of his day. His principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil. He thought and wrote and calculated, and out poured his extraordinary achievements.

What made Einstein tick? Intuition, unconventional thinking for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his ability to visualise the issues before him –  ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

And that’s what I do on my ‘thinking train journeys’, I say to myself, How would Einstein approach this situation? to breakdown and get to the root of an issue I’m stuck with. Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for train journeys, in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed to have successful careers in IT. What makes Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin household names is the fact they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

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

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

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein’s thinking here this resembles the Blue Ocean Strategy model, and Job’s Think Different motto.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

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

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

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

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

Einstein tells me to think about what I’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem?

One of two things is true at this point, either we keep banging our head and the wall will crumble soon, or we should do something different and hope things get better. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So on my ‘thinking train journeys’, which I do about once a month, Einstein is my travelling companion. By the way, he’s a massive tea drinker. When we talk about taking the time to reflect, it’s about thinking differently, and not just sitting there and daydreaming, it’s about picturing the alternate realities – working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind, we just have to find them. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves. So get yourself on a train, in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward, and see where it takes you and your thinking.

Dan Carter: what it takes to be a world champion

Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

And so the best team won. The All Blacks are Rugby Union World Champions. One side of the Tasmanian Sea this morning will be bleary-eyed folks going to work, on the other, there will probably be a grumpy silence. Let’s go to the beach.

When it comes to sport, New Zealand is not particularly good at many things. In the last four summer and winter Olympics, New Zealand, with a population of just 4.5 million, won just 32 medals. Australia won 199, Great Britain 178. When Rob Waddell won New Zealand’s only gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australians remarked that the only sport New Zealand was any good at was a sport that involved sitting down going backwards.

But they are awesome at rugby, and for the third time, the All Blacks are the Rugby Union World Champions, with their 34-17 victory over Australia. This was a clash between the two best teams in the tournament, and despite the fierce rivalry, the final was played in tremendous spirit amid great mutual respect.

New Zealand held off a fierce Australian comeback to win a thrilling game and become the first team to retain their title. Wonderful tries from Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma’a Nonu gave the All Blacks a 21-3 lead early in the second half before David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani struck back. But when Beauden Barrett sprinted away on to Ben Smith’s clearing kick in the final minutes history was secured.

It was a great game, marked by the insistent quality of New Zealand’s attack and a rousing Australian comeback during the second half that ought to merit some kind of asterisk in the history books. Australia’s obduracy did them great credit, they kept their pride but the overall task, as so often against these peerless opponents, was beyond them.

Dan Carter was outstanding from the outset, under a ferocious Wallaby assault, landing 19 points from his immaculate kicking, as they were tested to the limit. His first curling over a testing penalty from out wide for 3-0 set the scene for a man-of-the-match performance.

Australia targeted Carter, Scott Sio lucky to escape a yellow card for smashing him back with a late hit to his ribs, and Sekope Kepu giving away a penalty for a high tackle to his jaw, that Carter popped over to retake the lead.

Ma’a Nonu’s fine try looked to have put the All Blacks out of sight, but the Wallabies came back, but after missing the 2011 World Cup final through injury, this was the perfect ending for world rugby’s most perfect 10. Carter could not dream of a better finale to his 12-year, 112-cap All Black career.

Carter, who is of Māori descent, has played since the age of five in the fly-half role, starting with Southbridge Rugby Club in the South Island of New Zealand. His great uncle was Canterbury and New Zealand half back Bill Dalley, a member of the 1924–25 Invincibles. On 16 November 2013, Carter became the fifth All Black to gain 100 caps.

He has a World Cup winner’s medal from 2011, but it was a consolation, his injury in the pool stages turned him into water-boy in the knock-out stages. This time he would not be denied. His peerless place kicking helped establish a 21-3 lead, which seemed to have secured the world title once again. When the Wallabies turned that around in eleven second-half minutes with Ben Smith off for a yellow card, Carter took over.

Forty metres out, a drop goal struck with a precision from his left foot, as if he were back in the field at his parents’ house in Southbridge, taking aim at the homemade posts his father stuck up to save any more windows in the house from being smashed.

