Entrepreneurial learning journey: lessons from the Winter Olympics

Sweden outclassed hosts South Korea to regain the women’s curling Winter Olympic title in Pyeongchang at the weekend, winning 8-3 to win gold for a third time and improve on the silver medal won in Sochi four years ago.

Sweden were competing in their fourth consecutive Olympic final, winning in 2006 and 2010, whilst the South Korean team’s silver earned the hosts their first Olympic curling medal. The sport was relatively unknown in South Korea until the impressive run by the team of school friends, nicknamed the ‘Garlic Girls’ as they all come from a small garlic-growing region.

Team GB women’s team lost 3-5 to Japan in the third-place play off, having lost 5-10 to Sweden in the semi-final, ending my new-found love affair with the sport which has gripped me for the past week or so. Skip Eve Muirhead had promised she would thrive under the slow‑burning tension of an Olympic competition, but at the crucial point of both matches, we were unable to make it count when it mattered.

I became addicted to the spectacle of the curling competition, the sights, the sounds, the strategy and tactics, watching every minute I could of play on ‘sheet’ loving the shouting and the noise – The Roaring Game, originates from the rumbling sound the 44-pound granite stones make when they travel across the ice.

One of the world’s oldest team sports, curling originated in the C16th in Scotland, where games were played during winter on frozen ponds and lochs. It’s an icy alternative to shuffleboard, and I had to know more.

For example, did you know that the ‘sheet’ is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to ‘curl’, or deviate from a straight line? These water droplets are known as ‘pebble’.

When the stone touches the pebble, there’s friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the ‘house’ – the target that looks like a big bulls eye. The centre of the ‘house’ is known as the ‘button’, and basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

Obviously, this friction is not always a good thing, which is why you see frantic sweeping of the ice in front of the stone. The sweeping raising the temperature of the ice, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone, and keeps the stone moving in a straight line. Still with me?!

In each ‘end’ (period of play), both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all sixteen stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that’s closest to the button effectively wins the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone.

Sounds complex, but it’s a lively spectacle and competitive, you soon gest the gist of the rules once play is underway, and like any Olympic sport, the commitment, passion and focus of the competitors is something to behold.

The last ten days made me an unabashed curling fanatic. The only problem? Most matches started at 1.30am in the morning. So, armed with as much green tea, toast and marmite as I could handle, I kept myself awake to the last throw of the key matches.

From there, curling adrenaline kept me going the rest of the way, and GB victories were frequent, at which point I was silently jumping up and down in pure joy, trying to celebrate the moment without waking my family. I often went to bed at 4.00am filled with pure joy.

I also became an armchair fan of the US men’s team, who beat Sweden 10-7 to win the gold medal. What made them so special? I thought about that question, and started to particularly focus on what made the US curling team such a good group, besides their curling skills.

I realised that each of the four players on the team brought something different, but important to the squad, and it’s an interesting aspect of building a team of different but complimentary skills and mindsets.

The unassuming John Landsteiner wasn’t a particularly loud voice during in-match tactics discussions. Instead, with quiet professionalism, he did what was asked of him and put his team in positions to win with his successful early shots.

Matt Hamilton occupied the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Loud, bold, and recognisable (with his trademark baseball cap and moustache), Hamilton always tried to identify and advocate for the most aggressive shot possible. His more conservative teammates often overruled him (correctly), but that willingness to take the tough shot came up big in vital moments.

The vice-skip Tyler George was active in tactical discussions, but that wasn’t his most notable trait. I couldn’t take my eyes off George after he shot, because no matter how well he did, he never looked satisfied. There was never any post-shot celebration, only thinking (or sometimes wincing) about how his shot could have been even better.

Finally the skip, John Shuster, has a fascinating story that’s worth a read. In short, despite numerous setbacks stretching back nearly a decade, Shuster never gave up on himself or his team, and with the weight of a nation on his back, pushed this group to heights never before reached by a US team.

So, does your team have John Landsteiners, folks who build the foundations via their quiet professionalism and skill?  Where are your Matt Hamiltons? People who are willing to occasionally make the outlandish call, do something special or fresh? Do you have a Tyler George, someone who is never satisfied with ‘good enough,’ and who are always searching for ways to be better?

Each Olympian strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – all of which we seek to emulate in a startup.

These are not ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up early and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having the world watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people, but are motivated with an exceptional level of personal drive, and learn to take on habits and traits that are extraordinary in order to achieve their goals. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen.

These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way.

As I watched their triumphs and defeats unfold, it was clear that the traits that make an Olympian outstanding are the same ones that define today’s most successful entrepreneurs. For example, you must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve, focus intently and follow your gut instincts, listen to your inner voice and put in the hard work that you know it will take to reach your goal.

So whilst our GB Ladies didn’t quite hit the heights at Pyeongchang, they certainly had the traits to take into your startup business, and pushed themselves to their limits in high-pressure competitive situations. The performances in PyeongChang reveal typical examples of the traits and attributes of entrepreneurs:

Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy. Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth to achieve a personal best.

Mental toughness: Sports psychologists have identified four components of mental toughness – control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Mentally tough athletes have a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity.

Lack of fear: The psychology of overcoming fear is particularly relevant to athletes in high-risk sports on ice, and for a startup, you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.

Bouncing back: There is no better example of this than Elise Christie, from her disappointments at Sochi in 2014 to her potentially games ending crash in the 1500m at PyeongChang, no one expected her to take to the start line for the 1000m, but take to the line she did. Sadly her games ended in yellow card, but how did she even make it back?

Block out negativity: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your startup business success, and get this energy. Olympians lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners with positive mind sets.

When you lead a startup dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and tenacity to keep going and vision that will succeed.

Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that their path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality. So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – a personal best.

There’s a starman, waiting in the sky

The Falcon Heavy’s boosters burned for 154 seconds before they jettisoned into space. The main rocket pushed on. Four minutes later, the nose cone opened to reveal its payload: a cherry-red electric Tesla Roadster with the top down. The sports car stereo’s playlist included Bowie’s Space Oddity, Life on Mars and Starman.

The image is startling, incongruous, barmy. A car in space. At the wheel is a spacesuit, seatbelt on. Earth hangs behind it. The image jars like bad Photoshop. But it is real. A PR stunt for the ages.

It was all brought to you by Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur and founder of Paypal, electric car company Tesla, and SpaceX,  manufacturer of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket on earth. The event is a stepping-stone to Mars.

The scene is spawned from Musk’s entrepreneurial bravado, endeavour and ego. It is human folly and genius rolled into one. Life on Earth feels precarious, so we took to the stars. The heavens navigated by a dummy astronaut in an electric car, with a handy note for aliens – Made on Earth by humans – imprinted on the circuit board.

Musk sold online payments firm Paypal for $1.5bn ten years ago and has evolved into the most iconic of entrepreneurs since Steve Jobs, capturing the public imagination as a crazy-mad-genius figure – part industrialist, part scientist, part philanthropist, part superhero.

Musk is known for his ability to come up with otherworldly ideas and then pursue them with vigour, emotion, intelligence and self-discipline. He has grabbed the private space flight and electric car industries, ventured into solar energy and artificial intelligence, and promised super-high speed magnetic train travel, in a tube, underground. Oh, and he plans to colonise Mars.

Most take Musk’s more wild ambitions and boasts about the future he will create with a pinch of salt. His companies have missed deadline after deadline and recorded massive financial losses. But popularity of Tesla’s electric cars, and the launch of the Falcon Heavy capped a string of successes that say, you know what, this bloke is making impossible stuff happen.

As a young boy, he was obsessed with science fiction novels and anything you could run an electric current through – hence the nod to Nikola Tesla. Ditching his education, he founded Zip2, an online newspaper platform, selling it in 1999 to Compaq for $300m. Musk ploughed his share into an online bank, X.com. which became Paypal. In 2002, Paypal sold to eBay for $1.5bn. At 31, Musk netted $165m and ploughed it all into three startups: Tesla, SpaceX, and a solar energy company called Solar City.

