Insights on negotiation strategy for startup founders from Brexit

The Brexit ‘in-out’ referendum promised and delivered by the then Prime Minister David Cameron on June 23 2016, has caused a huge political crisis, and divided the British people. He was dogged by the Eurosceptics in his party who wanted to cut the Gordian Knot of resistance to Britain’s EU membership once and for all, but Cameron’s referendum promise was folly based on no understanding whatsoever of the consequences.

Theresa May inherited this recklessness when she became Prime Minister following Cameron’s resignation after the referendum result.  The subsequent three years have offered insight and learnings on negotiation leadership, strategy and processes to reflect upon from a business perspective.

From the moment of her succession as Prime Minister onwards, May has had the opportunity and the duty to tell it like it was: to explain that the referendum had been based on false premises, that it over simplified the issue of exit; that no government could deliver a clean Brexit and, above all, that Britain would be worse off leaving the EU than staying in.

Instead, she eschewed the obvious reality. Her strident tones and attitude in setting down her ‘red lines’ at the outset were unilateral, likewise the Chequers proposal, containing provisions which would never get consent of the EU partners. Her repeated insistence that Britain could ‘take back control’ of its laws, borders, and finance free from EU interference, while gaining favourable economic relationship with the EU, was simply misguided optimism, or blind ignorance of the reality.

From the beginning, May completely misjudged the nature and complexity of the withdrawal process. She portrayed the discussions as a negotiation of equals, which it never has been, as the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital, and people – are owned and operated by the collective of twenty-seven countries.

As a way of beginning negotiations, May has made sound bite political gestures and jingoistic statements, than laying down a clear, strong strategy. Trying to start the Brexit process to her own timetable, May was trying to pull a unilateral move stating that Britain, as the country initiating the Brexit process was the dominant party. However, the EU was clear on its realities and process, and has remained strikingly united throughout the Brexit process.

In reality, this sort of power play is rarely constructive. If you come into a negotiation acting competitively you are likely to jeopardise initial rapport and relationship building opportunities, which are essential. May also lacked a clear mandate, clarity in her goals, cohesive team and united support to play it so forcefully, and the disharmony from within the UK Government has been palpable to the EC.

The May deal is now off the table, MPs have seized control of the process, the deadline has been extended and we are no further forward. There is even talk of revoking Article 50 or another referendum, two and a half years after the initial vote. All this work may now be nugatory, so what can startup entrepreneurs learn from the Brexit shenanigans and the importance of conducting effective negotiations?

1. Establish your principles It’s vital that you have clear principles and philosophy on negotiating style, and are not simply gunning for your own agenda. For example,

  • Do not start with unilateral moves in an attempt to try and impress the other party with bravado. Trying to overawe the other side is a very risky strategy, it just gets their backs up.
  • Avoid focusing on personalities and personal ambitions and instead look to the task and issues at hand.
  • Enter a negotiation with a willingness to listen to the other side, build relationships and take people with you rather than force them to accept your demands and pacing.

The UK’s Brexit negotiating stance has so far been positional and assertive, mainly pursuing its own interests. It’s characterised by Theresa May’s statement that no deal is better than a bad deal. It signifies confrontation and aggression. This mindset assumes any deal that is acceptable to the EU will be bad for the UK, implying a combative, competitive situation and failing to look for trades that could deliver and expand a win-win.

In a business context, this isn’t the foundation for any meaningful collaborative dialogue.

2. Understand the context of the negotiation The negotiation of differing ideas does not take place in a vacuum, the context is woven from previous experience, competing agendas and immediate needs.

The UK made the decision to leave the EU, yet we seem to be embroiled around what the EU should be offering. In reality, the EU does not need to agree to any of our demands, which has absorbed the time of negotiations, and it is understandable that patience is wearing thin.

When you negotiate ideas, you don’t want to get so caught up in your own red lines that you frustrate the other party, and this is exactly what seems to have happened. We can all get overly attached to our favourite ideas, and relinquishing even a small part of the whole is a psychological challenge. But it’s a necessity where compromise and iteration are inevitable and indeed desirable.

In business, going into a situation with a fixed idea of what you want could result in total rejection. Prepare to adjust and co-create, and yours may still be the idea that wins out. Compromise often brings new insight and a different perspective on understanding each other’s position.

3. Set expectations and objectives Preparing both sides for the need to adjust their initial positions is a key tenet to any negotiation situation. It’s rare for an idea to come out of a discussion unchanged, so exploring the mutual aims of both sides will benefit the process and facilitate a way forward.

So in a business context:

  • Allow everyone time to air their opinions. Listen and ask questions to clarify positions and gain understanding of what’s influencing their thinking.
  • Open up individual issues for discussion. Go through discomfort, opening expressions of feeling and don’t rescue the conversation until it becomes stuck.
  • Identify the relative importance of different issues to guide the direction, and generate options where possible.

Today’s geopolitical world demands investment in relationships, both sides’ interests and concerns are too important to be unilaterally compromised.

Likewise, a competing approach is rarely productive within a business negotiation because agreement usually requires several people to work together over a period of time, now and in the future.

4. Create trust The best negotiations rely on the parties involved trusting one another. Britain was off to a bad start from the outset, because people leading the negotiation were not looked favourably upon by the EU. Boris Johnson was a particularly bad choice. The belief was that he would be tough and represent the seriousness of the leave position – but he lacked gravitas due to his flawed personality and outlandish statements.

Both sides in a negotiation want to make a good deal from their own perspective, but you have to trust the other side to actually do and mean what they say. Boris Johnson divides opinion and has said many memorable things that turned out to be false, some offensive, often simply hollow rhetoric or bravado, or extremely difficult to verify, or simply genuinely unhelpful. While this may have made some people chuckle, it undermines credibility, respect and trust.

Britain has also put forward a revolving door of lead negotiators in terms of the Secretary of State for exiting the European Union – a position held initially by David Davis, then Dominic Raab and now Stephen Barclay – further undermining consistency and familiarity. Contrast this to the EU, united behind the solid, sober and serious leadership of Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator.

In business, it’s always about people – the respect, rapport and relationship. We would not enter a business arrangement with people we don’t trust.

5. Avoid negotiating under self-inflicted time pressure. Teresa May did not have a clear plan when she initiated Article 50. This gave Britain just two years to negotiate a deal with no starting framework.

Negotiating under a deadline is a recipe for poor decision-making. If you don’t give yourself time to construct a deal, consider your options, to develop trust, to understand the downsides, then don’t expect a favourable outcome.

May’s primary tactical error was to issue the Article 50 letter, activating the withdrawal process, in March 2017. She was under pressure to start the process and to get a move on, but the letter was sent too soon, because she had no formulated strategy or plan for Brexit. Once the letter was sent, the clock started the countdown to automatically leave on 29 March 2019, with or without a deal. The ticking clock put the EU in a very strong position.

In business, there is always benefit to continuing a commercial exchange and open dialogue with transparency, even when there isn’t full agreement, especially not working to an unrealistic, pressurised deadline.

6. Negotiation is a process, not an event Exiting a contract is a process in which the departing entity holds very few cards. So Brexit was always going to be an unequal dialogue, and our position was undermined from the outset as the Government was divided.

Throughout the talks, the UK has done little to earn goodwill, and it is hard to predict what the next stage of the rollercoaster will be. The best negotiating strategies are to act in a considered, open thinking manner, while continuing to develop a relationship and building agreement sensibly and on solid foundations, seeking consensus.