Then, five minutes later, a penalty from further out still. That he converted Beauden Barrett’s breakaway try at the death with his less favoured right foot was remarkable less for the skill of it and more for the fact that it may have been the first self-indulgent act of his twelve years in an All Blacks jersey.

Carter is surely the finest fly-half the world has seen, and not just for his scoring prowess, he also made more tackles than any other player from either side in the final too.

With 15 minutes to go there were just four points in it, but his nerveless long-distance drop-goal and penalty snatched back control. This was his game, in a team of champions. Close up shots as he prepared to take his kicks, under pressure like we can’t imagine, showed a calmness in his face and a determination in his brown eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those kicks over.

There was the control when all around was chaos: the right options with hands and voice in his own half. Carter was a calm presence, the rock around which their waves of runners broke, some splitting inside, others out to his right. He sent pop passes one way and fast, long, flat ones the other. After his drop-goal, he didn’t celebrate, he simply shouted to Nonu and Smith: next job, next job.

Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is an option. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Carter on the field would have been his own self-doubt, but I recall an interview once where he said, I do not believe in taking the right decision on my kicking, I take a decision and make the kick right. There’s something about his temperament that is just perfect for test rugby.

More than that, his last game was a thing of artistry and guile. His all-round game was superb, his game management top notch. He made sure the All Blacks played in all the right places and, even when things were getting tense when the Wallabies were on fire in the middle of the second half, it was Carter who showed nerves of steel. But it was in those final ten minutes when he was Dan Carter as everyone will want to remember him.

He took his time with the penalty, went through his routine like always and then struck the ball perfectly. It was always going over. It had the legs, just. It had the distance and it was then, with the All Blacks ten points ahead and with seven minutes left, that a nation could believe they were going to win.

We applaud champions, knowing that we would never have been able to do what they’ve achieved. There is something deeply captivating about exceptional individual performance in sport. The fascination for extraordinary as we think of the champions who stand proud on the podium, with their medals and their nation’s anthem ringing in their ears, is about human dignity as well as human achievement. For me it’s about saluting the person.

Dan Carter is a world champion for sure. How can we summon up the true character of the champion ourselves, and take this into our business? Here are some of those characteristics. How many of these statements also describe you and your business life?

Success comes to those with passion to strive Striving is more than simply being competitive, it is an attitude that illustrates that the individual is as much competing with himself as with the challenge, or others in the same race. What sets Carter apart from the rest is his relentless passion and uncompromising pursuit of extraordinary endeavour. Carter masters his mental game, which became his competitive edge, he persists in spite of fatigue, tenacious in discovering his own style of beating the elements.

Authentic and inquisitive Champions are aware of their strengths and limitations, there are no pretentions. Such authenticity bolsters the courage in taking on lofty goals, but also in dealing with their true selves. They always seek the new frontier, pushing the boundaries, refusing to accept the status-quo. They begin every day hoping to learn something new, always searching for new insights, for original thinking, for something that makes them better.

Application, hard-work and discipline That is more than just the hours you put in, it is the discipline to set aside other things and concentrate hard on your own development. It is about focus and single mindedness. It is not just about deciding to work an extra hour, it’s about deep thinking, about getting down to the core of what you are trying to achieve. It is about knowing in your heart, when something is not good enough and can and should be better. Notice that this is self-discipline. Past a certain point, you and only you can provide that intensity of will.

Courage. No champion is without courage. It may be of mind or body. When things are in the balance, when you cannot be sure, when others are uncertain or hesitate, when the very point is that the outcome is in doubt that is when a champions’ mental toughness lets them step forward. The courage lies not in acting without fear, but in acting despite fear.

Optimism Carter expresses an ability to reframe adversity – missing the 2007 and 2011 finals – as an opportunity for achievement. Champions consider adversity as indicative of the merit of the pursuit and thus welcome it. They reveal that beyond physical skill and training, there exists a champion mind set. They all have distinct cognitive and emotional make-up that allows them to relentlessly push themselves on their quest.

Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete, they train to improve their skills and push peak levels of performance. Continuing to dream is part of this, they never stop striving for that next big result. Planning to compete at the highest level, and putting in a shift, high-performance athletes plan out their training schedules in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals.

Don’t settle for ‘Good enough’, use pressure to improve your focus Most business folk lack the same level of mental discipline that Carter has in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. In business, average performance is often tolerated. The choice is yours – average work, yields average results. Chose your attitude and get the right mind set.

Most businesses aren’t physically demanding by nature, usually it’s about our mental and emotional state of mind. Success comes from finding a way to tap into your inner strength, your core values, your passion and your attitude. It’s what you’ll need to put one foot in front of another, and to keep going. Remember, every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.

Carter’s success is down to his perseverance – it’s the hard work he does after he gets tired of doing the hard work he already did. I’m sure the words of Dick Fosbury will resonate with him: When my body got tired, my mind said this where winners are made; when my mind got tired, my heart said this is where champions are made.

Life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success. On the rugby pitch and in life, it’s not how often you’re knocked down but how many times you get up that makes the difference.

The victory was the more sweeter for New Zealand given that a number of their squad were playing in their final All Blacks match, Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith will all move to France, thus ending their international careers, McCaw will probably retire, while prop Tony Woodcock and hooker Keven Mealamu will retire completely from the game.

There should be sadness. Instead, there could be only celebration – of a champion team full of champion individuals like Dan Carter. This is how it ends, then, for the finest fly-half in the game. Man of the match in the World Cup final, an All Black’s victory, and a contribution of 19 points.

Good habits of mindful startup entrepreneurs

Raise your hand if you can start working immediately whenever you want, never get tempted and never get distracted by social media or email or reading the newspaper? No? Me neither. But I’ve learned something that helps a lot. It’s all about our willpower and habits, the part of our mind where we decide on actions to take.

The philosopher Plato first described our internal willpower struggle around 400BC with the allegory of the chariot. In the driver seat, you have the rational mind with a certain amount of willpower, and the chariot is pulled by two horses representing our spirited energy. The charioteer can guide the horses for a while, but if he fights them for too long, or is too weak, the horses will eventually take control of the chariot and go against our demand, and thus lose our focus.

So it is with our minds. Staying productive and managing our impulses is all about strengthening our chariot driver and making sure we can steer our energy in the right direction. To do that, we must build up our willpower and focus on our good habits.

This is especially important for startups, where time is of the essence and building that PoC to test with customers is the most important priority. However, as noted, we all get distracted. What about just adding one more feature here, pitching to another potential investor this week, talking to a marketing agency? All are like the horses if you’re not careful, they’ll end up pulling you in the wrong direction, distractions from your primary focus.

At its core, willpower is your ability to get things done and shape good habits. It determines how easy it is for you start working and resist eating that third cookie and playing a You Tube video.

Think of willpower as a muscle: it’s something that you can flex and relax as you need to, strengthen with training, and lose if you don’t use it enough. This was shown in the radishes and cookies experiment, where scientists brought in participants who had skipped a meal and asked them to do one of three things:

  1. Eat radishes, but avoid eating cookies
  2. Eat cookies, but avoid eating radishes
  3. Just do nothing (i.e. participants weren’t shown either food)

Afterwards, subjects were asked to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. Participants who had eaten the radishes while resisting the cookies gave up much more quickly than those who got to eat cookies or weren’t shown food. Why? Because they used up their willpower resisting the cookies, and couldn’t use it on the puzzle.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d cave and grab the cookies. I’m just weak-willed,’ don’t worry: science has also shown that willpower is something you can train. So how can you develop a will of steel that that helps you work your way through the toughest tasks? Simple: pay attention to your mental and physical health.

No, I’m not going to go into tree-hugging mode and talk about good diet, exercise, get more sleep, drink a gallon of water a day to become more hydrated, then move onto mediation, yoga or pilates. I’m going to focus on habits, and practicing good habits to build that mental muscle.

There has been much documentation about the habits of successful people, thanks in large part to Stephen Covey’s highly successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While this has been a key piece of reading for the business community since the late 1980s, the traits are different for a startup leader.

