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.

Notes to self: reflections from my ‘lockdown journal’​

During the lockdown isolation and resultant ‘wash-rinse-repeat’ routine, I’ve noticed three things about my working style and rhythm that have made everything feel a lot less anxious:

– never working faster than a walking pace mentally

– being able to work in a more relaxed routine around my own natural body clock

– letting my mind’s appetite guide my working focus

I’ve been making these and other notes in my ’lockdown journal’ about the experience, and as Thoreau wrote in his diary, It matters not where or how far you travel… but how much alive you are. I like his mindset.

I’ve done ok with this hibernation and disengagement. Yes, I’ve hidden under the duvet – both actual and spiritual – and examined the oppressiveness of the current circumstances, which I admit has encouraged me to outburst of hysterical flippancy at times. But with my world shrunk to the limits of an all too familiar horizon trapped at home, I’ve discovered the vicarious pleasures of You Tube armchair travel and exotic culinary delights, making notes of far-flung places to visit in the future.

For my diary, I started a new Moleskine notebook last week, always a special event. I’ve kept a journal for over a decade now, handy for private scribblings and I was delighted to open a new one and start a relationship with a trusted companion.

The Moleskine is the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries, among them van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse. They became famous in the Montmartre district of Paris with the Impressionists, the entrepreneurial flair of the people, the place. The notebooks became synonymous with creative thinking.

So here is an extract from last Tuesday’s lockdown diary, with some takeaways and personal reflections that I hope you’ll find useful.

6.00am. Woken up by the dog, time for her first walk of the day. Start Me Up! Always think of the great Keith Richards guitar riff.

6.15am. Listen to BBC Radio 4 Today news getting ready to take the dog out. It’s Groundhog Day, horrible numbers on the update for global and UK infections and deaths, heart-breaking personal stories, and tales of pending economic doom.

7.30am. Back. Have conversation with neighbour who stands a careful two yards away. Feed the dog before she eats my leg. My breakfast is tricky decision. Are we closer to running out of milk and cereal, or bread and eggs? Go for boiled eggs and toast.

7.45am. Still with the radio, now it’s Thought for the day, it’s two minutes radio beauty. The Reverend Dr. Sam Wells today, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. He talks about touch.

Lockdown lesson 1: Keep in touch But we can’t currently touch, and the less we can touch physically the more we want spiritually. We’ve become disciplined in distancing and isolating. I’m taking inspiration from the work of the NHS folks, they are touching all our lives. But then Dr. Sam mentions death, disease and debt.

I’m going to keep in touch much more post-lockdown, friends and clients alike. Make my connections have depth, meaning and purpose, and share more thinking with startup founders about their well-being, not just business growth.

8.00am. At my desk. Inbox consists of companies advising me how to cope with the pandemic, others offering virtual conferencing tips. Also loads of restaurants that ever took an online booking from me in the last three years offering vouchers.

8.30am. Scan read the subscribed blogs and daily news feeds desperate for a voice not about coronavirus. Pause and reflect on the day ahead, get a positive, optimistic tone of voice into my head.

Lockdown lesson 2: Focus on purpose and outcomes Taking time to shut out the noise of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. Write down the thoughts of the moment.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down that would otherwise have been lost with the ordinary routine of work tasks compressing the mind. Post lockdown, I’m going to spend more time thinking through purpose and outcomes, not simply process and outputs.

8.50am. Look at my draft blog in the hope it will spark more words. Give up when the abstract turns out to be too, er, abstract. Check Twitter and various news websites on grounds this is ‘research’. Disappear down rabbit hole for 45 minutes.

9.30am. To be safe, wash hands while singing Love Will Tear Us Apart. The first two lines have always resonated just where Ian Curtis’s head was when writing the lyrics – When routine bites hard, And ambitions are low. Those two lines have echoed in my mind during lockdown.

10.00am. First Zoom call of the day, with a fund manager who’s considering an investment in one of our startups. It’s a no.

Lockdown lesson 3: Anything is easy when you don’t have to do it People at startups are inherently curious. They constantly challenge, asking why?, what if?, and why not? But sometimes they don’t have the answers needed from an investor’s perspective, and in this case ‘the numbers don’t work’.

I politely reply ‘but you’ve never run a fish and chip shop, anything is easy when you don’t have to do it’. Decide to only work with investors who’ve previously run their own business post lockdown, they will reflect emotional intelligence and empathy whilst reading spreadsheets.

11.00am. Time to dial into another Zoom meeting. Realise cannot find meeting number or meeting code. Send email to colleague who returns a WhatsApp message with the answer.

11.05am. Finally get through to meeting. Try to contribute. Suggest some really good ideas and then sit back. Realise Zoom is on mute. Discussion has moved on. Mute again to avoid embarrassment. Realise I’m starting to miss regular meetings, a concept previously beyond imagination.

12.00pm. Find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind my own company, but we’ve all become isolated and I hope, when the time comes, that we don’t see every handshake as a threat, that we can put things in perspective and not remain over-cautious.

Lockdown lesson 4: Zoomgluts and negative oil prices got me thinking – focus on possibilities The oil glut is caused by a lack of demand, the digital glut is caused by overproduction. When lockdown first took effect fitness instructors, chefs, random guys with an idea, all had the same thought: set up a zoom broadcast.

