How to give a ‘Pep’​ talk to your startup team

Liverpool FC’s quest to end a 30-year wait to reclaim the domestic English football crown may gave taken a defining step forward on Sunday, Jürgen Klopp’s side beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to give them a nine-point advantage over the reigning champions at the top of the table.

It means a Liverpool side that has lost only one of their past 51 league games would need to lose at least three of their next 26 to let City back in. It is not inconceivable, as Liverpool had a ten-point lead over Pep’s side last season after twenty games played, yet City prevailed. This season, however, Liverpool seem propelled by an unstoppable momentum. Of course City will still have plenty to say, as they have in Pep Guardiola a leader who can inspire like no other, with a track record of winning, intelligent football and a defining leadership philosophy.

Guardiola joined FC Barcelona as a junior aged thirteen. He was quick to work his way into the senior team where he played for ten years. He was the depiction of the way Barcelona played – a highly creative, hard-working player with precise passing. Playing under Johan Cruyff, his role model and who gave Guardiola his debut at the Camp Nou in 1990, his technical finesse, tactical awareness and ability to read the game have made him one of the elite managers in sport. His philosophy is keeping the ball and retaining possession, an evangelist for pace and pressing and width to create chances with quick ball movement.

Guardiola has also gained fame for implementing unorthodox tactics and surprising changes in matches. This inherent hunger and desire for improvement is a consequence of his education at Barcelona’s soccer academy, La Masia, the original building where its young students resided, demonstrating the value of a systematic talent pathway. Guardiola posits that the academy’s ‘language of learning’, originally developed by Cruyff, comprises three interlinked areas:

* ‘The Core Idea’ is to dominate possession of the ball.

* ‘Language’, as employed by Guardiola in this context, is to reinforce understanding and mastery of basic concepts.

* ‘People’ must be completely open to learning and make improvements where necessary. They must have complete faith in the process.

Guardiola has taken these three pillars into his leadership philosophy, seen in the figure of the innovative, obsessive and all-conquering Guardiola on the touchline and in his media interviews. Hs approach is rooted in his players’ ability to comprehend and give expression to his ever-evolving playing philosophy.

Pep talks. He speaks calmly, intently, focused, extolling the group for being the champions. He name checks the best performers on the team and suggests ways for everyone else to adopt the same mentality. He tells stories. He asks questions. Guardiola has an intimate, intensive style of communication. He has worked hard to perfect this because he knows success depends on it. Indeed, the ability to deliver an energising ‘Pep talk’ that spurs individuals and a team to better performance is a prerequisite for any startup leader.

According to the science, most winning ‘Pep talks’ include three key elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. The most extensive research in this field – dubbed motivating language theory – comes from Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, at Texas International University who have studied it for nearly three decades. Their findings are backed by studies from sports psychologists and military historians. And all the evidence suggests that once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skilfully. Let’s look at the three elements:

* Pep talks are base on information about precisely how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.

* Empathetic language shows concern for the performer as a human being. It can include praise, encouragement, gratitude, and acknowledgment of the challenge.

* Meaning-making language explains why a task is important. This involves linking the organisation’s purpose to listeners’ goals, often, including the use of stories, about people who’ve succeeded, or about how the work has made a real difference to the lives of others.

Research from other fields offers additional insight into what gives the best pep talks their power. Military pep talks also use the three elements in varying proportions, even if the terminology is different.

Stanley McChrystal, a retired general who oversaw special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, echoes this view. During the last 30 minutes or so before a mission, it was more about building the confidence and the commitment to each other. He says he tended to start with direction giving (Here’s what I’m asking you to do) but quickly shifted to meaning making (Here’s why it’s important) and empathy (Here’s why I know you can do it and Think about what you’ve done together before), and then ended with a recap (Now let’s go and do it).

So, how does Pep capture these three tenets, add in his own wit, intelligence and personality to create his ‘Pep’ talks, and provide a basis for your own pep talk to your startup team?? Here are my thoughts.

Be passionate in the way you communicate Communication an essential tool, Guardiola has to communicate to his City team in several languages but all his conversations are full of passion. Sometimes when oral communication isn’t enough he encourages his team with gestures, hugs and pats on the back. Pep tailors his approach to whatever is needed in the moment, but he demonstrates his passion through his animated communication style.

Question everything Pep never stops asking questions – directed not only at others but also at himself. I’m sure he can be indecisive like us all, and he can change his mind during a game as he analyses different options. We learn from this that success comes about much more from doubts, than it does from certainties.

Never feel satisfied Pep has won over twenty trophies since 2008 with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. He celebrates winning as much as anyone, and the result is important, but he is more interested in how it came about, understanding the process. He has always been a leader, but he is a rarity in the fact that he is a leader and a coach, because to be a great leader you need to know what leadership is yet in order to be a great coach you need to understand leadership.

You can be what you know but you can only teach what you understand, and Guardiola truly understands leadership which is why he has had so much success both as a player and more so as a coach. I would argue that his leadership career has only just started because despite all his success he is still only forty eight years old.

Define the essence of the team Organisations are aware of the need to identify and promote the fundamental reason for their existence – their ‘Why?’. This is the ‘core idea’ set down at La Masia that Guardiola carries as the fundamental underpinning to his philosophy. By establishing an objective greater than winning, no matter the victory on the pitch, Pep never lets the players forget that they are part of a legacy that is much greater than they are. This helps manage the ego of the individuals and further motivates the team because they realise that being the best is not enough, what matters is leaving a legacy.

It’s all about the culture When Guardiola was given the coaching role at Barcelona he had just finished a successful season with the Barcelona B team. His first decision as first team coach was that several first team players, including its two main stars Ronaldinho and Deco, had no future at the club. They moved on and several young players from the successful B team moved up.

Guardiola realises that in order for a team to be successful it needs to have a winning culture, a brotherhood of team members that are all winning to put the needs of the team ahead of the desires of the individual, and anyone not wanting to buy into the culture has no future with that team.

Understand the team as individuals Every effective leader knows that you have to have strong relationships with each and every member of the team, yet few understand how to establish relationships with very different people. Guardiola is known for understanding the ambitions, emotions and personality of each player and adapts his communication approach accordingly. You can clearly see the strong personal relationships – and mutual respect – he has with each team member.

Don’t criticise, add value. When things are not going well it’s difficult not to allow your emotions to overtake you and influence your decision-making. Successful leaders know that you can’t lose sight of the objective. When things go bad your focus needs to remain on want needs to happen to correct performance and the diagnosis of how and why the situation happened and what can happen later.

When asked about this kind of situation Guardiola replied We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it. Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted them taking responsibility.

Optimism is key As Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? As Pep found yesterday, whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, great words that for me capture the essence of pep talks for any startup leader, and indeed, a Pep talk.

As he holds the team meeting this Monday morning, he’ll no doubt have prepared a Pep talk, filled with direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. By defining the essence of the team, creating an objective greater than victory, establishing a winning culture and understanding each member’s personal ambitions I am sure Pep will have the players out of the doldrums and their mindset refocused.

So reflect on Pep’s philosophy and communication style, you too can lead a successful team in your startup, no matter if you’ve just suffered a setback, and give pep talks with the same passion and purpose as Pep Guardiola.

Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: set high expectations for yourself, like Siya Kolisi

England’s World Cup final defeat against South Africa made for a very flat Saturday. Expectations were high, but we were so far off winning the game. Yet if we fans feel washed out, imagine what the players feel! They are going to remember that game for the rest of their lives, but hopefully use it as a pivotal learning moment to ensure they come back as better players.

Head coach Eddie Jones has had a blinding tournament, but on this occasion South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus was awesome. Wherever England attacked, the Springboks had defence. They were very disciplined. They were tactically spot on. They played in the right areas.

They had the balance of their kicking game and when it was on to run the ball and throw the ball wide – they chose the right time and made good decisions. South Africa were fantastic in the set-piece, scrums and line-outs, and the breakdown. Faf de Klerk ran the game from scrum-half.

Only eight men have ever experienced what it is to lead their team to receive the William Webb Ellis trophy – less than the twelve men who have stood on the moon. Siya Kolisi is the eighth after he led South Africa to Saturday’s 32-12 victory. Kolisi follows fellow countryman Francois Pienaar and John Smit, David Kirk and Richie McCaw (New Zealand), Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales (Australia), and of course, Martin Johnson (England).

South Africa’s first world cup victory under Francois Pienaar in 1995 saw Nelson Mandela alongside him in his own green number six jersey, in what became an iconic sporting image. When Smit’s team beat England in the 2007 final, the 16-year-old Kolisi was watching it in a township tavern, because there was no television at home.

That Kolisi has made it this far is a story of stoicism and self-belief, setting high expectations for himself to change his circumstances. Born to teenage parents in the poor township of Zwide on the Eastern Cape, he was brought up by his grandmother. Bed was a pile of cushions on the living-room floor. Rugby was on dirt fields. When he went to his first provincial trials he played in boxer shorts, because he had no other kit.

Rugby is in his family, his father Fezakel was a centre, his grandfather a player of pace too. Kolisi began playing rugby at school aged seven, a small but mobile flanker, good with the ball in hand, learning to be smarter than the stronger kids around him. When a growth spurt kicked in and he got bigger, there was power to go with the finesse.