Habits form our professional lives. They provide a framework on which we build the success we desire. I often study founders’ routines and how I can emulate them myself. Here are the some interesting habits I have gleaned from entrepreneurs I’ve worked with that can help give you starting points for your own successful daily routine in your startup.

Habit 1: Don’t take no for an answer, always look forward Being an innovator is all about disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder, it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Put customers first A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to your product that doesn’t generate value for them, and revenue for yourself.

Habit 3: Minimise low impact decision-making You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make some bets, make your business about one simple problem, test it, and solve it.

Habit 5: Take one further step than everyone else – always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Keep going when others stop, being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key.

Habit 6: Be visible – get out of the building The startup founders I’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’, be visible and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is key to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised and shift gears, out your meetings on a diet Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through and execute them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning but a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading. Jettison protracted meetings and flabby agendas, make stuff happen.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there, play tomorrow’s agenda today Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.

Habit 12: Reflect on critical open questions through different lenses Most disruptive thinking is borne by a long cultivation of an open question, followed by the nurturing of a slow hunch. If you get a mental block, work at the problem each day from different angles, under different lenses – looking at extremes, considering what essential assumptions are and how to test them. Eventually I find some real traction with an idea that seems novel and has a good chance of working.

Habit 13: Plan tomorrow’s agenda today Before the close of business, go over what’s coming up the next day. Review and forecast what tomorrow is going to look like and how you’re going to get through that. It gives you an opportunity to prioritise, and also allows us to go to bed at night with a clear head. Your mind does a lot of work for you while you’re sleeping. You get there the next day and are much more efficient and productive

Similar to this habit, I have my own evening retrospective on the day just ended. Every night before bed, I think about this question: If I live every day the same way I did today, what kind of future would that create? It forces me to constantly evaluate whether or not my actions are lining up with my priorities. The future is shaped one day at a time, and it’s never as far away as we think.

We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. The startup founder who wants to reach the top appreciates the might of the force of habit and understands that practices are what create habits. He is quick to break those habits that can break him, and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires, as outlined above.

My own thoughts are that if I can get victory over myself, the odds are high I can help fix ideas into stuff that works. If I can’t fix myself, the odds are equally high I will never be able to add value and do good things. As Flaubert said, Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

So many hats, so little time; the habits and rhythms of successful startup founders.

Simple – ship weekly (or ship weakly), test, talk to users. The rest makes you mediocre, like wasting time on Twitter. As Elon said, work like hell.

You’ve probably heard someone say this before, or maybe this statement has even come from you too. Why is it that almost everyone claims to have the next big startup idea but only a small number of people have the courage and audacity to start something new and make it happen?

It’s another thing all together to go out and start something. To make a start exposes us. It is fundamentally this fear that stops us from being bold that stops us from taking action. We fear what others will think and say. We are afraid that our own self image will be tainted in the event of failure.

Its much safer to say things than it is to go out and try things. It’s also much easier to give ourselves the satisfaction of believing that if we went out and took action that we would succeed than it actually is to just give it a try. We don’t know and nether does anyone else. The only true indicator of startup success is reality. The unpredictability of the startup experiment frightens us and keeps us locked in a prism of self-made excuses.

Those who are able to ignore their own fears are the ones that start things. They are bold and give themselves permission to start and thus the opportunity to succeed. Everybody else, just self-sabotages their own success. Fear in the form of resistance is created by our need for certainty, safety and comfort.

How do you make the shift from talking about a startup to acting on your ideas? The struggle is not in the idea it is in the process of overcoming the fear to start, then beating your own resistance to complete it and finally dealing with the fear of failure in order to get it out there.

With so many internal battles it’s no wonder that we find it easier to talk about them than to start take action towards achieve those visions. Breaking this cycle of fear is something we must learn if we wish to produce results.

Start it. Ship it. Repeat. Seth Godin talks in detail about the mindset of people to start things and ship things. His book, Poke the Box, discusses the innovation mindset from a new point of view:

The challenge, it turns out, isn’t in perfecting your ability to know when to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting.

