Beat the odds: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.

School reunions are funny things, you quickly rewind back to when you were 18 and awkward and gangly and clumsy, not that I’ve changed that much since then anyway. However, my recent reunion was really quite poignant, former teachers who had such an influencing and formative impact on me are now of an age that each year fewer of them remain alive or are well enough to attend.

My most recent reunion saw the absence of Mr Evans, my former maths teacher. I did three ‘A’ levels at maths, I saw as much of him almost as my mum and dad in those two years. He was my John Keating, the Robin Williams character from Dead Poets Society. Not quite the O Captain, My Captain moment from the Walt Whitman poem, but Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.

I still remember the main school entrance and the huge columns by the door, wooden floors and marble fireplaces in the classrooms. The grounds were amazing, with over ten rugby pitches, lots of trees and rhododendrons all over the place. Seem to recall secret snogging and not so secret scrapping went on in the garden areas.

As far as schoolwork was concerned I was unexceptional until I completed my ‘O’ levels, then Boom! Learning became a serious business. I ditched the foreign languages – declining nouns and adjectives and conjugating verbs. English had been fine, I enjoyed the class time reading, Jerome K Jerome Three Men in a Boat has stuck with me forever, but French was bewildering, you had to make strange noises I’d never heard before and twist your mouth into a new shapes.

History? What’s the point? Why was I being told King Alfred burned the cakes? Why, if he was king, was he doing the cooking for goodness sake?. Worst of all was Scripture. It actually frightened me. It seemed to be filled with random politeness. Thou shalt no covert thy neighbour’s ox. Are you joking?

I was able to do long division in my head, a four-digit number dividend by a three-digit number was easy, I could see the expansion of quadratic equations and calculus? It was made in heaven. I enjoyed the need to be able to learn and reproduce mathematical proofs, Fibonacci, Pascal’s triangle, probability and Archimedes.

I recall one late, Friday afternoon in December, 1980. The lesson was about Pythagorean theorem and Euclid’s proof. The homework was come prepared to stand up in front of the class and write the proof on the blackboard. But no, I’d been distracted and not done it.

True to form, he walked into the classroom, threw the chalk casually over to me and asked me to parade my knowledge on Pythagoras, and sat down with his back to the blackboard. Silence. No hurried scuffing of chalk on said blackboard as I unpacked my thinking. Within twenty seconds he knew I hadn’t done the work. Tumbleweed passed gently through the room.

And then something magical happened: Brookes, if you care to go to the bookcase on the far wall, second shelf up, take the sixth book from the left, the one with the red cover, and turn to page 134, the fourth paragraph onwards will help you. So off I went, found the book as described and there, page 134, was a perfect recount of Euclid’s Proof.

I stood there and copied out the proof onto the blackboard. It was one of the most stressful episodes in my life since my journey in my mother’s birth canal. To this date, I still carry round a scruffy bit of paper, now fading and in tatters, with the Euclid’s proof. But it was the moment the appetite for learning, curiosity and being mentally agile was borne in me, that day has lived with me ever since. Evans’s passion for knowledge, knowing where the book was, the shelf, the page, the paragraph was inspirational.

So I left school with a head full of numbers, and there is one further learning from school that has really stuck in my mind that involves maths, but is history really. During the English Civil War, Cromwell’s own troops often fell out amongst themselves, and they were never more troublesome than on 15 December 1647, at the first rendezvous of the New Model Army where there was a mutiny leading to the formation of the Levellers.

Now, like any leader facing a mutiny, Cromwell was in a difficult situation. Cromwell’s answer was to arrest and try the ringleaders in a hastily convened court martial and then let fate play a role. There were three identified instigators, and each was summarily convicted and sentenced to death.

Cromwell needed to make only one example, so he made the three men play a deadly game. Each in turn threw dice to see who would live and who would die. The lowest score fell to Private Richard Arnold. He was shot on the spot.

What an outcome from the roll of the dice! Whilst the situation wasn’t one in which he had much time to consider the probability of certain scores, I’ve always wished I was there in a Blackadder sort of way, as surely it would have been helpful for Private Arnold to know the odds of success or otherwise as he stepped up to throw the dice in the ultimate game of chance? I could have told him his chances as he held the dice, and his life, in his hands.

We don’t know Private Arnold’s score, but seven (17%) is the most common combined result when you roll two dice, and two and twelve (3%) are the least probable, and you will likely roll a pair of doubles one out of every six rolls. I suspect Private Arnold rolled the dice and hoped for the best.

Some startup owners just roll the dice and hope for the best too, not evaluating risk or assessing uncertainty, they simply ignore the odds. Decisions are either made at random, or left to chance. Often they get the same outcome as Private Arnold.

What are the odds that your new idea will succeed? If it does, what will the returns be? One of the challenges in startups is that we simply don’t know, which means that if we want to innovate successfully, you not only have to deal with uncertainty, you must seek it out. We can’t use not knowing as an excuse to not act – because we never know.

Although luck is involved and factors into the outcome, strategy plays a more important role in the long-term managing the odds from the roll of the dice. In a changing world, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. So take calculated risks, be a wizard of odds. That is quite different from being rash and just rolling the dice and leaving everything left to chance.

