There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done

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, 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 humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians ever seen. He epitomises disruptive innovation as much as Jobs or Musk, as described by Clayton Christensen.

John was always one to say what was on his mind and never 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. 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 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 a four-year campaign to deport him. Without missing a beat, John smiled and said, Time wounds all heels, as ever spontaneous, witty and reflective.

Back in the summer of 1956 John met Paul McCartney, and they began writing together. As The Beatles, they were C20th cultural icons. They created the unexpected. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity of music 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. Lennon made his mark

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 fast forward to September 1980, John and Yoko signed a contract with Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. (Just Like) Starting Over hit number one, and there was talk of a possible world tour.

But on December 8, 1980, returning to their Dakota apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, John was shot seven times by Mark Chapman, a fan to whom he had given an autograph a few hours earlier. He 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.

John epitomised a disruptive innovator: 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, my reflections on how his mindset and thinking offers inspiration for startup entrepreneurs to be as innovative as he was.

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

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 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 a freelance landscape gardener, you have to keep working no matter what. Your audience, your 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.

In an era of ‘add-water-and-stir’ solutions to problems, John was asked what he’d like to be remembered for. Not surprisingly, it’s not how many records he’s sold, how much money he’d made, or how many times he was named the world’s most influential musician. He wanted to be remembered for his deep faith and belief that all of mankind can be successful.

He measured his own life by the impact he’s had on others. I stand in a long, long line of people who will say John helped me to become a better person not because he provided me with all the answers to my own problems, but because he offered me a new set of lenses to see how to begin to solve them for myself. He helped me understand the importance of doing work that I care about, be an original, do it collaboratively, and to balance that with building a personal life of meaning as well.

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)

Podcasting from the factory floor

We were once an economy of factories. Now we’re an economy of ideas. The factory was a place of innovation, it converted cotton to cloth, grain to flour, ore to steel. The factory changed the landscape of our economy. It started in Manchester. Now we’re doing it again. In tech. In Manchester. At helps entrepreneurs and innovators develop their early stage startup thinking, build prototypes and MVPs. We craft the early versions of their tech product vision. We enable the spirit of entrepreneurship by getting tech products built, shipped off the factory floor and out of the factory door.

We’re a team of software engineers, designers, analysts, thinkers and doers, agile practitioners, optimists, coffee aficionados and bloggers. We’re also gamers, walkers, parents, dog lovers, campers, chess players, musicians, five-a-siders, home-brewers, travellers and gardeners.

And now we’re podcasters. Check out from the factory floor:

I see so many people with those small white air pods in their ears these days. To visit a modern tech workplace is to walk into a room with a dozen songs playing simultaneously but to hear none of them. Everyone is sat working away with headphones on, alone in their own world. Listen to the silence, let it ring on, no language just sound, that’s all we need to know. Staying in the same place, just staying out the time, touching from a distance, further all the time. It has never been easier to tune in to your own personalised soundtrack of music, audio books, personal development lessons or conversational podcasts.

The podcast is the latest mass-market, personal yet social, communication innovation, an episodic series of spoken word digital audio files that we can download to a personal device for convenient, easy listening. Streaming applications and podcast services provide a simple, integrated way to manage personal consumption across different content sources and playback devices.

Our from the factory floor podcast series features one or more of our team engaged in conversations on our research, expertise and reflections – a slice-of-life startup stories, a mashup of Alan Turing meets Harry Potter. It’s Gone Fishing for startup tech entrepreneurs. We start out with scripted themes and content but then improvised, free flowing conversation naturally emerges. Our title, from the factory floor is an attribution to the spirit and energy of Factory Records, reflecting our Mancunian joie-de-vivre.

We were motivated to create a podcast for a number of reasons. We’re a handsome team but more faces for radio than video, so podcasting was the medium to share and express our personal passions, increase our professional visibility, and put a toe in the water of the current trend of micro-influences sharing their knowledge. We’re also active advocates of the Open Source ethos, so hope to contribute and cultivate a community of like-minded listeners where our contribution can spark someone to launch their own startup venture.

So where did all this start? ‘Podcast’ is a portmanteau, a combination of iPod and broadcast, the term first suggested by The Guardian columnist Ben Hammersley in February 2004. Use of the term podcast predated Apple’s addition of formal support for podcasting to the iPod and its iTunes platform, which created some copyright issues back in the day around the use of ‘Pod’ in product names.

In October 2000, the concept of attaching sound and video files in RSS feeds was developed by Tritan Louis, with the idea implemented by Dave Winer, a software developer and an author of the RSS format, and podcasting became a recognised medium for distributing audio content. The first application to make this process feasible was iPodderX, developed by August Trometer and Ray Slakinski. This shift occurred as a result of the evolution of internet capabilities along with increased consumer access to cheaper hardware and software for audio recording and editing.

Things moved on when Apple released iTunes 4.9, which added formal support for podcasts, thus negating the need to use a separate program to download and transfer them to a mobile device. This made access to podcasts more convenient and widespread. Within a year, many podcasts from public radio networks like placed many of their radio shows on the iTunes platform, some using podcasting as their only distribution system.

So what have we learned from our own podcasting adventures, and why should you consider developing your own podcast strategy? Here are my ten takeaways of the business and personal benefits from podcasting, for you and your startup.

1.     Develop empathy for your listener We all love the sound of our own voice, but the real skill to creating something people will listen to is putting yourself in their headphones – it’s not about what you want to say but what they want to hear on your subject. This means investing time to prepare and research your content, so that that you have something interesting, different and memorable to say as ‘takeaways’ for your audience. Showing customer empathy is a key trait for successful entrepreneurs.

2.     Use your voice to convey emotion and create rapport It’s easy to be animated telling stories and talking when with friends, but when that red button is pushed, we can freeze. It’s all about the delivery…once more with feeling. I’ve found working on podcasts has made me relax and able to speak more conversationally, and be a better listener, something I will take into my everyday business communication. I try to convey feeling and emotion when speaking, being light-hearted, smiling, laughing, and showing I’m enjoying the event – hopefully this comes across in my voice. I try to make the podcast a dynamic thirty-minutes of storytelling. Podcasting enables us to share our human side through conveying our personality.

3.     Being creative and thinking on your feet Producing podcast content is a creative endeavour. It’s a good feeling to create something out of nothing with a spark. The focus on generating your own unique content forces you to focus on improving your creativity. You need to give yourself enough time to develop your thinking, creativity is part lightbulb moment, part process and practice. 

Thinking on your feet in the moment is an act of creativity that podcasting will develop. We have a script and some key hook lines, but inevitably the podcast goes off script and improv kicks in. You need to be an agile and nimble thinker to keep the conversation flowing whilst masking the faux pas – again a key skill for entrepreneurs.

4.     Time management and flexibility Being able to manage your time is key to most successful entrepreneurial ventures, making every moment count can make the difference between a great outcome and mediocrity or losing your way. This is also true with producing podcasts, there are lots of moving parts that come with producing good output on a regular basis. Being organised without being rigid, I’ve found the disciplined needed has provided valuable lessons in my organisational skills.

5.     It is a personal development experience Podcasting has added to my personal development curriculum. In preparation and research, I’ve listened to some amazing podcasting on a wide variety of subjects. There are inspirational people out there sharing amazing insights through their podcasts. When you get together with your co-hosts or research for each episode, this gives you a chance to collect information you may not have noticed before

6.     Podcasts are far more than repurposed content Podcasting means more than simply additional background content, it has to standalone in its own right and be something that engages, entertains, educates and inspires your audience. One of the most common ways people listen is on the commute into work, so you have the opportunity to really grab their attention in a moment when they have no distractions.

7.     Make it authentic A lot of podcasts are simple, just a few folks seemingly chatting away about something that they’re really passionate about. Some are polished and highly professional, including theme music, sound effects, professional editing. These are great to listen to, but they take a lot more time, effort and cost to produce. The more home-baked efforts – like ours – on the other hand, might have a few rough edges, but it means you can get it out consistently every week, and grow a loyal following.

8.     Creating a personal brand that builds connection The growth of the internet has enabled various technology enabled marketing strategies. Podcasting is one of these as outlined earlier, a tool to create a personal brand, extend your reach, engagement and connectivity of your personality beyond the traditional boundaries.

Podcasts have become the new talk radio on mobile devices, creating awareness and increasing traffic generation for new audiences to get you noticed. Podcasts can help in building familiarity and traction, as listeners usually subscribe to the series and regularly listen. As long as your series continues, your audience is quite likely to keep listening.

9.     Podcasting is an alternative to video Whilst video marketing is a vital part of the digital marketing mix, it’s good to step away from the screen these days. Equally, not everyone is comfortable to shoot videos. As a result, podcasting is a channel to develop your reputation with a reduced budget and investment of time compared to videos.

