Managing remote startup teams in a crisis

Managing remote teams can be challenging at the best of times, but add in the impact of a national emergency and it becomes even more demanding. The last month has seen the largest and most rapid transition of business moving from traditional office settings to remote work in history. Offices are dark, silent and closed.

Some startup folks were well prepared for the transition, while others hurriedly set up makeshift offices at their dining table and try to mute the sound of barking dogs and family activity. While people grapple with their own fears and uncertainty about the coming weeks, we have moved into the age of remote work – it is no longer a place, but a thing, and a permanent shift for many.

For many startups, work is independent of a physical location, deploying real-time collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom while prioritising the conversations in which they actively participate as their norm. But now in response to the crisis, many organisations need to use a combination of tools to substitute for in-person experiences, and it needs clear leadership to combine the technology, cultural changes and personal impact.

The biggest challenge is that of ‘virtual distance’ – the sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time when team are apart and become over-reliant on technology to mediate their relationships. Virtual distance changes the way people relate to each other, and startup leaders need to create a communication environment where team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one another.

Video calls simply cannot replace face-to-face, and they are surprisingly physically demanding – is anyone else more drained at the end of an hour on Zoom than in a normal meeting like I am? Maybe we feel tricked into the idea of being together, and then we realise we’re not, and there is an emotional deflation when the zoom call ends.

It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence with occasional remote contact. Our minds process so much context and information in face-to-face encounters, the nuances of body language and side interactions, that meeting on video is being a kind of blindfolded. We sense too little and can’t imagine enough, that single deprivation requires a lot of conscious effort of focus and concentration.

The biggest current challenge facing startup leaders is getting isolated individuals to work together as a cohesive unit. Remote teams can’t be treated like collocated teams, where project status, risks and problems are discussed in team meetings, at lunch and over coffee. A leader’s top priority is establishing clear and aligned objectives, as over time the team grows increasingly less effective and productive.

Distance does not make the heart grow fonder, rather it allows room for isolation to seep into the psyche and assumptions to grow and, frequently, human nature and the human mind will naturally create negative assumptions about people or situations.

So what are the key leadership communication strategies and tactics for the current crisis to keep individuals connected, help maintain their well-being and try to keep momentum and productivity in your team?

1. Keep it real In times of crisis, no one wants to hear the sugar-coated version of where things stand. Now is the time to cut to the chase. Imagine that every person reading your email or listening to your conference call is going to assume every word you’re saying may be bullshit, so drop some hard facts. Set a tone of openness and transparency but reality, so that your communications are well-received and effective, and have impact.

2. Establish structured daily check-ins This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls if your team work independently from each other, or a team call if they work collaboratively. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.

Communication is a two-way street. While team members need clear, direct instructions from the leader, you also need to know what each team member is up to and whether meaningful progress is being made. To achieve this a feedback process should be established in each check-in.

Encourage your folks to ask you for clarification rather than keeping questions to them. Stimulate them to communicate and organise independently. If your employees share insights and ideas, they might pinpoint and resolve issues you overlooked.

3. Fill the void A mistake many leaders make is assuming that no news is good news. Some remote team members will drift toward silence if left alone. They won’t always tell you if they’re struggling with something. Pose open-ended questions to quiet team members, things like How’s it going? How can I help? and Is there anything you need to do to make your job easier?

Value all team members equally. Each team member needs to feel appreciated. To ensure harmony and cohesiveness, the entire team should be engaged, and each have their time to contribute to discussions. Remove the hierarchy, make everyone share the burden to create a sense of empathy with what other team members are enduring.

4. Support a remote-decision making culture You should also begin work on what will no doubt be a more time-consuming effort – shifting your startup’s culture to be comfortable with remote decision making. This is a big change. When you’re sitting by yourself talking to people on video, where traditionally you have made decisions by having people together for discussions, this is a great opportunity to set up the cultural norms that say:

·     We make decisions on video conferences

·     We stay in touch with our people on video conferences

·     We communicate the status of the organisation candidly and transparently on video conferences.

5. Avoid being the centre of everything Every founder at some point needs to learn to avoid being the centre of everything. You need to empower other people to make decisions, you have to trust your folks in a remote team. Letting go of your own control issues might be the biggest challenge in leading a remote team. It will be tough, but is actually mutually beneficial for both you and your team. To achieve big things, you sometimes need to let small things pass.

Instead of micromanaging your team, put extra effort on making sure communication works. If you’ve managed to hire the right people, you should already know they have the skills required to work efficiently, which means that whether the right decisions are being made isn’t something you should be constantly worried about.

What you should make sure of, though, is that you’ve provided your team with the right tools and mindset of communicating efficiently while in the process of remotely managing themselves.

6. Create Connection You should place an emphasis on individual connection. People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers confidence, productivity and engagement. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is more important than ever. Effective leaders have an in-person foundation upon which to build, so keep these connections strong even though individuals are not seeing each other face-to-face.

7. Encouragement You shouldn’t feel obliged to constantly pat every employee on the back every time you connect, but it is important to take the time and say how well they’re doing every now and then. This is especially important in a remote team because spontaneous praise tends to naturally happen when chatting in person and in an informal setting – which isn’t often in a remote team.

Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as We’ve got this, or This is tough, but I know we can handle it or Let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time. With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus – and self-belief.

8. Engage in remote social interaction It’s important to foster and maintain remote team spirit and morale. A way to do this is creating ‘virtual coffee’ sessions, an on-line team meeting dedicated to social content, or a #social Slack channel where employees can run into each other and play out their personal and human sides, trade jokes, videos and family photos.

A study found that 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to social interaction outside the workplace, so try to sustain this whilst the team are virtually distanced. Being online constantly comes with its own stress, but taking a few moments to chat, laugh, and connect, even virtually, builds culture.

9. Trust your team Now is the time to give latitude to embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Leaders are going to have to get creative on everything, from creating an engaged work team to meeting clients’ needs in a very uncertain time.

Establishing trust and transparency in your team is important in all directions. As much as horizontal trust (between team members) is absolutely crucial for your team working efficiently together, you should also never forget about vertical trust with the leader. Foster a community mindset without a shared location.

10. Democratise Accountability Accountability is often hard to track in a remote team, and micromanaging tends to make employees feel that their leader doesn’t trust them. This has a negative effect on well-being, productivity and motivation. A remote team leader must show she trusts individuals in their performance, productivity and judgement.

The move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome. Clarifying roles and accountability among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck.

In times of crisis, 90% of our attention is on anything but getting stuff done. The things that are eating up the most attention aren’t likely to be synonymous with the things that really need our focus. The startup leader’s role is to rally that anxiety and attention toward a handful of focal points that have the highest and best probability to get us to survive the crisis. If we can do that, everything becomes totally manageable, it gives everyone a collective call to arms, a unifying purpose.

