Lessons in entrepreneurship from grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The history of chess is a history of metaphors and moral lessons. Underlying a game of chess is an abstract structure of rules and relative powers, which can be quite mind-boggling. The game emerged in C5th India, but it wasn’t until the C19th, when the set was standardised into the Staunton version we play today.

To follow a professional game is to get lost in a swamp of algebraic options and notations. When the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen against Donald Byrne in the so-called ‘game of the century’ in 1956, it was considered one of the finest moves in chess history – a greatness not quite communicated by Be6

Chess is an endless pursuit, a game of longevity with logical consequences and sly entrapment. After sacrificing his queen, another 24 moves later, Fischer won – a result, he’d worked out, that was inevitable if he let his queen go. It was sacrifice that was also attack, violence that was also composure.

When a chess player looks at the board, he does not see a static mosaic, but a magnetic field of forces, charged with energy, potential and intrigue. A game of chess opens in a state of equilibrium, and if the optimal move is made with each play, a draw is all but assured. At the elite, grandmaster level, more than half of contests are drawn.

Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen is a Norwegian chess grandmaster and the current World Chess Champion. His peak Elo rating of 2882, achieved in 2014, is the highest in history. Carlsen became World Champion in 2013, retained his title the following year, and won both the World Rapid Championship and World Blitz Championship thus becoming the first player to simultaneously hold all three titles.

Magnus tries to put the accent on play, less on preparation, and is seen as combining the talents of two of the all time greats, Karpov and Fischer. He’s known for getting his positions then holding on with a bulldog bite. Exhausting for opponents, one of his most feared qualities is his ‘nettlesomeness’ – his creative moves pressurise opponents into mistakes. Carlsen’s endgame prowess has been described as among the greatest in history.

The World Chess Championship of 2018 began with a series of twelve games played under classical time controls, the traditional slow pace of play. Carlsen failed to win a single one of his contests against the challenger, American Fabiano Caruana, but fortunately for the Norwegian, Caruana never reached a checkmate or extracted a resignation either.

With each of the dozen classical games ending in a draw, the match moved to a series of faster-paced tiebreakers, starting with a series of four ‘rapid’ games, in which players are allotted less than one-quarter the thinking time of the classical format. Carlsen, the stronger competitor in speedier formats, won the first three games to clinch the tiebreaker and retain his title.

To the casual observer, three weeks of drawn games may sound excruciatingly boring, but like a football match with smart, impregnable defences, or a baseball World Series studded with scoreless pitching duels, the chess title match featured two equally matched grandmasters competing at an extremely high level.

In chess, every piece serves a purpose. You start the game with a set of pieces, from king to pawns, each with their own ability and position. Novice players push forward immediately with their back row, trying to get their most valuable pieces into win positions early. Experienced players, however, know that it is the pattern of all their pieces working in concert that creates reliable success.

Master chess players see the unfolding patterns of the board over time, thinking not in terms of one piece or one move, but in terms of the entire board over dozens of moves. This ability to analyse actions and their outcomes, combined with skilled pattern recognition, is what defines strategy.

The objective is to play the board, not just your plan. When playing chess your opponent is trying to predict and undermine you, applying their own strategy to capture more pieces, so, what do you do? One crucial skill is the importance of taking time for reflection. It’s in reflection that the brain has time to learn, to process new information, to recognise patterns, and recall previous successful moves.

I see many similarities between chess and running a startup business from the strategy, thinking and tactics behind the game. Let’s look at the lessons and learnings we can take from Carlsen and his recent Word Championship success.

The first phase in a chess game: the opening As Carlsen shows, the purpose of the opening isn’t just to get immediately ahead, rather it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for a startup, but equally don’t rush.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for or have our opponents out foxed us and we’re playing catch-up? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame. In a startup it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan thinking in period of three months, with objectives and key milestones.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down by mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Carlsen’s approach is a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

In a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for them and experiment and have the nerve to try them when you find them, but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. Carlsen makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. Having a vision for your startup is just as important.

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective in chess, and creating long-term weaknesses in our opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a Carlsen is his ability to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

In chess, the defender has to race around to cover the threats, but against constant pressure the job soon becomes impossible. Moving to cover one breach creates another until something cracks and the attack breaks through.

In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more weak spots. So a large part of using the initiative is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Carlsen reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

In business, going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations. No neon sign appears to say that there is a big opportunity right around the corner, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

When you are winning, don’t get complacent Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine, success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to superiority, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes, a feeling that anything is good enough. Our egos want to believe that we won brilliantly against tough competition, not that we were lucky and ‘right time, right place’, but typically, however, the winner is just the player who made the next-to-last mistake.

Carlsen shows that if we’re going to get the most out of our talent we have to be prepared to have a game plan, practice, think on the spot, analyse ourselves critically and improve our weakest points. The easiest thing is to rely on talent and focus only on what we do well. It’s true that you want to play to your strengths, but if there is too much of an imbalance growth is limited. In business, the fastest way to improve overall is to work on your total game, and all the constituent parts.

Chess is a mental game, that requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this we can take the thought that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and agile thinking that will bring success.

Imagine

I remember hearing the lyrics to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds as one of the first songs that made me stop and really listen, and from that day, John Lennon was one someone I followed. Lennon was dynamic, controversial, radical, and confrontational plus a whole lot more. There is so much more that he shared with the world apart from his music.

Therein lies a depth of his wisdom. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity.

