Inner-vation: step outside your comfort zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, ask yourself: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the failure of Flybe offer insights for your startup strategy

If 007 is taking cover for the next few months, what hope is there for us mortals left exposed to the economic ravages of the spreading coronavirus? The release of the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, has been postponed until November. There will be better profits made then, and film distributors can afford to wait.

Others can’t, though, they have to battle through some tough times ahead, and airline Flybe collapsed on Thursday, the first to fall because it had underlying financial health problems in the most exposed sector to the economic impact of coronavirus. This has been underlined with an announcement by Lufthansa that it plans to cut up to half its capacity in the next few weeks, while grounding its biggest aircraft.

There will likely be big differences in vulnerability and impact between sectors. There will be a shift to online shopping, but while household income is uncertain, big ticket expenditure could stop abruptly. But let’s look at Flybe, because in reality the sharp downturn in revenue in response to the global infection was the final straw that broke their business model, and offers insights to startups intent on an aggressive, high growth strategy.

Flybe carried 8m passengers a year between 56 airports in the UK and Europe, with over 210 routes across 15 countries, but had a very unstable fragile strategy, operating model and ownership history. The Flybe brand originated in July 2002, positioning itself as a full-service, low-fare airline. Various pricing and product introductions were made in line with this position, such as discounted one-way tickets, the abolition of overbooking practices, a customer charter of the airline’s service standards, as well as compensation for delays.

The company acquired BA Connect in 2007, increasing its route network in both the UK and continental Europe, making Flybe Europe’s largest regional airline. But there were turbulent times, and fast forward to 2013, and Flybe sold its slots at Gatwick for £20m – out of 158 routes flown, 64 did not cover the operating expenses of crew and aircraft.

Despite this downsizing, in April 2014, Flybe announced that it would launch domestic and international flights from London City Airport, signing a five-year deal. Into 2015, Flybe announced new routes from Cardiff and Sheffield Airport starting nine new European city routes, and twelve months later opened a hub at Dussledorf.

Despite this growth strategy, November 2018 saw a 75% collapse in the share price as Flybe announced that it was talking about a potential sale. Subsequently, the Connect Airways consortium acquired the business, which included Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation, with £100m of new funding provided to support the business.

Flybe announced plans to be rebranded as Virgin Connect, but in January 2020, it emerged that Flybe was again in difficulties, and a deal was reached on 15 January, entailing a deferred payment for Flybe’s Air Passenger Duty debts and increased funding from Connect Airways.

As of 28 January 2020, Flybe operated 36% of all UK domestic flights, but on 5 March, they filed for administration and ceased all operations with immediate effect after the Government failed to grant a proposed £100m bailout loan. Virgin Atlantic refused to continue financial support despite its investment of £135m, and placed part of the blame on the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Flybe’s trading.

Was Flybe too ambitious? For the past fifteen years Flybe has been trying to join the big boys of aviation and failing. The serious push came when it raised money with an IPO, and set out a plan to become Europe’s biggest regional airline, flying mid-sized planes between secondary cities. The model works brilliantly in America, where regional airlines, often flying as franchises of the larger network carriers, are a large and thriving business.

It did not work – or at least Flybe did not make it work. It retrenched, and was left in the farcical situation of paying for a fleet of aircraft that it could not fly. The remaining network was still too big, and cash resources dwindled.

So what are the elements of the Flybe business model that ultimately caused its failure, and what can startups learn from their mistakes?

1. Operating a market niche made it vulnerable Flybe dominated the regional UK market, so it was particularly exposed to anything that went wrong in this market – the recent fall in demand prompted by the coronavirus outbreak just added to its list of woes. It already had to contend with storms disrupting travel and the effects of Brexit creating sluggish UK consumer spending. The weak pound following the Referendum also worsened the impact of increased fuel and aircraft leasing costs.

Lesson: don’t put all your eggs in one basket; don’t get complacent when you have dominant market share, take a counter view of inherent vulnerability to apparent strength.