This is a huge opportunity for us to experience remote work first hand that we would otherwise not encounter. This can make our work culture more inclusive, more informal and more friendly at this time, and for the future. This allows us to think more strategically about when, why and how remote work should be approached in the long term – despite the awful circumstances, it may prove to be valuable practice for the future. . The coronavirus exodus to cyberspace is unlikely to be the last. Virtual work is the future of work.

Be considerate to your team. Everyone is stressed and worried about their family, friends, and what the coming weeks will mean. Your leadership now is crucial and defining. Learn to recognise the signs of someone being ‘off’, encourage folks to be open about how they feel by creating a judgement-free environment, and most of all, be there for your folks.

Leadership lessons in a crisis from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.

This statement was made by Rahm Emanuel, then the incoming Chief of Staff of the Obama administration. He famously channeled Stanford Nobel Laureate Paul Romer’s saying, A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Waste it they did not. Acting with speed and purpose, coming into office the Obama administration pushed a wealth of transformative legislation.

Over the last week I’ve been speaking with startup founders about how the COVID-19 crisis is catalyzing their businesses thinking into make stuff happen. We agreed it is all about decisive leadership, and many are looking for stories of great leadership outside of business for inspiration.

I’ve referenced to many the most dangerous moment in human history: the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had reviewed photographic evidence of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s coast, and thus began thirteen days of existential crisis. The whole nature of life, the shape and future of humanity, was at stake.

The Cuban missile crisis is a chilling tale, for the showdown could easily have gone another way, but for Kennedy’s leadership. Kennedy was cool, rational, careful and willing to compromise. Check out Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it relates the key leadership lessons from JFK: he was a leader driven by facts, not preconceptions, by the larger good, and not by his own ego or pride, wanting to be seen as a hero.

In our own hours of slow-motion, there’s real value in engaging with the stories of how leaders have reacted amid tension and tumult in their moments of truth. The vicissitudes of history show us that the past can give us hope that human ingenuity and character can save us from the abyss and keep us on a path to broad, sunlit uplands.

Alas in our current crisis, Boris Johnson hasn’t given me feelings of reassurance and confidence as Kennedy gave the American people. Over the last weeks I’ve not heard a speech from him that assured me with its moral seriousness, depth, or authentic presentation of facts. His utterances are invariably political rhetoric.

Leaders in a crisis need to be able to command authority, trust and respect, implement a coherent strategy, instil confidence, and reassure a nation for whom normal life has been suspended. Johnson is clever but essentially unserious. He seems ill prepared and ponderous. What is striking is just how inarticulate he is when not working from a prepared script.

Johnson can’t find an appropriate tone or method of persuasion. He tried to be statesman like – I must level with the British people – and he tried to be optimistic – We can turn the tide in 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country – but he lacks gravitas and sounds like quick fire, jejune soundbites from a raconteur.

In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers, but they made up for it by being brilliant communicators. Their styles differed, but the public had little difficulty in understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear that he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the Depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to resist Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.

For me, startup leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches and learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’, aiming to connect with the individual whilst speaking to the masses. A leader is a dealer in hope during a crisis, and being calm provides more reassurance than a rebel-rousing call-to-action.

So, let’s look at a story of truly great leadership, applying the lessons of someone who has come before us, and be inspired by their performance to shed light on our paths to the future for our own startup.

Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman of Yorkshire parentage, and one of the greatest Antarctic explorers. Shackleton’s most famous expedition was that of 1914-1916. Lessons have been drawn from his leadership style in this expedition, and how they can be applied to crisis situations. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. The Endurance expedition lasted from August 8, 1914 to August 30, 1916. It was one crisis after another.

All was well at the outset, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast when the ship got stuck in pack ice. Shackleton and his men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication – and no hope of rescue. When it seemed the situation could not get any worse it did, as the pack ice dragged the ship north for ten months, 600 miles, and then crushed the Endurance. The men were forced to camp on the ice shelf and watch as the ship sank.

All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from Endurance, just twenty-five feet long to upturn as somewhere to shelter. Temperatures were so low the sea froze. Subsisting on a diet of penguins and seals, they spent four months in the darkness of the polar winter. And then the ice began to melt. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival.

In the lifeboats they battled raging, freezing seas for a week, before making land at Elephant Island. It was inhospitable, with no animals for food or fresh water. Shackleton then took five men and sailed another 800 miles in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously: Who the hell are you? The remarkable voyage of the James Caird was from April 24 to May 10, 1916. Spending just four days recovering, Shackleton led the rescue effort of his stranded crew. He saved the lives of 27 men stranded. Every single one survived.

‘Shackleton’s Way’ – his leadership philosophy from the Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any startup leader can can take into their venture today. His people-centric leadership style saw them survive against the odds. He built this on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and, above all, optimism. The key elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ maybe summarised as follows:

Be values based Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. Shackleton’s family values shaped his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

A spirit of camaraderie Shackleton created spirit and intimacy between the men. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood, but broke down traditional hierarchies. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps, and spent time with every one individually.

Coach the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading from the front Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He sometime led by doing nothing.

Build self-managing teams Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles together Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Shackleton faced a personal crisis but was famous for ‘thinking on his feet’ time and time again on the Endurance expedition, developing six ‘crisis leadership’ skills:

Challenge your assumptions With the devastating changes in circumstance, Shackleton had to constantly change his thinking. The biggest challenge of leadership is our unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our businesses, and the need to challenge these.

In the current crisis, rethink your assumptions and attitudes, don’t cling to the past.

Change your perspective Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to take a fresh perspective and be open-minded. We tend to rely on information that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort or ignore the information, so that we only see what we want to see.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas, just the ones that get in the way of on-going change.

Ask the right questions Questions open up new ideas and possibilities. Too often we get stuck by focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Instead, ask future looking questions. Shackleton had to ask himself the right questions, before even thinking about solutions.

What if? Is a great way of unblocking the boundaries to your thinking at the present time.

Question the right answer Most problems have multiple solutions, some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others, but rarely is there only one right answer. Never settle for the first good answer. Good often gets in the way of great. Shackleton had to identify and then evaluate his options, looking for good and bad points within each.

Don’t jump to solutions, ask yourself What are the options here?

Be honest with empathy Shackleton faced each new crisis head on, topmost on his mind was being honest but optimistic. There are the obvious key concerns, and silence on such matters is dangerous. In the end, failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence. It’s also important you adopt the right tone, it can matter as much as having the right message.

It’s also essential you tell the truth. Shackleton was calm and transparent, and told his men he didn’t have an immediate plan to get them home safely, but was working on one. Shackleton was emphatic about accepting where they were at a given moment, and dealing with that.