Having a head full of numbers means I’ve always toyed with probability, and startup life is about making a choice between things that are within your control versus the things that you feel are outside your control, and those things that just happen, against the odds. Everyone knows that launching and living in a start-up is risky, but few appreciate just how the odds of success are stacked against you, so how do you increase the odds of your start-up success? Here are a few thoughts.

Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured spectacles, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs, being positive on the upsides and ignoring the downsides. To convert your passion into a tangible business, emphasise a business strategy that makes financial sense based on a compelling story, covering how the elements of your business will come together. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions – the numbers fall out from this.

Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an essential ingredient, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market with customers. To turn your passion into a viable business, always think about your business from the customer’s perspective. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

Develop an MVP A core component in a start-up journey is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, you can work on tuning the engine. Use your MVP as a process for engaging customers in dialogue, focus on conversations not revenue. Work on continually improving the fit between your big idea and the marketplace, and individual customers.

Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ and ‘What if?’ mind-set, and map out alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in getting to a ‘business as usual’ model. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 20,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus at all times on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

You can’t beat the odds. The ability to scale a start-up is about many factors. The are many challenges. Individually, they may seem manageable, but collectively, they represent a test for any startup business model.

For example, suppose you identify five key risks, and you think you’ve eliminated 90% of the risk in each category. You might take comfort that any one of these risk factors presents just a 10% chance of adversity, however, the probability of surviving all five risk factors is 59%.

Surprising, isn’t it, five factors, each mitigated by 90%, but an outcome of just 60% of success? Just a notch above 50:50. However, if there are another five key risk factors, again each mitigated by 90%, then the chance of success is just 35%.

The stark insight here is that a start-up that is good at managing individual risks has a marginal chance of survival. The probability shows the underlying challenge. The odds are stacked heavily against a start-up, which is why the rate of failure is startlingly high – 75% according to some surveys.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about. You can research and the process of planning is important, but in the end you have to work from your instinct and be fearless. When you’re feeling the apprehension of it on the horizon, that will help you manage the ambiguity of an unknown future and forge ahead in confidence.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of a future lies in a present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to start questioning the status quo of all things and take a risk to see your dream into reality.  Security is mostly superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The very nature of startup life is uncertainty. Sometimes we fail, other times we succeed, but there is evolution in continuing to go forward. Don’t settle for a false sense of security by shrinking from the right risks. Live bold and have a daring adventure every day: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.Beat the odds: buckle up, start up, keep it up, don’t give up, cheer up.

Entrepreneurial creativity: find something only you can say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common sense is the genius of humanity: the voice of Jason Fried

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a web applications company based in Chicago, has a philosophy to startup tech that is clear, articulate and makes complete sense. Fried pushes back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as fundamentally flawed.

Why do we often refer to the pace of our workplace as ‘crazy’? I hear this all the time when talking with startups, the need for 12+ hour days, working into the early hours two nights a week, and over weekends too. While this has been accepted as the ‘new normal’ in many tech startup workplaces, Fried’s approach is to simply turn this on its head and debunk the myth.

And it’s not just what he says as a spectator, commentating from outside in. To stereotype Fried as just another dreamer would be a mistake. Fried’s company not only has millions of users for its products such as Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, and Backpack, but it has been profitable from day one, and chased customers, not investors – it remains privately funded by the founders.

Basecamp was founded as 37signals in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim as a web design company. David Hansson joined later, and was instrumental in developing the open source web application framework, Ruby on Rails.

The company was originally named after the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. There are apparently billions of signals and sources of noise in space, but, according to Horowitz, there are 37 signals that remain unexplained.

Fried’s story is a personal entrepreneurial journey of creating answers to problems he had, then scaling the solutions into products to sell.  His first product came from the early days of having an AOL account and dial up modem. He was looking for software to organise his personal music collection, didn’t find anything that appealed, so set out to make his own.

He found FileMaker Pro, then made a music-organising database for himself, designing his own graphical interfaces around the standard database elements. He called it ‘Audiofile’ and uploading it to AOL, he asked people to pay $20 if they liked it – and they did!

And that was how Fried’s software startup journey started, the last twenty years have been based on that experience, and today Basecamp is the same thing – the team make products for themselves that they sell to other people. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems they have!

So, looking at Fried’s blogs, published on https://m.signalvnoise.com/ and https://medium.com/@jasonfried, and his books Rework, Remote, Getting Real – and the forthcoming It doesn’t have to be crazy at work – what are the key takeaways from Fried’s philosophies? Here are some thoughts, based around his own words.

1.     Be a calm company

For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their normal. At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing workdays into a series of fleeting work moments, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.

It is no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers.

The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Tuesday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.

Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis – an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth – is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way

So build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that lead to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement.

No hair on fire. Build calm. As a tech company you’re supposed to be playing the hustle game. But Fried has Basecamp working at 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour, four-day weeks in the summer. The workplace is more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen.

Basecamp focus on doing just a few things. It seems everyone else is trying to do new and innovative stuff. They are more focused on usefulness rather than innovation. We take our inspiration from things like the stapler and paper clip. It might not be as sexy and newsworthy, but it gives us the opportunity to be around for a long period of time.

2.     Love Mondays

It’s actually more Fridays I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it.

Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week has to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, before reality pummels your spirit.

I think the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-type stuff. No digging into the mountain of overdue emails, no ‘just checking in’. Let the weekend be a desert for work and Mondays will seem like an oasis.

