Our iceberg is melting: a call to action for startup founders facing adversity

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. It’s a call to action which has resonance with the current COVID-19 driven turbulence, where the need for new leadership attitudes and new thinking to face the challenges is needed, a ‘can do’ spirit in the face of adversity.

But most businesses hesitate to adopt new thinking and look outwards during a crisis, instead they focus on hunkering down and a low-key ‘back to basics’ existence, defaulting to a cost-reduction focus. Whilst this can secure short-term protection, it rarely offers a life-saving strategy, and certainly impedes thinking beyond the immediate time horizon – plans for new ideas and investments are put on the ‘wait and see’ pile.

However, there is a tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship in times of great hardship. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw several successful companies that did not delay investment in their future. One was DuPont. In April 1930, Wallace Carothers, a research scientist, recorded the initial discovery of neoprene (synthetic rubber). At the same time, DuPont’s financial performance was suffering, with sales down 15% that year. However, maintaining a long-term view on their strategy, DuPont boosted R&D spending.

A lack of competitor ambition and low raw-material prices helped the company keep the cost of its research investment manageable. Neoprene, which DuPont publicly announced in November 1931 and introduced commercially in 1937, became a major C20th innovation. By 1939, every car and plane manufactured in America had neoprene components. Alongside this, DuPont discovered nylon in 1934 and introduced it in 1938 after intensive product development.

When Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line, listening to music in the car meant the passengers were singing. Then two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, who had started Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing to sell electric converters for battery-operated radios, needed new revenue after the Wall Street Crash.

By teaming up with William Lear, who owned a radio parts company in the same factory building, and audio engineer Elmer Wavering, they installed the first car radio in May 1930. The next month, Paul drove 800 miles to a radio manufacturers’ convention in Atlantic City. He parked uo near the pier and cranked up the radio, coaxing attendees to look and listen. Orders began flowing in. In 1933, Ford began offering factory-installed radios from the brothers, and Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola.

Thus although deep downturns are destructive, they can also have an upside. The Depression-era economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasized the positive consequences of downturns: the destruction of underperforming companies, the release of capital from dying sectors to new industries, and the movement of high-quality, skilled workers toward stronger employers. For companies with cash and ideas, history shows that downturns can provide enormous strategic opportunities.

So how are you going to face the COVID-19 challenge? Let’s use Harvard Professor John Kotter’s seminal book, Our iceberg is melting. On the face of it, it is a simple tale of a group of penguins who are scared about losing their home and lifestyle because their current habitat – their iceberg – is melting, and yes, even more scared of the changes that could entail – it’s a useful analogy to the challenge we currently face.

The book narrates how the penguins discover a major problem which highlights a need for radical action, and how they adopt a process to secure survival, captured in Kotter’s eight principles. Through this simple allegory of their struggle for finding their new home, the story delivers a powerful message that is relevant for startups as they search for their sustainable icebergs of opportunity in today’s COVID-19 environment.

In the story, Fred is an observant and curious penguin – maybe a data scientist in a penguin’s disguise? He observes that their iceberg home was melting. Not one to just wait for his daily quota of squid, he spoke to Alice.

Alice is one of the leaders of the colony, practical and mentally tough. Alice initially wondered if Fred was suffering from a personal crisis – had he missed his morning fishmeal? But she was patient, and she rapidly became alarmed when she saw the cracks and fissures in their iceberg.

Alice brought Fred’s concern to the rest of the leadership team, and eventually the colony waddled their way to a miraculous solution, enjoying quite a few squids on the way, showing that in order to survive in the face of adversity, you need a vision, a process and teamwork.

Let’s cut back to the reality of our COVOID-19 world, where the tech market is the iceberg and is melting in a maelstrom of new, emerging economic paradigms, contradictions, red herrings (Alice’s second favourite food) and more twists and turns than a King Emperor swimming at 30mph in the Antarctic sea.

Facing a startup founder this Monday morning is a mass of data, noise and emotion, looming from customer information to cashflow to marketing. Then the blogs, podcasts and twitter offering insights, opinions and comments. Against this backdrop of a constantly changing situation, a founder has to balance cash, tech and well-being of their people, to survive in the near term.

Let’s look at the eight steps for survival and adaption outlined in Kotter’s book, and see how they apply for your startup trying to survive and evolve in today’s shifting, mutating market.

1. Set the scene

Create a sense of urgency – don’t wait until your iceberg starts to melt Fred discovered the iceberg where the colony lives is melting. He tells Alice, who is initially sceptical, but she sees how urgent the situation is. Alice tells the leading council of penguins, most of whom don’t believe her. But Fred shows the penguins the urgency of the situation.

For startups, it’s a combination of instinct, hunches and data. But the message from the iceberg is that difficult problems won’t go away, and you need to help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

Pull together the guiding team A team of five penguins is put together to deal with the situation, they immediately start brainstorming ideas. This team has to focus on driving a balance between creativity and data driven decisions. Unexpectedly, their inspiration for a solution comes from a passing seagull, which happened to land on their iceberg.

For startups, the lesson is to ensure there are problem solving skills, not just creative thinking skills in the team, and to maintain a sense of balance around domain expertise and outward looking curiosity of your immediate environment for potential disruptive ideas. Never get complacent that you have all the questions – let alone the answers.

2. Decide what to do

Develop the crisis vision and strategy The inspiration from the seagull led to a solution, which would change the way the penguins lived. They would become a nomadic colony that moved to locations suitable for living, rather than being static. This would be a big change to the penguins, who had lived in one location for years, and were used to their current way of life.

The business learning here is to keep an open mind, and be prepared to pivot – in essence to start again. To find a sensible version of a better future, hold you vision – keep all the penguins together – but have a strategy that responds to the changing environment, and one that isn’t constrained by previous thinking.

Communicate for understanding and collaboration Though the team had now found a potential solution, they needed to get the buy-in of other penguins. There were penguins that were very sceptical and thought either the whole thing about the melting iceberg was nonsense, or it was too dangerous to move.

In a startup, avoid hierarchies and promote open communication at all times, change makes people nervous, and uncertain times combined with gaps in communication makes this worse. Ensure frequent and open communication with regular and personal attention.

3. Make it happen

Empower others to act The team found ways to include other penguins to become part of the solution, and because others felt part of the solution, the opposition decreased.