2. It operated in a highly competitive market Aviation is a highly competitive industry at the best of times, saddled with high-cost assets, and key costs that fluctuate uncontrollably – mainly fuel, which accounts for around a third of total airline costs. On top of that, they face high regulatory costs. The UK is particularly competitive, with Flybe squeezed between major airlines such as British Airways and the big low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet.

Lesson: Always keep a keen eye on your cost base when focused on a high-growth strategy, revenues can often not hit targets or market share be impacted by external margin pressures out of your control.

3. Flybe paid more tax than other airlines Airlines have to pay Air Passenger Duty (APD), a tax per passenger on flights taking off in the UK. For international flights, APD only has to be paid on the route out of the country, but for journeys within the UK, APD is paid both on departure and arrival. The levy is thought to have cost Flybe more than £100m a year, something it had long complained about. The government was considering adjusting the APD and helping Flybe.

Lesson: There are often specific compliance costs or costs of entry into a market, which should be recognised as a harsh burden on the business model, hitting your competitive agility, and factored into your day-to-day thinking.

4. It had too many planes A decade ago, Flybe had ambitious pan-European plan, placing an £850m order for 35 Embraer 175 jets to underpin its expansion. But for years after that it struggled with overcapacity. Flybe ended up putting planes on routes to use the planes, rather than buying a fleet to fly routes effectively. It was a burden, in reality it really was too big for what it’s trying to do.

Flybe’s overcapacity showed it needed to operate smaller aircraft over a slimmer network, and maybe switch its focus to concentrate on the corporate market and forget about endless retail seat sales at peppercorn prices. This would mean higher fares but hopefully a better quality, repeatable customer model.

Lesson: A relentless focus on charging forward can blindside the downside risks and adverse long-term impact of short-term errors. Don’t be blinkered by growth-for-growth’s sake, take a balanced view of opportunity versus risk.

5. There were conflicting shareholder objectives The takeover by the Connect Airways consortium failed because the partners had conflicting objectives and were strange bedfellows. Virgin was eager to feed its long-haul flights at Heathrow, and perhaps snaffle along the way some of Flybe’s valuable Heathrow slots, whilst Stobart was eager to keep regional flights at its main asset, Southend Airport.  The third partner, Cyrus, was a VC and thought it might make money if the business was resuscitated. None of these were compatible with each other

Lesson: Ensure there is genuine compatibility and alignment of vision, purpose and strategy with your co-founders. Never let financial metrics convince you a long-term arrangement has merit, it simply masks the underlying paradoxes.

6. The pricing strategy must support the business model Coronavirus hastened its collapse, but Flybe’s pricing policy was flawed. For any form of travel, the operator with the fastest service generally charges the most. That used to be the case before the arrival of low-cost airlines, when domestic flying was considered a luxury. In Flybe’s case, although it held a monopoly over most of its mainland domestic routes, it was undercutting rail fares sometimes by as much as 50% – because the travelling public compared the cost of flying with surface transport.

However, at the same time as average fares have fallen, squeezing margins and leaving no room for mistakes, Flybe was posting annual losses of £20m.

Lesson: Price on purpose, and price for profit. After a period of entry pricing to gain new market share in a new segment, your value proposition has to fit around the competition and your business model. Don’t kid yourself demand v supply rules don’t apply.

7. Poor customer experience They had a mad hand baggage policy. I had a bag that was 5mm bigger than their cabin baggage guide at the gate. They charged £30 to check it in and, of course, I had to wait 45 minutes to get it back at the other end. The published dimensions of my hardsided case were within the Flybe size limits. I resolved never to fly it Flybe again and never did.

Lesson: Think about the critical non-essentials that can have an out-size adverse impact on the customer experience. Convenience, simplicity and ease-of-use are great customer experience virtues – introduce friction and it all unravels.

