How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial learning journey: pearls of wisdom from Atticus Finch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just be yourself

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

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

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

Be interested in others

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

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

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

Stay Calm

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

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

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

Be empathetic

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

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

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

Be open minded

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

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

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

Be accepting

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

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

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

Be a relentless optimistic

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

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

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

Simply, be humble

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

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

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

Give your time freely

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

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

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

Have moral courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entrepreneurial leader in you

Entrepreneurs have become the new superheroes of the C21st, figures like Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk are icons, seen as innovative pioneers. However, we tend to fall back on broad stereotypes without really understanding what makes entrepreneurial leaders special.

Research by Tim Butler from Harvard Business School compared the psychological-testing results of more than 4,000 successful entrepreneurs from several countries against those of 1,800 business leaders who described themselves as successful business managers, but not as entrepreneurs.

Unsurprisingly, the two groups had much in common. On 75% of the 40+ dimensions of leadership evaluated, there was little or no difference between their skills. Yet when Butler looked more closely, combining the skill assessments with data on their life interests and personality traits, he discovered that entrepreneurs had three distinguishing characteristics:

–      the ability to thrive in uncertainty

–      a passionate desire to author and own projects

–      unique skills at persuasion and influence

Butler also found that many of the traits popularly associated with entrepreneurial leaders didn’t truly apply. For example entrepreneurs aren’t always exceptionally creative – but they are more curious and restless; they aren’t risk seekers – but they find uncertainty and novelty motivating. Butler’s research tackled some of the myths about entrepreneurs and explained the more nuanced reality.

Let’s take a look at four key elements of Butler’s research and the popular perceptions about entrepreneurship, and what the research findings indicate are the true drivers of entrepreneurship. Reflect on this, and what it says about the entrepreneurial leader in you.

1. The Stereotype: Entrepreneurs are unusually creative. The Subtler Truth: Entrepreneurs are curious seekers of adventure, learning and opportunity.

One popular notion is that entrepreneurs enjoy constantly changing, innovative environments and are more creative than others. But ‘creative’ can mean fixing things that are broken and have been stuck for some time. While it’s certainly true that entrepreneurs excel at original thinking, so do many non-entrepreneurs. In reality, what sets entrepreneurial individuals apart is the ability to thrive in ambiguity and tolerate uncertainty.

A critical aspect of this is openness to new experiences. Butler’s research found that it is the single entrepreneurial leader trait that most distinguishes them.

Openness to new experiences is about having a hunger to explore and learn, not just a willingness to proceed in unpredictable environments but a heightened state of motivation that occurs at the edge of the unknown and the untried. The unknown is a source of excitement rather than anxiety.

They don’t see the constraints of boundaries, rather looking at a blank piece of paper and saying, ‘Now, what do I want to create here?’ Entrepreneurs enjoy the ‘dreaming it up’ process, they thrive where there is an unfulfilled market opportunity with no product or service, or where there is a product but the go-to-market strategy is not clear.

2. The Stereotype: Entrepreneurs enjoy and seek risk. The Subtler Truth: Entrepreneurs are more comfortable with risk.

Another prevailing view is that entrepreneurs love risk, the thrill of taking chances. This is not true; entrepreneurs are not skydivers, they seek to minimise risk at every opportunity but have higher comfort and tolerance thresholds with risk than others. In other words, when accepting risk is necessary to reach a desired outcome, entrepreneurs are better at living with it and managing the anxiety that might be disabling to others.

Butler’s research likewise showed entrepreneurial leaders aren’t necessarily tougher and more stress-hardy, rather the point that emerged was that highly unpredictable and ambiguous environments are a source of motivation. This is a second reason they thrive in uncertainty.

Openness to new experiences and comfort with risk are the main components of the ability to perform well in unpredictable environments, although many people misperceive the essentials to be tough-mindedness, hardiness, or resilience. An entrepreneurial leader has made choices that clearly favour adventure and learning over convention and minimisation of risk.

3. The Stereotype: Entrepreneurs are more personally ambitious than other leaders. The Subtler Truth: Entrepreneurs are driven by a need to own products, projects, and initiatives.

Entrepreneurial leaders score exceptionally high on the need for power and control. We know that, they have big personalities and are extroverts! Not always so. Butler discerned an interesting variation on the need for power in that it’s less about dominance and more about ownership, and ‘making a mark’. It’s not about having supremacy or authority, it’s about having control over the finished product. In this way, entrepreneurs have more in common with authors and artists than with dictators.

Entrepreneurs are hands-on, they want to be in the middle of the buzz and hustle as a new venture, day by day, comes into the world and starts to walk, then run. They are not ones to sit in corner offices sitting on their hands. They want to be the artisans with their hands on the wet clay. They want to take a finished piece from the kiln and say, ‘This is mine – I did this’ – not in an egotistical sense but in the manner of ‘I shape materials that become valuable and useful things.’

Long after Apple had become a large company, Steve Jobs still had to be part of every critical design discussion, hold prototypes in his hand, and assess every detail. Power, for the entrepreneurial spirit, is about being the owner of and driving force behind an initiative. Getting it right becomes a compulsive obsession.

This expression of power is different from positional power (based on rank), charismatic power (influencing people through your personality), or expert power (when others defer to your knowledge). Entrepreneurial leaders do not see themselves as exerting power or authority from above, rather they see their role as being at the centre of a circle, creating and enabling with their energy, influence and resources, rather than the top of a pyramid.

That is not to say that entrepreneurial leaders do not display aspects of authority, expertise, or charisma, but the aspect that unites them is not the desire to be a decision maker. For such leaders, a venture is an expression to the world of who they are.

