Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

Lessons on personal branding from Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais delivered his fifth and final hosting of the Golden Globes ceremony last week, with a scabrous opening monologue that left the attending celebrities squirming in their seats. Gervais’ opening diatribe wasn’t kind to his targets, but we knew what to expect from his previous performances.

He reminded the audience of his job to entertain and prepared the stars in attendance for the worst, with a clear let’s have a laugh at your expense. No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. Gervais capacity to offend great swathes of an audience with a single utterance is pretty much unrivalled.

But the emperor has no clothes, and with a few pointed jokes, Gervais pierced their collective delusion, exposing the hypocrisy of Hollywood. He has retained the brutality and joke-writing brilliance of his early work, but applied it to socio-politics over celebrity, Gervais is the appalling, apocalyptic comic-poet our era demands.

The criticism levelled at Gervais is that he’s turned into – or perhaps always was – his Office alter ego David Brent, which at least goes to show what an unforgettable comic monster Brent was in the first place, a management busybody with delusions of charisma, fronting a pioneering cringe comedy and still-brilliant mockumentary nailing the pettiness and desolation of workplace life.

We’ve got a little bit of David Brent in all of us. We all sometimes mistake popularity with respect. We all want to be liked. We all wonder whether our perception of ourselves is exactly the same as the rest of the world’s. And we all want to feel that we belong.

The creator and star of The Office, Extras, Derek, and the critically acclaimed recent hit After Life, Gervais has won countless awards. His hit series The Office is the most successful British comedy of all time, shown in more than 90 countries, which he co-wrote and co-directed with friend and collaborator, Stephen Merchant. For me, his film Life on the Road and TV series Idiot Abroad are timeless, comedy classics.

His words flow and fizz with vocal energy. He does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist, his big idea is that life should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect an audience with his enthusiasm: isn’t this interesting? He’s almost an anthropologist.

This seems not to have been an ideological commitment so much as an expression of contrarianism, extracting glib homilies from the messy stuff of real life – if Gervais were to be parachuted into the Antarctic, it would take roughly twenty minutes before the penguins were lining up to peck his lights out.

It is true that he sometimes presses his stories too militantly and can jam together materials too disparate to cohere, but for the most part the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the sharp angle or the deceptively trivial incident to blow things up out of all proportions.

Gervais is playfully intelligent, in a time of antagonistic debate and polarised opinion, he has something to say and is worth listening too. If you had to identify the comedian who captures the moment of today, it would be Gervais. In a world of literalists high on certainty and short on humour, I value his teasing, sprite-like presence more than ever. If he does not embody the zeitgeist, maybe that’s because the zeitgeist has grown so pompous.

Either way, the size of his audiences suggests that even in the era of taking sides, many people positively enjoy his stepping over the line, provocation, picking targets and outrage culture, in and out of parody too fast at times to keep up. His message is simple but stark: speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — from the head or heart on your terms. Deliver a message or something creative that isn’t prettied up and restrained and it’ll have a far greater impact.

Gervais’ personal attributes and characteristics have created a definitive ‘personal brand’, a deliberate strategy, making his mark, making himself memorable and standing out from the crowd. Creating a ‘personal brand’ is a positive way to stand out in an increasingly competitive startup world. The term ‘personal brand’ first appeared in August 1997 in an article by management guru and author Tom Peters, who wrote, We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Personal branding is simply the way in which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their value, and then leveraging with consistent behaviour. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts to establish reputation and credibility – ‘it’s what they are famous for’.

Let’s look at this in a little more using Gervais as the exemplar, how do you build a This is me brand to help you be memorable and help answer the customer’s question Why should I buy from you?

Be first with a purpose A personal brand is synonymous with your reputation, the way others see you. Are you famous for? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What thoughts come to mind as soon as someone hears your name? People recognise your name, what you offer and what you’re about. It answers the question how does working with me help them? Like Gervais, entrepreneurs have a purpose and ‘make the main thing, the main thing’.

Live in your learning zone The world is changing fast, make sure you are constantly learning and identify an area where you will be better than others, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Concentrate on your expertise. Once you have identified and developed this, make the most of it by seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve created. Not to boast, but to demonstrate if you’ve genuinely innovated, people are will want to know about it.

It takes time to build your personal brand. If you fail to stay relevant, all of your effort will be wasted. If you’re not growing, then you’re stagnating, and that’s the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur.

Focus on the things that make you different What makes you, you? Concentrate on the positives on both personal as well as professional level. Consider the way you react in everyday situations, whether it’s the way you communicate, your creativity, or the way you think and process information. Become really, really good at what differentiates you, or be so good they can’t ignore you – there is only one Ricky Gervais!

Make yourself visible This does not mean claiming undue credit or being anything less than humble, it means focusing on having a high-impact that will likely have visible results, knocking them for six and sharing the results. Blow your own trumpet, but be consistent – every move you make either reinforces your brand or violates it. Also participate in larger conversations and encourage those around you, it’s less about broadcasting yourself per se, and more about reinforcing your personal brand.