In 2004, Musk invested heavily in Tesla, founded a year earlier by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Tesla is a quixotic venture, a niche electric car company in a nation addicted to petrol. Musk set out a top-down plan for a low-cost, mass-market electric car. Having received hefty Government bailouts, in 2010 it became the first American car company to float on the stock market since Ford in 1956.

But serious production delays on its low-cost Model 3 have compounded years of losses – $675.4m loss in the last quarter of 2017, more than five times worse than the previous year, although revenue climbed 44% to $3.3 billion.

But to those who admire him, Musk is a visionary, an irrepressible Howard Hughes-like figure revolutionising entrepreneur. His two latest ventures, Neuralink and OpenAI, take him into the world of artificial intelligence – which he regards as the biggest threat to humanity.

With an estimated net worth of $12.7Bn and a clutch of projects we’d all give our give our right arm to be involved with, what makes him tick? Job search firm Paysa gathered speeches and transcripts of interviews from Musk. It put over 2,500 words through the IBM Watson Personality Insights API to perform an analysis. So, what are Musk’s top five traits? According to the study, they are intellect, immoderation, cautiousness, emotionality and altruism. Other traits Musk possesses include orderliness, self-discipline, self-efficacy and being cooperative.

An interesting analysis, but how do they manifest into his everyday habits and behaviours? From my own research, here is what is in Musk’s entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Musk is that no matter what the obstacle is, he never gives up. Musk is exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike other ordinary men, he displays outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Musk has a clear idea of what he wants and is wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desires. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Insane work ethic Musk is a hardcore workaholic person. He believes that there is no shortcut to success. He works for 100 hours a week and has been doing so for over many years. He once said, If other people are putting in 40 hours in a week, and you’re putting in 100, you will achieve in four months what it takes others a year to achieve.

Aim for the big picture Musk has targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and has 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. He is targeting to place a man on Mars and wants to retire on Mars with 80,000 other colonists. He says, I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact!

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. Musk’s enormous ambition to do what everyone says can’t be done far exceeds everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aims for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He’s always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

Work on the ground level Musk possesses the ability to think at the system level of design. He knows exactly what he wants and sits with his team, he is the connection between the market demands and engineers’ interest. Musk seems to be a taskmaster but his attitude sets the culture of the team. He believes he will know about the working of the product better if he gets his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. He himself test-drives many of the changes to Tesla cars.

Believes in self-analysis Musk believes in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He believes that people do not think critically enough. It is one of the reasons for their failure. They take too many things for granted and be true without enough basis in that belief. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a bad solution.

Deep-rooted passion I didn’t go into the rocket business, the car business, or the solar business thinking, ‘This is a great opportunity.’ I just thought, in order to make a difference, something needed to be done. I wanted to create something substantially better than what came before. Musk only tackles those problems where he has deep rooted passion and conviction.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Part of Musk’s ability to motivate his team to do great things is his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drives each of his companies. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every product Tesla brings to market is focused on this vision and backed by a Master Plan Musk wrote over ten years ago. Have a vision, make it happen.

Be audacious What he has done is something that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry – car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) – and created the best products in those industries. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies.

Focus on signals, not on noise Musk never invests in advertising, preferring to spend on research, design, development and production. He stresses that many businesses get confused and deviate their focus from things that make their products and services better. Musk believes that all the efforts that are not resulting in better products or services should be stopped. Many of Musk’s most entrepreneurial characteristics are behaviour choices within your own control.

Be a constant learner Musk reads the way most people watch TV. Musk is the definition of a bookworm. An avid reader from a young age, when he was in grade school he was reading ten hours a day. His childhood reading included Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series from which he drew the lesson that you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one. The books are centered around the work of a fictional visionary named Hari Seldon. This has been his guiding principle for life.

He is tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Musk also has an ace up his sleeve – he has a strong glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lies in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

Be clear about your purpose 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 Musk, 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 operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve.

Falcon Heavy was an extraordinary technical achievement with flamboyance and a touch of playfulness that is typical of Musk, but it should not be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Musk is not simply having fun building rockets and fast car, nor is he running businesses just to become wealthy or bear rivals. He wants to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity. Creating either of these companies would be a signal achievement, that the same person should have built and run them in parallel is remarkable.

But by no means should Musk count his high-torque photovoltaic astro-turbo chickens yet, like all entrepreneurial ventures there is room for failure. I suspect he needs what I call James Bond luck. He needs to dodge the avalanche, avoid the gunfire, ski off the cliff, pull the ripcord and glide to safety into deep, blue, warm water below, so that he can save the world.

But maybe he can. He has the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation, rapid learning and constant improvement. He’s more than just ideas and allure. Elon is a rare business leader who is interested in mankind as a whole and wants to explore how tech can change the world we live in.

Pacesetters guide the field. It may not matter in the end of you don’t win, but it brings people along. And if Musk personally doesn’t deal the death blow to the internal combustion engine, he will always have a lovely red car in space to console himself.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the startup life cycle

So, you’re on the journey from idea to product, through startup to a high growth business. Each stage of the startup lifecycle brings a set of obstacles and challenges to deal with and overcome. You have to be alert and flexible in your thinking, adapting your strategy as you progress, different approaches are needed for each stage.

Your startup leaps through stages of growth just as our own human development lifecycle. Birth begins when we shoot out into the light. From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test, casting your first vote…life is a series of milestones.

The story of your life, and life to be lived, is a series of chronological steps, so what are the parallel steps in your natural development and your start-up life journey?

Stage One – Being born: problem-solution fit

Birth marks the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid. Yet perhaps life starts with conception, followed by the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. What was the genesis of your startup, the moment of passion that created that ‘eureka’ moment?

Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day. Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark. You’ve got your business idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess just how viable your startup is likely to be.

In some ways, this is the soul-searching phase. It’s where you take a step back and experiment with the feasibility of your business idea, and also ask yourself if you have what it takes to make it a success.

At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? and Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second, then you’ve got problem-solution fit, and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing your idea.

Stage Two – Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. Man crawls, walks upright and then resorts to a walking stick. Walking involves unconscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on a camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension – so be careful your first articulation of your startup is a clear conversation, not babble!

This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent going back-and-forth, tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be noise and some trip up and painful moments too.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk. Once you’ve validated your MVP focus on getting users into your product – it’s time to grow your customer base and get out into the market.

There is a big gap between what early adopters expect from a product, and what the bigger chunk of the market actually needs. The main reason behind ‘startup infanticide’ is the failure to identify and overcome this gap.

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm best describes the Grand Canyon that every adventurous entrepreneur must leap over to ‘get to the market’. The Chasm is the region of uncertainty a business goes through before it gets to product/market fit. And the shortest way to get there is by actively listening to the customer and implementing the promised features on schedule.

Stage Three – Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before. Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment of where conviction meets doubt is that leap of and the irrational jump from dependence to independence, from security to self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, winning customers to prove your value proposition. You’re now creating you own forward momentum, but as Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, an epic contradiction from just a minute ago when to stay balanced you had to stay still, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, not knowing to self-belief, just like learning to ride a bike you focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions and with options of turning left rather than right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. An engaged user community is the fastest way to get to any startup to the next stage.

Stage Four – Facial hair: scale

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew a moustache. Well, not exactly, it was stubble, but the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly, and it got me thinking back to that first shave at the onset of puberty. The rite of passage seems monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. There are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Startups in this puberty stage often see rapid growth as the business model is emerging and you build a repeatable customer process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

This is perhaps the most important stage in the lifecycle of a startup, getting to a point where customers can comfortably whip out their wallets and pay for the service they receive on a regular basis, scaling is a tipping point of capability and capacity.