John was always one to say what was on his mind and never one to shy away from controversy. Living in the US, the Nixon administration had Lennon under its watchful eye throughout the first half of the 1970s. Speaking out against the Vietnam War and mingling with anarchists made Lennon a target of Nixon’s White House. Already paranoid, Nixon thought the influence Lennon had on America’s youth was enough to damage him politically, and he sought to deport John back to England.

After four years, the case was finally thrown out and Lennon got his Green Card on July 27, 1976. Standing on the courthouse steps moments after receiving his permanent residency, Lennon was asked if he harboured a grudge against the Nixon Administration for tapping his phone, putting him under surveillance and mounting a multi-year attempt to deport him. Without missing a beat, John smiled and said, Time wounds all heels, as ever spontaneous, witty and reflective.

Lennon grew up in a working-class family in Liverpool. His parents, Julia and Fred, separated before he was two. Lennon saw his father only twice in the next 20 years, and went to live with his mother’s sister. When Lennon was 17, his mother was killed by a bus. In the summer of 1956 he met Paul McCartney, and they began writing songs together. As The Beatles, they were one of the C20th cultural icons. But life moves on, and John’s relationship with Yoko Ono and his interest in global social and political issues saw him stand back from music.

However, in September 1980, Lennon and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. A series of revealing interviews were published. (Just Like) Starting Over hit number one, and there was talk of a possible world tour. But on December 8, 1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark Chapman, a fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.

Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were 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 murder, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. I don’t think John would have been content playing his guitar at weddings and parties in Liverpool. He was amongst the earliest adopters of a global perspective, embracing new ideas and culture. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making music.

Lennon’s risk-taking and creativity are clearly evident, but there was always a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. Lennon prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle. Lennon thought big. Even in the early days when starting out he used to say To the toppermost of the poppermost! and he believed it. Lennon aimed high and got there, in no small part because he believed he would get there.

He was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique.

Here, in his own words, are some reflections on how his attitude and thinking offers inspiration for startup entrepreneurs.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans Blink and an opportunity will pass you by. Startup life is never a direct route, it weaves, twists and turns. But if you have a goal, a dream or a plan in place, it acts as a compass that keeps you on track, no matter what detours need to be taken along the way.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted Lennon was a thinker, he had a thirst for knowledge, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising you own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking, never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight

A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality Dreams are no fun if you keep them to yourself, dreams are meant to be shared. Startups with co-founders, like-minded entrepreneurs collaborating, have proven to be a better basis for launching successful businesses, rather than a solo founder venturing alone, so share your dream.

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

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are Stop listening to what others say you are. You are what you are. Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. I just believe in me Lennon once said, and he meant it. Have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known; nothing you can see that isn’t shown; nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be… Nothing happens by accident, and what appears to be the greatest mistake will in retrospect be the pivot to your startup. Find something you love and do it better than anyone else. Lennon was inspired by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. He took the music from these pioneers and put his own touch and Liverpudlian spin on it. The outcome? It was an entirely new take on a genre, which no one was expecting.

There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done John seemed to live in chaos, he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on, and often he couldn’t articulate his ideas well. But John was an agitator, he was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing.  Keep working, it makes you happy. Whether you’re a musician or a software developer or own a local bakery or retail store, you have to keep working no matter what.

If there’s such a thing as genius — I am one Create the unexpected, and be confident in yourself to make it happen. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity in this album is incredible. From the beautiful melodies of Julia and Blackbird to the pounding beats of Helter Skelter and Revolution, it is truly unexpected. The Beatles were the first artists to record in stereo. They were the first band to experiment in the studio. They were the first band to list lyrics on their album.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Lennon did, and give an insight into the depth of your uniqueness?

What we’ve got to do is keep hope alive, because without it we’ll sink. I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way Risk failure by aiming for the sky. Lennon fits this description well, he didn’t conform to an orthodox style. In fact, like many great musicians, he held his instrument the wrong way. He experimented with made-up chords, new concepts – and had some celebrated failures in the process.

I’m not going to change the way I look or the way I feel to conform to anything. I’ve always been a freak. Focus on your strengths, and be different. Lennon found his calling and focused on his passion. Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it. Perhaps this is what Albert Einstein meant when he said Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.

John is the man who encouraged us all to Imagine, and that’s key for any startup entrepreneur – to imagine your future product, your future business, your future self. Everything you can imagine is real, said Picasso, painting is just another way of keeping a diary – the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Imagine is your vision, the preview of your startup life’s coming attractions. Your imagination is everything.

Finally, reflect on this, one of my favourite Lennon quotes, which captures the attitude, mindset and self-belief needed by any entrepreneur, to fit alongside their imagination:

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Time is an ingredient in all entrepreneurial endeavours

Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been.  Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.

Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and personal passions, it’s the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set.

So a creative mime artist and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar – it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke – but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer, a chef – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers.

Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire.

What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his bakery in New York’s Soho neighbourhood. The pastry resembles a doughnut and is made from croissant-like dough, which is filled with flavoured cream and fried in grapeseed oil.

On that night, a blogger from Grub Street, the online restaurant blog fro New York magazine, reported on the new pastry. The post resulted in much interest – 140,000 links to the blog post. The first day Ansell made 30, the next, 45. By the third day with than 100 people queuing, the line stretched back over four blocks.

It took him three months and more than ten variations to perfect the recipe he’s used ever since. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name as crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.

With its flaky croissant and custard interior and fried, sugar-dipped exterior, it was bound to be popular, but no one could have predicted the ensuing, pastry-flecked frenzy. The not-so-secret Cronut recipe is now plastered all over the internet, but would-be imitators will need their piping bags and patience at the ready – it takes three days to make, thanks in part to the laminated dough. This is rolled together with a block of chilled butter to form layers, and needs a lengthy rest in the fridge.