Now we are overwhelmed by choice, facing Zoom fatigue, and a smorgasbord of options, for free. But even at zero cost, we pay with something even more valuable: our time. And, unlike oil, there’s no way to price a Zoom event at negative time. Well, actually, paying people to attend Zoom events does have a name: work.

For me, the lesson is focus on possibilities and don’t follow the crowd. Let your mind’s eye travel to a future state and explore fresh possibilities, don’t waste time simply standing still.

12.30pm: Zoomglut continues. Helping a new startup with investment agreement with a somewhat zealous legal chap. I’m taking a slightly different approach to ‘confrontation’ via Zoom by using silence as my weapon of choice. It’s actually quite effective as the other person knows deep down they are being ridiculous and leaving it hanging there. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.

Lockdown lesson 5: Avoid the anchoring trap: over-relying on first thoughts Your starting point can heavily bias your thinking, initial impressions to ‘anchor’ subsequent thoughts. This trap is particularly dangerous when you’re flying solo. You can solve this by clearly defining the problem before going down a particular solution path. Look at the problem from different perspectives to avoid being limited to a single point of view, expose yourself to contrarian opinions and broaden your frame of reference.

1.00pm. Dinner dilemma. Eat perishable fresh food before it goes off or non-perishable food which could be out of stock in the supermarket again? Settle for ice cream on the grounds that we had too much of it in the first place. Start to watch You Tube music videos for a few minutes as deserved mental break. Singing out loud to The Stereophonics disturbs the dog who reminds me it’s time for the second walk of the day.

1.30pm. Head for local supermarket with my canine companion. I like the social distancing in the shop, happy to keep this space in the future. Shelves resembling scenes from zombie apocalypse a few weeks ago now back to normal. Purchase family size packet of donuts on grounds that the virus poses a bigger threat to my health than tooth decay does.

Lockdown lesson 6: Provide your own positive perspective Sometimes our perception of a situation can blindspot us. Scribbling in my Moleskin helps me to provide perspective in a way that fosters a positive outlook. This allows me to function better and get more done – focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do.

The act of trying to write something down shapes your thoughts. Once it’s down on paper, you can list things in a way that helps you think. Whether it’s because you cross things off, or prioritise them, or shuffle them, you are in control.

2.30pm. Back home and sit in the garden. Privileged and protected, my wife and I enjoy exercise and peace in our garden. The snails aren’t self-isolating. Outside of our little oasis our rubbish is being collected, post delivered and yet NHS staff are dying. I’ve signed online petitions for proper PPE and go outside to clap loudly on Thursdays. In the new reality our attitudes towards a more democratic and fairer society must be the imperative.

2.45pm. Check Google calendar and find after cancellations, there are no meetings for the rest of 2020. Perhaps this is how it is going to be.

Lockdown lesson 7: Don’t fear the blank page One of the effects enforced by working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us and without all the external recognition? No praise or even rejection. No feedback to define us. This can leave us feeling unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually think.

As with a new Moleskin, don’t fear the blank page. You don’t need to create a masterpiece, you just need to realise how much you see each day. Give yourself time to experiment, play around with your thinking and make a mess. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your venturing endeavours.

3.00pm. Do my online tai-chi, ten-minute workout.

3.30pm. Think about walking into town and working in a coffee shop as a break from the home office or kitchen table. Remember each and every other coffee shop has now closed for business indefinitely.

Lockdown lesson 8: Take your time, for yourself We really don’t own anything in life. When you’re born, and you come out of your mother’s womb, and you’re kicking and screaming, and you go through your years of life, you think that you own stuff and money, and this, that, and the other. But really, you don’t own anything, because it all disappears, it all goes away, and you die, and there’s nothing left.

The only thing that you ever truly own, is your own time. You have so much time to live. Alive time is your own. It means I only have this much time to live, so I’d better make the most of it, I’d better make it alive time, I’d better be urgent, have a bit of an edge, be aware of each moment as it’s passing and not in a fog.

So that’s my Moleskin diary. Not everything will be okay, but some things will. People are dying. Our leaders are weak. Things are not good. But there’s still sunshine and birds singing, so write some positive thinking ‘notes to self’ and use a journal to make sure you come out of this catastrophe on the right side.

The rock ‘n roll entrepreneurial spirit of Dave Grohl

I have a wish-I-did-what-you-do-for-a-living man crush on Dave Grohl, founder and lead singer of the Foo Fighters. I have cycled through many musical heroes, from Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer to Tim Booth. Whenever I hear Grohl perform or talk, I marvel at his intelligence and zest for his craft. Of course, everyone’s on a mission to be themselves at the deepest level, but I sometimes wish my job was doing what this guy does.

Music gives Grohl his spiritual conviction to ferociously animate himself. He founded The Foo Fighters as a one-man project following the dissolution of Nirvana after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The band took its name from the UFOs and various aerial phenomena reported by aircraft pilots in WWII – which were known as ‘foo fighters’.

I know an embarrassing amount about Grohl. I could talk your ears off. For example, did you know Dave was the fifth drummer in Nirvana? I always think of that when I’m playing air drums in the car to Everlong – I’ll get my breakthrough I tell myself, I can be patient.

Following the release of Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, featuring Grohl as the only musician – so he consequently played every instrument – Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, as well as Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear to complete the line-up.