Of course, that’s if you actually like what you do and who you do it with. If neither of those things are true, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: Why are neither of those things true? Then take steps to remedy the situation once that question grows old (and before you do).

Turning Mondays into a delight rather than a dread is really all about moderation. Humans are designed for balance. The best recipe is a mix, not a single-ingredient sludge. Take the weekend to enjoy an exclusive plate of not-work, and wake up hungry for Monday’s fresh serving.

3.     Being tired isn’t a badge of honour

Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. Rest be damned, they say , there’s an endless amount of work to do. People pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausted. They’re just too tired to notice that their work has suffered because of it.

I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Scientists suggest that your ability to think declines on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.

And there’s more to not getting enough sleep than compromising your own health and creativity. It affects the people around you. When you’re short on sleep, you’re short on patience, less tolerant, less understanding. It’s harder to relate and to pay attention for sustained periods of time.

If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify sustained lack of sleep? The only people who try to do so are tired and not thinking straight.

One argument I hear a lot about working long hours is that when you’re just getting started, you have to give it everything you’ve got. I understand that feeling. And there’s certainly some truth to it. Yes, sometimes emergencies require extra hours and you need to make an extra push. That happens. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary. Such cases should be the exception, not the rule.

But people don’t stop working that way. We’re creatures of habit. The things you do when you start doing something tend to be the things you continue to do. If you work long hours at the beginning, and that’s all you know, you can easily condition yourself to think this is the only way to operate. I’ve seen so many entrepreneurs burn out following this pattern.

So it’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better, and be a better person. Sleep is great for creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?

In the long run, work is not more important than sleep. If you aren’t sure how important sleep is, think about this: You’ll die faster without sleep than you will without food. And, on balance, very few problems need to be solved at the 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning.

4.     Give it five minutes

You don’t have to be first or loudest with an opinion – as if being first means something. Wanting to be the first and loudest voice really means you are not thinking hard enough about the problem. The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.

Man, give it five minutes. It’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give ideas some time to set in. ‘Five minutes’ represents ‘think, not react’. Come into a discussion looking to learn, not prove something. There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions, to learn.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. Dismissing other people’s ideas is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is think about it, let it marinate, explore it, mull it over, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.

So next time you hear something, or someone, talk, pitch or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or won’t work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.

So, four interesting perspectives from Fried that run counter to the hullabaloo we see in tech startup mantra on the street.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple – here’s a beautiful way to put it: leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfillment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, with intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph. I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow incredibly slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

I’ve not always been able to run myself by Fried’s philosophies, but for the last decade his common sense, people-centric, purpose and principles lead approach has been my yardstick. Go on, give it a go yourself.

Tips for startup founders: those tricky moments in investor meetings

One of the lasting insights I’ve learned helping startup founders is you need to anticipate the hardest questions you could be asked by a potential investor, before going into a fund raising round.

There’s lots of advice about what make a great pitch deck, what startup customer metrics you need to hold in your head, and how you need to explain your cash burn rate and runway. However, they are simply obvious things, what about the killer, more subtle questions, the ones that could make you stumble or your less confident of your response?

While it’s impossible to control a meeting’s outcome, thoughtful preparation gives you the best shot at making your conversation memorable. Smart people ask smart questions, so be prepared, and fundraising is widely known as a significant learning curve for founders.

Sometimes tough question appear innocuous, others get your heart pumping and mouths stuttering. Knowing how to improvise and being able to think on your feet is a skill that includes the ability to give impromptu remarks, as well as to answer unexpected questions well.

Investors ask pointed questions to obtain information, but there are other reasons behind them. What they really want, in many cases, is to get a feel for your attitude towards a certain subject, and how calm, confident, and trustworthy you seem.

The number of potential questions you might be asked is infinite and context-specific such that it’s not possible to learn a scripted response. However, it is possible to hone your improvisation skills by learning methods to give structured answers, no matter what you’re asked.

The best tactic is planning and preparation for the off-beat, alternative question, assume the pitch meeting is not going to be a breeze, and then, in the heat of the moment, you give yourself the opportunity for a thoughtful response, as you literally stop and think.

So the strategy to answering difficult questions has two foundations: possessing knowledge and giving information, and delivering your response in a poised manner.

Firstly, let’s look at the tricky questions. There are many challenging questions you could be asked while fundraising, here are four which have made me think over the years.

1.     Why you?

In essence, an investor is asking What is your Founder-Market-Fit? They want to see you have a compelling and unique insight, and understand what about your thinking is contrarian i.e. why your startup will win.

Founder-market fit is an indicator of a match between the founder and the problem they are going after. What compelled the founder to start the business? Domain insights and experience really matter, investors won’t want to fund accidental founders or pay for you to learn about an industry.

Investors like to back folks who have a proven track record of success, so convincing you’re the right person to lead the team will be the challenge you face. First time founders may have a demonstrable track record as technical experts, but moving to leading the charge from the front is different.

Do you think you’re the best person to lead the company, now and in the long run? – is an emotive and direct on-the-spot question. Are you personally investible?

There will be questions about your judgement and how shrewd you are. For example, if you look back in a year and things haven’t gone as well as expected, what will be the reason? Thinking about why we would fail appears negative, but it’s all about having the foresight to stand back and not be blinded by headstrong thoughts.

2.     What if?….

One of the biggest challenges you get pitching is what I call the ‘Godzilla problem’ – for tech, it’s You could do this, but what if Google decides tomorrow they’re going to launch this?