Stage Five – Your first kiss: maturity

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending. Unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang.

You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, rational speech is cut off as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

Understanding your position in the startup lifecycle as you hit maturity might help you keep your feet on the ground whilst metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. Now is not the time to get giddy, emotional and let your feet to leave the ground. However, it is the time to develop proper long-term relationships based on trust and value.

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order – everyone’s biological clock has its own unique time line. Some see astronomical growth – for example Airbnb – whilst others’ jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, or a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable.

As John Lennon says, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans. However, based on my experience, many startups will see a growth journey that has some resemblance to the stages defined above, and awareness may help you anticipate what is coming next, and how you can best prepare yourself.

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language; next year’s words await another voice

Thinking about ourselves – our feelings, our past, our hopes and dreams – is something that most of us spend a good deal of effort trying to avoid when working in a startup venture. We keep away from thinking about ourselves because much of what we could discover threatens to be uncomfortable and awkward. We might discover how much there was to feel inadequate, and guilty on account of recalling the many errors and misjudgements we have made.

We just want to get on with making stuff happen, rather than reflecting upon ourselves. We have a lot to hide. It is part of the human tragedy that we are such natural self-deceivers. Two are worth focusing on in particular: our habit of thinking too much, and the opposite, our proclivity for thinking too little.

When we think too much, we are filling our minds with impressive ideas, which blatantly announce our intelligence but subtly ensure we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of reflection and critique, upon which our development of our startup nevertheless rests. Our minds are crammed with arcane data. We tend to over think and thus over complicate things.

Then there is our habit of thinking too little. Here we pretend that we are simpler than we really are and that too much psychology might be nonsense and fuss about nothing. Just do stuff. Get on with it. We lean on a version of robust common sense to ward off intimations of our own potential awkward complexity. We imply that not thinking very much is evidence of a superior kind of intelligence – we’re smart and rely on gut instinct.

We deploy bluff strategies and sideline avenues of personal investigation as unduly wasting time, implying that to lift the lid further could never be fruitful. We use the practical mood of Monday morning 9am to ward off the complex insights of 3am the previous night, when we unpick the entire fabric of our existence against the backdrop of a million stars. Deploying an attitude of vigorous common sense, we strive to make our moments of radical disquiet seem like aberrations – rather than the central occasions of insight they might actually be.

However, at the start of a new year, having had holiday downtime from the frantic life of a startup, we need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our self deception of ‘just do it’. We cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut off large portions of our minds and end up stubborn tetchy and defensive. Our neglect of the awkward sides of self-evaluation buckles our very being, revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have.

Self-critique is a precondition as a measure of sanity as a startup leader. Two weeks in, how has the new year started for you? Now is the time to get the balance right. We have renewed vim and vigour to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in, energy and intention to get stuff done. However, rather than throwing yourself in like a whirling dervish, stepping back and reflecting on what is truly timely and important is more beneficial.

Now is the time to get the balance of thinking and doing in place. Time is an ingredient in every entrepreneurial endeavour. At the start of the twelve month journey, my preference is to initially focus as to 80% thinking, 20% doing, and then having got my thinking straight, flip this into 20% thinking, 80% doing. Here are my thoughts as to what can make a difference as the year stands before us.

1. Review and refocus your long-term growth goals We trip up and get blinded by what is in our immediate line of sight. Whilst ‘getting stuff done’ and execution is a key startup principle, everything should be linked to your purpose – your ‘Why?’ – and your vision.

Of course, no strategy survives as a business plan document no matter how finely crafted, things never turn out exactly as you imagine or hope them to be, but it’s important for your growth strategy to know your north star and your direction of travel to inform and guide everyday activity.

Begin by reviewing the growth strides that you made in the previous twelve months. Did you make progress toward your purpose, vision, key goals and objectives? What worked, what didn’t, what got left behind and forgotten? It’s a chance to refocus and ensure you realign everything towards your long-term aims.

2. Pick out the vital few energising short-term growth goals The long-term goals that you have determined as future strategic milestones should inform the immediate near-term goals. This can include month-to-month customer, new hire and product releases, and weekly activity goals around networking.

You can work backwards, taking your 2018 goals into quarterly metrics, so the weeks, months, quarters and year really takes shape. In doing this, your near-term goals should energise you, as you continue investing time into your startup, they will provide short-term payback, and results reward and excite you for your efforts. Remember that if you aren’t excited and confident about your startup, it will be difficult to inspire others to be.

Take stock of your schedule. Is each of your workdays oriented that will allow you to grow long-term aspects of your business? Ensure that each day has periods blocked out for thinking – growth isn’t all about doing.

3. Start every day with an ‘at zero’ mindset Each day is like getting on a bike, every new ride starts with getting in the saddle, the wheels are still. We start again. Every day the odometer shows zero. Where shall we go today, what’s our plan to reach a daily goal?

For both cycling and startup growth, measurement is vital, observing visible progress is motivating. Feeling like you have 80% of the work ahead makes the daily contribution to the goal important, it’s a step forward, but avoid complacency; once your direction is set, begin each day with a blank slate.

Hold the big vision but make small steps with discipline, clarity and focus.

4. Make a long-term commitment Startup founders have unbridled ambition but they are also prone to the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ – they look for the next new opportunity and ditch their current choices. Yes, we often need to pivot when user feedback and iterative learning informs us to do so, but you have to muscle through the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ by making a commitment.

Don’t fall into the trap of setting goals in short-term cycles. Nothing happens in six months, it takes two years to become an overnight success. When you make bets, you need to go all in and think long-term. During that time, you’re not allowed to think anything other than I’m going to make this idea succeed.

Avoid distractions. Gather the courage to stick to the things that are important to you. We are all easily swayed by what others think.

5. Demonstrate your passion Orient towards personal growth and learning, rather than money and glory. In the early days, founders of tech giants like Apple and HP started from a love of computing. At the time, there wasn’t any money to be made doing what they were doing.

These startups started from pure passion. Do what you love and love what you do. The right reason to start a business is not the money or the prestige, but the chance to follow your dreams and do something remarkable. Your early customers look for passion, and that starts with the startup pitch.

Put passion into every customer conversation. When pitching, hook potential customers with a deeply personal story about why you are doing what you’re doing and building the company. The best pitches are visceral, emotional and personal. You feel the passion from that founder.

6. Build with scale in mind Often startups struggle to get beyond early adoption. This may be due to a lack of understanding of the market, but also the inability to thoroughly map out a path of success. Learn to dream big and have the ambition to develop a high growth business model of scale.

While it’s important to start small and build an MVP with a simple use case, keep in mind that you are developing a product in order to maximise growth and build something of significance.

Entrepreneurs who understand economies of scale from the very start can envision potential challenges far earlier, allowing them to develop truly innovative products that have a wide-ranging impact. At the start of this year, what are the key drivers to scale your business? Don’t lower your sights, focus on the horizon and do the tough stuff first.

7. Make each connection count At the start of a new year, reach out and make more critical customer conversations happen, refresh your thinking about making each connection count:

  • Impart personal energy and warmth in every interaction to make each conversation memorable
  • Listen with intent, not simply waiting to speak
  • Be a trusted advisor, show credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. Trust underpins every relationship
  • Always offer something of value before expecting or asking for something in return. Key to this is not focusing on reciprocity.
  • End every meeting where you’d like to start next time
  • Prepare for every meeting. Magic happens when your sincerity is powered by diligent preparation.

8. Avoid ‘Frankenstein Days’ Everyday you can do something. It’s extremely tempting to try and do it all. But ‘doing it all’ is as impossible as it is impractical.

It’s so easy, no matter how experienced and organised you are, to end up with ‘Frankenstein Days’ because you’re taken on too much at once, without a clear sense of what’s most important.