8. Dysfunctional culture Flybe acquired many rival’s routes, aircraft and staff and took many franchises into its brand, but wasn’t successful at integrating firms with different work cultures. Even though they were successful at operational integration of small companies, it failed to merge different work cultures.

High attrition rate in its work force compared to other organisations in the industry resulted in it having to spend a lot more than its competitors on training and development of its employees.

Lesson: Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is vital as you scale a startup, ensuring there is a vibrant underlying set of values and philosophy that enables your business to build internally, besides fuelling external growth.

All of the above were factors before coronavirus came along, combining to trigger Flybe’s demise. They were not even able to maintain good revenues on unique routes. Flybe failed because it forgot what its core business was and an over ambitious strategy expanded it beyond it viable economic model.

Startups beware. The adrenalin of growth and soaring ambition can cloud your judgement and blindside some key signs that your model isn’t as unique as you expect.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger. A willingness to stumble during a quest gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place, so don’t let failure remove your spark, but embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided. Keep an open mind as you build your startup strategy, and always be agile, alert and vigilante – euphoria, ego and complacency are virus-like killers to your startup business model.

Avoid a milkshaking from dissatisfied customers: adopt the Netflix way

The word ‘milkshake’ first appeared in 1885, as an eggnog-like drink made with whiskey. However, by the turn of the century, milkshakes were no longer alcoholic and were made with flavoured syrups, such as vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry.

The milkshake came into being as we know it – thick, creamy and chilled – in 1922, when Stephen Poplawski invented the blender, patenting a machine that reduced fruits and vegetables to a liquid. Later it inspired the invention of the bendy straw – by Joseph Friedman in 1937.

We all enjoy whizzing up a refreshing milkshake or smoothie. We’ve got indulgent chocolate, banana and strawberry flavoured shakes, plus healthy fruity shakes. However, my personal favourite is an Eton Mess freakshake. It’s my own signature recipe, a strawberry milkshake with a monster makeover – white chocolate and crushed meringues.

And then everything changed in 2019 when ‘throwing milkshakes’ emerged as a symbol of dissent. Milkshaking took off in Warrington in May, when a milkshake was thrown at Tommy Robinson, a notorious far-right activist. Videos went viral on social media under the hashtag #milkshake, drawing millions of views, and a phenomenon was born. Other far-right leaders enjoyed the same treatment, including Nigel Farage, subjected to a banana and salted caramel milkshaking. A good splattering.

Milkshaking concerns caused Scottish police to ask a local McDonalds near a subsequent Farage rally to cease selling milkshakes and ice cream. In true fast food rivalry, Burger King tweeted: Dear people of Scotland. We’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun. Love BK #justsaying.

Prior to this, Milkshakes were tossed at US president Donald Trump’s recent visit to the UK, and in June a woman in Florida hurled a shake at Matt Gaetz, a congressman known for making xenophobic remarks, in what seems to be the first case of American milkshaking.

Whilst milkshaking as a form of protest is new, the art of sticking it to politicians with perishable food is old school. The first documented case of food as protest took place in 63AD, when a Roman governor was bombarded with turnips. Cream pies became a popular protest in the 1970s, drawing inspiration from classic C20th slapstick comedies, including the films of Charlie Chaplin.

But in the history of protest foods, one stands above the rest: eggs. They’re cheap, widely available, and make a mess – ask David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. Audiences have thrown anything and everything at stage performers to vent their ire – poisonous snakes, chairs and peanuts, while tomatoes took off in the C19th and subsequently inspired Rotten Tomatoes, one of the web’s most popular film review sites.

In post-war Greece, the practice of throwing plastic pots of tzatziki became so popular that the government introduced legislation to curb it. Law enforcers shaved the heads and cut the hems of the trousers of yogurt-wielding protesters who were caught, who were then marched through the streets as a form of public shaming.

