Avoid the distractions of startup culture and hype, believe in yourself

Based on the decade of experience of being involved in tech startups as a founder, advisor and investor, I can say without doubt that the cacophony of startup hullabaloo is getting louder than ever. It’s a dangerous elephant in the room. The brouhaha is becoming an epidemic.

Really, what does super excited mean, other than referring to an eight year-old on Christmas Day? I asked a founder last week what his value proposition was: Bitcoin crypto-ecosphere incubating API-friendly functionality he replied with a straight face, although I did detect the mad-eyed Jack Nicholson face from the scene in The Shining where he puts an axe through the bathroom door. Here’s Johnny was lurking within.

It’s a cultural shift where we’re seeing the image and status of being an entrepreneur as having more meaning than the outputs they create. It’s in every place that wants to be a tech hub, everyone that wants to be a tech millionaire before they’ve really put a shift in and before they’ve hit 25.

I read an article that highlighted ‘The App Effect’ as the root of all this evil, anyone and everyone wants a shot at the startup game. People want to build an app before having an idea. The Peter Pan Generation.

The nap-rooms, free food, colourful furniture, they all create the image-before-action trend, and indulge people on the possibility of making money before any truly hard work. Google is amazing tech, but they didn’t start with nap-rooms or free food to employees. The culture seems to perpetuate itself. Everything nowadays is a startup.

Then there’s the ‘Uber for X’ phenomenon, folks proudly announce themselves as the on-demand, sharing-economy solution for: pet sitting, laundry, car-washes etc. I’ve even had someone pitch me ‘Uber for underwear’, but that’s not worth sharing. The list is an endless set to the value of n. But at least it’s replaced the i-laundry, i-car wash, i-tutor phase.

There are that many disruptive blockchain Uber foxes (apparently it means riding on the back of the success of a more established business) going to be a white horse like creature with single horn in Manchester, that I’m going to launch a Startup Bullshit Bingo app to play on the Met or walking around Spinningfields. Pity it’s not a Valley. As you were, Manchester.

We’re bootstrapping 101 evangelists. Enough, I could let you have more, but what is the impact of this startup hullabaloo culture? It is deception in various forms such as outlandish exaggeration, warping of reality or just talking in a way that gives an inaccurate picture of how your startup is actually doing. It’s the lies you tell yourself, and this self-deception is akin to self-harm, that concerns me most.

So let’s be clear: startups are starting level companies based on new ideas. It’s a label, nothing more than a time adjective for businesses. Yet it has turned into a tech-cool-hipster way of doing business and it’s a label people yearn for – but how can a ‘business’ that is four years old, with no revenue or customers, still call itself a startup? How can an idea in heads and on paper only be worth £1m?

All of this eager desire to carry that image is helping to establish the Endup Culture, because they are ignoring the fundamentals of any business, and equally, downplaying that the striving in hardship and graft that is the reality of startups, is not for everyone. It’s grit not glamour.

That’s not to say that the real startup culture isn’t valuable, the culture and ambition that stands for exploring the blank canvas of unsolved problems is worthwhile. There are brilliant ideas out there.

But this hype and bravado comes at a price. It’s chipping away at the key things you really need – self-belief and hard work. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Believing or just even exposing yourself to this noise is an insidious trap. At its heart, it makes you blinded, you second guess yourself and take your eye off the only thing that actually matters: focusing relentlessly on knowing your customers and delivering value to them.

As founders, we necessarily have to believe it’s possible when we don’t know, but the hype around tech startups is creating a schism from the underlying reality. It’s too easy to fall into a routine where you’re always pitching a bright tomorrow, attending all the meet-ups and networking events, living in the startup eco-system bubble, but in reality not focused on head-down, sleeves rolled-up and doing the hard yards. The success of others should be motivating, but you have to put the hours in. Hope is not a strategy.

The problem comes when we distort the truth about our current situation (warts and all) to believe the hype we tell others and indeed ourselves. It increases the feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome, and feeds the lie that you’re the only one who is struggling with the basics. So how can you avoid this hot-air and accept the brutal reality of pragmatism required to get a startup off the ground?

First, know that every founder struggles to the point of despair. You’re not alone in feeling like this despite what you may hear from others. Second, start by being honest with yourself and avoid the seduction of the rhetoric. Close your ears. I don’t believe startup life needs to be about hiding bad news and pretending everything is shiny. It’s about balance, being in the moment, doing and being the best you can.

Launching a startup is a special kind of personal commitment, which will invariably bring profound reminders of your purpose and challenges as a human being. A startup is about finding what matters to you. Then there’s the contradiction between your thinking and reality once you’re into it. These paradoxes and tensions are the very drivers that spur us on.

What counts is not the status of ‘startup’, but the endeavour and joy in the work, so define your purpose and success on your own terms. Don’t indulge yourself in the noise of others, recognise your own dilemmas, because if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, why bother in the first place?

Accept, that it carries risk and there is no safety net, but don’t listen to the bravado of others, listen to your own voice. At some point, you’ll feel that you are fully invested – emotion, energy, time – but quitting is not a remote possibility. Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, you need to dodge the most obvious startup cliché, and at all costs avoid granting yourself the status of the victim.

Living on your own wits as a solo artist in the spirit of individualism, don’t look to the left or the right to blame others, look at yourself. The gung-ho bravado of startup culture is masking the reality and undermining the truth: it’s sheer bloody hard work.

Think about it this way: What’s important to me is not the hype of others; but my opinion of myself. You have to have belief in many things, for yourself, by yourself, to make your startup a success. Let’s look at some of these beliefs.