Ansel takes things to the next level, however. Each batch of Cronuts takes Ansel and his team approximately three days to prepare. Day one consists of mixing the dough, then letting it ferment and rest overnight. Day two, butter is incorporated, and hundreds of sheets of dough are layered together before the dough rests again.

On day three, the dough is cut, formed into the Cronut shape, and left to ferment again. Once each has tripled in size, Cronut by Cronut is fried in grapeseed oil, filled with cream, rolled in sugar, and finished with a glaze. The secret of the Cronut has been solved. It takes three days and a lot of sugar, butter and graft.

And he’s not just a one-trick pony. There’s the DKA, his take on a Breton pastry, which is a caramelised croissant, with a soft flaky interior. There’s the frozen S’more, an ice-cream block wrapped in chocolate, then enrobed in marshmallow and frozen. There’s his soufflé inside a brioche shell and his shot glass fashioned from chocolate chip cookies. Ansel is the king of happy bakers.

The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2018, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.

Prior to starting his own business, Dominique was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship French restaurant in NYC. During his six years there, he was part of the team that led the restaurant to receive its first four-star New York Times Rating and three Michelin stars. He also spent seven years at the venerable French bakery Fauchon, where he lead the charge of international expansion and helped set up shops in Russia, Egypt, Kuwait and other locations around the world.

Despite his ritzy resumé, the ‘Cronut King’ comes from humble origins. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris. His father was a factory worker, and the family couldn’t afford college, so Dominique began working at 16, training to be a chef and saving money.

At 19, he left home to complete a mandatory year of service in the French military, where he worked as a cook. After returning home he headed to Paris, not knowing anyone, and landed the job at Fauchon, where he quickly worked his way up from a temporary holiday season staffer to traveling the world and being in charge of international expansion.

With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. With successful bakeries in London and Tokyo following New York off the back of the Cronut, he must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most virally popular pastry of its time.

Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason. He combines craft, complexity, surprise, presentation, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations. I think his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some great entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship.

Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations – an aspect Dominique obsesses over – it takes three days for a Cronut to be prepared, then it’s vital each is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into products One of the screening criteria for what makes a product onto his menu is that the item evokes emotions, often nostalgic emotions tied to childhood, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about, or memories of summer camping the Frozen S’mores evoke, or the memories of milk and cookies after school his milk filled chocolate chip cookie shots evoke, or the traditional little pastries from Bordeaux, France called cannelés. Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.

Multisensory innovation Ansel’s creations have textural and temperature contrasts, like the liquid milk and soft cookies, or the S’mores with the soft honey marshmallow exterior, smooth and creamy ice cream inside and the crisp chocolate feuilletine that separate the warm marshmallow exterior from the cold, creamy ice cream inside. Capturing the customer’s imagination is vital for a startup with a new product to market.

Continuous product iteration Ansel’s is always searching for ways to make his products even better, he subscribes to the notion, and works in an environment where the products can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree, so gives him advantage. Build a culture where there is a focus on continuous development and iteration.

Be a relentless learner Ansel’s evidences the appetite for learning that is seen in many successful entrepreneurs. Given how accomplished he is, you’d think there wasn’t much room for improvement, yet he feels there is so much more to try and do and create in his field. Build an ethos to always keep moving, innovating, learning, and growing.

Use your team as a source of new ideas Ansel constantly brainstorms with his staff. The menu changes every 6-8 weeks, so the teams are always coming up with new ideas together. He schedules regular tasting with to give feedback on new menu ideas and what ultimately ends up being added. Use your team’s knowledge and experience as a source of innovation.

Combine ideas The Cronut pastries are not only a creative take on donuts and croissants, but also French and American cultures, combining a classic French pastry with America’s love for the familiar flavours of a caramel, chocolate and peanut combinations.  Keep an on open mind to serendipity.

Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate.

Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.

Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking broadly, about all the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of visiting his establishments special, different, memorable, and wonderful. In a recent interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.

Ansel is dedicated to finding new ways to surprise, delight, and inspire through his desserts. With innovation and creativity at the heart of his work, he has brought a refreshing uniqueness to the world of pastry. Voted the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2017, as well as being honoured with the prestigious Ordre du Mérite Agricole, one of the highest honours in France, he is a true entrepreneur, always thinking about how he can touch people with food in a different way to stimulate them.

His bakery restricts daily Cronut output to around 350 per day, and though the line has shortened considerably, there will still be, on average, between 60 and 100 people waiting in the Cronut line when the doors open every morning at 8am.  There is a new Cronut flavour every other month – there have been 36 since its debut on the menu.

We live in an age where you can make anything possible. If you have an idea, just go for it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, because the perfect opportunity is now.

Don’t let nostalgia become inertia and hold back your innovation

I was at a wedding reception last Saturday, where the groom was from Rawtenstall and the bride from Haugesund, Norway. It was held in a Methodist Hall with dark wood tables and chairs, dimly lit by candles, but set alight with a vibrant atmosphere of celebration and noise, born from the warmth and intimacy of belonging and togetherness that humanity creates.

It was a Norwegian wedding, so on each table was a huge basket of fjellbrød – a nutritious Norwegian bread (there are all sorts of seeds in it, made from a mixture of whole-wheat and rye flour and rolled oats) and an even bigger bowl of fresh shrimps. I was looking forward to getting stuck into the quivering crustaceous flesh.

