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

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

Therein lies a depth of his wisdom. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic verbal wit in his lyrics, and humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians ever seen. He epitomises disruptive innovation as much as Jobs or Musk, as described by Clayton Christensen.

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

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

Back in the summer of 1956 John met Paul McCartney, and they began writing together. As The Beatles, they were C20th cultural icons. They created the unexpected. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity of music in this album is incredible. From the beautiful melodies of Julia and Blackbird to the pounding beats of Helter Skelter and Revolution, it is truly unexpected. The Beatles were the first artists to record in stereo. They were the first band to experiment in the studio. They were the first band to list lyrics on their album. Lennon made his mark

But life moves on, and John’s relationship with Yoko Ono and his interest in global social and political issues saw him stand back from music. However fast forward to September 1980, John and Yoko signed a contract with Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. (Just Like) Starting Over hit number one, and there was talk of a possible world tour.

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

Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his murder, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality.

I don’t think John would have been content playing his guitar at weddings and parties in Liverpool, he was amongst the earliest adopters of a global perspective, embracing new ideas and culture. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making music. Lennon’s risk-taking and creativity are clearly evident, but there was always a balance between experimentation and implementation.

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

John epitomised a disruptive innovator: he was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. Here, in his own words, my reflections on how his mindset and thinking offers inspiration for startup entrepreneurs to be as innovative as he was.

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done John seemed to live in chaos, he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on, and often he couldn’t articulate his ideas well. But John was an agitator, he was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. Keep working, it makes you happy.

Whether you’re a musician or a software developer or own a local bakery or a freelance landscape gardener, you have to keep working no matter what. Your audience, your customers, are craving the unexpected – give it to them. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Lennon did, and give an insight into the depth of your uniqueness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Podcasting from the factory floor

We were once an economy of factories. Now we’re an economy of ideas. The factory was a place of innovation, it converted cotton to cloth, grain to flour, ore to steel. The factory changed the landscape of our economy. It started in Manchester. Now we’re doing it again. In tech. In Manchester. At thestartupfactory.tech.

tsf.tech helps entrepreneurs and innovators develop their early stage startup thinking, build prototypes and MVPs. We craft the early versions of their tech product vision. We enable the spirit of entrepreneurship by getting tech products built, shipped off the factory floor and out of the factory door.

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

And now we’re podcasters. Check out from the factory floor: https://buff.ly/3iieJU1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The innovator’s DNA of John Peel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.johnpeelarchive.com/john-peel-desert-island-discs/

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

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

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

Startup founders: adopt the growth mindset of Eric Liddell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Your goal is to not quit

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

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

2.     Discomfort is your friend

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

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

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

3.     Prioritise thoughtfully – and do it fast

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

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

4.     Assess your habits

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

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

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

5.Get out of your own bubble

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

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

6.     Be yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Ensure there is personal chemistry and empathy

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

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

3. Have an open dialogue to reframe the problem

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

I always try to follow this meeting progression:

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways:

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

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

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

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.

Avoid the Ahab syndrome of entrepreneur’s myopia in your start up

As a bloke who lists one of his hobbies as having his nose in books, I’m used to radical social distancing and having myself for company. So, whilst the past four months have had their challenging moments, I’ve sought respite from lurking anxiety, boredom and frustration by reorganising and culling the hoard of books that passes for my library.

Reading has helped pass the unexpected free time from this four-month involuntary shut-in. Every evening though, book in hand, I found myself considering a second beer until I think, Why stop at two? But I have! At night, staring into the darkness, I frequently recall far too many friends, relatives and colleagues who now live, often quite vividly, only in my memory. Constraint, paradoxically, often liberates the imagination, but given half a chance, I can grow impressively maudlin.

Pascal famously said that all our miseries derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. ‘All our miseries’ is certainly an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt us humans are at heart, social animals. We like parties. We herd ourselves into sports arenas and live music gigs and theatre. We even attend protest rallies. Little wonder that Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness has been a steady seller for more than 150 years. It’s on my bookshelf, a present, as yet unread.

So far from the madding crowd, and bedazzled by the choice of the downloadable options from Amazon, Sky, Netflix and Disney, my best read during lockdown has been Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville, an outstanding work of literature and romanticism.

Ever since its publication in 1851, Moby-Dick has sparked the imagination with its prophetic, digressive and dangerous themes. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee.

Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation grew during the C20th. D. H. Lawrence called it the greatest book of the sea ever written. Indeed, Call me Ishmael is one of literature’s most famous opening sentences.

One track I’ve taken from Moby Dick is the singular obsession Captain Ahab had about pursuit of the whale. It hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. It became all consuming, so much so that his judgement, decision making, common sense and rationality were blinded, his experience counted for nothing by the fixated, blind pursuit of the whale for revenge.

It reminded me that entrepreneurs often have their own whales, causing them to stay awake at night thinking of only that one thing. Your startup may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re trying to out fox the competition, scale your business, or implement a new idea, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between focus and dedication, and unhealthy obsession.

Passionate entrepreneurs are so impatient to move forward with their favourite new idea that they get too optimistic about how would-be customers and investors will see it. Their passion becomes an obsession. Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.

I call it the paradox of entrepreneurship, the very thing it takes to start a business often ends up destroying it. Ahab was obsessed, pursuing his dumb vendetta against a whale. The story progresses the theme of his pursuit until the fatal third chase. Here’s a list of critical junctures I’ve created where founders let passion cloud their judgment – I’ve called it the Ahab syndrome in your startup – and strategies to avoid it and stay clear-eyed.

Don’t be obsessed by vision Of course, you need a vision to drive your purpose, but you also need to be flexible in the pursuit of your vision and an awareness and ability to make adjustments, fine-tune the tactics, and adjust the direction in response to feedback. Don’t be fixated on your vision to the point of inaction, which was Ahab’s downfall.

Don’t obsess, plan Don’t wander through the early days of your startup with thoughts running through your head like a helicopter background noise in your dreams. Take a few deep breaths. Whilst plans themselves have little use once crafted, the act of planning gets a lot of things out of your head and clarifies thinking in terms of priorities. When you wake up at night obsessing, go to your planning. Write it down. Relax, and go back to sleep.

Take note of the experience of others Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause, two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick at all costs, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.

Remember there’s always another whale There will always be another opportunity, another goal to consider, and always something to work toward. There will always be another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your psychological emotion and energy on an obsessive single dream or goal.

Have buckets of patience Working on a startup requires a level of patience that can’t be imagined before you get there. Your patience will be tested. You will have a nailed-on customer drag on for six months longer than you thought to close, to the point you are worn out just thinking about it. You may even have a key team member lose faith in you. Ahab showed no patience, he saw the red mist and simply threw himself headlong into the challenge, with no guile or reflective thinking.

Avoid the cult of personality Most entrepreneurs have a strong personality, but it isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energised by him, that they never questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamoured with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.

Listen to your team Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale, it was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed blinkered on his personal ambition blinded to reason, and as a result of failing to listen, failed in his goal.

Keep a balance and sense of perspective For every successful entrepreneur who cites sacrificing health and family as the key to success, there are ten others who say the sacrifices were a tragic mistake. Another logical flaw: millions of people sacrificed health and family and weren’t successful. All their sacrifice did was ruin their lives. Nobody quotes them. They call that survivor bias.

Understand that you make mistakes. Acknowledge your mistakes, analyse them, and them package them up in your mind and store them somewhere out of sight, somewhere where you can access them occasionally to help avoid making the same mistakes again, but, on the other hand, where they won’t just drive you crazy and adversely impact your decision making.

Do you recognise the ‘Ahab syndrome’ in yourself at all? While there is only a fraction of startups are ground-breaking, simply the essence of innovation is knowing the odds and be able to exploit your idea. Passion gets you started, and as a result, we go narrow and deep, but that can realise an unbalanced focus.

Developing a sense of focus like Ahab feels good, leading to the creation of solutions and products that blow people away, but the commitment it takes to go narrow and deep can mean the very things needed to make the leap from creator to revenue generator get lost in the fray. Your deep focus can pull you away from the levers needed to drive not just the idea, but the business-engine forward, and that’s the potential to develop a condition I call entrepreneurial myopia.

You become so hyper-focused on your tiny slice of the world that your depth of field begins to narrow to a point where you lose objectivity and start to view what you’re doing as the only way something can be done, solved or expressed. You become a champion of your idea, your solution, your craft and view it as the ultimate source of value or the only way to solve a problem. You discount all others because you’ve become wed not to the solution but to the need to bring this ‘thing’ that’s become everything to you to the world.