You can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few. Don’t back yourself into this corner.

Listen Shackleton took time to listen to his men’s concerns and answer their questions. He recognised that the quieter you become, the more you can hear. At a time of a highly infectious disease, an online virtual coffee gathering of your team enables you to listen to their voices, listen to their concerns.

In the midst our own current crisis, startup founders need to grab Shackleton’s mantle, and take inspiration from Intel’s Andy Grove who famously said, Bad companies are destroyed by crisis; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.

Shackleton was essentially a fighter, but he was overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to his crew. His personal motto was reach beyond your expectations. So push yourself forward, be a Shackleton not a Johnson. COVID-19 sees us all facing our Antarctic moment.

Our iceberg is melting: a call to action for startup founders facing adversity

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. It’s a call to action which has resonance with the current COVID-19 driven turbulence, where the need for new leadership attitudes and new thinking to face the challenges is needed, a ‘can do’ spirit in the face of adversity.

But most businesses hesitate to adopt new thinking and look outwards during a crisis, instead they focus on hunkering down and a low-key ‘back to basics’ existence, defaulting to a cost-reduction focus. Whilst this can secure short-term protection, it rarely offers a life-saving strategy, and certainly impedes thinking beyond the immediate time horizon – plans for new ideas and investments are put on the ‘wait and see’ pile.

However, there is a tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship in times of great hardship. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw several successful companies that did not delay investment in their future. One was DuPont. In April 1930, Wallace Carothers, a research scientist, recorded the initial discovery of neoprene (synthetic rubber). At the same time, DuPont’s financial performance was suffering, with sales down 15% that year. However, maintaining a long-term view on their strategy, DuPont boosted R&D spending.

A lack of competitor ambition and low raw-material prices helped the company keep the cost of its research investment manageable. Neoprene, which DuPont publicly announced in November 1931 and introduced commercially in 1937, became a major C20th innovation. By 1939, every car and plane manufactured in America had neoprene components. Alongside this, DuPont discovered nylon in 1934 and introduced it in 1938 after intensive product development.

When Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line, listening to music in the car meant the passengers were singing. Then two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, who had started Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing to sell electric converters for battery-operated radios, needed new revenue after the Wall Street Crash.

By teaming up with William Lear, who owned a radio parts company in the same factory building, and audio engineer Elmer Wavering, they installed the first car radio in May 1930. The next month, Paul drove 800 miles to a radio manufacturers’ convention in Atlantic City. He parked uo near the pier and cranked up the radio, coaxing attendees to look and listen. Orders began flowing in. In 1933, Ford began offering factory-installed radios from the brothers, and Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola.

Thus although deep downturns are destructive, they can also have an upside. The Depression-era economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasized the positive consequences of downturns: the destruction of underperforming companies, the release of capital from dying sectors to new industries, and the movement of high-quality, skilled workers toward stronger employers. For companies with cash and ideas, history shows that downturns can provide enormous strategic opportunities.

So how are you going to face the COVID-19 challenge? Let’s use Harvard Professor John Kotter’s seminal book, Our iceberg is melting. On the face of it, it is a simple tale of a group of penguins who are scared about losing their home and lifestyle because their current habitat – their iceberg – is melting, and yes, even more scared of the changes that could entail – it’s a useful analogy to the challenge we currently face.

The book narrates how the penguins discover a major problem which highlights a need for radical action, and how they adopt a process to secure survival, captured in Kotter’s eight principles. Through this simple allegory of their struggle for finding their new home, the story delivers a powerful message that is relevant for startups as they search for their sustainable icebergs of opportunity in today’s COVID-19 environment.

In the story, Fred is an observant and curious penguin – maybe a data scientist in a penguin’s disguise? He observes that their iceberg home was melting. Not one to just wait for his daily quota of squid, he spoke to Alice.

Alice is one of the leaders of the colony, practical and mentally tough. Alice initially wondered if Fred was suffering from a personal crisis – had he missed his morning fishmeal? But she was patient, and she rapidly became alarmed when she saw the cracks and fissures in their iceberg.

Alice brought Fred’s concern to the rest of the leadership team, and eventually the colony waddled their way to a miraculous solution, enjoying quite a few squids on the way, showing that in order to survive in the face of adversity, you need a vision, a process and teamwork.

Let’s cut back to the reality of our COVOID-19 world, where the tech market is the iceberg and is melting in a maelstrom of new, emerging economic paradigms, contradictions, red herrings (Alice’s second favourite food) and more twists and turns than a King Emperor swimming at 30mph in the Antarctic sea.

Facing a startup founder this Monday morning is a mass of data, noise and emotion, looming from customer information to cashflow to marketing. Then the blogs, podcasts and twitter offering insights, opinions and comments. Against this backdrop of a constantly changing situation, a founder has to balance cash, tech and well-being of their people, to survive in the near term.

Let’s look at the eight steps for survival and adaption outlined in Kotter’s book, and see how they apply for your startup trying to survive and evolve in today’s shifting, mutating market.

1. Set the scene

Create a sense of urgency – don’t wait until your iceberg starts to melt Fred discovered the iceberg where the colony lives is melting. He tells Alice, who is initially sceptical, but she sees how urgent the situation is. Alice tells the leading council of penguins, most of whom don’t believe her. But Fred shows the penguins the urgency of the situation.

For startups, it’s a combination of instinct, hunches and data. But the message from the iceberg is that difficult problems won’t go away, and you need to help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

Pull together the guiding team A team of five penguins is put together to deal with the situation, they immediately start brainstorming ideas. This team has to focus on driving a balance between creativity and data driven decisions. Unexpectedly, their inspiration for a solution comes from a passing seagull, which happened to land on their iceberg.

For startups, the lesson is to ensure there are problem solving skills, not just creative thinking skills in the team, and to maintain a sense of balance around domain expertise and outward looking curiosity of your immediate environment for potential disruptive ideas. Never get complacent that you have all the questions – let alone the answers.

2. Decide what to do

Develop the crisis vision and strategy The inspiration from the seagull led to a solution, which would change the way the penguins lived. They would become a nomadic colony that moved to locations suitable for living, rather than being static. This would be a big change to the penguins, who had lived in one location for years, and were used to their current way of life.

The business learning here is to keep an open mind, and be prepared to pivot – in essence to start again. To find a sensible version of a better future, hold you vision – keep all the penguins together – but have a strategy that responds to the changing environment, and one that isn’t constrained by previous thinking.

Communicate for understanding and collaboration Though the team had now found a potential solution, they needed to get the buy-in of other penguins. There were penguins that were very sceptical and thought either the whole thing about the melting iceberg was nonsense, or it was too dangerous to move.