Opposition to change arises because of a lack of engagement and inclusion, and creates a feeling of not being valued. Remove as many these barriers as possible – a change of direction in a startup, as a result of the iceberg melting, needs everyone to be engaged, empowered and together.

Produce short-term wins When other penguins got involved they started achieving short-term goals, which were necessary on the way to the end result. This encouraged and motivated the penguins to keep working towards the solution.

Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible. Short-term wins create a positive atmosphere that everything will be ok, even if there are some tougher challenges ahead.

Don’t let up The colony finally moved to a new iceberg, but they didn’t stay there. They found a better one and moved again. They were not giving up but kept looking for better living situations for the colony.

The lesson for startups is to remain restless and ambitious, never resting on your laurels, adopting a culture of continuous learning, pressing harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change until the vision is a reality.

4. Make it stick

Create a new culture Actions were taken to cement the new culture in place, there was no going back to old ways of living.  This ensured that the changes would not be eroded by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions or a lack of focus on the future.

As a founder facing the COVID-19 crisis, constantly looking forward to new horizons and don’t get stuck in a way of being that was successful in the market of yesterday. Ask yourself whether you are living on a potentially melting iceberg and getting stuck in pack ice.

The reality is that you maybe fit for purpose today but recall Darwin: it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. As the Roman poet, Horace, so eloquently said: Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it

I am going to remain optimistic, and that’s because adversity is what breeds innovation, a mother of necessity. Facing difficulty is a time when people’s best is brought out in them, as shown by the examples of innovation earlier.

These are nervy, volatile times. Are you struggling to find the right balance between caution and optimism? No one knows what will happen next, but taking less risk and hunkering down is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

There are lessons for us all in the attitudes of penguins – in the face of a meting iceberg, everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A similar strong sense of the impossible is essential to driving startups this week, positive energy and exuberance is needed against the constant stream of maudlin and misery we could sit in.

In 1923, economist John Maynard Keynes observed that in tempestuous times we only tell ourselves that when the storm is past, the ocean is flat again. Let’s tip that out, rather than merely resisting COVID-19 and economic collapse, you must pivot sharply and prepare for the new future ahead, and do that now.

Confidence and certainty are lacking currently, we’re running a severe optimism deficit. We’re never the most upbeat of nations. Adversity introduces a man to himself, face to face. In times of adversity, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of. Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. Now is your moment.

How to make home-working productive for your startup venture

Fresh, home-made lunch and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus has made us all homeworkers out of necessity, but whilst I’ve enjoyed the benefits of working from home for several years, you can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity, social contact and teamwork from working remotely from your team.

I’m writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker – actually, I do have a permanent home office – but I’ve got my jogging pants on and snacking my way through my emergency nut rations. I’m getting plenty of work done, but I’m get unnerved by being solo and the lack of stimulation. I need to interact face-to-face with humans. If I don’t, cabin fever sets in fast.

So, as you read this blog, I guess you too have been shooed away from the office and are trying to acclimate to a work-from-home lifestyle. We are all getting a glimpse of our glorious, office-free future, but this is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution.

If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus, it offers an opportunity for businesses to build a culture that allows work flexibility, but I’m never going to be a work-from-home evangelist who tells everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. Don’t get me wrong, working from home is a good option for some who maybe aren’t well served by the traditional office setup. Fans of remote work often cite studies showing that people who work from home are more productive. A study led by the Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13% more efficient than their office-based peers.

But research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers  in remote work arrangements.

Remote workers also tend to take shorter breaks and find it hard to separate their work from their home lives. That’s a good thing if you’re looking to squeeze extra efficiency, but less ideal if you’re trying to achieve some work-life balance.

Steve Jobs was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions, Jobs said. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.

Office work does have its downsides, for sure. Commuting make us grumpy and impatient in the morning, and often our open-plan workplace makes distraction-free focus nearly impossible. But being near people also allows us to express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration. Those are the skills that can’t be automated or captured on Zoom, and they’re what produces the kind of meaningful interpersonal contact we miss out on when we’re stuck at home.

Google’s research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is one and a half days per week, enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work, but it’s when we are together that those moments of serendipity occur.

I’ve realised that I can’t be my best, most human self in my jogging pants, sat in splendid isolation, trying to juggle video conference calls between trips to the fridge or playing indoor football with the dog. But as I’m at home for the foreseeable future, here are my top ten tips for making the best of home working.

1. Choose a dedicated workspace Rather than cooping yourself up in your spare room or on the couch, dedicate a specific room or space in your home to work. Have a place you go specifically to work, some place that’s consistently your ‘workspace.’ It helps you get into the right frame of mind.

2. Get started early When working in an office, our morning commute helps us switch on and mentally tuned-in by the time we get to our desk. At home, the transition from your duvet to shower to kitchen to your workspace can be jarring. For me, I find the best way to work from home productively is to dive into your working day earlier. Getting started first thing can be the key to getting momentum and making progress throughout the day, otherwise, you’ll prolong breakfast and let the morning sluggishness wear away your motivation. I’m a morning person and find I can get a ton done in the early morning hours.

3. Prepare mentally for working from home the mental association you make between your physical place of work can make you more productive, and there’s no reason that feeling should be lost when based from home. When working from home, do all the things you’d do to prepare for an office role: set your alarm, set yourself up for the day, use Evernote for your ‘to-do’ lists, otherwise, you might find yourself just getting out of the blocks by 11am.

4. Work when you’re at your most productive Nobody sprints through from morning to evening, your motivation will naturally ebb and flow throughout the day. When you’re working from home, it’s all the more important to know when those ebbs and flows will take place and plan around it. To capitalise on your most productive periods, save your harder tasks for when you know you’ll be in the right headspace for doing the heavy lifting. Use slower points of the day to knock out the easier tasks that are on your plate.

5. Communicate expectations with anyone at home with you. You might be working from home but still have ‘company’. Make sure any spouses, children and dogs (well, maybe not dogs) respect your space during work hours. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you’re home. You’re working, even if it looks like and feels like you’re hanging out at home. It’s easy to get distracted by the folks around us.

