Entrepreneurial creativity: find something only you can say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restlessness & reinvention James has never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each release has emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common sense is the genius of humanity: the voice of Jason Fried

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a web applications company based in Chicago, has a philosophy to startup tech that is clear, articulate and makes complete sense. Fried pushes back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as fundamentally flawed.

Why do we often refer to the pace of our workplace as ‘crazy’? I hear this all the time when talking with startups, the need for 12+ hour days, working into the early hours two nights a week, and over weekends too. While this has been accepted as the ‘new normal’ in many tech startup workplaces, Fried’s approach is to simply turn this on its head and debunk the myth.

And it’s not just what he says as a spectator, commentating from outside in. To stereotype Fried as just another dreamer would be a mistake. Fried’s company not only has millions of users for its products such as Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, and Backpack, but it has been profitable from day one, and chased customers, not investors – it remains privately funded by the founders.

Basecamp was founded as 37signals in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim as a web design company. David Hansson joined later, and was instrumental in developing the open source web application framework, Ruby on Rails.

The company was originally named after the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. There are apparently billions of signals and sources of noise in space, but, according to Horowitz, there are 37 signals that remain unexplained.

Fried’s story is a personal entrepreneurial journey of creating answers to problems he had, then scaling the solutions into products to sell.  His first product came from the early days of having an AOL account and dial up modem. He was looking for software to organise his personal music collection, didn’t find anything that appealed, so set out to make his own.

He found FileMaker Pro, then made a music-organising database for himself, designing his own graphical interfaces around the standard database elements. He called it ‘Audiofile’ and uploading it to AOL, he asked people to pay $20 if they liked it – and they did!

And that was how Fried’s software startup journey started, the last twenty years have been based on that experience, and today Basecamp is the same thing – the team make products for themselves that they sell to other people. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems they have!

So, looking at Fried’s blogs, published on https://m.signalvnoise.com/ and https://medium.com/@jasonfried, and his books Rework, Remote, Getting Real – and the forthcoming It doesn’t have to be crazy at work – what are the key takeaways from Fried’s philosophies? Here are some thoughts, based around his own words.

1.     Be a calm company

For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their normal. At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing workdays into a series of fleeting work moments, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.

It is no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers.

The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Tuesday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.

Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis – an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth – is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way

So build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that lead to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement.

No hair on fire. Build calm. As a tech company you’re supposed to be playing the hustle game. But Fried has Basecamp working at 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour, four-day weeks in the summer. The workplace is more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen.

Basecamp focus on doing just a few things. It seems everyone else is trying to do new and innovative stuff. They are more focused on usefulness rather than innovation. We take our inspiration from things like the stapler and paper clip. It might not be as sexy and newsworthy, but it gives us the opportunity to be around for a long period of time.

2.     Love Mondays

It’s actually more Fridays I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it.

Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week has to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, before reality pummels your spirit.

I think the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-type stuff. No digging into the mountain of overdue emails, no ‘just checking in’. Let the weekend be a desert for work and Mondays will seem like an oasis.

Of course, that’s if you actually like what you do and who you do it with. If neither of those things are true, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: Why are neither of those things true? Then take steps to remedy the situation once that question grows old (and before you do).

Turning Mondays into a delight rather than a dread is really all about moderation. Humans are designed for balance. The best recipe is a mix, not a single-ingredient sludge. Take the weekend to enjoy an exclusive plate of not-work, and wake up hungry for Monday’s fresh serving.

3.     Being tired isn’t a badge of honour

Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. Rest be damned, they say , there’s an endless amount of work to do. People pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausted. They’re just too tired to notice that their work has suffered because of it.

I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Scientists suggest that your ability to think declines on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.

And there’s more to not getting enough sleep than compromising your own health and creativity. It affects the people around you. When you’re short on sleep, you’re short on patience, less tolerant, less understanding. It’s harder to relate and to pay attention for sustained periods of time.

If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify sustained lack of sleep? The only people who try to do so are tired and not thinking straight.

One argument I hear a lot about working long hours is that when you’re just getting started, you have to give it everything you’ve got. I understand that feeling. And there’s certainly some truth to it. Yes, sometimes emergencies require extra hours and you need to make an extra push. That happens. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary. Such cases should be the exception, not the rule.

But people don’t stop working that way. We’re creatures of habit. The things you do when you start doing something tend to be the things you continue to do. If you work long hours at the beginning, and that’s all you know, you can easily condition yourself to think this is the only way to operate. I’ve seen so many entrepreneurs burn out following this pattern.