He signed up for his local club in the township, African Bombers. Five years later his talent was spotted by Andrew Hayidakis, a coach at one of South Africa’s most prestigious rugby schools, Grey High, and offered a bursary. He didn’t speak a word of English when he first arrived, but did a language exchange with one of his classmates, Nicholas Holton teaching him English and Kolisi teaching Holton Xhosa. The two are still firm friends – Kolisi’s son is named after him and Holton was best man at his wedding.

Kolisi progressed through the rugby ranks to Western Province and Super Rugby side the Stormers, before making his international debut against Scotland in 2013. He was named vice-captain for the Springboks in 2017 and in 2018, he became the Springboks’ first black captain in its 126-year history.

Saturday was his fiftieth cap, his twentieth as captain. But his impact is far greater than simply what he does on the pitch because of all that has come before. For all the iconography of 1995, the wider effect of the Pienaar-Mandela relationship quickly faded. When the Springboks triumphed in Johannesburg twenty-four years ago there was just one black player, Chester Williams, in the starting team. By the time of their second World Cup under John Smit in 2007, there were still only two.

In the starting XV that beat England, there were six black players: wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, centre Lukhanyo Am, prop Tendai Mtawarira, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, and Kolisi. Of Rassie Erasmus’s squad of thirty one, eleven are black.

Kolisi stands as a critical link between the past and future. He was born on 16 June 1991, one day before the repeal of the brutal apartheid laws that enforced discrimination against black people in every aspect of their lives. Separate land. Separate public transport. Separate schools.

And so Kolisi carries that weight on his shoulders. Dreams and messy pasts, old heroes and deep-rooted struggles. Only a game, but so much more too. Ghosts all around him, a new future ahead. Strength through unity was the motto the Springboks have adopted this tournament, both as a squad and as a varied group of South Africans.

Kolisi is acutely aware of how much his life has changed, saying: My first goal was to get a meal at the end of the day. Now I set much higher goals. I want to be one of the best players in the Springbok team and one of the best players in the world.

Kolisi not only makes you wish more sportsmen used their profile for greater things but also forces you to question your own life and achievements. How can you better yourself?  To achieve like Siya Kolisi, you need to raise the bar – not just a little, but a lot. You need to raise the bar on the time and effort you put in. You need to raise the bar on your goals. And most importantly, you need to raise the bar on what you expect from yourself.

The irony is, you’re probably trying too hard currently, making things way too complicated and yet setting your sights way too low. If you want big things out of life, as Kolisi has shown, you have to set your sights high, set big goals, and keep it simple. Here are six steps to accomplishing that.

1. Explore your not-enough story Low expectations stem from the inner belief that we are not able to go higher. When we live in this place, we are never truly living in the moment of our lives, we’re living in regret from what we are not, and fear that we may never be.

You can start chipping away at this false belief by realising that this is not what it needs to be. Who said you’re not able to achieve this? Whose story is this?

2. Have faith in yourself Having reframed your own starting point, you have to believe that what you’re doing is for a reason. Once you find that single purpose, it will give you faith in your ability to make the right choices and set your expectations.

Don’t sit there wondering ‘What if?’ or watching other people, get out there and do your stuff, go to places where you’ll meet other enterprising people and exposed to new opportunities. That’s where you’ll find that one thing you’re uniquely cut out to do.

3. No more low expectations Studies show that parents who have high expectations for their children raise children who are more likely to succeed. The same can be said of yourself: if we have high expectations for ourselves, we are more likely to rise to them.

Most of us have low expectations of ourselves. Maybe you’ve lowered yours to avoid disappointment or a sense of failure when you don’t meet your goals. Perhaps you feel you aren’t worthy of big aspirations, so you shrink them to a size you believe you deserve. Look back at Kolisi’s story, do you think he set low hurdles for himself?

4. Focus on being the best With momentum on your expectations, you need to focus on being better than anyone else. You may need to study and work at it for a few years, but stick with it, you’ll improve your craft, building better products, and delivering better service. If you’re smart and savvy, you’ll rise above the pack and beat the competition. Set a high success bar and expect to reach it. If you don’t, no one else will, and you’ll continue to achieve only mediocre results.

5. Rise to your own expectations, every time When you set expectations for yourself, you will rise to them, but ‘note to self’ helps, reminding yourself and reflecting on success to date, and work to be done. Because you believe in yourself, you’ll be strong. You’ll face your challenges that inevitably befall any great pursuit, but you’ll persevere. And if you do great work, you’ll reap the rewards.

6. Practise self-compassion and remember to rest Self-care can work wonders and motivating yourself with kindness rather than criticism will change your mindset. Learn from mistakes and make changes to move forward. It’s also important to factor in time to relax and recharge. Indeed, you may get more done, a rested body and mind will help you when approaching the next step.

So, what about you? What expectations will you have for yourself going forward? What do you think Kolisi said to himself, back when he was just starting out in his rugby career?

What you expect of yourself determines what you do with yourself. The only person that determines what you do with your life is you; you can make it count and you can make a difference. From experience, I can say that it takes time. However, in the long run when you look back at where you are right now things will be different. And they will be shaped by what you expect of yourself today.

As Leonardo da Vinci said Art is never finished, only abandoned. I know from experience the difficulty of saying, I need to let it go now, it’s good enough! The perfectionist in me shouts or whispers It can be a little bit better. However, keep setting expectations of yourself, and see where the journey takes you.

Our expectations for ourselves directly impact our future performance. I think that’s what made Siya Kolisi a world champion. He looked up to the horizon, then looked a little bit further, set his expectations, and put his heart and soul into getting there. He’s made it, but I expect there is more to come from him.

Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the resilience of Maro Itoje

Not since winning the 2003 World Cup has English rugby enjoyed a more stunning moment. Their 19-7 semi-final victory on Saturday left the All Blacks’ players strewn on the pitch, dreams of becoming the first team to win three consecutive Webb Ellis Cups dashed.

As well as inflicting New Zealand’s first defeat in 19 World Cup matches going back to 2007, this was the best England performance I’ve witnessed. The All Blacks had dominated the tournament, but could not cope with England’s relentless power, defensive strength and tactical acumen, after Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try set the tone.

England’s forwards played the collective game of their lives – Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill delivered stunning performances when it mattered most. George Ford kicked four vital penalties and when the inevitable All Black fight back came, England’s tackling, particularly from Underhill, was phenomenal.

From the moment England formed their deliberate V-shaped arrowhead to greet the haka, there was an edge, and the opening minutes saw England’s statement of intent, with a try after just 98 seconds. A stunning attacking sequence ended with Tuilagi plunging over, Farrell’s conversion made it 7-0, and it was seven minutes before New Zealand could get their breath.

It was the team in white who dominated the first half, a 10-0 half-time blank noteworthy as the All Blacks’ first at a World Cup since 1991. Savea 57th-minute try, converted by Richie Mo’unga woke us all up. With just nine defeats in their last 105 matches, would the All Blacks come back? The answer was no. Despite two disallowed tries, two more Ford penalties propelled the English chariot sweetly into next Saturday’s final.

If England have ever produced a better eighty minutes then no-one dancing or screaming around our front room on Saturday morning, refreshed with a copious supply of beer and bacon butties, could remember it. The tension of being ahead from the second minute, the relentless tackles making you grab your own ribs and wince, it was simply a truly great game of rugby.

Maro Itoje had the game of his life, making twelve tackles, winning seven lineouts, and three turnovers. But that does not tell you the half of it. He was a one-man highlights reel. You kept catching glimpses of him, forcing his way through the maul to reach over and wrap his hands around the ball to stop Aaron Smith snapping it out, soaring into the air at the lineout to grab the ball from Sam Whitelock, charging into half a gap, bent double over a tackled man, rooting around with his hands till he pulled up the ball, like some frenzied prospector digging around for the gold nugget he had spotted in the river mud.

Itoje was named player of the match as England’s pack dominated their All Black counterparts. England won sixteen turnovers. No team has won more at this World Cup. Breakdown won, set-piece won, discipline won. England conceded just six penalties to the All Blacks’ eleven. They were faster and they were more precise. They kicked from hand better, and they tackled like their lives depended on it.

Around twenty minutes into the second half, the camera zoomed in on Itoje, getting his breath back at a lineout, chest was heaving, lungs gulping, but the eyes… well, the eyes were something else. They were wide open and staring, bearing an expression that simultaneously implied total aggression and total stillness. He did not blink. Itoje was in the zone of complete focus, the moment of concentration and clarity.

This was his greatest performance in an English shirt, in attack and defence, in open play and at the set piece, in its bravery, discipline, ingenuity and skill. To get a measure of his impact, look at his opposite numbers – Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were a fraction of their imposing best. These are greats of the game, World Cup winners with 200 international caps between them. Itoje made them look like statues. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, Itoje said last week.

The menace and verve of New Zealand’s potent team was nullified. He gave a technical and tactical masterclass, his performance forged through continuous breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because he had his eyes and ears wide open in the moment, with the resilience and mindset to keep going.