6. Take clear breaks Don’t let the guilt of working in the building you sleep in prevent you from taking time out to relax. Rather than just opening YouTube and watching some comfort clips, use your breaks to get away from your desk. Go for a walk outside or spend time with others in the house. Breaks can recharge you to do better work. Don’t assume you need to be working 100% of the time while you’re home to be more productive. Although taking repeated short breaks might seem counterproductive – a ‘stop-and-start’ disruption – research shows that taking short breaks increases productivity and creativity.

7. Structure your day When home-working, you’re self-managing and without a proper schedule to structure your day, you can be quick to lose focus or burn out. If you are going to work from home, set specific business or work hours. The beauty of working from home is that you can be flexible in setting your own working hours. For example, if you are most productive in the morning, or if you need to get the kids from school at 3.30 pm, then you may want to set your work hours from 7am to 3pm. Regardless of your workload, be sure to establish set work hours to follow each day. The fact is, we perform better under constraints. Schedules give us a framework, while nothingness torments us with the tyranny of choice.

8. Commit to doing more Stuff always take longer to do than we initially think. For that reason, you’ll frequently get less done than you set out to do. So, set yourself a full ‘to-do’ list. Even if you come up short of your goal, you’ll still come out of that day with a solid list of tasks filed under ‘complete.’

On days I’m working from home, I tend to slightly overcommit on what I’ll deliver that day. It helps keep me honest, so even if I get the urge to go do something else, I know I’ve already committed stuff to my team. There’s an expression: if you want something done, ask a busy person. The paradox of productivity is that the busier you are, the more you’ll actually do. It’s like Newton’s law of inertia: If you’re in motion, you’ll stay in motion. If you’re at rest, you’ll stay at rest. And busy people are in fast-enough motion that they have the momentum to complete anything that comes across their desk, so focus on things that maintain your rhythm.

9. Interact with other humans Remember, you’re working from home, not the moon. Interacting with your colleagues during the day is a good idea, to see another face when your workday is solitary. It’s also important to remain visible with your team even if you aren’t actually visible. It can be easy to get heads down on your work and lose out on the regular communication that goes on with the rest of the team.

Even if you‘re not physically visible in the office, it’s important to stay visible and accessible with the team. If you’re a manager, plan inclusive virtual team activities – for example, eat together on a Zoom call and make it social. This stops you feeling isolated or getting out of the loop, and helps your team bond virtually. That feeling of inclusion can make a difference to employee morale, the little things actually matter quite a lot in the day-to-day.

I’ve learned to be more collaborative with my remote colleagues, making sure everyone has a voice in virtual team meetings, and being more flexible when hoping on a quick video chat with a remote colleague. Energy becomes depleted for extroverts and introverts alike, leaving us all open to distractions. To help people stay connected, have regular team check ins. This can be serious, like virtual brainstorming on a project issue, or it could be lighthearted, like Netflix recommendations.

10. Pick a definitive finishing time each day You might be under the impression that working from home establishes more work-life balance but be careful with that assumption. Working from home can also feel like you can get so caught up in your activity, in a relaxing environment, that you lose complete track of time.

Working from home can be invasive in your personal life, because your work will begin to creep into your home life, so it’s back to setting work hours. By setting specific work hours and sticking to them each day, then you can manage a healthy work schedule. When your workday is over, shut your laptop and shut your office door and leave it behind until the next day.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in, forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense washing around from yesterday.

You don’t need to be on a plane to practice airplane mode. Pop in some earplugs and switch your phone or laptop to airplane mode, and you can transform a stretch of captive time into an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your work, but make it your own time.

Some home workers find solace in the comfort of routine, while others prefer localised nomadism. For me, it’s going to be hard with just my own voice and ‘notes to self’ for the majority of the working days ahead. It has to be done, but use the ten tips above to set some ground rules, and help yourself.

Reflections on the failure of Flybe offer insights for your startup strategy

If 007 is taking cover for the next few months, what hope is there for us mortals left exposed to the economic ravages of the spreading coronavirus? The release of the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, has been postponed until November. There will be better profits made then, and film distributors can afford to wait.

Others can’t, though, they have to battle through some tough times ahead, and airline Flybe collapsed on Thursday, the first to fall because it had underlying financial health problems in the most exposed sector to the economic impact of coronavirus. This has been underlined with an announcement by Lufthansa that it plans to cut up to half its capacity in the next few weeks, while grounding its biggest aircraft.

There will likely be big differences in vulnerability and impact between sectors. There will be a shift to online shopping, but while household income is uncertain, big ticket expenditure could stop abruptly. But let’s look at Flybe, because in reality the sharp downturn in revenue in response to the global infection was the final straw that broke their business model, and offers insights to startups intent on an aggressive, high growth strategy.

Flybe carried 8m passengers a year between 56 airports in the UK and Europe, with over 210 routes across 15 countries, but had a very unstable fragile strategy, operating model and ownership history. The Flybe brand originated in July 2002, positioning itself as a full-service, low-fare airline. Various pricing and product introductions were made in line with this position, such as discounted one-way tickets, the abolition of overbooking practices, a customer charter of the airline’s service standards, as well as compensation for delays.

The company acquired BA Connect in 2007, increasing its route network in both the UK and continental Europe, making Flybe Europe’s largest regional airline. But there were turbulent times, and fast forward to 2013, and Flybe sold its slots at Gatwick for £20m – out of 158 routes flown, 64 did not cover the operating expenses of crew and aircraft.

Despite this downsizing, in April 2014, Flybe announced that it would launch domestic and international flights from London City Airport, signing a five-year deal. Into 2015, Flybe announced new routes from Cardiff and Sheffield Airport starting nine new European city routes, and twelve months later opened a hub at Dussledorf.

Despite this growth strategy, November 2018 saw a 75% collapse in the share price as Flybe announced that it was talking about a potential sale. Subsequently, the Connect Airways consortium acquired the business, which included Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation, with £100m of new funding provided to support the business.

Flybe announced plans to be rebranded as Virgin Connect, but in January 2020, it emerged that Flybe was again in difficulties, and a deal was reached on 15 January, entailing a deferred payment for Flybe’s Air Passenger Duty debts and increased funding from Connect Airways.

As of 28 January 2020, Flybe operated 36% of all UK domestic flights, but on 5 March, they filed for administration and ceased all operations with immediate effect after the Government failed to grant a proposed £100m bailout loan. Virgin Atlantic refused to continue financial support despite its investment of £135m, and placed part of the blame on the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Flybe’s trading.