Whether it’s milkshakes, cream pies, eggs, tomatoes or tzatziki, shows of passion or frustration from customers never get quite so extreme in business relationships. But sometimes, small changes have a big impact on how customers perceive the quality of your relationship and make the difference between loyalty and high churn rates.

According to research, it costs five times more to find a new customer than to retain a current customer.  In this age of automation, caring for your customers has never been more important.  At any moment, an unhappy customer can share their opinion through social media- or a milkshake! That’s why it’s even more important than ever to create an excellent experience for your customers to help develop your relationship with them into a lasting one.

Walt Disney said it best, Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends. Creating a genuine relationship between your business and your customers can help scale positive word of mouth. Creating a customer-focused culture should be a priority. Most businesses are failing when it comes to the customer experience, which is your opportunity to swoop in and engage those disillusioned customers into switching.

If there is one business we can learn from regarding getting close to their customers and providing a knock-out experience it’s Netflix, the subscription-based entertainment streaming service that offers its users on-demand access to a vast library of films and TV shows, including original in-house productions that are not available elsewhere.

For a set monthly fee, Netflix customers can access the platform’s content on demand whenever and wherever, and build their own user profiles to receive bespoke-tailored viewing recommendations.  Netflix began as a DVD rental and sales service operating by mail order in 1997, but has evolved into the world’s most popular television streaming service, with over 137 million subscribers.

By 2005 Netflix had floated the idea of a brand-new concept to futureproof their business in the face of declining interest in mail order DVD rentals. Under the working title of ‘Netflix Box’, the concept was that users could download a film overnight to watch the next day. However, 2005 also saw the successful launch of YouTube streaming, which quickly reached a position of market dominance despite the then-low video quality of its offerings.

Netflix’s plans for Netflix Box were ultimately shelved, and they began to develop the original on-demand TV and movie streaming service that we know today. The addition of original content to the platform in 2011 helped to secure Netflix’s reputation as the go-to video streaming service worldwide.

Netflix puts the customer at the centre of their business model. Their market dominance is enabled and supported by audience insights and a high level of individual user personalisation that helps to ensure that people who subscribe to the platform keep coming back for more, and tell their friends.

The brand serves as one of the best examples of customer personalisation and content strategy you can find, so what can they teach us to help startups identify better prospects, reach more of them, and increase sales.

1. Let your work make your reputation Netflix relies heavily on content marketing rather than brand marketing. Letting your work speak for itself is one of the most powerful ways to build consumer loyalty and brand. This enables Netflix to make effective use of social media in spreading the word about a new show, or getting people talking about a relaunched classic.

2. Be original Netflix Originals make up a significant portion of the most-watched content, and the viewing preferences help to not only increase viewing figures for this, but inform the development of future productions too. If you can offer something novel or original that provides you with a USP, you will immediately gain a competitive edge.

3. Remove customer pain points Removing customer pain points is important to user experience, increasing customer loyalty and boosting sales. Netflix achieves this successfully in a number of ways: an initial no-commitment free trial month incentivises a risk-free initial sign-up; the sign-up process is simple, and not overly intrusive.

This initial month’s engagement often provides all of the information Netflix needs to secure an ongoing subscription sign-up by using the insights developed to personalise and incentivise the content offered.

4. Innovate Netflix is synonymous with innovation, and this continues to drive growth and the expansion of the platform to an ever-wider audience of viewers. The company has unleashed a download-and-go feature that allows users to watch shows offline, and this effort was followed up by a push to improve Netflix’s mobile experience, which is important as the company expands into foreign territories where people prefer to watch video on their phones.

5. Use smart data, not just personal data Knowing your audience, and collating the type of data about them that you need to translate it into useful content and experience, is vital. But besides the usual ‘hard’ data, Netflix takes into account the browser patterns and usage preferences of its users to provide the most personalised and relevant content and relationship.

