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.

Do not adjust your mind – there is a fault with reality

The title of this blog is a quote from famed Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a controversial and unconventional practitioner, whose progressive methods caused controversy in the medical profession, but later radically changed perceptions of mental health around the world. I thought it captured the essence of the context in which we are trying to shape our current business thinking.

When patterns are broken, new business worlds emerge. When things come apart, there is always the opportunity to put them back together differently. This has become our new lived business reality. It feels like we have been dumped rather unceremoniously into a strange in-between state, a place filled with tensions, unknown unknowns and paradox.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc.  We are practising social distancing, working from home and venturing out again as lockdown is eased. Things are eerily different, yet the same.  Most businesses are highly vulnerable, especially embryonic startup ventures. How can we become more effective in making sense of uncertainty in these circumstances, to accept that the future is complex and unpredictable, and that there is no certainty, and everything is more fragile?

We all need a scaffolding to build some sort of framework to hang onto in order to help make sense of stuff. We are all in uncharted and turbulent waters together. All answers are, to be honest, guesses, transient at best. Questions matter now. A key question I’ve been posing myself is what do you do when you don’t (or can’t) know what to do?

It is hard to make sense of this pervasive, perpetual uncertainty. Despite having a clear sense of my own personal direction, it’s hard to articulate a near term focus and objectives to aim for. Some days I feel trapped by busyness, yet I make no real progress. I’m not sure if this is a personal fuzzyness, or if I am caught up in the macro situation.

Now as we emerge from lockdown, there are billions being poured into business rescue schemes, providing a safety net for recovery. But it’s just an illusion that we have more time to think, more space to craft a reboot strategy. The reality is very different: most businesses are struggling to build and maintain a framework with boundaries for thinking and doing, decision making and a sense of timing.

Talking to many startups, founders are putting off essential decisions which have immediate impact and consequences, while spending hours discussing things like rebranding. We are avoiding important decisions on the now, instead dithering on details of future issues that in reality will have little impact in the dysfunctional reality of today. One thing we cannot afford now is paralysis. Waiting and seeing, moving deck chairs around on the Titanic is the worst thing we can do. We need decisive action, even when we don’t have sufficient information to guide our actions. But this is easier said than done.

We all need to let go of the need to feel that we need to make the right decision. Rather than correctness, ask yourself: with what I know right now, what is the next best action I can take?. The most important thing now is to keep moving, don’t get stuck. It might feel like we are in chaos, but take a step back, it’s more about being confused,  overwhelmed and under informed at the same time. There are so many different opinions and sources of information and advice, we feel stuck between overly rigid constraints and no constraints at all.

So how do we step out of this virtual reality that looks like a wash-rinse-repeat groundhog day, with perpetual fog clouding everything? Here’s a suggested decision-making framework.

On 12 February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of State, used an until then little known framework to help him in making the case for the invasion of Iraq: the Knowns and Unknowns framework. I think it is fair to say that the reception by the press was mixed: some accused him of playing with words with little meaning, while others saw method in what he was trying to do.

The Knowns and Unknowns categorisation has been used since ancient Greek times. It is a powerful tool to surface what we know and don’t know about a problem. The simplicity of the approach is deceiving, but can help us to unlock our current decision paralysis and frame our business thinking to the new situation:

– what do we know already (known knowns)?

– are we aware of our assumptions (known unknowns)?

– what about biases and unconscious decisions (unknown knowns)?

– are we conscious of what we are not exploring (unknown unknowns)?

The knowns and the unknowns have to be treated in very different ways. We need to adapt our decision-making approach to the type of knowledge, and our gaps in knowledge. If you are working with your unknowns, you need to use exploratory techniques: How might we surface some of those Unknowns? How might we prepare for the surprises ahead? If you are working with what you already know about a problem, you have to work in an inductive way – the how might we approach: How might we use those facts to learn new things? How might we test our hypotheses?

NASA first used the framework as part of risk analysis in space missions, especially to uncover Unknown Unknowns, in evaluating the risks in the return journey of the Space Shuttle. They concentrated on moving the unknowns to the known realm. It is believed that it was a senior engineer from NASA that told Rumsfeld about the framework.