The truth is it’s a difficult question, because what are you going to say? You can’t sit there and bluff that you have a friend who works at Google who said they’re not going to do it. The investor’s response can then be That may be true right now, but they may change their mind once they see it’s working for you.

There’s no response to that, because if they decide to do it you are toast. With all investors, there is a scale they are looking to see where you’re on between fear and greed – because they are on it too, albeit from the other side of the table. They toggle between I’m really excited about this company, we can make money to It’s not for me, this one thing could happen and they’re finished. 

Don’t attack fear with why they shouldn’t be fearful. You’re almost telling them that their fear is irrational. The wrong answer is ‘that won’t happen’. The best response is along the lines of You know, that may be right. Facebook may come and do that, but this is such a great opportunity that if they don’t, we are going to be in a great place. 

3. How do you stack up against X, how are you going to compete against them?

The context here is that they want to know how you are going to move the needle to a sustainable, 10X advantage. They likely already know who dominates your space, and accept you have potential with your innovation in a ‘David v Goliath play’. What they want to hear is how you think you compare, one-on-one.

First of all, never brush off any competitor as being irrelevant as either too big or complacent, It’s a common, lazy and arrogant position. For many years Microsoft were derided by tech entrepreneurs as a bloated, irrelevant dinosaur – today besides the Office Suite, they own Xbox, the Surface range, LinkedIn, Skype, Azure, Hololens and are leaders in cloud computing.

Recognise every solution, even inferior solutions, as legitimate competitive threats. One approach is to focus the thinking on a particular aspect of problem-solution fit around user experience. Your answer could offer a compelling strategy that neutralises rivals by overcoming or changing key aspects of user behaviour that will give you traction.

4.     Why now?

Timing is everything, and really understanding Why now? for your startup is vital. The startup graveyard is full of examples of things too early or too late to market, yet Uber wasn’t the first to think of on-demand rides, and AirBnB wasn’t the first to let people host visitors in their homes.

When investors are asking Why Now? they are focused on understanding the market opportunity, dynamics, and context – the factors that will make a difference between success or failure. In responding, be confident but not strident. Uber was only launched once – a moment in time where the technology and customer demand aligned to create the conditions for a new startup to flourish.

But don’t take it from me, Bill Gross analysed the biggest factor for startups to succeed and timing was the number one factor, ahead of team, funding, execution, idea, and business model.

So having discussed potential awkward questions, let’s turn to the strategy of managing conversations. When someone aims a tough question our way, the box of frogs goes off in our heads, leaping around in mayhem, impacting our ability to think rationally and offer anything other than a jibberish response.

Rather than giving ourselves a few seconds to collect our thoughts, we tend to grab what’s been said and jump on it, fearing that even a bit of silence will be read as hesitation and uncertainty, so we rush in boldly only to firmly stick our feet in our mouths.

The answer you blurt out on impulse is unlikely to be your best response, and you’ll kick yourself later while mulling over the things you wished you had said. A moment of silence, on the other hand, lends you a thoughtful air, rather than stumbling into a rushed set of words that make you sound as if you are sharing the first thing that came into your head – literally.

In addition to embracing the silent pause, there are other techniques that will buy you extra thinking time. One technique is to get a better question from what has been said, here are some tactics to do this.

1. Ask them to repeat the question

Just as you wish you could retract an answer, people frequently wish they could reword their question with greater clarity. Asking them to repeat the question will often mean the second take is shorter and clearer than the first, and this gives you time to think.

2. Ask for clarification

Another tactic is to respond with a question of your own that seeks to clarify what the questioner is trying to get at. Which product are you referring to? What timeframe do you have in mind? When someone has asked a question which has cornered you, asking them to redefine their terms can turn the tables.

3. Clarify or define a point yourself

Another way to take control of an interaction is to define the question as you see it within your response. For example, why was your pitch to Pearl Investors a failure? It sounds emotive and direct, but you can turn this round to If by failure, you mean that nothing good came out of it, then I don’t think it was. We didn’t connect on this round, but we established a relationship and they’re open to future investment.

4. ‘Discuss’ the question.

Sometimes it seems investors are seeking a specific answer to a question, when really they just want to have their question discussed. There really isn’t a single answer to give. They want to hear both sides of an idea, or to know that you’ve been thinking about it too.

So for example, your response to the question how sustainable is your pricing strategy? maybe along the lines of that’s a question we’ve asked ourselves, our thoughts are that we can sustain a 10% differential for at least 12 months – given your experience, what are your thoughts?

The key with these hedging strategies is delivery. Hesitating and acting sheepish will render them wholly ineffective. Demonstrating confidence lends you the air of strength.

Remember, when people ask questions, they’re not just looking for answers; they want to get a sense for what you’re like and how you handle pressure. The art of improvisation requires knowing how to respond in varying circumstances. Of course, sometimes the best way to answer a difficult question is to give a totally straightforward answer. This forthrightness can be refreshing and disarming.

In summary, investors will ask tough questions. In fact, it’s a good way to qualify them to see if they are serious and know what they are doing. You are not expected to have all the answers investors would like to hear, but you are expected to have anticipated some questions and not be dismissive, or worse, make the answers up.