The place filled up quickly as we got to work on the shrimps, emptying the flimsy shells faster than a fishwife. The cold bits of pink flesh were washed down with Lervig Aktiebryggeri Stout. At 13%, no wonder the Vikings were fierce fighters. Then, just before I disappeared completely behind a pile of husks, a hush fell over the room and in strode a large bearded man.

He introduced himself as Toralf, a lubricous man with a hangdog expression, he took to the stage. He was a standup comedian. Interesting wedding entertainment! As he was from Norway, half the gathering didn’t get a word, but I was not concerned, as I was busy scoffing. Shrimps.

Toralf was going down well, but not half as well as the shrimps. You could have covered me in Thousand Island dressing, laid me on a bed of lettuce and I’d have passed for the starter on any menu.

I’d struck upon a conversation with a bloke from Utsire, which I found out was a lump of rock in the North Sea off the west coast of Norway. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to a Norwegian before. After chatting, he said he had to go – and reappeared on stage as the band struck up, a Norwegian folk ensemble. The room was filled with whirling figures, their rosy cheeks shining, caught in the candlelight, eyes flashing and laughter rising above the music.

A (brave) Norwegian woman whisked me from my seat and whirled me around the dance floor. Given that I dance about as well as a squirrel plays the piano, this was a selfless act on her part. My shrimp ‘n ale fuelled attempts at shaking my booty in a lithe and groovy way went well, even if I say so myself. The lady was Wenche (pronounced ‘Venker’), from Stavanger. I thought they had played in the UEFA Cup some years ago but Wenche didn’t know. End of conversation.

Norwegian folk music filled the room, and Wenche gave me a running commentary on the instrumental, vocals and dancing. I learned that as a rule, instrumental folk music is dance music (slåtter), whilst Norwegian folk dances are social dances and usually performed by couples, although there are a number of solo dances as well, such as the halling.

We lurched into traditional wedding dances (bygdedans), then the band moved into Sami music centered around a particular vocal style called joik, the sound comparable to the traditional chanting of the Native Americans Indians.

Exhausted, the lights came on, the night had to end, the floor awash with folks awash with shrimp. The air was warm with laughter and back-slapping. Brexit? hey, I prefer the Norwegian model.

It was a great night, a throwback to memories of parties of my youth. It was a traditional, if somewhat ‘old fashioned’ event, filled with nostalgia and away from i-this and i-that, just talking and enjoying good company, storytelling, banter and people being people. Twenty years ago I’m sure Toralf and Wenche could become pen pals, but today we’d probably default to a WhatsApp group.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home. Whilst we mostly regard nostalgia as warm memories of an evocative past, it was initially recognised as a real medical condition, often a pre-cursor to depression.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward. It’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. But there’s no room for nostalgia in today’s business, nowhere more so than on the High Street where many established brands have disappeared as consumer preferences, choices and options moved forward, and they didn’t, locked in their business models of yesteryear.

Nostalgia can add value to brands that tap into their heritage and yet be relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – but generally nostalgia makes you hold onto the status quo, become closed minded to change and complacent, and you take your eye of the ball.

Recent examples include Psion, developers of the Palm Pilot had what seemed an amazing power of organising your diary and phone book electronically. Sadly, Psion failed to spot early enough that mobile phones were catching them up and would soon incorporate all that and more.

Related to this, as the mobile phones of the 1980s became smaller, Nokia quickly became synonymous with small, practical mobiles. Sadly for the Finnish company, it failed to see the growing importance of internet-enabled smartphones, and a decade’s technical advantage was eroded.

Nostalgia creates inertia. The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation to challenge what has always worked – Kodak are perhaps the prime example of this. The world’s biggest film company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, beaten by the digital revolution. The only problem is, the enemy started within.

George Eastman, the company’s founder, invented roll film which replaced photographic plates and allowed photography to become a hobby of the masses. Kodak did not quite own the C20th, but it did become the curator of our memories.

There is an emotional connection to Kodak for many people in that you could find their product and name in virtually every household. But 1986 was the year when Kodak, a company that for so long was the emblem of American industrial innovation, began to be eaten by others, notably from Japan, who learnt to innovate, and more quickly.

Kodak was the great inventor. In 1900, it unveiled the Box Brownie camera. You push the button, we do the rest, ran the advertising. Kodachrome film, the standard for movie-makers as well as generations of still photographers because of its incredible definition and archival longevity, was introduced in 1936 and only went out of production 2009.

Nor should we forget the Instamatic, the camera with the little cartridges of film that spared us the fumbling of trying to get film to spool properly. Between 1963 and 1970 Kodak sold 50 million of them.

The trouble began with the decline of film photography. In the 1990s, Kodak poured billions into developing technology for taking pictures using mobile phones and other digital devices. But it held back from developing digital cameras for the mass market for fear of killing its existing film business. Others rushed in.

So who invented the digital camera? Ironically, Kodak did or, rather, a company engineer called Steve Sasson, who put together a toaster-sized contraption that could save images using electronic circuits. The images were transferred onto a tape cassette and were viewable by attaching the camera to a TV screen, a process that took 23 seconds.

It was an astonishing achievement. And it happened in 1975. Sasson was met with blank faces when he unveiled the device. For Kodak’s leaders, going digital meant killing film, smashing the company’s golden egg to make way for the new. Sasson saw in hindsight that he had not exactly won them over when he unveiled his invention.

In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, he called it Film-less Photography. Talk about killing heritage and nostalgia! Other manufacturers, notably Fuji, were nibbling at Kodak’s dominance: at the 1984 Olympics it was Fuji that supplied the official film, after Kodak declined the opportunity.