We are no strangers to information overload. With the internet filled with an ample amount of written content, audio information can be a welcoming media. Although podcasts are a one-sided medium, it can create effective relationships with listeners by giving the listeners an opportunity to get to know the person speaking on the podcast – you can’t see that so well in a blog. It’s a good start to building a relationship and creating trust. This encourages listeners to be associated with the brand. This, in turn, leads to improved conversion.

10.   Where is the value to my potential customers? The value comes from the content you are providing, and the authority in your voice. Being able to give specific insights as an expert in your space, and knowing exactly who you are listening too, creates value for your potential customers. By offering insights and experiential advice, wrapped by your own personality, podcasts give that personal transparency and authenticity, which makes you stand you out from the crowd. Edison Research estimates that 90 million people in the U.S. have listened to a podcast in the last month – that’s a good reach.

You won’t find a better way of learning than the humble podcast as a listener, nor getting your point of view or brand awareness increased as a broadcaster. We all want convenience, so by transforming your blog posts (and other content) into easily digestible audio versions, you’re delivering that accessibility.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Would you want to read an entire blog post, or listen to an energising conversation about the subject matter on your way to work, at the gym, or while making dinner? Having an easy, convenient way to absorb information is the key to creating an engaged audience that has commercial potential.

People are carrying around an entire library of podcasts in their pockets every day, listening on-the-go and have capacity to find and absorb much more information from a digital conversation than a traditional blog post. Go on, find your voice, once more with feeling!

How to avoid making slapdash U-turn decisions in your startup

At some point all startup leaders will make a bet-the-company decision. To make a good decision requires both prediction and judgment. But how do you get better at both – and when is it the right thing to do to reverse a decision and make a U-turn? Most of us change our minds all the time on the small stuff, but making a big decision is tough, and sometimes you realise you’ve made a choice… and it turns out you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Circumstances change, new information comes to light, our objectives evolve, so it’s normal for our decisions to develop with them. You may agonise over a U-turn, but suffering a period of self-doubt and a few embarrassing conversations is a small price to pay for making the right choice, second time around. John Maynard Keynes, the C20th economist, summed it up well: when the facts change, I change my mind, I alter my conclusions.

So, don’t ever rule out making U-turns in your startup, because one day you will face that challenge. When you realise you’ve made a wrong turn on a big issue or in a crisis, it can feel unnerving with the need for a rapid response. Searching for the right answer is pointless, this is the realm of unknowables. In this domain, a startup leader’s immediate job is to stench the bleeding, acting to re-establish order, working to transform the situation from chaos to stability. 

Doing the right thing because of a change of heart is better than pursuing a policy that will cause harm. It’s about judgement and authority too. Beyond the subjective nature of the ‘right thing’ there are also moments when the momentum is pulling so strongly in one direction, it becomes inevitable. But before we look at the right way to make a U-turn decision, let’s look at lessons to be learned from the government’s several screeching U-turns in their Covid response, highlighting how not make and communicate U-turn decisions.

Let’s start with an obvious point: governing in an unprecedented global pandemic is not simple. When coronavirus hit many of the government’s plans went out the window, ministers forced to react quickly to events. But it’s also pretty obvious that the government has changed its mind a lot in the last few months. In the last fortnight, over A Level/GCSE results and face coverings in schools, their positions changed significantly in a matter of hours, and its this frequent, seemingly knee-jerk reactions which creates instability and lack of confidence – key things to avoid in U-turn situations.

That’s led to real concerns that government don’t have a grip on the moment, and strategy and policies keep evolving without clear thinking. There comes a point in time when strategy-makers have to be firm, clear and certain, giving reassurance. All I’ve seen is the government making U-turns is reacting to pressure questioning their decisions, rather than shaping the response. That undermines confidence, as it appears the government is devoid of the ability to make a difficult argument and is making it up as it goes along.

Welcome to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s disasterclass, where incompetence is his core curriculum subject. Williamson, who exhibits no passion for his brief, endangered an entire A-level generation. On the one hand, the decision to cancel exams and have results set by an algorithm, using inadequate and patchy information about pupils, was made in April, so we must consider that he only had five months’ notice that students would not be sitting their exams and to come up with ways of handling the situation as fairly and accessibly as possible. However, each day seemingly brought new layers of unpreparedness.

Williamson insisted allowing pupils to use teacher assessed grades in lieu of exams would be unfair, as it would give a 13% inflation in grades this year, so instead he opted to use the controversial algorithm to downgrade the A-level results of 39% of pupils. The upshot was such a demonstrable shambles, that on 13 August, Johnson declared of the English A-levels: Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.

Four days later, following outrage over the downgrading of marks, Williamson announced that the algorithm-moderated results would not stand.

Williamson is present, but not involved, or, to put it differently, my attention was recently drawn to a way of distinguishing between white and blue collar work in the US – the America that showers before work and the America that showers after work. Williamson strikes me as are very much a man that showers during work.

In a crisis, you need to understand the limitations of both the evidence and the process through which it is channelled, and difficult as it might be, be prepared to act in the absence of scientific certainty – there weren’t enough facts, so make a judgement. Poor decision making is not an inevitable consequence of a crisis. But in a fast-moving situation, there may be little time or opportunity to fix early mistakes. That means thinking fast and considering implementation at the outset are all the more crucial.

The best decisions are made when you know not just what you want to do, but why you want to do it, within a wider sense of a convincing strategy. Greater focus on why this would have led to better outcomes all round, instead Johnson is ‘governing in hindsight’ with a series of forced U-turns, with the speed and frequency of policy shifts the crux of concern.

These are unprecedented times and you can’t expect to get everything right first time, but the propensity of U-turns suggests that the decision making approach is flawed. So, what can we learn from the government’s repeated screeching U-turns on how to do it better for your startup when facing the need to change a decision?

1.        Be less certain

In May, Williamson said that all primary children in England would have four weeks in school before the end of summer. But on June 9, he said there was ‘no choice’ but to scrap the plans amid concerns that the two-metre social distancing rule would make a full return impossible.

Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said overconfidence is the bias he’d eliminate first if he had a magic wand. It’s ubiquitous, the chances are good that you’re more confident about each step of the decision-making process than you ought to be.

So, the first rule of decision-making to avoid U-turns is to just be less certain about everything. Think choice A will lead to outcome B? It’s probably a bit less likely than you believe. Think outcome B is preferable to outcome C? You’re probably too confident about that as well.

Once you accept that you’re overconfident, you can revisit the logic of your decision. Have you prepared for a different outcome than your expected one? You can also practice aligning your level of your confidence to the chance that you’re correct.

2.        Ask How often does that typically happen?

The Government promised regular testing of two million care home residents and staff, starting July 6; Professor Jane Cummings, the government’s adult social care testing director, said that the earliest date by which it would reach all care homes was now September 7.

Kahneman uses the example of when he was collaborating on a book and asked his co-author to estimate the date on which he’d complete their first draft. He said between 18 and 30 months. Then he asked an experienced author, who had been involved in many textbook projects, how long it typically took. He answered, 40% never finish the book, and he couldn’t think of a project that had finished within seven years. The person’s mistake, and the point of Kahneman’s story, is that they should have thought about how long similar projects typically take.

Research suggests the best starting point for predictions – a key input into decision making – is to ask How often does that typically happen? The idea with both prediction and judgment is to get away from the ‘inside view’, where the specifics of the decision overwhelm your analysis. Instead, you want to take the ‘outside view’ where you start with similar cases before considering the specifics of your individual case.

3.        Accept there is no silver-bullet solution 

Johnson pledged a world-beating test, track, and trace operation to isolate new infections would be in place by June 1. The much-vaunted app, trialled on the Isle of Wight, has still not been launched. The head of the UK’s Test and Trace programme, Dido Harding, has refused to put a timeline on when the app could be launched. 

We badly want a silver bullet solution, a simple action that will leapfrog the competition or supercharge performance in one fell swoop – but the next time you ask yourself Is there a simple solution to this problem? be prepared to answer probably not.

The pressure to make the right decision is huge. That makes it even harder to say that we made the wrong choice. Failure is recoverable, regret is much tougher.

 4.        Consider alternatives explicitly

Building on the first three points, recognise decision making is about choices, and you can’t make good choices without good alternatives. Most of us do not explicitly formulate and evaluate alternatives in making big decisions – we are focused on the answer.

So, imagine this scenario: you want to expand your online capabilities. You can build your own team and invest, or consider strategic partnerships, and joint venture arrangements. The act of formulating and evaluating explicit alternatives invariably improves the quality of decision making. The next time someone recommends a course of action, ask two simple questions: What alternatives did you consider and reject? and Why?