6. Enable self-service Based on ur basic profile information, Netflix fine-tunes their understanding of your viewing preferences by inviting you to bookmark shows and express an interest in different genres. This results in personalised recommendations that you have self-curated, and thus tailored to appeal to you.

7. Focus on your USPs and make them work for you One of my favourite features of Netflix is that most series of shows are released in their entirety – you can watch a whole season straight through on the day it is released. This ‘binge watching’ is one of Netflix’s most defining USPs, and a large part of their appeal.

8. Build the brand The Netflix brand’s tone of voice is engaging, humorous and quick witted, and this helps to translate it across multiple platforms that viewers might use to find out more, or to make a decision on subscribing. The brand values are a function of all the attributes of their product outlined above – is your brand as closely linked to your customer offering and experience.

The Netflix model is ubiquitous and speaks for itself. They understand the power of their unique offerings and the value proposition to customers, but it’s putting the customer not the content at the centre of their business model, which creates and sustains brand loyalty.


By building up a comprehensive picture of your target customers and fine-tuning the content that you offer to them to create a highly personalised, dynamic user experience, you are able to predict their needs and negate pain points.

All startups can learn from the Netflix approach to innovation and delivering this to their customers. Applying these insights across other industries might seem ambitious, but such insights are highly scalable and relevant to virtually every sector.

Originating and delivering on unanticipated customer needs is true customer innovation. Rather than focus on customer satisfaction and providing a better product than the competition, aspire to long-term customer delight and pioneer new frontiers, with less competition.

There’s little chance of humiliating milkshakes being thrown from dissatisfied or protesting customers here. Netflix have transformed customer focus to customer obsession, so that they see the product through their eyes. So, leverage the Netflix way to knock out your competition and build your customer base. Then sit back and enjoy an Eton Mess freakshake.

Extracts from an article by Polly Kay on the competitive strategy of Netflix were used in this blog.

Thoughts on startup pricing strategy: money is the applause

The price of everything and the value of nothing. This Oscar Wilde quote reflects much of today’s business environment, discount retailers have flooded the high-street, online models offer seductive monthly subscription pricing options, and ‘pay-as-you-go’ is an established enabler of contract free affordability.

The very essence of Wilde’s quote is that it’s useless knowing the monetary price of something and yet not fully understanding its true non-monetary value to your customers. This is the challenge faced by all startups.

Yet often startups struggle in developing a pricing strategy and opt for a play which misses opportunity, due to their lack of insight into their drivers of value, and simply focus on ‘that’s the market price we can get away with’. Many default to a pricing model based on an accounting principle known as cost plus – take all your costs (salaries + materials + overhead) and add your profit wish. Pretty simple. Pretty awful.

Many startups make pricing decisions in a seemingly random and detached manner from their go-to-market strategy. This is understandable to some extent, as early-stage entities lack self-belief, branding gravitas and customer intelligence. They have pressure on their runway to execute, however, given pricing is such a strategic play in your business model, making a ‘bet’ isn’t good enough.

It sounds obvious, but pricing drives revenue, it underpins your overall go-to-market approach an ultimately profitability, so you need a good sense of where to start, and be confident in pricing experimentation as part of the learning and iteration process.

Startup pricing is more art than science. You have no anchor to customers, but you have to start somewhere. Getting pricing right requires a confident, experimental mindset and willingness to have an honest and bold dialogue with potential customers. Each conversation is another signal telling you if you’re moving in the right direction, or if you need to pivot. There are a number of bad habits and pitfalls to avoid, for example:

Prices are developed without customers You can’t figure pricing out without engaging customers as benchmarking research. All the answers are in your customers’ heads not in your spreadsheet, so get out of the building. A startup has to prove it can solve a problem and then develop a repeatable, scalable sales process for customer discovery, validation and growth. Pricing is an integral element to this model.