At its core, the way of using the Knowns and Unknowns is simply as a reminder to take all forms of knowledge into account. By doing this, we make the problem space larger and so the solution space also becomes larger too. It’s not about making the right decision, rather the best decision under the circumstances. The value of the approach comes from using a combination that allows you to surface all knowledge and lack of it, and thus mitigate cognitive bias, false assumptions and misguided guesses.

So, how would you apply this to your startup today?

Known knowns

  • Known Knowns (facts): use data to check the facts, the things we are aware of, that imply risk, but since we know them can be measured.

Facts are Known Knowns, with them you generate more knowledge. Lateral thinking techniques, like analogies, allow you to see these knowns in a different light, to create a parallel reality from the one you know. The goal is to create something valuable and new from these facts to give insight to do something new from that which is already being exploited.

Known Unknowns

  • Known Unknowns (hypotheses): things that we know that we don’t know can be confirmed or rejected with measurement to determine the risk.

With the Known Unknowns you want to create hypotheses in a relevant context. A good way that translates your thinking here is creating quick sketches or diagrams with potential solutions that lay out your thinking, and then you then need to pass through the filter of a sense check with either your team or test with users. These are basically just ideas or thoughts based on existing knowledge, ‘thinking out loud’ so to speak, ensure you don’t let bias state them facts.

Unknown Knowns

  • Unknown Knowns (our intuitions): use data you trust to put them aside and close the gaps and nonsense contradictions.

If you want to unravel Unknown Knowns, you need to speak your mind aloud without too much structured thinking. Brainstorming with your team fulfils this, the presence of a group is important, because something that one person says serves as the catalyst for others to join in and surface related facts. The technique also removes closed, personal agendas, and enables rapid collective collaboration. Be mindful to avoid groupthink though.

Unknown Unknowns

  • Unknown Unknowns (it can be anything!): look for patterns and outliers about things we don’t know that we don’t know – these are the dangerous things.

This is the tricky one! Unknown Unknowns are often dismissed and left behind as being ‘beyond our control’ and not worth spending time on. However, in reality this is what most startups should think to uncover innovation opportunities and be the source of great insight. By exploring the gaps in our data in an open-minded way, we can recognise patterns and hidden behaviours that might point to opportunities to solve very unique problems. That is the kind of insight that takes you on big leaps to understanding the problems and to creating products that solve them.

The best startups consistently focus on the known unknowns, which is a mountain you know you have to climb, but you haven’t yet found the path. Sadly, many do the easy stuff and don’t maniacally focus on the hard parts.

First, a startup begins with a problem a small group of users have. You envision a product that might solve it, and build many versions of the idea until that small group can’t live without it. That’s your first Known Unknown. You know what you think they want; then you have to prove it. It’s all that matters. Hopefully, you’ve enough capital to iterate enough times to figure it out.

Your next job is to find scaleable repeatable ways to grow. You need to figure a version of this path. Anyone can put massive numbers to put on a top-down TAM slide. The hard part is the bottom-up plan, outlining how you take on a large market, one bite at a time. That’s your second Known Unknown.

Entrepreneurs must be focused only on the Known Unknown, you don’t have time to focus on the stuff that doesn’t matter. If a problem has moved from a Known Unknown to a Known Known, where you understand the what and the how, you’ve got product-market fit and now it’s time to think about differentiation and innovation.

The reality is that we live in a business world our questions create, yet I think most of us would say we live in worlds our answers create. But startups exist because of asking new questions and focus on finding new answers to new questions. In the volatile and fast-changing context of post-lockdown, what we think we know today may not be true tomorrow. Discovering new questions, by using new techniques to shape our thinking, will broaden our perspective.

The Known and Unknowns approach enables oblique or naïve perspectives from adjacent fields the chance to inform our thoughts, and radically different insights and perspectives will emerge. The right question takes you right to the essence of a problem, and helps you solve it. For example, working out what your startup’s defensibility is, is far more useful than defending the addressable market size. The wrong question wastes time:  What cool feature should we build next? is the wrong question, when your onboarding funnel itself is leaky.