5.       Have a strategy and use your U-turn to inspire others  

25 August: advice on wearing facemasks in schools was changed overnight. The communication of that decision was a bit messy. On Monday, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries played down the need for face coverings. Just over 24 hours later, the government was announcing its policy change.

There is no need to apologise for a U-turn, you can justify it by explaining the reasoning behind your decision. Be confident, holding onto your conviction. Your boldness in changing direction can inspire others, lots of people wish they had the courage to change course too.

Acting on your awareness is a critical step, and acting sooner rather than later may actually save the day. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to be confident and show flexibly is required for leaders who want to make things happen despite U-turns in a time of uncertainty.

6.        Don’t underestimate the challenges involved in execution 

Back in June, ministers defended the decision not to pay for free school meals in England over the summer, highlighting other chunks of money given to councils to help. Marcus Rashford’s campaign made that defence less sustainable. The outcome: Marcus Rashford 1, Boris Johnson 0, and the government with egg on face.

The complexities associated with a big-stakes decision rarely end with the decision itself, research indicates that only 12% of large-scale changes are executed as intended. That’s because change is hard and the bigger the change, the bigger the risks.

All leaders, startup and government, have to demonstrate on a perpetual basis that they are heading in the right direction and broadly taking the correct path. Too many U-turns and the impression is of leaders simply keeps getting things continuously wrong instead, with credibility being chipped away.

Frequent changes of heart can be damaging, but a U-turn is not a sign of weakness. You shouldn’t beat yourself up when you decide to change track. Circumstances never remain static, so why should our responses to them be forever locked in their initial form? But when asked to provide direction, don’t nod along with whatever bumper-sticker solution is available.

A startup faces many unknowns, and things change rapidly, so U-turns can be an effective tool if done right, but too many undermines any pretence of leadership, it looks slapdash. If done swiftly, the pivot looks strong, reactive, and decisive, and is often the right thing to do.

The innovator’s DNA of John Peel

Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, Listen, mate, life has surface noise – John Peel.

Sunday was John Peel’s birthday, he would have been 81, but alas he died 25 October 2004. Happy birthday to the great man. I owe so much to him for introducing me to so much good music and getting me through many a night shift on essays and studying at school, University and beyond.

To this day my music collection is full of bands he introduced me too on his late night show: Cocteau Twins, The Fall, Joy Division, The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, The Ramones, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Wedding Present, Echo And The Bunnymen – and Magazine: 20 January 1978 Shot by Both Sides. Devoto’s vocals have been characterised as a speak-sing voice that veered between amused croon and panicked yelp.  Glorious.

Peel was Britain’s most consistently innovative radio presenter for almost 40 years, enduring thanks to his relentless reinvention and discovery, and an ability to adapt to changing musical fashions to remain at the cutting edge of taste. He was an innovator. He had a seemingly endless enthusiasm for the new and the disruptive, and in his time, he championed many new musical styles and new bands before they crossed into the mainstream populism. Once they did, he lost interest and went off in search of the next musical innovation.

Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heswall near Liverpool a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War, his life was changed in the 1950s like that of so many of his generation by the advent of rock’n’roll. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. After initially working in America, he returned to England at the heyday of pirate radio stations, and with no outlet for a broadcaster of such eclectic tastes on the BBC, he joined Radio London, which rivalled Radio Caroline as an offshore broadcaster.

Adopting the name John Peel, he called his late night show The Perfumed Garden. When the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed offshore broadcasting in August 1967, Peel was one of several pirate DJs to switch to the new BBC Radio One. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the counterculture of the time, often in open conflict with the BBC hierarchy and more conventional DJs, whose chart-orientated musical tastes he openly derided.

During the 1970s, Peel’s influence waned a little as the music he had been responsible for popularising became increasingly mainstream. Then in 1976, punk exploded, and Peel became its most vocal champion on the airwaves. The event that ostensibly changed the face of the show for good was the first play of a track by the Ramones, Judy Is A Punk, on 19 May 1976. The musical make-up of the programme did not immediately revolutionise, but more and more of punk’s first wave began to find its way onto the show.

As he switched his playlist to a diet of the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Undertoneshe discovered an entirely new audience who loved the fact that he could play a record like Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and then declare he liked it so much he was going to play it all over again – the first time that had ever been done on BBC radio.

He went on aligning himself with challenging new music for the rest of his career. There were a number of major innovations that Peel introduced to radio, but two have stuck in my mind. Firstly, The Peel Sessions, which were radio debuts from new bands, often playing four songs live; secondly, an annual tradition of Peel’s show was the Festive Fifty, a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners.

Peel’s over-arching dictum was that he wanted to hear something he had never heard before. It is notable that his favourite acts tended to be those where there was a strong, original and identifiable presence, whether it was the guttural singspiel ofThe Fall, the languid mocking commentary of Half Man Half Biscuit or the jingling guitar sound and sharp lyrics of The Smiths.

The first time I listened to Peel was towards the end of 1977. A few of the lads at school were talking about the new Manchester bands, and Peel’s show, so I tuned the radio late at night and heard the new songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again. In that one night I heard The Fall and Joy Division. They played stuff the likes of which I had never heard before. The most memorable song I ever heard on Peel’s show was Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil, sung by Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins.

I became a dedicated listener from early 1978 onwards. It was a golden period, every night finger poised over the record button with the microphone in front of the radio – because another thing Peel did was play the record in full and not talk over it, so you could record it. Brilliant! There’s a box of C90 tapes in my attic of the various recordings I made.

By the close of 1984, at university, I was still listening to Peel every night, but as time passed and I started work and got married, I drifted away from the 10pm to midnight slot he had. I got The Wedding Present and The Smiths as my last two gifts from John. I would still listen from time to time, especially The Festive Fifties, and there were still some great discoveries in there, but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a wife and you can’t spend two hours every night listening to the radio, can you?

In those early years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music. By a rough count, 80% of my iPod music comes from stuff I heard on Peel’s show.

I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1990, only when staying in hotels working away with work or up late studying my accountancy exams and then my MBA. No more listening to his show on headphones, half-asleep under the duvet: no more sessions from obscure and noisy bands from the middle of nowhere making you go ‘wow!’.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to innovative music, introducing new bands and avoiding the commercial push to play the already popular bands. He was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved and stuff that he thought you should listen to. For the generations of music fans who grew up on Peel’s eclectic and very human late-night radio show, he opened the door to a whole new world of music, the kind of stuff you’d never hear on daytime radio, let alone find in mainstream High Street record shops.

Peel showed all the traits of a disruptive innovator, highlighted in The Innovator’s DNA, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, build on the idea of disruptive innovation to explain how and why the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are so successful. They identify five core traits and skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from the rest of us, and how they are restless and repeatedly come up with great new ideas. They researched five hundred innovators and identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovators.

First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill called ‘associational thinking’. ‘Associating’ happens as the brain tries to make sense of novel inputs, it helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as ‘the Medici effect’, referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a range of disciplines – sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase the building-blocks for ‘thinking outloud’ from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioural skills more frequently:

Questioning. Innovators hold a passion for inquiry, frequently challenging the status quo, asking questions to understand how things really, they are today, why are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. They found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation but are valued at least as highly as good answers.

Observing. Innovators are also intense observers, carefully watching the world around them where observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things: Peel attended three concerts a week to check out new bands, gaining a rich observational insight of emerging bands.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.

Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out and piloting new ideas, unceasingly exploring the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things.

Collectively, these discovery skills – the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioural skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – constitute what Christensen et al called the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.

I think Peel showed he was made of an innovator’s DNA. He embraced a number of musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae, which you can subsequently market he once said. Peel’s attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony

For many of us his shows were a source of the brilliant, the rubbish and sometimes the downright unlistenable, but it was always interesting and it made you think. He gave innumerable bands their first big break and routinely exposed diverse and emerging genres. Check out his eclectic tastes on his own Desert Island Discs list:

Peel was ironic and humorous, a stream of random consciousness seemed to come out of the radio speaker from him either side of the music. I recall he introduced a Fall session with the words, Really needs to be played loud enough to start a civil defence alert. His demeanour was one of pure delight of an innovator when something new has come to pass and he can share it with the wider audience.

I hope you enjoy this one. He said and meant it. He never pandered to the audience. A catchy, addictive tune might be followed by a few minutes of sheer noise. What he most liked, he once said, was not only music he had never heard before, but music he could relate to nothing else.

Radio is by its nature ephemeral, but those Peel Sessions were innovation showcases, capturing emerging new talent. They are testimony to his desire to seek out and share new ideas, and a fitting legacy to his life’s work. Make your mark as an innovator like John Peel, gone but never forgotten.

Startup founders: adopt the growth mindset of Eric Liddell

The announcement of the death of actor Ben Cross last week brought back memories of his role in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, when he played Harold Abrahams, the British Jewish athlete driven as a runner not just to win gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but also to battle antisemitism.

The film also features a fellow British team member, the devout Scottish Protestant missionary Eric Liddell, played by Ian Charleson, who is similarly in a quest to combat discrimination. Abrahams wins the 100 metres, while Liddell triumphs in the 400 metres.

The two actors shared one of the most memorable opening scenes in film history, among the sprinters on a training run along a Scottish beach, enhanced dramatically with moments in slow motion and Vangelis’s inspirational music.

Don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life? I always do it when I see someone going mad in the gym and satisfy myself with a slow-motion lurch to the line to win an imaginary gold medal, with just a mild sweat on.

Chariots of Fire has always been one of my favourites because of the story and principles of Eric Liddell. Although it didn’t inspire me to become a runner, it offers a number of personal performance and coaching lessons, not just for athletes, but for startup folks as well. 

Chariots of Fire is about mindset, determination and self-belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenges resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of the two British Olympic runners and how they reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. It tells the story of a special man, Eric Liddell.

Liddell was the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Liddell feels divinely inspired when running: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell, nicknamed the ‘Flying Scotsman’, was favourite for the 100m Olympic gold, however his faith is a barrier as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, so he switches to the 400m. Imagine that, the opportunity for a gold medal sacrificed because of his beliefs.

Before the 400m final, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well. Liddell’s best was 49.6 seconds – but one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the Americans and wins the gold medal in a new World and Olympic record of 47.6 seconds.

Liddell’s racing career was short, from 1921 to 1925. In those four years he won two Olympic medals and seven caps for Scotland at rugby union, where he became a first-choice wing three-quarter before forsaking the sport in 1923 to concentrate on athletics.

His final race came less than a year after the Olympics, in June 1925, when he won the 100 yards, the 220 yards and the quarter-mile events at the Scottish Amateur Championships. A few weeks later hundreds of well wishers turned up at Waverley Station in Edinburgh as he began his journey to China to become a missionary, where he remained for the rest of his life.

However, once Japan entered WWII, Liddell and other westerners had their freedom of movement restricted, and in 1943 he was interned at a camp in Weihsien. There he established a school and took charge of the children’s recreation, organising sporting activities.

Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumour, untreatable in those circumstances, and on 21 February 1945 he died. He was buried in a simple garden, his grave marked by a small wooden cross.

The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991. The simple inscription came from the Book f Isaiah 40:31:“They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary. 

This is an evocative and poignant story of amazing achievement shaped by strong personal values, the key insight to stimulate our own journey and startup thinking is Liddell’s growth mindset. Mindset is everything, we bring it to every decision and action we make, and shapes how we approach challenges and opportunities.

In her book unpacking her research, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck distinguished two extremes of the mindsets people tend to have:

  • A fixed mindset where you assume your qualities are carved in stone, whatever skills, talents, and capabilities you have are predetermined and finite. Whatever you lack, you will continue to lack – I’m either good at it or not. I stick to what I know, feedback and criticism are personal;
  • A growth mindset whereby your qualities are things you can cultivate through effort, everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Failure is an opportunity to grow, I can learn to do anything I want, my effort and attitude determine my abilities.

I define mindset to be the lens from which I view the world. A growth mindset is an empowering lens from which I can see how to better myself. Fundamentally, my takeaway is that success comes as a result of effort, learning, and persistence.

The distinction between fixed and growth mindsets has significant implications for how we address the growing pressures around us. The mindset paradox suggests that the greatest threat to success is avoiding failure.One of the most provocative aspects of Dweck’s work is what it says about our approach to challenges.

In a fixed mindset, you avoid challenging situations that might lead to failure because success depends upon protecting existing qualities and concealing your deficiencies. If you do fail, you focus on rationalising the failure rather than learning from it and developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you focus on learning and development and actively pursue the types of challenges that will likely lead to both learning and failure.

With a growth mindset, you understand that your individual capabilities can be developed to improve performance and expand in new directions. You focus on self-development, creating work opportunities, environments and practices that enable you to develop new skills by experimentation.

As Liddell showed, the future belongs to those who can adopt a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset will likely be increasingly overwhelmed by mounting and sustained uncertainty. Worse, the more they avoid failure, the more susceptible these individuals can be, not learning from mistakes and missing opportunities.

Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers, learning to recognise when our fixed-mindset persona” shows up and what it says to make them us threatened or defensive.

It’s tough, but we can gain a lot by deepening our understanding of growth-mindset concepts and the processes for putting them into practice. It gives us a richer sense of who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to move forward. So here’s my framework, inspired by Eric Liddell, to cultivate a growth mindset in your startup:

1.     Your goal is to not quit

Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey. Most of the difficult part is to retain the growth mindset orientation and just not quit. At the beginning we are doing everything and often we fall into the trap of thinking that the greater our input, the greater and the better the output will be. That’s just not true.

Takeaway: Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey: most of the times the difficult part is to retain your positive mindset.

2.     Discomfort is your friend

If you want to grow, you’re going to get uncomfortable. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, which is why discomfort shouldn’t be avoided, but rather embraced and accepted. Discomfort in itself is a good barometer to measure if you are stretching yourself. Growth mindset in startups manifests itself in founders who have a genuine curiosity, a willingness to learn, are comfortable being uncomfortable and resilient to the core.

It’s often easier to stick with the things you know and follow the path of least resistance. Be conscious of this, and seek out activities that will challenge you, force you to learn new things, and to grow your skills.

Takeaway: If you are comfortable with what you are doing you are not pushing the boundaries enough.

3.     Prioritise thoughtfully – and do it fast

A growth mindset is all about prioritisation at speed. You need a firm grasp on what will move the needle most for your venture. Do those projects first, and you’ll be more productive, more efficient, and most importantly, focused on work that really matters. Face forward, and move forward, at the best pace you can, and concentrate on yourself.

Takeaway: Look forward, don’t look back. You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing. Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal

4.     Assess your habits

Inquiring whether behaviour operates as an asset or liability is crucial. This distinction provides the perspective to feel renewed confidence in your strengths or an opportunity to examine blind spots holding you back.

Even when you have the best intentions, your brain can rebel like a toddler throwing a tantrum. This is when habits can do the heavy lifting. Determination is a growth mindset characteristic. Resistance is a fixed mindset anchor, a myriad of mental and emotional forces that can self-sabotage us from doing the work and achieving our dreams.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore. We are always a work-in-progress

5.Get out of your own bubble

As an entrepreneur, self-reflection and openness to change are the cornerstones of success. But it’s easy to get caught up in a bubble of your own ideas and become obsessive. In the end, it comes down to whether you have a genuine desire to really know yourself and your limits. We are hardwired to avoid change, especially once we’re comfortable. We don’t want to leave our safe, warm caves and head out to hunt the lions, whatever they might be.

Takeaway: entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves, as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore.

6.     Be yourself

At the start of the 400m, Liddell shook hands with each of the competitors and introduced himself. It was natural for him, but in an Olympic final, it was completely unexpected. Then he left them in the dust with his superior running ability. 

Takeaway: You don’t have to be overly aggressive in order to achieve your goals. Better to be who you are and run the race your own way.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, the lessons to be drawn from Eric Liddell’s growth mindset have always resonated with me as incredibly valuable for entrepreneurs. He was a remarkable man. It took until the 1980 Olympics for another Scot to win a gold medal. After the 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, he simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell.

My mentoring advice to startup founders: do the work that is in front of you

During lockdown I was ‘zoom mentoring’ a number of startup founders, focusing on them as a person, not their startup ventures, which were paused. The word mentor emerged from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, King of Ithaca. When the king went to war, Mentor became a friend and advisor to the king’s son Telemachus.

Mentoring isn’t just about telling someone what to do, rather it’s all about helping them work things out for themselves to see the potential inside themselves, encouraging them to look ahead and help navigating a course to their destination, with a gentle, nurturing push in the right direction.

A mentor typically has some relevant experience they draw on to help the mentee. Not to say I would do this but to basically say, Okay, let’s look at this question, or What do you think about that? They basically use their wisdom to help somebody else develop wisdom of their own.

So, let me share some of my recent endeavours, with lessons and takeaways from my mentoring experiences, as to what shapes an effective mentor-mentee relationship. The names have been changed by the way!

1. Ensure there is personal chemistry and empathy

Johncalls me. It’s 2.30am. He’s an absolute mess, drunk, crying. Is it cashflow problems again, lost a key customer? I ask. No. He’s just split up with his girlfriend. I’m no better trained to counsel him than I would be to talk him through replacing a car battery or laying a parquet floor, but he assumes I am. An hour later and we’ve had a good chat. I feel the same weird endorphin rush as after closing a fund raise, exhaustion plus exhilaration and the vague feeling of having done a good thing – like some of you may do after running a 10k for charity.

There has to be personal chemistry and ‘fit’ between mentor and mentee, you have to invest in the relationship with your mentee as a person. And speed mentoring doesn’t work. For mentors, the fit can be assessed by asking: can I clearly be helpful to this potential mentee? Can this person be completely open and honest with me? Are they willing to provide deep context about their problems and vulnerabilities?

Mentees should choose someone who is close enough to their industry so that very quickly shorthand explanations will do, and they can immediately dive in and understand the primary challenges. Questions to ask include: can this person give actionable advice? Have they said something straight away that makes me stop and think?

To stand out as a mentor, you really have to get to know your mentee on a personal level – the stuff that makes them them. Be an active listener, making a conscious effort to truly pay attention to what and how they say things, instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Ask open questions, and act as a sounding board. Nothing engenders trust faster than giving someone your undivided attention. Remain engaged and committed to bringing your full emotional intelligence and intellectual horsepower to each meeting.


  • Be open about your own mistakes and vulnerabilities
  • Avoid relationship droop, keep the exchanges energised
  • Don’t give homework, focus on execution progress

2. Don’t assume anything – set expectations together at the outset

Fiona. She has two settings: silence and shouting. She always has to have the last word. And it’s a loud one too. I tell her if you hear hooves clip-clopping outside your bedroom door, it could be a zebra. But when you take a look, it will almost certainly turn out to be a horse. She says maybe, and spouts a metric-tonne of moaning. She never slows down or pauses. I’m currently on Amazon ordering her a key ring in the shape of a zebra.

Many mentors think they’re ‘going to give them the benefit of my experience’, when actually, that isn’t necessarily what the other person needs, or wants. Effective mentors speak for less than 20% of the time. The key is to say just enough to get the other person thinking.

The skill is to use your experience to craft questions that stimulate the mentee to think out loud. But be careful with those questions. If you know where the conversation is going this is not a mentoring exchange, a predictable sense of direction doesn’t stimulate reflection. Part of this is setting the tone, style, structure and approach to the relationship and expectations early.


  • Kick off relationships around distinct problems or challenges
  • Create a schedule – but keep it loose, don’t impose a rigid or unrealistic cadence
  • Show up prepared with questions

3. Have an open dialogue to reframe the problem

Gerald, angel investor. On a zoom call, trying to recover a car-crash pitch for a mentee. How the other half live. He’s sat in his extremely posh study at home. Then his extremely posh eight-year old daughter comes in during the call and asks a question about the economy. Before he answers he asks her a question. Do you know what the economy is darling? Sure, she replies, it’s the part of the plane that’s terrible. You can see how revolutions start. He looks like the Nazi at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. I tell him we’re withdrawing, there’s no emotional fit. What have I said? It’s perfectly good advice.

All I really try to do is have a good, two-way dialogue as opposed to a discussion – trying to create some new meaning not just exchanging points of view. It’s an opportunity for collaboration which takes emotional energy, empathy and asking tough questions. Helping someone through an obstacle is about helping them look at the problem differently.

What I do is change perceptions and get mentees to tell themselves a different story. This reframes their mindset as to what they perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing appears unsolvable inside a particular point of view. Enlarging the box, and problems take a different dimension, potential new opportunities appear.

It’s also important to create rhythm, routine and boundaries. Rhythm and routine are essential to keeping us alert. Boundaries are key too. The airline truism suddenly becomes very real: we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. I will be of no help to anyone else if I burn out.

Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear, practical based on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you think better. The quality of your questioning defines the quality of your thinking. With Gerald, I never lost the Raiders of the Lost Ark image. Indiana Jones I’m not.


I always try to follow this meeting progression:

  • Mentee explains challenge they’re facing.
  • Mentor explains how they’ve tackled a similar challenge.
  • Mentee explains how conditions might be different based on their situation.
  • Mentor suggests what to replicate from her experience based on her mentee’s specific context.

4. Don’t let your mentee treat you like a genie

If wasn’t doing what I was dong I’d work for the NHS. Who doesn’t love the NHS ?(apart from Matt Hancock). It’s unlike any other national asset, no one talks in fond tones about the Bank of England. The NHS does an amazing thing for us all. They delivered you when you were born and one day they’ll zip you up in a bag, but until then they’ll do everything that medial science allows to see you on the road from cradle to grave just like Bevan promised back in 1948. NHS workers are genies.

A mistake mentees often make is to think the mentor will be always available for them, seeking immediate gratification. I’ve got a problem my mentor could solve, so I’ll call her now. The mentor isn’t there to be at the beck and call. Also, the mentor isn’t there to sort your problems. Your mentor is there to help you work things through yourself. In fact, when you bring an issue to the mentor, first thing she might say is, So tell me about your thinking about this issue so far?

Also don’t set the mentor up as a role model or simply pump them for answers in the path of the development of the relationship. What’s important is to say I want to be myself, but there are things that I can learn from them, which will be useful for me. We tend to believe that having a mentor is about getting the best solutions to a problem on demand, a guardian angel who ensures we avoid failure by giving us the answers. That isn’t the case. Mentoring is about helping the mentee find the right path, shaping the opportunity to think it through critically on their own.


  • Solve for the long term
  • Help your mentees embrace failure as growth
  • Measure progress every meeting

5. Don’t boil the ocean every meeting – focus on your mentee’s blind spots

Jane. Always goes round the houses. Some ninety minutes later and I’ve missed the first half of ‘Hamilton’ thanks to a conversation that over ran and didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on in the second half. Debriefing with wife afterward, watching the first half didn’t seem to have helped her understand it either.

One of the hazards of mentorship is that there can be far too much to discuss. Very few startup have one major challenge or problem on their plate. It can be tempting to unpack everything that’s going on, but this will only limit how deep your conversation can go on the issues that matter most.

Be intentional about picking the key questions you really want to solve in a session. Try not to veer into big, conceptual thinking, it’s easy for your time to run out without actually tackling the practical stuff that’s coming up the next week or month. Try to keep things tied to the decisions that need to get made, or solutions that need to be found by unpacking blind spots.

To achieve this, I ask questions like Why is that important? instead of straight up saying something is or isn’t. This gives mentees the prompt they need to develop their own insights.


  • Be honest and transparent
  • Celebrate their achievements, convey belief in ability and potential
  • Avoid a meeting agenda that is too jam-packed

6. Provide an underlying philosophy: do the work that is in front of you

Michael from The Bay Area calls. At last someone from San Francisco, this is my entry point to Silicon Valley! No, he’s from the Morecambe Bay area. It’s a shame our child protection duties don’t extend to vetoing some of the terrible names my clients saddle their babies with. Michael tells me he has a baby called Sayton (pronounced Satan, as in King of the Underworld). Later that day I chat with another mentee who brings his newly born daughter onto the zoom: Lesanye. Pronounced Lasagne. As in Lasagne.

I read a quote from Jessa Crispin, founder of and it’s stuck with me: I just do the work that is in front of me. I don’t know if she’d still say she works that way but it’s the way I’ve worked all these years, and the way I continue to work too.

I talk with Michael about the various enemies of doing our work. I say Make your work ‘happy work’. For me, happy work is best done when we take our long-term plans somewhat lightly and work from moment to moment. It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which anything can be done or satisfaction received.

What I really crave, more than anything, is a continuity to my days. Not an accumulation, the sense that they’re adding up to anything, just a continuity, the sense that one day leads into another leads into another and on and on, that they make some kind of chain of progress. I did yesterday’s work yesterday. I’m doing today’s work today. I’ll do tomorrow’s work tomorrow.


  • Do the work that’s in front of you
  • All good things must begin sometime
  • Avoid fluff and grandstanding, there are jobs to be done

So that’s my mentoring experience, which highlights our top three leadership tools:

  • Our ears: listen, listen some more, and then some more
  • Our eyes: look for any dissonance between what is said and what you see
  • Our mouth: speak to acknowledge, then clarify, then inspire

Manage your inner chimp and get your startup mindset back to work

I’m longing for those summer pastimes – lazy days spent idling in the sun, watching the local cricket, lying on the grass and enjoying easy conversation over a beer. It’s August: I may even break out my linen shorts and jazzy flip-flops. These summer pursuits hardly sound like the stuff of nightmares or the harbinger of discomfort and gloom, but this year we’ve all got a bit of summer malady, a sense of vulnerability.

Reality is the clamouring for festival crowds and cricket, the normal summer idylls, but this year they represent the glossy vignettes of a wider reality as we step back to work with a backdrop of uncertainty and enforced social distancing.

Imposed mental and physical boundaries have shaped 2020 summer as we focus on getting back to work. To do so, we need to harness our inner strengths, our own Boudicca or William Wallace, the spirit of Amelia Earhart or Ernest Shackleton, with courage, conviction and self-belief to get things done, digging deep to meet a challenge.

I mean the determination to unleash our energy – not the spike of rage when you see family member’s underwear on the floor, not quite make it to the washing basket – but to harness a sense of our inner vitality to reignite our startup venture, when we feel under pressure, not knowing what to do, and our head is like a box of frogs – thoughts jumping around all over the place.

Consultancy ‘Be the Business’ recently undertook a survey to assess the attitude and ambition of founder responses to COVID, to assess where they were on the restart. Will the pandemic be an act of creative destruction that whittles down the wheat from the chaff, or more like a game of musical chairs: suddenly the music stopped and the fate of many firms is largely determined?

The survey highlighted a typology of firms where their fate has been determined by the strategic choices made on how to respond. There were four camps – where are you?

Hibernators (28%) – labour intensive b2c firms where their core product or service requires proximity between customer and staff. They closed their business and furloughed staff as either government left them no option or because they were unable to remain open whilst protecting staff and customer welfare. Examples include hospitality and personal services such barbers.

Survivors (32%) – b2b service providers whose clients cut discretionary spend and saw dramatic falls in turnover or temporary suspension of their business. Survival is where leaders were nimble and make changes to product or operations to deliver a narrower range to a smaller customer base. Examples include marketing agencies.

Pivoters (21%) – firms able to respond rapidly, and redeployed staff, adjusted services or transformed production to meet the needs of a new customer base. They had the financial firepower and flexibility to pivot. The changes allowed them to remain open and whilst maybe not permanent, established new opportunities for the future. Examples include food service companies switching from restaurants to home delivery.

Thrivers (6%) – firms that by luck or good judgment have been able to ramp up production of existing products or services deemed essential and are working hard to meet uplift in demand. Whilst some of these were in the right place at the right time, all have embraced flexibility, and most are working to fulfil orders at an unprecedented rate. Examples are the firms with an established online capability, or firms able to switch to a new online delivery model.

A further 12% of survey respondents were firms experiencing business as usual, reporting no significant change to their business environment.

So, where do you sit in this distorted, Edvard Munchian landscape? Set against this, what is your mindset for building a bridge to your future, confronted by this new dystopian reality? The world has rapidly shifted under our feet. Almost overnight, the economic dialogue changed from focused confidence to murky chaos.

There are many themes within the range of choices – innovation, technology investment, the productivity paradox of cost efficiencies – making your business model more resilient for a second COVID wave or pending Brexit turmoil. Crises are horrible, but we know crises always end. They are a cyclical part of our economy and there are black swans that inevitably occur.

There are commercial, financial and structural things you can effect in your startup. But that’s the easy part. The tough bit is having the right mindset and managing your psychology which is the greatest challenge, and I think there is a great technique developed by Dr Steve Peters to help here.

Peters is an acclaimed sports psychiatrist with an enviable track record of helping high-performing athletes maintain a positive mindset when competing under pressure at the highest level. His most notable successes have been with British Cycling. Regarded as a ‘mind-mechanic’, Peters is an unlikely success story in British sports coaching. His background is in serious mental health – for twelve years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders. He can’t help you do a Cruyff turn or a 40m cycle-sprint better, but he can help you understand what goes on inside your head.

Peters warns athletes against setting goals that are beyond their control. His philosophy is you cannot say I want to be the best cyclist in the world, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can, however, say I want to be the best I can possibly be, and devise a plan to achieve that aim – and that’s what you need today in your startup.

When it matters most, in the heat of the moment in a critical commercial discussion, or the day of sporting final, a lot of people lose it, and anxiety gets the better of them. The voice in the head starts saying things like The client won’t budge here, we’re going to lose this deal, or My opponent looks in good nick, they to be going faster. In both circumstances, the voice tells us I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these thoughts, and they’re stopping me from being at my best.

Anxiety can threaten to take over, the irrational, emotional side of your personality becomes dominant. Peter called his approach to overcoming this mental burden The Chimp Paradox and shows we can learn skills to manage our mindset. Peters details three elements in a tool for understanding and managing the functioning of your mind at times of high pressure, based on the neuroscience of the brain.

His model sees the brain divided into three areas:

Human. You are a conscious thinking analysing being that works with facts and truth who makes deductions using logical thinking.

Chimp. The area of the mind that is driven by feelings, emotional thinking and gut instincts. The Chimp quickly jumps thinking in black and white, it can be paranoid, and its behaviour can be troublesome, irrational and emotive. 

Computer. This is really a brain that is at the disposal of the Human and Chimp to put information into for reference. It acts as a memory and can also act as an automatic thinking and acting machine that is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep.

Essentially, there’s a battle between the different parts of your brain, and the more primitive Chimp is an extremely powerful emotional machine working five times faster than the Human part, so unless we have techniques for managing the inner Chimp, it often ends up in control and you’re left wondering Why on earth did I do that?

It is how we manage our Chimp that dictates how well we perform: learn to control your Chimp to train the brain to manage surges of emotion, irrational thinking, impulsive behaviour or nagging self-doubt that impact negatively on us in moments of high anxiety. Peters asserts that managing your Chimp will be one of the biggest factors determining success, and it’s down to yourself to do it.

Ask yourself what it is you want to do and why you can’t get there. Chances are it’s your inner Chimp that’s running amuck at present.

So, what exactly does Peters do? It’s a simple technique that can be applied to every high-pressure situation. It’s a mental warm-up, Peter’s approach effectively puts you in a zone where you want to be, and you’re ready to focus on your moment and nothing else. It goes something like this.

Don’t fight the chimp, nurture it None of us can banish our chimp, we’re with him or her for the long haul. Instead of rejecting it, we need to nurture our inner chimp. This means talking to it and building a relationship with it. The chimp is part of us, it just needs parenting.

Let the chimp speak its mind Part of the nurturing process is to ‘let the chimp have its say’. By allowing the chimp to process its emotion it starts to settle as it gets exhausted and thinks I can’t even be bothered listening to myself! The chimp may be speaking but it’s the human that’s listening, and reason soon takes over.

Be careful who the chimp talks to It’s important that you choose your audience. Don’t express yourself to the person who’s engaged in this battle with you, express yourself to a friend who’s willing to listen.

Go over things a few times Emotion takes time to process, sometimes we have to run over challenging things in our minds a few times before the chimp in us is able to accept them. If you keep revisiting the same thing eventually the chimp will say, Do you know what, I’ve said my bit now and I’m beginning to see it differently.

Get your self-esteem from who you are, not what you do We need to prevent our inner chimp from governing our self-worth, otherwise no amount of success will ever be enough. The chimp will chase success, so measure success against your values so building self-esteem is in your own hands.

Spend ten minutes every day reflecting Once you are clear on your goals, actively reflect on whether you are living them successfully, for ten minutes a day. This is putting the human system firmly in the foreground and forcing your chimp to take a back seat.

Smile to show the chimp who’s boss Smiling is a simple habit which actively helps us to control our emotions and keep the chimp in check. Smiling evokes the mood you want to appear in your head. Be proactive, put the right face on, and you’ll soon find that your mood starts to lift and the chimp fades.

Peters identifies the way in which self-doubt and irrational, impulsive behaviour can have a negative impact on our performance. His technique helps us to recognise when our minds are behaving in this way and overcome the self-sabotage to achieve more positive results.

Of course, we are only arriving at the middle of the beginning of post-Covid, and what looks to be a tapered exit from lockdown, so the music will wind back up slowly, and expect a battle with your chimp.

So, whether you’re a hibernator, survivor, pivoter or thriver, it’s the best of times and the worst of times to rethink your startup venture. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be and whatever your survival or growth aspirations, you can make a leap forwards by adopting Peter’s process of The Chimp Paradox and remove those inner demons. Once done you feel better and can begin to have a more rational conversation with yourself. Try it, it works!

I’m all lost in the supermarket: empowering customers through self-service technology

We all expect a ‘smooth and simple’ digital experience, including fast authentication and log-in, as well as seamless web and mobile interactivity. However, despite the focus on user convenience and simplicity, we do not always enjoy the ‘self- service’ process, wrangling with cumbersome digital-authentication requirements or leaving stuff in our virtual baskets.

Online is about speed, convenience, simplicity and saving time, removing friction with intelligent use of technology­­ to build credibility and trust with a brand. As organisations expand their digital based services, the need for an optimal customer experience within all aspects of the customer journey will only grow.

You can see this everywhere with the emphasis on self-service – from tax returns, self check-in at the airport, mobile banking and pay-at-pump petrol. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct before you go to Boots for paracetamol, but be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion. Then of course, there is the self-service supermarket, scan-and-pay.

On Saturday I ventured into the socially-distanced experience at my local supermarket. Having completed my shopping, and remembering to bring my own carrier bags, I was presented with a checkout choice: go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast-moving conveyor belt faster than you can catch it, or go solo and DIY with the self-service scanner.

For me personally, for the most part I like to interact and make conversation with the checkout operators, passing the time of day when I’m making my purchase. It just brings a sense of normality to the shopping experience, chatting whilst bagging whilst putting the world to rights. It’s oddly, therapeutic. But there were queues, so Checkout Number 4 please. Let’s go self-service. Here’s my digital experience.

I open my plastic carrier bag, clip the handles on the metal fingers, smooth it out so stuff goes in more easily. Unexpected item in bagging area. What? A carrier bag in the bagging area! Wait for assistant to approach with barcode crib sheet, which she scans to acknowledge the alarm. Scan product: brought own carrier bag. So far, so good. Scan first product. Alarm goes off: approval needed in a stentorian tone.

Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge I’m old enough to buy bottle of Pinot Grigio. Put wine in bag. Loose items: Please look up item: Ok, I have parsnip, does ‘P’ in vegetables. It’s there, Blip. In the bag. No alarm. Clenched fist. Get in.

Scan box of paracetamol. Alarm goes off: approval needed. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge (again) that I’m old enough to buy this item, just in case I got younger since last time. But she’s busy helping another innocent victim on the adjacent self-service lottery till. Get bored of waiting: ask another assistant to help. Sorry I don’t have authorisation. She scurries off.

Wait while the flustered assistant waves her all-powerful barcode card. She stares at me like I’m part of the zombie apocalypse. Shake head. Scan bread, yellow label, reduced price. Wrong price appears. Barcode blindness. Wait for assistant to figure out how to get the right price up. She can’t. Wait for supervisor to approach and stab screen impatiently. Repeatedly swiping, running the risk of repetitive strain injury. I tell her to cancel the item instead. I’ll go without bread; it’s tainted anyway with the stench of technological and human ineptitude.

It’s all about barcodes. No code – no can do. You might recognise the item as a melon and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word ‘melon’ on a sticker on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a barcode it might as well be an alien spacecraft (by the way, special offer: 2 for £99 million right now until next Sunday).

The man next to me seemed to have a sneaky system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound. A certain amount of trust is after all, involved already. When I confessed to having bought loose bananas, the screen asked me how many, and I duly entered nine, the correct number. I could so easily have halved it and put four and a half: nobody checked.

Trolley empty, just one final hurdle, alone again with the nemesis machine. It taunts me until I figure out which of the flashing orifices accept debit cards. A right palaver of paying. Get the hell out of the store and swear never to use the machines. Driving away, unexpected item in the bagging area is echoing in my head. Need some music therapy from my Apple Music: select I’m all lost in the supermarket, The Clash, to serenade me home. Sing Michael, sing.

During lockdown home food delivery via online portals became a popular alternative self-service from the supermarkets. It’s a paradigm shift enabling personal choice in the mass market, from one-size-fits-all to mass markets of one, where technology enables scaling to creating customer-unique, personalised value through mass customisation.

In some settings self-service works. The pre-paid Oyster cards have served travellers well on London Underground, enabling large numbers of passengers to pay and travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. Before long, perhaps, the Pinot Grigio glitch will be overcome by fitting the machines with biometric facial recognition that can tell by the number of wrinkles on your face or the world-weary look in your eyes, that you are of alcohol-buying age, are a regular purchaser of alcohol too – back again and in need of a drink!

Welcome to the age of DIY. ATMs were the first self-service machines introduced into the UK in 1967. They are the best example of a self-service technology that is well established, but the term ‘self-service’ originated some time ago, in 1917: Clarence Saunders received a US patent for a ‘self-serving store.’ Rather than compiling a list of goods for a clerk to retrieve, customers in Saunders’ store walked around the shop, collected the items they wanted to buy, and presented them to a cashier before leaving. Saunders licensed this brand-new concept to independent grocery stores with an interesting brand name: Piggly Wiggly.

But despite my experience at the check-out, we now consider it second nature to use self-service via a smartphone or an app, where digital self-service tools deliver a better engagement and highly personalised customer experience. Similarly, chat bots are used to deliver virtual customer service, deployed to deliver a more experiential approach to customer service at scale.

For startups, the message is clear: your product strategy has to include self-service elements, adopting software application development that can understand the language patterns being expressed by users. What’s needed is an intelligent self-service capability that enables you to build a truly scalable digital support capability, tapping into the systems and data in place, and then unifying the digital support experience.

The trend is clear: for every startup business, the need to give customers the best customer service experience is a key to achieving customer success, so how can self-service technology can boost startup growth? Here are some thoughts on the key elements:

Reach users where they are in the product The best digital support reaches customers where they are in the product itself, when they need it, and in the context of what they are doing. By deploying intelligent self-service within the application, customer adoption and usage of the product increases, as they don’t have to leave to find answers elsewhere. You maintain control over the experience they have, while gaining detailed insights that ultimately help you deliver a better product.

Provide recommendations to drive adoption and engagement Self-service leaders have more data, but it needs to be put to work to inform every interaction. Machine learning can leverage that knowledge at scale and proactively suggest ‘next best’ support content or training resources to guide users along their self-service journey. Recommending the right content drives customer adoption and engagement, as well as potential upsell.

Create a single source of truth Provide a single source of truth for your users wherever they go to find information on your platform. This includes intelligently unifying access to all relevant resources that help a customer with their task-at-hand, through FAQs, an up to date knowledge base, ‘how-to videos?’, tutorials, screenshots or community discussion board.

Deploy dynamic personalised self-service features  Keeping customers engaged requires a rich and dynamic user experience, and a self-service functionality with smart search suggestions, dynamic options for filtering results, while allowing for quick views and rich content is key. Also users expect you to leverage everything you know about them to provide personalised experiences based on their profile, search and browsing behaviours. You can then use the insights gathered to intelligently adapt the experience you provide. Customers are demanding. They want answers fast.

Optimise self-service for mobile users User’s expectations are such that you have to enable them to get things done conveniently and with simplicity from their comfort zone – and that is predominantly via a smartphone. Setting up a responsive mobile app for your site or brand is one of the best self-service strategies you can employ to ensure strong user engagement.

As users increasingly develop DIY mindset, they will choose providers that allow them to interact easily with consumer-controlled touchpoints. Since users won’t be able to keep up with the level of self-service required to manage their digital lives, they will delegate to their own bots to manage it for them. The customer self-service of the future is not just about the customers themselves, but both customers and their bots.

This means a startup has to embrace the user not just from a product-solution fit perspective, with unique elements in the value proposition, but moving from focusing on market share and marketing to the mass market, to cultivating personalised relationships with each customer and connecting on an individual basis based on experience, creating customer intimacy at scale.

Was my dysfunctional self-service checkout experience building any semblance of customer intimacy? Too many glitches, too many unexpected items in the bagging area exceptions for it to offer a smooth and simple experience. If many shoppers like me need help when using self-service checkouts, retailers need to be looking at the technology and the user engagement, experience and satisfaction. If so many people need help, it’s not helpful.

I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I’m tuned into the three for two offers, and save coupons from packets of tea as Mick Jones sang. Technology, it’s progress, right? For me, I left my soul somewhere between the aubergines and the pre-packed salads as fear of those tills is greater than the daleks created when I was aged seven.

Inner-vation: step outside your comfort zone

It’s the fifteenth series of Celebrity Masterchef, a competition turning people who normally struggle to make a basic chicken stir-fry into people with fancy ways with wasabi when making prawn spring rolls. Contestants are not prized for their personal reputation or personality, but purely for their cooking skills: innovation, technique, flavour, seasoning and presentation, just one plate of food after another, each trying to improve on the last.

The contestants face a number of challenges, starting with the MasterChef Market, where with the best quality produce they must invent and cook one dish that will show the judges they have potential. Next they split into two groups as they work in a professional restaurant kitchen, they then head back to the MasterChef kitchen to impress with their own creations. In the traditions of the best Reality TV, contestants then get voted off. I’m rooting for former Olympian Matthew Pinsent to win.