Was Flybe too ambitious? For the past fifteen years Flybe has been trying to join the big boys of aviation and failing. The serious push came when it raised money with an IPO, and set out a plan to become Europe’s biggest regional airline, flying mid-sized planes between secondary cities. The model works brilliantly in America, where regional airlines, often flying as franchises of the larger network carriers, are a large and thriving business.

It did not work – or at least Flybe did not make it work. It retrenched, and was left in the farcical situation of paying for a fleet of aircraft that it could not fly. The remaining network was still too big, and cash resources dwindled.

So what are the elements of the Flybe business model that ultimately caused its failure, and what can startups learn from their mistakes?

1. Operating a market niche made it vulnerable Flybe dominated the regional UK market, so it was particularly exposed to anything that went wrong in this market – the recent fall in demand prompted by the coronavirus outbreak just added to its list of woes. It already had to contend with storms disrupting travel and the effects of Brexit creating sluggish UK consumer spending. The weak pound following the Referendum also worsened the impact of increased fuel and aircraft leasing costs.

Lesson: don’t put all your eggs in one basket; don’t get complacent when you have dominant market share, take a counter view of inherent vulnerability to apparent strength.

2. It operated in a highly competitive market Aviation is a highly competitive industry at the best of times, saddled with high-cost assets, and key costs that fluctuate uncontrollably – mainly fuel, which accounts for around a third of total airline costs. On top of that, they face high regulatory costs. The UK is particularly competitive, with Flybe squeezed between major airlines such as British Airways and the big low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet.

Lesson: Always keep a keen eye on your cost base when focused on a high-growth strategy, revenues can often not hit targets or market share be impacted by external margin pressures out of your control.

3. Flybe paid more tax than other airlines Airlines have to pay Air Passenger Duty (APD), a tax per passenger on flights taking off in the UK. For international flights, APD only has to be paid on the route out of the country, but for journeys within the UK, APD is paid both on departure and arrival. The levy is thought to have cost Flybe more than £100m a year, something it had long complained about. The government was considering adjusting the APD and helping Flybe.

Lesson: There are often specific compliance costs or costs of entry into a market, which should be recognised as a harsh burden on the business model, hitting your competitive agility, and factored into your day-to-day thinking.

4. It had too many planes A decade ago, Flybe had ambitious pan-European plan, placing an £850m order for 35 Embraer 175 jets to underpin its expansion. But for years after that it struggled with overcapacity. Flybe ended up putting planes on routes to use the planes, rather than buying a fleet to fly routes effectively. It was a burden, in reality it really was too big for what it’s trying to do.

Flybe’s overcapacity showed it needed to operate smaller aircraft over a slimmer network, and maybe switch its focus to concentrate on the corporate market and forget about endless retail seat sales at peppercorn prices. This would mean higher fares but hopefully a better quality, repeatable customer model.

Lesson: A relentless focus on charging forward can blindside the downside risks and adverse long-term impact of short-term errors. Don’t be blinkered by growth-for-growth’s sake, take a balanced view of opportunity versus risk.

5. There were conflicting shareholder objectives The takeover by the Connect Airways consortium failed because the partners had conflicting objectives and were strange bedfellows. Virgin was eager to feed its long-haul flights at Heathrow, and perhaps snaffle along the way some of Flybe’s valuable Heathrow slots, whilst Stobart was eager to keep regional flights at its main asset, Southend Airport.  The third partner, Cyrus, was a VC and thought it might make money if the business was resuscitated. None of these were compatible with each other

Lesson: Ensure there is genuine compatibility and alignment of vision, purpose and strategy with your co-founders. Never let financial metrics convince you a long-term arrangement has merit, it simply masks the underlying paradoxes.

6. The pricing strategy must support the business model Coronavirus hastened its collapse, but Flybe’s pricing policy was flawed. For any form of travel, the operator with the fastest service generally charges the most. That used to be the case before the arrival of low-cost airlines, when domestic flying was considered a luxury. In Flybe’s case, although it held a monopoly over most of its mainland domestic routes, it was undercutting rail fares sometimes by as much as 50% – because the travelling public compared the cost of flying with surface transport.

However, at the same time as average fares have fallen, squeezing margins and leaving no room for mistakes, Flybe was posting annual losses of £20m.

Lesson: Price on purpose, and price for profit. After a period of entry pricing to gain new market share in a new segment, your value proposition has to fit around the competition and your business model. Don’t kid yourself demand v supply rules don’t apply.

7. Poor customer experience They had a mad hand baggage policy. I had a bag that was 5mm bigger than their cabin baggage guide at the gate. They charged £30 to check it in and, of course, I had to wait 45 minutes to get it back at the other end. The published dimensions of my hardsided case were within the Flybe size limits. I resolved never to fly it Flybe again and never did.

Lesson: Think about the critical non-essentials that can have an out-size adverse impact on the customer experience. Convenience, simplicity and ease-of-use are great customer experience virtues – introduce friction and it all unravels.

8. Dysfunctional culture Flybe acquired many rival’s routes, aircraft and staff and took many franchises into its brand, but wasn’t successful at integrating firms with different work cultures. Even though they were successful at operational integration of small companies, it failed to merge different work cultures.

High attrition rate in its work force compared to other organisations in the industry resulted in it having to spend a lot more than its competitors on training and development of its employees.

Lesson: Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is vital as you scale a startup, ensuring there is a vibrant underlying set of values and philosophy that enables your business to build internally, besides fuelling external growth.

All of the above were factors before coronavirus came along, combining to trigger Flybe’s demise. They were not even able to maintain good revenues on unique routes. Flybe failed because it forgot what its core business was and an over ambitious strategy expanded it beyond it viable economic model.

Startups beware. The adrenalin of growth and soaring ambition can cloud your judgement and blindside some key signs that your model isn’t as unique as you expect.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger. A willingness to stumble during a quest gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place, so don’t let failure remove your spark, but embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided. Keep an open mind as you build your startup strategy, and always be agile, alert and vigilante – euphoria, ego and complacency are virus-like killers to your startup business model.

Startup lessons from the tortoise & the hare: go fast, go slow

The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the memorable Aesop’s Fables, the story of a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise. But tired of the hare’s boastful behaviour, the tortoise challenges him to a race.