Belief in self: First and foremost, simply believe in your ability. You can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. Don’t hope you can beat the odds, believe wholeheartedly that you will. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt, yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane.

One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Ditch the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, the cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude.

Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of entrepreneurs. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champions, who treat failure as a motivation. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in your vision: Your vision is bigger than anything in the moment, it’s what got you started, what keeps you going. Hold your vision and make small steps, no matter how dark the clouds. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s belief in your vision that determines your continued direction and ultimately success.

Tech startups are now a symbol of C21st cool, and founders are hipsters. It’s hard to tell if an idea is any good, but there’s a clear distinction between naivety and pretence. Call startups on reality. If you bring value, you win customers. Otherwise, you don’t. How did we lose sight of that?

Startups bear too much of an image culture, and many founders are too anxious for the status badge. The bravado and hype is damaging, you need to detach from it. I know folks who attend every single network event and yet don’t do much real work. Why? Because it’s cool to be seen at these events. But talking about what you’re doing are all the time just leads to complacency.

If you’ve got this far with this blog, you’ve recognised my somewhat cynical view of everything helps because it keeps you grounded. As Jason Fried says, avoid the trap, it’s signals versus noise. Staying grounded allows you to maintain a focus on shipping. Celebrating equals shipping. It’s not sexy, but shipping pays the bills.

Working for a startup can be amazing, amidst all the uncertainty and frustrations lies the understanding that succeeding means you are moving the needle on something that you enjoy doing. When you connect to the silence within you, and find your self-belief, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you. Respect yourself. Don’t screw it up by being distracted by all the startup hype.

The future is unwritten, so make your mark

Rebel’s Wood is a young forest on the Atlantic-facing North West side of the Isle of Skye. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Bracadale is this beautiful woodland of native broad leaf trees, predominantly Birch, Alder, Rowan, Oak and Willow. This healthy young forest is doing well after taking a while to poke their heads above the bracken, due to the slow growing conditions of the far North.

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

Joe Strummer was a pioneering musician. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a mélange of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice.

After releasing a final album in 1985, the Clash broke up for good, and Strummer went into a personal wilderness for over a decade. Returning with what was to be his final music venture, with a new band, The Mescaleros, Strummer was reborn. Remarkably, his final music displays a steadfast work ethic and creativity, experimentation and innovation in his musicianship.

Strummer and The Mescaleros recorded three innovative albums, which showcase a renewed, vibrant Strummer producing music radically different from his previous work.  More insightful and mature, here is a collection of stunning compositions and poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects.

On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit gig for striking fire fighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones, his former partner in The Clash was in the audience, and in an impromptu act, joined the band on stage to play a few classic Clash tunes. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together. But within three weeks, Strummer was dead.

Strummer made his mark, redefining music, and reaffirming the principles of committed, intelligent political and social commentary and opposition through music. For someone who used his music to galvanize and promote progressive action, his final performance was most fitting.

In three weeks time, on 28 September, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 will be released, featuring some unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This will be the last time we will hear from Joe Strummer.

Strummer was dynamic, controversial and confrontational. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talismanic musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity. Originality was a trait characterising both the man and musician.

His brutally confessional and outspoken work was a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his death, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making commercial music.

Strummer’s ideology of constant innovation and originality in his craft is very rare. His zest and restlessness puts him alongside the names we associate with C21st tech entrepreneurship and innovation, people who’ve built amazing digital services, devices, new business models or social-media platforms. Like them, Strummer wanted to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity, but through his music rather than tech.

Strummer had the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation and individuality. Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein, Bowie, Jobs and Musk.

It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. Imagination leads us to accomplish our greatest achievements. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are. That’s entrepreneurship. It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are, and be it the best way you know how.

So how do you do this? Here are some thoughts as to what made Strummer the individual, his entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from him, with parallels to the tech innovators who surround us today.

Start small Bootstrapping and learning your craft, with a strong work ethic and determination, will always give you the foundations to make your dream a reality. You have to make a start, make it happen for yourself. Strummer never forgot where it all started for him: I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99 I think, and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play Johnny B. Goode. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and Johnny B. Goode. And that’s how I started.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Strummer is that no matter what the obstacles, he never gave up. He was exceptionally self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed determination to continue and keep moving forward through all challenges. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Strummer wanted to be the best, get his voice heard above everyone else. He had something to say. He was ready to take big risks when there were no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in him or his music, but this did not dent his self-belief. He just kept going – keep the big vision, take small steps – and then with The Mescaleros he went again, saw success. Nothing is impossible.

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.

Strummer’s enormous ambition to do what everyone said couldn’t be done far exceeded everyone around him. He was in dispute with his record company for eight years, and released no new music, yet he kept fighting. He aimed for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

Build prototypes Joe’s risk-taking and creativity always had a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. He prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle.

For each finished track, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.

He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lied 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.

Alongside Strummer’s thinking, I’ve always held JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit as inspiring about choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

The future is unwritten There were moments when Strummer wanted to be left with his thoughts. He liked being alone, he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard. He once said Thinking is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But according to his wife Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil. He would say, ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’ And I would go: ‘No you’re not, you’re just staying up!'”

The future is unwritten is a headline quote just before his death, which captures the essence of Strummer and entrepreneurs, restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. He was an individual, in every sense of the word.

In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

Directions to Rebel’s Wood – From Dunvegan follow the A836 South for half a mile; turn right onto the B884 and follow for half a mile; turn left to Orbost (signposted) and follow for two miles. Park in the yard and follow on foot the track to Bharcasig (Barabhaig) and continue south to the site.

Entrepreneurial creativity: find something only you can say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.