The band made its live public debut on February 23, 1995, at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. Goldsmith quit during the recording of the group’s second album, The Colour and the Shape (1997), when most of the drum parts were re-recorded by Grohl himself. Smear’s departure followed soon afterward, though he appeared with the band on live shows, and rejoined as a full-time member in 2011.

The Colour and the Shape is an amazing record, including top tunes such as Monkey Wrench, Everlong, My Hero, and Walking After You. Before its release, Taylor Hawkins joined as drummer, followed by Chris Shiflett as lead guitarist. Fast forward to September 2017, and session and touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee joined as a full member, to complete the lineup.

At their loudest and most animated, Foo Fighters are noisemakers and musicians. Their grinding sheds a spark, which leads to an explosion, which leads to a crescendo. Grohl’s music combines the beauty of minimalism, the importance of music that’s stripped down, and a wall of noise. Foo Fighters tunes are marked by the technique of shifting between quiet verses and loud, sing-along choruses, huge guitars, powerful hooks.

They have the lure of punk with the energy and immediacy, the need to thrash stuff around, but at the same time, we’re all suckers for a beautiful melody. Often it’s a punishing industrial noise, a clattering din, but Grohl is an idiosyncratic figure in a world that tends towards the cookie-cutter.

Grohl is a whirling dervish on stage, and they frequently play concerts for over three hours. He’s a story of sheer passion. For example, on June 12, 2015, Grohl fell from the concert stage in Gothenburg, during the second song of the Foo Fighters’ set, and broke his leg. The band played without Grohl while he received medical attention; Grohl then returned to the stage, sitting in a chair to perform the last two hours of the band’s set while a medic tended to his leg.

The band are deep into their musicianship, and at gigs, each member tips their hat to their heroes – from Queen to The Stones to John Lennon – but the best I’ve seen was Pat Smear leading the band into a quick dash through the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. When they play, it’s blood and guts. I love their dissonance and the chaos.

Startup founders – as any band founders like Grohl – who want to follow any kind of memorable, meaningful path for their venture or for culture writ large, can’t settle for cheap radio-play solutions, or settle for a ‘one-hit wonder’ mentality.

To create real cultural touchstones, we have to understand that there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is no cheat. No corners to cut. No app store elevation to a speedy triumph. Because let’s face it, the majority of chart-toppers fail to occupy a place in the collective memory as we someday record it. However, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on April 10, 2014, twenty years after the death of Cobain, so Grohl already has a legacy.

In business terms, you don’t need another ‘hit’, you need to define your vision and ‘what does success look like?’ aligned around specific outcomes. To build companies that create real customer loyalty, credibility, or a following like a band – measured either by word of mouth or clear metrics – you have to build experiences.

Not just products. Not pixel-perfect screens, it’s the human experience that matters most. How people think and feel when they use the thing you’ve built, hyper-memorable encounters, real human experience. It’s like those memorable concerts you’ll never forget. It’s only these kinds of experiences that any of us are likely to enjoy with relish or gusto in a year or two to ensure repeat purchases.

At this stage in the feverish, casino-like startup game, it’s a lottery at best. It’s not about memes, it’s about moments. Not ‘friends’, or ‘followers’ or ‘connections’, but faces. Physical, real-world experiences that complement our lives online, extending it emotionally and naturally, in way that we now need and crave more than ever before. Remember, in this rock-star era of startups, the ‘concert’ is monumentally more rewarding than the record. For customers. For audiences. For people.

After the death of Cobain, Grohl did not wallow in grief. He refocused and put himself back into the music. I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life. I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music and I enjoy trying to sing, and there’s nothing anyone can really do to discourage me.

Which means maybe it’s time to find that loud, noisy and energised version of the Dave Grohl in you, in the here and now. And if you can’t, start banging out some version of it in your garage as a start. So, let me count you in to some startup lessons from Dave Grohl. Ready? 1-2-3-4…

Be punk, not perfect Dave started out as the drummer in the punk band Scream. He began drumming on the pillows on his bed as a kid, and then took the rhythm that flowed through him on the road by the time he was seventeen. He never took drum lessons or guitar lessons. Actually he took one drum lesson and the teacher tried to get him to change the way he held the sticks. That was the end of drum lessons.

He’s a self-taught guitarist, too. Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album by himself, playing every instrument, in five days. The music he writes and performs is far from perfect, but it’s perfectly him. Passion and emotion are great, ugly, beautiful channels to push your creativity out into the world. No lessons required.

Be a doer Grohl knew what he wanted to do from a young age. However, his family couldn’t afford a drum kit so he would arrange his pillows on his bed and hit them hard enough to make the sounds he wanted. There will always be barriers, but it’s how we overcome them that matter.

Sometimes we feel like going it alone is the hardest thing, but it often results in the most rewarding work. Grohl’s got deep roots in the punk scene, which has a strong tether to the do-it-yourself mentality. Grohl talks about his realisation that he could make it happen with his own hands:

At 13 years old, I realised that I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts. I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong, because it was all mine.

Grohl isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, show off his feather-tattooed arms, and get to work. So what about you?

Find your passion The idea is just to make music and make good records. There’s not so much career ambition as there is personal ambition… …When you go in to make an album, you want it to be better than the last, you want it to be the best thing you’ve ever done, and you want to stretch yourself musically.

Molly’s Lips was his first Nirvana recording, a session for John Peel’s BBC Radio show. He’d made a start. Grohl is confident in his own shoes. He knows who he is: It’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last.