In 1976, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the US and 85% of the cameras. Historians may one day conclude that most of the company’s unravelling can be traced to the failure of its leaders to recognise the huge potential of Sasson’s invention. But this is what we do…you can imagine the fear going through the minds in the Kodak boardroom.

So, Kodak developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but could not breakaway from the shackles of their heritage and their nostalgic anchors to launch or sell it, because of fear of the effects on their existing film market.

Reflecting on Kodak, how does this reshape your marketing thinking, because there is a lesson not just in innovation, but also a case for challenging the traditional marketing solutions most businesses adopt arising from their decline.

C20th marketing has been dominated by Jerome McCarthy’s 4P model – Product, Place, Price, Promotion – but its legacy has created a culture that focuses on the product’s attributes, neglecting its value and appeal to customers from the customer’s perspective.

Richard Ettenson completed a five-year study involving more than 500 organisations and found that the 4P model undercuts the current needs of business in three ways:

  • It stresses product technology and quality, even though these are no longer differentiators.
  • It under emphasises the need to build a robust case for the superior value of a solution compared to others
  • It distracts from leveraging their advantage as a trusted source of service, support and advice – attributes in addition to the product

From his research, Ettenson developed a new marketing model for C21st, Solutions, Access, Value, Education:

  • Products to Solutions Define the offering by the needs they meet and benefits provided, not their features, functions or technological superiority.
  • Place to Access Develop an integrated multi-channel presence that considers customers’ entire purchase journey, instead of individual purchase locations and channels.
  • Price to Value Articulate the benefits relative to price, rather than stressing how price relates to cost or competitor prices.
  • Promotion to Education Provide information relevant to customer’s specific needs at each point in the purchase cycle, rather than relying on general advertising, PR and selling activities.

There’s little doubt that marketers who continue to embrace the 4P model and mind-set risk getting locked into a repetitive and increasingly unproductive technological arms race – just as Kodak. There’s no doubt with the advent of digital media and changing customer expectations, there are some fundamental strands to marketing today around creating meaningful conversations, communicating value and developing an online community.

The future rewards those that press on, experiment and have a go. You need to have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three periods – that which was, which is, and which will be.

Don’t look backward, you’re not going that way. The past is both a wonderful and an awful thing, both our best friend and our worst enemy, depending on how you look at it. There will be times throughout our business lives that we don’t want to remember, and there will be times that we won’t ever want to forget, but we can’t continue to dwell on the past that we can’t change.

As Walt Disney said, Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

My shrimp feast was a throw back to days gone by, but you can spend your life living forwards whilst looking backwards over your shoulder.

The future is unwritten, so make your mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.

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

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lied in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

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

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

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

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

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

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

Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your startup ideation strategy?

Nearly forty years after its invention, the world’s most confounding cube of colours is still going strong. It is estimated that there have been 400m Rubik cubes sold worldwide, a simple colour puzzle that offers 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations (that’s 43 quintillion in shorthand).

In the mid-1970s, Professor Ernő Rubik worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. Teaching geometrical shape concepts, he designed the cube as a teaching aid to show the possibility of 3D modelling. He did not realise that he had created a puzzle until the first time he scrambled his new cube and then tried to restore it – it took him over a month to solve it.

On the original classic Rubik’s Cube, each of the six faces was covered by nine stickers, each of one of six solid colours: white, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow. White is opposite yellow, blue is opposite green, and orange is opposite red, and the red, white and blue are arranged in that order in a clockwise arrangement.

An internal pivot mechanism enables each face to turn independently, thus mixing up the colours. For the puzzle to be solved, each face must be returned to have only one colour.

He called the wooden prototype Bűvös Kocka: the Magic Cube. Rubik applied for a patent, but it took a few years to get the idea to market. In 1979, the Hungarian state-owned toy company Konsumex presented the cube to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, where it caught the attention of entrepreneur Tom Kremer.

By the end of that year, Kremer had convinced the Ideal Toy Company to take a chance on the puzzle. Ideal licensed the cube, and within two years it represented 25% of the company’s revenue.

At the end of 1980, Rubik’s Cube won awards for best toy across the world. By 1981, Rubik’s Cube had become a craze. As most people could only solve one or two sides, numerous guide books were published. At one stage in 1981 three of the top ten best selling books in the US were books on solving Rubik’s Cube, and the best-selling book of 1981 was James G. Nourse’s The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube which sold over 6 million copies.

Every legal permutation of the Cube can be solved in 20 moves or less. The current world record for the quickest solution is 4.59 seconds – but a robot solved it in just 0.637 seconds. There are also World Records for the fastest one-handed solving (6.88 seconds), feet solving (16.96 seconds).

Though sales fell from their peak in the 1980s, and were negligible in the early C21st, with the advent of the Internet, fans connected and shared strategies, and sales increased. Then earlier this year it featured in the SuperBowl, and in the new Taylor Swift/Ed Sheeran video, cementing the puzzle’s rise back to cultural prominence. It is estimated that one in seven people have played with this fascinating and frustrating puzzle.

Rubik’s Cube is an example of an innovation that took the world by storm, evolving into a populist toy from a device originally developed for teaching. Like many innovations, it came about almost by accident, a successful outcome arising from trying to solve a different problem.

For startups, the combination of original thought, timing, serendipity and chance encounters with future customers, often define the innovation journey. Innovation is not a very well understood process, by its very nature, it involves hits and misses because there is always an element of guessing and pre-empting the future, which by definition, is unpredictable.

