The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

It’s a great time to be a tech startup entrepreneur. If you can get into a position where you’re pitching at a sizeable market, build a high-performing team and creating an innovative product, this is your time. This is the age of the tech startup, the leverage afforded to startup founders today is immeasurably greater than that previous generations due to the internet.

Startups can be global from the outset, addressable markets have multiplied through the reach of direct-to-consumer distribution channels of app stores and cloud platforms, superceding physical borders and boundaries of time.

A rising new generation of global tech firms are now officially the most valuable companies in the world: Apple, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook. We’re living a staggering rotation of economic value, out with the incumbent companies in financial services, industrial, and consumer products, replaced by companies centered around software, data and technology-enabled services.

Whilst these firms were all Silicon Valley startups, don’t blink, because coming over the horizon from the East are a set of equally formidable tech giants in Tencent, Alibaba, and China Mobile. These companies are fast adopting and inventing new bases of value that support lucrative scale, from networks, data, and the interconnection of communities, consumers and businesses.

None of the new tech giants endured gruelling hundred-year-company-building efforts. The median age of the new guard is closer to 15–20 years, versus 75–100 years for the incumbents who ruled the decades before. Joining these ranks just doesn’t require the sort of multi-generational company building we’ve seen before – the internet has created their markets.

The internet creates new opportunities for value creation. With a focus on disciplined and sustainable growth from clear business model leverage, this means thinking early and often about how to architect product and distribution together as a single, efficient offering. ‘Product’ is no longer just the bits of software, it’s also how the software is sold, supported and made successful with future revenue goals and product roadmaps in mind. Currently, the focus is around data-centricity, artificial intelligence, machine learning and intelligent workflow.

Against the backdrop of the march and ubiquity of tech sector growth and its reach into our everyday lives, we have the stark contrast of the humanity and traditions of Christmas. It’s almost a throwback experience to where time has stood still.  It’s about mince pies and mulled wine, time spent with family and friends, when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

Indeed, throughout December, I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere from radio commercials and shopping centres, but especially in carol services where it’s live music performance, not digital downloads. Everywhere you go, you can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas, and relevance to today’s tech driven economy?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby children had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6, as the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realised.

However, my thoughts are that you can enjoy the traditions of Christmas as a tech entrepreneur by using the twelve days of Christmas in a relaxed but constructive way, taking advantage of the holiday to take reflection in a quiet, calm moment to yourself, have a time out for some clear thinking when out for an early morning walk and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months without the fear of those unanswered emails lurking in your inbox.

So here are my actions for the ‘Twelve Days of a tech startup Christmas’

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve at the start of the year by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to reboot and look forward. What are you aiming for? What does success looks like in 12 months time? What are you going to do differently this time that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, get a grip, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The new order of tech companies show how the balance shifts dramatically is short time frames. In order to become the best business you can be, start with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? What is their persona? Why should customers buy from you and not others? Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach. The same actions as last year will get you the same results – if you’re lucky.

Day Three: Rebalance The end result of your entrepreneurial risk taking should be freedom and fulfilment, not continuous hard work and a feeling of déjà vu. Dedicate time to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. If it’s all the business of today, who is steering towards the business of tomorrow? Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of low-cost competitors? Offering the same thing as every competitor provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term plan, so revisit your business strategy and business model to ensure they are viable and will build a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.

Day Five: Revitalise Is the new year the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience? Could you layer on new capabilities to enhance stable underlying core processes to improve customer engagement? Analytics are another common area of focus – introducing cognitive techniques to better meet descriptive reporting needs and introduce predictive and prescriptive capabilities could take you forward. Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation, don’t sell – what are their unmet needs?

Day Six: Refinance The best businesses are also the best financed. Now is the time to take a hard look at your financial strategy, planning, management and systems, and your cash requirements. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions based around serving customer needs. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years without changing it, but over time, the old structure becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to restructure and take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities. Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where re the skills and people gaps for the next 12 months?

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to attract customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Have you changed your target market or delivery systems to expand your customer base? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view on our business, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. What does your brand stand for?

Day Nine: Replace Introduce new solutions for parts of the internal core that have been unchanged for many years. This may mean adopting new processes – have you considered the benefits of a cloud infrastructure? You should ideally use these pivots to revisit the business’s needs to service its customers better, building new capabilities that reflect how work should get done, not simply replicating how work used to get done on the old systems. Today it’s about the customer experience, engagement and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What business routines do you call over and over? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what new ideas and innovations have you introduced to refresh the business and keep heads up. Think inside out, think like a customer.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to modern operating environments (virtualised environments, cloud platforms). Unfortunately, these efforts are rarely ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling of each specific workload, but now is the time start with the thinking time available.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three to five years. Next decide what you must do to turn your vision into reality. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

So spend the break time on reflective thinking, seeking to learn from experience, making judgements on what has happened, and develop a questioning attitude and new perspectives. We need to identify areas for change and improvement, respond effectively to new challenges, and apply what we have learned to ensure results improve.