Work harder than everyone else Nothing is a substitute for hard work. Look around: How many people are working as hard as they can? Very few. The best way to stand out is to out-work everyone else. It’s also the easiest way, because you’ll be the only one trying. Gervais is a great example of this, now approaching twenty years of relentless creativity, huge work ethic and productivity.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic noise, pressure of the event and the audience reaction at the Golden Globes, Gervais kept a clear head. In the heat of the moment, he cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus on his performance, 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.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks when the game action is paused. 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. You can see in Gervais’ performances he too uses this technique, pausing to enjoy the audience reaction and to reground himself, reaffirming his personal brand persona.

Keep moving forward Like Gervais, entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, but also reinvention. 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. Reinvention is key, applying learning and a focus on the next gig.

Building a personal brand is about developing an understanding of your true self, and then sharing that with the world. Take your mask off and don’t be afraid of being vulnerable as you develop this. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be yourself. The more you try to be like other people, the more you will recede into the mass of the background noise.

Take note of Ricky Gervais’ personal brand, don’t be afraid to let your own character show in what you do and in how you present yourself. Sure, you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’re not in this to win a popularity contest, but to stand out from the crowd and connect to a target audience.

As a startup founder, your future is unwritten

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 17 years ago yesterday, December 22, 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, enterprising musician, one of a special few. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a variety of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political and social activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice. I wonder what he’d make of our country today.

After releasing their final album in 1985, the Clash split, 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 renewed creativity, experimentation and innovation in his musicianship.

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

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 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released, featuring previously unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This was the last time we heard 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. 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 to remember Joe Strummer, as the seventeenth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician into our startup business thinking?

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, 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 was that no matter what the obstacles, he never gave up. He was 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.

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.

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 searched out anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others. 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.

Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. Strummer was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy, giving me inspiration.

It’s Christmas 2019. The offices are empty, the roads are quiet. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever. Take a leaf our of Joe’s book, and remember as a startup founder, your future is unwritten. 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.

Lessons for startups from the craft gin innovators

Gin has overtaken vodka to become the most popular spirit in Britain, evolving from the home-made C18th gut-rotting drink that was the scourge of the poor, to the tipple of colonial civilisation, and now the many-splendoured glories and choices of hipster watering holes.

We don’t know exactly what went into the strong water made of juniper that the diarist Samuel Pepys knocked back on October 10, 1663, but it did the trick he said, allaying his constipation. A couple of decades later, gin’s popularity exploded, after the introduction of jenever, a Dutch and Belgian liquor. Originally a medicine made of juniper berries, William of Orange, brought the tipple with him from Holland when he took the throne.

This was the time of the gin craze. More than half of London’s drinking establishments were gin emporiums. Parliament reacted by passing various laws to control the drinking and production of gin, and by the 1850s, things had calmed down.

The enthusiasm for the spirit, nicknamed ‘mother’s ruin’, took a different turn in the 1800s when colonialists in India used it to make malaria prevention more palatable. The antimalarial quinine, derived from the bark of cinchona trees, was effective but tasted awful, so colonialists mixed it with sugar and gin to cut the intense bitterness. The gin and tonic was born.

Today, surging popularity and wide-open competition has led to consumer’s conflation of gin with gin liqueurs. Many products are pushing or breaking the boundaries of established definitions in a period of genesis for the industry. We have a bewildering array of craft distilleries along with spas and hotels devoted to selling gin parties, gin menus, ginvent calendars.

The passion for all things gin has resulted in 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. Nearly fifty opened last year. A total of 47m bottles worth £1.2bn were served up last year, enough for 1.32bn gin and tonics. The craze has even reached BBC Radio 4’s series The Archers, where Toby Fairbrother produced Scruff Gin, flavoured with his own mix of botanicals.

Torn between a Tommyrotter and a Cathouse Pink? Can’t tell the difference between a Spirit Hound and an Ugly Dog? You’re not alone! There are now gins of every shade, for every social occasion. By any reckoning, the demand for the juniper-flavoured spirit made by small-scale craft and artisan producers has been a freakish phenomenon, reaching a market outside traditional gin drinkers.

We have Monkey 47, a gin from the Black Forest of Germany, which has become something of a cult, largely on the ground of its botanicals. Not a big deal, you might say, given that botanicals are in every gin – they are the ingredients – floral, herbal, spicy etc. that, via an alchemy provide each brand with its singular magic. In most gins, the number of botanicals tends to stay in the single figures. Not in Monkey 47, though, whose name is a statistical boast. Personally, I can’t even think of forty-seven botanicals!

Few innovations have been more successful than Hendrick’s gin, thanks in part to its apothecary-style bottles. Hendrick’s is part of William Grant & Sons, a Scottish firm that owns Glenfiddich, so has some marketing muscle. Gin aficionados and new producers alike owe a huge amount to Hendrick’s as the category’s real trailblazer.

