Lessons in entrepreneurship from Thomas Telford

For thousands of years the only way to cross the Menai Strait to Anglesey from the North Wales mainland was to walk it at low tide, a perilous experience at the best of times, or to make an equally hazardous ferry crossing. But on January 30 1826, as bands played and locals waved flags and cheered, the Menai Suspension Bridge formally opened, the world’s first modern suspension bridge.

Last Saturday, August 10, marked the two hundredth anniversary of when work had begun building the iconic bridge in 1819, led by Thomas Telford. He had been given the task of improving the London to Dublin journey via the Holyhead road, a route that became the A5. Completing the bridge shaved nine hours on the London to Holyhead journey, and was immeasurably safer.

Because of the high banks and fast flowing waters of the Strait, it would have been difficult to build piers on the shifting sands of the seabed, and they would have obstructed navigation. Also, the bridge had to be high enough to allow the passage of the tall ships of the day. In view of this, Telford proposed that a suspension bridge should be built.

Construction of the bridge began with the towers either side of the Strait. Made from limestone quarried at nearby Penmon, they were brought by barge to the site. The towers were of hollow construction, reinforced with metal girders and stanchions inside. The problem of spanning the 600ft Straits was solved by creating sixteen giant chain cables made from iron, each of them weighing 121 tons.

The cables were strung from the towers across the water in huge loops. In order to stop them rusting, the cables were soaked in linseed oil and then painted. The stonework on the towers was finished in 1824, five years after it had begun. Stringing the giant cables took a further two years. The magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge was called the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car.

I was about eight years old when I first stood on the bridge where Telford once stood. It was my grandfather, Sydney Brookes, born on Anglesey, who taught me to love the bridge, with it’s industrial history, that produced such a magical sight. This was to be my first encounter with the Scottish stonemason-architect-engineer-entrepreneur, Thomas Telford, and his achievements have stood out in my mind since.

Telford is a role model for any modern day innovator and pioneer, designing and building an enormous chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain, revered by engineers and industrial archaeologists alike. Born at Glendinning, Eskdale, Scotland in 1757, his father John was a shepherd and died in November the same year. He received elementary education at the local school and also helped out with various jobs around the area. He was known locally as ‘Laughing Tam’.

Aged fourteen he was apprenticed to a stone mason, and examples of his work can still be seen in Langholm and Westerkirk areas today. In 1780 he moved to Edinburgh and worked around Princes Street. In 1782 he travelled to London and gained promotion to a first class mason. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard as a supervisor, where he developed his design and project management skills.

In 1815 he was commissioned to improve the route from London to Holyhead, which included major works such as Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed, Nant Ffrancon pass in Snowdonia, and the Menai Bridge. The commission was extended to include the Bangor to Chester road, which involved the headland roads and tunnels at a Penmaenmawr and Penmaenbach, the embankment crossing the Conwy estuary and the Conwy Suspension bridge. The whole commission was completed in 1826.

He constructed the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte, which carries the Llangollen canal across the Dee Valley in a long iron trough. The aqueduct opened only a few weeks after the battle of Trafalgar, with a flag-flying ceremony that echoed the mood of a nation that was being melded together by industrialisation and military victories. Telford was in the vanguard of this movement, building things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom.

Telford grew from a poor shepherd boy from the Borders to become a self-made man and an audacious visionary. In his seventy seven years, the iron-willed Telford worked on many ambitious projects, including ninety-three large bridges and aqueducts. He cut the great waterway, the Caledonian Canal, from sea to sea across the top of Scotland. He constructed more than a dozen road schemes in England and Wales.

He was the architect of over thirty churches in Scotland, worked on water works, improved river navigation and devised drainage schemes. Towards the end of his life he surveyed early railway routes, and died in 1834 just as railways were spreading across the country.

Telford shaped the lives of the Victorian civil engineers who followed him and led the Royal Institution which still guides the engineering profession. Almost everything he built is still in use. An intensely private man, Telford never married or had children, but he was an amateur poet who sent his verses to Robert Burns, a contemporary. He was also a friend and travelling companion of the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who came up with his soubriquet – Colossus of Roads.

He was always on the move, hugely energetic, a man in a hurry to get things done. He wasn’t an inventor, but he was brilliant at seeing possibilities in a project, then finding the right people. One of the joys of his work is that pretty much everything he built was beautifully designed and architected, not simply functional. People cared about the beauty of structures then in a way they don’t now – Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about one of his iron bridges.

Telford advanced the art of building in iron, with many of his bridges remaining in use today. He is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, known as the man who joined up the kingdom, not only as an engineer, but as an entrepreneur who could take risks, who knew about design, financing, business, and the importance of teamwork to evolve superior engineering feats at a rapid pace.