Look at me! said the hare, look how fast I can run, he boasted. The hare was very fast and knew it. So when the tortoise agreed to race him, the other animals didn’t think the tortoise stood a chance.

The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, looks back to see the tortoise is so far behind him that he decides to rest under a tree, falling asleep. He is later awakened by the cheers of the other animals as the tortoise crosses the finishing line first – the hare had slept too long and allowed the tortoise to pass him, and slowly but steadily, had arrived before him.

Would that happen in real life? Could a tortoise really beat a hare in a race? And what if the race were a metaphor for a business startup, what’s the best tactic – steady progress or go-for-it-all-in-dash? First, we need to consider what kind of race it is. Different races have different requirements. If we break it down into three races, all might have quite different results:

– In a sprint, given that it can reach speeds of 60km/h, the hare would win hands down.

– If it was an endurance race, it might be more even – tortoises have the ability to persevere through harsh conditions over long distances. However, the same goes for hares, who are also well adapted to extreme conditions.

– If it’s a long-term race, the tortoise wins. In the evolutionary race, hares have been around for 40 million years, whereas tortoises 200 million. Couple this with their long lifespan, and the tortoise comes out ahead.

But there is another factor we could consider: the distance travelled over a lifetime. Given its long lifespan, would the tortoise travel further? If we consider that a giant tortoise might travel 120km in one year, over say a lifespan of 100 years, they would travel 12,000 km.

A hare would smash that in one year if they were running at their top speed for three hours of each day. That would come out at 65,000km a year, but anybody who has spent time outside knows that hares spend most of their time running in circles.

In the simplest terms, no metaphors, the tortoise would win if it depends on how long the race is. If the race was over a day, the tortoise doesn’t have any chance, but over its long lifetime, my money is on the tortoise. Clearly it’s difficult to compare the two animals like-for-like when you consider all the variables, but the biological evidence suggests there is some truth to Aesop’s fable: slow and steady can win a race over a lifetime.

So, back to the startup analogy, pity the tortoise you may think. Steady, careful, slowly-but-surely, the ways of the tortoise seem quaint in the face of an onslaught of hares running amok. The tortoise is the old business model, cautious and slow to react, whereas the hare is the epitome of the entrepreneur, dashing around, energised creating new businesses models or disrupting old ones.

How many times do we find ourselves living as the hare rather than the tortoise? We define goals, become excited, pursue them with fervour, and, then all too often, get distracted and forget them and leap into the next challenge.

The story teaches us the virtue of setting and maintaining a pace to achieve our goals. How do we balance the pursuit of our startup dreams between speeding away and burning out like the hare and plodding along like the tortoise, afraid we won’t ever get there? I think we all know deep down the tortoise is, undoubtedly the winner of the race, but the hare has its place too. The fundamental task in achieving our goals is breaking them down into many smaller goals and assigning ‘tortoise’ or ‘hare’ characteristics to them.

The tortoise represents our overall, long-term startup goals and the planning that is required to achieve them. These are not goals that can be completed tomorrow. You must set a pace for yourself to reach these landmarks by breaking them down into smaller, more easily attainable goals. It is through this slow and calculated process that you will build the framework that will guide your decisions towards the end result

We know, certainly, that we can’t sustain ourselves trying to sprint our way to a finish line that could be years away, so where does the hare and his hyperactive tendencies come into play for us? Well, since we took our time when we started off and carefully pieced together an outline that breaks down our goals into bite size pieces, we can now pursue each of them, one by one, with lightning pace.

The tortoise teaches us that a slow, methodical pace is what will efficiently take us long distances. The hare teaches us that agility and quickness is useful for short term impact and bursts of activity when needed. Be it big or small, make it a point to take one step forward every day.

So, here are a few lessons I learned from this popular fable to take into my startup thinking.

Lesson 1: Sometime we take too long to make decisions

The hare did not think out his plan clearly, but he acted when he saw his opportunity. The lesson here is though he probably had many failures, he learned a valuable lesson that would take him through life. Then again, you can’t get anywhere if you’re still sitting at the starting line when others are pushing forward!

Lesson 2: It’s ok to make mistakes, they only make you more aware

The hare learned to be more thoughtful, and that being the fastest does not always equate to being the winner. You have to take a holistic view to your startup, otherwise you become inefficient and a short term focus means you don’t achieve your long term goals.

Lesson 3: Competition is not always between you and someone else

As we saw for the hare, his only competitor was really himself and his own thinking. Our beliefs, his being ‘I am the fastest so I can lie around and take a nap’, was his downfall. Some of us think this way as well, I am the best, strongest, etc. so I don’t really need to learn more, do more or expend extra energy to accomplish the next task. Complacency, as we see in the tale, leads to failure.

Lesson 4: Slow and steady really does win the race

The tortoise was a perfect example of this, even in the face of sure defeat he persisted. He kept going and never ever looked back. Persistence will take your further than boasting or fear any day. You already won it in your mind, that’s where it all begins.

Lesson 5: Don’t worry about the startup next to you, just run your own race. 

There’s no denying the need for speed, start-ups spend more time on their pivots, learning and moving forward and need to make decisions quickly. This experience may not bring speed per se, but it does bring a greater ability to reflect and put into perspective what is happening around you an respond quickly.

Of course, startups are all about growth, but speed isn’t necessarily the only virtue to consider. The thing about startup growth rate is that it’s inherently unsustainable. Sure, your revenue will keep growing, but as your revenue continues to increase, your growth rate will inevitably diminish.

So if the success of your startup is measured by your growth rate, how do you know if you’re growing fast enough? It’s back to the tortoise and the hare again, what is the race being run – and it’s important to run your own race.

Lesson 6: Go slow, then go fast

We hear it all the time speed, speed, speed, speed. Speed is important, but it’s your own speed. But while I fully believe that getting a product into customers’ hands fast is critical to the success of any startup, if you try to do it insanely fast, you’re going to make so many mistakes that, ultimately, you’ll slow yourself down.

It isn’t all about velocity. It isn’t all about time to market or even about first-mover advantages. It’s about laying the necessary groundwork for your startup success, even if doing so takes longer than you’d like.

It’s about going slowly at the start when it comes to your funding. Everybody wants to jump right into investor meetings. Don’t do that. Go take the time to really understand your business model, how you want to pitch it and who invests in companies of your style and genre. Really do your homework on who is going to be potentially the right fit to invest in your business.