In a startup, avoid hierarchies and promote open communication at all times, change makes people nervous, and uncertain times combined with gaps in communication makes this worse. Ensure frequent and open communication with regular and personal attention.

3. Make it happen

Empower others to act The team found ways to include other penguins to become part of the solution, and because others felt part of the solution, the opposition decreased.

Opposition to change arises because of a lack of engagement and inclusion, and creates a feeling of not being valued. Remove as many these barriers as possible – a change of direction in a startup, as a result of the iceberg melting, needs everyone to be engaged, empowered and together.

Produce short-term wins When other penguins got involved they started achieving short-term goals, which were necessary on the way to the end result. This encouraged and motivated the penguins to keep working towards the solution.

Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible. Short-term wins create a positive atmosphere that everything will be ok, even if there are some tougher challenges ahead.

Don’t let up The colony finally moved to a new iceberg, but they didn’t stay there. They found a better one and moved again. They were not giving up but kept looking for better living situations for the colony.

The lesson for startups is to remain restless and ambitious, never resting on your laurels, adopting a culture of continuous learning, pressing harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change until the vision is a reality.

4. Make it stick

Create a new culture Actions were taken to cement the new culture in place, there was no going back to old ways of living.  This ensured that the changes would not be eroded by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions or a lack of focus on the future.

As a founder facing the COVID-19 crisis, constantly looking forward to new horizons and don’t get stuck in a way of being that was successful in the market of yesterday. Ask yourself whether you are living on a potentially melting iceberg and getting stuck in pack ice.

The reality is that you maybe fit for purpose today but recall Darwin: it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. As the Roman poet, Horace, so eloquently said: Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it

I am going to remain optimistic, and that’s because adversity is what breeds innovation, a mother of necessity. Facing difficulty is a time when people’s best is brought out in them, as shown by the examples of innovation earlier.

These are nervy, volatile times. Are you struggling to find the right balance between caution and optimism? No one knows what will happen next, but taking less risk and hunkering down is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

There are lessons for us all in the attitudes of penguins – in the face of a meting iceberg, everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A similar strong sense of the impossible is essential to driving startups this week, positive energy and exuberance is needed against the constant stream of maudlin and misery we could sit in.

In 1923, economist John Maynard Keynes observed that in tempestuous times we only tell ourselves that when the storm is past, the ocean is flat again. Let’s tip that out, rather than merely resisting COVID-19 and economic collapse, you must pivot sharply and prepare for the new future ahead, and do that now.

Confidence and certainty are lacking currently, we’re running a severe optimism deficit. We’re never the most upbeat of nations. Adversity introduces a man to himself, face to face. In times of adversity, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of. Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. Now is your moment.

What we can learn from the entrepreneurial spirit of Manchester baristas

From the Northern Quarter to Spinningfields, there are hundreds of coffee shops in Manchester. I am sitting in one now, on a damp Manchester March morning. It’s blowing a hoolie out there with the usual horizonal Manchester rain. Inside, it’s different, there is a vibrancy of energy, chatting, laughter and camaraderie, the people of Manchester bonding on this dour Tuesday morning as the windows steam up.

So many features of this airy cafe are familiar to others in the city – the stripped back facades and basic décor, the all-consuming noise of hissing steam. Then the heavily tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into one of his arms. I overhead the chat: I had to learn how to make 400 coffees in a morning.

The place is cramped, tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space. A small kitchen sends out freshly made artisan breakfast meals that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall, and in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, tasty. Scrambled eggs with avocado on sourdough toast seems to be breakfast of choice.

The cafe’s vibe is warm and welcoming, with six staff working at a pace with more arms than an octopus serving a customer base that comes and goes with amazing frequency. What I see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech frenzy engulfing Manchester, the wave of independent coffee shops are the playgrounds of barista entrepreneurs.

The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea into a startup reality. They need to do understand their market, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it. And then they work, they really do.

In small independent coffee shops, the barista serving your flat white is often one of the founding team, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. They are operating in a highly competitive and saturated market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue.

I enjoy working in Manchester, the hustle and bustle, sight and sounds, but most of all I’ve got into the habit of seeking out the artisan independent coffee shops mid-morning and mid-afternoon to recharge myself and use the new venue to observe entrepreneurship in action.

I watched baristas operate as true go-getters, from beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy. The independents have a feel of craftsmanship and artisan care.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprises me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There is recognition and rapport between barista and customer, so much so, that in most cafes I visit, the baristas recognise the customer as they step in through the door, and what coffee they’ll want before they’re asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

Manchester does coffee. Coffee served quickly, exactly like the customer asks for it, they do it right, the baristas are prepared. Baristas serve two functions in this equation. Baristas make the coffee the way the customer likes the coffee, but before they do that, they listen and recognise what they customer wants.

They serve the very important function of listening. This made me stop, because I didn’t realise just how much practice it takes to listen, especially to the multiple variations of flavours of coffee available. It’s a vital piece in the customer relationship, over and above the coffee itself.

The latte served is exactingly made, very tasty, and perfectly portioned with milk that’s just hot and foamy enough. For those looking to try something new, there’s a rotating selection of boutique, in-season beans at a higher price point. Along with cortados and lattes, you’ll find the slightly more obscure shakerato, espresso shaken over ice and served with simple syrup and an orange twist.

But, back to the practice of listening. It’s a lot like the practice of delivering great coffee. Listen to what baristas say: I have that grande decaf mocha for you, when you’re ready; Tall skim cappuccino on the bar, just for you.  A little extra touch. No matter how crowded and busy the queue, they talk to their customers, and in talking with the customers, they learn about them.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, maybe the game plan is simply consistency, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit. All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the noise of the frantic queues in the coffee shop, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from their training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert, agile and ‘always on’, it’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Baristas may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it may feel like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so that despite a loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers.  For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the opportunity. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too. 

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sprinting in a five-minute intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

I’ve seen the baristas do this too, spending a quiet moment to themselves to reflect on the events in their business that morning, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again. 

Put accuracy before power Business is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That’s a great analogy for any entrepreneur who’s chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won’t matter.

This is how the independent coffee shops win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that. 

Keep moving forward Although entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

Many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

People’s desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of people in a hurry, but where baristas showcase their art form of artisan beverage making, everyone is happy to wait, watching the barista perform with purpose.

I see tonnes of guile, grit, flair, personality and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard-working baristas in Manchester who put a long shift in every day. They knew that today was a step forward to success, even if it may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision is vital to success.

As TS Eliot said, I have measured out my life in coffee spoons, and like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I start my day with coffee and reading the obituaries. Why did the hipster burn his tongue? because he drank his coffee before it was cool.