Problem is, when you’re on the inside looking out, you’re in the worst possible place to know which end of the spectrum you’re working on – self-delusion or customer-delight – your blinkers are on.

Narrow and deep when the quest is bundled with the desire to turn the output of your efforts in the name of solving a problem into generating an income is the necessary focus. It’s vital to create self-checking mechanisms that allow you to step back, to remove yourself and ask, is the work being driven by an intrinsic joy aligned with what large numbers of people want or need and are willing to pay for?

Stepping back for a moment allows fresh breezes to blow in. A little fresh breeze sometimes is a stimulating thing, literally blowing away the cobwebs, giving you a jolt to sit up, and makes you check-in. Focus, yes. Be myopic when the times call for that. But always leave a little stepping back room for that breeze. You never know what epiphany it may bring.

So avoid passion clouding your judgement. Emotion should be tempered with reason and logic. Don’t get fooled into believing that either your excitement or anxiety levels should be the drivers that help you make the final decision about risk. Your feelings may be very unreliable. The more emotional you feel, the less logical your thinking and judgement will be. Increase your rational thoughts about the risk you’re facing to balance out your emotional reaction.

Balance emotion and logic. To make balanced choices, acknowledge your emotions. Pay attention to the way your feelings and recognise how those emotions may distort your thinking and influence your behaviour. Raise your logic and decrease your emotional reactivity.

The lesson from Ahab is that’s its a mistake to build your success on a single metric as a measure of success, because as we see, this drives a blinded, frenzied and myopic set of behaviours to its achievement. So heed the Ahab syndrome, avoid entrepreneurial myopia and don’t become obsessed with your startup. Breath, share, reflect, listen and learn. Maintain your sense of perspective, balance of views and have patience.

My Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA is on its way

The email arrived last Wednesday from BrewDog: my Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA was on its way. Billed as short-sighted beer for tall stories, it’s dry-hopped 6% ABV for a juicy hit with pineapple, mango and hint of zesty lime. All profits will go to funding production of their free sanitiser for the NHS & Health Care Charities.

The Scottish brewery has an (in)famous reputation for its bravado on the naming of its beers, and its bold and brash marketing, and this is their latest provocative and cheeky marketing stunt.

Barnard Castle Eye Test limited edition IPA was named via a public vote, shortly after news that Dominic Cummings had broken the government’s lockdown rules in April, travelling 260 miles with his wife and child to his parent’s home in Durham. It transpired that Cummings had travelled 30 miles from Durham to visit nearby Barnard Castle, a local tourist attraction, to test his eyes, as his vision had become ‘a bit weird’.

Quick off the mark, BrewDog co-founder James Watt asked his 67,000 Twitter followers to vote for the name for a new, limited edition beer: Cummings & Goings, Stay at Home were suggested, but Barnard Castle Eye Test won the vote. The label features blurred out text at the bottom of the can. It adds to the branding…

Beer has come a long way since an Italian medic, Aldobrandino of Siena, published his treatise on health and diet in 1256. Here was a drink, Aldobrandino argued, that harms the head and the stomach, causes bad breath, ruins the teeth, and fills the gut with bad fumes. But his views would not prevail. In Britain, beer became increasingly popular.

But by the end of C20th, beer was in a bad way. Traditional cask ale was vanishing from the pubs in favour of thin, industrial bitters and fizzy, low-strength lagers. Technology allowed the big brewers to commoditise the product with economies of scale to churn out mass-produced volumes, supported by big advertising budgets to somehow convince people this bland, insipid parody of a product was what beer was supposed to be.

The vast majority of beer in Britain was chilled, filtered and pasteurised (to kill the yeast and extend the shelf life), injected with CO2 (to make it fizzy), served from a pressurised keg. Sales in supermarkets killed off the pub trade with their pricing.

At this time, James Watt had a beer epiphany with an American brewed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, bought at Tesco, to wash down some fish and chips. With his friend Martin Dickie – and the brown Labrador, Bracken – they began experimenting with their own brews because they couldn’t find anything they really wanted to drink. At 55% alcohol-by-volume, their first brew, End of Historya blond Belgian ale infused with Scottish Highland nettles and fresh juniper berries – was stronger than most whiskies. It sold in a limited run of 11 bottles.