With your customer validation and your product-market fit, you can go fast when it really counts, but go slow at first. There are challenges that come with making assumptions about your customers first-hand. Go and test your idea with two or three early users of your prototype, who will give instant validation on what you’re doing.

Of course, that results in an imperfect understanding of your business model. You have to go find the naysayers. You have to go flesh out ten, maybe twenty different customers. Depending on your market, it’s going to be a different number of customers.

Going slowly at first ultimately enables you to go faster in the long run. If you don’t know who your customers are, you end up spending a lot of time and funds on people that probably aren’t going to buy your solution.

Also, let your newfound understanding of your customers inform your development of the product or service you’ll offer. Once you’ve fleshed out your different customers, find out what they really need. That’s at the core of it. That’s how you start to build your value proposition, and that’s how you start to learn how to differentiate yourself. That’s how you learn what your go-to-market strategy is going to be, and your pricing strategy.

Every new venture that survives the first few iterations of its business model starts to drift away from their entrepreneurial thinking and assumes they have achieved the path to longevity, but no startup can afford to lose the agility, flexibility, and innovation of the early days and thirst for experimentation – so keep the mindset of the hare.

Whatever your pace of growth, short or medium term objectives, the lessons from the race run between the tortoise and the hare offer real learnings around focus, decision making, tactics and how complacency can undermine you. However, the real message for your startup business is that in reality, it’s not a competition with another business that matters, rather it’s a competition with yourself.

Startup lessons in strategy & execution from Led By Donkeys

Well, January 31 came and we left the European Union, and already the schism between Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier on constitutional, economic and cultural consequences is apparent. Putting aside your political views, one aspect of the Brexit campaign that start-ups can learn from is the stunning communication strategy of one political lobbying group, Led By Donkeys, itself a startup venture formed to join the Brexit debate.

Formed in December 2018, Led By Donkeys is a British anti-Brexit political campaign group which used satire targeted at pro-Brexit politicians, calling out ‘thermonuclear hypocrisy’. Led By Donkeys’ main campaign consisted of billboards containing past tweets by pro-Brexit politicians, which appeared to undermine the politicians’ current political position, or clearly have not stood the test of time.

The campaign was initially run as a guerrilla marketing operation, in which Led By Donkeys posters were plastered over existing adverts. It was then expanded into a crowdfunded campaign, which purchased advertising space on hundreds of billboards across the UK.

Later the group staged real-life stunts, including projecting messages on iconic places such as the Houses of Parliament and the White Cliffs of Dover, carving giant tweets and messages on beaches and fields, and directing crowds to unfurl huge flags at marches. The videos of these stunts were subsequently viewed millions of times on social media. Led By Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 ‘Social Purpose Awards’.

In December 2018, two years after the Referendum, four friends were discussing their frustrations with the Brexit situation in the pub. The four founders – Oliver Knowles, Ben Stewart, James Sadri and Will Rose all have a connection with environmental campaign group Greenpeace. In the Referendum, they had all voted ‘remain’. They were laughing in disbelief as they passed a phone around displaying a David Cameron tweet from 2015, saying Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.

While brainstorming how the tweet could be preserved, one of them noticed a billboard outside. They decided to print it out and paste it up. Each of them then chose a pro-Brexit politician they despised the most and looked for their ‘most offensive lies, lunacy and hypocrisy’ to go on billboards too.

Rose designed the posters, whilst Sadri came up with Lions led by donkeys, a phrase referring to soldiers in WWI who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. They thought it described the relationship between the British people and their Brexit leaders well.

Rose shortened it to #LedByDonkeys. The activists bought a ladder, high-visibility jackets to look legitimate, a bucket, a roller and wallpaper paste, and late at night on 8 January 2019 they illegally plastered the David Cameron tweet over an existing advert on a billboard. They posted a photo of the billboard to their new Twitter account and asked The Guardian journalist Marina Hyde to retweet it – resulting in #LedByDonkeys trending. Within a day their billboard poster was removed.

The group then illegally pasted the other four original tweets on billboards around London, aiming to spark a discussion about the promises of leading Brexiteers. They chose Dover, a pro-Brexit constituency, as their next location. They selected four additional historical Brexiteer statements, among which was Dominic Raab’s 2018 statement I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this but … we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

On 16 January 2019, they tweeted photos of the four Dover billboards, along with the message A busy night on the Brexit frontline. We’ve covered Dover in the historic quotes of the people responsible for this chaos. Britain is a nation #LedByDonkeys. This was the moment when they went viral. The next day all four posters were removed by the billboard company.

The activists deplored the tribalism triggered by Brexit and agreed that going national was needed. Their followers suggested that they set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to legitimately fund billboards. Initially the group resisted this, believing that their acts being illegal was an important part of the activism of the project.

They also feared they would have to give up their anonymity, but crowdfunder.co.uk confirmed they could stay anonymous, and set a fundraising target of £10k. It was reached within three hours. By November the group had raised £500k and became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history.

But their campaign of holding pro-Brexit politicians accountable for past promises and exposing their flipflopping views did not achieve their goal. The pro-Brexit parties won the majority of seats in the General Election, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. That day, Led By Donkeys projected a video message to the EU on the White Cliffs of Dover featuring WWII veterans expressing sadness about leaving the EU and hope that one day Britain will be together with Europe again. The video of the projection was seen a million times on Brexit Day. Follow this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1_zs2ezzvpiR26ZiEqj4l9PsX55PalHj5

As a startup, Led By Donkeys made its mark. The creative thinking was brilliant in its meditative simplicity, the campaign was witty and subversive. In just twelve months, four blokes armed with a £90 ladder from B&Q, four hi-vis jackets and a bucket of wallpaper paste reached over 300 billboards and an audience of 30 million – what are the lessons for other startup ventures?

1.     Have a purpose

Britain voted ‘leave’ in June 2016, since when the UK political system has been in turmoil. Like many others, four everyday blokes had a chat about it in the pub, but rather than just getting angry, they decided to do something about it.

Politicians had either been liberal with the truth or changed their minds so much that it was difficult to know where they stood. They aimed to fill the void that had opened up in the usually balanced UK political landscape. It was missing a nugget of truth and a splash of British humour.