You’ll need to learn to identify these key fears…

  • Fear of success: the fear that we are not worthy of success. You must believe in yourself in order to take action.
  • Rationalisation: beware of the excuses you make in your mind of why things happen a certain way.
  • Self medication: beware of when you feel the desire to heal yourself or taking a break. This can often come from a place of fear rather than truth.
  • Victimhood: do not identify with your failures.
  • Self-doubt: beware of self-sabotage, when you unconsciously act in particular ways to reduce your ability to succeed.

In Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, he discusses the resistance we all face when launching something new, specifically though he lists a number of ways to make the shift from self-doubting mindset to work to having a more determined mindset:

  • Show up everyday, show up no matter what
  • Stay on the job all day
  • Commit over the long haul
  • The stakes are high and real: this means that we must have sense of urgency with our work.
  • We are focused on results
  • We do not over identify with our work: we must be willing to change our work based on feedback of relevant sources
  • We master the technique of our work
  • We have a sense of humour about our work
  • We receive praise or blame in the real world: we expose ourselves to external feedback.

As Elon Musk says, When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.

As I learn more about startups and the community, the more intrigued I have become with startup founders. I have supported a number of founders from tech startups, and I am constantly inspired by how they execute at speed within such uncertain circumstances. I’ve observed a pattern amongst many of these folk, regardless of their product, service or industry, these founders all had the following characteristics in common:

Vision and Purpose What are you trying to achieve? There will be highs and lows throughout the entrepreneurial journey of building a business. Remembering why you started in the first place and being able to see the end goal gives you the conviction to move forward through the toughest obstacles.

Persevere with an ability to get stuff done The founders I’ve worked with all carry a positive attitude and possess a winning mentality. They have fallen, but always return with a sense of resilience. They see the positive in the negative. They understand that to grow, they must raise the bar, as there is always the next stage, a higher challenge to meet.

They are guided by unwavering passion for what they do Passion (their why?) brings the sunshine on a rainy day. They started their business out of passion over profit, motivated by their interest in good impact. You want to make sure what you’re doing is what you love, because you will ultimately feel less of a slave to your business if you’re following your heart and not the money.

They run experiments like crazy The market opportunity is constantly changing and with that, there will always be new gaps, trends and demands. Good founders are like scientists and adventurers, they are always testing and experimenting. They recognise in order to stay relevant, market validation is a constant process.

Simplicity Whenever I look at a successful startup, it’s easy to admire how the moving parts, features and services, work in harmony, and do so with simplicity as the unifying theme. So when designed the V1 of anything there are four things we should remember:

1. It should be a solution to a singular problem, not a related multitude.
2. It should be easy to build & test against that problem.
3. It should be easy to explain.
4. It should be easy to adopt and use.

So, if these are the core features, attributes and outcomes arising from the study of successful startups, what are the individual habits of startup founders to make it happen? Here are my twelve thoughts:

Habit 1: Always look forward Being an innovator is all about being a disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Be customer centric A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to yoru product that doesn’t generate revenue. Focus on making valuable things. Everything else is noise.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts. Don’t create obstacles. When others create obstacles, move on and keep building.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Remarkably successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make your business about one simple problem, and solve it.

Habit 5: Always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key. It’s easy to be critical. Especially in private. Don’t be.

Habit 6: Get out of the building The startup founders we’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’ and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through with them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning and a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the famous Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. In fact, he embraces it. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution he says. Dyson’s point is that if you want to discover something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. The habit of being resilient and not taking no for an answer stood him in good stead

Habit 12: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. If you must, put your name to it and articulate your analysis objectively. Say it to their face.

How many of these habits do you recognise in yourself? What else do you do that adds to the list? Let me know!

 

Set your inner voice to ‘authentic’

I was at an RSPCA Summer Open Day on Saturday, the lure of a glass of home made lemonade and ginger cake for £1 on the chalked sign was too much to walk past, so I popped in out of the cold.