So as we admire his finest legacy spanning the Menai Strait some two hundred years after the first block went in place, what can we take from the heritage and spirit of endeavour from Thomas Telford, into our C21st entrepreneurial ventures?

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Telford was that no matter what the obstacle was, he never gave up. Telford was exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Telford had a clear vision of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desired. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Telford targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and had no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Telford’s enormous ambition -to do what everyone said couldn’t be done – far exceeded the vision of everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aimed for breakthroughs and the big picture every time. He brought revolutionary thinking into engineering advancement.

Work on the ground level Telford possessed the ability to think at the system level of design. He knew exactly what he wanted and sat with his team, he was the connection between the vision and engineers’ interest. Telford seemed to be a taskmaster but his attitude set the culture of the team and project. He believed in getting his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. This pragmatic style of leadership never goes amiss in a startup.

Belief in self-analysis Telford believed in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He thought that people did not think critically enough – and it is one of the reasons for startup failure, founders often take too many things for granted without enough basis in their business model and market assumptions. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a potentially bad solution.

Being a competent engineer requires you to solve complex problems and navigate around difficult situations when they arise, a useful skill for any entrepreneur. There is little structure and lots of complexity in engineering projects that you need to navigate daily, as someone who is running a start up. You have to assess risks and challenges wisely, and pivot when required.

For both engineers and entrepreneurs, reflection and self-conscious analysis are essential. Both need to examine their projects to prototype better solutions, make changes quickly and persevere even if challenges seem great.

Problem Solving skills Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many entrepreneurs started their companies in a garage – from Apple, Amazon to Harley-Davidson. For many, the idea of a garage is synonymous with tinkering, and you can imagine Telford working through different versions of his thinking – given many of his engineering feats were ‘firsts’ in terms of design and solution

Analysing a problem from a “What if… then” point of view allows a startup founder to face a challenge with an open mind and to reach an educated solution. If the solution is not met, the experiment is not a failure; it is simply restarted.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Not a phrase around at the time of Telford, but it’s a phrase that captures the inspirational work of Elon Musk, and it applies to Telford. Part of Telford’s ability to motivate his team to do great things was his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drove each of his engineering ventures. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every project Telford completed was focused on his vision and backed by a Master Plan. Have a vision, make it happen.

Musk says I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.

This is the ideology of Telford, and though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built amazing operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve, or indeed Telford delivered.

Telford was Britain’s greatest civil engineer, who can take the credit for much of the industrial revolution’s sublime architecture. His achievements were truly remarkable. Throughout his life he remained a peripatetic bachelor, hurrying from one job to the next, writing instructions and plans from country inns by candlelight.

The roads and bridges he built carried fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, built the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to new lives in North America: all of them were his.

Telford had the entrepreneurial spark. He was more than just ideas and allure. Telford was a rare business leader who was interested in mankind as a whole and wanted to explore how engineering could change the world he lived in. The Menai Suspension Bridge is a remarkable testimony to this spirit, and his entrepreneurial endeavours.

Take a giant leap for your startup

On July 20, 1969, the world slowed down to watch a key moment in human history. Dinners went cold, families stayed up late, staring at their television sets. After a journey of eight days, three hours, eighteen minutes, thirty-five seconds Neil Armstrong walked a few steps down a ladder and placed his boot in the fine light-gray moon dust, followed by Buzz Aldrin. We were all standing there with them.

President Kennedy’s vision for putting a man on the moon stretched the best minds in aerospace to their limits and necessitating new ways of thinking and working – everything a startup needs to do.

It was incredible innovation, but it was also intimate. The Lunar Module was small – the two astronauts had 4.7m3 of pressurised volume between them, roughly twice the volume of a red telephone box. A tiny world, but a fully functioning spacecraft like none before it. Everything else on Apollo had been tried out at a smaller scale, but there had never been anything like the Lunar Module, designed to come down to land by its commander’s hand and eye in a place where nothing had landed before.

Humans going into space, the prospect of an unprecedented experience. Their hearts are beating fast. They see the moon surface in contours, pocked surface, hard-to-judge distances and near horizons, which gives them the ‘Earthrise’ view of Earth.

At the critical moment, Aldrin got a klaxon ringing in his earpiece. The console responded with error code 1202. Despite months of simulations, Aldrin didn’t know what this one meant; Armstrong, equally baffled, radioed Mission Control for clarification. The stress in his voice was audible. In that critical moment, hurtling like a paper plane toward the surface of the moon, the guidance computer had crashed.