Focusing isn’t simply about avoiding the temptation to multitask until a priority is complete, it means truly understanding what you want to accomplish and centre your activities for the day entirely around that.

9. Focus on the intention of your work I have an uncanny ability to juggle many important projects and priorities without losing focus, this emphasis on what I call ‘intentional work’ has helped me on rigorous prioritisation and execution.

I spend a lot of time making sure there is real clarity of intent before digging into specifics and implementation. Focus is really about aligning with your purpose – whether it be your purpose on a specific project or your higher overall purpose for your startup.

When actions reflect intentions, you’re in alignment with your personal mission. Only then can you truly progress and grow.

10. Roll your sleeves up, put your hands into the engine Startup life isn’t about traveling in a straight line and enjoying the ride, you have to build in the flexibility to change course and get stuck in, hands-in, from the outset. Hands-in means you pay rapt attention and learn how you need to turn the rudder.

  • Speak your mind when something is bothering you.
  • Pay attention to things in the moment.
  • A lot. Don’t limit yourself to what’s on the Internet – they still print actual books you know.
  • Forget what you see online: real life is happening right in front of your eyes. Go out and live it, make it happen
  • You can’t be a spectator, double down on actions that will help you reach your intentions.

I’ve always been an advocate of making it happen for myself, I don’t look to others to sort me out. Note to self: it doesn’t matter where you came from, all that matters is where you are going. Think big, life’s too short to think small. We become what we think about. Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of curiosity.

Don’t be too timid and squeamish about uncertainty and not having a detailed plan, all startup life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. As T S Eliot said, last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice – but before you speak, think about it properly first.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: restlessness & reinvention of Radiohead

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. It triggers a mental reaction, our moods vibrate in response to what we’re listening too. We can set free profound emotions with the intensity with which music affects the nerves and elevates human consciousness, and at the same time, brings silence to life, uncovering the hidden sound of silence and solitude.

The music I like is for me, the isolation of being in one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing yourself in the moment or to memories of past, feeling, life, motion and emotion, good and bad. Music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetises us to the present yet contains within itself all that ever was and ever will be.

We like music because it makes us feel good. In 2001, neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Canada used magnetic resonance imaging to show that people listening to music they liked had activated brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from sex, good food and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

A surge of dopamine enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions, but it’s not the whole story. Our emotional response to music may be conditioned by many other factors too – if we are hearing it alone or in a crowd, for example, or if we associate a particular piece with a past experience – Temptation by New Order; Susan, they’re playing our tune.

So you have an epiphany that gives you goosebumps as your brain floods with dopamine. Over the years I recall when I first heard the opening bars of a number of Radiohead songs, and something just happened. I just felt this rush of emotion come through me. It was so intense. I had to concentrate on the song and the pleasure it gave me.

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

Radiohead is an English band formed in Oxford in 1985 by five school friends. Initially the band were called On a Friday, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. In late 1991, after a chance meeting between band member Colin Greenwood and EMI’s A&R representative at Our Price, the record shop where Greenwood worked, they signed a six-album recording contract with EMI. At the request of EMI, the band changed their name – Radiohead was taken from the song Radio Head on the Talking Heads album, True Stories.

Since their formation, Radiohead have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Thom Yorke, the essential spark of innovation in the band. Yorke’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances cutting a strangely solitary figure, making him look like a man in the throes of a tortuous titanic confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces. Yorke’s vocals trail through those atmospherics with angst and despair of a tortured performer.

Radiohead released their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool last year, an eleven track gem. As with each of the previous eight albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, expansive sounds, themes of modern alienation and C20th classical.

Radiohead are in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y but without the ostentatious commerciality driven by the marketing machine. They are a serious band that make serious music, a touchstone for adventurous music, yet you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Just like Joy Division, they are seen by many as morose, gloomy harbingers of doom and introspective sensibilities, purporting monochrome view of the world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for me there are toe tapping and sing-a-long moments a plenty. Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope.

So I keep listening to Radiohead. We all like music for different reasons – tunes, lyrics, live gigs etc., but for me Radiohead articulate a sentiment and voice that has something to say that resonates, be it political, a perspective on social conscience or simply a point of view, the nagging suspicion that some fundamental stuff needs shouting about and that someone else, somewhere else, needed help and that society should be doing do more. I guess it’s C21st protest music.

Nine albums in, thirty years together as a band, how do you keep your product innovation and keep pushing the ambition? What can we learn from Radiohead in terms of their business model, thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective, at a time when the music industry has been disrupted by digital like no other? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Radiohead tat should spark a startup.

Passion – do it because you love doing it Thom Yorke wasn’t thinking of building a global brand and business when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a very basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.

Put in 10,000 hours before you expect to make a difference Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers. He states that to be good at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to hone your skills. Radiohead were gigging for seven years before they released their first record; in business you have to craft and refine your offering before customers notice.

Radiohead are ingenious, wonderful musicians, and they really put the hours in, so much so, that Thom Yorke often complains of how physically draining it is making a record. That commitment is driven by inspiration, by determination, by hunger. That’s what we’re all after to make our startup different.

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

Each member of the band has also undertaken a series of independent, solo projects, collaborating with a range of artists. This builds a sense of both free-spirit and freedom yet unity, free thinkers who then regroup to do something together that is better, having had time to breath and explore individually.

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

In 2007, when CD sales were taking a major hit due to illegal downloads, they offered their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a download directly from their website, avoiding all the middlemen, and let fans choose what they wanted to pay, including the option of nothing. About one third did choose the free option, but the average donation for the two months this offer was available was $8.00. It turned into a huge financial success.

Novelty Their passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in their music, imagery and style, even when if it is critically maligned. Radiohead nurture and cultivate their audience through innovative online marketing – check outhttp://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/11/radiohead-polyfauna-app-iphone-ipad-android Paying attention to your customers is the essence of any business.

Build IP If you are an entrepreneur or aspiring musician, you have made the decision that you are someone that wants to make a mark on the world you live in, live by your own rules and create your own life. Your innovations and intellectual property are your lifeblood. Radiohead are shrewd and carefully manage their IP, the copyright to their songs and music is the greatest revenue earner from licensing.

Yet, they’ve worked without a record deal since leaving EMI in 2003, in an effort to ‘get out of the comfort zone’, and maintain their independence. They must be the best unsigned band in the world. Their last three albums have been released by independent label XL Recordings.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Radiohead are not productive – nine albums in thirty years, two in the last decade and five years prior to the last A Moon Shaped Pool. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. Radiohead have always sounded like a band in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on their laurels.

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

As time marches on, Yorke looks a little like Ming the Merciless reborn as a compassionate yoga instructor. Although their commercial peak maybe behind them, Radiohead continue to release new albums that are liberally sprinkled with strong songs. Unperturbed by changes of fashion, these albums sell to faithful fans who actually pay money for music, almost an anachronism in the age of digital downloads and Spotify.

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

I know they are an acquired taste and not everyone’s cup of tea, but people like Thom Yorke are intrinsically motivated to innovate their craft, and reflect the guile, graft and learning journey of any entrepreneur. Yorke is a talented, spirited man, an aggrieved, affronted isolated figure whose rage was borne of annoyance at the status quo. He is driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too, to do their own thing and make their mark.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from the baristas of NYC

The first time I visited New York, I was warned about three things: to be constantly aware of personal safety, to forget about tea as they only serve coffee, and, in the interests of political correctness (and, potentially, personal safety), never offer criticism of the President.

It was 1986 and for a week I walked around hyper vigilant for muggers, making no eye contact with strangers I passed on the street. When I needed a caffeine fix, I deliberately asked for a coffee with milk. And as for politics, the most political minded I got was that I wondered at times what The Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through Congress.