So it’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better, and be a better person. Sleep is great for creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?

In the long run, work is not more important than sleep. If you aren’t sure how important sleep is, think about this: You’ll die faster without sleep than you will without food. And, on balance, very few problems need to be solved at the 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning.

4.     Give it five minutes

You don’t have to be first or loudest with an opinion – as if being first means something. Wanting to be the first and loudest voice really means you are not thinking hard enough about the problem. The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.

Man, give it five minutes. It’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give ideas some time to set in. ‘Five minutes’ represents ‘think, not react’. Come into a discussion looking to learn, not prove something. There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions, to learn.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. Dismissing other people’s ideas is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is think about it, let it marinate, explore it, mull it over, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.

So next time you hear something, or someone, talk, pitch or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or won’t work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.

So, four interesting perspectives from Fried that run counter to the hullabaloo we see in tech startup mantra on the street.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple – here’s a beautiful way to put it: leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfillment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, with intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph. I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow incredibly slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

I’ve not always been able to run myself by Fried’s philosophies, but for the last decade his common sense, people-centric, purpose and principles lead approach has been my yardstick. Go on, give it a go yourself.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: pearls of wisdom from Atticus Finch

Startups, and the entrepreneurs behind the ventures, are in vogue everywhere. Cities across the world are sprouting incubators and accelerator programmes to attract innovative talent, to foster new firm formation.

The fascination with entrepreneurs is not new, literature dating to the C18th explores what drives entrepreneurs and whether their traits matter for the outcomes of their ventures. Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (1921) marked the launch of research on the personalities of entrepreneurs that set them apart.

Research continues to investigate the characteristics that prompt people to become entrepreneurs, and motivations that keep them on their chosen path. Many scholars have tried to understand the homo entreprenaurus (a moniker introduced by Professor Roope Uusitalo, 2001).

For me, it’s unnecessary to compare Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to the average person, because for every Jobs or Musk there are a thousand self-employed entrepreneurs seeking growth-oriented businesses simply for themselves. The collective impact of these individuals on our economy is enormous, even if they don’t start the next Apple.

The top two entrepreneurial personality traits I’ve seen at first hand are perception and intuition – success doesn’t come to those who are smartest, rather to those who see opportunities and take them.

Besides having a range of skills and traits, the majority of successful entrepreneurs are, in my experience, decent people with a strong moral compass, likeable, with integrity and honourable intentions. However, I know others with a big ‘look at me’ ego, cultivating the aura of a pantomime villain. We often focus on the positive traits of entrepreneurs, but there are less attractive, unspoken flaws.

The ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurs I’ve seen includes high levels of narcissism, Machiavellian in their manipulation of people, and over-assurance to the point of being egotistical – letting ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. I’ve seen paranoia reach delusional proportions, workaholic tendencies becoming unbalanced, and as a result, frequent emotional and temperamental outpourings as they look at the world myopically through their own coloured lenses.

We all know the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, but you don’t have to be sharp elbowed and arrogant to be a successful entrepreneur, good guys do win – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home! So who would be your role model be? For me, this is captured by a comment in President Obama’s farewell presidential address: Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch.

Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a lawyer, and the father of Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and Jean ‘Scout’ Finch. The character of Finch, as portrayed in an Academy-Award winning performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption, saw him proclaimed as the greatest hero of all American novels and cinema.

To Kill a Mockingbird unfolds against the backdrop of Atticus’s representation of Tom Robinson, a black man, has been accused by Mayella Ewell, a white woman, of rape. While Atticus is assigned to be Robinson’s public defender, he earns the townspeople’s ire in his determination to actually defend him, honorably and fairly, to the best of his abilities, at a time when racism in the Southern US was culturally strong.

The life lessons Atticus teaches us are priceless around humanity, personal conduct and ethics. His are more than just great one-liners, Atticus gives us example after example of how to be a decent human being and a terrific parent, leading by example more than anything, a quality to be admired. He earns respect for himself without demanding it. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom, and how they relate to entrepreneurial behaviours.

Just be yourself

Finch: Before you can live with others, you have to live with yourself.

Know who you are and manage yourself well. When you know who you are others will regard you as trustworthy. To be authentic you must operate without pretences. Be confident and honest, do not compare yourself to others and do not put any effort into being someone you are not. Atticus is authentic, not trying to impress because what he already possesses internally is impressive, workable and successful.

Think for yourself, instead of following the crowd. Throughout the story there are numerous subplots, the most telling being about the mysterious neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, through which the ultimate lesson that is tactfully weaved is that it’s important to be yourself.