The two men had trained for a computer error scenario, but it was up to Houston to make the call. When Mission Control heard Armstrong’s tense request for information, a well-rehearsed sequence of events played out. The scenario was a go – because below a 100 feet altitude an abort was no longer possible. Armstrong would be forced to attempt a landing even if his computer was malfunctioning.

He had little margin for error. On a hard crash landing, the astronauts might be killed; on a not-so-hard crash landing, the astronauts might survive, only to be stranded on the moon. In this nightmare scenario, Mission Control would bid Armstrong and Aldrin farewell, then cut communication as the two prepared to asphyxiate. Michael Collins, in the command module, would make the long journey back to Earth alone.

Imagine pulling the plug on the moon landing. Imagine not pulling the plug, then explaining to a nation and their families why two astronauts had been killed. By the time Houston relayed the message to Armstrong, almost 30 seconds had passed.

Armstrong resumed assessing the course to the landing area, from spending hours studying surface photographs, committing landmarks to memory. He’d noticed earlier that his trajectory was a little long, but before he could fully react, Aldrin queried the computer for altitude data. As before, he was answered by an alarm. The computer crashed again.

Back at Mission Control, was Don Eyles, 26 years old, who had programmed the software for the final descent. The first restart had alarmed Eyles. The second terrified him. This was not just a glitch but a crash. Eyles was out of the command loop, but he knew how the computer worked better than anyone. What Eyles deduced in that terrifying moment he would not reveal publicly for years to come: this scenario was not a go. It was an abort.

The console displayed nothing, just blank. Armstrong’s heart began to race, rising to 150 bpm, the same as a man at the end of a 100m sprint. With the moonscape zipping by outside his window, he was the closest any human had ever been to another world.

There were five computer crashes in four minutes. Mission Control went quiet, there was nothing useful left for them to say. Armstrong, following protocol, assumed manual control. He was going to have to eyeball it, piloting a malfunctioning spacecraft on an alien world.

He slowed the forward momentum, then rotated the legs toward the surface. Aldrin read aloud a steady stream of figures. With almost no fuel to spare, the Lunar Module dropped in slow motion to kiss the surface upright, and the particles of moondust hung suspended in the sunlight until the gentle lunar gravity pulled them back to rest.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, including a rest period of seven hours sleep. They blasted off back home, knocking over the American flag they had planted. They reunited with Collins, then three days later, splashed down in the Pacific.

Now, half a century after Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon, a new era of space exploration is beginning. Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will range from the big business of launching and maintaining swarms of communication satellites in low orbit to the niche one of tourism for the wealthy.

Back in 1969, I was there. I saw Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind in grainy black and white images on the television screen. I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for ‘Accountancy’ roles. I never got to ‘Astronaut’. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated Apollo seat.

Landing on the Moon is, for me, mankind’s greatest entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the anniversary of this extraordinary achievement for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

President John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon. To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic.

2. Have a sense of purpose

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases – Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down from the big vision into small steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

On descent to the moon, the Lunar Module’s computer died, threatening the landing sequence. Likely crash at an alarming velocity, Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If they hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go – Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

Without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risk, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a small founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required aligning the entire team with set priorities. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone assumes the same priorities. Create a communications plan, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do things, and were expected to go find out how to do it – Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience may seem counterintuitive, but NASA actively encouraged this – the average age of the Operations team was 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity to grow.

7. Keep asking questions

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your model, not one-time events, it is crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into this. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you – Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit.

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team.

Armstrong dared to dream. Life has its its twists and turns – he was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life for a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive. Now whether you’ve launched a brick-and-mortar startup or mobile app, taking an idea into a product is a miraculous one. Fifty years on we’re reminded of the legacy left behind.

Armstrong had the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit: We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise 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.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said poet T.S. Eliot, capturing everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that makes them true entrepreneurs. What a giant leap for mankind they made. Now go and make a giant leap for your startup.

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

A photo captured last week by Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja Magar showed a near continuous line of hundreds of climbers bottlenecked on the summit ridge of Everest, all trying to take advantage of a narrow window of good weather, tantalizingly close to the top of the world.

The 2019 climbing season on Mount Everest, which just came to an end, was a record setter, more climbers summited (825) than ever before, but it was also notable in a grimmer regard: at least eleven climbers died, the most in four years. Nirmal’s image went viral, sparking a debate about whether the high number of casualties was due to too many climbers.

Eleven fatalities is far from a record, but previous years’ high death tolls can be attributed to unforeseeable accidents, like the 2014 avalanche that killed sixteen climbers, or the 2015 avalanche that killed nineteen. This year, only two fatalities can be attributed to falls; the rest have been reported as edema, exposure and exhaustion, suggesting that too many climbers are spending too much time near the summit, a place where strength and mental faculties quickly fade, leaving too few resources for the dangerous trip down.