One of my previous dogs was a shaggy, doe-eyed bearded collie cross, an RSPCA rescue dog. A more loving, loyal and hairy Wookie look-a-like hound you could not wish for. She had paws and a heart the size of a lion. I’ve been a sucker for supporting any dog sanctuary, stray or care charity ever since.

The great pleasure of a dog is that you can make a fool of yourself with her and not only will she not scold you, but she will make a fool of herself with you too. My last dog, Tess, a golden retriever who passed on aged 14 last November, liked nothing more than a good play fight and cuddle, and next to my wife, she was the best kisser ever. She was also great at cleaning your ears with her big wet tongue. Thoroughly. But let’s move on.

Dogs are miracles with paws, when they laugh they laugh with their tails, they share our lives in a way that most other animals can’t. Each evening Tess waited for me by the front door, face smiling, mouth open and tail wagging, ready to dote and bark for around twenty minutes to announce to the entire neighbourhood that I was home from work and we were off for a walk.

Dogs’ lives are too short, their only fault really if you ignore the chewing of the occasional CD or loss of cakes from the carrier bag on the kitchen floor as you fetch the shopping in from Tesco. We all long for affection altogether ignorant of our faults, and we get such unconditional love from dogs that we take it for granted.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.  They fight for honour and territory, make themselves heard without inhibition when they need to, and self-clean body parts with no moral restraint. You would think that for all their marvelous instincts that they appear to know nothing about numbers, but if you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving out only two of them.

The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog, happy to share the entire experience, but 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 a dog. But enough about the dog, my reason for writing this blog was partly about the authentic behaviour of dogs, but really this blog came about because of a number on experiences this week where the unauthentic behaviour of humans really made its mark on me.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit and lack of authenticity everywhere. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his or her share, but we tend to take the situation for granted and totally ignore it. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.

So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves, and we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. But set against the honesty and sincerity you get from your dog, the polarity of dog behaviours when compared to some humans led me onto thinking more about the meaning of authenticity.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means brining the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in the simplicity for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfill that.

Once you act this out, you need to remember this image for a long time, because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. Politicians across the entire spectrum have consistently fallen into this trap.

I always believe in the best in human nature, and trust most people to be generally honest. Indeed society is built on trust. However the last week saw the culmination of a three-year legal case I was involved in as the primary witness for the prosecution on a  business fraud case, and this has been illuminating.

I fully appreciated I was one of the key elements in bringing an offender to justice, supporting the victim of economic crime and provide them some closure if no recompense for losses suffered However, my overriding thought is the lack of authenticity in the justice system, both the people and the process.

It is adversarial. The focus is on winning rather than discovering the truth. Criminal justice should be inquisitorial – the prime focus should be on discovering what happened and then on punishing or rehabilitating appropriately, surely? Listening and watching the interaction of both sides of the legal and moral divide tell me the system has given up on rehabilitation and simply focused on creating the most enormous and costly bureaucracy possibly.

Lawyers are motivated by wealth, yet recall In the Ancient Roman Republic, it was illegal for lawyers to accept money or gifts from clients as it was felt to be a corrupting influence. This has dire consequences and certainly corrupts the entire system as far as I can see, there is no authenticity in any aspect of the dna pervading. Victims are ignored, if not often forgotten.

This lack of authenticity in the process quickly set the tone for my daily interactions with most of the staff in the judicial system. After a week of missing authentic communication with the people I usually spend the week with, this a new theme that is becoming the cornerstone of everything I do. It all started with noticing how I greeted and responded to the court staff.

It usually went something like this: Hello, how are you today. Good, you? Good. Alright, see you later. Not only did I not really care about how the person was doing, I also played along with his fake enthusiasm, but it wasn’t just me! When other staff asked me How are you doing? they kept walking without waiting for an answer. How are you doing? has become the new Hi. Most people don’t really want to know, nor do they really mean it.

The idea is that we are interacting daily on a superficial level, but very few of us want to snap out of it and have a genuine conversation. Naturally, talking about authenticity made me hyper-aware of my own patterns and non-genuine conversations, and I tried to stay true and present at all times, even if it made for awkward situations. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face-to-face conversation.