Keep your family close To be an effective leader, it can’t be all about the work. A balanced life is a full life, and Grohl obviously enjoys having those closest to him, close to him.

Family commitments are important, keep a balance. It’s often the reason many can’t chase their dreams. Grohl’s a devoted and dedicated father, so he built a studio at home so that he could walk his three daughters to school whilst he wasn’t on tour before getting to work. Now, you often see one of his daughters get up on stage with him at most gigs.

Get stuff done From his early work from Scream, as the drummer for Nirvana and the last twenty-five years as the enigmatic frontman of the Foo Fighters, the output of music and songs that have Grohl’s fingerprints on is stunning.

By his own admission, he can literally not sit still. Whilst band mates enjoy a much needed rest, he often fills that time with side projects and collaborations. Volume can speak volumes, and whilst it’s important to maintain quality, sometimes we need to just get stuff done. So avoid procrastination. Either crack on and finish it, or scrap it and move on.

Care … genuinely In May 2006, Grohl sent a note of support to the two trapped miners in the Beaconsfield mine collapse, in Australia. In the initial days following the collapse one of the men requested an iPod with the Foo Fighters album In Your Honour to be sent down to them through a small hole.

Grohl’s note read, in part, Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?

One of the miners took up his offer, joining Grohl for a drink after a Foo Fighters acoustic concert in Sydney. Grohl wrote a tribute instrumental piece for the next album. The song, Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners, appears on Foo Fighters’ 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for Dave Grohl, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Everlong.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice like Dave Grohl. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.

Greggs: an agile approach to strategy & business model thinking

John Gregg founded his bakery business in 1939, selling eggs and yeast from his bicycle in Newcastle. The business grew, and his son Ian joined his father and mother, selling pies from his van to miners’ wives. They opened their first shop in Gosforth in 1951.

When John died in 1964, the bakery was taken over by Ian, and major expansion began, including the acquisitions of other bakeries such as the Bakers Oven chain from Allied Bakeries in 1994.

Greggs grew to be the largest bakery chain in the UK, home of the bacon sandwich and a coffee for two quid special offer which, disappointingly, is now £2.10 (a friend told me, honestly), famous for pies and pasties and everything you firmly resolved on December 31 would never touch your lips again.

A couple of years ago, Greggs fell victim to adverse PR about its product range and customer base. Oh how the Prêt crowd sniggered into their avocado and crayfish salads. Yet plucky old Greggs just got its head down and kept growing. ‘It’s a northern thing’ no longer serves as an explanation. The patronising notion that Greggs’s popularity is inversely proportional to the nation’s economic fortunes also fails to explain its steady expansion.

Today Greggs generate £1m a week from sales of coffee. It has repositioned the brand from an ordinary bakery-to-take-home to a high growth food-on-the-go entity, meeting changing customer demands and evolving food culture.

A new strategy was introduced in 2013 under CEO Roger Whitehouse, formerly Head of M&S Food, which focused on four pillars: Great tasting freshly prepared food; best customer experience; competitive supply chain; first class support teams.

Whitehouse introduced a ‘restless dissatisfaction’ approach to compliment the traditional business values, ensuring the business would never stand still after recovering from a period of stagnation. He implemented some radical changes, including closing the in-store bakeries, and introducing the ‘Balanced Choice’ range of products with less than four hundred calories, healthier options to the traditional product range.

And it’s worked. Having launched the first vegan sausage roll in January, last week the company announced a 50% rise in profits to £40.6m in the first half of 2019. The business is handing shareholders a £35m special dividend after total sales rose 14.7% to £546m.

In 2016, Greggs weren’t in the takeaway breakfast market but now only McDonalds sells more takeaway breakfasts. With a Fairtrade Expresso, it has overtaken Starbucks to become the third-largest takeaway coffee seller, behind Costa and McDonalds, while only Tesco sells more sandwiches.

So what are the lessons from the success of Greggs changing its business strategy and model that we take into our startup thinking?

1.     Be agile in how you connect with customers

Greggs expects to pass 2,000 outlets this year, 65% are on high streets, with the remaining 35% located in retail and office parks and in travel locations such as railway stations and petrol forecourts. The aim is to change the emphasis of the business so that it is 60% non-high street by the time it has 2,500 shops.

Part of this is having many of its stores open earlier and close later, in order to target those going to and coming back from work, expanding its breakfast menu to suit, and with ‘Greggs à la carte’ stores to open late to 9pm to lure evening takeaway diners.

As well as its new drive-through locations, the company is trialing a click-and-collect service, as well home and office delivery by Just Eat and Deliveroo. They aim to integrate click-and-collect and delivery services with the company’s Greggs Rewards app, which offers free drinks and birthday treats.

Greggs has previously failed with new ideas such as Greggs Moment, a coffee shop-style outlet with seating, and the Greggs Delivered service, which is only available in Newcastle and Manchester city centres, three years after it launched. However, the business is now at a scale where it can experiment without too much risk.

Takeaway: Greggs route to market strategy is to based on expanding their reach to enhance customer convenience, a ‘fish where they swim’ strategy, reducing the barriers between themselves and their customers, uplifting the customer experience and making the ability to connect and purchase convenient.

2.     Build your brand to face your market

Greggs has in recent years persistently bucked the wider trend on UK high streets, where most retailers are struggling to compete as sales shift online and the cost of running stores rises.