It’s less the climbing than the altitude, climbers are not climbing beyond their ability but instead beyond their altitude ability. Unfortunately it is difficult to get experience of what it is like climbing above Camp 3 (8,300m) without climbing Everest. Climbers invariably do not know what their ability above 8,300m is going to be like. In Everest’s ‘death zone’ above 8,000m, the lack of oxygen can cause high-altitude pulmonary edema, in which fluid floods the lungs, or high-altitude cerebral edema, which causes the brain to swell, even leading to high-altitude psychosis.

But to put things in perspective, the risk of death on Everest can be overstated. The death rate of those who climb above Base Camp is less than 1%.

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. It’s the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, with the ultimate panoramic horizon. 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.

Mount Everest was first recorded in the Atlas of the Whole Imperial Territory as Qomolangma, its traditional Tibetan name, in 1719. It was discovered to be the world’s tallest mountain in 1856 and named after George Everest, head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

It was in 1924 that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine got near – or perhaps reached – the summit on a third attempt, but never make it back down. Mallory’s body was found at 27,000 feet in 1999. It then wasn’t until 1953 when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary reached the summit to officially claim the recognition of first to conquer the peak.

My fascination with the mountain and Mallory began when I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.

I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall.

I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni and Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.

I started to read The Fight for Everest. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.

Some 40 years on, I have still 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, some 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.

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.

Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever 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.

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.

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. These have often been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and 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.

As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt 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.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. 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.

Mallory epitomises unwavering entrepreneurial ambition and the attitude to succeed. He had focus and clarity on his goals, and a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. 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 often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.

Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.

Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards 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 motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, 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 if you haven’t got your head up from the startup grind for a while, 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. Do stuff because it matters, for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it made a difference. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.

Don’t get lost in startup life’s busy shuffle and the noise. Remember those three words: Because It’s There, the drivers of George Mallory, possibly the first man to reach the summit of Everest. Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’, but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Make it count, where it matters, for yourself.

The myopic thinking of 110% effort

During a meeting I had last week, a bloke poured water into his glass and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy I said jokingly, to which he replied, Not really, I always give 110%. This is one of my utmost bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase twice times already – before attempting to fill a glass 110% – trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

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

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

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you spill 10% if you’ve given it 110%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

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

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

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2019. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

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

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

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

Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort. As well-renowned basketball coach John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

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

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

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep the mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pragmatic optimism is not fashionable, yet virtually any problem that can be articulated clearly enough can be solved without overthinking and overworking it to 100%+ effort. Being comfortable with uncertainty is perhaps the most important trait we can develop in ourselves as entrepreneurs, and not default to becoming overwhelmed.

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

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

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make a difference long-term.

I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future. It just doesn’t work. Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that.

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.

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.

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. 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 – and that’s 100% of today, nothing more.

How to weather the perfect storm facing your startup

Despite what you may read as prevailing headlines, running a startup is not all balmy sunny days and clear blue skies. In fact, founder entrepreneurs will tell you it is frequently stormy, a struggle with minimal hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and financial instability. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the sturm und drang that may wash over them.

A confluence of unforeseen challenges may create uncertainty around you – not enough customers, cash flow, product instability, hiring gaps – it’s enough to make you feel all at sea. The challenge facing many startup founders is not unlike that described in the Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm.

Junger’s book chronicled the storm that claimed the lives of six fishermen and the captain of the Andrea Gail. The storm left a trail of destruction from Nova Scotia to Florida, killing 13 people and causing $500m damage as it lashed the coast.

In late September of 1991, the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail departed the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts with six men aboard, for a month-long fishing trip. The Andrea Gail was a 12-year-old, 70-foot vessel, scheduled to return to port after a sword fishing trip to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, more than 900 miles off shore.

In late October, a powerful storm began to build in the North Atlantic, a storm that came to be known as The Storm of the Century by those in its path, and simply, The Perfect Storm by meteorologists, who watched it come together.

Unknown to Captain Billy Tyne and his crew, one of the rarest meteorological events of the century was developing. Three separate weather systems were on a perfectly aligned collision course. A Great Lakes storm system (moving east), a Canadian cold front (moving south) and Hurricane Grace (moving northeast) were all headed for the North Atlantic. They would eventually meet where the Andrea Gail was located.

After Andrea Gail endured various problems, the crew struggled to sail through pounding waves and shrieking winds. The vessel encountered an enormous rogue wave. They attempted to drive the boat over the wave but it crests before it can get to the top and the boat is overturned. The Andrea Gail and her crew were never heard from again.