Every sphere of human life today is undergoing rapid technological driven innovation, from cryptographic currencies changing the shape of money to the Internet of Things and Blockchain creating a new ‘Internet of Everything’. Newer, innovative technologies are developing faster than the speed with which we can rein in its unintended consequences.

New technologies track your every move, habit, communication or location, reducing privacy and opening pores to access your personal experiences. Startups are establishing Platform businesses, which in turn are disrupted by Blockchain, which promotes disintermediation and elimination of third parties. The biggest human experiment is a Hegelian pursuit of the one truth.

For a startup, innovation should always be customer centric. Never build something that you’ve not tested with users, and that ultimately customer won’t pay for. Startups with product innovation that doesn’t evolve with their customers’ lives don’t survive too long.

So many startups set out to innovate, but lose their way. All of the time, money, and energy invested loom over them like an ominous shadow. There was so much momentum, goodwill, collaboration, and then the painful, crash into the wall.

If you are striving for something new outside of the existing paradigm, think of the first trial or two as a learning investment. You may stumble upon revenue or insights that lead to giant leaps of both customer traction and inspiration, however, embrace this tension and good fortune at the right moment.

Startups often make the mistake of viewing innovation as a set of unconstrained activities with no discipline. In reality, for innovation to contribute to growth, it needs to be designed as a process from start to deployment.

When startups lack a formal innovation pipeline process, progress tends to be based on delivering the best demo or slide deck. Instead, there is a necessity to talk to customers, build minimal viable products, test hypotheses or understand the barriers to deployment.

Startups need a self-regulating, evidence-based innovation pipeline, a process that operates with speed and urgency, and that helps to curate and prioritise problems, ideas, user testing and feedback. Most importantly, minimal viable products and working prototypes will have been built and road tested.

A clear-cut innovation process inside a startup is one focused on ideation, a process that hustles game-shaping ideas by creating customer solutions that deliver remarkable impact at the intersection of purpose and profit – not just ‘disruption’.

Ideation is the act of moving ideas down the track from conception to implementation. It seeks to create clarity and a pathway from imagination to execution. Ideation embraces lean startup principles – hold your vision, but take small steps, and focus on learning as a true measure of progress, providing life-shaping insights that change our trajectory or sober us with reality that kills the ‘awesome’ idea we once thought we had.

While there is no perfect ideation to optimise innovation outcomes, the following is a helpful process that I’ve used and refined over the years while working with numerous startups:

Curation On a regular basis – say every three months – startups should get out of the building and talk to potential users and customers to help explore and identify new solutions that can be deployed rapidly. Gaining reflections to find where a given problem might exist helps to find opportunities for commercially available solutions to problems.

This process also helps identify who the customers for possible solutions would be, and even what minimum viable products might look like. Some ideas may drop out when you recognise that they may be technically or financially unfeasible, but that’s validated learning.

Prioritisation Once a list of innovation challenges has been curated, it needs to be prioritised. One of the quickest ways to sort innovation ideas is to use the McKinsey Three Horizons Model: Horizon 1 ideas provide continuous innovation to a company’s existing business model and core capabilities; Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets or targets; Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities to take advantage of or respond to disruptive opportunities or disruption.

There will be some projects in Horizon 0 – graveyard ideas that are not viable or feasible.

Frame the challenge From the prioritised list, articulate, document and frame what the challenge you’re seeking to solve for is a foundation for the next stage. Jumping to a solution before understanding the context of the problem is premature. Ask yourself questions like What is the real problem we’re trying to solve? or What is the real job to be done?  are essential to ensure we don’t leap with a populist, unstructured idea.

Exploration & hypothesis testing Ideas that have passed through the filters so far now enter an incubation process, which aims to deliver evidence for data-based decisions. For each idea, build out a business model canvas. Everything on that canvas is a hypothesis, designed to be tested.

The framework gets you talking to potential customers. This is another major milestone: to show compelling evidence that this project deserves to move into engineering or, alternatively, that it should be off the list and killed.

Diverge & Converge The main goal of this element in the process is to generate lots of diverging ideas from the results of the hypothesis testing, all of the crazy thoughts you have on potential options and alternatives. Make it a rule at this point to never say ‘no’ to any idea, but keep the time defined to give focus.

Once you have a ton of ideas, it’s time to converge through design thinking, to identify common threads, building upon each idea by connecting them, and then determine one or two ideas that are desirable, feasible, and viable. Now is the time to stand back and ask: Does it make business sensee?

Prototype One of the most practical ways to test out a solution is to build a prototype. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate or costly endeavour. Whether the prototype is digital or done through user testing with hands-on customer experience, the goal is to uncover new insights. A good prototype will force idea refinement and iteration.

Iterate Forward A startup should have a culture committed to constant experimentation, and iteration will continue to foster and accelerate this thinking. It will take a few cycles to get a process working with the required diligence and patience, but keep iterating forward. What’s next?

Refactoring: At this point, it’s time to integrate the innovation into the existing business model. Trying to integrate new, unbudgeted, and unscheduled innovation projects into a startup results in chaos and frustration. In addition, innovation projects carry both technical and organisation debt for startups.

Technical debt is often ignored in order to validate hypotheses and find early customers. This quick and dirty development can become unwieldy, difficult to maintain, and incapable of scaling.  Organisational debt is the culture compromises made to ‘just get things done’ in the early stages of an innovation project.