More than 30 years on, the change in a few decades is pronounced; time has made the city safer and seemingly better caffeinated. No comment on the President. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, there are hundreds of independent coffee shops. I am sitting in one, Five Leaves, a bistro-café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on a crisp winter’s morning. In the cool light it is bursting with vibrancy: brightly coloured eggs, salmon and, everywhere, the unmistakable green of smashed avocado.

So many features of this airy cafe are familiar to others in the city – the distressed faded, almost run-down decor, the subtle scent of vinegar-laced boiling water for poaching eggs, and its packed with customers. Then the heavily tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into one of his arms. I overhead the chat: I had to learn how to make 400 coffees in a morning.

The decor is pared back, with tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space. A small kitchen sends out freshly made artisan breakfast meals that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall, and in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, tasty. The cafe’s vibe is warm and welcoming, with around ten staff overseeing a customer base that comes and goes with amazing frequency.

What you see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech behemoths that have emerged from NYC, the wave of independent coffee shops are the playgrounds of barista entrepreneurs. The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea a startup reality. They need to do their research, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it.

In small independent coffee shops, the man or woman serving your flat white is often the proprietor, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. They are operating in a highly competitive market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue.

My week in New York, visiting my son was a great experience. I managed to get some work done too, commuting in with him on the L train, enjoying the hustle and bustle, sight and sounds, but most of all I got into the habit of seeking out the artisan independent coffee shops mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

I watched baristas operate as true entrepreneurs. From beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprised me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There was sincere recognition and rapport between barista and customer. So much so, that in most cafes I visited, the baristas recognised the customer and what coffee they wanted before they asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

New York does coffee. Coffee served quickly, exactly like the customer asks for it. Coffee places like Five Leaves do it right. They know what people want. The baristas are prepared. Baristas serve two functions in this equation. Baristas make the coffee the way the customer likes the coffee, but before they do that, they listen and recognise what they customer wants. They serve the very important function of listening. This made me stop in my tracks, because I didn’t realise just how much practice it takes to listen. It’s a vital piece in the customer relationship, over and above the coffee itself.

The espresso they serve is exactingly made, very tasty, and perfectly portioned with milk that’s just hot and foamy enough. For those looking to try something new, there’s a rotating selection of boutique, in-season beans at a higher price tag. Along with cortados and lattes, you’ll find the slightly more obscure shakerato, espresso shaken over ice and served with simple syrup and an orange twist.

But, back to the practice of listening. It’s a lot like the practice of delivering great coffee. Listen to what baristas say: I have that grande decaf mocha for you, when you’re ready; Tall skim cappucinno on the bar, just for you.  A little extra touch. No matter how crowded and busy the queue, they talk to their customers, and in talking with the customers, they learn about them.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, maybe the game plan is simply consistency, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit.

All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic queues in the coffee shop, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from their training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Baristas may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it feels like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

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

For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sprinting in a five-minute intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

I’ve seen the baristas do this too, spending a quiet moment to themselves to reflect on the success of their business that morning, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

Put accuracy before power Business is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That’s a great analogy for any entrepreneur who’s chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won’t matter.

This is how the independent coffee shops win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that.

Keep moving forward Although entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

Many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

People’s desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of people in a hurry, but where baristas showcased the art form of artisan beverage making, everyone was happy to wait. Much like the subway artists in NYC, the barista craft is an art form to behold, performed with purpose.

I saw tonnes of guile, grit, creativity and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard working baristas who were putting a long shift in, they knew that today was a step forward to success and may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision was vital to success.

It’s tough out there and the pace is fast, but like any entrepreneur they had discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and doing towards their goals.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: equal parts flour, eggs, butter, sugar & perspiration

The Great British Bake Off ended last week with a nail-biting final that proved a triumph for Candice Brown. Mel Giedroyc brought the last bake to a halt by announcing: You can do no more ! You’ve finished! However, the climactic Showstopper Challenge failed to feature the one dessert I craved, namely, a custard pie. Being slammed in Paul Hollywood’s face. What a tart.

The GBBO shows all the traits of any great entrepreneurial endeavour – stepping outside of your comfort zone, being tested time and time again, and having to make spontaneous decisions in a challenging environment. Whilst it’s reality television, the situation created in the bake-off tent reveals many parallels to startup life.

There were three challenges: the Signature Challenge was to make a family-sized meringue crown; the Technical Challenge was to make a Victoria Sandwich, which seemed elementary, and the Showstopper Challenge was a picnic hamper consisting of forty-nine items – sausage rolls, quiche, scones, fruit tarts, and a chocolate cake.

The final was close, with all three bakers in contention as they approached the Showstopper. Andrew Smyth was the boyish aerospace engineer from Ireland with ambitious ideas and ambitious shorts; Jane Beedle was the maternal, traditional contestant, a garden designer with two kids and an interesting haystack hairdo, with which I readily identified.

Finally, Candice Brown, famous/notorious for sending more time fixing her appearance than fixing her ingredients, and as Mary Berry put it, ‘liking to do things over the top.’

The bakers had a mammoth five hours to make twelve puff pastry sausage rolls, twelve mini quiches, twelve savoury scones, twelve fruit and custard tarts, and one plain chocolate cake. Mel and Sue shouted Bake! for one last time. Andrew is so nervous he drops his bowl, but it didn’t shatter.

In the Signature Challenge, Jane made three tiers of meringue – a Pavlova with strawberry and raspberry compote, blueberry compote, and white flesh nectarines. Candice went a little further and made two different meringues. The three layers contain Prosecco-soaked strawberries, mango curd, gold-dusted physalis and glittered pistachios. Then there was a fourth tier inspired by the tiny crown of Queen Victoria.

Andrew somehow managed to stick his pecan praline to the wrong side of the baking paper where it became glued solid. His victory in the Technical Challenge meant he was back in the game, but his Signature Challenge did not turn out well thanks to that cursed pecan praline.

Candice’s Queen Victoria Meringue Crown on the other hand was remarkable. Paul bestows upon her the highest accolade: the Hollywood handshake. Candice squeals in the manner of a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Andrew is like the only kid at Christmas not to get a cracker.

The edginess around the Victoria Sandwich was palpable. A Victoria is all about having exactly the same amount of the ingredients – I should know, my wife bakes World Class Victorias every week – but the contestants were given no measurements. Equal parts flour, butter, sugar, eggs and tears today.

It’s 259 grams of everything asserted Jane. Quite precise. For the jam, her ratio of sugar to raspberries is 50-50. Andrew has only half the quantity of sugar and is following his grandma’s recipe from memory. Candice’s ratio was 350 grams to 150. Who knew jam could be so controversial?

Candice over-cooks her sponge cake, which the judges frown is too dark on the top. Her jam hasn’t set and is really a jelly not a jam and the buttercream is quite grainy. Fussy. Apart from that it’s fine.

The Showstopper is a picnic fit for her Majesty. To produce such an (absurd) array of different food Andrew has a spreadsheet detailing what he should be doing in every five-minute block of the whole five hours. The amount of multi-tasking going on here is mind-blowing, remarks Andrew. If I didn’t have a plan I’d be flapping.

As time passes, Andrew starts flapping, skipping round frantically in his alarming shorts and boyish cheeks getting redder and redder. But Candice nails it. I loved her little piglets, her sausage rolls filled with black pudding, which have peppercorn eyes and a curly tail made of crackling. Aside from that, her bravery by putting rhubarb into her custard tarts is the ball-in-the-back-of-the-net moment for Mary and Candice’s ambitious bakes.

Candice could bake, but raised the stakes with a combination of her technical skills, her artistic flair and her strawberries soaked in Prosecco. In the second week, she wowed with a cake model of her parents’ north London pub. It was authentic in every detail, right down to the sticky (gingerbread) carpet. Over the three-months of competition, cockney Candice became the Eliza Doolittle of the GBBO tent, cheeky and spirited, determined and passionate, showing undoubted entrepreneurial flair.