Yes, we are now a nation addicted to coffee, and we love the barista’s style and craftsmanship, but’s it tough out there and the pace is fast. Like any entrepreneur they have discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and making it happen. We could do worse than to follow their entrepreneurial spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 1: Sometime we take too long to make decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 4: Slow and steady really does win the race

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 6: Go slow, then go fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startups: be ready for killer questions in your investor conversations

There’s lots of advice about what make a great pitch deck for a startup founder meeting potential investors. However, to me they are simply the obvious things, what about the killer, more subtle questions, the ones that could make you stumble or your less confident of your response? Also, flip that thought, what can you do to make your conversation different and create a striking first impression?

While it’s impossible to control an investor meeting’s outcome, thoughtful preparation gives you the best shot at making your conversation impactful and memorable. Smart people ask smart questions, so be prepared as your fundraising meetings will be a significant learning curve, as each will be different.

Sometimes tough question appear innocuous, others get your heart pumping, mouth dry and speech stuttering! Knowing how to improvise and being able to think on your feet is a skill that includes the ability to give impromptu remarks, as well as to answer unexpected questions well.

Investors ask pointed questions to obtain information, but there are other reasons behind them. What they really want, in many cases, is to get a feel for your attitude towards a certain subject, and how knowledgeable, confident and trustworthy you are. They are investing it you, after all.

It’s simply not possible to learn a scripted presentation, however, it is possible to hone your improvisation skills by learning methods to give structured answers, no matter what you’re asked. The best tactic is planning and preparation, assume the pitch meeting is not going to be a breeze, and then, in the heat of the moment, give yourself the opportunity for a thoughtful response or to grab the agenda of the conversation.

So let me share you some of the killer questions in fundraising conversations which have made me think over the years, and suggestions on a response.

1. Why you? In essence, an investor is asking What is your Founder-Market-Fit? They want to see you have a compelling and unique insight, and understand what about your thinking is contrarian i.e. why your startup will win.

Founder-market fit is an indicator of a match between the founder and the problem they are going after. Domain insights and experience really matter, investors won’t want to fund accidental founders or pay for you to learn about an industry. Investors like to back folks who have a good chance of success, so convincing you’re the right person to invest in will be the challenge you face. Do you think you’re the best person to lead the company, now and in the long run?  – is an emotive and direct on-the-spot question. Are you personally investible?

There will be questions about your judgement and how shrewd you are. For example, if you look back in a year and things haven’t gone as well as expected, what will be the reason?  Thinking about why we would fail appears negative, but it’s all about having the foresight to stand back and not be blinded by headstrong thoughts.

2. What if? One of the biggest challenges you get pitching is what I call the ‘Godzilla problem’ – for tech, it’s You could do this, but what if Google decides tomorrow they’re going to launch this?

It’s a difficult question, because what are you going to say? You can’t sit there and bluff that Google are not going to do it. The investor’s response can then be That may be true right now, but they may change their mind once they see it’s working for you.

There’s no response to that, because if Google decide to do it you are toast. With investors, there is a scale between fear and greed, and they’re looking to see where you are on this spectrum – because they are on it too, albeit from the other side of the table. They toggle between I’m really excited about this company, we can make money to It’s not for me, this one thing could happen and they’re finished. 

Don’t respond that they shouldn’t be fearful. You’re almost telling them that their fear is irrational. The wrong answer is ‘that won’t happen’. The best response is along the lines of You know, that may be right. Google may come and do that, but this is such a great opportunity that if they don’t, we are going to be in a great place. 

3. What’s your Blue Ocean? When pitching, many entrepreneurs focus on the size of the ‘total addressable market’ and the market share they believe they can capture. That may seem sensible, but talking about the total market is invariably too broad to be useful.

Nearly every market is a frenzy of Red Ocean, so it’s not just about communicating the size of your market, you have to show investors where the Blue Ocean is, and that you have found an entry point that others haven’t. In doing this, your articulate your value proposition early in the discussion, and investors are going to listen to you closely.

Another thing to consider is how much of an advantage existing market share provide for incumbents in that market. For example, Hilton’s lead in the hotel industry’s over Airbnb in terms of assets was not much of an advantage, because Airbnb was built on an asset-light marketplace model.

So, tailor your pitch specifically to the segment of the market where you can most immediately get a foothold, gain traction, and build a sustainable customer base.

4. How do you stack up against X, the market leader? How are you going to compete against them?  The context here is that they want to know how you are going to move the needle to a sustainable, 10X advantage. They accept you have potential with your innovation in a ‘David v Goliath play’. What they want to hear is how you think you compare, one-on-one.

First of all, never brush off any competitor as being irrelevant as either too big or complacent, It’s a lazy and arrogant response. For many years Microsoft were derided by tech entrepreneurs as a bloated, irrelevant dinosaur – today besides the Office Suite, they own Xbox, the Surface range, LinkedIn, Skype, Azure, Hololens and are leaders in cloud computing.

Recognise every solution, even inferior solutions, as legitimate competitive threats. One approach is to focus the thinking on a particular aspect of problem-solution fit around user experience. Your answer could offer a compelling strategy that neutralises rivals by overcoming or changing key aspects of user behaviour that will give you sustainable traction.

5. Unpack your technology As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, how can we predict which future technologies will become a reality, and have a real impact on our lives? A founder who can unpack their tech innovation in clearly understandable language with clarity, common sense, logic and avoid hype, will gain respect from an investor.

There are three key factors you need to provide insight on:

·     The context in which your new technology emerges

·     The viability of the technology innovation

·     The barriers to the technology’s success

Where incumbents dominate a market with their marketing or distribution power, a new technology has to be extremely good or desirable if it is to displace them. In some instances – such as Amazon in retail, Uber in the taxi sector – the failure of incumbents to harness new technologies has allowed startups to disrupt them.  Walk the investor through the customer journey, where your new tech creates value, and what you need to do to make it happen.

6. Discuss the barriers to sales growth There are many common barriers to the adoption of new technology, which are a hindrance to growth. For example, privacy and trust regarding data. A second common hurdle is inertia, customers need a certain level of service, convenience, and price compression before widespread adoption of new technology happens.

Gartner’s hype cycle, in which new technologies generally navigate a long ‘trough of disillusionment’ after early adoption before widespread consumer adoption, invokes this phenomenon – more specifically, the vested interests of competitors in owning their relationship with their customers

For enterprise startups in particular, you have to know not only what a customer wants to buy, but also what the appropriate pricing strategy is and how your product integrates with others, if needed. Identify the tipping point. The holy grail of tech innovation is predicting the likelihood and timing of the tipping point between a technology remaining an optional product for most consumers and it becoming a must-have.

Startup founders willing to go through the R&D process are likely to spot trends and navigate the sales journey, taking the best course of action at the right time. This is what investors will buy into.