Be interested in others

Finch: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

When you are not self-centered, you will enjoy listening to others share about themselves. Recognise each person, whatever their status, as someone you can learn from. Being interested makes you a great networker, because people will sense you have no hidden agendas. People will appreciate the depth of your interest and experience you to as genuine and likeable, making them feel open and willing to do business with you.

Atticus explains why he respects everyone’s opinion, even those who disagree with him, but that he must make decisions about how to act based on his own moral compass.

Stay Calm

Finch: You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. Try fighting with your head for a change.

Be present at all times when others are communicating, no matter what their tone. Make it your intention to stay absorbed in the information being discussed, focused on the conversation and the other person. Listen to understand, not to respond. When you are not distracted or impatient to share your own perceptions, people will enjoy connecting with you.

When people feel heard and understood they relax and become more drawn to you. When you are attentive trust is developed and opportunities are more generously offered because people will feel confident they are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Be empathetic

Finch: I think there’s one kind of folks: folks.

Show understanding and compassion for the emotional struggles and self-doubts of others. Develop a perspective of compassion needed to imagine another person’s pain, avoid dismissing others as weak or lacking ability. Become a compassionate listener, it enables you to become better at solving problems, making decisions based on the mix of your logic, experience, perception and the person you are dealing with.

If Atticus had one dominating virtue, it is his superhuman empathy. Whenever his children felt angry at the misbehavior or ignorance of the individuals in their town, he would encourage their tolerance and respect by urging them to see the other person’s side of things.

Be open minded

Finch: No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.

Be open to receiving and letting other people in, especially when they have a different point of view to yours. Being guarded blocks opportunity and learning, it discourages others from trusting you. Demonstrating an open minded attitude works both ways, opening yourself up to new reciprocal relationships and opportunities for moving forward. Do not stunt your growth or someone else’s.

Atticus’ approach was to be fair to everyone, to sit their side of the argument and see things from their perspective, seeking to understand, not to simply win the argument. This is a great skill set every entrepreneur needs when selling.

Be accepting

Finch: At the end of the day, you know what’s right and wrong. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Be patient enough to never shut others out with prejudgment. Come to view everything with opportunity and learn to embrace human differentiation. Refrain from criticising the choices others make, even if you would never make those choices for yourself.

By practicing acceptance people will feel they can be true to who they are around you, creating openness and the possibility of opportunity. You will develop more diverse relationships and connections, and thus greatly increase your opportunities for success. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have to ‘win’ every time.

Be a relentless optimistic

Finch: It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.

Live in optimism, when you live through a positive mindset and the ‘art of possible’ you become an infectious person to be around. As you become comfortable in yourself to see possibilities, you will instantly lighten the mood of those around you, giving them self-belief and seeing opportunity for themselves. Always look for the silver lining, the growth opportunity. Be an energiser.

Atticus is an optimist, uses every situation as an opportunity to pass his values on to Scout and Jem. Atticus’ delighted in helping people see a situation in a positive new light, and they listened and respected him because of this. One of my favourite Atticus lines is this one to his kids: Keep your head up. Your dreams are in the sky not the dirt.

Simply, be humble

Finch: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.

Be satisfied and fulfilled in life by your own volition, work ethic and commitment to your success. Enjoy the serenity that comes when you don’t need to be the star of the show. Always acknowledge that your success has come with the help and support of others, and show appreciation for those who helped you get to where you are. Never hesitate to share the spotlight. When you are humble, people want to partner with you.

Atticus defends his client Tom Robinson from an angry mob with absolutely no violence. He diffuses them with the power of his words and his ability to stand tall and strong while they insulted him. Atticus represents morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a character, Atticus is even-handed throughout the story, an attractive virtue for every human, not just entrepreneurs.

Give your time freely

Finch: Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.

Develop an attitude of abundance, be generous with giving your time freely to help others. In giving of yourself and your time you will become more reflective and a richer human being. You will need less from others as you discover the satisfaction of lending a helping hand to people who need it. As others sense this in you, they are confident asking you for guidance or assistance.

Atticus embraces the quiet quality of giving people the time they need, and as a result, people are naturally drawn to him. For an entrepreneur, people will be curious about you. Use your time to gain more knowledge and try new things. Turn down the volume, talk less, listen to others.

Have moral courage

Finch: Push harder than yesterday if you want to win. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

There are different types of courage: physical, intellectual, and moral. While unassuming, Atticus certainly possessed physical courage: when Tom Robinson was in jail, he sat outside all night reading and faced down an angry mob intent on lynching the prisoner.