Developed in 1999, Hendrick’s launched its gin product, with the inclusion of two unlikely essences, rose petal and cucumber, and started the ball rolling in the new market with two factors, premium pricing and taste. The pricing factor together with high quality packaging served to signal to consumers that the stodgy old gin image was gone. As to taste, Hendrick’s was among the first to move out of citrus and herbaceous into a novel new flavour for gin.

This was followed by the emergence of the micro-brewery and craft ale renaissance, which has seen the alcohol market undergo a major shift in the last few years. We’re drinking fewer units, less often but still spending more. For more and more consumers, a night out means a couple of cocktails or fine craft ale that’ll look great on Instagram. In this sector as with others, it’s become as much about the experience as the product.

So that’s the back story, what lessons can we learn from how gin producers found new ways to excite and engage with more and new consumers, for other startup ventures introducing new products?

Understand your product’s market position Gin benefits from being versatile, and thus a more interesting product than vodka. When mixing in simple drinks or fancy cocktails, it’s possible to bring out different aspects of the gin by choice of ingredient, or indeed bring out different elements from the cocktail by trying it with different gins.

Gin is also more affordable when compared to a lot of spirits. Aged spirits command a premium due to time spent in the barrel, angels share etc., where as gin is a relatively quick spirit to make, therefore the price tends to be lower meaning it’s a more accessible category to explore.

Be agile in your product thinking Whilst it is not at easy to produce a great gin, the production time is relatively short, with no need for aging like fine whisky and wine. This has allowed producers to be agile, moving to swiftly rise with the demand and to create new products.

With gin simply being defined by having juniper as the prominent flavour, it allows for experimentation and diversity in the market. This not only gives it broad appeal to people’s different tastes, it allows distilleries to rapidly create powerful narratives around their new gins that capture consumers’ interest.

Like the micro-breweries, some gin distilleries have been going the extra mile to reflect their locality, using botanicals that are locally foraged and distilled. The Botanist is a prime example, distilled from twenty-two types of berries, barks, seeds and peels found on the Isle of Islay in Scotland.

Put innovation and experimentation at your core Gin has the power to transport the drinker through the powers of taste and smell. One of the reasons craft gin has proved so successful is because it’s quick and easy to tweak and tailor as highlighted earlier. There isn’t really another spirit category in which you can commission your own product so easily. With gin, it’s a matter of days before it can be on the market.

This enables experimentation, making your own gin experiences and bespoke offerings for anything from hotels and restaurants to events. Distilleries will also continue to experiment with distillation techniques and barrel ageing, for instance, to increase depth of flavour. They will also get more and more creative with the flavours and botanicals they use, to create new and unexpected flavour profiles.

It seems that the more theatrical that producers can make their botanical constituents in their gin, the more success they have. This seems to have replicated the growth in wine sales. When it comes to the actual wine in the bottle, one of the biggest innovations was the move by supermarkets to start promoting wine by their grape variety and not brands per se, to engage with shoppers. It is arguably what kick started our love affair with Pinot Grigio.

Use storytelling to build advocacy Hendricks tells a great story, using nostalgia of a bygone era, while positioning as a contemporary, exciting and innovative product – a blend of the old and the new. Skilful storytelling is essential, partly because premium gins are sold at a high price point.

The Hendricks storytelling was about selling something more than just a better taste – the experience, a ‘proper’ gin and tonic, a gin that deserves to be savoured – it needs to work in a loud, busy bar when somebody asks What’s a good gin? A truly great story can be distilled down to an instantly appealing point of difference.

There are many examples that show new demand can be built by a new product with a good story and a bit of audacity. For example, long before craft gin was a thing, Grey Goose won itself a huge share of the premium vodka category.

The brand had a great story, a beautifully made, unabashedly French vodka from the Cognac region. Determined to take on Absolut, which dominated Grey Goose’s category in the US, the brand almost doubled its retail price overnight. The genius behind this was Sidney Frank, the man who also turned Jagermeister from a herbal digestif for German grandmothers into the booze half of a Jagerbomb.

I think that provenance had a lot to do with the success of craft gins. Those interested in buying things locally, or from specific regions liked the idea of gins with firm roots. They bought into the story of where they’re produced and the people that produce them, giving a strong connection to the products.

Know your customers as individuals The craft gin boom follows a surge in demand for locally made small scale beers, as the hipster generation seeks drinks with a more interesting taste created by individuals rather than faceless international corporations. Who are these consumers?

When launching Hendricks, their marketing identified ‘The Activist Consumer’, defining their characteristics, which are driven by lifestyle trends:

·     Always seeking to identify optimal experiences and the best products for the moment.

·     Exploring the ethical ramifications of their choices.

·     Multi sensory experiences enable brands to differentiate their interface with consumers.

·     Dreams of extremes: embrace moments that transport them outside their comfort zones.

·     Augmented crafted products, through a mix of ingredients, craft and ‘mixology’

·     Tangible transparency: brands that share consumers values and beliefs

·    Seek to combine high-speed gratification with balancing their always-on lives.

Personalised choice, allows brands to connect with their customers using multi-sensory techniques can all contribute to the higher-level experiences that people are looking for. The aim is always to surprise and delight your consumers.