In 2013, Greggs began to transition out of the bakery market with the reasoning that it couldn’t compete with supermarkets, switching to focusing solely on the ‘food on the go’ market after discovering that 80% of its business was with that market. They stopped selling bread in 2015.

Greggs has worked hard at getting consumers to think about it as a food-on-the-go chain, developing ideas such as online ordering for collection and home delivery, developing strategic partnerships with their supply chain to focus on the four key pillars of their strategy.

They are more in touch with where the customers are today. It has managed to cater to new markets without being overly ambitious. The builder can still come off the building site and get a hot pasty, but there are also salads. The decor is still recognisable even if it has been upgraded and the older traditional customers still feel comfortable.

Takeaway: Many businesses want profit as their objective. But if you only focus on short-term wins and results, you get distracted from doing the work required to build the skills you need to grow and scale, and it’s the ability to scale that matters. The process is more important than the outcome at early stages of a change of strategy. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

3.     Look forwards, not backwards with your product offering

Greggs sells 1.5 million sausage rolls a week but created the new vegan option due to public demand after an online petition signed by 20,000 people. In recent years Greggs has been innovating within its product range to appeal to a broader range of customers. Its ‘Balanced Choice’ healthy eating range, introduced in 2014, offers options including wraps and salads, all below 400 calories. It also sells gluten-free and several vegan lines.

The company also believes it can take advantage of rising demand for food ‘customisation’, driven by allergies and ‘food avoidance’ preferences, and its stores now make sandwiches to request.

One in eight new customers have bought a vegan sausage roll in 2019, which has overtaken doughnuts and other pastries to become a bestseller. The traditional sausage rolls remain at number one – with its 96 layers of light, crisp puff pastry – but there are more vegan products in development, including a vegan doughnut. It’s worked, such that Ginsters released their own vegan product for the first time in its 52-year history.

Takeaway: Greggs has been bold in its response to the adverse publicity on its offering and changing food culture. Aligning your product strategy with a focused brand image and route to market is core to any business model.

4.     Be clear about your marketing message & tone of voice

Before the Greggs vegan sausage rolls went on sale, TV presenter Piers Morgan sent out a tweet: Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns. The tone of the company’s response: Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you – friendly but with a slight edge, was perfectly attuned to the ironic, self-confident marketing Greggs has adopted, a James Bond-inspired, droll putdown that was the perfect riposte.

Their hilariously portentous launch video – part of a build-up that parodied the release of a new iPhone model with journalists sent vegan rolls in mock iPhone packaging and stores sold sausage roll phone cases – meant that for days Twitter was engulfed with people talking about a £1 bakery product.

The vegan sausage roll campaign, officially launched to support the Veganuary campaign that encouraged people to give up animal products for a month, followed other memorable promotions include a Valentine’s Day campaign offering ‘romantic’ £15 candlelit dinners in Greggs shops, and a spoof ‘Gregory and Gregory’ event, and one faux pas: a 2017 advent calendar tableau of a sausage roll in a manger. After complaints Greggs apologised and reprinted with a different scene featuring Christmas muffins.

Takeaway: Greggs found its distinctive marketing style in 2012, when it saw off then-chancellor George Osborne’s proposed ‘pasty tax’ on hot takeaway food. Since then it has been consistent in its purposeful, structured and memorable content driven communication strategy, making the brand relevant to its target audience and differentiating its offering in an increasingly competitive market to reposition the brand.

5.     Don’t let your business model become stale

Innovation can be about efficiency. Look at Ikea, and The Billy bookcase. It’s a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that is all you want from it. The Billy isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative. The Billy innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost, all while producing something that does the job. It demonstrates that innovation in the modern economy is not just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems.

The Greggs shop environment has been improved and significant investments made in logistics and delivery systems to make them more efficient and scalable. In-store ordering moved to a centralised forecast and replenishment system rather than relying on shop teams filling in manual order forms, which resulted in order accuracy and improved availability for customers.

All shops are on a refurbishment programme (every seven years) to ensure they stay looking bright and welcoming. In-store point of sale and window displays remain key to Greggs’ marketing strategy, however, a loyalty app was also introduced.

Takeaway: innovation in Greggs is about efficiency, economy and effectiveness, searching for ways to make their products even better and affordable for their target market. A ‘back to basics’ focus on the business model reflects the culture and humility of the brand. Combined with brave decision making to implement change and execution in a consistent, simple and continuous manner has delivered the results.

6.     Ensure your folks keep clear heads

Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of customers at busy times, staff have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and frenzy. Resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the steak bakes.

When you go to a Greggs, the staff are so engaged in what they do its untrue, they are like whirling octopus serving customers, and they do it with good humour, bantering with regulars, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

With 10% of profits going to the Greggs Foundation to help fund Breakfast Clubs for children and over £1m raised annually for Children in Need, the vegan pastry has helped change the perception of Greggs, but fundamentally it’s a people business, about delivering service, experience and the community it operates.

Takeaway: So, focused on a simple, core value proposition – reasonable quality food at reasonable prices, consistently produced and scaled – but the fundamental premise is to make customer experience the brand differentiator.

Many takeout food companies are head-on competition to Greggs, but due to its focused marketing strategies highlighting choice, quality, nutrition & easy access, the company is able to create sustainable advantage.