Had May and other politicians acted with a sense of reality, being honest with each other and the public, they should have recognised that for the EU Brexit was not a negotiation, rather a process for a member state to leave the organisation. Instead, May chose to convey messages rather than try to establish dialogues.

In business, we recognise negotiation is a process, and are prepared to ask for what we want, but then reciprocate. You have to be willing to make the ask for what you want. You have to be first to place value on yourself. You have to go in with your goal, and know where your fall back is going to be and what your alternative strategies might be – it is a process.

Brexit is turning out to be a tragic example of bad negotiation. It is complex and complicated for sure, but then so are many business negotiations. Nearly everyone has an opinion on Brexit, but no one can tell the future.

In my experience, no business situation would be so unanchored and lack direction, so volatile and so adrift after such a period of intense and prolonged discussion, such that it offers many lessons on how not to conduct a commercial business negotiation.

Networking tips for startups

Manchester’s tech startup community is bursting with events, meet-ups, workshops, hackathons and networking talks. Getting out there and connecting with like-minded folks is an essential activity for a startup, and building a great network is key to the success of any entrepreneur. Almost every breakfast, lunch and evening it seems is packed with invitations and opportunities to hang out at popular hubs and co-working spaces.

Don’t get me wrong, depending on your level of introversion, they can be a lot of fun, and you can meet some thought-provoking people and build vital connections. Then again, if you’re not careful, you can also spend most of the week chasing every single gathering of coffee and croissants, beer and pizza, using valuable time that you could and should be spending, you know, actually working on your startup.

Throughout it’s rich historic tapestry of disruption, growth and innovation, Manchester has seen many iconic meetings in the city, and this list is sure to give you inspiration for your next get-together in Manchester:

Charles Rolls & Henry Royce After Royce built a car in his factory in Cook Street, a meeting was set up with Rolls at the Midland Hotel in 1904. Rolls was impressed by the cars that Royce had made and agreed to take them, branding them ‘Rolls-Royce’. The combination of Rolls’ wealth and Royce’s engineering expertise spawned the creation of one of the most iconic car and engineering brands of all time, as Rolls-Royce Limited setup in 1906.

Marx & Engels It was in Manchester in the mid C19th that the Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met to discuss revolution and the theory of communism. The desk and alcove where Marx and Engels worked and studied at Chetham’s Library in 1845 are still there today and remain unaltered. It truly was a meeting that shaped the world.

Graphene Fridays Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, at the University of Manchester, often held ‘Friday night experiments’ where they would try out experimental science. One Friday, the two scientists removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with sticky tape and noticed that some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments they managed to create flakes, which were just one atom thick – and had successfully isolated graphene for the first time.

Women’s Social and Political Union A meeting at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement, at the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union. This historically significant building was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her family who led the Suffragette campaign and ‘Votes for Women’.

The Free Trade Hall, June 4, 1976 This was a gig that changed the face of Manchester culture forever, The Sex Pistols show defined music for generations to come. In the audience were future members Joy Divison (Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook), two founders of Factory Records (Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and one Steven Morrissey, who would form The Smiths.

Whilst we’d all give our right arm to be at meeting that would create such an impact to move our business forward, I can assure you that you simply do not need to attend 99% of the networking events you see cluttering your diary. In fact, many respected entrepreneurs built their businesses from the ground up without jumping at every networking event they came across in their city. They chose instead to focus on building their businesses and gaining their customers’ trust, before eventually earning the respect of those they want to meet and establish relationships with.

One example of entrepreneurs who focused on ensuring their startup had real market value before walking and talking about it were the Whats App co-founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Steve Jobs also never spent his days attending a bunch of networking events. He and Steve Wozniak spent all their time building and improving their product.

These examples demonstrate that instead of jumping around to every event before you have any traction with your own business, build your startup and let networking organically follow. Yes, get out of the building, but do so to test your ideas and validate your learning.

I see many embryonic startup founders beating a trail to every event, almost addicted to going to and being seen or speaking at networking occasions. This creates false expectations that will eventually cause a detrimental emotional reaction. It’s often the smaller, quiet moments on your own in startup life that create the biggest impact, which is often overlooked.

So, here are some thoughts to help guide your networking strategy.

Network with a purpose Do not go to a networking meeting aimlessly. Have a purpose. Your goal is to meet people that you can help and people who can help you. You do not know who they are yet so you have to mix with a fair number to improve your chances. But you must have an overall goal. It helps other people to help you if they know what you are looking for.

The old saying, ‘It is not what you know; it is who you know’ is true, you can significantly increase your chances of success if you know or can get in touch with the right people. This is the power of networking, but it has to be focused. Frankly, I’m fed up of be asked to play in ‘name check entrepreneur bingo’ – do you know Mr X, or Mrs Y? What’s the point?

You must target networking events where you can determine that you’ll have a chance for real conversations. Too many of these events involve quick chats, exchange of details about each other’s’ businesses, and move on. How many have offered real follow-up value? Time is an essential ingredient in all startups, make it count. Rather than appealing to your emotions in a bid to sprout a friendship or simply getting your name out there, appeal instead to your self-interest. Otherwise, stay at home and work.

Research who you want to meet Before you attend an event, research the speakers and others entrepreneurs in attendance. Prioritise who you want to get to know, and craft a plan to make the most of the event. The goal of attending any networking event is to build quality relationships, this involves you approaching and talking to people who would add value to your thinking and your business. Knowing who to engage in a conversation largely requires a preset plan before you arrive.

Even better, people enjoy people via some exchange of value. When you try to impress with nothing to back it up, the relationship you thought you were building will fizzle away. What can you add to their thinking? The people we surround ourselves with at the outset of our venture are too important for us to be hasty or wasteful with our time and energy. They can determine a lot in our future, so be focused on the potential for making connections that could trigger both customer acquisition and growth opportunities.

Prepare your introduction Sounds obvious, but do you have a crafted and elegant introduction, as this is the best way to start the conversation. You don’t just go barging in and start talking about your startup being an investment opportunity, and don’t make it sound like an elevator pitch. Be polite and friendly, let them know who they’re talking to, make it personal, warm and interesting.

After a clam introduction, talk about something they’ve done that has amazed you when you learned or read about it. Doing this will make the person more open to you, knowing one of their products or services has had an impact. Show your curiosity, make yourself someone genuinely worth knowing.

Next, find something in common, that will start to create a deeper connection and build trust. Also, instead of just imposing your ideas and thoughts dominating the conversation, spend more time asking intelligent questions and listening to the replies than talking about yourself. Networking is about creating trust, being open, curious and helpful. Invest in the relationship first, don’t start selling.

It’s about storytelling rather than exchanging business cards. Your challenge is to build a human connection. That means you’re not doing all the talking, but encouraging an active exchange, a warm, insightful conversation that shows you sincerely are interested in how the other person thinks. It also means you pay attention to the answers. There is no value in a pocket of business cards at the end of the event if you haven’t made a genuine connection at a personal level.

The events where there is an opportunity for genuine peer-group learning and reflection are the most valuable. Don’t just go to events and listen to people talking about themselves. How will this take you forward? Being an active participant is vital, sharing some ‘in the moment thinking’ that can end up laying the groundwork for learning and a pivot in your product is a great outcome.