Junger describes what it is like to be helpless in the grip of nature. All of the fishermen know the danger, they have lived alongside the sea long enough to know they may not come back, that once in the grip of such a storm, they can only hold on and hope. Junger’s book becomes an elegy for all those lost at sea.

George Clooney plays the role of Captain Billy Tyne in the film version of Junger’s book a grizzled, jumper-wearing fisherman, who loves fishing so much, the playful acquaintance with the gulls, the ‘throwing a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid’ as he enjoys the freedom of the ocean, shouting inaudibly into the driving wind and rain. In drenched and windswept stories like The Perfect Storm, the forces of the sea complicate and intensify human dramas and human conflict as the Beaufort scale cranks upwards.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, how skilled your team is, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or spread capital too thin, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best clients. Crises like these are individually preventable – you could have foreseen them and worked to avoid them – but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your business on the line. So how you should you respond to such setbacks, especially when a few come together in a Perfect Storm?

Don’t let pain stand in the way of progress There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. Pain is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.

Own your outcomes Don’t blame bad outcomes on anyone but yourself. Whatever circumstances brings you, you will be more likely to succeed if you take responsibility for making your decisions instead of complaining about things beyond your control.

Be radically open-minded The two biggest barriers to good decision-making are your ego and your blind spots. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions by getting most out of others. Both prevent you from seeing things accurately, and understanding things.

See the world through other’s lens Rather than thinking that you’re right, think about how do you know that you’re right? Recognise that to gain the perspective that comes from seeing things through another eye’s, you must suspend your own judgment for a time, and evaluate another point of view. Remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

There are many industries currently facing the disruption of their own Perfect Storm – take automotive for example, a backlash against diesel and carbon dioxide emissions, slumping demand from China, and uncertainty of trade tariffs post Brexit – plus the seismic shift to autonomous and electric cars.

Disruption is now such a familiar term, it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Yet its ubiquity reflects the perfect storm of revolutions – geographic, demographic and technological – that are rewriting the rules of business everywhere dramatically.

You have to deal with a new reality, where the new normal is no normal, where everything is volatile – your business model, the tastes of customers, the calibre of the competition. A startup founder’s perfect storm reveals a serendipitous union of illogical and uncontrollable events that result in the worst of times to test you to the limit.

By definition, a perfect storm is a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors. This type of situation is latent to the very essence of entrepreneurship because where risk is plentiful, volatility can soon follow. So, what are the practical things you can to in your startup business environment to ster through such turbulence?

Team unity: make the team not individuals the focus. In times of turbulence, create an environment where all members of the team feel they are essential, that each has a key role to play. There are no individual superstars with a special place.

Prepare, prepare, prepare: remove all excuses. Winning teams set out to ensure that every element of their business model is known to all and is functioning to the best of their combined ability. Make sure no one has an excuse for failure. That means preparing for things that could go wrong, as well as driving things efficiently that go right.

Balanced optimism: find and focus on the winning scenario. Startups will inevitably encounter setbacks, and need to pivot. The first step is to define ‘success’ – is it more customers, more revenue, more product? Of course, all of these are vital, but everyone needs to prioritise during a crisis.

Relentless learning: build a robust culture of leaning and innovation. The best startup teams learn quickly from experience. That means they take action, reflect on outcomes, and gain insights that help them continuously improve. Innovation and new ideas are the norm, even in times of uncertainty.

Calculated risk: be willing to sail into the storm. Every startup is a big risk, and there is no quick path to success. Winning requires situational awareness, always understanding the critical success factors, and working to stay aware and ahead of current realities around you.

Stay connected: cut through the noise of the wind and the waves. The information blizzard today is just as noisy as the storm outside. Don’t let it cloud your decision making, ensure you have your compass, North Star plotted and your defined dashboard of key metrics.

Step into the breach: find ways to share the helm. In adversity, any team member can be faced with a burden too heavy for one person to carry. A good team draws on each other’s strengths, and shares the load. One captain but every one is a leader in a crisis. Keep an eye out for each other, be supportive.

Eliminate people friction: deal with the things that slow you down. Fix the problem, don’t linger. Confront differences in ability without blame, add coaching; alleviate anxiety and mitigate conflict; provide time to talk about the crisis.

It is the perfect storm of entrepreneurship, the failures followed by immediate highlights of success, that is an underlying reality. Life’s personal challenges, uncomfortable business learnings, struggles and setbacks. It is the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.

The perfect storm that faces every entrepreneur can be likened to the ‘eye of the storm’, where calm winds exist at the axis of your business and blue skies abound, but nonetheless you are in the midst of severe weather. It can also manifest as a storm, so that it seems impossible to overcome the centripetal force that jostles you recklessly, forcing you into uncomfortable pivots and confusing turning points.