Their vision was to make people as passionate about craft beer as they were, revolutionise the British beer industry, and redefine British beer-drinking culture. They were part of the vanguard of a remarkable renaissance in British brewing that triggered the healthy micro-brewery sector we have today. Punk IPA was born.

Watt and Dickie pooled their savings, negotiated a £20,000 bank loan, and bought a pile of second-hand brewing equipment. Their first two batches of Punk IPA failed; the first because a phone, a thermometer and a set of car keys ended up in the mash, and the second because they had bought dirt-cheap garden hose for their brewhouse and the whole brew tasted like really strong plastic.

The third, however, worked. It was awesome. Now they just had to convince enough people they should feel the same way. It was tough going. They filled bottles by hand, sometimes through the night, criss-crossed Scotland in an ancient Fiat Punto and an even older Skoda pickup, flogging their beer on farmers’ markets.

Less than a year later, BrewDog had won its first major contract – to supply Tesco with twice the quantity of Punk IPA it was then capable of producing. Watt and Dickie had entered four of their beers in a competition run by the supermarket chain: the prize for the winner was a place on the shelves in every one of its UK stores.

Punk IPA became the UK’s fastest growing alternative beer brand and they launched ‘Equity for Punks’, aground-breaking crowdfunding campaign, and their business model was born. Theycontinued to push boundaries and perceptions of what beer can be by brewing the world’s strongest ever beer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, at 32%; further Equity for Punks crowdfunding campaigns financed growth.

BrewDog captures the essence of passion-driven entrepreneurship, disruptive thinking in revitalising a declining market, an innovation mindset, vibrant product leadership and positioning, and unique customer intimacy strategies.

Let’s look at some key aspects of their strategy for your own startup.

1.     Be authentic, live your passion and values

What excites Watt and Dickie about brewing – above and beyond their fanatical obsession with beer itself – are its unending possibilities.From the very start they were inspired to brew American-style craft beers, sweet-tasting ales with high alcohol levels and large amounts of hops, which gave them a bold, fruity, even perfumed flavour.

They experimented, and what’s good with beer is you can try stuff and get an outcome really quickly. You can put in twice the malt, four times the hops, whatever, and two weeks later you know the result. Whisky, you have to wait years.

The zeitgeist is also key. BrewDog took its cultural values from the punk ethos – looking at how punk rock existed as an alternative to pop culture. BrewDog wanted to exist as a radical alternative – to reassess the value of beer, how it should be drunk, and ultimately start a movement away from the ‘4%, industrial tepid lager’ which dominated at the time.

For all the annoyance at their marketing antics, BrewDog have built a successful business on the loud and repeated pronouncement of their own authenticity: that all they truly care about is beer.

Takeaway: Stand for something Founded on a mission to revolutionise the beer industry and redefine its beer-drinking culture, BrewDog started a movement. The lesson from this noble vision is that by aligning with a purpose and standing for more than profit, BrewDog created a community of loyal customers and investors.

2.     Create your own market space

The punk positioning strategy is classic Blue Ocean thinking – if the rest of the market has moved to the right, turn away and head left. With the market dominated by mass-produced similar tasting beers, BrewDog travelled in the opposite direction and created their own market space. They let everyone else fight for market share in the crowded mass market, and created individual craft beers, with a focus on beer drinkers who desired authentic and artisan quality beers at an affordable price.

They adopted the same approach to marketing, not competing with mass- advertising selling a similar message, they stood outside of the crowd and made their brand distinct and memorable. Some of their communication strategies maybe unconventional, but they leverage and amplify their brand values.

Punk makes sense for a startup, challenge the status quo, conventional thinking and accepted paradigms, be non-conformists, get your point of view across. They communicated their philosophy and attracted like-minded people to a craft beer cultural revolution. It was about staying true to their philosophy.

Takeaway: never compromise on price In a market characterised by big brewers shipping volume beers that sacrificed flavour to compete on price, Watt and Dickie did the opposite and set about creating a market and educating customers willing to pay a premium for their highly differentiated product. Lowering your price is often a race to the bottom and hard to reverse, so BrewDog steadfastly refused to get involved with this strategy.