Putting to one side his rugby skills, it was the resilience shown by Itoje to simply keep going that stood out for me. It is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through their own battles and achieve success. If we have the virtue of resilience, then we can move forward, whatever the challenge.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in resilience. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, expecting to go one better, as Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

Like Itoje, entrepreneurs consciously choose a life of challenge, yearning success whilst also inevitably encountering times marked by sheer graft, chaos and disappointment. Entrepreneurial endeavour is a series of higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid, but as Sir Edmund Hilary said, People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things, and he should know.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, draws lessons from philosophy and history and says if you want to achieve anything in life, you have to do the work, be prepared for knockbacks – but most of all, be resilient. It’s a great book, inspiring us to be bolder and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup.

Here are some quotes from Holiday, which I think say a lot about building your resilient mindset, and could have been written about Itoje on Saturday.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses.

See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase success.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

No thank you, I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best option.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset, have courage to take decisive action. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Prepare, at the end of the day, for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Don’t do things just because they’re easy. How do you expect to grow? Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we decide how to respond. Successful, resilient entrepreneurs don’t just accept what happens to them. It’s all fuel that you can use to move forward. It defines you.

Itoje will tell you, you get tackled, you’re hurt, you’re down and the play is now twenty-five metres away. Resilience means getting right back in the game, remaining optimistic in the face of adversity. Resilience is accepting your new reality, but being able to take a step forward when others sit there watching.

Itoje is the essence of persistence, resilience and mental toughness, so take a leaf out of his book. Give it everything, every day, be the last man standing when something needs to be done. Never be outworked, remember that true failure only comes when you give up. Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo, far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

England played an absolutely incredible game, the stamina, the resilience, they just never let up. Never have I seen an All Blacks team defeated quite like this, they were outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled. Perhaps it’s time to accept that nothing lasts forever, no one can outrun the sands of time. With the iconic Kieran Read stepping down from All Blacks duty next month, and others including Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Smith, Joe Moody and Sam Whitelock unlikely to feature in the next World Cup in France 2023, maybe this current pantheon of All Blacks greats has reached the end of the road.

Greatness is a hard thing to sustain in any walk of life, but for nearly a decade this All Blacks team has done that. Success can take the edge off soaring ambition, the passing of time perhaps dampens hunger and with it the mindset for repeated challenge. New Zealand have been the epitome of resilience, but now a brighter, younger team, one bristling with unwavering belief, and players like Itoje showing their own immense resilience, has landed a killer blow when it matterred most. Make sure you take a lesson from Itoje for your own entrepreneurial endeavours.

Amelia Earhart – a role model for C21st female entrepreneurs

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

The words of Amelia Earhart. Spoken like a true entrepreneur, this quote captures her drive and focus. Her flying achievements are extraordinary, and demonstrate her strength and spirit as a female pioneer.

Yet despite Earhart’s achievements and those of other iconic female role models, female entrepreneurs with the ability, influence and passion to transform a generation are often ignored, with just one in five startups that receive investment being founded by a woman. Why?

One reason could be that female entrepreneurs seeking investment for their new idea are likely to be almost entirely male faces. Just 13% of senior investment teams are women, and almost half of investment teams have no women at all. This surely contributes to a stark gender imbalance in the businesses that investors fund.

The gender bias female entrepreneurs face undoubtedly deters many. Add to this the reality that women still take on a far larger share of family related responsibilities than men, and it is no surprise that so few female innovators take the plunge. While this is fundamentally unfair in a diverse, democratic and open-minded society, it is also economically short-sighted – research shows that the UK is losing out on £250bn of economic value each year because of the daunting barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

However, there are signs of some positive change, with the Government’s commissioning of Alison Rose (Deputy CEO NatWest) to lead an independent review of female entrepreneurship earlier this year. The review shed renewed light on the barriers faced by women starting and growing their own businesses, and identified ways of removing them.

In response, the Government has announced an ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by 50% by 2030, equivalent to nearly 600,000 additional female entrepreneurs. The Rose report and Government response is hopefully the catalyst needed for society undergoing a shift in outlook. While the UK is in many ways the startup capital of Europe, it lags well behind the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the US and Sweden in terms of the proportion of female founders.

For investors, putting money into female founded startups makes financial sense, as there is substantial evidence that gender diversity fosters creativity and results in better decision making by encouraging new perspectives which men frequently lack or disregard. Yet women-owned enterprises represent less than 25% of UK business.

Alison’s report thus identified three fundamental changes needed to overcome the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs:

Increase funding directed towards female entrepreneurs. Access to and awareness of funding was highlighted as the number one issue for female entrepreneurs across the entire entrepreneurial journey, from intention to scale-up. Female-led businesses receive 53% less funding on average than those headed by men at every stage of their journey.

To combat this the Alison recommended making more start-up funding available to women. The rewards for the wider economy and society could be huge, even if Britain does not achieve full gender parity in levels of entrepreneurship, but catches up with its best-performing peers.

Provide greater family care support for female entrepreneurs. Disproportionate primary/family care responsibilities affect female entrepreneurs throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

Making entrepreneurship more accessible for women Increasing support through accessible mentors and networks is key to boost female entrepreneurship. Alison found three reinforcing cultural barriers affect women at all stages of the entrepreneurial journey:

– Women typically have higher risk-awareness than men and are more cautious, limiting their willingness to risk their livelihood on an uncertain venture.

– Women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills: only 39% of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. This is a perceived gap in ability, rather than an actual gap in skill sets.

– Women are less likely than men to know other entrepreneurs or to have access to sponsors, mentors or support networks.

Alison’s report recommended eight initiatives.

Initiative 1: Promote greater transparency in funding allocation through a new ‘Investing in Female Entrepreneurs Code’, which commits all financial institutions to the principles of gender equality for investment.

Initiative 2: Launch new investment vehicles to increase funding going to female entrepreneurs, who can thus access new, potentially profitable market opportunities whilst helping women-led enterprises to grow.

Initiative 3: Encourage investors to support and invest with a specific focus on gender diversity by launching funding rounds for businesses in female-dominated sectors such as healthcare and services.

Initiative 4: Focus banking products aimed at entrepreneurs with family care responsibilities, to help parent entrepreneurs manage their businesses and the challenges of raising a family.

Initiative 5: Improve access to expertise by expanding and encourage private sector actors to offer their time to business hubs.

Initiative 6: Expand mentorship and networking opportunities, with public and private sector organisations coming together to share best practices and support a centralised networking platform to create greater connections.

Initiative 7: Accelerate development and roll-out of entrepreneurship-related courses to schools and colleges by commercial organisations to collaborate on education focused on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and self-belief.

Initiative 8: Create an entrepreneur digital first-stop shop, encouraging private sector actors in partnership with public bodies to collaborate to create a comprehensive nationwide digital first-stop information shop for female entrepreneurs.

There is no silver bullet that will transform the landscape for female entrepreneurs overnight. Many barriers are cultural and societal, and will take many years to overcome. However, the eight initiatives provide a starting platform for the significant and sustained action required to release the unrealised potential of women as entrepreneurs.

In the modern world, female role models are plentiful, to transform a generation. For example: Sylvia Plath, Malala Yousifazi, Margaret Cavendish, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, and Anita Roddick to name a few – but Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and back to her quote at the top of this blog – is the stand out to me for today’s female entrepreneurs.

It was when Amelia attended a stunt-flying exhibition that she became seriously interested in aviation. On December 28, 1920, pilot Frank Hawks gave her a ride that would forever change her life. Earhart took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921 and, in six months bought her first plane, a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow – The Canary – and set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Then in April 1928, she took a phone call: How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic? After an interview in New York, she was asked to join the flight. She left Trepassey Harbour, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F7, Friendship, on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales 21 hours later. On her return, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a White House reception with President Calvin Coolidge.

George Putnam entered her life, too. The two developed a friendship during preparation for the Atlantic crossing and were married February 7, 1931. Intent on retaining her independence, she referred to the marriage as a partnership with dual controls.

Together, they worked on plans for Earhart to become the first woman and the second person to fly solo the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Paris. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced her to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland.

President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with a gold medal, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross – the first ever given to a woman. Earhart felt the flight proved that men and women were equal in jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.

In the years that followed, Earhart continued to reach new heights. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to California.

In 1937, approaching her 40th birthday, she was ready for her biggest challenge: to be the first woman to fly around the world. Despite a botched attempt in March that damaged her plane, a determined Earhart had the twin engine Lockheed Electra rebuilt. I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it, she said.

On June 1, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan departed from Miami and began the 29,000-mile journey. On June 29 they landed in Lae, New Guinea with just 7,000 miles remaining. Frequently, inaccurate maps had made navigation difficult, and their next hop to Howland Island was by far the most challenging.

Howland Island, in the Pacific, is a mile and a half long and half-mile wide. Every unessential item was removed from the plane to make room for extra fuel. The US Coastguard was stationed off Howland Island and two other US ships, burning every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers.

On July 2, 10am local time, the pair took off. Despite ideal weather reports they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made celestial navigation difficult. As dawn neared, Earhart called the US Coastguard reporting cloudy weather, cloudy. At 7.42am, the Coastguard picked up the message Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. The ship replied, but the plane seemed not to hear.