But moral courage is arguably the most important type of bravery, and this Atticus had in spades, and is a key trait for entrepreneurs. Atticus’s decision to represent Tom Robinson brought a slew of insults and threats to him and his family. But he was willing to bear the onslaught with head held high.

Moral courage involves the strength to stick with your convictions and do the right thing, even when you can see shortcuts – but you know it would be the wrong thing to do, even if it gave you advantage in the short term.

Never seek to be the biggest show-off, simply strive to be the hardest working.

To Kill a Mockingbird has stood the test of time despite the fact that Atticus is almost too eloquent, ethical, honest and forbearing. He represented the rule of sanity over hysteria, principle over passion, and tolerance over fear.

Barack Obama’s reference was deliberate and in the context of appointing a Supreme Court Justice to embody his quality of empathy. It’s not a quality you often see on the list of traits of successful entrepreneurs. Many would say entrepreneurs are at their best when they coldly and mechanically apply their own self-interests to get things done. There is no place for climbing inside anyone else’s skin as an entrepreneur. There is only your ambition and cold desire to win.

However, Atticus Finch’s assertion of trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the definition of empathetic entrepreneurial activism. I have come to think of him as the patron saint of patient, quiet listening, a quality to which all entrepreneurs ought to aspire.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr’s third solo album, Call The Comet, was released last week, with a North American and UK tour, culminating in Manchester on 18 November. It’s a bold and inspiring collection of tunes.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Marr formed The Smiths with the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. Marr gave the signature indie guitar sound to the band, nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold Marr, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described his sound as a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on the all-time classic This Charming Man.

Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F-sharp to accommodate Morrissey’s vocal range, and also used open tunings, and is known for creating sophisticated arpeggio melodies and chord progressions, applying open strings while chording to create chiming.

Call the Comet is easily his best and most confident work as a solo artist, deep and rich both musically and lyrically. It serves as a true testament to the idea that Marr has plenty to offer musically at this stage of his career, it clearly showcases his ever-present vitality with melody, or that gorgeous, liquid guitar playing.

Call the Comet carries songs that embody both Marr’s humaneness and his musicality, as the proud singer of expansive songs, which proclaim a more positive vision. Rather than wallow in the mire of the now, Marr dreams of a better tomorrow.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, and on his three solo albums to date, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those with melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks, none more so than There is a Light That Never Goes Out.

By the time Marr departed The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar.

He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups. All roads lead back to Johnny Marr, arguably Britain’s greatest guitar stylist.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? The same question can be asked of entrepreneurs, what gives them that edge, that spark of extraordinariness?

It’s not down to talent, yes there is a base level of skills, but fundamentally research shows it’s down to hard work and practice. Successful sports men and women have long understood the value of time and practice in improving their skills to uplift performance, and thus the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

But this is a process. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking was reinforced by groundbreaking research in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – deliberate practice. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough.

Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentless focus and inventing new ways to improve, rooting out shortfalls. Results are the grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up.

As an entrepreneur, do you do this, reflect and seek to improve, or simply rely on energy, relentless effort and your natural life force? Imagine if you combine your motivation to do stuff whilst also focus on improving your skills? The research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

You have to do the same thing again and again and again to wire it into long-term muscle memory. Do you practice your sales skills, or do you just keep making the same mistakes? It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike.

Ericsson studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

Ericsson concluded that whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information. The best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket, or you pouring over your presentation deck. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, embracing feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s statement genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealing that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Olympian Matthew Syed picks up on this in his book Bounce, and argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in your field. Those that start their pursuit early have a head start and an advantage, plenty of time to bank those 10,000 hours.

Ericsson showed this in a study at the Academy of Music in Berlin on three groups of violinists. The first group had star pupils, the second good students and the third students who would probably never play professionally. The groups had all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.

However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours.

The journey to truly superior performance – music, sport or business – is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.

So let’s look at the lessons to be shared from the research into the context of a startup founder, what are the common attributes, behaviours and qualities we can take from the research to help you become a high performing entrepreneur?

Discipline For entrepreneurs, to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, is discipline to focus and not deviate. The game plan is simply consistency. Having the idea is one thing, having the discipline to make it happen is what matters most. Creating a repeatable, scalable sales process takes a startup into a business. Practice and develop your customer facing skills.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo; entrepreneurs have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from customers. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead. Practice clear thinking.

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

Patience Patience is as important as the ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush to talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, and attack it with great precision. Practice means preparation, not going off instinct and spontaneous action every time.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they make the most of 30-second breaks when the game stops. During those brief seconds, they enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. Practice grounding yourself, adrenalin gets you to the table, clam thinking closes the deal.