3.     Make product innovation your purpose

BrewDog has a straightforward, single product-based strategy – they supply the best beer – but their business model is based on purpose, passion and beer. They are not about a crowded supermarket shelf where the product is stacked high and sold cheap, but about creating their own shelf space, through product innovation, a positioning on brand and product that is distinct, discernible and distinguishable from competition. It’s hard to compete against purpose, passion and innovation.

BrewDog has set the product innovation bar high, and shown what can be achieved. The reality is that innovation is like the old story about a teenage boy’s claims about his first kiss: everyone talks about it all the time; everyone boasts about how well he is doing it; everyone thinks everyone else is doing it; almost no one really is; and the few who are, are fumbling their way through it incompetently. But BrewDog makes it happen, time and time again.

Takeaway: Make scalable innovation your competitive advantage Product innovation and scaling this at high velocity enables BrewDog to out-manoeuvre the market. Time and time again they gain first mover advantage by being agile, bold and responsive – the Barnard Castle Eye Test is just their latest play.

4.     Choose your attitude, choose your tone of voice

BrewDog describes itself as a post-punk, apocalyptic, motherfucker of a craft brewery. Their crazy, provocative marketing stunts have got their voice heard – as seen by the Barnard Castle Eye Test venture. Two others stand out for me:

·     Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, BrewDog released a special edition beer, Never Mind the Anabolics, containing steroids and other substances allegedly popular – though banned – among athletes. When we were putting steroids and other banned substances in beer, the initial reaction from the media was shock, disdain and disgust, but then we were able to talk to them about the chemicals that are in beer – that started a whole discussion, said Watt.

·     My name is Vladimir, was a beer released to mark the 2014 Winter Olympics and protest against President Putin’s archaic laws around homosexuality.

Takeaway: Develop a brand personality that people connect with BrewDog is an alternative type of business and from the beginning its founders focussed on creating an irreverent and quirky brand personality. By doing so they have built a passionate and sustainable connection with their audience whose loyalty has driven its hockey stick growth.

5.     Build a brand: make your marketing memorable

BrewDog’s provocative marketing has been a pivotal to the business model. They are serial offenders, and haven’t always got it right – Pink IPA, satirically labelled beer for girls, to highlight the gender pay gap, drew significant criticism.

Shock and fanfare have been the core of the marketing strategy for their thirteen years (91 dog years) existence, with the aim to shorten the distance between the people who make the beer and the people who drink it. 

BrewDog has used its marketing to provide a direct connection between the brewery and their audience, injecting humour and education content to reflect the brand personality. Their marketing is notorious for the alignment of product branding with their ethos, often being opportunistic with controversy whilst focused on product innovation – a winning combination.

Takeaway: Leverage the power of content BrewDog is a great example of leveraging content for inbound marketing. Introducing a whole new product category, their marketing fuels the sales cycle – from suspect to a prospect, to a customer, to a repeat customer, to an advocate and to an evangelist – Equity for Punks means customers own equity, an amazing alignment.

Business for Punks: Break All The Rules – the BrewDog Way by James Watt captures the remarkable tale of their turbocharged, heady growth, it’s a must read for all startup founders. They are a remarkably energised business. My Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA is on its way. Short-sighted beer for tall stories. I can’t wait!

Don’t let solitude send you stir crazy, use your imagination

Most of us have become solopreneurs during lockdown, working home alone. How have you found this? There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Or maybe that’s just me then! I’ve been reading a lot about working in solitude, from Virginia Wolf’s and astronaut’s diaries, to Robinson Crusoe, and how Einstein did his best thinking alone. More of that later.

Working day-to-day in a team involves constant adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed, you mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But on your own, when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking, or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

This period of working alone at home captured something about human awkwardness for me, reminding me of my youth when you’re all clumsy elbows and emotions, and out of it you create a kind of desolate euphoria – for the first time in a long I had time to have time.

We have long stigmatised solitude, it has been considered something to avoid, a realm of loners, but some aspects have been better than anticipated for me. Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through personal epiphany. When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. I’ve certainly found aspects of this enforced solitude restorative and creative. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent years alone, held a similar notion: We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom he wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.

The best book I’ve read on solitude during lockdown has been The Lost Island, by Alfred Van Cleef, a book capturing a man’s search for meaning on a remote island, the forbidding Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean. Giving some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness, it’s a striking narrative of a man’s search for and discovery of his life force in the most secluded of places – an isolation like we’ve all experienced recently, although the views were probably more inspiring.