Be an able and active storyteller too, describing the social and cultural activity of your startup, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or humour. Every startup has its own story and narrative, which if shared in context, offer insight and in the best human tradition, create connections.

Circulate and know when to get out A key message for introverts who are uncomfortable with networking, or extraverts who get deep into a conversation quickly and dominate – don’t stay the whole time making comfortable small talk with the first group you meet. After a while make a polite excuse and move around the room spending say ten to fifteen minutes with each new person. You will find that you can leave conversations without being brusque. Networking means circulating and people at the meeting are aware of this.

Your time is better spent, and a much better connection made, when you linger with those where you’ve sparked good give-and-take. Get out gracefully, when you feel you’ve been cornered by someone who isn’t a good match.

Follow Up You’ve invested time in getting to the event, the days immediately after making a new connection, give them a call and re-introduce yourself. If you don’t follow up, where is the return on your investment? This is the chance to meet for a more purposeful one-to-one conversation. It is important to stick to the three-day follow up rule, as any time longer than that may diminish the relationship established at the event.

Some sort of follow-up is important, though this will depend on the quality of the connection – the extent to which you really ‘click’ personally and professionally. What’s important to remember is that the best relationships are mutually beneficial, so the first meeting is just that, you have to nurture the connection: the more you put into it, the more will come back to you.

Attending every networking event ultimately robs you of the time you could have spent building your startup and understanding your customers. You become part of the ‘celebratory startup circuit’ where you have to see and be seen. Whilst you can get inspiration from hearing about the journey of others, it’s actually perspiration – your own – that will ultimately move your business forward.

Realistic expectations are only part of doing networking right. It’s also important to understand that doing it right takes time. Focus on quality and forging respect, trust and rapport, not ‘contacts’, or being able to say ‘I was there’ at an event.

However, don’t keep score, it’s not about the ‘who and how many’, rather connect with people because there is value, and nurture the relationships that will truly help propel you towards accomplishing great things. Ultimately, focus on having in-depth conversations with fewer people about subjects relevant to your growth.

I’ve met so many who have opened doors for me and remained in my life both personally and professionally. After a while, networking doesn’t feel like ‘networking.’ It’s both serendipitous and unpredictable, and something that just naturally becomes part of your work life and your personal life.

How to weather the perfect storm facing your startup

Despite what you may read as prevailing headlines, running a startup is not all balmy sunny days and clear blue skies. In fact, founder entrepreneurs will tell you it is frequently stormy, a struggle with minimal hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and financial instability. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the sturm und drang that may wash over them.

A confluence of unforeseen challenges may create uncertainty around you – not enough customers, cash flow, product instability, hiring gaps – it’s enough to make you feel all at sea. The challenge facing many startup founders is not unlike that described in the Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm.

Junger’s book chronicled the storm that claimed the lives of six fishermen and the captain of the Andrea Gail. The storm left a trail of destruction from Nova Scotia to Florida, killing 13 people and causing $500m damage as it lashed the coast.

In late September of 1991, the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail departed the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts with six men aboard, for a month-long fishing trip. The Andrea Gail was a 12-year-old, 70-foot vessel, scheduled to return to port after a sword fishing trip to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, more than 900 miles off shore.

In late October, a powerful storm began to build in the North Atlantic, a storm that came to be known as The Storm of the Century by those in its path, and simply, The Perfect Storm by meteorologists, who watched it come together.

Unknown to Captain Billy Tyne and his crew, one of the rarest meteorological events of the century was developing. Three separate weather systems were on a perfectly aligned collision course. A Great Lakes storm system (moving east), a Canadian cold front (moving south) and Hurricane Grace (moving northeast) were all headed for the North Atlantic. They would eventually meet where the Andrea Gail was located.

After Andrea Gail endured various problems, the crew struggled to sail through pounding waves and shrieking winds. The vessel encountered an enormous rogue wave. They attempted to drive the boat over the wave but it crests before it can get to the top and the boat is overturned. The Andrea Gail and her crew were never heard from again.

Junger describes what it is like to be helpless in the grip of nature. All of the fishermen know the danger, they have lived alongside the sea long enough to know they may not come back, that once in the grip of such a storm, they can only hold on and hope. Junger’s book becomes an elegy for all those lost at sea.

George Clooney plays the role of Captain Billy Tyne in the film version of Junger’s book a grizzled, jumper-wearing fisherman, who loves fishing so much, the playful acquaintance with the gulls, the ‘throwing a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid’ as he enjoys the freedom of the ocean, shouting inaudibly into the driving wind and rain. In drenched and windswept stories like The Perfect Storm, the forces of the sea complicate and intensify human dramas and human conflict as the Beaufort scale cranks upwards.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, how skilled your team is, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or spread capital too thin, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best clients. Crises like these are individually preventable – you could have foreseen them and worked to avoid them – but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your business on the line. So how you should you respond to such setbacks, especially when a few come together in a Perfect Storm?

Don’t let pain stand in the way of progress There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. Pain is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.

Own your outcomes Don’t blame bad outcomes on anyone but yourself. Whatever circumstances brings you, you will be more likely to succeed if you take responsibility for making your decisions instead of complaining about things beyond your control.

Be radically open-minded The two biggest barriers to good decision-making are your ego and your blind spots. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions by getting most out of others. Both prevent you from seeing things accurately, and understanding things.

See the world through other’s lens Rather than thinking that you’re right, think about how do you know that you’re right? Recognise that to gain the perspective that comes from seeing things through another eye’s, you must suspend your own judgment for a time, and evaluate another point of view. Remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

There are many industries currently facing the disruption of their own Perfect Storm – take automotive for example, a backlash against diesel and carbon dioxide emissions, slumping demand from China, and uncertainty of trade tariffs post Brexit – plus the seismic shift to autonomous and electric cars.

Disruption is now such a familiar term, it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Yet its ubiquity reflects the perfect storm of revolutions – geographic, demographic and technological – that are rewriting the rules of business everywhere dramatically.

You have to deal with a new reality, where the new normal is no normal, where everything is volatile – your business model, the tastes of customers, the calibre of the competition. A startup founder’s perfect storm reveals a serendipitous union of illogical and uncontrollable events that result in the worst of times to test you to the limit.

By definition, a perfect storm is a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors. This type of situation is latent to the very essence of entrepreneurship because where risk is plentiful, volatility can soon follow. So, what are the practical things you can to in your startup business environment to ster through such turbulence?

Team unity: make the team not individuals the focus. In times of turbulence, create an environment where all members of the team feel they are essential, that each has a key role to play. There are no individual superstars with a special place.

Prepare, prepare, prepare: remove all excuses. Winning teams set out to ensure that every element of their business model is known to all and is functioning to the best of their combined ability. Make sure no one has an excuse for failure. That means preparing for things that could go wrong, as well as driving things efficiently that go right.

Balanced optimism: find and focus on the winning scenario. Startups will inevitably encounter setbacks, and need to pivot. The first step is to define ‘success’ – is it more customers, more revenue, more product? Of course, all of these are vital, but everyone needs to prioritise during a crisis.

Relentless learning: build a robust culture of leaning and innovation. The best startup teams learn quickly from experience. That means they take action, reflect on outcomes, and gain insights that help them continuously improve. Innovation and new ideas are the norm, even in times of uncertainty.

Calculated risk: be willing to sail into the storm. Every startup is a big risk, and there is no quick path to success. Winning requires situational awareness, always understanding the critical success factors, and working to stay aware and ahead of current realities around you.

Stay connected: cut through the noise of the wind and the waves. The information blizzard today is just as noisy as the storm outside. Don’t let it cloud your decision making, ensure you have your compass, North Star plotted and your defined dashboard of key metrics.

Step into the breach: find ways to share the helm. In adversity, any team member can be faced with a burden too heavy for one person to carry. A good team draws on each other’s strengths, and shares the load. One captain but every one is a leader in a crisis. Keep an eye out for each other, be supportive.

Eliminate people friction: deal with the things that slow you down. Fix the problem, don’t linger. Confront differences in ability without blame, add coaching; alleviate anxiety and mitigate conflict; provide time to talk about the crisis.

It is the perfect storm of entrepreneurship, the failures followed by immediate highlights of success, that is an underlying reality. Life’s personal challenges, uncomfortable business learnings, struggles and setbacks. It is the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.

The perfect storm that faces every entrepreneur can be likened to the ‘eye of the storm’, where calm winds exist at the axis of your business and blue skies abound, but nonetheless you are in the midst of severe weather. It can also manifest as a storm, so that it seems impossible to overcome the centripetal force that jostles you recklessly, forcing you into uncomfortable pivots and confusing turning points.

But instead of sticking your head in the sand when storm clouds brew, you need to develop the necessary fortitude, resilience and perseverance to weather the challenges. When the ground rumbles, when the waves swell, and the alarm sounds, resist the temptation to simply watch the waves come in. There are no safe harbours in the daily life of a startup.

Entrepreneurs arrive at this place because like real storms, you can rarely predict the exact time, location, and intensity of your challenges. And when everything appears to be spinning out of control it is essential to see your way clearly, stay the course and move forward.

As an entrepreneur, you need to realise that you can’t win by sailing around the edges of the perfect storm ahead. You have to hit it with an innovative plan, and you need a confident and disciplined team to get you through it. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor says an old English Proverb, and that’s true for entrepreneurs too.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? The value of introverts & extroverts in your startup team

Many startups are driven by two co-creators, working in unison with joined-up thinking and ambition. It’s great to see how they spark and bounce off each other, with complimentary skills and personalities, providing a balanced perspective on the entrepreneurial opportunity.

Most of us are familiar with ‘dynamic duos’- Batman & Robin, Lennon & McCartney, Laurel & Hardy – and in the business world, Hewlett & Packard, Brin & Page, Jobs & Wozniak. The individual characteristics, the chemistry and rapport behind these collaborations ensured that their talents fused to create something remarkable.

Having experienced a number of founder double acts in the startups I’ve worked with, I’m intrigued as to how often one founder is full of beans, spontaneous and vocal, whilst the other is more cautious, more focused on risk, and more thoughtful – the extrovert-introvert combination is common.

The terms introvert and extrovert are consistently, by popular consensus, painted as two polarised pictures of the extremely shy and the extremely confident. The Myers-Briggs personality test marks you as an ‘E’ or ‘I’, categorising you as either an introvert or an extrovert, designed to explain motivational and behavioural drivers.

First categorised by Carl Jung in the 1920s, an introvert is most commonly defined as someone who gets their energy from time spent alone rather than socialising. Unlike their extrovert counterparts (who get energy from other people), introverts are typically introspective, quiet (but not necessarily shy), and observant. Almost everyone can be squeezed into one of two boxes, but it turns out that many of us are essentially ambiverts.

The contrast is often quite stark, and I now have a model – as seen in AA Milne’s Winning the PoohTiggers and Eeyores. Now whilst this insight won’t get me onto the academic staff at Harvard, I think it works to highlight one aspect of entrepreneurial culture that delivers success – Tiggers and Eeyores are opposites on the ‘act or think first?’ spectrum.

In 100-Acre Wood, the fictional land inhabited by Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the series of children’s stories by author A. A. Milne, they are the contrasting positive and negative thinking personalities, but behind the high energy of Tigger and the gloominess of Eeyore, there are subtle nuances we can take into a startup context.

Eeyore is the loveable, downbeat and somewhat gloomy donkey, his glass is always half-empty. He spots the dark cloud rather than the silver lining for sure. Eeyore doesn’t expect too much of himself or too many exciting things to happen, therefore remains quiet and subdued most of the time. That in no ways means he isn’t an intelligent animal, he is actually knowledgeable, but keeps himself to himself.

By stark contrast, Tigger – That’s T – I – Double Guh – Er! – is the alter-ego, a bouncy, hyperactive, exuberant personality. He acts on impulse and will dash rather than walk, but that impulsive leap and rush more often than not see him jumping around without taking measure of his surroundings. This at times leads to mishaps and causes utter mayhem – not least to himself.

We all know many entrepreneurs who are Tiggers – energisers, positive thinkers who love a constant challenge. They get bored easily and often half-complete stuff as their interest is distracted by a new idea. Sometimes their enthusiasm is over powering and irritates Eeyores, so much so that they’ll probably hold more stubbornly to their opinions, and may become even more gloomy to counter-balance Tiggers’ positivity.

By contrast, Eeyores want to be more grounded and ‘realistic’, but Tiggers may find this over cautious approach negative, because they fear the downbeat emotions are catching and they dread being sucked into pessimism. Tiggers often act Tiggerish because they’re trying to keep that Tigger flame alive against the Eeyore calm.

As Tiggers fear being dragged down by the Eeyores, Eeyores feel resentful and irritated by the Tiggers’ constant chirpiness. For both Tiggers and Eeyores, a good strategy is not to try to make conversions. These efforts are depleting, frustrating and polarising.

A Tigger could be a great entrepreneur because he doesn’t mind trying new things, and doesn’t fear failure. If it doesn’t work out, he will simply bounce onto the next new idea, undaunted. Balancing this, whilst Eeyore can be seen as negative, but he’s actually cautious and not gullible – he won’t fall for a ‘too good to be true’ opportunity – so a good foil for a Tigger in a founder duo.

As an example of the Tigger and Eeyore combination, look at the example of Apple, which we’ve come to associate with the big personality and very vocal Steve Jobs – co-founder Steve Wozniak, a sworn champion of the creative value of working alone, was just as indispensable in building the iconic company. The two contrasted and complemented one another.

The norm is that introverted people are generally more comfortable with solitude, but perhaps Susan Cain changed opinions with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Indeed introverts have emerged as leaders in every arena – one-quarter of all US Presidents – including Jefferson, Lincoln, and Barack Obama – were identified introverts of varying degree.

In the business world, some of the most successful founders, inventors and technologists are introverts, including the likes of Edison, Gates, Musk and Zuckerberg, and the research into the business impact of introverts is revealing.

A Harvard study found that, while extroverts excelled at leading passive teams (employees who simply follow commands), they were far less effective in leading ‘proactive’ teams, where everyone contributes ideas. Introverts are more effective than extroverts in leading proactive teams because they don’t feel threatened by collaborative input, are more receptive to suggestions, and listen more carefully.

Researchers analysed 57 managers and 374 employees at 130 branches of a major pizza chain and found that franchises led by introverts were 20% more profitable than franchises led by extroverts. In another study, researchers broke 163 students into 56 groups – some led by an introvert, and others by an extrovert – and had the teams fold as many t-shirts as they could in ten minutes. They concluded that teams led by the introverts were up to 28% more productive.

Back to the founder duo combination, the two contrasting personalities like Jobs and Woznicak, working collaboratively epitomise the old saying ‘two heads are better than one’. So what are the principles we should all look for in Eeyores and Tiggers to reflect upon the introvert-extrovert difference, and get the best from their two contrasting perspectives when working alongside one or both personalities in a startup?

1.     Emotional intelligence, not emotional mastery

The better you’re able to communicate with others and form strong connections, the better you’ll navigate a startup. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t unusually cool-headed people who can contain their emotions and avoid reacting irrationally. Rather, they’ve built strong relationships with their staff, suppliers, and customers, and it’s those interpersonal networks that do the emotional heavy lifting when times get tough. The emotional intelligence that it takes to sustain these bonds can prove decisive, be it the energy and passion of an extrovert, or the quiet, thoughtful style that builds respect and trust by introverts.

2.     Self-reliance

If the idea of starting from scratch with a partner and having to rely on yourself frightens you, coping with the ups and downs of the startup experience might be difficult. No matter how their personalities differ, successful entrepreneurs know how to keep going despite the inevitable discomfort of uncertainty and going outside their comfort zones.

This doesn’t mean extroverts win through with their boundless self-confidence though. We tend to romanticise extroverted founders who show outsize confidence, but many in reality grapple with self-doubt internally all the time. The real key is about being able to function well in spite of feeling uncertain.

Successful entrepreneurs have a greater fear of being stuck in their comfort zones and not reaching their potential. It isn’t that facing ongoing uncertainty is a thrilling or threatening experience, or that every successful entrepreneur has unshakable confidence in spades. It’s that no matter what challenges come their way, they believe it’s in their own power to determine their future. That instinct for self-reliance is key – so both extroverts and introverts need to develop self-esteem and believe in themselves, whatever their external personnas.

3.     Willingness to be wrong

This is tough for both personality types. All successful startup founders are curious people, constantly on the lookout for better, more efficient, innovative ways of doing things. Less conspicuous is an underlying trait of the willingness to scrap their assumptions and test a totally different idea.

Some extroverted entrepreneurs may carry an air of certainty and self-assurance, but chances are they’re more willing to admit to being wrong than you might imagine. For an introvert, quiet, internal assessment and analysis enables them to come to their own conclusions, albeit from a different perspective.

4.     Trust in their intuition

Successful founders see and act on opportunities even when they don’t see the complete picture. To fill in the blanks and blind spots just enough in order to be able to act, they need to have a high level of trust in their own intuition.

It’s easy to misinterpret an introvert’s internal processing and quiet demeanour as disinterest. But in reality, most introverts are just methodical thinkers. For an extrovert, what appears to be a cavalier approach is just behaviour based on self-belief that they can get there.

Both personality types assess potential, risk and outcomes from their own perspectives, one may then share that with the enthusiasm of a Tigger, one more cautiously as in Eeyore’s style, but both are trusting their own judgement and assessment.

5.     Be radically open-minded

The biggest barriers to good decision-making are your blind spots and self doubt. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about you and your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions.

For both extroverts and introverts, practice open-mindedness. If you can recognise that you have blind spots, consider the possibility that others might see something better than you, don’t be stubborn. A fresh pair of eyes can add value to your thinking and unpack a possible different forward path you hadn’t spotted. Being open-minded can be energising and unblock your thinking, and help you deal better with ‘not knowing’.

This avoids either bluffing (the extrovert response) or doubting yourself and doing nothing – the introvert response. Triangulate your view with believable people who are willing to help inform and shape your opinions.

So, if you’re startup stumbles, with panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, don’t simply ignore the signals on the one hand and rush on like Tigger, or spiral down and convince yourself you’re doomed as Eeyore would have you believe. Don’t drink from a glass half-full of rash, unbridled optimism as feted by Tigger, or sit morosely like Eeyore with a hang-donkey expression, moping around in the corner, add a bit of balance.

We must look for the opportunity in every difficulty like Tigger, instead of being paralysed at the thought of the difficulty in every opportunity like Eeyore, but whilst fortune favours the brave and audacious, don’t be foolhardy, leaping without looking isn’t a strategy. Nobody told Dick Fosbury the first time he leapt backwards, but he knew the height of the bar.

Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

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

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

Stages in the startup growth cycle

Growing up and getting older is something that happens to us all, whether we are consciously aware of the aging process or not. We are born, and then immediately starts a period of physical, mental and emotional growth taking us from a new born through childhood, merging to the teenage years and then adulthood milestones.

Throughout, this journey remains personal and subject to flux, both good and bad things happen, opportunism and fate both intervene and have a hand on points of inflextion. Of course, upon reaching adulthood the aging process continues (it accelerates!) and we reach another watershed, that of old age.

Hopefully we enjoy a lifespan over a good number of years. It’s a deeply personal and unique journey, life stages filled with learning, health, relationship and cultural influences, psychological changes and expectations.

Birth happens as a result of the chance encounter nine months earlier of Jack Sperm and Jill Egg, the throw of random dice. the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid.

From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test and losing your virginity, casting your first vote…to first job, marriage, first house, kids, life is a series of milestones as time passes.

Startup ventures have similar stages of growth just as the human development lifecycle, although obviously a different set of laws apply, but there are chronological steps of business growth milestones akin to the stages in the human journey.

Being born: problem-solution fit

The starting point is the momentous event of birth that emphatically announces your arrival. Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day.

What was the genesis of your startup? Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark in business.

At the very beginning of the startup lifecycle, you’ve got your idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess how viable your startup is likely to be. At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second part, then you’ve got problem-solution fit and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing with potential users.

Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. At the outset, walking involves conscious intent, like the seismic convulsion twelve months earlier, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move.

Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension.

Be careful your first articulation of your startup with potential users is a clear conversation, not babble. This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk your idea with potential customers and there will be noise.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk.  Once you’ve validated your MVP and confirmed customer pain points with traction, focus on building a customer base and get out of the building into the market.

Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, it’s not like starting to grow armpit hair or adopting social norms, it’s about consciously learning to do something, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before.

Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment when conviction meets doubt is that leap from dependence to independence, self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, getting out into the market and winning customers to prove your value proposition. As Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, no longer stationary, tottering to balance on two unsure legs, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, to focus on the wide horizon ahead, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions, with options of straight on, or turning left then right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

Your MVP gains traction, you’re learning and iterating, you’ve got paying customers, they buy again and keep using your product on a regular basis. These are the signs of product/market fit, an elusive entrepreneurial goal.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. It’s about building trust with yourself on that bike, pushing off, ready to go, and enjoying exceptional experiences.

Facial hair: scaling

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew stubble, overnight, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly. The rite of passage that is the first shave at the onset of puberty is monumental. Hormones central. Frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. Here are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

After the Victorian mania for chest-covering growths and mutton-chop whiskers (also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips), the early C20th trend was clean-shaven. It was always assumed that beards were camouflage for something: a scar, or a weak chin.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Businesses in this puberty stage often see rapid changes in their business model, as venturing out into the market, fumbling and discovering, offers lessons building a repeatable, scalable sales model and customer acquisition process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

Your first kiss: high-growth

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation, anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending.

In Shakespeare’s words, a kiss becomes poetry, a pleasing rhyme between two faces that tenderly meet, the poetic, sensual ceremony, a ritual and romantic interlude. For unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang. Kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

In the startup growth cycle as you’re growing and scaling, you’re metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt from those that say no – as it is in real life. When you’re seventeen, you aren’t really serious, just enjoy the moment, but that’s when the high-growth kicks in.

Summary

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order. Some businesses may see astronomical growth and the jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable and at times, unruly.

Everyone’s biological clock has its own time line, likewise your startup. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans, and in reality, your startup plan will not survive its first encounter with a customer.

Positivity, confidence and persistence are key in life generally, so never give up on yourself in startup mode. Equally to succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone, and that’s no different in a startup either.

Lessons from Stan & Ollie for startup founder duos

I went to the cinema Friday evening for the first showing of Stan & Ollie, a biographical comedy-drama based on the lives of the comedy double act Laurel and Hardy. Starring Steve Coogan and John Reilly, the film pays tribute to the beloved entertainers with an affectionate recreation of their final, ill-fated UK tour of 1953.

A moving look at the burdens and blessings of a creative bond between the two, for much of the time watching the film you feel it’s the real duo, so thoroughly conceived are the actors’ physicality and performances. The film is sincere, reaffirming the charm and inspiration of the greatest comedy duo of all time, the simplicity of their slapstick humour and routines is just so funny – time after time!

Watching their films with a child’s optimism, I always think everything would work out well for the duo, and they wouldn’t get pied or smacked in the face, or poked in the eye. Their catchphrase – well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into – seems to sum up a pair whose friendship survives the severest trials. There is a warmth and companionship to them that is universal and as emblematic of the duo as their bowler hats and their Dance of the Cuckoos theme song.

After a long spell in separate acting careers, they made more than 100 short and full-length films together. Stan and Ollie created a weird, beautiful ballet of physicality and humour. I marvel at Stan’s quiet grace and Ollie’s perfect timing. Their film partnership lasted from 1927 to 1951, but at their very best – with masterpiece shorts such Towed in a Hole, Tit for Tat and Big Business and longer movies such as Way Out West and Sons of the Desert – they created sublime and timeless works of art.

The Music Box, which won the 1932 Oscar for best short comedy, sums up the futility of much of human endeavour. It is a modern-day Sisyphus tale, as two men, totally unsuited for the task, have to move a heavy mechanical piano from the bottom of a steep hill to the top. Each time the piano slips away and goes bouncing back down the 147 steps you laugh as much as you cry. Do they succeed? Well, of course not!

Ollie had a superb repertoire of close-up expressions: his eyes speak of his stoicism amid the despair, registering disgust and frustration at Stan’s blunders.  Hardy’s skill was no accident: it was founded on paying close attention to fellow humans. As a youngster, he had helped his single mother run a hotel and liked to sit in the lobby and watching people walk by.

My favourite scene is the epic custard-pie fight in The Battle of the Century. They bought 4,000 pies – genuine cherry, blueberry and banana –and devised a stunning sequence, which brought pie-throwing to apotheosis. There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but thousands and thousands of pies.

The modern comedy double act has its origins in C19th music hall and vaudeville. Initially, a man would ‘stand up’ with a comedian, and simply repeat the comic’s lines, developing into what we know as a straight man today.

When Weber and Fields emerged in the late 1800s, the first famous comedy duo, the dynamic had evolved into two individuals bantering and cross-talking. Often, things got rowdy between them and slapstick violence featured. Indeed, Weber and Fields were particularly adept at arguing, and this became a common element of double act routines. The characters on the stage just never got along no matter what, and audiences loved it.

In the early C20th, things took a shift, with Gallagher and Sheen the leading duo emphasising less slapstick and more singing. Then along came Stan and Ollie, initially paired together in 1927 and the inter-play of their double act reset the format.

Their characters were clearly friends, and as unintentionally destructive as they were, you knew their friendship would be intact at the end of every film, despite the frequency with which their efforts met with failure, resulting in many a ‘fine mess’.

The Stan and Ollie model stuck, for Abbott & Costello, Morecambe & Wise. They set the formula for those duos we’ve latterly grown up with – Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, French & Saunders, Dan Akroyd & John Belushi, to Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer.

I’ve always enjoyed comedy-duo double acts, and I’ve recently been researching the psychology and relationship in them, and parallels with startup co-founder dynamics. Will it be bonding, soul mates for life and success, or the start of melancholy, cold winters of recriminations, slammed doors and sending emails in a cold silence?

Hooking up with a partner launching a new business is just like a comedy duo, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships, their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration. Many were long-time friends, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times more likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder for your startup, and why will it work?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, whilst the other wants to make money only, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries. If it’s by discussion and logic, things will work, it one wants control, it won’t

Focus on what you’re good at Dividing workload based on complimentary yet different skills gives focus and productivity, effort based on mutual strengths means you’re able to progress the day-to-day work while continuing to evolve many aspects of the business. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own. It’s just one more weapon on your arsenal.

Double your odds Having a business partner doubles your odds of being in the right place at any given time. Whether it’s an important event where you need to talk to dozens of people or simultaneous meetings on opposite sides of town, having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as you is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once.

Provide you with a sounding board Starting a business means a bumps may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle unexpected hurdles and have more fun with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are great, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone that is going through the exact same process as you are, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Serve as a backstop when you have an off day We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides a backstop for those days, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Balance the extremes and point out the blindspots Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, often in a hurry and always moving forward, but they can also face obstacles. It helps to have someone to balance the extremes we all face along the way. We all have blind spots in how we manage and implement projects. Having a co-founder gives you a peer that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see.

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is often behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

In reality it is the shared mind-set that captures the essence of what makes entrepreneurial duos work – in comedy or in business. Everyone talks about the ‘one builds, one sells’ complimentary skillset, but it’s really about the mind-set.

You may not want the tomfoolery of Laurel & Hardy, the anarchy of Reeves & Mortimer, the frenzy of Morecambe & Wise nor the jukebox antics of Akroyd & Belushi in your co-founder business relationship, but if the strength and purpose of startup co-founder relationships is as innovative and productive as these comedy duos, then you’ll have created something special.

Mitigating the risks of Brexit for your tech startup

It took Theresa May eighteen months to reach a deal with the EU, but it Parliament less than a month to throw it out by a wide margin, most MPs believing that her imperfect compromise is worse than the status quo. The paralysis is such that the government has largely given up arguing that its deal will be good for the country, instead insisting that it is what democracy demands.

May’s ‘progress’ in negotiations has been a pantomime of democracy. Neverendum. The risk is real. Britain faces years of trade negotiations with the EU, involving more painful trade-offs between prosperity and control. All the while, the country will be falling further behind its potential.

Voters were swept off their feet by the promises of the Leave campaign, only to discover that the future relationship was that promised. Those with long-standing delusions about what Brexit would mean have been forced to swallow a dose of reality. It’s chaotic. May has appointed her third Brexit secretary as her own backbenchers are feverishly plotting to bring her down. Labour’s position is hopelessly unclear.

With negotiating time almost up, Britain has the imperfect deal that it was always going to get. Promises of having cake and eating it have given way to a less appetising offering. Yet among Brexiteers, one hopeful fantasy lives on: the idea that, if all else fails, Britain can prosper outside the EU without signing a deal at all.

If May wonders how this dire outcome has come to be more popular than her deal, she should start by re-reading her own speeches. Her mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ was supposed to persuade the EU to give Britain better terms. It didn’t work. But it struck a chord at home.