At 8.45am, Earhart reported We are running north and south. Nothing further was heard from her. A rescue commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On July 19, after spending $4m and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the search was called off.

In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead. Neither the plane nor bodies were recovered.

There is no doubt that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements for women. In a letter to her husband, written in case a flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear: Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart is a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance and failure at her final challenge. Like all entrepreneurs, her success was down to passion, sheer effort, thinking big and bold, and having a clear focus.

The unprecedented energy and attention around gender equality for entrepreneurship makes this a moment when extraordinary progress is possible. We short-change women if we set our sights too low. In the earliest days of American democracy, Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams, and mother of John Quincy Adams) urged the architects of the Constitution to ‘remember the ladies’. Now is the time.

So on the back of the eight initiatives of Alison Rose’s report, and the memory of Amelia Earhart, I believe our goal should be to expand women’s power and influence in entrepreneurship. I think of power and influence as the ability to make decisions, control resources, and shape perspectives. It is something women exercise in their homes, in their workplaces, and in their communities, and they can have the same impact on business.

 

Avoid the ’emperor’s new clothes’​ hallucination of startup unicorns

In a matter of weeks, WeWork, one of the world’s most highly valued private companies and an emblem of venture-backed unicorns, had become a casualty of consensual hallucination between a bombastic startup founder, and investors who seemingly shopped at the tailor who makes emperor’s new clothes.

WeWork was valued at $47bn, a staggering amount for a company that lost $1.9bn on revenues of $1.8bn last year. It’s now postponed its IPO. Softbank, the majority 29% shareholder, has a gaping hole in its $100bn Vision Fund, and departed founder Adam Neumann has left a toxic waste to clean-up behind him – but with $750m in his pockets for his efforts.

In frothy capital markets such a romantic delusion is possible, where the charisma and audacity of the founder is more alluring than spreadsheets, and venture capitalists jostle with each other to write cheques of $100m. However, for me the fundamental flaw here is that capital isn’t a strategy – which has been the WeWork and unicorn operating model.

SoftBank has been acting like it’s the 1850s Californian gold rush all over again, where the hubris of megalomaniacal founder Neumann seduced their ambition, such that they ignored the usual red flags highlighting the need for diligence in startup business models. So, here’s my summary of the WeWork story, and then my thoughts on its impact for startups in Manchester.

In 2008, Neumann was subletting part of his office space to save rent, and convinced his landlord to let him take over an empty space in one of the landlord’s nearby buildings. He divided it up into semi-communal offices, and rented them out. The original space, Green Desk, was an instant hit. The landlord wanted to expand it to his other properties, but Neumann decided to do his own thing and opened the first WeWork in 2010 in NYC. WeWork was thus born as a co-working space.

In 2017WeWork opened its 200th location in Singapore, and Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, a Japanese company reinvented as a VC. In 2016, SoftBank had launched the $100bn Vision Fund, backed by $45bn from the Saudi Arabian government. Son told Neumann he had precisely twelve minutes for a meeting, after which Son sketched out a deal to invest $4.4bn. Son told Neumann to make WeWork ten times bigger than your original plan and to recognise that being crazy is better than being smart. Neumann didn’t hold back.

Today, WeWork is the largest private occupier of office space in London, New York and Washington. In central London, it has more branches than McDonalds. It has become the biggest and fastest-moving force in what many see as the future of work and remote working. But disrupting the world of commercial property required capital, and Neumann excelled at pitching his vision, raising $12bn.

WeWork could simply be described as a leasing company, renting desks to startups and freelancers. However, the IPO filing describes it as a community company, a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success. This sounds like self-important deluded jargon, and therein lies the root of the problem.

Neumann declared that WeWork’s valuation and size are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue. He maintained that categorising WeWork as a property concern was too limiting. For example: WeWork Mars is in our pipeline, Neumann declared. He said he’d met with Elon Musk and offered the company’s services supporting Musk’s future Mars missions. He forgot to add that Musk wasn’t interested.

So, what are the lessons for startups in Manchester from this debacle? It is important, as there are four existing and a fifth WeWork office being built in the city.

1.     Startup valuations

Are Unicorns overvalued? In a recent survey, Yes said 91% of VCs who don’t have any Unicorns in their portfolio; and Yes said 92% of the VCs who do. The spiralling prices of tech startups have been based on unsustainable rates of assumed rocketing growth. Uber, once considered the biggest and fastest unicorn of all, lost $5.2bn in Q2. Uber’s growth has been spectacular, but there is something unreal about a company losing $40k a second.

Takeaway: We need to blend the reckless ambition of founders with the sober adult supervision of investors. Show your startup has a genuine edge and innovation, an ambitious customer scaling roadmap, but also a credible strategy to achieve cash generation – and don’t get greedy on your valuation.

2.     Attracting investors

Asked whether they make a gut decision to invest in a fledgling company rather than relying on analysis, 44% of VCs said yes. Some 9% admitted they didn’t use financial metrics to back this up.

Takeaway: Scale unit economics. A startup is a bet on a business model attaining the scale/critical mass beyond which the unit economics starts making sense. Focus on determining the economic drivers of success, not throwing out outrageous revenue projections, and build a growth story around this. WeWork failed to demonstrate any economies of scale.

3.     Growth strategy

SoftBank’s cash infusion helped WeWork cover the increasing costs of its whirlwind growth. WeWork spent heavily to fill the desks it was adding – they bought out new tenants from their existing leases, and provided a year rent free. There was thus a spiralling chasm growing between revenue and costs. WeWork’s occupancy rate went up, but the deals made it difficult to determine the natural demand and price point for its product.

Takeaway: Think of scaling as building the base of a pyramid, the foundation upon which everything else is built, and you know that it will hold. Focus on building your architecture in an intelligent way that will allow you to grow to realise your potential, without over taxing your cash or endangering your roadmap.

4.     Set and hit your (proper) metrics

WeWork has consistently been wildly off its forecasts. Their forecasted profits in their original pitch deck are: $14m (2014), $64m (2015), $237m (2016) $542m (2017), and $1bn for 2018. It hasn’t made a profit yet.

Finding normal accounting a bit boring? WeWork published a financial metric it called Community-adjusted EBITDA – a proven accountancy way of measuring a company’s performance, but Community-adjusted excluded many costs, claiming they would disappear once it reached maturity in an attempt to show it could make a profit. The Financial Times dubbed WeWork’s doctored version perhaps the most infamous financial metric of a generation.

Takeaway: The hype superseded numbers. It was accounting jujitsu at its finest. At some point, startup gestalt of overpromise and underdeliver can paint founders into a corner where they begin massaging numbers. Simply, set and hit your metrics to get trust and confidence from investors.

5.     Know the risks in your business model

WeWork isn’t a commercial property firm renting desks, it’s a Space as a Service (SAAS) firm according to Neumann; but ultimately it is a property based business model, signing long leases even though their own subleases to customers are short. The IPO prospectus disclosed $47bn in future lease obligations and forecast $3bn in revenue this year. What could go wrong?

Takeaway: In all markets, the market leader gets an unfair advantage because casual and unsophisticated customers choose the leader because it feels easier and safer. But your strategy is not to wish and dream of becoming a big fish. The strategy is to pick a small enough pond. By engaging with the smallest viable audience, you gain the reputation and trust you need to move to ever-bigger audiences.

6.     Have a vision and purpose, but don’t hallucinate

Until recently the image of an entrepreneur was of a thrifty workaholic toiling away long hours. But Neumann was more emperor than entrepreneur. In such cases, attention invariably focuses on the founders’ hubris. Their rise and fall is the stuff of barnstorming, bestseller novels. Ultimately, they fall off their pedestal because the foundations lack a sense of reality.

Takeaway: The startup world is filled with the idolatry of winners, constantly promoted on Instagram, creating a high many then chase. The ‘startup founder’ badge, the spoils, coupled with the false narrative that we live in a meritocracy, have dulled our sense of reality.

We’re kidding everyone. We’re deluding ourselves. We’ve lost sight of what’s important. We’ve lost ourselves. We’re addicted to growth at all costs. Emulate the tortoise, not the hare. I’ve always preferred opportunities where time is an ally, not an enemy.

7.     Blitzscale doesn’t work

The folly begins with a sound idea. Startups need scale to become global. The ideas spread quickly, because of network effects, and the more people use a service, the better it gets. The fastest growing firms like WeWork ‘blitzscale’, they attempt to disrupt a whole industry before anyone can stop them, raising fortunes to acquire users – at any cost.

But ultimately, unless you can finance your growth from a growing revenue stream, Blitzscaling means you need investors with very deep pockets. And you usually need more money than you thought, because you’ll need further funding to recover from the mistakes you’re likely to make along the way.

The fast-paced Blitzscaling process is marked by organisational chaos – Zuckerberg’s move fast and break things mantra at Facebook means every week is an emergency – and that’s what insiders said about WeWork. For every company like Paypal that pull off that feat of hypergrowth without knowing where the money would come from, there is a graveyard of startups that never figured it out. The risks of potentially disastrous defeat are ignored.