After the death of his father, Van Cleef, the last of a family of Dutch Jews, learns that he is unable to have children. His search for solitude led him to an island lost in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, a place so far-flung that ‘remote’ scarcely does it justice.

Entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock – approaching its grey shores was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception – Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the frenzy of humanity. He shares his time on the island with seas elephants, fur seals and albatrosses and weird scientists – everyday life is spiced with daily scientific discoveries (a new shade of bird vomit, a record gust of wind) and arguments over the management of stocks of chocolate spread.

The island mirrors an emotional desert. It is an untamed wilderness with sheer exposure to the elements, one where life at its most precarious and stark. The island proves to be his kind of place. Van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural and psychic distance from it all, replacing an emotional black hole with a geographical one. There is wit and humour, yet it is impossible to ignore that this is Van Cleef’s quest for salvation. This points to the paradox at the heart of solitude: life in the quiet carriage can be both good and bad.

William Wordsworth has lessons for people trapped inside by natural forces greater than human will. He wandered lonely as a cloud, taking long walks in remote places, and in this season of cancelled parties, the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth went unmarked. Celebrations of the English poet, born on April 7, 1770, should have bloomed like his beloved daffodils, but for now the British landscapes he loved are empty of the visitors that his verse attracted from crowded Victorian cities.

In a period of enforced apartness, Wordsworth’s pursuit of joyous solitude seems timelier than ever. For Wordsworth, solitude brings joy above all because it carves out space for memory. More than the treks and climbs around picturesque locations that filled his years, what Wordsworth cherished was memory as solace and strength – A few hermits make their lives in isolation, birds which fly alone.

For me, solitude is about the quest for balance, and modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand we have ‘networked solitude’ – just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away.

During this spell of collective standstill, our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration: social distancing has been a tragedy for those living alone, but for others it has proved a mixed blessing – many people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting.  If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this vestige of a neverland lodged in my psyche, I do enjoy the tranquillity of time spent alone. I need time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

As we all spend more time at home, it’s only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But we’re in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them – Newton did it over the course of 18 months while isolated to avoid the Plague, revolutionising optics and gravity, and inventing calculus along the way.

One of the reasons Einstein carries such a hefty cultural weight is that he, like Newton, single-handedly invented a fundamentally new view of the universe whilst also in solitude. Einstein’s turn came in his Annus Mirabilus in 1905, when he published four ground-breaking papers and a PhD thesis, touching on optics, and the size and motions of atoms. A few years later, as the Spanish Flu devastated the world from 1918-1920, Einstein was gaining notoriety for his work on the Theory of Relativity, again flourishing in isolation.

Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own. Intuition for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s time spent alone with nothing more than his imagination. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Now besides modelling my own lockdown-hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve tried to adopt his approach to innovation – we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – which I know has helped me in isolation. Taking this further, I’ve always adopted the maxim ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as a way of learning, so I’ve developed my own interpretation of How would Einstein approach this situation? to declutter and unpack thinking whilst in solitude, his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Einstein asked himself what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then created it. I’ve found it a great way to help kick-start my mind-mapping sketches.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. It’s the same for your startup thinking, shoot for the stars.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Touch, Fire and the Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Keep pushing your boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein lived his life by looking at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. Do this grounded thinking yourself, as it helps to create the forward path.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein learned to view a problem in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

A couple of final quotes from Einstein to end with, that always make me smile, and were useful to reflect upon during lockdown. Firstly,I never think of the future, it comes soon enough. He held an appetite for tolerance, ambiguity and even delight in contradiction. Despite his brilliance, he was patient too, a quality we’ve all needed these past three-months: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s been good to reflect upon that too.

The outbreak of coronavirus has been hugely distressing. Those that can safely self-quarantine and cope with the solitude are fortunate. We’re all likely to catch a little cabin fever, but don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking, Einstein had good thinking habits – in his own solitude, he focused on the positive aspects, about have the time to reflect, thinking differently, and not just sitting there daydreaming or worrying.

As we come out of lockdown, there are better things ahead than we leave behind. Maybe your solitude has had some hidden silver lining. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, but rather than seeing solitude as a negative, be like Einstein. He pictured the future, working out possibilities of new realities, where what he was doing today was completely different tomorrow. Use your imagination. That’s what Einstein did when he was alone.