Prices are set in stone, not in motion Founders often fall into a common trap: they pick a price, get early confirmation, and declare ‘this is the price we’re taking to market’. They have a hypothesis to test, but then get nervous and lose this focus, and end up with a series of random prices as they seek to close deals. Your strategy should be to pick a pricing starting point, and stick with it as a permanent solution for a sufficient period of time to provide validated learning.

The price is too low Even the most confident founders price low. Instead of letting the market tell them where they’re not going to win deals, they’d rather price low and end up trying to interpret where on the pricing spectrum they’ve landed. That’s how founders talk themselves into the discounted side of the pendulum. If you’ve already started from a low price you’re already capping your revenue growth.

The pricing structure is complicated Many early pricing pitfalls are rooted in trying to innovate too much on pricing structure. Customers are used to buying in a certain way, such as a monthly fee or per transaction. Anything too far from this, which you may regard as ‘innovative’, can be a barrier for customers to understanding and adoption. Startups must maximise their learning per conversation around pricing.

So take a step back. Pricing is a pathway to the market, so it must serve the strategy through which you hope to get a foothold. Before you begin experimenting with pricing, get clear on the main driver in your early go-to-market strategy:

• Getting your first referenceable customers – who are your ‘famous five’ whose badges represent credible testimony?

• Securing targeted, specific large customers where you can build a footprint to scale long-term revenues

• Maximising revenue across a number of targeted customers in a specific segment

• Gaining widespread market share and brand awareness

Each of these goals has a different pricing optimisation, often exclusively. Statistics show that as few as five customer development conversations provide 80% of the price testing and learning you need. You can apply the takeaways and adapt the next experiment. You need a different set of customer development questions depending on where you are with your pricing experiments.

Here are a few of these questions to consider for customer development conversations for early or neutral prospects:

• What is the last similar solution you bought? Tell me about your evaluation process.

• If I told you that I have a solution to [insert pain point], would you be interested? Why?

• What do you think is an acceptable price for a product that solves this problem?

• What is an expensive price?

• What is your budget for a solution?

These customer development questions are part of getting a more informed understanding of how customers think about your product, and helping you to define two key inputs to help shape your pricing strategy that follows:

Your upper price ceiling This is the highest price the market signals for the value you provide. Force yourself to test this, even if it means getting into the uncomfortable zone of pushing for a higher price, you need to find it. You’ll get pushback and refusal, but if you’ve done a good job showing the value of your product, prospects will be interested. I’ve worked with tech product startups where we’ve gone from £5k to £20k in price testing the ceiling.

At a certain point, price can be a barrier and even if prospects value your product, they may delay or defer purchase. But the key here is that you’ve identified your upper ceiling, and now decide whether pricing at this point is strategic or counter-productive to growth.

Your anchor Your anchor is an alternative that customers compare your product against. What are you replacing? Set the anchor to something the customer understands. Make sure you find an anchor that gives you a price point that’s high enough. Don’t expect your customers to figure this out on their own, it’s up to you to paint the full picture. The goal is to get data that will really give you confidence in your upper ceiling and anchor.

Once your customer development conversations provide insight into these two factors you can shift your focus to the more robust pricing conversations that you will run, but you now have a range. There will be times where the customer is pushy and you need to deliver a price. The best practice is to deliver a range. When you’re testing the market, pricing is inherently a nerve-wracking conversation, but one you must embrace to get confirmation that customers see the value of the product.

The goal is to validate the tangible value your product offers and get customers to move themselves to your price point. If a customer baulks at your price offer, they are saying ‘this solution to my problem does not provide enough value’ – but don’t take that as a signal to reduce your price, rather it’s an opportunity to recognise they are not rooted with sufficient knowledge of your offering, so go again. After this, if prospects still don’t get to that point, you’re wasting your time, as they are buying based on cost, not the value of your product.

In addition, conversations not only allow for adjustment, but also set the tone for follow-up. They may not be able to give a specific price that works now, but don’t panic. You have more than one shot, don’t knee-jerk and panic to get a deal closed today and offer a discount, who knows what’s going to happen. Both parties have invested time at this point, an instead of jumping to a discount, foster empathy.