The solution is refactoring, fixing stuff to make it more stable, and avoid the myopia of innovation over business as usual. Whilst technological advantage degrades annually, standing still means falling behind, so it’s all about having the business case from the early stages in the process to act as a bookmark for reference.

Startup innovation is hip, complete with beards and fancy coffee machines, but to do it right can’t be left to chance and serendipitous moments, it requires a rigorous process. Innovation means you have to move the needle, not just vanity of being a ‘unique, disruptive startup’.

For startups, ingenuity and rebooting the offering is essential, but It’s important to be clear about the difference between invention and innovation. Invention is a new idea. Innovation is the commercial application and successful exploitation of the idea. Anyone can invent, not everyone can execute.

Think big, start small, keep moving. Like the Rubik’s Cube, if you are curious you’ll find the puzzles sat in the palm of your hand. If you are determined, you will solve them, with deft visualisation, ideation and execution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester entrepreneurs: Martin Hannett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be prepared to experiment.

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

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

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

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

Have high ambition – without compromise.

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

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

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

Be relentless

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

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

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

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

Be a catalyst for others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Put customer centric thinking at the heart of your business model

One of the great entrepreneurs of the C20th, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, died last month. He created a business, founded when he was just seventeen, that today has commercial reach and a cultural impact that very few consumer products could hope to attain.

Kamprad was an entrepreneurial schoolboy. He bought pencils and matches in bulk which he resold to classmates for profit, moving onto fish then Christmas cards trading. When he was seventeen, he borrowed money from his father – who was convinced that he was giving money for Ingvar’s’ studies – and opened IKEA, hatching the plan at his Uncle Ernst’s kitchen table.

Initially it was a mail-order furniture business, but facing a price war against his business, he flummoxed rivals by opening a showroom – the first IKEA furniture showroom opened in 1953 in Älmhult, Sweden, so customers could see and touch IKEA home furnishings before purchasing them.

To attract prospective customers, he also promised a free cup of coffee and a bun to everyone. Imagine his surprise when this modest event attracted more than a thousand people! Nevertheless, everyone got a cup of coffee and a bun. The idea of opening a fast food restaurant in each store was born.

Kamprad focus was customer centric, but specifically on a do-it-yourself ethic for customers – the company’s name was a do-it-yourself job, too, it stands for Ingvar Kamprad, from Elmtaryd (his family’s farm) in Agunnary, a village in the Smaland region of southern Sweden. His own motto, based on a strong work ethic, was that most things remain to be done, and he built this into the ethos of his customer offering too.

Kamprad’s impact on everyday living has rivalled that of Henry Ford and his mass-produced motor car. Furniture used to be costly, clunky and heavy, and you kept it for many years. For the cash-strapped and newly nesting, fitting out a home could cost many months’ salary. IKEA made domesticity not just affordable and functional, but fun.

Out went the hand-me-downs and junk-shop make-dos, in came the cool, tasteful, egalitarian look and feel of modern Sweden. Airy, sparse, uncluttered – a little bland maybe, but hard to dislike. The Billy bookcase is perhaps the archetypal IKEA product, dreamed up in 1978 by designer Gillis Lundgren. Now there are 60-odd million in the world, nearly one for every 100 people – not bad for a humble bookcase.

Light and bright, basic but cheerful, like the furniture, IKEA’s 400-plus outlets also run on the same central principle: customers do as much of the work as possible, in the belief they are enjoying the experience and saving money. You drive to a distant out-of-town warehouse. Inside, you enter a structured journey through a busy maze – the route is controlled, no shortcuts allowed – where every twist reveals new furniture, artfully arranged with cheerfully coloured accessories to exude a contemporary relaxed lifestyle.

The low prices make you buy, so you load up your trolley with impulse purchases that you don’t really need – a clock, a bin, plants, lampshades and more tea lights than you will ever use. You lug heavy cardboard boxes holding flat packed furniture into your car and reward yourself for your thrift and good taste with meatballs slathered with lingonberry jam. Then you drive home and assemble your prizes. You rejoice in the bargains and the variety of purchases.

There is no doubt that Kamprad reinvented the shopping experience with the product and the store, but Kamprad’s biggest innovation, and the cornerstone of his value proposition, was that consumer inconvenience was a problem worth solving. However, he approached it the opposite to most brands that build their reputations around a set of distinguishing positives and unique differences they provide for their customers.

By 1952, Ingvar already had a 100-page furniture catalogue, but had not yet hit on the idea of flat-packing. That came as he and his company’s fourth employee – designer of the Billy bookcase, Gillis Lundgren – were packing a car with furniture for a catalogue photo shoot. This table takes up too much darn space, Gillis said. We should unscrew the legs.

Kamprad realised that furniture could be flat-packed to significantly reduce the cost of delivery, which were among the product’s largest cost drivers, to make the customer self-service journey complete. Table legs are unwieldy, so why not just take them off?

Except, now every customer buying furniture has to assemble it – and there are many moving parts to some of IKEA’s complicated furniture items. From personal experience, there can easily be fifty or more steps involved in the construction of the piece, with an instruction guide that remains as confusing as ever. I’ve assembled many cupboards with nothing but an Allen key, metal bolts, baffling instructions and sweat. And swear words.

But Kamprad and his team knew that with the right price, product mix and user-centered focus, consumers would see IKEA as a destination shopping experience. Given the locations, they had to bring their cars anyway, and having self-selected their pieces, taking their purchases home made an attractive and complete transaction cycle.

They also understood that unlike a grocery store, furniture shopping is not a daily or weekly occurrence, and so people were comfortable investing significant time at the store when they finally did make the trip. That’s one of the reasons that IKEA has restaurants serving meatballs as simply, the more time consumers had in the store, the more they spent.