The reflective learning cycle is iterative, it doesn’t stop after one rotation, you apply what you learn, then continue to reflect and develop further. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

There is often no right answer, and some things may remain difficult to interpret. How did your actions affect the situation and how did the situation affect you? How do your observations today fit with the benefit of hindsight? Developing your reflective insights means stepping back and taking an honest critique of your own actions, behaviours and attitudes to consider what might be the results of doing things differently.

But don’t over think the past twelve months, you can’t change the past but you can shape the future. Words make you think, music makes you feel, a song make you feel a thought. It is after all, a great Christmas carol.

Relax, and use ‘The Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ for reflective thinking

Over the next month, The Twelve Days of Christmas will be heard everywhere from television and radio commercials, to shopping centres and churches. Everywhere you go, you will hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children. In the game, children had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others.

Another theory connects the carol to the era when Catholicism was outlawed in England, from 1558 to 1829. The carol, it is said, was a catechism song for Catholics to learn the tenets of their faith, as they could not openly practice in Anglican society. While many still hold the idea of a coded hymn to be true, there’s no substantive evidence that this was the case, nor is there any evidence that the verses contain anything uniquely Catholic.

Here are the verses of the song, along with their supposed symbolism:

  • A Partridge in a Pear Tree – Jesus Christ
  • Two Turtle Doves – The Old & New Testaments
  • Three French Hens – The three virtues of Faith, Hope & Charity
  • Four Calling/Collie Birds – Four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John
  • Five Golden Rings – First five books of the Old Testament
  • Six Geese-a-Laying – Six days of creation before God’s rest on the seventh day
  • Seven Swans-a-Swimming – Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Eight Maids-a-Milking – Eight Beatitudes
  • Nine Ladies Dancing – Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Ten Lords-a-Leaping – The Ten Commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping – Eleven faithful disciples
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming – Twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed

These verses are what most of us associate with the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, the days from December 25, celebrated as the birth of Jesus, to January 6, celebrated as the Epiphany, the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realised. While sects of Christianity celebrate the 12 days of Christmas differently, certain ones, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, consider the Epiphany to be the most important day of the Christmas season. Some exchange gifts on each of the 12 days instead of only on Christmas Day.

As part of its tradition, the Pittsburgh based bank, PNC, tabulates the true cost of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ in the US, based on the cumulative cost of all the gifts counting each repetition in the song. The tally this year came to $116,273.06 for all 364 gifts, up just 1.4% from 2013.

On the first day of Christmas your true love will be receiving a bill for $207.68 for sending you one Partridge in a Pear Tree. Maybe that won’t be enough to trigger buyer’s remorse. Perhaps that will come on day five, however, when your honey is shelling out $750 for Five Golden Rings. If that doesn’t do it, day seven surely should unleash a few twinges of regret as the $7,000 bill for Seven Swans-a-Swimming comes in.

Overall, the price of eight of the 12 items in PNC’s Christmas Price Index remained virtually the same as last year, but four outliers included Six Geese-a-Laying, up 71% to $360; Three French Hens, up 10% to $181.50; a Partridge in a Pear Tree, up 4% to $207.68 (the partridge part went up 33% to $20); and Ten Lords-a-Leaping, up 2% to $5,348.24.

As if to prove that the cost of childhood dancing lessons and sitting through endless recitals pays off, Nine Ladies Dancing commanded the highest price tag of any of the twelve items at $7,552.84. The cheapest gift on the list was for Eight Maids-a-Milking, priced at a mere $58, reflecting minimum wage for these udderly unappreciated labourers increasingly being replaced by technology.

From a strict economics point of view you have a mix here of goods and wages. The maids a-milking cost $58 because the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour hasn’t changed. However, skilled labourers such as pipers piping and drummers drumming increases, proof that it pays to be a skilled worker in this economy.

Another lesson to be learned is that it doesn’t pay to procrastinate. Buying all twelve days of Christmas items on line at the last minute would cost you about $173,000, $56,000 more than buying the items a few weeks before Christmas.