This was the winning spectacle of ordinary people surprising themselves by doing extraordinary things, with a dash of eccentricity thrown into the mix. It was a humdinger of a Showstopper. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein and James Martin.

For me, to win GBBO you have to be resilient and brave. There’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable. Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and confidence, triggering anxiety.

Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves. By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

As always, there are several lessons we can take into our startup business thinking from observing entrepreneurial endeavour in a non-business environment:

Be clear about your vision, the big picture and the end product Contestants visualise the process and their end product. The same applies to business outcomes. We need to use our imagination to create our vision and visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process. The Lean Startup advocates holding the vision but pivoting on the detail, which is a good approach to crafting a forty-nine-piece picnic!

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making. Having a clear and agile strategy is also key to a startup founder.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with instructions. In a startup, ambiguity or inaccuracy can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful scaling a business.

Customers have different personalities Mary is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. Paul is sometimes sarcastic and quick to criticise, but had plenty of heart too. Occasionally lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants tried to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Experimentation and testing are good startup business principles, but so is the discipline of an MVP.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency, unplanned events having adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and to respond with a back-up plan to pivot in an agile way is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under pressure and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm and present what is completed with conviction, even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have. The build-measure-learn principles of Lean Startup apply here.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each GBBO episode the challenges have clear goals, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product Contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business. Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it.

GBBO is a good example of stepping out of your comfort zone as entrepreneurs do everyday. It’s important to push the boundaries. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea goes back to an experiment in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal but not such that they are destructive.

This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive and our performance drops off sharply. The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the GBBO competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. I call this the learning zone.

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you step up and can deliver amazing results. However, pushing too hard can cause a negative result. I call this the panic zone, where you are unable to think logically with any structure, the box of frogs has opened in your head, your thoughts are jumping everywhere. After this, is the blind panic zone, where you really are uncomfortable, there is no semblance of order, simply a stream of unhelpful random consciousness.

As an entrepreneur, you should operate with optimal anxiety in the learning zone, that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

So ask yourself:

  • Have you identified what the next level of startup success looks like?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Why not create a crisis in your startup to create a learning moment?
  • Are you curious, constantly looking to learn about your customers?

Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil and seasoning, and then hey, the world is our omelette.

Whether you love or loathe GBBO, the tension and the temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Stepping out and becoming comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, pushing and stretching yourself provides new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

How Amelia Earhart made her mark for female entrepreneurs

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

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

Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean amongst many other records throughout her career. Her disappearance in 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the world was a tragic loss.

When ten-year-old Amelia saw her first plane, she was not impressed. It wasn’t until she attended a stunt-flying exhibition almost a decade later that she became seriously interested in aviation. On December 28, 1920, pilot Frank Hawks gave her a ride that would forever change her life.

Earhart took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921 and, in six months, managed to save enough money to buy her first plane. The second-hand Kinner Airster was a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow – The Canary – and set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Then in April 1928, she took a phone call: How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic? After an interview in New York with the project coordinators, she was asked to join the flight.

She left Trepassey Harbour, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F7 named Friendship on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales 21 hours later.  When the crew returned to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a reception held by President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howland Island, in the Pacific, is a mile and a half long and half-mile wide. Every unessential item was removed from the plane to make room for extra fuel, which gave Earhart approximately 274 extra miles more. The US Coastguard was stationed just offshore of Howland Island and two other US ships, burning every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers.

On July 2, at 10am local time, the pair took off. Despite ideal weather reports they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made celestial navigation difficult. As dawn neared, Earhart called the US Coastguard reporting cloudy weather, cloudy.

The Coastguard sent a steady stream of transmissions but she could not hear them. At 7.42am, the Coastguard picked up the message Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. The ship replied, but the plane seemed not to hear.

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

In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead by the US Court. Neither the plane or bodies were recovered.

There is no doubt that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements, in aviation for women.  In a letter to her husband, written in case a flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear:

Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart was before her time, showing many attributes of a C21st female entrepreneur that are worth noting. There are those who may think that an enterprise like hers must have some justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks, but that’s the underlying spirit of entrepreneurship.

She had a positive attitude There’s no energy that can mimic what’s released when a positive energy is released. A positive attitude is the fuel needed to drive us from idea conception to realisation. To help you stay positive, surround yourself with people who’ll encourage, inspire and believe in you. If you have a positive attitude, you’ll be able to see the potential that lies within you.

Earhart struggled at the outset as all entrepreneurs, but had amazing inner strength. She used adversity to her advantage. At the end of a struggle, you’re a better, more valuable person. Helen Keller said Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.

She had integrity Entrepreneurs don’t need to leave victims in their path to be victorious. You don’t need to step on others to step to the next level. Integrity must be the very core of your character. Always put honour before money and live by your convictions. As you gain respect and trust, your company will grow. Earhart created admiration for her endeavours, and her integrity was a key element in this.

She was focused on her next step Goals are dreams with a plan for realisation. Commit your short and long-term goals to writing. Record how and when you’ll achieve them. Post your goals in plain sight and review them often. Record the reward when the goal is attained. Remember that you can’t hit a mark you can’t see, and continual success demands a plan.

The greatest point of resistance for entrepreneurs is often just before breakthrough. Earhart had plenty of challenges, but constantly looked forward. We must have a stubborn resolve to see ourselves to the other side. When challenging circumstances seek to derail us, if we just take that next step, we’ll find that we’ve made it.

She had huge self-belief Look at any entrepreneur and you will see how much they believe in themselves. Self-belief is probably the single most important trait possessed by any successful entrepreneur. If you don’t believe you can succeed, then you won’t get very far. Of course, Earhart had this in spades.

She was driven by passion Successful entrepreneurs are always passionate about what they do because they tend to create businesses around the things they enjoy. Oprah Winfrey suffered a difficult childhood, then built a career around her passion to help others. Anita Roddick was passionate about environmental and social activism and her company, The Body Shop, was the first to prohibit the use of products tested on animals. Amelia Earhart was passionate about testing herself against unproven targets.

Find your own passion, believe in it and turn it into something you can really be proud of. As Anita Roddick once said To succeed you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality.

She had a clear sense of purpose There is no point in starting a business unless you possess a strong sense of purpose. You have to believe that you are destined for great (and good) things. Just look at women like Coco Chanel or Oprah Winfrey – they believed they had a purpose in life. They wanted to make a difference, and they certainly did. To be a successful female entrepreneur you have to believe in yourself and believe that what you are doing is making a difference. That strong sense of purpose will be reflected in your business, which will only stand the test of time

She was fuelled by bravery and persistence Whether you’re a man or woman, it takes guts to start a business and deal with the challenges you will undoubtedly face. You have to constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone to move forward, taking risks and accepting that when things go wrong, you can always survive and turn things around. Be brave and you will never look back. We can only imagine Earhart’s bravery each time she set off on one of her ventures.

Starting a business is one thing, keeping it going is another matter entirely. Just like Earhart, to be a successful businesswoman, you have to be persistent and never give up. Granted, there will be days when you feel like sticking your head in the sand and giving up, but when you’re feeling down, remember why you set off on this journey in the first place. Remind yourself of all the things you’ve achieved. Stick at it because the next best triumph could be just around the corner.

Amelia Earhart was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity and she did not quail before danger. Such energy cannot be planned and managed, often entrepreneurs do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion, which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.

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

John Coltrane: startups and all that jazz

I’ve been a clumsy, enthusiastic saxophone player for several years, someway off Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become anything close to consistently good, but I’m able to knock out a few recognisable tunes and get folks’ toes tapping.

As part of learning the instrument, you have to be able to improvise, playing with my teacher in a jazz jamming ‘free flow’ session to stretch your style, and speed of thought, playing chord progressions as spontaneous practice. Alas my concrete fingers constrain my dexterity, but playing jazz is fun and a chance to energise yourself.