Whether it’s a lavender infused gin and tonic or a spit-roasted pineapple gin with ice, there are now seemingly endless ways to drink gin that go beyond the standard G&T. This growth has been helped by a string of new brands, flavours and innovations entering the market, and now Amazon has joined in, further establishing its direction of travel in the grocery sector with the launch of its own premium gin brand – Tovess will retail for £24.99 and is described as offering a ‘smooth Mediterranean taste’.

There are lessons for us all in the attitudes of gin entrepreneurs, their world is everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A strong sense of the possible is essential to driving innovation that in turn leads to success. Whilst the image of the swashbuckling adventure-hungry risk-taking buccaneering entrepreneur is somewhat of a caricature, positive energy and exuberance are key, and the new gin innovators have it in buckets.

We all need to have new ideas, different ones, about what’s changing in our market, and how those changes could disrupt our business model. You also need to think about how you can disrupt yourself.

We need to live with the future customers and in the future markets of our business, we need to work on the business, not in the business. The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.

We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your business 2.0 – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference. But whatever the trigger, take a leaf from the craft gin folks, pushing limits and challenging conventions, live craft.

Changing lifestyles factors are driving the growth of the companies in gin industry, driving product strategy from a customer’s point of view and with customer-based insights, to ensure the business model is as robust as it can be.

The macro lesson is this: focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice.

Innovation lesssons from Carl Elsener III and his Swiss Army Knife

Carl Elsener III started his working life as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, but from these humble beginnings went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into a global phenomenon – the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass. Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player, but I’ve stuck with the basic model.

Elsener is up there as one of the greatest innovators of all time, with his product shaping a lasting impression of innovation, ingenuity and uniqueness. Today, 45,000 knives are produced daily in Ibach, Switzerland, providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. Members of the Swiss military received the first Elsener-designed knife, complete with a blade, reamer, screwdriver, and can opener. In 1897, he introduced the Officer’s Knife, which included a corkscrew. After his mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark, then added the suffix inox (stainless steel was also called inox steel from the French noxydable) in 1921 as a nod to the tough components.

Elsener took over as CEO from his father in 1950 when the knives were still hand made. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Schweizer Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US forces personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better.

US sales declined sharply after 9/11. Once a popular item at airport duty-free stores, the knives were banned from air travel. Victorinox refused to lay off employees, instead coming up with an unorthodox solution: it leased workers to other companies, but continued to pay their wages. The company has since adapted some of their products to be flight-friendly, including versions that contain all of the original tools minus any blades.

Does the Swiss army actually use Swiss Army knives today? Absolutely! The army also has an implement not found on civilian models that can open ammunition cans and scrape carbon from firearms. Not much of a weapon there. Corkscrews. Bottle openers. Come on, buddy, let’s go. You get past me, the guy in the back of me, he’s got a spoon. Back off, I’ve got the toe clippers right here. Apologies for the comedy, but I’ve had my Swiss Army Knife since a thirteen year old scout, and not sure I could fight off more than a rabid squirrel.

NASA commissioned a special edition for their astronauts, and the knife has been invaluable in various space mission emergencies, including the first time the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station, and one of the tools on the pocket knife was used to open the hatch connecting the two. There are pictures of the moment the penknife was used to open the hatch.

Swiss Army Knives in space is just one of the many extraordinary episodes in the history of Elsener’s product. These include bespoke penknives being made for US presidents, and models of the original Swiss Army Knife being placed in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the State Museum of Applied Arts and Design in Munich.

There is real dignity and romance to Elsener’s entrepreneurial endeavours, his is a moment of time in building a unique product and a business that scaled into a global enterprise with a clear brand identity. So what can we learn about his spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Elsener that should spark your startup thinking today.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Elsener was revered for his Do-It-Yourself abilities. He didn’t quite make it up as he went along, but like any startup he had to find his market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where the audience was. The ‘product’ was simple and yet a work of precision and design. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen – by doing it yourself. 

Belief Elsener took on an established industry with major, established organisations in control and broke the rules with his own product thinking. In doing so, he changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. He had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, measured in branding and cultural – finance too, but that’s the applause, not the goal. Elsener made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

Authenticity inspires customers Elsener started with a bold expression of his own, to be truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. What’s your signature tune and tone of voice?

Just copying something is no good, unless you just want to be a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional – is there anything else quite like a Swiss Army Knife?

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. Elsener’s design makes the product instantly recognisable, it stands out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

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

Turn your back on competitors. Yes, ignore them. They aren’t running your business. You are. So instead of focusing on your competitors, focus on your customers. Be empathetic. Know them inside and out. Invest in relationships, not transactions. Learn what makes them tick, how they feel, what they need. This may sound like basic sales training, but it’s vital at the brand level, too. If you know what matters to your customers, you can structure your brand offering with the confidence that it will connect.