7. Automate Your Demo Investor meetings are an opportunity to showcase you tech product, but also leave you open to epic tech failures that can trigger doubt in the minds of funders. Try to minimise the risk by automating your demo.

Resist the temptation to give an impromptu demo on request. Rather than trying to navigate an embryonic product in an uncertain environment, either build a clickable prototype, make a product video with a good narrative voice over, or show sharp wireframes of the concept, developing a series of screenshots of the user journey and experience.

Automating the demo also prevents you from wandering off to show bells and whistles that may not be critical. Prepare a use case in advance so you know exactly what you want to show – a scenario that involves a target customer should be enough to properly preview the model, so choose the most relevant and effective one.

8. Why now?  Timing is everything, and really understanding Why now? for your startup is vital. The startup graveyard is full of examples of things too early or too late to market – yet Uber wasn’t the first to think of on-demand rides, and AirBnB wasn’t the first to let people host visitors in their homes.

When investors are asking Why Now? they are focused on understanding the market opportunity, dynamics, and context – the factors that will make a difference between success or failure. In responding, be confident but not strident. You only launch once – a moment in time where the technology and customer demand align to create the conditions for a startup to flourish.

You need to make a strong case for the timing of your startup as often, investors will have heard of something similar to your idea before. Pitching the timing as much as the idea can help them decide to invest, even if they passed on a similar idea before. Why now?? is one of the most important questions for the entrepreneur to have a good answer to.

Investors are looking for markets where there has been a recent inflection point, which can be driven by a shift in consumer behaviour, a regulatory change – or your new tech innovation. What’s the market opportunity and why now? What is the economic impetus for this product today? What is the tech catalyst that you’re introducing, enabling the new product experience?

When investors aim a tough question our way, the box of frogs goes off in our heads, leaping around in mayhem, impacting our ability to think rationally and offer anything other than a jibberish response of the first thing that comes into your head.

The critical thing is connecting your conversation in a calm, confident and assured manner. People listen when they’re engaged. It’s about the nuts and bolts of your delivery, making your content credible and informative, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room.

The anatomy of being memorable in an investor pitch means it’s important to bust your own biases. Investors are simply asking ‘Make me believe by showing me you know what you’re talking about’. Give yourself the best opportunity by considering the above approach, and most of all, be well prepared.

Startup lessons in strategy & execution from Led By Donkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Have a purpose

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

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

2.     Know your strategy

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

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

3.     Be clear in your tactics and agile on timing

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

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

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

4.     Focus on intelligent thinking to shape your content

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

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

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

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

5.     Adopt multi-channel communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dream of painting, then paint your dream’ – inspiration for entrepreneurs from Van Gogh

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagined how physics worked in the real world, instead of formulas drawn on a chalkboard.

When he was 16 he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light – how it would travel and how it would bend? He contemplated gravity by imagining bowling balls and billiard balls competing for space on a trampoline surface.

Gedankenerfahrung means ‘thought experiment’, daydreaming. Imagination has nothing to do with physics, but Einstein’s imagination is what made him a genius physicist, connecting his math skills to his dreaming in a way that let him see what others could not.

Entrepreneurs have something of this too, outlier success comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist, where fantasy and reality merged in some of his most enduring paintings. With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Van Gogh was a fanatic about light, giving the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers remains one of the most popular still life in the history of art.

But he was also enthralled with night time. The painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paint­ings, but in paintings such as his iconic The Starry Night, painted while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, his touch is more restrained and you really see his craftsmanship and endeavour.

Van Gogh’s was only an artist for the last decade of his life. Before painting pictures that would adorn the walls of the most celebrated museums, he tried (and failed) at three other careers. He spent the final years of his life traveling through Belgium, Holland, and France in pursuit of his artistic vision.

Alone in a studio or in the fields, Van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He had initially absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to see the work of contemporaries and frequent cafés and exhibitions.

There, having encountered young painters like Gauguin, as well as older artists such as Monet, the brighter colours and the expressive force he’d been searching for erupted. He painted feverishly. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

After neighbours petitioned the police, he was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields.

Van Gogh never thought his paintings would become such stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting The Starry Night and died two days later. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealised village. Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, Van Gogh’s night pictures take on added significance, for it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that Van Gogh often looked for solace.

The night scenes captured his interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination. He lived at night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés or meditated over the rich associations he saw in the night sky.

It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest. The Starry Night he considered a failed attempt at abstraction. Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

The Starry Night was painted in Van Gogh’s ground-floor studio in the asylum, a view which he painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, depicted at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The Starry Night is the only nocturne in the series of views.

Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to influence artists to the present day. His unstable, impulsive personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist, using gestural application of paint and symbolic colours to express subjective emotions.

Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Van Gogh, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. Modern day entrepreneurial behaviours mirror Van Gogh’s, so what we can learn from his attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh to illustrate his entrepreneurial attitudes.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. Van Gogh’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Van Gogh never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success he pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Van Gogh was a thinker, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising your own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking. Never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight.

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

The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? You are what you are! Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. Like Van Gogh, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness?

The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Be bold and experiment If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced When a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Van Gogh left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Value critique There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke. Being different and disruptive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other opinions. Artists are accustomed to hearing direct critique, incorporating feedback into their work, and defending their choices.

Practicing accepting critique can vastly improve not only your products but your entire startup process. This is what stands at the basis of the Lean Startup Method — get feedback, iterate, improve and continue with speed in order to one day get it right.

Take pride in your work Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. Van Gogh strove for perfection, to create something that resonated with his identity, a personal statement about himself. The products, content, and service you provide from your startup should be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t settle for ‘good enough’. Van Gogh told other artists to Make sure it’s so good it doesn’t die with you, and you can apply that to any product or service.

Keep working – do it for yourself One must work and dare if one really wants to live. Don’t let anyone’s opinion of your work stop you from doing what you are so driven to do. The work will evolve. Don’t ever try to deliberately force your work to fit the desires of the masses. First and foremost, focus on your practice. Second, make sure you have a strong, cohesive body of work. Third, make your presence known.

Prioritise consistency over heroic efforts For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together People often assume that art is a part-time muse-fuelled blitz, pouring out genius. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort.

It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Both the artist and entrepreneur must get their ideas and products into the marketplace and into the hands of customers. We don’t know the artist who kept their art at home hidden away. The same is true of entrepreneurs who we admire – they got out of the building and their ideas into the hands of customers.

For Van Gogh, it ended in tragedy at the young age of 37 with a self-induced gunshot to the abdomen. During his life, Van Gogh produced some of the most revolutionary works of art the world has ever known. What’s holding your entrepreneurial dream? Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

Lessons on personal branding from Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais delivered his fifth and final hosting of the Golden Globes ceremony last week, with a scabrous opening monologue that left the attending celebrities squirming in their seats. Gervais’ opening diatribe wasn’t kind to his targets, but we knew what to expect from his previous performances.