Many entrepreneurs say they enjoy the frantic nature of the day, it’s non-stop and you have to work fifteen hours. Nonsense. They are simply allowing themselves to get caught up in the heat of the moment and are missing opportunities for learning by not pausing for reflection.

As a result, they leave too much stuff to chance. Pausing to collect your thoughts will create habits and the ability to sense, anticipate and overcome those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions. You create the conditions for more success by practicing your craft. Johnny Marr just doesn’t turn up for a gig on the night, there is a sound check.

Many of the greatest entrepreneurs’ success are a result of constant effort for improvement, testing and refining – their own version of deliberate practice. For example, James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. Thomas Edison captured it in his quote I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Deliberate practice is a mindset. For entrepreneurs, the goal is to practice and learn at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to getting familiar with his new tunes and seeing Johnny Marr in November, enjoying the results from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, an innovator, a musical entrepreneur. As Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Johnny Marr. The light that never goes out.

Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

On 12th July 1962, Ray Charles was number one with I Can’t Stop Loving You, The Beatles had recorded their first single Love Me Do and The Rolling Stones, debuted at The Marquee Club, London.

Some fifty-six years later, The Rolling Stones are still performing, and last week hit Manchester, half way through their latest tour. The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two childhood friends still fronting the most iconic rock ‘n roll band, both now into their seventies.

Jumping Jack Flash kicks us off. Engaging with the audience, Jagger lithe and agile. Richards full of intent, a craftsman, artisan, musicianship as intelligent and insightful as Mozart. They’ve lost none of their potency despite the advancing years. The stage graphics turn monochrome showcasing the band as various images explode and parade across the stage backdrop. Paint it Black. Gimme Shelter.

Familiar riffs ricochet from Richards’ septuagenarian fingers. It’s his sheer presence, the swagger and attitude that you notice, lips pursed, back arched, hammering out these classics tunes. Every single guitar player in every single band in the world has been influenced by Keith Richards. He is the living embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For Keith himself it’s all about the music. It’s the music that matters.

I was introduced to The Stones by my wife, they’ve some ok tunes, but it was Keith Richards the man and musician, rather than the band’s music, which particularly interests me. His biography, Life, is a wonderful voice and narrative of his, well, life, funnily enough. I guess I wasn’t expecting much more than some version of Get high, play music, crash…Get high, play music, crash…. but I found him articulate, witty, intelligent and thoughtful. By far the most impactful aspect of the book are the life lessons from a talented, high performing individual that you can take to influence your own entrepreneurial thinking.

Meeting Mick Jagger in 1961 on Dartford railway station was a moment of history that saw co-founders collide to form one of the most creative and long-lasting partnerships in modern music, one that has shaped the cultural history of the last fifty years with music that has roused the world.

Richards is acknowledged as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists, but he’s even more legendary for his near-miraculous ability to survive the debauched excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle. His prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol and tightrope-walking hedonism would likely have destroyed most of us. On-stage he epitomises guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Jagger’s extroverted frontman. Yet that part of Richards’ mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy.

His lean, punchy, muscular sound is the result of his unerring sense of rhythm and intuitive use of space amidst the noise. There is music in the silence too. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards prefers to work using open-chord tunings drawn from the Blues, his guitars strung with just five strings for cleaner fingering to enable his distinctive sound. While he confesses to wanting to have been a librarian, music has been his life: Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life, he once said.

Whilst most of us are unlikely to be rock stars, like Bowie, Eno and Lennon, Richard’s performance legacy identifies entrepreneurial insights and learnings relevant to creating your own music, albeit in a business sense. So get your headphones on, tune into Exile on Main Street, and read on.

Start with the 10,000 hours. Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Herbert Simon calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, a prescription further developed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Richards probably completed his 10,000-hour apprenticeship in his early twenties, so he’s now well past the level of mastery and into some other realm.

As Richards noted about his early days, The Beatles had nothing on us. We spent all our waking hours studying Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.

They would sit for hours asking How the hell did they do that? How did they get that sound? How did they play that chord progression? How can they do that much with two chords? Etc. They were modelling the greats. Richards created his own autonomy, mastery and purpose. He invested in himself.

Choose your attitude Richards’ family didn’t have a record player, but because, rather than in spite of his humble beginnings, he was still able to play music. He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is a driving force.