The critical thing is connecting with your audience. People listen when they’re engaged. It’s about the nuts and bolts of your delivery, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. The anatomy of being memorable has almost nothing to do with your content, it’s all about whether you related to your audience on an emotional level. So it’s important to bust your own biases. Investors are simply asking ‘Make me believe by showing me you know what you’re talking about’.

There’s no room for ego driven Machiavellians in your startup team

One of the key drivers of an effective startup is the alignment, collaboration and shared values of the team. There is no room for slackers, know-it-alls, passengers, backstabbers or Machiavellian egos. But what happens when the behaviour of one individual puts themselves and their personal interests above the business and team?

We all know the damage and acrimony they can cause to a team’s morale and reputation, but how do you repair and recover from the destructive action of such an individual? Boris Johnson is a good example of such a renegade. He’s always stood outside from his collective responsibility, even at the top table in Government as Foreign Secretary. With his cultivated air of toffish buffoonery, he was a man out of time and place with C21st team oriented culture.

Last week he saved us further damage from his grotesque incompetence, showing flagrant disregard for cabinet collective responsibility and exposing himself as a self-serving charlatan, making even his resignation a set piece of rhetorical bombast for the British public.

A man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience or scruple, his ambition and superficial charm far outstrip his judgment or principles. Characterised by a calculated appeal his own self-worth, he will always be remembered as the man who made promises on the side of a bus that he had no intention of keeping. The casual dishonesty has had devastating consequences.

His resignation serves as a perfect metaphor for the tragedy and hypocrisy of Brexit, leaving the Government and its strategy up the proverbial creek, a recklessness that looks like courage in the eyes of his supporters, but which destabilises and sabotages the work of policy making and diplomacy.

Johnson has a long-proven record of mendacity, duplicity, dishonesty and careerism – he merely saw another opening in his Ophidian career and took it, never knowingly taking a leap into the abyss. Just as a fragile basis for Brexit negotiation emerges, his selfish drive for attention threatens that.

So how do you counter this sort of behaviour if it was to happen in your startup team? Say your maverick sales leader, always temperamental and prone to doing their own thing and frequently at loggerheads with you, storms out over a spat over pricing on a sizeable deal – the final act of a dysfunctional relationship, claiming a ‘disagreement over strategy’ yet in reality, the intimacy of a startup required more humility and collegiate thinking.

It creates unrest and destabilises the team – just like the Government, a bunch of people who are individually all smart and competent, but somehow as a team just aren’t together. So why is it that things come off the rails? The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure, and identified five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: an individual is unwilling to be vulnerable within the group, and creates a sense of self-imposed isolation from the team
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate, ultimately is not bought into the team based decision making process or outcomes
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation – everyone knows it, but it remains unspoken, thus creating discord and fractured trust
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour, which sets low standards – again, looking to protect their own position and not sit alongside colleagues
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Recognise these traits? So how do you regroup and reunite the team when a rebel causes such a self-destructive explosion? For me, whilst it’s the individuals operating with different mindsets within the team that causes the dysfunctional schisms, the place to start is with results.

Talk to your team about the results that they need to be getting that it isn’t getting, removing discussion about the disruptor, and you develop agreement among the team on the outcomes, which is what a team is all about – working together to achieve something. And then you get to ask the question, what’s happening in our team that prevents us from getting the results that we all believe we need? You need to instigate a transparent dialogue on performance.

So, you start to work backward, and from results you go to the question of behaviours: how are we acting in a way that is preventing us from getting the results we need and the work relationships we need? You start to identify the behaviours that are associated with an ineffective mindset.

Then you work backward one more step, which is to help the team identify how the mindset that they’re operating from is generating these behaviours which is getting them the results different from the results we’ve agreed we all want. So it’s a two or three step process, but it starts with the results.

Leaders are generally better at being transparent than they are curious in terms of looking to address these mindset issues, better at sharing their point of view than expressing curiosity about how other people think about the situation, or what they think about what the point of view is that they’ve just expressed.

The reason that it’s so important to ask questions is that’s the way in which you begin to surface what is on everyone’s minds, helping shape and opening up the new team culture as to what their concerns and motivations are. If you don’t do that, you’re just guessing that what you have in your head about your team is right, and if you plan a strategy based on that, it’s very easy to be off the mark and for your strategy to fail.

Part of being transparent is sharing what you’re thinking, and sharing how you got there, essentially, making your private reasoning public so people can share their reasoning with you and react to yours. Having removed a poisonous ego from the team, don’t replace that ego with yours. Leadership is about helping the team identify where they need to go to next, not imposing your own solution.

Having started an open dialogue to repair the broken culture, you are on the way to reestablishing trust in the organisation. Trust is everything, it is the bedrock when building a high performing startup team. Trust is the knowledge that people can be trusted to do the right thing when things go wrong.

Creating a culture where bravado is absent builds a continuous self-appraisal and peer review of how things are being done, and is a powerful way to increase accountability that will drive performance and trust. As the leader you want to get the balance right – you are taking charge without taking over, giving a sense of purpose. There are some specific actions to accelerate the recovery into your startup, such that the walk out of a big ego is soon forgotten.

1. Set the vision, and establish milestones to achieving the vision As leader, it’s down to you to set the goal for the group. It doesn’t have to be a vision with a capital ‘V’, just paint a picture of what you want to accomplish over the next few years.

You don’t want you’re team saying what the heck are we doing? Where is this leading us? The vision also needs milestones. People want to know how they’re doing in relation to their goal. Milestones let you tell them.