Don’t be afraid to own up being an early-stage company, along with the constraints that come with that, explain your seeking to understand what is a valid price point for the value you’re providing.

This type of exchange reframes the sales conversation and gathers further intelligence. No matter where you start with pricing, at some point, your structure will change – you may introduce new product features, enter a new segment, or develop a different go-to-market strategy. Maybe your ideal customer profile changes. Each of these scenarios alters the equation, but until that point, develop a minimum viable process to help determine your early pricing.

Free markets tend to undermine themselves, as Marx identified, from the bottom upward – which is why we see a race to ‘cheapest price’. Many business people are besotted by ‘market rates’, but as Economist Paul Krugman says, this is beauty clad in impressive mathematics for a convenient truth. Equally, opportunist pricing can make short-term gains, but don’t get too rosy eyed, markets can be easily bewitched, and scoundrels seeking easy exploitation ultimately fail.

Be confident and curious in creating and capturing value for customers. Be obsessed with value, your clients will appreciate it. Many startups take a ‘case by case’ opportunity basis to pricing, and convince themselves ‘this is a big new client, it’s a valuable opportunity, we’ll reduce our price to win the job’. This is flawed, negotiate and fix the commercial expectation. Respect yourself and your business. Do you want to haggle over price, or do you want to showcase the ideas that will give you innovation, growth and success, as the basis for your pricing?

So, the key considerations are:

Establish the right pricing culture in your startup Be a value pricing firm that prices according to the external value created for customers

Establish a pricing strategy and make it a core competency There’s a big difference between listening and waiting to talk. Establish the floor and ceiling price by being confident and clear about the value you create.

Price on purpose What are you really selling, what are your customers really buying? A florist isn’t selling flowers, it’s selling love; Dulux don’t sell paint, they sell the colours of life; Harley Davison don’t sell motorbikes, they sell adventurous lifestyles; software companies don’t sell technology, they sell innovation.

The most critical input at an early stage startup remains the voice of the customer, not your product. Don’t fall into the four bad habits identified earlier, and stumble into a pricing conversation. Resist customers jumping the gun to talk about pricing before you’ve unpacked and explored the value fit of your offering to their problem – never panic or prematurely discount if there’s pushback, but continue to fact-find around constraints.

Don’t get seduced by the numbers in articulating your value proposition – money is the applause, not the reason you’re here.

Build a thriving team in your startup, not just an array of digital tools

In any startup business, we are immersed in apps and devices that provide a high degree of visibility, connectivity and productivity enabling collaboration, removing boundaries and barriers. Yet the conundrum of this is that as we build culture and a team with shared values and purpose, we are consciously reducing the amount of meaningful human interaction we have with each other

Much recent tech innovation has been about creating a workplace with less human interaction, enabling remote working, virtual teams and sharing. These tech tools don’t claim that eliminating the need to deal with humans directly is its primary goal, but it is the outcome in a surprising number of cases.

I’m not saying that these new technologies are not hugely convenient and beneficial, but in a sense, they run counter to who we are as human beings. Human interaction is often perceived as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow, and the focus is on reducing the friction. For startups, the essence is that it is a coming together that is messy and inefficient as new relationships form

Look at Amazon, initially it was about making books available that we didn’t find locally – what a great idea – but it eliminates human contact and chatting about books to strangers you stand next to at the bookshop shelf. This then, is the new norm as we read about algorithms, AI, robots, AR/VR and self-driving cars, all of which fit this pattern.

Online ordering and home delivery is hugely convenient, digital music downloads and streaming likewise don’t require a visit to a physical store. In both, some services offer algorithmic recommendations, so you don’t even have to discuss books and music with your friends to find new stuff. But isn’t the function of books and music as a social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?Then there is ‘social media’ which offers interaction that isn’t really social, and the emergence of some hugely negative side effects of this phenomenon too – for us as a society, less contact and less real interaction seems to be leading to less tolerance and understanding of differences, and more antagonism.