His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay determined his journey as a self-taught guitar player. Rather than allow his reduced economic circumstances to act as a barrier to achievement, he accentuated the positive, that he had a guitar and proceeded to play every spare moment I got.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blow me away. I never thought of him as such a hard worker as he clearly is, nor, frankly, did I think he was such a perfectionist. I don’t suggest you call upon quite as much pharmaceutical help to do it as Keith did, but he is an incredible role model for standing up not just for quality work, but the best quality work – and not just mostly, but all the time. Reach beyond your expectations, be a master of your craft.

Work ethic The musician’s bohemian lifestyle is all part of the alluring mythology of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, but the story is apocryphal. Richards is the ultimate professional rock ‘n’ roller but invested a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing, simply working hard, whether to sell records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

In their early years, The Stones released two, sometimes three, albums a year, while touring and writing new material. The Stones recorded more than fifty tracks in 1964. This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life, his autobiography, recounting countless rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions – they were relentless. It’s about building a body of work, creating your own voice and making it heard.

Be a collaborator Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership with Jagger produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows the chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist he knows, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, their deep personal resonance.

Creative partnerships are special – Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. Their partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one.

Equally, effective teams can cope with change. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. There are sparks of creative tension and disagreement between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, the chemistry and camaraderie is underpinned by respect, which creates the conditions for creativity.

Have an identity Branding is vital to establish your image. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for the band in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful rock brand marketing. It’s a consistent message, it’s about being who you are.

Remain humble, and be real In the interviews and the stories of lore about this great musician, I think Richards has in his own right remained humble about what he has achieved from his life, his longevity and legacy, and how thrilled he is that fans still come and see them perform, play and buy their music.

Last week Jagger sparked the crowd with It’s great to be in Manchester. Richards got a bigger roar when he quipped, whilst laughing to himself, It’s great to be anywhere – recognising his own mortality.

Play-on At 74, with a lifestyle afforded from his success, Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of successful individuals is that I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. Will you still have the passion and drive Keith has at his age? As John Cage said, There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

Richards epitomises the fact that winners work hard. If you don’t want to succeed more than you want to watch Netflix you have no one to blame but yourself for failing. Some struggle with finding enough time to grow their businesses, yet others find enough time to watch television on repeat loops.

This is not to stop you from starting, but encouraging you to step up to the plate and do what is necessary for your success. Look at the comments from Richards on practice and attitude. As an entrepreneur, you have to out-hustle and out-work your competition or they will out-hustle you.

Make your own noise Richards has spent his life rooted in leather jackets and amplifiers turned up to fifteen, doing what is necessary to write, record, produce and publish his own music, and playing live. Like bootstrapping your startup, the DIY ethic means you take action on your ideas today, rather than waiting for someone to give you permission or do it for you. Start today, make your own noise.

Rock music is a lifestyle, but it’s also a business. There are recording deals to contract, tours to organise and merchandise to sell, copyrighting songs written. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a traditional business setting.

Here’s a great quote from Richards which is as powerful statement about entrepreneurship as anything you’ll read from either Jobs, Gates or Bezos:

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. No one ever learned how to swim by standing up in the shallow end.

Even if you’ll never strum a guitar let alone write great tunes, you can learn a lot from one of the greatest musicians of all time. Who are you role models? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Life, why would you want to be anyone else if you were Keith Richards?

Choose your startup co-founder like you would a spouse

They started to arrive about eighteen months ago, an endless cascade of luxuriously quilted envelopes, thumping onto the doormat. The wedding invitations. Nothing to do with Harry and Meghan, but friends of my children. It’s that mid to late twenties age group.

It’s unstoppable, luxuriously creamy envelopes the thickness of a letter bomb containing a complex invitation. They are a triumph of paper engineering, a comprehensive dossier of mobile phone numbers, email addresses, web sites, how to get there, what to wear, Amazon gift lists.

This isn’t the first wave of weddings I’ve been witnessed, that was when many of my contemporaries married soon after university. In these wedding photos the bride and groom are seen raising pint glasses, raucous groups of silly 1980s haircuts, and modest wedding gifts.

There was a second wave, the late-twenties weddings, which still retained a little of that tongue in cheek home-made quality. The most memorable was a reception that took place in the groom’s parent’s gardens in Bristol, vows were self-composed and rigorously secular. But a cold, hard edge of professionalism had started to creep in: the idea of the pre-prepared ‘wedding list’ had begin to rear its head.

I remember the ‘entertainment’ was from an all-girl band – including the bride – that had obviously taken a series of wrong-turns and bad choices in their musical direction. Their sang their own songs, one was about miserable summer jobs. The bride subsequently packed up the band and took a course in Circus skills until is transpired that she had none. Trapeze was not the answer.