2. Agree on ‘rules of the road’ Basically, how are we going to run his business now we’ve got the bad egg out of the way? Try out new ways of talking and listening, routines and styles. Refresh to remove the old chunky ways of working, put some personal freedom of voices, choices and space into the working environment and set a new rhythm, whilst also focusing on the results everyone has signed up to deliver.

3. Build new structures and processes that enable creative collaboration When attempting to carve new realities, explicitly encourage your startup team to start experimenting again with different thoughts, relationships, and actions in order to learn what happens and what works. The emphasis is less on getting things right the first time and more on being attentive to feedback, adjusting, and trying again. Put learning back into the heart of the business agenda.

4. Think of your work as a craft, not an assembly line Maybe things had got tense and too serious, and the pressure valve opened up as a result of pent up anxiety. In describing China’s transition toward a socialist market economy, former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping used an evocative image of discovering, rather than planning and solidifying everything before starting: We are crossing the river by feeling for stones.

This is a lovely analogy of thinking about progress, so maybe take a step back and refocus more on creativity and innovation than simply ‘getting stuff done’ and scaling.

5. Sense and respond In a startup it’s important to ‘feel the pulse’, being in touch with everyone to have a sense for the hidden and silent things. Schedule regular informal face time with each of your team, don’t underestimate the importance of ‘checking in’. When it doesn’t happen, you can see the team start to gradually drift into their own quiet corners.

In a startup team there is a high degree of flux at any moment in time. There is no paradigm, no precedent, there is nothing. You have to carve it. To carve a new world means to bring forth something new by patiently and gradually working, with a sensitive hands-on connection, with the particular reality in front of you. It means the opposite of imposing a fully formed idea of what you think must be. Don’t lead the metaphorical charge, lead the thinking.

When we collaborate, by sharing ideas we strengthen relationships, joined up thinking creates momentum and a sense of purpose. Working together, we achieve so much more. Losing a Machiavellian personality, no matter how selfish and destructive they are, will cause immediate challenges and uncertainty, but in reality, many like Boris Johnson are energy sappers, not energisers to the team. But you can recover, and move forward.

Everyone matters in a startup. If you’ve got a Boris Johnson in yours, just reflect on their real impact on results, morale and teamship. Read the signals above the noise. Remove the egos. For Boris, what passed for disarming eccentricity was ultimately exposed as cringemaking incompetence. Long ago, it became that the veneer of faux levity and badinage encased no hidden depth in a constant night of the long knives. His ego saw himself in Churchillian terms, whereas for me, I cast him as a character for a remake of Blackadder, in a blond wig.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941 of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your island bookshelf.

10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEOs face in the ‘build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr’s third solo album, Call The Comet, was released last week, with a North American and UK tour, culminating in Manchester on 18 November. It’s a bold and inspiring collection of tunes.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Marr formed The Smiths with the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. Marr gave the signature indie guitar sound to the band, nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold Marr, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described his sound as a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on the all-time classic This Charming Man.

Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F-sharp to accommodate Morrissey’s vocal range, and also used open tunings, and is known for creating sophisticated arpeggio melodies and chord progressions, applying open strings while chording to create chiming.

Call the Comet is easily his best and most confident work as a solo artist, deep and rich both musically and lyrically. It serves as a true testament to the idea that Marr has plenty to offer musically at this stage of his career, it clearly showcases his ever-present vitality with melody, or that gorgeous, liquid guitar playing.

Call the Comet carries songs that embody both Marr’s humaneness and his musicality, as the proud singer of expansive songs, which proclaim a more positive vision. Rather than wallow in the mire of the now, Marr dreams of a better tomorrow.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, and on his three solo albums to date, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those with melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks, none more so than There is a Light That Never Goes Out.

By the time Marr departed The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar.

He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups. All roads lead back to Johnny Marr, arguably Britain’s greatest guitar stylist.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? The same question can be asked of entrepreneurs, what gives them that edge, that spark of extraordinariness?

It’s not down to talent, yes there is a base level of skills, but fundamentally research shows it’s down to hard work and practice. Successful sports men and women have long understood the value of time and practice in improving their skills to uplift performance, and thus the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

But this is a process. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking was reinforced by groundbreaking research in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – deliberate practice. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough.

Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentless focus and inventing new ways to improve, rooting out shortfalls. Results are the grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up.

As an entrepreneur, do you do this, reflect and seek to improve, or simply rely on energy, relentless effort and your natural life force? Imagine if you combine your motivation to do stuff whilst also focus on improving your skills? The research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

You have to do the same thing again and again and again to wire it into long-term muscle memory. Do you practice your sales skills, or do you just keep making the same mistakes? It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike.

Ericsson studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

Ericsson concluded that whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information. The best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket, or you pouring over your presentation deck. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, embracing feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s statement genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealing that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Olympian Matthew Syed picks up on this in his book Bounce, and argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in your field. Those that start their pursuit early have a head start and an advantage, plenty of time to bank those 10,000 hours.

Ericsson showed this in a study at the Academy of Music in Berlin on three groups of violinists. The first group had star pupils, the second good students and the third students who would probably never play professionally. The groups had all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.

However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours.

The journey to truly superior performance – music, sport or business – is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.