MasterChef is inherently serious, sincerely self-aggrandising. The closest we come to humour is the voice of India Fisher, an omniscient narrator describing every dish in the same slow, considered tone: Ian has served oven-baked beans in a gloopy tomato and sugar jus on grilled slices of bread, with a cheddar cheese reduction, and a self-pity crumb I hear her say in my dreams, a sat-nav character host. Her hushed narrative and voiceover…the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle… gives me goose pimples.

Each component of a plate is conceived with care and judged with scrutiny. There is pathos in an incomplete or poorly executed dish that resonates far beyond the disappointed chef. I share the contestants torture by every deflated soufflé and overcooked duck breast. Co-host Gregg Wallace, ever resplendent with his rictus smile, looks like a constipated egg, and it always seems to me that he might start chucking saucepans at contestants when they disappoint.

The rationale for the success and failure of a dish is constantly there, and the competition gets progressively harder as their original creations meet praise and scrutiny. So far this season we have witnessed the show in its purest form: a series of puree-liquidising, soufflé -shaping, sauce-setting, beef-resting, pea-shoot-sprinkling, fish-skin-crisping delights. We see cookery showcased as both a craft and an art, as amateur cooks hone their skills to a professional standard. 

The strictly timed challenges push the competitors to the limits of their comfort zone, but there’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory with extraordinary effort. This week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by Little Mix. I watch and learn, and make notes, when flavours combine like yin and yang, to try them myself.

The only necessary qualification from contestants is a willingness to expose your inadequacy in a series of daunting competitive challenges. Aussie judge John Torode made his mark this week on a bread sauce, raising an eyebrow: It might be good for hanging up the wallpaper, but I don’t know how good it will be for dipping chicken in. He followed this with: It’s vague, it doesn’t reach out and say ‘I’m a pie’, and after seeing burned pastry crisps, growled: The whole plate looks like it should go straight into the dishwasher.

The kitchen epic is all about the journey and the insights it offers into human ambition, learning and determination. The contestants, for all their alleged celebrity, really do roll up their sleeves and get stuck in with obsessive concentration, because the challenge to themselves is more important than winning.

The level of jeopardy on display runs at fever pitch in the pressure-cooker atmosphere, preparing complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to a result is incredible to watch. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of pomegranate jus on the plate as the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT!

How many of us commit ourselves to our startup like this? Very few I suspect. Most of us give bursts of effort and endeavour, but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised. We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. But on Masterchef, they step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

How often do you push yourself out of your comfort zone to cross the boundary?. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with familiar routines and limits? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

Routines can be stable and comforting, but they can also turn stale and confining. Pull your bungee cord! Doing something new and potentially uncomfortable staves off burnout and is good for your brain. Still, it’s pretty hard to shake yourself out of a routine, and there’s plenty of science explaining why—and how to do it.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal.

This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. The concept of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. 

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend to settle in. Don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Breakout and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. Risk and uncertainty are key issues for an entrepreneur to embrace. For a startup founder, Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be. The philosophy is simple: Be the very best you can be so that you perform when it matters.

So, ask yourself: 

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like if you go a step beyond where you are now? And then another?
  • How often do you review what’s working and not working?
  • How can you improve? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you set up an opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • What is the challenge that you’re holding back from? Why?

Let’s look back at Masterchef and some potential learnings we can take to answer these questions for our startup venture:

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven.

You may not know exactly what to do in terms of strategy, but having a process to develop a strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B To deliver the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility to respond quickly and have a contingency. Startups operate in a dynamic environment where unplanned and adverse events occur.

The ability to recognise the potential risks and dead-ends, and being able to formulate a fall-back plan to go again, is vital, to identify, select and navigate and the fork-in-the-road options.

Simplicity is an under-appreciated virtue Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and usually the competitor with the simple, well-prepared and well thought through dish rarely goes home.

Be goal oriented and time aware – attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles. Be innovative at all times, but seeking to be disruptive is an overstated hobby.

Critics come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is supportive, wants competitors to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too.

Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Stay cool under pressure As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. Stay cool when the heat is on,what happens when the customer pitch, just like the dish, doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully.

Thinking on your feet is a key skill for an entrepreneur, living in the moment, dealing with the situation in hand. Always have a survival or exit strategy up your sleeve.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product. The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve, visualise the journey, the process, the outcome.

We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process of our startup.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business. 

Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with your team, and a pilot customer deployment.

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us, and we have to be ready – Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

But the key takeaway from Masterchef is being comfortable outside your comfort zone, it’s all about ‘Inner-vation’, and pushing yourself to step beyond your limits. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, what a great motto for any startup founder – or adventurous chef – to have.

Does your startup have a moonshot ambition?

The photo is Buzz Aldrin wearing a Burnley FC hat, taken some four years ago when Buzz was in Lancashire: Astronaut, entrepreneur and a Claret!

Some 51 years ago today – 20 July 1969 – Buzz became the second man on the moon, nineteen minutes after Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind. An estimated 600 million people – at that time, the world’s largest television audience in history – witnessed this unprecedented heroic endeavour. Only twelve men have shared this vantage point looking back to the Earth.

Much has been written about how the NASA Apollo lunar programme in the 1960s galvanised the US and inspired millions around the world. It was the first ‘moonshot’ – which became the term capturing a hugely ambitious endeavour – something that is novel, unexpected, difficult and risky, but is also worth it as a noble pursuit. It has a special magic that other bold initiatives do not have, as an act of human courage, imagination, and determination that challenge people to perform beyond what they think possible.

Selected by NASA in 1963 into the third cohort of Apollo astronauts, Aldrin became known as ‘Dr. Rendezvous’, in reference to his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics at MIT and his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous. From this Aldrin devised the docking and rendezvous techniques used on spacecraft in Earth and lunar orbit. These became critical to the success of the Apollo missions, and are still used today.

Aldrin had an entrepreneurial mindset driving many of NASA’s experiments and innovations. He pioneered underwater training techniques to simulate spacewalking, and in 1966 on the Gemini 12 orbital mission, Buzz performed the world’s first successful spacewalk. During that mission, he also took the first ‘selfie’ in space.

I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

I’ve always had a keen interest in Space. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles. There was nothing for ‘Astronauts’, so I didn’t apply to NASA. There probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat anyway.

For me, Apollo XI landing on the Moon is the greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon!

President Kennedy launched the original moonshot challenge by urging his country to commit to putting humans on the moon. This combined the age-old human imagination about the moon along with a spirit of adventure, pioneering, and patriotism. Kennedy had the vision, first presenting a moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition shows how people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. His vision was a fantastic statement of intent, and subsequently an astounding achievement. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI adventure for startup entrepreneurs, to give your venture a ‘moonshot’ ambition ? Here are ten thoughts, with quotes from some of the engineers involved in the venture.

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it succeeded, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in ten years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down into the major steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time, with a clear sense of direction.

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones and iterations: phase 1 fly to the moon; phase 2 orbit the moon; phase 3 land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of validated learning.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to pivot to modify the plan

They expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And there we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot 

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed with just seconds of fuel left.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and asking ‘What if?’ As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. It’s about calculated risks: don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead. 

Apollo XI was about turning an idea into reality: We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, reflecting the spirit of endeavour.

5. It’s about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, ensure they are aligned, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly. 

6. Recruit for attitude

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down to people who didn’t know how to do the things, but were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people without experience with a certain task may seem counterintuitive, but it was something NASA actively encourage – the average age of the key Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity with responsibility.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo program made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was an opportunity to learn and improve. For a startup, getting out of the building, talking to prospective customers and using validated learning to inform retrospectives should be an ongoing part of your growth cycle, iterating towards product-market fit.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you. Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of the team back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work. 

9. The startup leader creates conviction

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation, and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; absolute leadership commitment to make it happen. A startup leader is a dealer in hope, creating the belief and passion in the team to be the first to do something remarkable. Simply, you have to lead the charge.

10. Dare to dream

Aldrin and Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Startup life has twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Aldrin lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to Apollo training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

One of the legacies of the Apollo initiative is the philosophy of a ‘moonshot’ endeavour. For a startup, this means operating with limited time and funding, tight deadlines, and with out-of-the-box approaches. Creating breakthroughs is the core of a startup, asking searching “what if?” questions, about when and how something innovative and bold can be accomplished.

Aldrin epitomised the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, from the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing this:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, capturing the Apollo XI endeavour and spirit – and that of entrepreneurship. Celebrate their achievement today, what a leap for mankind they made. They risked going too far to find out how far they could go. Make the same leap for yourself with your own startup moonshot.