With the domination of the digital marketplace, everyone is banging on about customer experience, customer engagement and customer loyalty, but the latest I reckon is customer romance. I say this as I was lashing on the Aloe Vera gel to my thorn-filled hands after a Sunday in the garden, the Holland & Barrett gel for bio active skin treatment was just the job, but the subtle we’re good for you struck me as an example of authentic branding.

Maybe an unfashionable brand, maybe I was just recoiling from being grumpy all week, but a visit to their web site gave me ideas around customer romance as a strategy, the authenticity of their style of communication is contagious, and there’s no better way to connect with a customer than to be sincere, transparent and honest.

We need authenticity now more than ever, and I must admit I’ve been an advocate of President Obama since day one, admiring his openness and evenhandedness, underpinned by his purpose and beliefs. This week his handling of a heckler at a LBGT event in the White House, and his presence and leadership at the Charleston memorial service for victim Clementa Pinckney, where he lead the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’, showed once again the authenticity of his leadership and character. It makes a difference.

One way out of this hall of mirrors is to insist ever more loudly that oneself is really, truly authentic, and innumerable products now advertise themselves as ‘real’, following the lead of Coke’s slogan ‘the Real Thing’. Even my Marks & Spencer’s underwear is branded ‘authentic’, posing the question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts would look like.

However, too persuasive a performance of authenticity will be taken as a sign of falseness. In my authenticity-obsessed mindset I want something to be real, but I’m on a hair trigger to cry foul if it seems too real to be true.

It also reifies a simplistic notion of what is fake to begin with. A blanket privileging of the concrete and the in-person, an indie disdain for post-production or Photoshopping I just don’t get. The fetish for authenticity, here as in the realms of food and vintage clothing, shows itself to be inherently nostalgic, always looking back to an imagined, prelapsarian nirvana. Maybe it was just an easier way of life in Hardy’s rural idyll.

And then we have ‘reality TV’. To define a person’s authenticity as the perfect conjunction of outward seeming and inward being is not a new idea. But what matters most now is that such personal authenticity be performed plausibly, yet paradoxically, contestants routinely accuse their rivals of being less than genuine. If we all looked at each other through the same lens, what would we see – but let’s not go back to the Criminal Justice system.

Yet it is precisely in high-end product brand marketing that we can perceive the key aspect of the modern authenticity mania and yet the diametric falsehood that sits just below the surface. Such commodities are positioned as ‘aspirational’, because that is now how society has silently agreed to redefine aspiration – a yearning desire to control more wealth and to own more expensive objects.

It’s the same for the ‘Selfie’ and the taking of photos with your smartphone. Why do people take so many mundane photos and share them via social media? I think they’re trying to show their authenticity but it’s stimulated by the redefinition of authenticity.

So what is the implicit bargain when we buy an ‘authentic” Hermès bag? Or a Hublot watch, a clockwork marvel costing tens of thousands of pounds, which prides itself, like all luxury analogue watches, precisely on the amusing superfluity of its engineering? We are being sold the assurance that nimble-fingered workers in a French leather-working atelier or a Swiss horlogerie laboratory have sunk hundreds or thousands of man-hours into its making. It’s a classic timepiece.

It tells the time, unlike Stephen Hawking, our interest in time doesn’t need to extend to the nanosecond measurement.

The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that artisans have laboured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be ‘artisanal’ or at least ‘independent’. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power. And don’t get me on the ‘authenticity’ of Glastonbury. People go just to say they’ve been there and come home smelling for three days of the authentic perfume of mud.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being an original doesn’t mean you, or a brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach, being totally clear about who you are and what you do best. When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers. It’s the same for people too.

It was a long, tiring, frustrating week. Weekend was good, I love the RSPCA, it’s purpose, vision, values and people, the event made me sad for my lost dogs, and simply highlighted what I truly value in my life, and that includes dogs over people. Institutions of State, or Holland & Barrett? I’ve become obsessed with authenticity and differences between echt and ersatz. Why bother doing anything if it’s not for real?

Authenticity starts in the heart. We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen. Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently.