True grit: the dna of northern startups

Manchester was, and continues to be, the home of great free-traders and free-thinkers. It has a stunning C19th architectural heritage but today is a proud C21st European city of technology, science and education, with a clubbing scene second to none – or the Hallé Orchestra, if that gets your toes tapping more.

Manchester was the site of the world’s first railway station, the place where scientists first split the atom, and the home of the first stored-programme computer. Today, tech start-ups abound, there is enough shared workspace options for every woman and her dog, and internship students and apprentices with high ambitions for themselves have great opportunities.

The elements of Manchester’s well-being are based on long‑term deep-rooted social cohesion, personal resilience and sheer graft. Compare this to the imbalance with the south-east economy, with its reliance on foreign funds and an over-sized financial services sector.

So what is it about the north that has seen people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and grab opportunity by the scruff of the neck to set up their own businesses? It certainly isn’t anything to do with government.

The Power Up the North campaign was launched in June in a co-ordinated effort from thirty northern regional newspapers, a demonstration of regional solidarity on an unprecedented scale. The united call was for the devolution of investment, powers to self-govern and for the north to make its own future. The campaign, led by The Manchester Evening News, The Yorkshire Post, The Liverpool Echo and The Northern Echo, called for the government to launch a revolution in how the North is viewed and treated by government.

In 1962, Harold Macmillan’s home secretary Henry Brooke warned that if the Government did not prevent two nations developing geographically – a poor north and a rich south – our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness. On multiple metrics, the north fares worse than the south, a yawning imbalance on income, life expectancy, and spending on everything from culture to business.

Policy orthodoxy has assumed that investment in London would create a trickle-down effect, but in practice this has never happened, and the north-south divide in England remains Europe’s most regionally imbalanced country. Since austerity began, public spending in the North has fallen by £6.3bn, while spending in the South has risen by £3.2bn. A time-warp persists. It shouldn’t be cheaper and quicker to get from London to Paris than from London to Newcastle.

Faced with such stark disparities, Power Up The North calls for new economic, social and industrial strategies that are informed by an awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing the region – an independent north would be the ninth-largest economy in Europe. Both Scotland and Wales have smaller economies but enjoy far greater devolved powers.

Through its promotion of the Northern Powerhouse, David Cameron’s Government paid rhetorical tribute to the north of England. Yet the reality remains that the original vision for the Powerhouse of a joined-up market and labour force enabled by connectivity could not be further from the reality.

Cameron’s Northern Powerhouse legacy produced little more than a succession of bland ministers who knew little about the north, and cared even less. Today, the Northern Powerhouse minister does not have a budget, or a cabinet seat. How is the voice of the north to be heard at the top table? But this is not a sob story. Power Up The North offers a timely reminder that the future of our country does not begin and end at the M25.

I’m glad I am northern. I grew up with a coal bunker outside of the house and teenage years in pubs with chunky beer glasses with a handle. I miss that – the beer glasses with handles, not the coal-bunker. I was 17 before I caught sight of Euston Station. I had no need of London then and I guess it had no need of me. However, I do believe there is such a thing as a northern sensibility and it’s nothing to do with chips & gravy. It’s a grittiness that I think is behind the sheer determination of our startup communities.

The north has a dictionary and thesaurus of its own and its words are for everyone. As Paul Morley describes the north: warmth, decency, truth and proper beer, with a side order of menace, whilst T S Eliot noted Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal.

When you’re northern, you’re northern forever, and you’re instilled with a certain feel for life that you can’t get rid of. Let me not become too misty-eyed, but there are places in which brass bands and allotments still thrive. There is still much about northern life that would make Orwell puff on his pipe and smile.

Of course, there are also town centres that have become desolate denizens of payday lenders, discount stores and kebab shops, and employment opportunities are desperate for many despite what The Bullingdon Boys would have you believe. However, the north scores highly for self-employment hot spots, an indication that people are willing to strive for prosperity under their own efforts, even if that’s a matter of necessity after paid employment has been lost.

With jubilant jeers from the Government benches and bold growth forecasts, the innate fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial spirit that made northern cities great from the Victorian Era onwards is present today with renewed vigour and confidence. In the lexicon of media clichés, the north is always grim, but let’s accept that there is and will always be a North-South divide because the leverage of wealth towards the global-status of London is an irresistible force, but the northern enterprise culture never died, it just went into hibernation.

But what is missing is a recognition of the innate entrepreneurial and mercantile spirit that made the great northern cities in the first place, and that from my perspective living on the edge of the Pennines, quality of life and purpose derives from people, landscape and culture, rather than weight of money.

I’m fed up of working with some great entrepreneurs and founders based in the north who can’t raise funding for some amazing innovations, backed by talented teams, yet there are five new online food delivery startups raising £2m a week in London. Or so it seems. So stuff them I say. Let’s get some of the Wilson-Gretton-Hannett-Erasmus- Saville spirit from Factory Records and let’s crack on with the unknown pleasures of our own efforts.

Can you overcome setbacks, or do you get easily discouraged? Are you confident, or do you smell of insecurity? You can’t be thin skinned or faint hearted when you run your own show. You’ve got to have vision, stamina, creative thinking and, most of all, grit and resilience. Even when your friends and family think you’re nuts, there are fundamentals of being a self-starter to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Easier said than done.

I get to work with many incredibly gifted entrepreneurs, and I’ve noticed a common thread that connects them: grit and resilience. They’re all bravely owning who they are to push their business forward. They put in the hard yards to get there. It’s all too easy to let doubt fill your hearts and minds and create self-doubt that our dreams are too far-fetched or if we’re good enough, but grit and resilience – not other people’s money – gets them through.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a good pep talk: note to self. Remember how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. You are not where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be; Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation. Never hope for it more than you work for it.

Grit trumps everything else. And it’s not just a north of England thing, research shows that it is one of the defining characteristics of successful start-up entrepreneurs. Psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research at Penn State University defines psychological grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Check out her TED talk here:

http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html

Duckworth’s research focuses on two traits that predict success in life: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain effort towards goals. On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, stay with their focus, and succeed.   She’s formulated a survey to determine your level of grittiness, see how you score: https://sasupenn.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_06f6QSOS2pZW9qR My ranking was 4.25, 85% on the True Grit dashboard. Not bad!

Grit has emerged as a significant indicator for success – even more than IQ, talent, and social intelligence. It’s the part of you that simply will not give up on your ideal future and works to figure out a path to get there. Many people lack this grit because they see life as a series of circumstances that happen to them rather than an ideal future that they can create.

Actor Will Smith talks a little differently about grit: The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things – you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there are two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

Launching your own startup is like jumping off the cliff with no parachute, with no promise of a parachute. You need grit and mental toughness to manage your mind-set and emotions whilst you aim for that landing spot for your business.

Grit gives you the sheer will power and determination to keep going day after day, when the going gets tough. Sometimes it’s difficult to see progress, how can you keep your eyes on the prize and yet your head down during the inevitable slog period of anything worthwhile? You fall down seven times, but have to get up eight.

Grit, courage and the human spirit are at the heart of everything I believe in, and I see that in the northern entrepreneurial vibrancy. Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness, and imagine this: the north fully restored from its own efforts. That’s True Grit.

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