Hoffman and Yeh, architects of ‘Blitzscaling’ explain the conditions in which it makes sense, which includes having a sustainable competitive advantage and high gross margins, so that the business will generate positive cash flow and profits when it does get to scale. This is good advice, but it didn’t apply to the WeWork model.

Takeaway: There maybe a hard landing here. Startups with no recognisable route to profitability will find it harder to get cash, even before WeWork’s fiasco the taps were being tightened. Blitzscaling may become a dirty word. It’s a do-or-die approach. Cash-burning firms may find themselves stranded. For your startup, don’t fall for the hype.

8.     Leadership red flags

I’m stunned at how Neumann’s sheer force of personality kept the obvious questions about WeWork’s future viability at bay. The cult of personality provided for an outsized view of his own leadership capabilities, and frankly a delusional view of the firm’s role in society. Also, WeWork looked to some like an old-boys’ club, the management ranks were sprinkled with Neumann’s friends and extended-family members.

Neumann sold $750m of his shares. I understand the need for some liquidity and to diversify holdings, but three-quarters of a billion dollars? He was on the brink of becoming a decabillionaire.

Takeaway: If my daughter informed me she’s dating a premiership footballer, that would be a red flag. The vacuum of leadership and governance transparency in WeWork has undermined the often fragile startup leadership culture that investors tolerate and accept.

As a result, the balance of power may shift from founders to investors, as whilst no one wants to crush a creator’s zest, for a while at least, there could be fewer high-risk innovations funded. The key takeaway here is build your leadership team and culture as much as your brand and product.

The salutary lesson from the trauma of WeWork is that common sense has prevailed, and the free rocket fuel stoking the tech startup mania may be rationed, rewarding firms that will generate cash or profit. This will cause a shift away from the quest for growth at all costs towards more responsible stewardship of startup capital to improve runway growth.

The goal for startups should be to make their ventures sustainable, not just explosive. After years in which VCs have cast themselves as infallible Merlins, it is good to see investors shouting when an entrepreneur, for all his charisma, cannot demonstrate how they’ll zoom from unprofitability to massive profitability in a way that’s not obvious to the naked eye – the tailor making the Emperor’s new clothes has a lot to answer for.

Startups – improv and all that jazz

I’ve been a clumsy, enthusiastic saxophone player for several years now, able to knock out a few recognisable tunes and get folks’ toes tapping. They say ‘don’t play the saxophone, let it play you’ – but sometimes I just can’t get a decent sound out and it sounds like a deranged parrot. As Miles Davis said, ‘Anybody can play. The note is only 20%; the attitude of the person who plays it is 80%’ – so I continue to give it a go.

As part of learning the sax, you have to be able to improvise, playing jamming ‘free flow’ sessions to stretch your style, and speed of thought, playing chord progressions as spontaneous practice. Alas my concrete fingers constrain my dexterity, but playing sax is fun, relaxing and energises me.

My favourite saxophonist is the late American John Coltrane, also known as Trane. Coltrane pioneered the use of modes in jazz and was at the forefront of free jazz. He played with some of the greatest jazz exponents, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.

Growing up in North Carolina, in the 1930s, he benefited from a musically family: his mother sang and played piano; his father played clarinet and violin. But during his seventh grade, Coltrane’s fortunes took a tragic turn. Within six months, his maternal grandfather, father, and maternal grandmother all passed away. John became tortured by his inability to remember what his father looked like. In this emotional vacuum, Coltrane threw himself into the alto sax.

When his family moved to Philadelphia in 1943, Coltrane found himself in a cauldron of jazz and a breeding ground of the hard bop style. He soon began a journeyman’s life, gigging with cocktail trios and R&B combos. At the Granoff Studios in Philadelphia, he took a course of music theory and lessons. Coltrane arrived early in the morning and remained through the evening.

Practicing at home, as the night wore on, he would finger but not blow into the instrument so that he could quicken his reflexes without waking his neighbours. Coltrane’s perfectionism was legendary. Borrowing exercises from a pianist, he stunned fellow musicians by forcing his fingers to navigate arpeggios, trills, and wide leaps in melody.

In 1955 his career took off. Miles Davis hired Coltrane into his quintet, gambling on a 29 year-old with a jagged style and a heroin habit. The quintet’s albums Round About Midnight and Cookin’ were landmarks, but Davis grew aggravated with Coltrane’s unreliability. In 1957 Davis fired him.

The dismissal was a shock. In its aftermath, he experienced what he called “a spiritual awakening” and quit drugs and alcohol. Under the influence of pianist Thelonious Monk, Coltrane started obsessing over harmonic variation. “I would go as far as possible on one phrase,” he said, “until I ran out of ideas.” His style was dubbed “sheets of sound”.

With modal forms, Coltrane found a way to combine side-slipping chromatic movement with more lyrical lines. The end result was the sound of a saxophone flitting, hovering, baiting the rhythm section, then colliding with it head-on in a moment of harmonic convergence.

His greatest recording success, A Love Supreme (1964), was a jazz blockbuster with over a million copies sold. It solidified Coltrane’s innovator status. In one of jazz’s defining moments, Coltrane conjugated its leading four-note motive through every register and key, then gravitated back to the original key to chant the four-syllable mantra, “a love supreme.”

After A Love Supreme, Coltrane went further with his experimentation. His music became even more exploratory, dropping the rhythmic pulse that had structured even his most wayward previous ventures. Coltrane began bridging out to a new generation of free jazzers. And then, on July 17, 1967, he died of liver cancer.

To truly know Coltrane’s work is to hear every note in context, my favourites being his chord substitution cycles known as ‘Coltrane changes’, heard on Giant Steps, generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any jazz composition. His development of these altered chord progression cycles led to further experimentation with improvised melody and harmony that he continued throughout his career.

Coltrane’s rich productivity of releases left behind a considerable body in unreleased work that has been posthumously issued. He won the 1981 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance for Bye Bye Blackbirds, a live recording made in 1962, and he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, twenty five years after his death. Coltrane lives on, in 100 albums on iTunes.

Coltrane was a jazz entrepreneur, he did what any startup leader does: he improvised, inventing novel responses and taking calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net on any guaranteed outcomes. Coltrane didn’t dwell on mistakes or stifle ideas – like entrepreneurs in today’s hurried, harried, innovative and fertile world of startups, he made it happen.

Coltrane believed that musical creativity was an act of discovery. He knew that spontaneous creativity was the business of jazz. With less than 1% of the notes on the written page, he made up the rest on the fly – no going back to correct mistakes or rethink a passage.

In his revelatory book, Yes to the Mess, jazz pianist and management student Frank Barrett shows how this improvisational ‘jazz mind-set’ and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective startup leadership. He describes how like skilled jazz players, startup leaders need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other.

So let’s look at the lessons startup entrepreneurs can take from Coltrane:

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

Jazz follows a basic chord progression with a simple beginning, middle and end. In startups, we also start with minimal structures. Iterations begin as prototypes progress and then final aesthetics, allowing us to identify what works and what doesn’t throughout the iterative phases of product innovation.

Make it matter in live performances A favourite saying of jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis was: If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation. It’s what you do with the notes that counts. Reach beyond your comfort zone.

Listening to those around you is more important than what you play yourself If you’re the one talking, you’re not learning anything. Listen, absorb what you hear, and use the information to make a conscious choice about whatever you’re facing.

In jazz, performers vary their sounds and provoke others to respond, creating new music through collaboration. Similarly in startups, there is constant ideation and creation to disrupt, to simplify the complicated and generate new ideas. This collaboration happens best when everyone is working and listening together.

A jazz player listens in two special ways. Firstly, they ‘listen with generosity’, listening for the beauty, brilliance and ingenuity of their band mates, encouraging the expression of their virtuoso talents. Secondly, they ‘listen to the silence’ between the notes. In business, listening rather than talking is a key skill. In your startup, listen closely so you can move as one.

There’s a time to stand out as a soloist and a time to be a team player You rocked a project. However, it’s more likely the case that your team rocked a project, together. Katie was on top of the customer pitch, Sue got the product demo sorted, James nailed the process map. The best startup leaders are those that make others sound and look good.

In jazz, it is common for individual performers to alternate between lead and supporting roles in a single performance. Startups should employ a similar approach to develop the team and bring new thinking to the fore.

Expect surprises and adversity, since jazz (and startup life) is about how you respond If running a startup was always smooth sailing, and it followed the notes on the score, everyone would do it. The old adage applies, that ‘a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’, so anticipate hurdles and maximise learning from them.

Jazz has its roots form being–in the-moment collaborative innovation, just like the act of starting and growing ventures. If you’re not actively seeking new challenges and ways to expand your horizons, living the ups and downs, you are falling behind.

Don’t seek growth alone There is no such thing as a mistake in jazz – come and listen to me play! Coltrane built a constant change of pace to create new sounds. Startups should also embrace errors and accept new possibilities as they adapt, solve problems and learn.

Jazz musicians feed off of each other to inspire. Startups should foster similar innovation by embracing chance encounters and conversations. A microcosm of spontaneous moments nurtures an aesthetic of openness and surprise.

Jazz, like a startup, is about pitting your wits in the heat of the moment. Just watch the different solos and see how the other members support the soloist and you will be surprised on the amount of dynamic emotion that is created. If you’re a startup founder, grow your business by growing your team.

Find your own sound: rely on minimal structure and maximum autonomy Jazz musicians prepare themselves to be spontaneous. Startups must do the same. To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is an underpinning structure to the apparent randomness is a long tradition of education and practice.

Coltrane played jazz as smooth and cool, and as a rage; his solos never seemed to begin or end. Coltrane wasn’t methodical, but wasn’t messy either. His saxophone playing was a conversation, a give and take, a connection and a dialogue between himself, his instrument and his audience. Coltrane knew this instinctively, he used innovation to find his own sound.

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

What Coltrane and entrepreneurs share is the ability to address complexity and thrive while playing in the messy, fertile space of uncertainty, ambiguity and promise. He said, I start in the middle of a musical sentence, and move in both directions at once.

His spirit of adventure, desire for improvisation and innovation captures the essence of an entrepreneur: don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. Improv makes you present in the moment. You listen, you’re attentive. You’re not acting, so much as reacting, which is what you’re doing in startup life all the time.

Don’t have wool in your ears, be driven by curiosity

Unconscious habits stop us from being more productive, none more so than our compulsion to check a smartphone screen, explicitly designed to exploit our addictive psychology. This is not the result of passive addiction or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius, Jeff Hammerbacher, took the job as first research scientist at Facebook and created the original algorithm that tracked our online behaviours.

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

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line. But we’re in danger of following the herd ourselves.

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

But we need to be heard rather than one of the herd, to build the habit to be ourselves and be thinking, not doing something banal like smartphone addition, trapped in a repeatable mobius loop of technological determinism.

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

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

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

More recently, Steve Jobs’ curiosity for design sensibility became an essential part of Apple’s core culture and product differentiator. His genius may be outside the reach of most of us, but his quest for understanding is worth emulating.

When we open ourselves fully to our curiosity, we are able to think without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and experimenting. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broad, open mindset startups need.

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery and learning, continually building upon itself, allowing your mind to open to new ideas, fuelling our imagination. It’s fundamental to our success, it shapes your instinct to explore which should grow into an instinct for inquiry, and it ultimately helps you discover amazing things about what you can do now and in the future.

A curious mind can relate and connect ideas better. Maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to find get the answers you seek. Your curiosity will develop into an amazing discovery. Something you will easily identify with and can pursue further. Curiosity can give you more and better building blocks to develop creative solutions. It fuels the soul and drives innovation.

So how do you create and sustain a culture and the mindsets of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model, when the pressure is on in a race to simply get things done? Instead of the think-build-ship routine which quickly becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, adopt more of the build-measure-learn heartbeat, with its essential focus to be curious about feedback, learning and iteration, on several levels:

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

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and how your offering in turns helps your customers’ customers. You need an external focus beyond winning the next customer, and see them as a source of innovation: ‘what would an existing or new customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

Assume nothing, question everything Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. Brilliant ideas can come out of a better question. Einstein reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question. Start asking better questions to find the right answers.

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

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

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

Curious minds connect information better Leonardo da Vinci was insanely curious.His observation and belief that ‘everything connects’ informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.

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

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

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

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

Those three sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology.

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

Curiosity has been a major factor behind many scientific and technological discoveries and the advancement of human development. It’s never too late to starting focusing on developing curiosity instincts. Begin practicing mindfulness and be conscious of your immediate surroundings. Be curious about things you usually ignore.

Following your curiosity can lead to the breakthrough ideas you have been waiting for as a startup founder, but you can only harness and make the most of curiosity if you recognise and accept the need to make time for it. As Walt Disney said, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Back to sheep. I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time? But don’t be a sheep. Either you get eaten by a wolf today or else the shepherd saves you from the wolf so he can sell you to the butcher tomorrow. Assumptions are quick exits for lazy minds that like to graze out in the fields without bother. So ask yourself, What am I most curious about?

The importance of trust between startup founders and investors

Most startup founders have an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to the future of their venture. They’re always in sales mode – to themselves, early customers and investors, and the world in general. Startups that are on the brink of huge success are often also on the brink of spectacular failure, the line between the two extremes is often wafer thin.

Early stage startups, by definition, are almost always missing something as they iterate on product-market fit. Meanwhile, early stage angel investors can often see past these shortcomings due to their experience and learnings from their own mistakes, and provide the care and nurturing to founders needed to unlock success.

Investors focusing on early-stage startups understand this reality and accept the associated risks in anticipation of making bets on founders working on ‘10X’ ideas to realise outsized rewards. This relationship between founders and investors is a key ingredient to startup success, and isn’t just from a commercial perspective, but at a personal level – rapport, respect, mentoring and trust are vital.

Early stage investors invest because they believe in the founder at a personal level. There is something about you, and your idea that convinced them that you could make it happen. Usually, it is just a feeling and not some tangible thing they can put their finger on. Ironically, most angel investors will imagine a future version of a startup far more enticing than most sane founders are willing to pitch.

The startup game isn’t for everyone – it isn’t really for most people. At the end of the day the most likely outcome is failure, even angel investors expect most of their bets in startups to fail. In this cauldron of uncertainty and high-stakes, the most important element of the founder-investor relationship is trust.

Startup founders have the singular authority to address high-stakes challenges and make tough decisions. However, to a large extent their autonomy rests on the willingness of the investors to cede it to them. In other words, it depends a lot on investor’s trust. Leaders who violate that trust soon find themselves ousted – Travis Kalanick, whose brash and at times inappropriate behaviour repeatedly raised eyebrows at Uber, was blamed for creating a toxic culture and forced to resign by an investor revolt.

Founder trust has also been eroded by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. In April 2018, Zuckerberg was before Congress and questioned about Facebook’s commitment to data privacy after it came to light that the company had exposed the personal data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica. Then in September 2018, Facebook admitted that hackers had gained access to personal information of 50 million users. Then a New York Times investigation revealed Facebook had given Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon access to its users’ personal data, including in some cases their private messages.

So when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would launch a dating app, I shook my head. And then they announced releasing an app that allowed people to share photos and make video calls. Why would anyone trust Facebook with personal data on something as sensitive as dating, or with a camera and microphone given its horrible track record?

Our need to trust and be trusted has a very real economic impact. More than that, it deeply affects the fabric of society. If we can’t trust other people, we’ll avoid interacting with them, which will make it hard to build anything, solve problems, or innovate.

Startup founders can’t build trust unless they understand the three fundamental promises they make to investors and the resulting responsibilities: economic – to provide value to customers that enhance their lives; legal – that they will follow the letter and the spirit of the law; ethics – investors want founders to behave with integrity.

To investors, if founders repay the trust of investment made by delivering the above promises, it means returns; and to society, it means growth and prosperity. But trust is fragile, it waxes and wanes. It means being competent, playing fair, and most of all, acknowledging and, if necessary, remediating, all the impact your decisions have, whether intended or not. Of course, it’s not always possible as a founder to make decisions that completely delight investors, but it is possible to make decisions that keep faith with and retain the trust they have in you, by being authentic and acting with integrity at all times.

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

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfil that. Once you act this out, you need to remember this image because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. That you are interacting daily on a superficial level is odd, as betraying trust means betraying yourself.

Thinking about authenticity made me aware of my own conversations I’d been involved in as an angel investor, and recall the awkward situations where I considered my trust had been abused. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face to face conversation, and once these behaviours have lapsed, trust is broken and I’m done with that relationship.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being original doesn’t mean you will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing your underlying principles and values – being totally clear about who you are, your purpose and what you stand for. When your rhetoric gets out of sync with your values, you lose your integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.

So I’ve used trust as a key part in assessing my appetite to work with startup founders, and my experience is that it is a hallmark of high-performing startups – employees are more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, put in greater discretionary effort, are less likely to leave, and are healthier than those working in low-trust ventures. Startups that build trust among their customers are rewarded with greater loyalty and higher sales, and negotiators who build trust with each other are more likely to find value-creating deals.

I’ve developed an approach to assess the trustworthiness of founders on five dimensions: competence, motives, means, impact and sincerity. I’ve found that founders who demonstrate these five dimensions can deepen the trust others place in them and foster stronger relationships. Conversely, founders who don’t pay attention to them can easily behave in ways that undermine trust, often without even realising it.

For me, motives and sincerity are the essential qualities I look for, they make up the moral or ethical domain of trust, the areas where I judge founders on the choices they make, whether it’s whose interests they serve (motives), how they go about achieving their goals (means), or whether they own all the effects they have on others (impact).