Open mindedness Elsener’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. The uniqueness in the product plus constant change and update, combining existing elements in new ways, produces something entirely its own, with a prowess for almost throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Elsener’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every startup needs.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose Elsener had a vision, was strong minded and had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations. Founders never rest on their laurels, they retain the mix of spirit, drive, and passion, more than willing to rebel against the norm, are restless do go again, yet stay true to their vision.

Be a brand At the brand level, you’re not competing product vs. product. It’s not a feature vs. feature game. Your brand needs to have a relevant place in your customers’ hearts and minds. So be true to your brand and the promise you make and bring it out in everything you do. Leading from your authentic vision and consistency of purpose will help your brand mean more to people. And that alone will make you more memorable.

Can you make your product or service stand out as a Swiss Army Knife? It is held that consumers have mind-space for only three brands in any given category: the leader, the challenger, and the one other company lucky enough (or hard-working enough) to be noticed. The rule of three may still be true, but the sheer proliferation of brands flooding a sector can make it especially difficult for any startup brand to stand out.

In an over-crowded category you may find yourself fighting against forces greater than direct competitors. Sheer clutter can be a more powerful distraction to potential customers than any competitor’s offering. Your brand and how it connects to the people that matter to you is a key in differentiating yourself from your competition.

We’re all the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. You need to be authentic, as Oscar Wilde said Be yourself, everyone else it taken, and as Steve Jobs was known for his Be Unique, Be Different personal motto.

Be unique, like a Swiss Army Knife. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else, if you do so, you are insulting yourself. If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you. Are you unreasonable? Here’s one good reason why you should be: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. So said George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman back in 1903.

In addition to surreal jokes about extracting boy scouts from horses’ hooves (or vice versa), there are tales of how the Elsener knives were carried by famous explorers from Everest climbers and American astronauts who took it to the moon. Sometimes macabre stories did the rounds of emergency self-amputations and life-saving tracheotomies. But it is a truly unforgettable product and brand.

Elsener would often be mistaken for a janitor when he opened the door to visitors to the factory in his overalls. He went to work daily on his bicycle. He handed over control of the family firm in 2007 to Carl Elsener IV, the oldest of his eleven surviving children. He was humble, but remarkable.

We look to the skies to change the world, but you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it by living in it. Take a leaf from Carl Elsener’s book of life, and make your mark.

Amelia Earhart – a role model for C21st female entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison’s report recommended eight initiatives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Startups – improv and all that jazz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Thomas Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greggs: an agile approach to strategy & business model thinking

John Gregg founded his bakery business in 1939, selling eggs and yeast from his bicycle in Newcastle. The business grew, and his son Ian joined his father and mother, selling pies from his van to miners’ wives. They opened their first shop in Gosforth in 1951.

When John died in 1964, the bakery was taken over by Ian, and major expansion began, including the acquisitions of other bakeries such as the Bakers Oven chain from Allied Bakeries in 1994.

Greggs grew to be the largest bakery chain in the UK, home of the bacon sandwich and a coffee for two quid special offer which, disappointingly, is now £2.10 (a friend told me, honestly), famous for pies and pasties and everything you firmly resolved on December 31 would never touch your lips again.

A couple of years ago, Greggs fell victim to adverse PR about its product range and customer base. Oh how the Prêt crowd sniggered into their avocado and crayfish salads. Yet plucky old Greggs just got its head down and kept growing. ‘It’s a northern thing’ no longer serves as an explanation. The patronising notion that Greggs’s popularity is inversely proportional to the nation’s economic fortunes also fails to explain its steady expansion.

Today Greggs generate £1m a week from sales of coffee. It has repositioned the brand from an ordinary bakery-to-take-home to a high growth food-on-the-go entity, meeting changing customer demands and evolving food culture.

A new strategy was introduced in 2013 under CEO Roger Whitehouse, formerly Head of M&S Food, which focused on four pillars: Great tasting freshly prepared food; best customer experience; competitive supply chain; first class support teams.

Whitehouse introduced a ‘restless dissatisfaction’ approach to compliment the traditional business values, ensuring the business would never stand still after recovering from a period of stagnation. He implemented some radical changes, including closing the in-store bakeries, and introducing the ‘Balanced Choice’ range of products with less than four hundred calories, healthier options to the traditional product range.

And it’s worked. Having launched the first vegan sausage roll in January, last week the company announced a 50% rise in profits to £40.6m in the first half of 2019. The business is handing shareholders a £35m special dividend after total sales rose 14.7% to £546m.

In 2016, Greggs weren’t in the takeaway breakfast market but now only McDonalds sells more takeaway breakfasts. With a Fairtrade Expresso, it has overtaken Starbucks to become the third-largest takeaway coffee seller, behind Costa and McDonalds, while only Tesco sells more sandwiches.

So what are the lessons from the success of Greggs changing its business strategy and model that we take into our startup thinking?

1.     Be agile in how you connect with customers

Greggs expects to pass 2,000 outlets this year, 65% are on high streets, with the remaining 35% located in retail and office parks and in travel locations such as railway stations and petrol forecourts. The aim is to change the emphasis of the business so that it is 60% non-high street by the time it has 2,500 shops.