But instead of sticking your head in the sand when storm clouds brew, you need to develop the necessary fortitude, resilience and perseverance to weather the challenges. When the ground rumbles, when the waves swell, and the alarm sounds, resist the temptation to simply watch the waves come in. There are no safe harbours in the daily life of a startup.

Entrepreneurs arrive at this place because like real storms, you can rarely predict the exact time, location, and intensity of your challenges. And when everything appears to be spinning out of control it is essential to see your way clearly, stay the course and move forward.

As an entrepreneur, you need to realise that you can’t win by sailing around the edges of the perfect storm ahead. You have to hit it with an innovative plan, and you need a confident and disciplined team to get you through it. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor says an old English Proverb, and that’s true for entrepreneurs too.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? The value of introverts & extroverts in your startup team

Many startups are driven by two co-creators, working in unison with joined-up thinking and ambition. It’s great to see how they spark and bounce off each other, with complimentary skills and personalities, providing a balanced perspective on the entrepreneurial opportunity.

Most of us are familiar with ‘dynamic duos’- Batman & Robin, Lennon & McCartney, Laurel & Hardy – and in the business world, Hewlett & Packard, Brin & Page, Jobs & Wozniak. The individual characteristics, the chemistry and rapport behind these collaborations ensured that their talents fused to create something remarkable.

Having experienced a number of founder double acts in the startups I’ve worked with, I’m intrigued as to how often one founder is full of beans, spontaneous and vocal, whilst the other is more cautious, more focused on risk, and more thoughtful – the extrovert-introvert combination is common.

The terms introvert and extrovert are consistently, by popular consensus, painted as two polarised pictures of the extremely shy and the extremely confident. The Myers-Briggs personality test marks you as an ‘E’ or ‘I’, categorising you as either an introvert or an extrovert, designed to explain motivational and behavioural drivers.

First categorised by Carl Jung in the 1920s, an introvert is most commonly defined as someone who gets their energy from time spent alone rather than socialising. Unlike their extrovert counterparts (who get energy from other people), introverts are typically introspective, quiet (but not necessarily shy), and observant. Almost everyone can be squeezed into one of two boxes, but it turns out that many of us are essentially ambiverts.

The contrast is often quite stark, and I now have a model – as seen in AA Milne’s Winning the PoohTiggers and Eeyores. Now whilst this insight won’t get me onto the academic staff at Harvard, I think it works to highlight one aspect of entrepreneurial culture that delivers success – Tiggers and Eeyores are opposites on the ‘act or think first?’ spectrum.

In 100-Acre Wood, the fictional land inhabited by Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the series of children’s stories by author A. A. Milne, they are the contrasting positive and negative thinking personalities, but behind the high energy of Tigger and the gloominess of Eeyore, there are subtle nuances we can take into a startup context.

Eeyore is the loveable, downbeat and somewhat gloomy donkey, his glass is always half-empty. He spots the dark cloud rather than the silver lining for sure. Eeyore doesn’t expect too much of himself or too many exciting things to happen, therefore remains quiet and subdued most of the time. That in no ways means he isn’t an intelligent animal, he is actually knowledgeable, but keeps himself to himself.

By stark contrast, Tigger – That’s T – I – Double Guh – Er! – is the alter-ego, a bouncy, hyperactive, exuberant personality. He acts on impulse and will dash rather than walk, but that impulsive leap and rush more often than not see him jumping around without taking measure of his surroundings. This at times leads to mishaps and causes utter mayhem – not least to himself.

We all know many entrepreneurs who are Tiggers – energisers, positive thinkers who love a constant challenge. They get bored easily and often half-complete stuff as their interest is distracted by a new idea. Sometimes their enthusiasm is over powering and irritates Eeyores, so much so that they’ll probably hold more stubbornly to their opinions, and may become even more gloomy to counter-balance Tiggers’ positivity.

By contrast, Eeyores want to be more grounded and ‘realistic’, but Tiggers may find this over cautious approach negative, because they fear the downbeat emotions are catching and they dread being sucked into pessimism. Tiggers often act Tiggerish because they’re trying to keep that Tigger flame alive against the Eeyore calm.

As Tiggers fear being dragged down by the Eeyores, Eeyores feel resentful and irritated by the Tiggers’ constant chirpiness. For both Tiggers and Eeyores, a good strategy is not to try to make conversions. These efforts are depleting, frustrating and polarising.

A Tigger could be a great entrepreneur because he doesn’t mind trying new things, and doesn’t fear failure. If it doesn’t work out, he will simply bounce onto the next new idea, undaunted. Balancing this, whilst Eeyore can be seen as negative, but he’s actually cautious and not gullible – he won’t fall for a ‘too good to be true’ opportunity – so a good foil for a Tigger in a founder duo.