Changing lifestyles, changing eating habits and increasing health awareness factors are affecting the growth of the companies in this industry. Greggs has set its strategy from a customer’s point of view and with customer-based insights, to ensure the business model is as robust as it can be.

Adopt Greggs’ agile approach to strategy and business model thinking, to focus on the horizon and hold your vision. Do something everyday to move your business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice.

Be remarkable. Be a Purple Cow.

Last week Radiohead issued a vast collection (1.8 gigabytes) of unreleased tracks from the sessions for their 1997 album OK Computer, after a MiniDisc archive owned by frontman Thom Yorke was hacked, and were reportedly asked for a $150,000 ransom to return the recordings.

Instead of paying the ransom, the band made eighteen MiniDisc recordings, most of them around an hour in length, available on Bandcamp for £18. All proceeds will go to climate activists Extinction Rebellion.

Frontman Thom Yorke described the hours of recordings as not very interesting, and guitarist Jonny Greenwood – who confirmed the hack via Twitter – said: Never intended for public consumption it’s only tangentially interesting, and very, very long. Not a phone download. Rainy out, isn’t it, though?

Yorke and Greenwood are absolutely wrong: the files are a treasure trove. Frankly, a look behind the curtain of one of the most innovative albums of a generation is priceless.  This hoard of private material is an illuminating chronicle of a band reinventing the mainstream. The eighteen tracks have been documented in a Google Doc by fans. If anyone understands the dynamics of content, innovation and the internet, it’s Radiohead.

Radiohead is an English band formed in Oxford in 1985 by five school friends. Initially the band were called On a Friday, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. In late 1991, after a chance meeting between band member Colin Greenwood and EMI’s A&R representative at Our Price, the record shop where Greenwood worked, they signed a six-album recording contract with EMI. At the request of EMI, the band changed their name – Radiohead was taken from the song Radio Head on the Talking Heads album, True Stories.

Since their formation, Radiohead have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Thom Yorke, the essential spark of innovation in the band. Yorke’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances cutting a strangely solitary figure, making him look like a man in the throes of a tortuous titanic confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces. Yorke’s vocals trail through atmospherics with angst and despair of a tortured performer.

Radiohead are in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y but without the ostentatious commerciality driven by a marketing machine. They are a serious band that make serious music, a touchstone for adventurous music, yet you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Just like Joy Division, they are seen by many as morose, gloomy harbingers of doom and introspective sensibilities, purporting monochrome view of the world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for me there are toe tapping and sing-a-long moments a plenty. Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope.

What Radiohead did to counter the hack was remarkable. It reminded me of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, the concept that you’re either remarkable or invisible. In a world that grows noisier by the day, Godin’s challenge has never been more relevant.

Godin evolves the traditional ‘4Ps’ marketing thinking with a new P – the Purple Cow. He identified this when he was with his family driving through France and were enchanted by the hundreds of cows grazing on picturesque pastures. For dozens of kilometres, we gazed out the window, marvelling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common.

Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, brown or black cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.

On a long car drive you may see some cows on a hill, and see many more as the hours pass. Brown cow. Brown cow. Black Cow. Black Cow. There’s nothing remarkable about them, they pretty much look the same. But if you spotted a purple cow, then wow, that would be remarkable. You’d sit up in your seat and take notice; you might even pull the car over, let the kids out, take some pictures and share them with friends on Social Media.

Godin’s book came out in 2003, before the first iPhone, however, it is almost like Steve Jobs took everything Godin mentions in his book and put it into creating the iPhone. The iPhone succeeded wildly as a product everyone wants, and it stood out like a Purple Cow in the field of normal phones.

Tesla, Uber, Airbnb are all Purple Cows. As is Paypal. Banking is probably one of the hardest industry of all to try to disrupt, because the barriers to entry are huge – you need mountains of capital, regulatory approval, and years of building trust with your customers.

Banks’ business models are largely unchanged in hundreds of years, and they’re insanely powerful and almost impossible to displace – as we’re seeing with the Challenger Banks and Open Banking initiatives still to truly disrupt their business model – but for some crazy reason PayPal didn’t seem to care, and became remarkable.

Look at their Purple Cow attributes:

  • PayPal spends less money on technology than even a medium sized bank does. Yet its technology platform is far superior.
  • Consumers trust PayPal as much if not more than they trust their bank. Even though PayPal has been around for a fraction of the time.
  • When a customer buys with their PayPal account, the bank has no clue what the customer actually bought. The transaction appears on the bank statement as ‘PayPal’. That gives PayPal all the power when it comes to data mining.
  • PayPal is quicker to market with just about any kind of payment innovation going.
  • PayPal refuses to partner directly with banks – instead opting to partner with retailers directly.

In a small period of time, PayPal inserted itself as a whole new method of payment to become a real alternative to debit or credit cards. But how did it manage to do it? There are two huge pillars of success to PayPal’s story.

They seized the moment. They got a lucky break when they ‘accidentally’ became the favoured payment provider for eBay transactions. This was followed a few years later by their $1.5bn acquisition by eBay themselves. eBay were smart enough to leave them alone, and their newfound sense of boldness saw them strike a series of deals with other online retailers to try and replicate the success they’d had with eBay.

The second pillar of their success was Partnerships. Banks had always been wary about forming partnerships directly with retailers, instead they relied on their scheme partners Visa/MasterCard to do that for them. They didn’t want the hassle of managing so many different relationships, and were extremely confident about the fact that credit and debit cards would always be at the heart of the financial payment system.