He reminded the audience of his job to entertain and prepared the stars in attendance for the worst, with a clear let’s have a laugh at your expense. No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. Gervais capacity to offend great swathes of an audience with a single utterance is pretty much unrivalled.

But the emperor has no clothes, and with a few pointed jokes, Gervais pierced their collective delusion, exposing the hypocrisy of Hollywood. He has retained the brutality and joke-writing brilliance of his early work, but applied it to socio-politics over celebrity, Gervais is the appalling, apocalyptic comic-poet our era demands.

The criticism levelled at Gervais is that he’s turned into – or perhaps always was – his Office alter ego David Brent, which at least goes to show what an unforgettable comic monster Brent was in the first place, a management busybody with delusions of charisma, fronting a pioneering cringe comedy and still-brilliant mockumentary nailing the pettiness and desolation of workplace life.

We’ve got a little bit of David Brent in all of us. We all sometimes mistake popularity with respect. We all want to be liked. We all wonder whether our perception of ourselves is exactly the same as the rest of the world’s. And we all want to feel that we belong.

The creator and star of The Office, Extras, Derek, and the critically acclaimed recent hit After Life, Gervais has won countless awards. His hit series The Office is the most successful British comedy of all time, shown in more than 90 countries, which he co-wrote and co-directed with friend and collaborator, Stephen Merchant. For me, his film Life on the Road and TV series Idiot Abroad are timeless, comedy classics.

His words flow and fizz with vocal energy. He does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist, his big idea is that life should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect an audience with his enthusiasm: isn’t this interesting? He’s almost an anthropologist.

This seems not to have been an ideological commitment so much as an expression of contrarianism, extracting glib homilies from the messy stuff of real life – if Gervais were to be parachuted into the Antarctic, it would take roughly twenty minutes before the penguins were lining up to peck his lights out.

It is true that he sometimes presses his stories too militantly and can jam together materials too disparate to cohere, but for the most part the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the sharp angle or the deceptively trivial incident to blow things up out of all proportions.

Gervais is playfully intelligent, in a time of antagonistic debate and polarised opinion, he has something to say and is worth listening too. If you had to identify the comedian who captures the moment of today, it would be Gervais. In a world of literalists high on certainty and short on humour, I value his teasing, sprite-like presence more than ever. If he does not embody the zeitgeist, maybe that’s because the zeitgeist has grown so pompous.

Either way, the size of his audiences suggests that even in the era of taking sides, many people positively enjoy his stepping over the line, provocation, picking targets and outrage culture, in and out of parody too fast at times to keep up. His message is simple but stark: speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — from the head or heart on your terms. Deliver a message or something creative that isn’t prettied up and restrained and it’ll have a far greater impact.

Gervais’ personal attributes and characteristics have created a definitive ‘personal brand’, a deliberate strategy, making his mark, making himself memorable and standing out from the crowd. Creating a ‘personal brand’ is a positive way to stand out in an increasingly competitive startup world. The term ‘personal brand’ first appeared in August 1997 in an article by management guru and author Tom Peters, who wrote, We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Personal branding is simply the way in which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their value, and then leveraging with consistent behaviour. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts to establish reputation and credibility – ‘it’s what they are famous for’.

Let’s look at this in a little more using Gervais as the exemplar, how do you build a This is me brand to help you be memorable and help answer the customer’s question Why should I buy from you?

Be first with a purpose A personal brand is synonymous with your reputation, the way others see you. Are you famous for? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What thoughts come to mind as soon as someone hears your name? People recognise your name, what you offer and what you’re about. It answers the question how does working with me help them? Like Gervais, entrepreneurs have a purpose and ‘make the main thing, the main thing’.

Live in your learning zone The world is changing fast, make sure you are constantly learning and identify an area where you will be better than others, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Concentrate on your expertise. Once you have identified and developed this, make the most of it by seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve created. Not to boast, but to demonstrate if you’ve genuinely innovated, people are will want to know about it.

It takes time to build your personal brand. If you fail to stay relevant, all of your effort will be wasted. If you’re not growing, then you’re stagnating, and that’s the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur.

Focus on the things that make you different What makes you, you? Concentrate on the positives on both personal as well as professional level. Consider the way you react in everyday situations, whether it’s the way you communicate, your creativity, or the way you think and process information. Become really, really good at what differentiates you, or be so good they can’t ignore you – there is only one Ricky Gervais!

Make yourself visible This does not mean claiming undue credit or being anything less than humble, it means focusing on having a high-impact that will likely have visible results, knocking them for six and sharing the results. Blow your own trumpet, but be consistent – every move you make either reinforces your brand or violates it. Also participate in larger conversations and encourage those around you, it’s less about broadcasting yourself per se, and more about reinforcing your personal brand.

Work harder than everyone else Nothing is a substitute for hard work. Look around: How many people are working as hard as they can? Very few. The best way to stand out is to out-work everyone else. It’s also the easiest way, because you’ll be the only one trying. Gervais is a great example of this, now approaching twenty years of relentless creativity, huge work ethic and productivity.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic noise, pressure of the event and the audience reaction at the Golden Globes, Gervais kept a clear head. In the heat of the moment, he cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus on his performance, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks when the game action is paused. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. You can see in Gervais’ performances he too uses this technique, pausing to enjoy the audience reaction and to reground himself, reaffirming his personal brand persona.

Keep moving forward Like Gervais, entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, but also reinvention. Anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill. Reinvention is key, applying learning and a focus on the next gig.

Building a personal brand is about developing an understanding of your true self, and then sharing that with the world. Take your mask off and don’t be afraid of being vulnerable as you develop this. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be yourself. The more you try to be like other people, the more you will recede into the mass of the background noise.

Take note of Ricky Gervais’ personal brand, don’t be afraid to let your own character show in what you do and in how you present yourself. Sure, you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’re not in this to win a popularity contest, but to stand out from the crowd and connect to a target audience.

Give your 2020 tech startup vision a higher purpose

Well, we’re a few days into a new decade. Now the 2020s begin, but to be honest, I’m still bewildered and concussed by the political and cultural blast waves that detonated throughout the final years of the last decade to give much thought to the next ten years that stand before us.

I’m now living in the seventh decade of my life. Moments like these make you stand still, not lamenting or wishing for time-travel back to those yearned-for days of past as this really is little more than nostalgic comfort food. No, it’s about thinking about what I’m going to do to shape my future in the next decade. Looking back ten years to 2010, it is difficult to understand how we got from there to here, but it is easy to see why we are punch-drunk.