4. The Stereotype: Entrepreneurs are natural salespeople. The Truth: This one is correct.

Butler’s research corroborated many earlier studies that highlighted the importance of confidence and persuasiveness among entrepreneurial leaders. When it’s crucial to get somewhere or make something happen, but it’s not clear how to do so, you must, first, believe that you can reach your goal and, second, convince all the people whose help you need that you can, too and very often, with little or no evidence to back you up.

Many startup founders have to sell their ideas to initial investors – and all entrepreneurs must be able to sell to the customer. But they’re not trained sales people, and are often clumsy. However, they have a natural self-belief, sell the vision, and remove all roadblocks creating the ‘art of possible’ as they create engagement with prospects.

So taking Butler’s research and the framework of four entrepreneurial leadership norms, let’s consider further attributes and characteristics frequently noted in the entrepreneurial personna, and use this analysis to reflect on your own leadership dna.

Emotional intelligence This is perhaps an unexpected quality to mention in a list of leading traits for entrepreneurs, but I consider it essential. An entrepreneur’s EI depends on the ability to understand his or her own emotions and to self-regulate those emotions in the interests of attaining a higher goal. Emotionally intelligent leaders are also attuned to others’ sensitivities, and are able to demonstrate empathy. They use this understanding to lead others in times of turbulence and uncertainty, creating trust

Authenticity and integrity These qualities involve remaining true to one’s own aspirations and vision, even in the face of opposition, and often lack of support. By rising beyond the day-to-day setbacks and challenges that every startup faces sooner or later, it’s important that you remain true to yourself, don’t fall for compromises, and continue to do the right things for the right reason.

Create an atmosphere conducive to growth With a deep understanding of the importance of other people’s contribution to organisational success, the entrepreneurial leader creates an atmosphere that encourages everyone to share ideas, grow, and thrive. They actively seek other’s opinions and encourage them to come up with solutions to the problems that they face. The entrepreneurial leader also provides positive feedback when employees come forward with an opinion.

Mental toughness In some ways, resilience is related to emotional intelligence and risk tolerance, but it goes further in helping an entrepreneur build immunity to the ups and downs, the successes and slumps, that accompany the launch of any new enterprise. Emotionally resilient people become frustrated by failure, but they refuse to allow it to defeat them or to interfere with their ability to integrate important lessons from the experience into the way they approach problems in the future.

A sense of passion and purpose Entrepreneurial leaders’ strong individual convictions inspire those around them to produce their best efforts. A good leader has developed the ability to share a powerful vision of success in ways that infect others with the desire to help make it a reality. The force of dedication to a larger purpose can serve as a major source of inspiration both within and beyond a company.

Self-esteem Underlying everything is a high sense of one’s own self-worth. Without that, you will never undertake tough challenges. Making a start, keeping going, and never doubting yourself at any time is part of an entrepreneur’s journey of self-discovery and learning. If you begin to doubt yourself you lose the confidence to make decisions by instinct, and end up making steps into safety and not growth. Conformity is the jailer of free thinking and the enemy of growth, brought on by self-doubt. 

Entrepreneurial leaders know who they are and what is meaningful to them. They have a purpose in life and work, knowing why they started their companies and why they lead them. They understand how their businesses fit into their industry and their community.

Entrepreneurial leaders simply get up and do what needs to be done. However, it’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse, so the characteristics and traits outlined above are vital behaviours, and don’t come scripted. There is a link between startup growth and entrepreneurial know-how – market insight, strategic orientation, customer impact – but aligning leadership characteristics and traits with the company’s growth ambitions, potential and trajectory is essential. Is there an entrepreneurial leader in you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester entrepreneurs: Martin Hannett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be prepared to experiment.

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

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

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

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

Have high ambition – without compromise.

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

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

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

Be relentless

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

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

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

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

Be a catalyst for others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Mallory’s entrepreneurial mindset: because it’s there

Research into the motivational drivers of entrepreneurs has highlighted that far from being the opportunity to earn financial gains, it is the extra-rational motivations, the psychological rewards, that provide the stimuli for relentless drive, sacrifice and determination:

  • the thrill of competition
  • the desire for adventure
  • the joy of creation
  • the satisfaction of team building
  • the desire to achieve meaning in life

Ask any entrepreneur how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve put into their startup, and you’d get an imprecise answer at best. They are more driven by success, more likely to take course of action that is uncertain, and to do something unproven. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.

Those three words, Because It’s There. This was the driver of George Mallory, possibly the first man to reach the summit of Everest. The Fight for Everest is the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared near the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they were the first men to have reached the top of the world, some 30 years ahead of Edmund Hilary.

The book’s black-and-white photographs and fold-out maps capture the imagination and carry you away to the Himalayas. You can see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes. You can imagine the physical and mental challenge.

I have marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:

There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.

No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.

Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business.

The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world, the spot closest to the moon and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, of horizon and zenith. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.

Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there, which has been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

It turns out that Mallory actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip:

The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.

What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men, exhibiting all the traits of an entrepreneur. While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was possibly the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet, which Mallory had climbed.

Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.

On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.

Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing. Whether it will be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.

President Kennedy quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Mallory epitomises the same unwavering entrepreneurial ambition and attitude to succeed – focus and clarity on his goals, a tenacious will-to-win. Starting and running a small business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

  • Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed, they see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
  • Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe in their ability to achieve them. Mallory had this confidence.
  • Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas first to market. Both are pioneers in their aspirations and approach to the risk and opportunity before them.
  • Competitive Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
  • Highly energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high energy, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
  • Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.

Sometimes you need to remind yourselves as to why you’re working so hard every day. If you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work.

Don’t get lost in life’s busy shuffle. Mallory reminds me not to just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.

As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamed since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this?

Because It’s There, was his answer.

Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest. Because it’s there.