Part of this is having many of its stores open earlier and close later, in order to target those going to and coming back from work, expanding its breakfast menu to suit, and with ‘Greggs à la carte’ stores to open late to 9pm to lure evening takeaway diners.

As well as its new drive-through locations, the company is trialing a click-and-collect service, as well home and office delivery by Just Eat and Deliveroo. They aim to integrate click-and-collect and delivery services with the company’s Greggs Rewards app, which offers free drinks and birthday treats.

Greggs has previously failed with new ideas such as Greggs Moment, a coffee shop-style outlet with seating, and the Greggs Delivered service, which is only available in Newcastle and Manchester city centres, three years after it launched. However, the business is now at a scale where it can experiment without too much risk.

Takeaway: Greggs route to market strategy is to based on expanding their reach to enhance customer convenience, a ‘fish where they swim’ strategy, reducing the barriers between themselves and their customers, uplifting the customer experience and making the ability to connect and purchase convenient.

2.     Build your brand to face your market

Greggs has in recent years persistently bucked the wider trend on UK high streets, where most retailers are struggling to compete as sales shift online and the cost of running stores rises.

In 2013, Greggs began to transition out of the bakery market with the reasoning that it couldn’t compete with supermarkets, switching to focusing solely on the ‘food on the go’ market after discovering that 80% of its business was with that market. They stopped selling bread in 2015.

Greggs has worked hard at getting consumers to think about it as a food-on-the-go chain, developing ideas such as online ordering for collection and home delivery, developing strategic partnerships with their supply chain to focus on the four key pillars of their strategy.

They are more in touch with where the customers are today. It has managed to cater to new markets without being overly ambitious. The builder can still come off the building site and get a hot pasty, but there are also salads. The decor is still recognisable even if it has been upgraded and the older traditional customers still feel comfortable.

Takeaway: Many businesses want profit as their objective. But if you only focus on short-term wins and results, you get distracted from doing the work required to build the skills you need to grow and scale, and it’s the ability to scale that matters. The process is more important than the outcome at early stages of a change of strategy. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

3.     Look forwards, not backwards with your product offering

Greggs sells 1.5 million sausage rolls a week but created the new vegan option due to public demand after an online petition signed by 20,000 people. In recent years Greggs has been innovating within its product range to appeal to a broader range of customers. Its ‘Balanced Choice’ healthy eating range, introduced in 2014, offers options including wraps and salads, all below 400 calories. It also sells gluten-free and several vegan lines.

The company also believes it can take advantage of rising demand for food ‘customisation’, driven by allergies and ‘food avoidance’ preferences, and its stores now make sandwiches to request.

One in eight new customers have bought a vegan sausage roll in 2019, which has overtaken doughnuts and other pastries to become a bestseller. The traditional sausage rolls remain at number one – with its 96 layers of light, crisp puff pastry – but there are more vegan products in development, including a vegan doughnut. It’s worked, such that Ginsters released their own vegan product for the first time in its 52-year history.

Takeaway: Greggs has been bold in its response to the adverse publicity on its offering and changing food culture. Aligning your product strategy with a focused brand image and route to market is core to any business model.

4.     Be clear about your marketing message & tone of voice

Before the Greggs vegan sausage rolls went on sale, TV presenter Piers Morgan sent out a tweet: Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns. The tone of the company’s response: Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you – friendly but with a slight edge, was perfectly attuned to the ironic, self-confident marketing Greggs has adopted, a James Bond-inspired, droll putdown that was the perfect riposte.

Their hilariously portentous launch video – part of a build-up that parodied the release of a new iPhone model with journalists sent vegan rolls in mock iPhone packaging and stores sold sausage roll phone cases – meant that for days Twitter was engulfed with people talking about a £1 bakery product.

The vegan sausage roll campaign, officially launched to support the Veganuary campaign that encouraged people to give up animal products for a month, followed other memorable promotions include a Valentine’s Day campaign offering ‘romantic’ £15 candlelit dinners in Greggs shops, and a spoof ‘Gregory and Gregory’ event, and one faux pas: a 2017 advent calendar tableau of a sausage roll in a manger. After complaints Greggs apologised and reprinted with a different scene featuring Christmas muffins.

Takeaway: Greggs found its distinctive marketing style in 2012, when it saw off then-chancellor George Osborne’s proposed ‘pasty tax’ on hot takeaway food. Since then it has been consistent in its purposeful, structured and memorable content driven communication strategy, making the brand relevant to its target audience and differentiating its offering in an increasingly competitive market to reposition the brand.

5.     Don’t let your business model become stale

Innovation can be about efficiency. Look at Ikea, and The Billy bookcase. It’s a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that is all you want from it. The Billy isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative. The Billy innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost, all while producing something that does the job. It demonstrates that innovation in the modern economy is not just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems.

The Greggs shop environment has been improved and significant investments made in logistics and delivery systems to make them more efficient and scalable. In-store ordering moved to a centralised forecast and replenishment system rather than relying on shop teams filling in manual order forms, which resulted in order accuracy and improved availability for customers.