It seems trying to cram flat-pack furniture into your car, missing screws, and the ensuing marital tensions, haven’t been enough to put people off. IKEA has a 12% market share in the UK, outstripping rivals such as Argos, John Lewis and sofa retailer DFS.

So, Kamprad’s IKEA experiment focused on a simple, core value proposition – well designed, reasonable quality furniture at reasonable prices, supporting his vision ‘to create a better everyday life for many people’. He consistently developed and scaled, but the fundamental premise was to make customer experience the brand differentiator. Having grounded his business model around the customer, what are the other aspects of Kamprad’s entrepreneurial flair that we can learn from?

1.     Give your customers context

IKEA offered a completely new concept. It wasn’t just what they were selling that was different, but how it was selling it: You come here, you walk through this maze this way round, then you pick it up in the warehouse, and then you take it home, and you build it. It is a really prescriptive way of doing stuff where the customer has to invest time, contrarian ever more so with the advent of online shopping, but dictating a customer’s journey in this way had never been done before.

It’s this very journey of course that frustrates many of its customers, with the baffling warren of mocked-up rooms, floor arrows, and no glimpse of the outside world to help you orient yourself – is far from accidental. But the key to IKEA’s strategy is suggesting to the customer that they are in charge – they give you your own pencil, paper and trolley, there’s only a smattering of staff, and there’s no hard-sell from sales assistants.

Every IKEA store is a showroom, where not only sofas and cupboards are exhibited, but any little things of everyday life too – tablecloths, curtains, towels and candle holders. The visitor can see ten children’s rooms, and then twenty-five dining rooms or living rooms and so on.

Having imagined what a particular furniture set-up would look like in their own home, a customer can then go for it to the self-serve warehouse. The customer then transports the furniture in comfortable packages to his home and then assembles it by reading clear and sensible instructions.

As e-commerce scales, shoppers need incentive to come into stores. With its elaborate showroom and cafeteria, IKEA has become a unique destination for shoppers. While many retailers enter shopping centres hoping for traffic, IKEA is a standalone store that shoppers seek out with a specific goal in mind, as the context is made clear for them.

2. Understand the experience your customers want

Kamprad said that his vision for IKEA was a company that would make life easier for its customers. He built a furniture company, which acted like supermarket.

Most of us have gone to one of IKEA’s unmistakable giant blue and yellow stores, wandered through its carefully-designed if somewhat labyrinthine paths, tasted its Swedish meatballs and bought and assembled its modernist furniture. They attract us in the thousands. How? They understand the customers and the experience brilliantly.

IKEA designers are among the foremost anthropologists of home life. Designers create rooms for eight types of people, from four stages of childhood, through to ‘living single/starting out’, ‘living single/established’, ‘living together/starting out’ and ‘living together/established’. IKEA does endless research on each category.

IKEA also has ethnographers who conduct field research into the domestic life of different regions through home visits, interviews, and panels. While the researchers’ ‘Life at Home’ consumer insights research goes to the development of new products.

This makes the IKEA brand different. When you’re authentic about your distinctiveness, your passion will attract those who love your products and going to be a lot easier to build up your audience.

3.     Focus on getting good, not making it big

Kamprad focused on getting good at business before he tried to get big at business.  Many people want growth as their objective. The new web design agency wants to work for major companies, not work in relative obscurity while mastering his craft.

But if you only focus on short-term wins and results, then it can be very easy to 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 stage startups. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

Research of over seventy famous composers and revealed that not a single one of these musical geniuses produced a famous musical piece before year ten of their career. This period of little recognition and hard work – referred to as the ‘ten years of silence’ is very similar to the period that Kamprad spent selling matches before launching his IKEA vision.

4.     Don’t let your business model become stale

IKEA is beginning to respond to some of their most recognised customer frustrations. For example, you can now order some bulkier items online for home delivery, and they recently bought US start-up Task Rabbit, which helps you hire people to do flat-pack furniture assembly.

Responding to the growth in online shopping, it has also started experimenting with selling through other online retailers, and running directly counter to its original out-of-town model, also testing a smaller, city centre store format as well as order and pick-up points in town centres, as part of a wider push to become more accessible to shoppers.

Travelling to the out-of-town store, plus the long queues are, ironically, part of IKEA’s winning strategy. The experience is so time consuming that we tend to buy more to avoid having to return in the near future. However, giving the customer online options with the convenience, simplicity and control offers a different shopping experience, backed by the same product sentiment.

5.      Innovation can be about efficiency

The Billy is a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that is all you want from it, or it is a blank canvas for creativity. It demonstrates that innovation in the modern economy is not just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems.

The Billy bookcase 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 looks inoffensive and does the job.

Thrift is the core of IKEA’s corporate culture, you can trace it back to the company’s origins in Smaland, a poor region in southern Sweden whose inhabitants, like Kamprad, are “stubborn, cost-conscious and ingenious at making a living with very little”.

Innovation in IKEA is about efficiency, economy and effectiveness – recently designer Tom Dixon has joined forces with IKEA to offer a 28-piece modular furniture collection, perfect for adapting compact city homes to your needs – and all about the customer.

Kamprad’s forward-thinking customer focused strategy made IKEA the top furniture seller in the world, maintaining the customer-centric concept from its original foundations in every part of the company and its business model. It is the entrepreneurial eye for this business model innovation, and scaling the execution, that are Kamprad’s legacy for other entrepreneurs to admire.