The draft withdrawal agreement of 585 pages will guide future talks. Will we agree a Norway-style relationship or a deal modelled on Switzerland or Canada? In truth the EU27 will be in control, with Britain having few cards to play, and the process of ratifying a deal with Britain will be tortuous.

What we do know, is that the ongoing uncertainty and rhetoric of Brexit heading into 2019 will create volatility in sentiment, confidence, investment decisions and currencies, that will influence both business and consumer spending and buying power. So how will this impact tech startups?

Whether you’re a Eurosceptic or a Europhile, the UK startup environment has a supportive investor tax regime, a good intellectual property regulations and amazing talent from across Europe, but there are challenges ahead created by Brexit.

Everyone is looking for the headline that everything is fine or everything is catastrophic, and actually it’s somewhere in-between. At a high level, the potential winners will include those startups that are exporters, whilst potential losers are importers and foreign workers in the UK.

While Brexit is a ground-breaking event in the history of Europe, geopolitics, and global economy, modern agile companies have long ago surpassed the constraints of state borders and work permits. However, lets’ look at four key challenges from Brexit for tech startups, and mitigation strategies

Workforce

It’s already tough to hire good developers and engineers. While UK tech startups do create jobs for British citizens, part of the skills shortage has been filled by European immigration. We could potentially lose a large part of the startup workforce if regulations make it tough for EU nationals to stay in the UK.

Around one in five tech workers in the UK are from the EU. It’s likely that the current freedom of movement that allows EU citizens to work in the UK with few limitations will come to an end after Brexit. That’s going to make it harder to attract staff from the EU, and to keep workers who are already here.

Talent is the life blood of start-ups. You cannot build a startup if you cannot attract the best talent. While Brexit could be frustrating we might have a larger talent pool to choose from – a lack of European migrants doesn’t necessarily mean a complete migration halt. Brexit will open doors to non-EU countries, and whilst overseas talent is important, we have to invest more in terms of home-grown talent too.

Finance

The adjustments the financial services industry must undertake arguably pose a bigger challenge than the immediate geo-political uncertainty casting a shadow over the labour market to startups.

Startups looking for additional funding or support may have a harder time when pitching, but there are still plenty of options for growth.  While UK investors are cautious, EU investors are taking advantage to promote their own economic stability. This may mean a drift to Berlin and other cities offering greater entrepreneurial incentives.

As the UK exits Europe, businesses will lose access to funds that come directly from EU membership. The European Investment Bank, for example, has invested over €31.3bn in the UK economy of which 17% funded innovation and SMEs. In the tech and life sciences sector, the European Investment Fund is a key source of finance, supporting 27,700 SMEs.

A weakened pound and higher inflation after the final Brexit terms are agreed could lead to higher costs. A holistic view thus gives a perspective of many uncertainties arising from Brexit regarding finance for startups.

Regulatory environment

Services make up about 80% of the UK’s tech exports, and the EU is its biggest export market, however, the UK Government is more focused on trade in physical goods. Without even a vague plan in place, tech companies can’t be sure about the rules that will govern trade. That means, for example, they could end up being required to comply with two sets of regulations – one to sell in the UK, one to sell in Europe – with different VAT and thus cashflow implications.

Another area of concern is data protection. Data of all sorts flows to, from and through the UK as a part of daily life, everything from IoT devices to cloud computing, and all of this data is currently governed by EU law. After Brexit, a new deal on data protection is needed otherwise those data flows could be disrupted or even stopped, with predictably chaotic consequences.

Market access

The UK has traditionally traded extensively with Europe, and access to European markets is crucial, it’s a two-way trade. Although many startups are still moving forward with their plans for Europe, loss of Single Market access could be damaging, so startups need to be looking at other parts of the world, which might be more financially viable.

Across the tech industry the picture is mixed. Those tech companies that mostly deal with US customers or suppliers are largely unaffected by Brexit, and if a mooted UK-US trade deal happens these companies may even see significant benefits. However, uncertainty on both demand and supply side is currently impacting many startups.

What can tech startups do?

The key to surviving the Brexit haze is flexibility and contingency planning as new rules are created. In the current uncertainty it can be difficult to plan, but that’s exactly what you need to do. It’s the act of planning, rather than the plan itself, which is the key. Robust, well-thought out business plans, showing that you’ve calculated upside and downside scenarios, will be crucial.

Whilst it can seem that every time you hear the news or open a newspaper, there’s more reason not to act, the fact is that if you have an innovative idea, the experience to see it through and the ability to make a robust business case for it, the UK remains one of the world’s most favourable environments for start-ups.

So what should a startup tech company be doing right now, with only a little information to guide them? It appears the advice, in classic British style, is a modified version of keep ‘calm and carry on’.

On one hand, startups are probably the most equipped to navigate whatever is yet to come, being adaptable, innovative, and nimble in their mindset. Every day brings with it a new challenge that small business owners never thought they would have to deal with.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs often have the least amount of experience and resources. Then there’s the emotional side of it. I have heard many entrepreneurs talking about the uncertainty of Brexit and saying they don’t need an additional gamble at the moment.

So here are some thoughts on how to navigate the future, pending our exit in March.

1. Understand your runway, and create a clear plan

The place to start is your current plan – and don’t create one of those fake plans aimed at investors, that won’t help you, craft a plan for YOU with realistic assumptions and meaningful goals.

Make a decision based on cash runway and velocity. Make decisions based on a new plan, not based on the plan you had before. This is probably the toughest thing you’d need to do as a founder, but there are times where you need to do it. Do it sooner rather than later, do it with respect, and ensure there is a balance of optimism and realism – hope is not a strategy.

2. Financial targets – be scrappy

First is the cash in the bank, and the second is the cash you expect to get from your customers. How certain are you in your revenue forecasts? Look at the number of customers, pricing, volumes you know are confirmed, and you sales funnel, pipeline and lead conversion times.

In general, switch into a scrappy mode, embrace that mentality. Review your costs – what can you cut? There is always extra stuff. Just get into the mode of cutting things that aren’t critical – activities that don’t add value to customers.

3. Review your hiring

Review your hiring plan. This is easy to control in times of uncertainty and whilst it means that you will grow slower, and the current team will have to do more work, it keeps fixed costs and demand on management time on hold.

Whilst I’m an advocate of continuous recruitment in terms of always being active in the market rather than seeking to hire for a specific role at a specific time, taking a three-month recruitment sabbatical at times of heightened uncertainty takes the pressure off making what are high-risk decisions.

4. Get customers faster and for longer

This may sound odd, because why wouldn’t you close customers faster anyway? The point is, think about friction points, anything that slows down your sales? Think about offering a price incentive for an annual payment versus monthly payments, and offer different price structures for longer contracts.

“‘Uncertainty’ and ‘opportunity’ are the two words I most closely associate with Brexit. However, on the back of uncertainty rides opportunity, which is where genuine entrepreneurs thrive. Now is not the time to hunker down on innovation, build rapport and relationships with new and existing customers alike with renewed zest.

Next steps…

At Disney, the shared understanding is that ‘nothing hurts the mouse’ – risk assessment and management is a key leadership focus, and so it should be for startups.

Precisely quantifying Brexit vulnerability is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce uncertainty. The goal is to develop ways of understanding key drivers and possibilities so that surprises aren’t so surprising. You have to hedge your bets, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and reduce decision making on the fly – take steps to minimise potential damage long before a crisis unfolds.