Then the third wave emerged, proving to be the most spectacular, weddings of friends in the early to mid-thirties who had been working for the best part of a decade, and had some money to throw at a once-in-a-lifetime event. Country House hotels, vast marquees like Bedouin tent cities; silk grey morning suits and top hats, hired and worn with absolutely straight faces, string quartets and Ceilidh callers, even ice sculptures. One couple left the reception in a hot air balloon.

Now I’m on the fourth wave as I say, friends of my kids. This weekend I was at one in Cheshire. I was on table twenty-four, near the back of the room. I didn’t take it personally, although I was tempted to tamper with the seating plan. What’s the main course I asked? The rumour mill says salmon. Salmon, salmon, salmon at weddings, I feel like swimming upstream.

A wedding requires immense reserves of love and commitment and time off work, not least from the guests. Confetti costs two pounds a bag – it had to be Vintage Rose Pink and White Heart Biodegradable Tissue Paper Wedding Throwing Confetti. A bag of fragrant boil-in-the-bag jasmine rice from Aldi wasn’t approved by my wife.

Will it be bonding, soul mates for life, or the start of melancholy, wet winters of recriminations, slammed doors and watching TV together in silence?

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that hooking up with a new partner launching a new business is just like getting married and gaining a spouse, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. So you should prepare for a co-founder relationship in much the same way you would for a marriage – even when two people are a perfect fit, there are going to be times when someone needs to speak up, and say something difficult.

Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business. When you build a business with someone, your lives will inevitably intertwine, and as in marriage and business relationships, you have to have each other’s backs.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships. How did these individuals find their business buddies, and what made their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration? Not surprisingly, many were long-time friends, classmates, or relatives, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, another one wants to make money, and another wants to be famous, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person on day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills too. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and BAU operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Setup a management board and decide what kinds of decisions are made by the board, and which ones don’t. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries.

Learn to trust each other The underlying question here is Can the founders work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one or more of the founders has some ‘tic’ the others don’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to include people on the team who have a particular skill. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is the secret sauce behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

Of course, besides the ‘strategic’ stuff, there’s also the everyday realities of working together. The face you see day in and day out, no matter what hour of the day, what day of the week, will be your co-founder. They know everything about you – while it may start with knowing about your business personality, their knowledge of your life will soon extend to everything personal. They will also know what your poker face, happy face, sulky face, and goofed-up-big-time face looks like.

Whether you’re married or not, your co-founder will always prove to be your alter spouse, so what about the real day to day issues you need to be aware of when selecting a co-founder. Here are a few:

Tantrums and bickering Each mind is different and there’s going to be noise. It will be fun for the honeymoon – and then reality sets in as you deal with everything under the sun. Hopefully your passion for the startup will always be enough adhesive to bring you together again.

You’ll learn about each other’s likes and dislikes Your co-founder will know what order to place for you at the coffee shop. The same goes for you, you’ll know if she prefers to work with music on in the office or in the quiet. More times than not, you’ll have learnt these things the hard way

Washing the pots In a startup, there will be loads of little, time consuming things to do and only the two of you. You’ll split the workload between yourselves, the good chores and dirty chores alike. Remember, the most important four words for a successful marriage: I’ll do the dishes.

Compromising to get along You’ll be scanning every small area of expenditure. There will always be disagreements over what you need and what you don’t need, and learning to compromise is key.

Keep it fresh Like spouses, business partners need their own ‘date night’, relationships won’t flourish without regular, open and honest communication.

The things that make startup co-founders work effectively together reflect spouses’ relationship in a successful marriage. Most important it that you make it a habit to set aside time for getting together to review priorities, discuss challenges, concerns, frustrations and generally check in with each other.

In the end, the best way to determine whether you should work with someone is to choose a co-founder like you would a spouse. The best type of relationship is the kind where you share a vision and purpose, see yourself building things together, where you know there is give-and-take.

Marriage is a wonderful invention, then again, so is the bicycle repair kit, but it offers us insights and parallels to a successful co-founder relationship. They say don’t marry the person you think you can live with, marry the individual you think you can’t live without. Apply the same to choosing a co-founder.

When you feel like you’ve finally found that with someone, take the leap; don’t bother with those luxuriously creamy envelope for invites, just get on with it.

Van Gogh the entrepreneur: I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagine how physics worked in the real world, instead of formulas drawn on a chalkboard.

When he was 16 he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light – how it would travel and how it would bend? He contemplated gravity by imagining bowling balls and billiard balls competing for space on a trampoline surface.