2.     Know your strategy

The idea was simple: uncover the truth, in the format of a Tweet you can’t delete. Going though the social feeds, interviews and articles of Brexit-supporting politicians’ to reveal their claims about Brexit in the past and contrast them with the stark reality we found ourselves in. These would be displayed publicly across the UK, focusing on pro-Brexit areas.

Led By Donkeys opted for a humble screengrab as their design of choice. These were displayed loud and proud on billboards, poster sites and digital advertising vans, plus later in the campaign, took projections to key locations across Europe including Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Glastonbury Festival and the EU Parliament itself in Brussels.

3.     Be clear in your tactics and agile on timing

Led By Donkeys gave people a voice when they needed it most. They responded to events on a daily basis, consistently picking up the Leave protagonists with killer timing and wit, all of which galvanised their supporters and strengthened their reach, which in turn drove funding into their Crowdfunder cause.

Key locations around the country were identified: where Brexit tensions were at their highest, political leaders were based or key Brexit events were taking place. Meanwhile, at the People’s March in central London, their massive banner became the defining image, making headlines worldwide. When the Brexit Party announced their intention to stand in the European elections without a published manifesto, the quartet dutifully obliged by pasting previous political statements on billboards across the UK.

As campaigners, they developed objectives and a critical pathway and a tactics to meet those objectives. They injected passion and edge into the national conversation, even if they admitted that the viscosity of their wallpaper paste was way off at times. The campaign was challenging, thought-provoking, timing and speed was of the essence. They hit the mark every single day.

4.     Focus on intelligent thinking to shape your content

They brought the Greenpeace ethos of the mindbomb of campaigning, where one single picture can shift people’s perceptions. Humour played a key part too, making fun of politicians broke through the partisan atmosphere.

They not only made fun of Brexiteers, they also ridiculed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his ambivalent stance on Brexit with an empty billboard. They left three cans of spray paint and a stepladder by the poster as an encouragement for passers-by to write their own comments. They also worked with artist Cold War Steve to collaborate on a billboard site at the Glastonbury Festival.

When the EU were considering giving the UK an extension to the original deadline of 29 March 2019, Led By Donkeys used a giant projector to display a video on the White Cliffs of Dover. Their goal was to ask the EU leaders for much more time, so that there could be a second referendum. The video displayed an SOS in blue, with the ‘O’ made up of yellow stars, to mimic the EU flag. EU leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted back the next day that it was “quite something to see the White Cliffs of Dover turn blue”.

In the final week before the General Election, they crowdfunded £250k within 24 hours to run anti-Brexit ads on Facebook. Three ads were each viewed more than one million times. The group organised the carving of a giant message on a Devon beach, with six doctors and nurses writing You can’t trust Boris Johnson with our NHS. GPS technology was used to draw the outlines of the letters and Johnson. The NHS staff filled it in.

5.     Adopt multi-channel communication

Led By Donkeys became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history, enabling it to have a huge impact in the crowded Brexit narrative.

  • 340,000 followers in total on social media. They follow no one.
  • Reach of 3m on Twitter, with over 1.5m retweets and 3m likes
  • Viewed over 2m times on YouTube
  • The physical poster sites have reached 30 million people.
  • Staggering editorial media reach of 1,400,000,000.

Their provocative marketing campaign flew in the face of modern media trends, using traditional ‘paper and paste’ billboards for illicit messaging, not fast-turnaround, digital screens. There is a trinity of outdoor imagery, online sharing and public interaction in local communities that was at the heart of their approach. Creating political street theatre up and down the country allowed them to hack the local and regional media and to get a conversation going on local community Facebook groups.

Led By Donkeys eschewed the civil disobedience-style approach of Extinction Rebellion but believed strongly in the value of participation to counter apathy and dejection. Their multi-channel communication approach ensured their reach, broadcast and social media footprint resonated with both original and user generated content.

It had its faults, but the EU was a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. That’s over, and for now the domestic agenda is English nationalism, set by Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet of mocking grins, whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back from Led Donkeys.

They have vowed to continue their campaign to secure honest, democratic communication from our politicians. Make sure your startup adopts the vision, passion, strategy and tactics of Led By Donkeys, and who knows you’ll make your own mark too in under 12 months.

‘Dream of painting, then paint your dream’ – inspiration for entrepreneurs from Van Gogh

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagined 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 artistic 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.

Van Gogh never thought 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 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 entrepreneurs who we admire – 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 your entrepreneurial dream? Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

Lessons on personal branding from Ricky Gervais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic noise, pressure of the event and the audience reaction at the Golden Globes, Gervais kept a clear head. In the heat of the moment, he cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus on his performance, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks when the game action is paused. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. You can see in Gervais’ performances he too uses this technique, pausing to enjoy the audience reaction and to reground himself, reaffirming his personal brand persona.

Keep moving forward Like Gervais, entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, but also reinvention. Anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill. Reinvention is key, applying learning and a focus on the next gig.

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

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

Give your 2020 tech startup vision a higher purpose

Well, we’re a few days into a new decade. Now the 2020s begin, but to be honest, I’m still bewildered and concussed by the political and cultural blast waves that detonated throughout the final years of the last decade to give much thought to the next ten years that stand before us.

I’m now living in the seventh decade of my life. Moments like these make you stand still, not lamenting or wishing for time-travel back to those yearned-for days of past as this really is little more than nostalgic comfort food. No, it’s about thinking about what I’m going to do to shape my future in the next decade. Looking back ten years to 2010, it is difficult to understand how we got from there to here, but it is easy to see why we are punch-drunk.

Only yesterday, Facebook was just a way of tracking down old friends, rather than an existential threat to our liberal democracy. Only yesterday the prospect of Scottish independence seemed unlikely. Only yesterday we would have dismissed the idea that foodbanks, homelessness and poverty were deep fault lines in a civilised society. When a true retrospective of the third decade of C21st is written, I hope the dystopian future I fear never materialised.

At the beginning of the last decade, the 2010 Nobel physics prize was awarded to University of Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a material made of a single lattice layer of carbon atoms that had remarkable abilities to transmit heat and electricity while also being extremely strong. Ten years on, nothing much has emerged from graphene, but we continue to rely upon tech to offer a vision of a brighter future.

Tech doesn’t always deliver, but recall that a little over 50 years ago we were just putting a man on the moon, and in 2020 we can instantly stream a personalised gallery of TV shows, so can tech help create and sustain a bright new decade? As the 2020s dawn, for me, optimism is in short supply.