By understanding the behaviours that underlie trust, startup founders are better able to elevate the level of trust that investors feel toward them, and for me this can be captured into the following three elements:

Positive relationship trust is in part based on the extent to which a founder is able to create a positive relationship with investors. To instil trust a founder must:

  • Be empathetic to the concerns of investors
  • Be open minded and listen to advice
  • Respond to feedback in a constructive way

Good judgement the extent to which a founder is able to show balanced judgement, shrewdness and perceptiveness gives an investor confidence. This means:

  • They show balanced judgement when making decisions
  • Creating conviction when expressing their ideas and opinions
  • Can anticipate and respond quickly to problems, offering solutions

Consistency The final element of trust is the extent to which founders walk their talk and do what they say they will do. Investors rate and respect a startup leader highly if they:

  • Are a role model and set a good example at all times
  • Follow through on their commitments and keep promises.
  • Act in the best interests of everyone, not just themselves

Watching the current political discourse (and deadlock and chaos), I experience a longing for an authentic discussion of the core values that ought to be guiding us as a society. I feel that we are morally adrift, that we do not have a clear sense of how to ground our identities and actions to ultimate values that transcend time and place.

That is not to say that our society is largely immoral. Just amoral, lacking a clear compass or foundational guide at a critical time. Instead of a moral compass, people are constructing their own moral decisions. They don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t seem to know that they are doing the right things with their lives. They don’t seem to know what the right things are.

And that’s a parallel to startup culture, where founders pursue their own unilateral agenda, failing to ground their perspective in a moral perspective and the legal and ethical commitment they made to angel investors who gave them their first chance. I’m seeing founders following a loose, poorly defined moral individualism that, for many, bleeds into an extreme moral relativism.

The emerging reflections on right and wrong generally reflect weak thinking and provide a fragile basis upon which to build robust businesses. Moreover, founders behaving like this do not rely on any moral traditions or philosophical ethics to make decisions. Instead, the basic position is for each individual to make up their own rules and do what is good for them.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal integrity, the state of being honest, and respecting trust given. The golden rule: don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong or right, that is determined by each person, their experience, their perspective. And of course, we have laws. They pretty much cover it.

I believe that in healthy humans there is an inner compass that guides right from wrong. It may get modified through various lenses of philosophy, religion, and culture, but I think integrity and not causing harm by breaking trust are pretty universal. Unfortunately, it is also possible to get estranged from that compass, the influence of others, circumstances and opportunity may divert us from the path we know to be right.

For founders, it can be hard not to diverge from the path guided and shaped by trustworthiness with their early stage investors if they can see a quick personal gain. However, look in the mirror, and can you reconcile breaking the trust given to you? For certain, it is good to stay in balance and in touch with being a founder your investors trust, as much as you can.

For me, I am never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again, and tell myself that the mended whole is as good as new. What is broken is broken, and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it, and see the broken pieces to remind me that you broke my trust.

Leading a startup in times of political & economic uncertainty

The current global economic indicators make uncomfortable reading, even before the impact of Brexit is factored in. The UK’s Q2 GDP figures recorded the first quarterly fall since 2012, indicating the economy going into reverse. As investment and exports continued to fall, the conclusion is an economy stalling at best.

Consumer spending and government expenditure are currently keeping the economy afloat, a pattern we have seen for a while. Boris Johnson seems intent on easing the public purse strings, announcing a new commitment to spending money every day on health, education, social care and crime. However, this contradicts his tax cutting promises – you simply can’t have a high spend, low tax financial strategy. His numbers don’t add up.

So we are likely to see a growing imbalance in the UK economy, as rising consumer spending and government expenditure offset declines in investment and exports, and the risk of ‘no-deal’ and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit stalls investment. The Bank of England’s low interest rate policy is exacerbating these imbalances too, by supporting borrowing and encouraging savers to look for more risky investments because the returns on bank and building society deposits are so poor.

A Brexit-driven recession in the UK may be avoided, but there is still little clarity on whether the UK will be in or out of the EU come November, making Brexit the big story for the economy with this uncertainty. Johnson has begun to brace us for a no-deal Brexit, ramping up public spending by £2.1bn on preparations including stockpiling of medicines, and a public awareness campaign about potential disruptions.

Businesses remain largely unprepared for a disastrous cliff-edge no-deal and are in sit-and-wait mode, while the CBI continue to speak out against the ongoing economic chaos. At the same time, inflation unexpectedly rose above the Bank of England’s 2% target in July, putting renewed pressure on British households as the cost of living increased.

Also in July, the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9% while the number of unemployed rose by 37,000. The number of vacancies – which had been on the rise since 2012 – started falling at the start of the year and continues to fall. This suggests that the UK labour market has started to turn down and that weaker economic growth and the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit could be starting to impact the job market, although the jobless rate remains at the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The average British worker still earns less than they did in 2007. In place of rising wages, consumption is being driven by growing unsecured household debt, which is now the highest we’ve ever seen in the UK. With incomes low, savings drained and debt levels high, a turn in the business cycle will mean financial hardship for families.

Outside of UK specific issues, the global economy is slowing at the end of a ten-year-long weak recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Germany has fallen into negative growth and is heading towards recession. In the US, Trump’s confrontational strategy to a trade war with China is having a negative impact on both countries. Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up the threats of tariffs on each other, dragging down global trade volumes and economic growth.

It all adds up to fearing the worst that the first global recession since the crash of 2008 is just around the corner. Recessions usually happen every ten to fifteen years: business confidence drops, investment declines, employment stalls and demand shrinks. Eleven years on from the crisis of 2008, expectations are that the next recession is unlikely to be a repeat of the last crash, as while there are risks to financial stability, none will impact the economy in the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

So, let’s draw breath on the economic analysis. As a startup entrepreneur looking for meaning in this analysis, the information has contradictions, a mix of emotion, biases and cold-eyed calculation, yet expresses something about both the mood of investors and the temper of the times. Yes a recession is so far a fear, not a reality, but it is evident firms are struggling to get to grips with uncertainty, and anxiety could turn to alarm.

Often danger signals are ignored until too late. America’s decade-long expansion is the oldest on record so whatever economists say, a downturn feels overdue. For me, the portents are evident, confidence is being eroded and the storm clouds are gathering. My fear is that we’ll have a torpid economy at best, that is prone to curtailing innovation, entrepreneurship and startup investment.

There’s just no way to completely prepare for future uncertainty facing your business, simply understand that circumstances change and unforeseeable events occur, and you can make smart choices to prepare well. Not only will this provide you some peace of mind that you’re as ready as you can be, but you’re more likely to respond quickly and more effectively when trouble strikes, so here are some practical tips designed to help your startup prepare for the unknowns.

1. Stay in the now It’s easy to get caught up in your own startup bubble, but that’s a trap to avoid. One of the best ways to combat uncertainty is to stay abreast of economic indicators, as highlighted above. By being aware of the general state of the economy, and how economic forecasts might affect your business, you can put yourself a step ahead of others.

A forward-thinking entrepreneur understands the value of analysis, and not just ‘gut instinct’ intuition. Are you consistently reviewing your business strategy assumptions, value proposition and pricing to ensure they remain valid?

2. Prepare for multiple outcomes It’s wise to stop assuming a single outcome will turn up as the conclusion of a situation. You should prepare for multiple outcomes regardless of what you expect. Foresight enables you to respond effectively. The best way to prepare is to include your team in the planning process, you’ll get fresh, unique perspectives that are more likely to result in critical and innovative thinking.

There isn’t a crystal ball to help you predict the future, and there are many factors completely out of your control. Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. For example, focus on product improvements, customer communications, experiment with pricing and new marketing strategies.

3. Build relationships to create opportunities to grow In times of uncertainty, is a spreadsheet going to help you regain solid footing? It’s possible, but unlikely. The best investment you can make for future stability is relationship building to help weather the rough patches.

What are the signals telling you it’s time to be different and bold? Signals to watch for regarding customers are: Are your regular customers asking you for new things? How are new product/new customer sales against forecasts? When your regulars ask for new offerings they’ve shown you the direction where you’re likely to succeed.

4. Know your numbers When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it’s essential that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers, cashflow and KPIs so you can make the appropriate changes quickly. Also, sit down with your sales team daily. This will help you pinpoint the messages to be taken between ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators.

5. Regain control of your time Evaluating how you and your team spend your time helps you stay focused on the tasks that grow your business. For example, spending time writing content means you must understand what the timing and targets are for following up leads.

What’s more, tracking your time keeps you in control. It’s like weeding your garden; if you don’t stay on top of the weeds, they’ll eventually consume your entire garden. Also you should automate and delegate as much as possible so you can focus on those aspects of the business where you can personally make a difference.

6. Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured spectacles, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs, being positive on the upsides and conveniently ignoring the downsides. In times of uncertainty, to convert your passion into tangible business, emphasise a strategy that makes financial sense based on how the elements of your business will come together. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions. The numbers fall out from this.

7. Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an essential ingredient, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market with customers. To turn your passion into revenue, always think about your business from the customer’s perspective. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

8. Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ and ‘What if?’ mind-set, and map out alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in resetting a ‘business as usual’ model in turbulent times. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

9. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 10,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

10. Don’t be too opportunistic, don’t be too defensive Strike a balance. Adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach is likely to maximise the chances of you surviving a period of uncertainty. Recognising that cost-cutting is necessary to survival while also understanding the role investment and innovation plays in long-term growth, is key to steering your business through choppy waters.