But the problem was that MasterCard themselves were already working on a partnership with PayPal, leaving the banks out in the cold. Today, PayPal has 20% market share of online payments in the US, and 63% of the eWallet space. Almost all of that growth has come from their direct relationships with merchants large and small.

Paypal is a Purple Cow. Making something remarkable means asking new questions and trying new practices, doing the unexpected and creating an offering that is genuinely innovative. Godin identifies some key traits of Purple Cows, for example:

Get into the habit of doing the unsafe thing. Remarkable isn’t always about changing the biggest machine in your factory, it’s about being bold and every time you have the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not. It’s safer to be risky. Use this mindset to go for the truly amazing moon-shot things.

Explore the limits with early adopters. What if you’re the cheapest, the fastest, the slowest, the hottest, the coldest, the easiest, the most efficient, the loudest, the most hated, the copycat, the outsider, the hardest, the oldest, the newest, or just the most? If there’s a limit, you must test it. The early adopters heavily influence the rest of the curve, so persuading them is worth far more than wasting time and effort trying to persuade anyone else.

Target a niche. The way you break through to the mainstream is to target a niche instead of a huge market. With a niche, you can segment off a chunk of the mainstream, and create an ideavirus so focused that it overwhelms that small slice of the market that really and truly will respond to what you offer. The market is small enough that a few wins can get you to the critical mass you need to create an ideavirus.

Think small. One vestige of the social media explosion is a need to think mass. If it doesn’t appeal to everyone, the thinking goes, it’s not worth it. No longer. Think of the smallest conceivable market and describe a product that overwhelms it with its remarkability. Be remarkable by being curated.

Differentiate your customers. From the above two points, find the market segment that wants your product and ‘own your market’. Within this, find the group that’s most likely to influence other customers – cater to the customers you would choose if you could choose your customers. Have the insight and guts to craft a Purple Cow product/service offering that gets the right people to seek them out.

Find things that are ‘just not done’ in your industry. And then go ahead and do them. Ask ‘Why not?’ – almost everything you do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack of someone asking, ‘Why?’ Uber and Airbnb did just that, and what about Tesla – who gave away their IP of their electric batteries.

If you’re remarkable, then it’s likely that some people won’t like you. That’s part of the definition of remarkable. The best the timid can hope for is to be unnoticed. Criticism comes to those who stand out.

Playing it safe. Following the rules. They seem like the best ways to avoid failure. Alas, that pattern is a dangerous and mistaken fallacy. In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible. Boring is always the riskiest strategy. Startups realise this and work to reduce the risk from the process. They know that sometimes it’s not going to work, but they accept the fact that that’s okay, as ultimately, chewing your own cud leads to being remarkable.

Understand the urgency of the situation. Half-measures simply won’t do. Being noticed is not the same as being remarkable. Running down the street naked will get you noticed, but it won’t accomplish much. It’s easy to pull off a stunt, but not useful. Extremism in the pursuit of remarkability is no sin. In fact, it’s practically a requirement. Remarkability lies in the edges. It doesn’t always matter which edge, more that you’re at (or beyond) the edge.

Part of what it takes to do something remarkable is to do something first and best. Roger Bannister was remarkable. The next guy, the guy who broke Bannister’s record wasn’t. He was just faster, but it didn’t matter.

Godin challenges us to be a Purple Cow, crafting something truly exceptional in everything we create or do. Like the Radiohead reaction to being hacked, like Tesla giving away their IP and PayPal did in challenging the status quo, be unexpected, be innovative, standout from the crowd, make people stop in their tracks and think. Be remarkable.

The myopic thinking of 110% effort

During a meeting I had last week, a bloke poured water into his glass and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy I said jokingly, to which he replied, Not really, I always give 110%. This is one of my utmost bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase twice times already – before attempting to fill a glass 110% – trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you spill 10% if you’ve given it 110%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2019. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. But in giving greater than 100%, this can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language.

Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort. As well-renowned basketball coach John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep the mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity.

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, and an ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive responses It’s easy to give negative responses and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of achievement and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but hard to do mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, and when you return, create the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

Pragmatic optimism is not fashionable, yet virtually any problem that can be articulated clearly enough can be solved without overthinking and overworking it to 100%+ effort. Being comfortable with uncertainty is perhaps the most important trait we can develop in ourselves as entrepreneurs, and not default to becoming overwhelmed.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is startup life. Is every day peachy? Of course not . But do your best so that on balance be calm , by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple, leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make a difference long-term.

I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future. It just doesn’t work. Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment – and that’s 100% of today, nothing more.

Networking tips for startups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made in Manchester: the creativity & innovation of FAC73

It’s now 36 years since New Order’s Blue Monday was released – 7 March 1983, and its cutting-edge electronic groove had a major influence on popular culture. The song has been widely remixed, re-released and covered since its original version, and is still a popular anthem in dance clubs.

The song begins with a distinctive kick drum intro, programmed on a synthesiser, which fades in a sequencer melody. The verse section features the song’s signature throbbing synth bass line, played by a Moog Source, overlaid with Peter Hook’s surging bass guitar. Bernhard Sumner delivers the lyrics in a deadpan manner, almost a hark back to their founding Joy Division days.