As an example of the Tigger and Eeyore combination, look at the example of Apple, which we’ve come to associate with the big personality and very vocal Steve Jobs – co-founder Steve Wozniak, a sworn champion of the creative value of working alone, was just as indispensable in building the iconic company. The two contrasted and complemented one another.

The norm is that introverted people are generally more comfortable with solitude, but perhaps Susan Cain changed opinions with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Indeed introverts have emerged as leaders in every arena – one-quarter of all US Presidents – including Jefferson, Lincoln, and Barack Obama – were identified introverts of varying degree.

In the business world, some of the most successful founders, inventors and technologists are introverts, including the likes of Edison, Gates, Musk and Zuckerberg, and the research into the business impact of introverts is revealing.

A Harvard study found that, while extroverts excelled at leading passive teams (employees who simply follow commands), they were far less effective in leading ‘proactive’ teams, where everyone contributes ideas. Introverts are more effective than extroverts in leading proactive teams because they don’t feel threatened by collaborative input, are more receptive to suggestions, and listen more carefully.

Researchers analysed 57 managers and 374 employees at 130 branches of a major pizza chain and found that franchises led by introverts were 20% more profitable than franchises led by extroverts. In another study, researchers broke 163 students into 56 groups – some led by an introvert, and others by an extrovert – and had the teams fold as many t-shirts as they could in ten minutes. They concluded that teams led by the introverts were up to 28% more productive.

Back to the founder duo combination, the two contrasting personalities like Jobs and Woznicak, working collaboratively epitomise the old saying ‘two heads are better than one’. So what are the principles we should all look for in Eeyores and Tiggers to reflect upon the introvert-extrovert difference, and get the best from their two contrasting perspectives when working alongside one or both personalities in a startup?

1.     Emotional intelligence, not emotional mastery

The better you’re able to communicate with others and form strong connections, the better you’ll navigate a startup. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t unusually cool-headed people who can contain their emotions and avoid reacting irrationally. Rather, they’ve built strong relationships with their staff, suppliers, and customers, and it’s those interpersonal networks that do the emotional heavy lifting when times get tough. The emotional intelligence that it takes to sustain these bonds can prove decisive, be it the energy and passion of an extrovert, or the quiet, thoughtful style that builds respect and trust by introverts.

2.     Self-reliance

If the idea of starting from scratch with a partner and having to rely on yourself frightens you, coping with the ups and downs of the startup experience might be difficult. No matter how their personalities differ, successful entrepreneurs know how to keep going despite the inevitable discomfort of uncertainty and going outside their comfort zones.

This doesn’t mean extroverts win through with their boundless self-confidence though. We tend to romanticise extroverted founders who show outsize confidence, but many in reality grapple with self-doubt internally all the time. The real key is about being able to function well in spite of feeling uncertain.

Successful entrepreneurs have a greater fear of being stuck in their comfort zones and not reaching their potential. It isn’t that facing ongoing uncertainty is a thrilling or threatening experience, or that every successful entrepreneur has unshakable confidence in spades. It’s that no matter what challenges come their way, they believe it’s in their own power to determine their future. That instinct for self-reliance is key – so both extroverts and introverts need to develop self-esteem and believe in themselves, whatever their external personnas.

3.     Willingness to be wrong

This is tough for both personality types. All successful startup founders are curious people, constantly on the lookout for better, more efficient, innovative ways of doing things. Less conspicuous is an underlying trait of the willingness to scrap their assumptions and test a totally different idea.

Some extroverted entrepreneurs may carry an air of certainty and self-assurance, but chances are they’re more willing to admit to being wrong than you might imagine. For an introvert, quiet, internal assessment and analysis enables them to come to their own conclusions, albeit from a different perspective.

4.     Trust in their intuition

Successful founders see and act on opportunities even when they don’t see the complete picture. To fill in the blanks and blind spots just enough in order to be able to act, they need to have a high level of trust in their own intuition.

It’s easy to misinterpret an introvert’s internal processing and quiet demeanour as disinterest. But in reality, most introverts are just methodical thinkers. For an extrovert, what appears to be a cavalier approach is just behaviour based on self-belief that they can get there.

Both personality types assess potential, risk and outcomes from their own perspectives, one may then share that with the enthusiasm of a Tigger, one more cautiously as in Eeyore’s style, but both are trusting their own judgement and assessment.

5.     Be radically open-minded

The biggest barriers to good decision-making are your blind spots and self doubt. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about you and your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions.