You can never completely eliminate your blind spots, but with this technique you can reduce them enough to improve your performance and spare from the mistakes that in hindsight should have been obvious. The framework opens up possibilities and forces you to think more holistically. It’s hard, at times, I have to force it as a discipline and not be put off by doing some deep thinking that makes your head hurt!

Life might be a race against time but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.  Value questions, not answers, said Einstein. Being curious (as opposed to being opinionated) and asking questions will get us much further than looking for answers to known questions.

The head fox at the ministry for henhouses reports that as number of eggs increased significantly last month, there will be no further need to count chickens. Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality.

How to start thinking about tomorrow: hope is not a strategy, but strategy can provide hope.

The COVID pandemic has wrought enormous personal and social damage, upending countless lives. It is serving as a catalyst to embrace the need for greater compassion and solidarity across our society. It is inspiring heroic feats of public-spiritedness and charity, while also providing an opportunity for us to view the competence, morality and ethics of leaders in government and business.

Beyond that, it has unleashed a set of acute economic shocks, laying bare the viability of many businesses, creating the greatest sense of uncertainty ever experienced. Getting our minds around what is happening is difficult, as its effects are paradoxical: it has caused a supply shock and a demand shock.

The pandemic is primarily a public healthcare problem, but one with immense implications for business, and for economic, fiscal and monetary policy. The virus is accelerating powerful existing trends such as digital automation and simultaneously slamming the brakes on trends that had, until very recently, possessed clear momentum, such as globalisation.

Many startups spent the first several weeks of the crisis preparing continuity plans, and assessing the various government stimulus programs. These businesses are now learning to operate in the ‘new normal’ yet continuing to respond to immediate fires. Much of the focus is on implementing tactical steps to preserve business value, including liquidity analysis and operational scenario plans.

Startups need to address vastly weaker balance sheets, steep revenue declines, weakened supply chains and stressed or depleted employee bases. Each of these elements will require triage, and in many instances, attention and resources will be focused on triage for a long time. Of course, some firms will emerge from the pandemic in relatively good shape and thus be in a position to take advantage of opportunities arising.

The central question in every (virtual) startup leadership meeting is how to grapple with the short-term consequences. The challenges are philosophical and intellectual, as well as physical and practical. Simply, we are wondering how to go about restarting, repairing what was broken and readying ourselves to cope with a host of urgent demands as we build bridges to a post-pandemic future for our embryonic ventures.

Ian Burbridge of the RSA has developed an approach to thinking through the measures that we’ve taken in response to Covid-19 in four categories that can help us focus on what’s worked and what can last – stopping activity, pausing activity, temporary activity, and innovative activity – and I’ve adapted it for startups.

1.     Obsolete activity

The crisis has afforded us the ability to stop doing some things, either because we already knew they were not fit for purpose or because the crisis has rendered them obsolete. Emerging post-crisis, the challenge is to let go of these obsolete aspects of pre-existing systems and functions that we know are no longer fit for the new ways of working.

As Peter Drucker said, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic. Letting go of what we no longer need releases trapped resources for work that is a better strategic fit.

Rethinking starts with the context in which the repair efforts needs to happen, so be ruthless on what you can eject from your business model. Every organisation needs to reimagine the future at both a practical and a conceptual level.

Startups need to be strategic at a time when grappling with an intense crisis and coping with day-to-day emergencies. Redesigning a boat while bailing water from the hull may sound ambitious as you’re sailing in a storm, but it is necessary.

Organisations need to rethink technology strategy, geographic footprints, and business models to make them more robust and to recognise the strong pressures for localisation emerging. They will need to evaluate their portfolios from the standpoint of the products or services needed in a very different economy.

Move your orientation from physical in-person processes into digital or virtual tactics;

You may have a new business sales focus, but this is a time to be our best selves, and customers need more from us. They don’t need to be sold to, they need to be heard and supported. We’re all now in customer support. They need us to put humanity above profitability.

2.     Paused activity

We have had to bring a halt to doing other things in order to divert capacity to the crisis response, but we have to restart these again. Potentially, this is storing up significant challenges for the future, so we need to figure out how to reboot these activities in ways that are relevant to the new, emerging context and are not simply a blind copy and paste of the pre-virus approach.

It will be impossible for our structures and systems to cope with the next challenge if they remain in the same state in which they entered this one. The next step is to quickly begin reimagining and adapting strategy. All this must be done with a keen eye toward understanding trade-offs and building the capacity to navigate the disruptions that are bound to arise in the future.

This is an opportunity to refactor your business model, focused on competitive and collaborative strategies dramatically different from those we might have imagined a few months ago. Rethinking paused activities ensures that startups are repaired in a way that makes them more resilient and more successful by bringing considerations about the future into the present.

Redeploy physical event spend, leaning more heavily into digital and account-based strategies, focused to maximise pipeline generation potential in the short term, mapped out in 30, 60 and 90-day priorities;

Create online content that is informative and responsive to current landscapes, be valuable to both current customers and potential prospects by investing in general customer experience improvements.

3.     Temporary activity

Some things that we have done in responding to the immediate demands of the crisis are inappropriate to become part of the way forward. Ending temporary measures should be a focused endeavour, remove them before they become systematised, and burn valuable resources.

Identifying your own revealed weaknesses unearthed by crisis will undoubtedly have exposed needs for greater preparedness, resilience, agility, or leanness in your business. Those weaknesses also signal opportunities to renew your products and business model and serve customers better. They may also help you understand broader customer needs, since others are likely to be experiencing similar stresses.

On the plus side, you may have adapted new activities that offer future value – for example, reducing customer friction in terms of unnecessary delays, costs, complexities and other inconveniences.

In terms of messaging, shift the focus to emphasise more of the WHY – not just your own WHY as a business, but the bigger WHY for your audience;

Revisit your temporary pricing strategy, you may need to continue to offer more options at lower price points to accommodate customer’s tighter budgets.

4.     Innovative activity

Emergencies will have opened up the need for innovation and rapid experiment as a result of the crisis. These will have shown the imperative for an agile way of thinking and working, removing barriers and inertia, with the demand for instant change. The post-crisis task is to find ways to amplify and embed the most promising changes and innovations into your new business model.

The crisis has put into strong relief the uncomfortable truth that many startups are simply not as nimble or as adaptive as they anticipated. What does this mean in practical terms? To a degree, this means jumping on the trends that have suddenly gained currency in response to the pandemic, including remote working and the localisation of supply chains, but now is the time to become a maverick, a small outlier enterprise that thinks and act differently from incumbents.

Seek out maverick activity. Startups sit on the edges of an industry, and as such can make bets predicated on new customer needs or patterns. Look to EasyJet as an example.

EasyJet, now the fourth-largest airline in Europe, built its business as a no-frills, low-cost carrier by pioneering a novel business model and ignoring many of the industry’s unwritten rules. EasyJet shook up the business model of the airline industry by moving from a hub-and-spoke model with a diverse fleet to a point-to-point model with lean operations and high-capacity utilisation. By removing or charging extra for all noncore elements of the customer experience, EasyJet was able to cut costs while focusing on what customers care about most – flight availability and punctuality.

Organisations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat, but crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a necessary focus on the present should not crowd out considerations of the future. The key questions are what next, and with what consequences and opportunities? The keys to success are to harvest good ideas from every layer of an enterprise.

Don’t just seek to reducing costs to maintain viability, adapt and innovate around new opportunities. Invest in growth drivers in order to capture opportunity in adversity and shape your own future.

Certain back-burner projects will have become more relevant given current events, so shift resources to make these a priority;

Reposition your product from pure revenue growth or churn mitigation to a more defensive posture to focus on helping businesses curtail losses and retain customers longer.

Summary

COVID-19 has provided a rare moment of pause, albeit a hazardous one, an opportunity to make changes that previously seemed too daunting or even impossible to execute. We should not lose the potential benefit of the natural reflection we are going through, but be mindful not to simply recreate the business we had before – consumer-led disruption will have an even greater impact than previously expected.

Stepping out of the crisis will force startup leaders to activate transformation plans, shrink execution timelines and experiment at lightning speed. Some startups are more immune to short-term shocks, such as those with subscription models. This presents an opportunity to further strengthen engagement and loyalty with existing customers, supporting them with attractive discounts or expanded service offerings.

However, for sub-sectors that rely on transactional revenue, the concerns are more immediate. They need to extend their liquidity runway to remain solvent while covering costs, and managing the emotions of their people. In these cases, give emphasis to simplification of all aspects of your enterprise. For example, you’ll need more adaptive digital strategies that can change and respond quickly, and an empowered management team that has greater responsibility and is less siloed. Steadying the ship is only part of the story, you must also look to the horizon.

The open-mindedness, flexibility, and faster clock speed of startups make them showcases of future development when an industry is at a turning point. So adopt the four strategic themes identified earlier, but be a maverick, be an outlier, and look to the periphery, be different and challenge your industry’s core beliefs and assumptions. Create the shocks, avoid being taken by surprise, bet against your existing business model. Think big, act small. Hope is not a strategy. But strategy can provide hope.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

Startups are like a game of chess: what to do now and next?

Startups need to out-manoeuvre the uncertainty hanging over them from COVID-19, but what to do now and next? The containment policies aimed at controlling it have changed how we work. As startups juggle a range of new priorities and challenges, founders must act quickly and lay a foundation for the future.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experiences―as customers, employees, citizens, humans – and our attitudes and behaviours are changing as a result. Once the immediate threat of the virus has passed, what will have changed in the way we think and behave, and how will that affect the way we design, communicate, build and run our startups?

History shows crises can cause fundamental shifts in social attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new thinking, ways of working, and consumer needs and behaviours, some of which persist in the long run. How then can startups prepare for a post crisis world, rather than hunkering down and simply waiting for a return?

Entrepreneurs follow their instinct, driven by curiosity, leading to the conversion of new ideas into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice. For innovation to flourish in these uncertain times, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and entrepreneurs alike.

It’s about having the vision to see your moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to startups is the ability to execute strategy, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, and how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in chess history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long.

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings we can take from Kasparov’s thinking, to help reboot us from the doldrums of coronavirus?

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for startups.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame.

After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move Chess is the gymnasium of the mind. We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. For your startup, take a similar wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best next move on the board might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake due to complacency.

Chess is the struggle against the error. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. For a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you seek to do so, and have the nerve to try them when you find them – but ensure flair doesn’t mean you make fateful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present  Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do. A chess Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what they want the board to look like in twenty moves ahead.

This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where their fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. They work out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Chess is rarely a game of ideal moves. Almost always, a player faces a series of difficult consequences whichever move he makes. When you see a good move, look for a better one.

Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own.

In startup life, as you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Half the variations which are calculated in a chess game turn out to be completely superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half. Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. 

But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term positions can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

Going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. In both chess and in your startup, being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

Chess is eminently and emphatically the philosopher’s game, so let’s translate Kasparov’s chess strategies, into a clear startup strategy for the current crisis:

Hope is not a strategy. Create a real plan together with your co-founders and investors and look the truth straight in the eye. Things could get worse before they get better again. Make sure that your team see eye-to-eye on the vision you have and the measures that you will take in the next weeks and months.

Know your exposure Your first step is to identify areas of vulnerability, and decide which of these can be mitigated early. Have a solid financial model and run financial scenarios – think about what happens if your revenue drops 50%. Can you extend your runway? Plan to stay as lean as possible. This will further help you to know when to pull the trigger on major changes as things play out. Stay optimistic but realistic.

Check in with your thinking Make sure you are transparent during times of uncertainty and that you give your team and investors comfort. Do not make decisions without them, even if you can do so from a legal standpoint. Make sure they are part of the process.

Try to stick to the long-term plan Do not lose focus of your long-term goals, you shouldn’t let short-term external forces unnecessarily influence your path. I know, it can be tough when conditions deteriorate, but staying focused on long-term goals can help you with a frame of reference by which to measure short-term decisions.

Stay disciplined This is good advice always — not just for downturns. Use this time to establish a culture of discipline for all conditions. Be helpful, smart, and prudent. With an established culture of discipline, you will be in a better position for any shock to the business and it will bring your team closer together.

This is a challenging time. When people talk about entrepreneurship being tough, this is what they mean. It’s a true rollercoaster ride. But remember, it’s also a time to grow, and shine. Chess is the struggle against the error, one bad move nullifies the previous twenty good ones, the blunders are all there out on the board waiting to be made – as they are in the maelstrom we are in now.

Chess is a mental game, it requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this, take the thinking that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, just what’s needed to move your startup strategy forward in these challenging times.

How to make home-working productive for your startup venture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 1: Sometime we take too long to make decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 4: Slow and steady really does win the race

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 6: Go slow, then go fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startup lessons in strategy & execution from Led By Donkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Have a purpose

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

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

2.     Know your strategy

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

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

3.     Be clear in your tactics and agile on timing

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

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

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

4.     Focus on intelligent thinking to shape your content

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

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

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

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

5.     Adopt multi-channel communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons for startups from the craft gin innovators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

·     Exploring the ethical ramifications of their choices.

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

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

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

·     Tangible transparency: brands that share consumers values and beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading a startup in times of political & economic uncertainty

The current global economic indicators make uncomfortable reading, even before the impact of Brexit is factored in. The UK’s Q2 GDP figures recorded the first quarterly fall since 2012, indicating the economy going into reverse. As investment and exports continued to fall, the conclusion is an economy stalling at best.

Consumer spending and government expenditure are currently keeping the economy afloat, a pattern we have seen for a while. Boris Johnson seems intent on easing the public purse strings, announcing a new commitment to spending money every day on health, education, social care and crime. However, this contradicts his tax cutting promises – you simply can’t have a high spend, low tax financial strategy. His numbers don’t add up.

So we are likely to see a growing imbalance in the UK economy, as rising consumer spending and government expenditure offset declines in investment and exports, and the risk of ‘no-deal’ and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit stalls investment. The Bank of England’s low interest rate policy is exacerbating these imbalances too, by supporting borrowing and encouraging savers to look for more risky investments because the returns on bank and building society deposits are so poor.

A Brexit-driven recession in the UK may be avoided, but there is still little clarity on whether the UK will be in or out of the EU come November, making Brexit the big story for the economy with this uncertainty. Johnson has begun to brace us for a no-deal Brexit, ramping up public spending by £2.1bn on preparations including stockpiling of medicines, and a public awareness campaign about potential disruptions.

Businesses remain largely unprepared for a disastrous cliff-edge no-deal and are in sit-and-wait mode, while the CBI continue to speak out against the ongoing economic chaos. At the same time, inflation unexpectedly rose above the Bank of England’s 2% target in July, putting renewed pressure on British households as the cost of living increased.

Also in July, the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9% while the number of unemployed rose by 37,000. The number of vacancies – which had been on the rise since 2012 – started falling at the start of the year and continues to fall. This suggests that the UK labour market has started to turn down and that weaker economic growth and the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit could be starting to impact the job market, although the jobless rate remains at the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The average British worker still earns less than they did in 2007. In place of rising wages, consumption is being driven by growing unsecured household debt, which is now the highest we’ve ever seen in the UK. With incomes low, savings drained and debt levels high, a turn in the business cycle will mean financial hardship for families.

Outside of UK specific issues, the global economy is slowing at the end of a ten-year-long weak recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Germany has fallen into negative growth and is heading towards recession. In the US, Trump’s confrontational strategy to a trade war with China is having a negative impact on both countries. Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up the threats of tariffs on each other, dragging down global trade volumes and economic growth.

It all adds up to fearing the worst that the first global recession since the crash of 2008 is just around the corner. Recessions usually happen every ten to fifteen years: business confidence drops, investment declines, employment stalls and demand shrinks. Eleven years on from the crisis of 2008, expectations are that the next recession is unlikely to be a repeat of the last crash, as while there are risks to financial stability, none will impact the economy in the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

So, let’s draw breath on the economic analysis. As a startup entrepreneur looking for meaning in this analysis, the information has contradictions, a mix of emotion, biases and cold-eyed calculation, yet expresses something about both the mood of investors and the temper of the times. Yes a recession is so far a fear, not a reality, but it is evident firms are struggling to get to grips with uncertainty, and anxiety could turn to alarm.

Often danger signals are ignored until too late. America’s decade-long expansion is the oldest on record so whatever economists say, a downturn feels overdue. For me, the portents are evident, confidence is being eroded and the storm clouds are gathering. My fear is that we’ll have a torpid economy at best, that is prone to curtailing innovation, entrepreneurship and startup investment.

There’s just no way to completely prepare for future uncertainty facing your business, simply understand that circumstances change and unforeseeable events occur, and you can make smart choices to prepare well. Not only will this provide you some peace of mind that you’re as ready as you can be, but you’re more likely to respond quickly and more effectively when trouble strikes, so here are some practical tips designed to help your startup prepare for the unknowns.

1. Stay in the now It’s easy to get caught up in your own startup bubble, but that’s a trap to avoid. One of the best ways to combat uncertainty is to stay abreast of economic indicators, as highlighted above. By being aware of the general state of the economy, and how economic forecasts might affect your business, you can put yourself a step ahead of others.

A forward-thinking entrepreneur understands the value of analysis, and not just ‘gut instinct’ intuition. Are you consistently reviewing your business strategy assumptions, value proposition and pricing to ensure they remain valid?

2. Prepare for multiple outcomes It’s wise to stop assuming a single outcome will turn up as the conclusion of a situation. You should prepare for multiple outcomes regardless of what you expect. Foresight enables you to respond effectively. The best way to prepare is to include your team in the planning process, you’ll get fresh, unique perspectives that are more likely to result in critical and innovative thinking.

There isn’t a crystal ball to help you predict the future, and there are many factors completely out of your control. Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. For example, focus on product improvements, customer communications, experiment with pricing and new marketing strategies.

3. Build relationships to create opportunities to grow In times of uncertainty, is a spreadsheet going to help you regain solid footing? It’s possible, but unlikely. The best investment you can make for future stability is relationship building to help weather the rough patches.

What are the signals telling you it’s time to be different and bold? Signals to watch for regarding customers are: Are your regular customers asking you for new things? How are new product/new customer sales against forecasts? When your regulars ask for new offerings they’ve shown you the direction where you’re likely to succeed.

4. Know your numbers When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it’s essential that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers, cashflow and KPIs so you can make the appropriate changes quickly. Also, sit down with your sales team daily. This will help you pinpoint the messages to be taken between ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators.

5. Regain control of your time Evaluating how you and your team spend your time helps you stay focused on the tasks that grow your business. For example, spending time writing content means you must understand what the timing and targets are for following up leads.

What’s more, tracking your time keeps you in control. It’s like weeding your garden; if you don’t stay on top of the weeds, they’ll eventually consume your entire garden. Also you should automate and delegate as much as possible so you can focus on those aspects of the business where you can personally make a difference.

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

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

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

9. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 10,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

10. Don’t be too opportunistic, don’t be too defensive Strike a balance. Adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach is likely to maximise the chances of you surviving a period of uncertainty. Recognising that cost-cutting is necessary to survival while also understanding the role investment and innovation plays in long-term growth, is key to steering your business through choppy waters.

A balanced strategy accepts the reality of the present and reacts accordingly, while also preparing for the future. You can not only survive uncertain times, but also learn valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead for longer term success. Judicious investment, proactive innovation, increased operational efficiency, refocused propositions, honed processes and competitive advancement are all possible when it’s tough going, there are silver linings.

So, are you preparing for the potential recession into which your startup maybe heading in the next six months? Don’t ignore how much is beyond your control nor take your focus off of what is within your control. Develop the resilience, flexibility and competitive edge to ride through the rough waters and come out in good-nick, ready and aligned for when sailing becomes smooth.

Strategic readiness comes through a combination of awareness, flexibility, strong navigational leadership, resilience, collaborative working, considered learning, ongoing innovation and agility. Now is the time to act. Make the necessary adjustments to your business now to help prevent it becoming another statistic of an uncertain environment.

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

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