However, besides looking at fun Christmas items such as this, as a business leader, you can use the twelve days of Christmas in a really constructive way, taking advantage of the holiday to do some clear thinking, analysis and thoughtful review of the business journey of the previous twelve months – so here are my ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas':

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, look forward. What are you aiming for? What does success looks like in 12 months time? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. In order to become the best business you can be, start with a clean sheet of paper. What is my ideal customer? Why should customers buy from you and not others?  Don’t get stuck in a rut, don’t be afraid to restart your approach.

Day Three: Rebalance The end result of your risk taking should be freedom and fulfilment, not continuous hard work and a feeling of déjà vu. Dedicate time to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. If it’s all the business of today, no one is steering towards business of tomorrow. Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities.

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of competitors? Offering the same things every competitor does provides no advantage, so revisit your business strategy and business model to ensure they are viable and will build a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months.

Day Five: Retool What should your business do to make use of online tools and media, to increase efficiency and deliver growth? Use the menu of social media tools to build a greater awareness of your brand and your offerings. Where can you leverage your online business model to greater impact?

Day Six: Refinance The best businesses are also the best financed. Now is the time to take a hard look at your financial planning, management and systems, and your cash requirements. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years without changing it, but over time, the old structure becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to restructure and take a look at job roles and responsibilities, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired?

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to attract customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Have you changed your target market or delivery systems to expand your customer base? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets?

Day Nine: Rebuild Take a fresh look at your branding. Does it clearly articulate your values, and create customers loyalty? Do your employees identify with the brand? Does it evidence technical expertise and value? If not, rebuild your marketing, almost as a relaunch.

Day Ten: Revamp What business routines do you call over and over? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what new ideas and innovations have you introduced to refresh the business and keep heads up. Think inside out, think like a customer.

Day Eleven: Refresh How much time do you give your team to develop new skills? Identify the development needs for each member of staff to get them performing at their highest level – help them achieve a ‘Personal Best’, to perform the very best they can be.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next five years. Next decide what you must do to turn your vision into reality. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work.

My ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ are all based around Reflective Thinking, essential for success in today’s unpredictable and complex economy. Reflective Thinking helps you to:

  • Develop a questioning attitude and new perspectives
  • Identify areas for change and improvement
  • Respond effectively to new challenges
  • Apply what you have learned from one situation to other situations

Christmas is the perfect time of year to look back and reflect on what you’ve done right this year, to learn from what you’ve done, and what isn’t working. I developed this as a habit every year, and it has a number of clear benefits:

It helps you learn from your mistakes If we don’t reflect on our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them and that’s not very smart. However, if we reflect on those mistakes, figure out what went wrong, see how we can prevent them in the future, we can use our mistakes as valuable learning tools, instead of something to feel embarrassed or upset about. Reflection is an important way to do that.

It gives you great ideas Almost every single blog post idea that I have comes from reflection. Basically, I reflect on things that I’m doing or that are going on in my life or in the wider business community. If things aren’t going well, I learn stuff I can share with others. If I reflect on something that’s a success for me, I think about how I got that success, and share that too. I’ve had hundreds of great ideas this year from reflection.

It helps you help others The ideas I get for blog posts are things I feel like writing about, but they’re ways that I can share what I’ve learned to help others going through the same things. Sharing thinking, ideas or simply sharing some random streams of consciousness has created some interesting connections for me, and access to other people’s valuable online musings, which have improved my own knowledge and learning.

It makes you happier If you reflect on the things you did right, on your successes, that allows you to celebrate every little success. It allows you to realise how much you’ve done right, the good things you’ve done and achieved. Without reflection, it’s too easy to forget these things, and focus instead on our failures and tough times.

It gives you perspective. Often we are caught up in the maelstrom of our daily lives, heads filled and locked up with stuff in the now. It can overwhelm us sometimes. However, if we take time to step back and reflect, we gain perspective, and that’s a good thing.

The reflective learning cycle is iterative – Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect – so it doesn’t stop after one rotation, you apply what you learn, then continue to reflect and develop further. Reflecting upon, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

There is often no right answer, and some things may remain difficult to interpret. Did you achieve your plan? Did your goals change? How did your actions affect the situation and how did the situation affect you? How do your observations today fit with the benefit of hindsight and the subsequent passing of time? Developing your reflective insights means standing back from the events and trying to be objective, including an honest critique of your own actions. However, recognise that your own point of view will change with time

Now perhaps may be a good time to consider what might be the results of doing things differently – what evidence is there to show things might change if done differently? How has the experience of reflection changed your understanding? Enjoy ‘The Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ – but don’t do too much thinking, do ensure you do some singing, it is after all, a great Christmas carol!