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

Despite a relatively brief career – his solo career wasn’t launched until aged 33 in 1960 and he was dead by 1967 – Coltrane is among the most important figures in jazz. With a wealth of posthumously released material, Coltrane was a protean player who changed his style radically over his career.

Whilst taking jobs outside music, Coltrane attended the Ornstein School of Music and began playing in local clubs. In 1946 he switched from alto to tenor sax having met the iconic Charlie Parker, and in 1951 joined a big band led by Dizzy Gillespie, a septet, and on March 1 1951 he took his first solo on record during a performance of We Love to Boogie with Gillespie.

In 1955 he was hired by Miles Davis and began to record profusely, but he failed to kick his heroin habit and Davis fired him in 1956, only to reunite in 1957. Coltrane also joined the Thelonious Monk Quartet and during this period he developed a technique of playing several notes at once.

Coltrane’s second album was cut for Blue Note Records. This was Blue Train. From here on, his recording were noted for the ‘sheets of sound’ playing style. He also developed a ‘modal’ playing style, improvisations based on scales rather than chords, heard best on the album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, which became one of the best-selling and most acclaimed recordings in the history of jazz.

To truly know Coltrane’s work is to hear every note in every context, my favourites being his chord substitution cycles known as ‘Coltrane changes’, heard on Giant Steps (1959), generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any widely played jazz composition. His development of these altered chord progression cycles led to further experimentation with improvised melody and harmony that he continued throughout his career.

In April 1960 he formally launched his solo career, increasingly playing soprano sax as well as tenor. In the wake of commercial success, his style was frequently dubbed ‘avant-garde’ or ‘free’, noted in a 16-minue improvisation of Chasin’ the Trane in 1961. Thereafter, he continued to play a middle ground between traditional and free playing.

Coltrane’s rich productivity of releases in 1966 were the last recordings during his lifetime, as he died suddenly in July 1967 of liver cancer. He left behind a considerable body in unreleased work that has been posthumously issued. He won the 1981 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance for Bye Bye Blackbirds, a live recording made in 1962, and he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, 25 years after his death.

Coltrane is one of jazz’s most influential musicians, stemming from an appetite for experimentation, taking chances and devoting himself to innovation in his craft. His name lives on, his 100 albums on iTunes each a compositional realisation, execution and recording from the mind, mouth and flurrying digits of the late, exponentially great Trane.

Coltrane was a jazz entrepreneur, he did what any startup leader does: he improvised. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They don’t dwell on mistakes or stifle ideas. In short, they say ‘yes to the mess’ that is today’s hurried, harried, innovative and fertile world of startups. This is exactly what great jazz musicians do.

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

Yes to the Mess vividly shows how the principles of jazz thinking and performance can help startup leaders to develop these critical skills. Indeed, Coltrane believed that musical creativity was an act of discovery. He thought that the music already existed, and it was his role as an artist to explore, to look for a sound that lay outside traditional boundaries. He knew that spontaneous creativity was the business of jazz. With less than 1% of the notes on the written page, he made up the rest on the fly – no going back to correct mistakes or rethink a passage.

So let’s look at the lessons startup entrepreneurs can learn from jazz greats like Coltrane:

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

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

There are no do-overs in live performances For every hour in a performance setting, you should spend five hours practicing. Athletes do this, musicians do this – muscle memory is no different to being in front of a new potential investor or client. So why aren’t you doing this?

A favourite saying of jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis was: If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. Endemic to jazz, errors push musicians to reach beyond their comfort zones. Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation. It’s what you do with the notes that counts, but practice is key to developing your skills and style.

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

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

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

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

Expect surprises and adversity, since jazz (and startup life) is about how you respond and adapt If running a startup was always smooth sailing, and it followed the notes on the score, everyone would do it. That being said, the old adage applies, that ‘a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’, so anticipate hurdles and maximise your team’s effort to jump over them.

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

Jazz musicians often borrow from the past to create new music in the present. In startups, every past project acts as a library of inspiration and fuel for future work.

Don’t seek linear growth alone A jazz-driven approach requires the constant revision of assumptions and lessons learned from failure. There is no such thing as a mistake in jazz – come along and listen to me play! Coltrane built off of a constant change of pace to create new sounds. Startups should also embrace errors and accept new possibilities as they adapt, solve problems and improve inefficiencies.

Equally when developing their own technique and style, jazz musicians practice together, feeding off of each other to inspire creativity. Startups should foster similar innovation by designing their workspace in a way that encourages chance encounters and conversations between functional teams. A microcosm of a provocative learning nurtures an aesthetic of openness and surprise.

Rely on minimal structure and maximum autonomy A key lesson is that startup founders, like jazz musicians, need to, in Barrett’s words, interpret vague cues, face unstructured tasks, process incomplete knowledge and take action anyway. Musicians prepare themselves to be spontaneous. Startups can and must do the same.

To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is that it’s very ordered, underpinning the structure of apparent randomness is a long tradition of education and practice.

You can see a jam session as an effort to break down hierarchy. In a jam session, rank doesn’t matter. What matters is your ability, your willingness to take a risk, your spirit of both camaraderie and good-natured com-petition, and your wits in the heat of the moment. The jam session addresses a problem: How do you learn from other talented professionals that you don’t ordinarily get an opportunity to work with?

Listen closely to move as one As in business, communication is a crucial element of jazz. If you watch closely what’s happening between the musicians, you will see that without timely communication among the members they would never perform at their highest level. Just watch the different solos and see how the other members support the soloist and you will be surprised on the amount of dynamic emotion that is created.

Sometimes you’ll see jazz musicians performing in complete sync, changing tempos, ending the piece together, yet with no visible cues among them. Are they communicating by telepathy? No, they’re actually listening very closely to one another.

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

Find your own sound In today’s competitive environment it’s vital you differentiate yourself from the competition, to stand out from the undifferentiated greys of the pack and in living colour, show your uniqueness.

John Coltrane knew this instinctively, he pulled to the head of the pack by finding his own sound. Coltrane teaches us that you have to be authentically yourself, to find what’s right for you, leading from your own place of uniqueness. Trying to be what others want you to be will lead ultimately to failure. You have to find what you do best, and find what is best about you.

Coltrane played jazz as smooth and cool, as a rage, his solos never seemed to begin or end. Coltrane wasn’t methodical, but wasn’t messy either. His sax playing was a conversation, a give and take, a connection and a conversation between himself, his instrument and his audience. He said, I start in the middle of a sentence, and move in both directions at once – his spirit of adventure, improvisation and uniqueness captures the essence of an entrepreneur and their startup bravura.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Rawtenstall Farmers’ Market

The Grand Opening of Rawtenstall Market Hall by Mr Alderman Law, Chairman of the Market Committee, took place on Thursday January 18 1906, to many toasts and speeches by the Mayor and other members of the council. Saturdays and Thursdays were the designated days, with a cattle sale on the first Thursday in January, April, July and October.

Today, Rawtenstall Market is a community of traders that offer most things that you need, from fruit and veg to pet food and accessories, quality meats, cakes, biscuits and speciality foods, or new blinds for your home. It’s a friendly place and I wander down the hill to visit most Saturdays.

There are stallholders who are second and third generation family traders, and it is these connections, which give the sense of continuity and community often seen in local Markets. Our historical heritage means a lot to the traders and to Rossendale people as a whole. The Market has declined in recent years as the demographic of the area has changed, and the proliferation of the Supermarkets and online shopping impacted, but it still has a vibrancy and place in the local community.

Now to add to the traditional Market, a new Farmers’ Market was launched in April on the Town Square, with more then thirty stalls featuring a fantastic range of local and artisan fresh produce, together with some traditional herbal drinks, handcrafted soaps, exotic jams, and a variety of black puddings. There were also presentations of traditional local skills that were associated with Farmers’ Markets in the past, including a blacksmithing demonstration, glass fusing and coppicing garden poles.