All shops are on a refurbishment programme (every seven years) to ensure they stay looking bright and welcoming. In-store point of sale and window displays remain key to Greggs’ marketing strategy, however, a loyalty app was also introduced.

Takeaway: innovation in Greggs is about efficiency, economy and effectiveness, searching for ways to make their products even better and affordable for their target market. A ‘back to basics’ focus on the business model reflects the culture and humility of the brand. Combined with brave decision making to implement change and execution in a consistent, simple and continuous manner has delivered the results.

6.     Ensure your folks keep clear heads

Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of customers at busy times, staff have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and frenzy. Resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the steak bakes.

When you go to a Greggs, the staff are so engaged in what they do its untrue, they are like whirling octopus serving customers, and they do it with good humour, bantering with regulars, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

With 10% of profits going to the Greggs Foundation to help fund Breakfast Clubs for children and over £1m raised annually for Children in Need, the vegan pastry has helped change the perception of Greggs, but fundamentally it’s a people business, about delivering service, experience and the community it operates.

Takeaway: So, focused on a simple, core value proposition – reasonable quality food at reasonable prices, consistently produced and scaled – but the fundamental premise is to make customer experience the brand differentiator.

Many takeout food companies are head-on competition to Greggs, but due to its focused marketing strategies highlighting choice, quality, nutrition & easy access, the company is able to create sustainable advantage.

Changing lifestyles, changing eating habits and increasing health awareness factors are affecting the growth of the companies in this industry. Greggs has set its strategy from a customer’s point of view and with customer-based insights, to ensure the business model is as robust as it can be.

Adopt Greggs’ agile approach to strategy and business model thinking, to focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice.

The innovation mindset of Alan Turing

Alan Turing is the founder father of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of today. But these words were not spoken in his own lifetime.

Turing, the progenitor of modern computing, is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand. Post war at Manchester University, his genius embraced the first vision of modern computing and seminal insights into what we know as ‘artificial intelligence’. As one of the most influential Bletchley Park code breakers of World War II, his cryptology yielded intelligence that hastened the Allied victory.

Turing has now been recognised for the enormous impact his work has had on how we live today, chosen by the Bank of England to be the new face of its £50 note. The note will include a table and mathematical formulas from his work, and also include a quote: This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.

The Bank of England has hidden a tribute too – on the banknote are the numbers 1010111111110010110011000, which is a binary code that can be converted into decimal numbers to reveal Turing’s birthday – 23061912 or June 23, 1912. The new polymer £50 note is expected to enter circulation by the end of 2021.

On June 7, 1954 Turing died a criminal, forced to endure chemical castration following a conviction under Britain’s Victorian laws against homosexuality. The UK Government subsequently apologised for his treatment in 2009, and he was granted a royal pardon in 2013. A coroner determined that he had taken his own life from cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside him. The motive for his apparent suicide remains unclear, but known homosexuals were denied security clearances, which meant that Turing could not be involved in secret work during the Cold War, leaving him excluded and embittered.

Turing’s name is associated with the top-secret wartime operations of code breakers at Bletchley Park, where he oversaw and inspired the effort to decrypt ciphers generated by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, which had once seemed impenetrable. The Germans themselves regarded the codes as unbreakable.

On declaration of war, Turing joined the Bletchley Park code breakers at the Government Code and Cypher School, the forerunner of GCHQ, working in makeshift huts. Turing’s section, ‘Hut 8′, deciphered Naval and in particular U-boat messages, and was a key unit at Bletchley.

Their greatest initial challenge was figuring out the method of encryption of the German Enigma device, which was invented twenty years earlier by Arthur Scherbius, a German electrical engineer who had patented it as a civilian machine to encrypt commercial messages. The machine worked by entering letters on a typewriter-like keyboard and then encoding them through a series of rotors to a light board, which showed the coded equivalents. The machine was said to be capable of generating almost 159 quintillion permutations.

At the time, German submarines were prowling the Atlantic, hunting Allied ships carrying vital cargo for the war effort. The Allies relied on the cryptologists to decode messages betraying the U-boat locations. By one estimate, Turing’s work may have cut the war short by two years. They allowed code breakers to decipher up to 4,000 messages a day.

By 1942, Turing was the genius loci at Bletchley, famous as ‘Prof’, shabby, nail-bitten, tie-less, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner, the source of many hilarious anecdotes about bicycles, gas masks, the foe of charlatans and status-seekers, relentless in long shift work. He was known for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by others.

In the last stage of the war (for which he was awarded an OBE) he created the ‘Universal Turing Machine, in effect the digital computer, a machine that would offer unlimited scope for practical progress towards embodying intelligence in an artificial form.

The concept of the Turing Machine has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability. Imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. The work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing Machine, namely the Universal Turing Machine, ‘one machine for all possible tasks’.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing Machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting the program as what the computer itself does. Additionally, the abstract Universal Turing Machine naturally exploits what was later seen as the ‘stored program’ concept essential to the modern computer: it embodies the crucial insight that symbols representing instructions are no different in kind from symbols representing numbers.