Only yesterday, Facebook was just a way of tracking down old friends, rather than an existential threat to our liberal democracy. Only yesterday the prospect of Scottish independence seemed unlikely. Only yesterday we would have dismissed the idea that foodbanks, homelessness and poverty were deep fault lines in a civilised society. When a true retrospective of the third decade of C21st is written, I hope the dystopian future I fear never materialised.

At the beginning of the last decade, the 2010 Nobel physics prize was awarded to University of Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a material made of a single lattice layer of carbon atoms that had remarkable abilities to transmit heat and electricity while also being extremely strong. Ten years on, nothing much has emerged from graphene, but we continue to rely upon tech to offer a vision of a brighter future.

Tech doesn’t always deliver, but recall that a little over 50 years ago we were just putting a man on the moon, and in 2020 we can instantly stream a personalised gallery of TV shows, so can tech help create and sustain a bright new decade? As the 2020s dawn, for me, optimism is in short supply.

The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together and hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy.

Similarly the Internet. The architecture of the Internet is about choice, that’s where the resilience and ubiquity comes from. On the other hand, the business of the Internet is about monopolies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google. FAAMG – the acronym for the big five tech companies coined by Goldman Sachs, are bringing sociocultural evolution at scale and at full speed with such significant network effects that they are creating infinite financial returns for their investors.

Like you, I love and use this tech (not Facebook, due to lack of trust), we voluntarily choose to engage because it’s better, cheaper, faster than doing it somewhere else – but also because they are now part of our ‘normal life’. But then, I think abut my privacy and cynicism kicks in and suddenly, the monopoly isn’t about serving us, it’s about how innovative tech startups have turned into corporations serving their investors.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we were told back in 2010 that the web and social media had brought us to the threshold of a new and almost utopian society. The technology available to all democratised society. In reality, this delusional optimism in which the democratising potential of tech driven social media was to be empirically disappointing.

Going back a decade, the hit movie of 2010 was Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, which dramatised the relationships between the founders of Facebook. What in 2010 seemed like a dark take on a new tech and social phenomenon now feels like a prescient foreshadowing of a decade that was to come – a decade that ended with Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg called to appear before a Congressional committee to defend his company’s behaviour and practices.

Investors move and energise today’s tech, and what capitalism values, our world does more of. In the last decade tech has become an integral part of what we might call a ‘normal life’, but is this true? Now, no matter where we stand on the socioeconomic ladder, the future of the ‘normal life’ doesn’t look so certain. In the developed world our current form of capitalism is failing to produce an increasing standard of living for most of its citizens. It’s time for an upgrade.

Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism – and thus tech investment – has to be made to serve human ends and goals. We could create an entirely new parallel economy around social good driven by tech. Most of the entrepreneurs and technologists I know are champing at the bit to work on our problems. We can harness the country’s ingenuity and energy to improve millions of lives with tech.

We’re in a slow-moving crisis that is about to speed up. Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about our ability to hold this debate, and come up with honest answers. Yet there is something reassuring about this, a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all, and history still argues, on the whole, for optimism.

Don’t get me wrong, the digital transformation since 2010 has helped improve our lives, whilst also creating a darker, sinister side, but on balance calls for the deployment of more technology, not less. So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment. To be alive in the tech-rich 2020s is probably to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.

The search for new opportunities and ideas is at the heart of human progress, but what is the best way to carry out that search with the help of tech? The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on tech innovation in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.

The question becomes what matters to us beyond money, and how can tech help us achieve this? How can we change tech so that it focuses on what humans really want and not the needs from capitalism – for the many, not the few.

Doing this decade retrospective, there is one key issue that stood out for me: data. This was the decade when we became obsessed with taking 10,000 steps a day. According to science, the health benefits are moot but that didn’t stop firms like Fitbit and Garmin coaxing us into wearing fitness trackers packed with accelerometers and sensors. These data-harvesting devices track our locations, our heart rates, our sleeping patterns and our exercise habits. Who gets the most use from this torrent of data – individuals or the tech companies – is debatable.

What was the best tech invention of the decade? For me it has to be the Amazon Echo ‘smart’ speaker, although I’m torn with cynicism again because it represented the moment when tech finally broke through the last barrier protecting our privacy – our homes. Alexa exploited our fatal attraction to convenience, and what data insights it provides to Amazon.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry, at the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, and internet giants are becoming the new banks.

So we enter the 2020s free from any delusions about tech and social media. Concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before – the blight of industrialisation was decried in the C19th by Luddites, Romantics and Socialists, who worried about the displacement of skilled artisans, the spoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.

Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Tech unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety, when its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several emerging technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of pessimism.

However, maybe my pessimism is overdone. I’ve spent the last two weeks immersed in books, benedictine and time away from my screens, and become unduly sceptical. After all, worries about screen time should be weighed against the substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible.

On the doorstep of a new decade, humanity is simultaneously continuing history’s greatest technological evolution and in the throes of grave social and ecological crises. As the climate and environmental crisis accelerates and population inequality rises, it has also never been more clear just how much the world’s wellbeing will depend upon the decisions of tech entrepreneurs.

Will we harness tech for benevolent ends, prioritising investment in sustainability and social good? Or will we chase the quickest financial gain, opting for the pursuit of breakneck growth over righting the ship?

If tech is to help fix the world, it must first halt a worrying trend – blitzscaling. The aim of this strategy is not to drive innovation or develop impactful new technologies but to sell the next round of investors on an impressive growth rate, thereby increasing the company valuation and making the existing investors richer. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The increasingly evident dangers of ‘hypergrowth equals valuation markup’ philosophy surely means the startup innovation ecosystem has to reject it, upstart entrepreneurs should not hop on the bandwagon, and instead focus on impactful socially responsible innovation.

There has never been a better time for tech entrepreneurs and investors to make a huge impact, with a moral imperative to empower businesses that can have a positive impact on humanity. We must start funding and supporting more entrepreneurs building solutions to problems like poverty, affordable healthcare, mental health and wellbeing, climate change, and deliver sustainable development goals.

These ‘impact startups’ can generate economic opportunity and returns, but if we realign the innovation focus around building companies with a positive social impact, and not just focus on near term financial gains, the better. So start a fire, enthral an audience, begin a movement, seize an opportunity, redefine the rules and shape our future. The more you understand of the world the better you can answer its challenges and how your tech idea can make a contribution.

We are all to some extent culpable for this misalignment of the innovation startup ecosystem, complicit in building and reinforcing the current environment. I know my own organisation can do more to inspire and empower entrepreneurs building impactful businesses, and in 2020 we will. I hope others will choose to do the same. It’s a balance of pessimism versus progress, but when we focus exclusively on profitability, tech loses its humanity.