The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together and hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy.

Similarly the Internet. The architecture of the Internet is about choice, that’s where the resilience and ubiquity comes from. On the other hand, the business of the Internet is about monopolies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google. FAAMG – the acronym for the big five tech companies coined by Goldman Sachs, are bringing sociocultural evolution at scale and at full speed with such significant network effects that they are creating infinite financial returns for their investors.

Like you, I love and use this tech (not Facebook, due to lack of trust), we voluntarily choose to engage because it’s better, cheaper, faster than doing it somewhere else – but also because they are now part of our ‘normal life’. But then, I think abut my privacy and cynicism kicks in and suddenly, the monopoly isn’t about serving us, it’s about how innovative tech startups have turned into corporations serving their investors.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we were told back in 2010 that the web and social media had brought us to the threshold of a new and almost utopian society. The technology available to all democratised society. In reality, this delusional optimism in which the democratising potential of tech driven social media was to be empirically disappointing.

Going back a decade, the hit movie of 2010 was Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, which dramatised the relationships between the founders of Facebook. What in 2010 seemed like a dark take on a new tech and social phenomenon now feels like a prescient foreshadowing of a decade that was to come – a decade that ended with Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg called to appear before a Congressional committee to defend his company’s behaviour and practices.

Investors move and energise today’s tech, and what capitalism values, our world does more of. In the last decade tech has become an integral part of what we might call a ‘normal life’, but is this true? Now, no matter where we stand on the socioeconomic ladder, the future of the ‘normal life’ doesn’t look so certain. In the developed world our current form of capitalism is failing to produce an increasing standard of living for most of its citizens. It’s time for an upgrade.

Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism – and thus tech investment – has to be made to serve human ends and goals. We could create an entirely new parallel economy around social good driven by tech. Most of the entrepreneurs and technologists I know are champing at the bit to work on our problems. We can harness the country’s ingenuity and energy to improve millions of lives with tech.

We’re in a slow-moving crisis that is about to speed up. Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about our ability to hold this debate, and come up with honest answers. Yet there is something reassuring about this, a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all, and history still argues, on the whole, for optimism.

Don’t get me wrong, the digital transformation since 2010 has helped improve our lives, whilst also creating a darker, sinister side, but on balance calls for the deployment of more technology, not less. So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment. To be alive in the tech-rich 2020s is probably to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.

The search for new opportunities and ideas is at the heart of human progress, but what is the best way to carry out that search with the help of tech? The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on tech innovation in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.

The question becomes what matters to us beyond money, and how can tech help us achieve this? How can we change tech so that it focuses on what humans really want and not the needs from capitalism – for the many, not the few.

Doing this decade retrospective, there is one key issue that stood out for me: data. This was the decade when we became obsessed with taking 10,000 steps a day. According to science, the health benefits are moot but that didn’t stop firms like Fitbit and Garmin coaxing us into wearing fitness trackers packed with accelerometers and sensors. These data-harvesting devices track our locations, our heart rates, our sleeping patterns and our exercise habits. Who gets the most use from this torrent of data – individuals or the tech companies – is debatable.

What was the best tech invention of the decade? For me it has to be the Amazon Echo ‘smart’ speaker, although I’m torn with cynicism again because it represented the moment when tech finally broke through the last barrier protecting our privacy – our homes. Alexa exploited our fatal attraction to convenience, and what data insights it provides to Amazon.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry, at the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, and internet giants are becoming the new banks.

So we enter the 2020s free from any delusions about tech and social media. Concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before – the blight of industrialisation was decried in the C19th by Luddites, Romantics and Socialists, who worried about the displacement of skilled artisans, the spoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.

Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Tech unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety, when its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several emerging technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of pessimism.

However, maybe my pessimism is overdone. I’ve spent the last two weeks immersed in books, benedictine and time away from my screens, and become unduly sceptical. After all, worries about screen time should be weighed against the substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible.

On the doorstep of a new decade, humanity is simultaneously continuing history’s greatest technological evolution and in the throes of grave social and ecological crises. As the climate and environmental crisis accelerates and population inequality rises, it has also never been more clear just how much the world’s wellbeing will depend upon the decisions of tech entrepreneurs.

Will we harness tech for benevolent ends, prioritising investment in sustainability and social good? Or will we chase the quickest financial gain, opting for the pursuit of breakneck growth over righting the ship?

If tech is to help fix the world, it must first halt a worrying trend – blitzscaling. The aim of this strategy is not to drive innovation or develop impactful new technologies but to sell the next round of investors on an impressive growth rate, thereby increasing the company valuation and making the existing investors richer. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The increasingly evident dangers of ‘hypergrowth equals valuation markup’ philosophy surely means the startup innovation ecosystem has to reject it, upstart entrepreneurs should not hop on the bandwagon, and instead focus on impactful socially responsible innovation.

There has never been a better time for tech entrepreneurs and investors to make a huge impact, with a moral imperative to empower businesses that can have a positive impact on humanity. We must start funding and supporting more entrepreneurs building solutions to problems like poverty, affordable healthcare, mental health and wellbeing, climate change, and deliver sustainable development goals.

These ‘impact startups’ can generate economic opportunity and returns, but if we realign the innovation focus around building companies with a positive social impact, and not just focus on near term financial gains, the better. So start a fire, enthral an audience, begin a movement, seize an opportunity, redefine the rules and shape our future. The more you understand of the world the better you can answer its challenges and how your tech idea can make a contribution.

We are all to some extent culpable for this misalignment of the innovation startup ecosystem, complicit in building and reinforcing the current environment. I know my own organisation can do more to inspire and empower entrepreneurs building impactful businesses, and in 2020 we will. I hope others will choose to do the same. It’s a balance of pessimism versus progress, but when we focus exclusively on profitability, tech loses its humanity.

As a startup founder, your future is unwritten

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

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 17 years ago yesterday, December 22, 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

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

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

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

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

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

In 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released, featuring previously unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This was the last time we heard from Joe Strummer.

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

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

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

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

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

So, how to remember Joe Strummer, as the seventeenth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician into our startup business thinking?

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

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

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

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons for startups from the craft gin innovators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

·     Exploring the ethical ramifications of their choices.

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

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

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

·     Tangible transparency: brands that share consumers values and beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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