A balanced strategy accepts the reality of the present and reacts accordingly, while also preparing for the future. You can not only survive uncertain times, but also learn valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead for longer term success. Judicious investment, proactive innovation, increased operational efficiency, refocused propositions, honed processes and competitive advancement are all possible when it’s tough going, there are silver linings.

So, are you preparing for the potential recession into which your startup maybe heading in the next six months? Don’t ignore how much is beyond your control nor take your focus off of what is within your control. Develop the resilience, flexibility and competitive edge to ride through the rough waters and come out in good-nick, ready and aligned for when sailing becomes smooth.

Strategic readiness comes through a combination of awareness, flexibility, strong navigational leadership, resilience, collaborative working, considered learning, ongoing innovation and agility. Now is the time to act. Make the necessary adjustments to your business now to help prevent it becoming another statistic of an uncertain environment.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about, but you can research and keep your ear to the ground too – the process of planning is important – but in the end you have to work from your instinct and be fearless. When you’re feeling the apprehension about the horizon, that will help you manage the ambiguity of an unknown future and forge ahead in confidence.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of a future lies in the present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to take a risk to see your dream into reality, even if the waters are choppy. Security is mostly superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The rock ‘n roll entrepreneurial spirit of Dave Grohl

I have a wish-I-did-what-you-do-for-a-living man crush on Dave Grohl, founder and lead singer of the Foo Fighters. I have cycled through many musical heroes, from Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer to Tim Booth. Whenever I hear Grohl perform or talk, I marvel at his intelligence and zest for his craft. Of course, everyone’s on a mission to be themselves at the deepest level, but I sometimes wish my job was doing what this guy does.

Music gives Grohl his spiritual conviction to ferociously animate himself. He founded The Foo Fighters as a one-man project following the dissolution of Nirvana after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The band took its name from the UFOs and various aerial phenomena reported by aircraft pilots in WWII – which were known as ‘foo fighters’.

I know an embarrassing amount about Grohl. I could talk your ears off. For example, did you know Dave was the fifth drummer in Nirvana? I always think of that when I’m playing air drums in the car to Everlong – I’ll get my breakthrough I tell myself, I can be patient.

Following the release of Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, featuring Grohl as the only musician – so he consequently played every instrument – Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, as well as Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear to complete the line-up.

The band made its live public debut on February 23, 1995, at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. Goldsmith quit during the recording of the group’s second album, The Colour and the Shape (1997), when most of the drum parts were re-recorded by Grohl himself. Smear’s departure followed soon afterward, though he appeared with the band on live shows, and rejoined as a full-time member in 2011.

The Colour and the Shape is an amazing record, including top tunes such as Monkey Wrench, Everlong, My Hero, and Walking After You. Before its release, Taylor Hawkins joined as drummer, followed by Chris Shiflett as lead guitarist. Fast forward to September 2017, and session and touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee joined as a full member, to complete the lineup.

At their loudest and most animated, Foo Fighters are noisemakers and musicians. Their grinding sheds a spark, which leads to an explosion, which leads to a crescendo. Grohl’s music combines the beauty of minimalism, the importance of music that’s stripped down, and a wall of noise. Foo Fighters tunes are marked by the technique of shifting between quiet verses and loud, sing-along choruses, huge guitars, powerful hooks.

They have the lure of punk with the energy and immediacy, the need to thrash stuff around, but at the same time, we’re all suckers for a beautiful melody. Often it’s a punishing industrial noise, a clattering din, but Grohl is an idiosyncratic figure in a world that tends towards the cookie-cutter.

Grohl is a whirling dervish on stage, and they frequently play concerts for over three hours. He’s a story of sheer passion. For example, on June 12, 2015, Grohl fell from the concert stage in Gothenburg, during the second song of the Foo Fighters’ set, and broke his leg. The band played without Grohl while he received medical attention; Grohl then returned to the stage, sitting in a chair to perform the last two hours of the band’s set while a medic tended to his leg.

The band are deep into their musicianship, and at gigs, each member tips their hat to their heroes – from Queen to The Stones to John Lennon – but the best I’ve seen was Pat Smear leading the band into a quick dash through the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. When they play, it’s blood and guts. I love their dissonance and the chaos.

Startup founders – as any band founders like Grohl – who want to follow any kind of memorable, meaningful path for their venture or for culture writ large, can’t settle for cheap radio-play solutions, or settle for a ‘one-hit wonder’ mentality.

To create real cultural touchstones, we have to understand that there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is no cheat. No corners to cut. No app store elevation to a speedy triumph. Because let’s face it, the majority of chart-toppers fail to occupy a place in the collective memory as we someday record it. However, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on April 10, 2014, twenty years after the death of Cobain, so Grohl already has a legacy.

In business terms, you don’t need another ‘hit’, you need to define your vision and ‘what does success look like?’ aligned around specific outcomes. To build companies that create real customer loyalty, credibility, or a following like a band – measured either by word of mouth or clear metrics – you have to build experiences.

Not just products. Not pixel-perfect screens, it’s the human experience that matters most. How people think and feel when they use the thing you’ve built, hyper-memorable encounters, real human experience. It’s like those memorable concerts you’ll never forget. It’s only these kinds of experiences that any of us are likely to enjoy with relish or gusto in a year or two to ensure repeat purchases.

At this stage in the feverish, casino-like startup game, it’s a lottery at best. It’s not about memes, it’s about moments. Not ‘friends’, or ‘followers’ or ‘connections’, but faces. Physical, real-world experiences that complement our lives online, extending it emotionally and naturally, in way that we now need and crave more than ever before. Remember, in this rock-star era of startups, the ‘concert’ is monumentally more rewarding than the record. For customers. For audiences. For people.

After the death of Cobain, Grohl did not wallow in grief. He refocused and put himself back into the music. I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life. I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music and I enjoy trying to sing, and there’s nothing anyone can really do to discourage me.

Which means maybe it’s time to find that loud, noisy and energised version of the Dave Grohl in you, in the here and now. And if you can’t, start banging out some version of it in your garage as a start. So, let me count you in to some startup lessons from Dave Grohl. Ready? 1-2-3-4…

Be punk, not perfect Dave started out as the drummer in the punk band Scream. He began drumming on the pillows on his bed as a kid, and then took the rhythm that flowed through him on the road by the time he was seventeen. He never took drum lessons or guitar lessons. Actually he took one drum lesson and the teacher tried to get him to change the way he held the sticks. That was the end of drum lessons.

He’s a self-taught guitarist, too. Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album by himself, playing every instrument, in five days. The music he writes and performs is far from perfect, but it’s perfectly him. Passion and emotion are great, ugly, beautiful channels to push your creativity out into the world. No lessons required.

Be a doer Grohl knew what he wanted to do from a young age. However, his family couldn’t afford a drum kit so he would arrange his pillows on his bed and hit them hard enough to make the sounds he wanted. There will always be barriers, but it’s how we overcome them that matter.

Sometimes we feel like going it alone is the hardest thing, but it often results in the most rewarding work. Grohl’s got deep roots in the punk scene, which has a strong tether to the do-it-yourself mentality. Grohl talks about his realisation that he could make it happen with his own hands:

At 13 years old, I realised that I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts. I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong, because it was all mine.

Grohl isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, show off his feather-tattooed arms, and get to work. So what about you?

Find your passion The idea is just to make music and make good records. There’s not so much career ambition as there is personal ambition… …When you go in to make an album, you want it to be better than the last, you want it to be the best thing you’ve ever done, and you want to stretch yourself musically.

Molly’s Lips was his first Nirvana recording, a session for John Peel’s BBC Radio show. He’d made a start. Grohl is confident in his own shoes. He knows who he is: It’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last.

Keep your family close To be an effective leader, it can’t be all about the work. A balanced life is a full life, and Grohl obviously enjoys having those closest to him, close to him.

Family commitments are important, keep a balance. It’s often the reason many can’t chase their dreams. Grohl’s a devoted and dedicated father, so he built a studio at home so that he could walk his three daughters to school whilst he wasn’t on tour before getting to work. Now, you often see one of his daughters get up on stage with him at most gigs.

Get stuff done From his early work from Scream, as the drummer for Nirvana and the last twenty-five years as the enigmatic frontman of the Foo Fighters, the output of music and songs that have Grohl’s fingerprints on is stunning.

By his own admission, he can literally not sit still. Whilst band mates enjoy a much needed rest, he often fills that time with side projects and collaborations. Volume can speak volumes, and whilst it’s important to maintain quality, sometimes we need to just get stuff done. So avoid procrastination. Either crack on and finish it, or scrap it and move on.

Care … genuinely In May 2006, Grohl sent a note of support to the two trapped miners in the Beaconsfield mine collapse, in Australia. In the initial days following the collapse one of the men requested an iPod with the Foo Fighters album In Your Honour to be sent down to them through a small hole.

Grohl’s note read, in part, Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?

One of the miners took up his offer, joining Grohl for a drink after a Foo Fighters acoustic concert in Sydney. Grohl wrote a tribute instrumental piece for the next album. The song, Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners, appears on Foo Fighters’ 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for Dave Grohl, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Everlong.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice like Dave Grohl. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.