So let’s look at the lessons to be shared from the research into the context of a startup founder, what are the common attributes, behaviours and qualities we can take from the research to help you become a high performing entrepreneur?

Discipline For entrepreneurs, to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, is discipline to focus and not deviate. The game plan is simply consistency. Having the idea is one thing, having the discipline to make it happen is what matters most. Creating a repeatable, scalable sales process takes a startup into a business. Practice and develop your customer facing skills.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo; entrepreneurs have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from customers. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead. Practice clear thinking.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers. Practice reflective thinking.

Patience Patience is as important as the ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush to talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, and attack it with great precision. Practice means preparation, not going off instinct and spontaneous action every time.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they make the most of 30-second breaks when the game stops. During those brief seconds, they 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. Practice grounding yourself, adrenalin gets you to the table, clam thinking closes the deal.

Many entrepreneurs say they enjoy the frantic nature of the day, it’s non-stop and you have to work fifteen hours. Nonsense. They are simply allowing themselves to get caught up in the heat of the moment and are missing opportunities for learning by not pausing for reflection.

As a result, they leave too much stuff to chance. Pausing to collect your thoughts will create habits and the ability to sense, anticipate and overcome those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions. You create the conditions for more success by practicing your craft. Johnny Marr just doesn’t turn up for a gig on the night, there is a sound check.

Many of the greatest entrepreneurs’ success are a result of constant effort for improvement, testing and refining – their own version of deliberate practice. For example, James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. Thomas Edison captured it in his quote I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Deliberate practice is a mindset. For entrepreneurs, the goal is to practice and learn at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to getting familiar with his new tunes and seeing Johnny Marr in November, enjoying the results from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, an innovator, a musical entrepreneur. As Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Johnny Marr. The light that never goes out.

Iceland show the traits of a startup in a David v Goliath situation

We’re into the 2018 World Cup, thirty-two national football teams in Russia, including Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify, with a population of just 330,000. Every team will play a minimum of three games in the group stages before the top sixteen advances to the knockout competition.

There have been twenty World Cups since the tournament’s founding in 1930 with just eight countries sharing the victories, all either Latin American or Western European. This is not surprising given the popularity of the sport in these regions and the level of league competition that nurtures the talent pool.

On Saturday it was Argentina 1-1 Iceland: Lionel Messi missed from 12 yards as the Vikings held out in Moscow. The eighth-largest country on earth were held to a draw by the World Cup debutants. Iceland were as you’d expect; resolute, organised, brave and direct. It wasn’t complicated but it was effective enough, the onus on Argentina to make something happen, while throwing every hulking body they had in front of the ball.

The most famous of those bodies is now that of Hannes Halldorsson, the goalkeeper who guessed right and palmed away Messi’s penalty. From that moment on, another 35 minutes of backs-to-the-wall torture, Iceland held out. Finnbogason made history with Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal. Argentina had 78% possession.

Iceland caught the imagination by being a team built like the volcanic rock from whence they came, fully-formed as they emerged from the magma. Their football was unfussy, they fought hard. It doesn’t always win games but it rarely fails to win hearts and minds to see a small nation, disadvantaged against far greater adversaries, punch above their weight.

Most tournaments produce a surprise and trauma for the big teams – Iceland beating Portugal and England at the 2016 European Championships – which shows that population and money are not the only ingredients for success.  Iceland is punching way above its weight on the international football stage and has already defied the odds just by being in Russia.

Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson has shown that it is possible to rise up from humble beginnings to achieve a truly audacious dream. The chasm between the haves and have-nots is not too wide to cross with the right strategy and mindset. Underdogs can still win, as they always have won, by committing to overcoming adversity and pursuing a goal with passion, courage, grit and humility. These traits have defined the underdog’s journey since time began, and will continue to pave the path for every dreamer.

Entrepreneurs perpetually play the role of David against established Goliath firms, and, just like their biblical counterpart, defeat their larger entity by outwitting, outmaneuvering, and out-imagining them. The business lesson is this: when underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win. Don’t think of a plucky underdog that got lucky, rather Instead, think of a confident, determined competitor who is more than happy to be underestimated, and used it’s own unique capabilities to win.

The story of David and Goliath is a tale of how a little shepherd boy defeated a famous fully armed giant warrior. I often use this story as a source of inspiration for startups to give them insight and belief as how they can overcome the odds against larger rivals.

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Old Testament is the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, challenged the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. But Saul and the Israelites were afraid.

David hears that Saul has promised to reward any man who defeats Goliath, and accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his amour; David declines, dressed in his simple tunic, carrying his shepherd’s staff, sling, and a pouch of five stones. David and Goliath confront each other.

The giant cursed him, hurling threats and insults. Goliath with his armour and shield, David with his staff and sling. David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might, and hits Goliath in the centre of his forehead. Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David cuts off his head.

Like David, entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to operate as insurgents because they’re more willing to take risks, more alert and agile, and challenge the conventions about how commercial battles are fought.

So what’s the strategic mindset of a ‘David’ as a startup?  Take a look at the story again. The lesson isn’t simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might win by chance. Sometimes the key to success is obscured by our own misconceptions. See the situation more clearly from David’s vantage point, what can he use to his advantage? Don’t take the battle on their terms, create the conditions where you have an unfair advantage on your terms, reframe the debate.