We had a group of discerning stallholders, offering diverse, high quality local products, and it is hoped that the Market will establish itself as a distinct brand, and a regular attraction in Rawtenstall. Despite the usual horizontal mizzle, it attracted hundreds of visitors. Future Markets are planned for the last Sunday of every month through the summer, and we’ll also be getting a Clog Market in June, celebrating unusual home made crafts from local artists, craftsmen and women.

What a great way to spend a Sunday morning. I found those manning the Market stalls to be almost unfailingly friendly. Some may look at you sleepy-eyed because it was an early Sunday start, but most are happy to inform you that the rose-coloured fruit you’re holding is a dragon fruit, or that the label-free bottle filled with roots and ale is actually a Lancastrian aphrodisiac.

The vendors jostle with good humour for your attention, bunches of dried herbs guaranteed to cure all ills and a thousand aromas, fill the air. The Market is also a great place to sample the local cuisine, with small food stalls serving up the flavoursome dishes locals grew up on.

For self-starters with a passion for selling and a desire to get back as much as they put into a business, working a Farmers’ Market stall is a serious option. Don’t be mistaken for thinking a Market stall is below your entrepreneurial dreams, some of Britain’s greatest entrepreneurs started in a day-to-day Market trading activity – Tesco, Innocent Drinks and Marks & Spencer are all brands which grew from simple local foundations on the Market stall.

Tesco was founded in 1919 by Jack Cohen from a Market stall in London’s East End, where he began selling surplus groceries. He left the Royal Flying Corp at the end of the Great War and used his demob money to buy the first day’s stock. Cohen made a profit of £1 from sales of £4 on his first day. The Tesco brand appeared five years later when he bought a shipment of tea from a Mr T. E Stockwell. The initials and letters were combined to form TES-CO and in 1929 Cohen opened the flagship Tesco store in Burnt Oak, North London.

Rich, Adam and Jon, who met at university in the early 1990s, went on a snowboarding holiday, during which they decided to stop talking about starting a business and actually start one. They sold their first smoothies from a stall at a music festival in London. A sign above the stall read: Should we give up our jobs to make these smoothies? and people were asked to throw their empties into bins marked Yes or No. Yes wins. Innocent Drinks is born.

A stall at Kirkgate Market, Leeds, saw Michael Marks open his first Penny Bazaar stall in 1884. Today an M&S heritage stall and coffee shop is located right beside the famous M&S clock in the 1904 Kirkgate Market building. It’s amazing what a penny can do. Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny was Michael Marks’ first slogan. It couldn’t be any simpler and both his idea and hard work soon paid off, but it was when Michael went into partnership with Tom Spencer in 1894 that the company we all know really started to take shape.

At these Markets, Farmers can retain the full premium for their produce, instead of only a processor’s wholesale price. Where consumers perceive the Farmers’ produce is of better quality than produce available through stores or grocers, Farmers may retain most of the cost savings to themselves. Some Farmers also prefer the simplicity, immediacy, transparency and independence of selling direct to customers.

I was drawn to the Farmers’ Markets for three main reasons: food quality, better prices, and a great social atmosphere There was a better variety of foods – organic foods, pasture-raised meats, free-range eggs and poultry, handmade farmstead cheeses. The Town Square was a throwback, a place to meet neighbours, chat, and despite the weather, a place to enjoy an outdoor walk and fresh air while getting needed groceries

When it comes to selling on a stall, the day job varies enormously depending on what you’re punting and what your ambitions are. Bakers, cheesemakers, grocers and florists get up at unholy hours to prepare for the day. For others it’s a lifestyle thing. Some of these will only trade part-time or even just on a Sunday. Observing the Rossendalians on their stalls, I noted a few standout skills and talents that any entrepreneur needs, whatever their trading style:

  • A passion for what you are creating and selling
  • In depth knowledge of your goods and customers, and understanding of the competition
  • A snappy sales technique built around good communication skills
  • Ability to rise early and work long hours
  • The all-important ability to haggle without putting off potential buyers

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings I picked up from the Rawtenstall Farmers’ Market?

Live your ambition The early bird catches the worm – get there early, get set up and be prepared. Drill down to your absolute aspirations and lock them in. Then be sure to execute on them flawlessly so that customers learn exactly what you stand for and come to trust that you deliver.

Be creative in your selling Apply creativity in all aspects of your business model. Innovation shouldn’t be limited to new products and offerings. One fruit stall offered different bundles of fruit and veg in a smart selling and pricing strategy, the ‘3 for 2’ type offers we see in the Supermarkets at home but in several different combinations.

Stay fresh Keeping your business model as fresh as your fruit by leading the charge to change the shopping experience. Stalls had ‘offers of the day’, or introduced product as ‘fresh today, picked from the ground at 430am’. Some had the soils around the vegetables and leaves with the fruit, creating authenticity, natural and interesting stall displays for their products.

You can nourish yourself on this fresh produce that is minimally processed, and picked fresh, to enjoying an amazing array of produce that you don’t see in your average Supermarket: red carrots, purple broccoli and green garlic. A regular trip to a Farmers’ Market is one of the best ways to connect with where your food comes from. Meeting and talking to Farmers and food artisans is a great opportunity to learn more about how and where food is produced.

Be smart Take customers on a journey to keep your offering new and different. One stall had full tasting offerings of their product, the classic ‘try before you buy’. Initially I wasn’t buying, but a sample tempted me and created new demand and secured a purchase.

Be quirky Create eye-catching product names. One stall had visually stunning photos, with product descriptions like ‘The half moon, silky and smoky’ and ‘Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories.’ This leads to a natural curiosity, which draws customers in.

Provide product information One stall had hand-written product notes pasted on the box in front of each product, information about the product, harvest location, ecology and farmer biographies that caught my eye. A simple way of providing customer engagement.

Few grocery stores or Supermarkets will give you tips on how to cook the ingredients you buy, but Farmers and artisans at the Farmers’ Market are often passionate cooks with plenty of free advice about how to cook the foods they are selling. The organic nature of the food makes it tastier, and cheaper than buying at the Supermarket. You will eat seasonally, fresh and ripe.

Connect with your customers as people – make it personal connect, talk to people – tales make sales, find common ground and relate to people; if people want a robot, they will go to a Supermarket. The personality, character and friendliness of the stallholders created an experience, we talked and engaged as people, a refreshing change.

The personal one-to-one interaction with the stallholders is as important as the product. I had one fruit seller who took my order, then he spent just two extra minutes doing something special.

He transformed himself into an artist. He drew pictures on the paper bags of the product – not just childlike images, but clever pencil sketches. In those few extra minutes, he became remarkable, and memorable, he made me feel like I was his only customer that morning. It takes 99% of the time you spend just to be average. The remarkable stuff can happen in 1% of your time – in a flash.

From savouring produce at the peak of freshness to meeting the people who grow your food, there are countless reasons to support Farmers’ Markets:

The wind on your face, the sun on your skin – ok, it’s Rawtenstall, rain on your head – but you talk with a local Farmers and merchants about the size and taste of their fruit and vegetables, as you pop a slice in your mouth. After tasting several different varieties, you choose your favourite one, full of nutrition, walking away with a great memory of the conversation in your mind…

Or…

You stand shivering in the freezer section at your local Supermarket, your eyes begin to glaze over from the halogen lights and the neon-coloured cardboard boxes containing substances claimed to be fresh food products. You decide on the one with the least amount of additives and make your way to the self-check-out line, excited to get in your car and out of the place.

Rawtenstall’s monthly Farmers’ Market is set around a cobblestone promenade exposed to the winds coming in from the Pennines, fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and bakery stalls of every flavour exist side by side as vendor stallholders ply their trade with potential customers as they pass-by. You can stroll, shop, eat, laugh, wander, wonder and explore it all, a hub of creativity and a festival of entrepreneurial life.