Gedankenerfahrung means ‘thought experiment’, daydreaming. Imagination has nothing to do with physics, but Einstein’s imagination is what made him a genius physicist, connecting his math skills to his dreaming in a way that let him see what others could not.

Entrepreneurs have something of this too, outlier success comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist, where fantasy and reality merged in some of his most enduring paintings. With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Van Gogh was a fanatic about light, giving the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers remains one of the most popular still life in the history of art.

But he was also enthralled with night time. The painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paint­ings, but in paintings such as his iconic The Starry Night, painted while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, his touch is more restrained and you really see his craftsmanship and endeavour.

Van Gogh’s was only an artist for the last decade of his life. Before painting pictures that would adorn the walls of the most celebrated museums, he tried (and failed) at three other careers. He spent the final years of his life traveling through Belgium, Holland, and France in pursuit of his vision.

Alone in a studio or in the fields, Van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He had initially absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to see the work of contemporaries and frequent cafés and exhibitions.

There, having encountered young painters like Gauguin, as well as older artists such as Monet, the brighter colours and the expressive force he’d been searching for erupted.  He painted feverishly. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

After neighbours petitioned the police, he was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields.

It seems that Van Gogh never dreamed his paintings would become such stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting The Starry Night and died two days later. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealised village. Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, Van Gogh’s night pictures take on added significance, for it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that Van Gogh often looked for solace.

The night scenes captured his interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination. He lived at night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés or meditated over the rich associations he saw in the night sky.

It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest. The Starry Night he considered a failed attempt at abstraction. Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

The Starry Night was painted in Van Gogh’s ground-floor studio in the asylum, a view which he painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, depicted at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The Starry Night is the only nocturne in the series of views.

Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his radically idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to influence artists to the present day. His unstable, impulsive personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist, using gestural application of paint and symbolic colours to express subjective emotions.

Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Van Gogh, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. Modern day entrepreneurial behaviours mirror Van Gogh’s, so what we can learn from his attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh to illustrate his entrepreneurial attitudes.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. Van Gogh’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Van Gogh never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success he pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Van Gogh was a thinker, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising your own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking. Never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. Reality, plus a sprinkle of imagination and intuition, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? You are what you are! Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. Like Van Gogh, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them. I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness?

The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Be bold and experiment If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced When a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Van Gogh left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Value critique There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke. Being different and disruptive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other opinions. Artists are accustomed to hearing direct critique, incorporating feedback into their work, and defending their choices.

Practicing accepting critique can vastly improve not only your products but your entire startup process. This is what stands at the basis of the Lean Startup Method — get feedback, iterate, improve and continue with speed in order to one day get it right.

Take pride in your work Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. Van Gogh strove for perfection, to create something that resonated with his identity, a personal statement about himself. The products, content, and service you provide from your startup should be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t settle for ‘good enough’. Van Gogh told other artists to Make sure it’s so good it doesn’t die with you, and you can apply that to any product or service.

Keep working – do it for yourself One must work and dare if one really wants to live. Don’t let anyone’s opinion of your work stop you from doing what you are so driven to do. The work will evolve. Don’t ever try to deliberately force your work to fit the desires of the masses. First and foremost, focus on your practice. Second, make sure you have a strong, cohesive body of work. Third, make your presence known.

Prioritise consistency over heroic efforts For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together People often assume that art is a part-time muse-fuelled blitz, pouring out genius. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort.

It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Both the artist and entrepreneur must get their ideas and products into the marketplace and into the hands of customers We don’t know the artist who kept their art at home hidden away. The same is true of the great entrepreneurs, they got out of the building and their ideas into the hands of customers.

For Van Gogh, it ended in tragedy at the young age of 37 with a self-induced gunshot to the abdomen. During his life, Van Gogh produced some of the most revolutionary works of art the world has ever known. What’s holding you back from having the same ambition and impact? Gedankenerfahrung. Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

Manchester entrepreneurs: Martin Hannett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be prepared to experiment.

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

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

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

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

Have high ambition – without compromise.

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

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

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

Be relentless

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

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

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

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

Be a catalyst for others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Put customer centric thinking at the heart of your business model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Give your customers context

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

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

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

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

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

2. Understand the experience your customers want

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

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

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

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

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

3.     Focus on getting good, not making it big

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

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

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

4.     Don’t let your business model become stale

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

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

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

5.      Innovation can be about efficiency

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity and innovation: the entrepreneurial mindset of Stephen Hawking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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