But look at the research. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft researched every war fought in the past 200 years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5% of the cases. That is a remarkable fact, especially when the result is in the context of the sample of conflicts analysed was where one side was at least ten times as powerful in terms of armed might and population as its opponent – even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

What happened? Simply, the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded.

So how can the entrepreneurial ‘Davids’ succeed against their Goliath adversaries?

1. Self-belief Before confronting Goliath, David had faith that Goliath could be defeated. Faith is simply the ability to act despite tremendous doubt. As an entrepreneur, you must never see your competitors as infallible. You must see a possibility to out perform them. With this mind-set, success will be yours.

In David and Goliath the Israelites had faith that Goliath will someday be defeated but none had self-belief. David not only had faith that Goliath could be defeated, he also had the self-belief that he was the one to do it. As an entrepreneur, you must believe you can do it.

2. Leverage Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth, said Archimedes. Leverage is simply the ability to do more with less, and ask yourself: how can I compete favourably with fewer resources?

David acknowledged that Goliath was taller and stronger than he was, so he asked the question; how can I defeat Goliath without engaging him in a hand-to-hand combat? That answer came in the form of leverage. That leverage was his sling, and his speed.

The weapons of both had the potential to kill but the difference emerged in their speed. David’s sling was lighter and smaller, it had the ability to reach its target faster than that of Goliath. How fast is your plan and how fast is your strategy?

3. Agility David’s strategy and tactics surprised Goliath, he wasn’t expecting to be confronted by such an opponent. David’s agility outwitted and outsmarted Goliath’s ego and complacency. He wanted it more, and made it happen for himself.

In business, you must develop a smart strategy to help you achieve your aim. David’s strategy was to subdue Goliath with minimal effort. He employed the following agile thinking and tactics:

·     He picked just five stones

·     He avoided engaging Goliath in a hand to hand combat

·     He exploited Goliath’s ego and over confidence

·     He aimed at achieving his goal with the first shot

·     He took Goliath by surprise and caught him off guard

4. Play to your strengths Big firms’ perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages. David is a shepherd boy, and refuses to wear armour. Why? Because he realises that heavy armour will weigh him down. Goliath could easily kill David with his sword, but only if David were foolish enough to walk right up to Goliath. Of course, that’s the last thing David plans to do.

The misconception is that David goes into battle with only a sling. But it’s a highly effective weapon David has used many times to protect his flocks from wild animals. He’s not going to fight Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, he’s using his experience and expertise to fight on his own terms,  Goliath can’t counter this. When David lines up, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

That’s exactly what David did, walks right up to Goliath (but still far enough away that Goliath’s swords and javelin are useless) and kills Goliath with a single shot to the head. Recall, the scene in Indiana Jones shoots the intimidating Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark – he made the most of the moment on his own terms.

5. Focus on the moment in front of you Large companies suffer when they lose touch with the basics, they focus on scale and become complacent and lazy about their approach to customers, believing their brand will keep customers. Often they’re not close enough to customers, a distant manager adjusts pricing numbers on a spreadsheet, but customers react and in a click of decimal points, they switch to a rival.

The value of an individual customer is always greater for small businesses than for large corporations, and you can create intimacy. Make each customer feel they are your only customer, and the only thing that matters in that moment.

Small businesses can feel their own pulse, sensing the stream of day-to-day reactions as they happen and respond accordingly. This high level of sensitivity is unique to small businesses. The pulse gives you a sixth sense, an intuition for what needs to be done, and how to retain your customers.

David and Goliath is a metaphor for improbable victories, but when you consider that David was fighting on his terms, you realise Goliath is a sitting duck. He didn’t have a chance. The parallel in business is that it’s not about company size or budget, it’s about what you do, and how you do it. Startups aim to overpower the juggernauts of their industry, yet many fall into a trap of one-upping the competition and focusing on features, instead of understanding what their customers want and need, and doing it better than their larger, established counterparts. Perhaps Airbnb is the best example of this.

So instead of wishing you had the resources and scale of bigger competitors, and get downhearted at their scale, focus on how you can be nimbler by knowing your customers better and solving their problems faster. Stay focused on the distinctive way you can delight customers. For example, the rental car market is filled with companies offering daily rentals, but Zipcar discovered that customers wanted to rent a car by the hour. Zipcar saw an opportunity to delight customers and created a distinctive service as a result.

Equally Zappos, the online shoe company, is David compared to counterpart Amazon. How do they compete? Zappos has a 365-day return policy compared to Amazon’s 30-days. In addition to creating happy customers, this policy shift also led Zappos to discover that customers with the highest return rates were also the most profitable for the company.

While many aspire to be Goliaths, instead embrace the advantages of being an underdog. As you grow and put your best foot forward, don’t forget the foundations that made your startup strong.

Despite their own stuttering starts, most oddsmakers will tell you Brazil or Germany are favourites to win the World Cup. But only one nation stands as favourites to win my heart: Iceland. They know they aren’t going to out-play their more talented, more skilful opponents, they don’t have much in the way of household names, but make up for this in grit, tenacity and facial hair. They play to their own strengths, and the bigger ‘better’ teams can’t match them.

So if you want to support a Goliath, go cheer for Brazil or Germany. If you want to stand and root for the underdog, go boom-boom-CLAP with Iceland, and watch them deploy the tactics of David. Gangi þér vel, Johann Berg Gudmundsson!

Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your startup ideation strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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