Many of the details of the policy and regulatory issues remain very unclear, but recent endorsements from tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook demonstrated that the UK is still an attractive location for tech business.

So, be steadfast in your resolve. Don’t take a wait-and-see approach, relying on being nimble to respond to however Brexit turns out, waiting for Brexit isn’t an option. Look at the four potential levers highlighted above – runway, finances, hiring and customers – and start making your plans today.

Imagine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Factory Records

To visit a modern tech startup workplace is to walk into a room with a dozen songs playing simultaneously but to hear none of them. Everyone is sat beavering away with headphones on, alone in their own world. It has never been easier to tune in to your own customised soundtrack.

Not all music is created equal, especially when there’s work to be done. How should you choose the best soundtrack for working? Which songs will help you get energised, focused, or creative – or even just carry you through a very long day? Listen up, the research is compelling:

  • 61% of employees who listen to music at work do so to make them happier and more productive
  • 88% of employees produce more accurate work when listening to music
  • 63% of doctors listen to music in the operating room when performing surgery

Private listening to music in the workplace is only possible because of headphones, and it was French engineer Ernest Mercadier who registered the first patent for the first in-ear headphones in 1891. Nathaniel Baldwin developed ‘radio earphones’ in 1910, upgraded by John Koss in 1958, who invented the first pair of stereo headphones.

Fast-forward to 1979, and Sony introduced the Walkman portable cassette player, which reigned supreme until Apple’s iPod launched in 2001, and then we had Sound Cloud (2007). It’s interesting to look at the incremental innovation that brings us forward to today, and options such as Spotify, Beats and Apple Music.

But before headphones, there has always been music at work. For example Sea Shanties – how important were these to shipping? The saying in maritime circles was that a good chanteyman is worth ten sailors on a line in terms of aiding productivity.

Elsewhere, in the Scottish Highlands, Waulking was the intensive and repetitive process of thickening tweed, which was made easier by workers collaborating in acappella songs as they worked. In Scandinavia, Kulning is a herding call like yodeling, using high tones to carry voices across the landscape by shepherds, whilst The Song of the Volga Boatmen – that song that goes yo, heave-ho – is familiar to everyone, as a team worked together.

Finding the perfect playlist isn’t easy. With endless streaming music possibilities at our fingertips, it can be hard to nail down just the right tunes to get the wheels turning in your head. But there is an obvious source of innovation thinking for your music to inspire your listening and your startup mindset, and that’s from Factory Records.

It was in 1978 that Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton and Alan Eramus founded Factory Records in Manchester, joined by Martin Hannett (Producer) and Peter Saville (Designer). It was the catalyst of creative Manchester culture, home to great Manchester bands such as Joy Divison (subsequently New Order), A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, The Stockholm Monsters and latterly Happy Mondays.

Wilson started the company with the inheritance of £12,000 left to him by his mum. Factory started in the Russell club in Moss Side, and released their first EP, A Factory Sampler, featuring acts that played at the club, in 1979. Joy Division, headliners at the club many times, recorded the first album released by Factory, Unknown Pleasures.

The Factory brand became renowned for quirky innovations, none more so than its cataloguing and numbering of everything it produced with a unique reference number. Numbers, not necessarily in chronological order, were allocated to albums, posters, and even places: Joy Division’s Closer was numbered FACT 25, the Haçienda club was FAC 51.

Wilson was an entrepreneurial tour de force, his efforts, antics, shenanigans and eternal spouting off to anyone who would listen, about tales and talent from his beloved metropolis in the north are legendary. He had a romantic, missionary zeal to make an impression and a worldly confidence rarely seen in Manchester.

The ubiquitous Wilson entered my life through What’s On, his weekly teatime music show on Granada TV. He featured non-mainstream new music on his fifteen-minute slot on the regional evening news programme. Seeing the enigmatic Howard Devoto for the very first time on early evening TV whilst my mum was frying chips in the kitchen, is something that is indelibly etched onto my fading memory.

He constantly shape-shifted in his lusty pursuit of the next thing. Too big for his own boots, full of himself, banging on about his pet subjects like a broken record, yet he had a real genius for processing the discoveries and inventiveness of others. There are two particularly iconic aspects of Wilson’s story that stand out.

Firstly, in 1982, Factory and New Order opened The Haçienda nightclub, converting a Victorian textile warehouse. Although successful in terms of attendance, and attracting a lot of praise for Ben Kelly’s interior design, the club lost money due to poor commercial management. It does, however, have a permanent place in Britain’s social cultural history.

Secondly, in 1983 New Order’s Blue Monday (FAC 73) became an international hit and the best selling twelve-inch record of all time. Unfortunately the label again failed commercially, since the original sleeve, die-cut and designed to look like a floppy disk, was so costly to make that the label lost money on every copy sold.

It all fell apart in 1992, and Factory was declared bankrupt in November.  The Haçienda closed in 1997 and the building demolished, replaced by a luxury apartment block. Peter Hook, bass player with New Order, has six guitars made using wood from the Haçienda’s dancefloor.

The founders of Factory put Manchester back on the map, as a collection of ideas, as a place at the edge of reason, with audacity and a series of headlines and punchlines, just as Manchester had emerged originally in C19th. The C20th version was invented by a rousing collective of dreamers, schemers, writers, musicians and fantasists.

The moors meets machinery meets mental turbulence of the music, Factory Records had an aesthetic, and gave amplification to a sense of audacity, a lucid soundtrack of innovation and genuine disruption. The Factory Records syndicate built a fantastic blueprint for the idea of generating personal and artistic freedom.

Talking Head’s guitarist Tina Weymouth, once remarked of Factory: I grew up in New York in the Seventies, and I’ve seen a lot of people who live life on the edge, but I’ve never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is.

Despite many questionable decisions and the ultimate failure, Factory remains a moment of time in music and Manchester’s history of innovative startup ventures, so what can we learn about their spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition?? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Factory Records that should spark a startup today.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Factory were revered for their Do-It-Yourself abilities. They made it up as they went along, like a startup they had to find their market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where their audience was.

The Factory ‘product’ was simple and raw. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen.

Belief Factory took on an established industry with major labels in control and broke the rules with their own thinking. In doing so, they changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. They had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit measured in cultural terms, if not financial. Factory made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

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

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

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. Peter Saville’s design made Factory stand out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

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

Factory’s enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and delightful tunes, soundtracks, innovation and design locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

Open mindedness Factory’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their 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 any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Factory’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose The founders of Factory had a vision, strong minded and did whatever they wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. It was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations.

The founders never rested on their laurels, they retained the mix of spirit, drive, and passion, more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

Of course, the Factory Records startup failed, through inadequate commercial management. It didn’t lack for innovation, maybe a bit more common sense could have prevailed, maybe too much experimentation.

Of the founders, Wilson, Gretton and Hannett are no longer with us, having all died young, but the legacy of Factory remains. Their pioneering thinking helped transform a defiant collective of musicians into an iconic collection of records on an iconic record label that brought the sound of Manchester to the masses.

People drop out of the history of a life as of a land, though their work or their influence remains – a quote from Manchester Man, a novel written by Isabella Banks, 1876, and words on Wilson’s tombstone. That’s a great epitaph to any entrepreneurial endeavour.