For both extroverts and introverts, practice open-mindedness. If you can recognise that you have blind spots, consider the possibility that others might see something better than you, don’t be stubborn. A fresh pair of eyes can add value to your thinking and unpack a possible different forward path you hadn’t spotted. Being open-minded can be energising and unblock your thinking, and help you deal better with ‘not knowing’.

This avoids either bluffing (the extrovert response) or doubting yourself and doing nothing – the introvert response. Triangulate your view with believable people who are willing to help inform and shape your opinions.

So, if you’re startup stumbles, with panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, don’t simply ignore the signals on the one hand and rush on like Tigger, or spiral down and convince yourself you’re doomed as Eeyore would have you believe. Don’t drink from a glass half-full of rash, unbridled optimism as feted by Tigger, or sit morosely like Eeyore with a hang-donkey expression, moping around in the corner, add a bit of balance.

We must look for the opportunity in every difficulty like Tigger, instead of being paralysed at the thought of the difficulty in every opportunity like Eeyore, but whilst fortune favours the brave and audacious, don’t be foolhardy, leaping without looking isn’t a strategy. Nobody told Dick Fosbury the first time he leapt backwards, but he knew the height of the bar.

Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. Failing is an overstated hobby, another glorification in the dictionary of entrepreneurial hyperbole.

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

Use the twelve days of Christmas​ for reflection on your future self

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.

As entrepreneurs, it’s applicable to how we focus our time in our working lives, but as we approach the Christmas holidays, and the humanity and traditions of the festive period, it relates to the days and hours free to spend with family and friends too. It’s a twelve-day period when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere, from radio commercials and shopping centres. 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 how we spend our days?

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.

But back to Ann Dillard’s quote and how you spend you days. You can use the twelve days of Christmas to work on your business, rather than in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Take advantage of the downtime for reflection, clear and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months.

In order to give this some structure, here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have in the ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’.

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve twelve months ago by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to 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, 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 balance shifts dramatically is short time frames, so restart 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.

Day Three: Rebalance The results 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 about the business of today, who is steering 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 competitors? Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term gain. Revisit your business strategy and model to ensure they are capable to building a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.

Day Five: Revitalise Now is the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience. How can you improve customer engagement? Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation – 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 and cash needs. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. 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, this becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to 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 win customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. Are you clear in what your brand stands for?

Day Nine: Replace: When was the last time you checked in on your internal processes? Are there opportunities to engage and educate customers better? Today it’s about the customer experience, and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What doe you stand for? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what have you done to refresh the culture and inspire your people based on vision, purpose and values? Think inside out, think about purpose, and share it again.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to cloud platforms, providing scale and agility. These efforts are rarely quick ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling, but now is the time start with the thinking time available about the efficiency and effectiveness of your technology.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you loving and 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 years. That’s only thirty-six pay days. 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?

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.

When you look back at the previous twelve months, 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. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

Many years ago, in my more adventurous youth during university holidays, I was part of a rally of cars driving through the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of the trails that we drove through were precarious and dangerous. We had to stop many times to rest and assess our path.

On one rest stop, I woke up to a misty morning and made myself a cup of tea on our camping stove. As the sun began to rise, I carried my tea to the edge of the road to take in the vista below covered in swirling mist.

And that’s when I noticed a lone monk perched on the edge of the precipice, deep in meditation. I wondered if he had been there all night. As the rays of the sun slowly filled the valley with light, the monk came out of his reverie. He stood up and stretched, still on the edge. He looked at the rising sun, let out a deep breath and turned around to climb back up the road. I was fascinated.

As he came up to the road, I approached him and asked him wasn’t it dangerous being so close to the edge of the abyss. He responded, Are we all not just two minutes from the abyss anyway?

I realised at that moment how right he was. Most of us don’t recognise this or acknowledge it. What we all want is to harness the power of time, to slow it down, speed it up, recapture it or simply make it count. But the only time any of us can truly master is right now.

That morning in the Himalayas, I learned a very important lesson. Instead of coasting through life waiting for life to happen to me, I woke up to the importance of living my life with a sense of urgency, clarity and focus.

If something is important enough to you, then why wait for a specific date? There’s no guarantee that something won’t change or detract you from it before that date. All you have is now. We should get up every morning and count ourselves fortunate for having another shot at making a difference, but with urgency. I leave you with these lines from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run that defines a sense of urgency brilliantly.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

So, use the twelve days of Christmas as a time of reflection. A time to look back at how the year has gone, and what you’re going to shape for yourself in the coming year. I urge you to think about your NOW. Let that urgency fuel actions that lead to deeper connections, a higher purpose, and finding your passion and joy. Use the twelve days to make a difference to yourself and your business next year.

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.