Turing’s post-war work at the University of Manchester on the first functioning British computers was hugely significant. He laid down principles that have moulded the historical record of the relationship between humans and machines. He was fascinated by the interplay between human thought processes and the computer, and spoke about ‘building a brain’.

At Manchester, Turing made highly significant contributions to the emerging field of computing, including the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory, publishing a seminal paper, On Computable Numbers, referred to as ‘the founding document of the computer age’.

His ‘Abbreviated Code Instructions’ marked the beginning of programming languages. Out of this came pioneering innovation on what would now be called neural nets, written to amplify his earlier suggestions that a sufficiently complex mechanical system could exhibit learning ability. This was never published in his lifetime.

At Manchester, Turing could perhaps have led the world in software development. His partly explored ideas included the use of mathematical logic for program checking, implementing logical calculus on the machine, and other ideas which, combined with his massive knowledge of combinatorial and statistical methods, could have set the agenda in computer science for years ahead.

This, however, he failed to do; his work on machine-code programming was produced only as a working manual, limited in scope. Instead, there followed a confused period, in which Turing hovered between new topics and old.

Out of this confused era arose, however, the most lucid and far-reaching expression of Turing’s philosophy of machine and Mind: his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950) showed the wit and drama of the Turing Test that has proved a lasting stimulus, a classic contribution to the philosophy and practice of Artificial Intelligence research.

Eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength that he showed in coping with difficult personal circumstances, no-one could have predicted his shabby treatment, which caused his demise.

Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the War victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013.

From Tesla, to Turing, to Jobs, to Musk, entrepreneurs’ vision and endeavour pushes civilisation forward. They are the driving force of human evolution, the vanguard of innovation leading us into the future. Innovators are not just those who run a business as entrepreneurs, an innovator is anybody who is consciously building the future that has an impact on society.

To create something truly original requires a sense of courage, curiosity and vision. The interesting paradox here is that often those who invent new things also have a healthy disrespect for what has already been achieved. They use the past not as a boundary, but as the frontier upon which to innovate.

In this sense, those seeking to innovate to find reassurance in the discomfort of originality, as those who strive to create new things are quickly confronted by the stark reality that we live in a world that finds comfort in doing what is tried and tested. The battle against conventional wisdom, therefore, becomes the innovator’s greatest encounter.

Turing’s scientific contributions are in line with many of history’s greats. It’s also easy to recognise many of Turing’s personality traits in today’s tech entrepreneurs who succeeded him. All are great dreamers, certainly, but they also possess a tenacious and sometimes intransigent character with regards to the realisation of their vision.

Turing’s is a parable of radical innovation that goes beyond incremental advances in search of great opportunities that have the potential to open up a nexus of possibilities for society. It is what Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One describes as 10x innovation, meaning that it provides a solution at least 10 times better than the current available solution.

Thiel points as examples to the Google algorithm, which was at least 10x more powerful than the others search engines that preceded it, as well as the Amazon platform, which offered at least 10x more books than any bookseller in the world. It is this kind of innovation, he notes, the world goes from a state of impossibility to a market reality.

Not many entrepreneurs today are working on 10x projects. Perhaps it is Elon Musk, with his SpaceX, Hyperloop and Tesla projects that will mark him out as the 10X innovator of the early C21st. The 10x innovation can sometimes be scary – recall the introduction of modern cinema in 1895 by the Lumière brothers, where the audience fled the room when they thought that the train in the movie would come out of the screen!

Fast-forward two decades from Turing’s death, to guys making personal computers in a garage in San Francisco in 1976. They had a name for their product and needed a logo. They idolised Turing’s ingenuity, genius and talent for putting together the first computer, and decided to honour him and comment on his persecution by removing a single bite from the apple graphic they had picked to represent their company.

And that’s how we got the iconic Apple logo on the back of all of our phones, computers, and iPods. Designer Rob Janoff says it was an easy choice, a tribute to Turing by Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs said the apple logo symbolises our use of computers to obtain knowledge and, ideally, enlighten the human race.

So the story goes – other theories – that the logo references Newton’s discovery of gravity also exist. The original apple logo from 1976 featured a hand drawn image of Isaac Newton under the tree where the apple fell with the copy: A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone. Perfectly sums up Apple, as pioneers.

Whatever the story of the Apple logo, everyone using a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program today, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine and his legacy of innovation.

We don’t celebrate Turing enough, probably in part because of his sexuality, and also probably because he was a computer scientist and mathematician. We don’t value that history enough either. For me, putting him on a banknote for the public to see everyday is a start. Better, put him in the school curriculum as an icon in the history of science.

Turing was a remarkable 10x innovator. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done, he once said of himself. Whatever you’re working on as an innovating entrepreneur today, this week, this month, look to the achievements and mindset of Alan Turing. You cannot climb uphill by thinking downhill thoughts. He didn’t stop to think how far he could go, neither should you.