Blue Monday is a dance track with a deep hint of melancholy. A seven and a half minute-long single, it became the biggest-selling 12-inch of all time. After a lengthy introduction, the first and second verses are contiguous and are separated from the third verse only by a brief series of sound effects. A short breakdown section follows the third verse, which leads to an extended outro.

People have interpreted the title all sorts of ways. It actually came from a book drummer Stephen Morris was reading, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. One of its illustrations reads: Goodbye Blue Monday. It’s a reference to the invention of the washing machine, which improved housewives’ lives.

The original 1983 artwork is designed to resemble a 5¼” floppy disc. The sleeve does not display either the group name nor song title anywhere – the only text on the sleeve is “FAC SEVENTY THREE” on the spine. Instead the legend “FAC 73 BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH NEW ORDER” is represented in code by a series of coloured blocks.

The single’s original sleeve, created by designer Peter Saville, cost so much to produce that Factory Records lost money on each copy sold, due to the use of die-cutting and specified colours required. Nobody expected Blue Monday to be a commercial success, so nobody expected the cost to be an issue. The artwork was so late that Saville sent it straight to the printer, unreviewed by either the band or the label.

New Order performed the track live on Top of The Pops on 31 March 1983. The performance was dogged by technical problems, and it wasn’t their greatest moment. In the words of drummer Stephen Morris, Blue Monday was never the easiest song to perform anyway, and everything went wrong.

The coded colour blocks design by Saville were part of his distinctive and iconic work that set Factory Records apart. Saville was primarily interested in the contrast of historical and modern, technological and natural, and in a wider sense, perceived when seen through contemporary eyes. His colour code was a way of juxtaposing, as he said, the hieroglyphics of technology with historical classicism.

Although the code first appeared on Blue Monday, it was with the release of the Power Corruption and Lies album, that any sense of what it might all mean began to surface.

The cover of this brilliant album is a reproduction of the 1890 painting A Basket of Roses by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour, and apart from some coloured squares in the top right, that’s it, there’s no band name and no album title. The seven squares however are a continuation of the Blue Monday code and it’s only when you turn the sleeve over to find a coloured wheel that it becomes possible to work it all out.

The first clue is that the circle is made up of twenty six segments around its outer rim. The wheel is decoded using only the outer two rings, which are either a single colour or a doubled up colour (with either green or yellow). The inner segments, as far I can tell, are to complete the device and for decoration only.

The alphabet starts with the double depth green at the top and works round clockwise. The numbers 1 to 9 also start at the doubled green which means they are effectively identical to the first nine letters of the alphabet (context is everything for Saville).

It might just be the happy conjunction of the beat and timing, but for Blue Monday blankness is the overwhelming quality, from Sumner’s pale, robotic vocal to Peter Hook’s desolate bass melody, but the design adds to the feel that this is a very special record.

But it wasn’t meant to be this pivotal. It was supposed to be an entirely automated excuse to end a gig and for the band to hit the bar. One of the four would press the button and the track would take care of itself, allowing the band to leave the audience to it and get a swift half. That was before they realised how complicated it was to try and get all these mad sequencers and drum machines to actually talk to one another.

At the time, and even in retrospect, New Order were amazing innovators. If I think about what innovation looks like, the same slideshow of images clicks across my mind: that photo of Einstein with his unkempt hair all over the place, Edison with his light bulb, and Steve Jobs onstage in his black turtleneck jumper introducing the latest iThing device.

But for all the innovators who have impacted our lives, it’s not just about that romantic Eureka! moment, it’s about the nitty-gritty work that comes after the idea in terms of getting it accepted and implemented. Thinkers need doers to get things done, and idealists need practitioners to tether them to reality. Then again, the risk-takers and the risk-averse must co-exist otherwise an organisation veers too far to one extreme or the other, and either jerks all over the place with the push-and-pull, or simply moves nowhere at all.

Everyone is born creative, everyone is given a box of crayons early on. Then when you hit puberty they take away the crayons and give you books, on algebra and calculus (which I liked better than crayons). Suddenly years later when get the creative bug, you want your crayons back.

Many creative geniuses are driven by anxiety and self-doubt, yet the way they create stuff, despite innovation seeming to be a random, messy outcome, is methodical. Many have routine or process that is disciplined and ordered. I discovered this disciplined approach when I came across the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers.

He hypothesised that for these geniuses, a routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. He noted several common elements in the lives of the geniuses that allowed them to pursue the luxury of a productivity-enhancing routine.

Here are the highlights of structure, routine and habits that seem to enable a creative genius to do what they do:

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

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

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Before there was email, there were letters. It amazed me to see the amount of time the people in Currey’s study allocated to answering letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon).

Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing.

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

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

I find the routines and habits of these thinkers strangely compelling, almost extreme, as the very idea that you can organise your time as you like is out of reach for most of us.

So reflecting back 36 years and the release of Blue Monday, FAC73 in the Factory Records catalogue, we may never know precisely where such innovation comes from, why some people use their creativity more than others or why some people are most creative during specific times in their lives.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for New Order their most celebrated track is immune to the passing of time and the interference of others such that, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Blue Monday.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something. really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.

Creativity is the root of entrepreneurship, it’s not just a skill but also an attitude. Ideas are at the core of the modern economy, shape your future, keep yourself open for possibility. Don’t walk in silence, make your own music. I’m sure you’ll find some unknown pleasures in your own creativity.