On one hand these innovations are efficient and convenient, but they remove the human inter-relationships. I use many of them myself, but we have evolved as social creatures, and our ability to cooperate and forge relationships is one of the big factors in our success.

I would argue that social interaction and cooperation, the kind that makes us who we are, is something our tools can augment but not replace. Minimising interaction has some knock-on effects – the externalities of efficiency, one might say.

So back to a startup, bursting with talent a clutch of digital tools. When we are working in solo mode, we believe work can be done effectively through the digital domain, our rational thinking convinces us that much of our interaction can be reduced to a series of logical decisions. As behavioural economists tell us, we don’t behave rationally, even though we think we do. Bayesians will tell us that interaction is how we revise our picture of what is going on and what will happen next.

Humans are capricious, emotional and irrational in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking will be our downfall. With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents, unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction and face-to-face collaboration with others multiplies those ­opportunities.

So, how do we build the people side of a startup, having a range of digital tools that can bring us together, yet at the same time push us apart? Meeteor, a consultancy business that exists to empower people individually and collectively to work smarter and happier, has identified the concept of ‘thriving teams’ to create a more fulfilling the collaboration experience.

Thriving teams are multi-dimensional. Of course, there is a focus on achieving high performance and delivering stellar output, yet they also value each member, strive for workplace balance, and create a culture of learning and engagement. Meeteor has identified the most important elements of a thriving team. These elements are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, overlap and influence each other.

Balance Achieving balance means more than work-life harmony. In a startup it’s all about getting stuff done, attention to learning and experimentation can be easily compromised. While people may be driven by their work, they may also suffer from the focus that comes with it.

A thriving team is mindful of the importance of balance. A thriving team walks the line between team performance and individual learning, accomplishing tasks and mastering processes, achieving results and maintaining well-being. A thriving team honours the tension between learning and performance as key to success and sustainability.

Common Purpose and Direction Purpose plays this critical role because it is the source of the meaning and significance people seek in what they do. A startup team’s purpose should guide their day-to-day actions. A shared purpose and direction anchor teams in time of growth with new members joining rapidly.

Effective Communication Effective communication is the engine of a thriving team. MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory found that when people connect directly with one another and establish communication channels, they are more likely to be successful.

On the other hand, when a team doesn’t encourage open communication and transparency, people work in silos and don’t share information that could be helpful for each other. A thriving team needs to invest in developing the right mindset and skills for effective communication, encouraging inclusivity and transparency. This strikes at the core of the digital debate.

Shared Accountability and Support Team alignment on purpose and direction does not guarantee effective execution, a consensus on shared accountability and outlaw negative behaviours like missing deadlines or letting work fall through the cracks, can harm a team’s performance and culture. When people feel a sense of shared ownership, they contribute to each other’s success, holding each other accountable for individual and team results. They set high performance standards and count on each other to deliver high quality work.

Mutual Trust In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies ‘absence of trust’ as a root cause of team dysfunction. Without trust, team members may not feel safe to express themselves or be vulnerable. They may avoid sharing their ideas, taking risks or giving feedback. This hurts the team’s performance and relationships.

A thriving team is trusting and trustworthy, they are more willing to share knowledge, resources and new ideas, which builds the team’s capacity to innovate and achieve greater results.

Norms and Processes Norms and processes – whether implicit or explicit – determine how a team gets its work done. They guide behaviour by defining the team workflow and client delivery. A thriving team has effective work processes in place and follows them consistently to accomplish work. Team members periodically reflect on and improve their processes.

The team establishes helpful norms that support effective teamwork, such as decision making valuing all voices, encouraging innovation, and rewarding experimentation (even if it fails).

Meaningful Engagement It’s accepted that engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees do. Being engaged in work is a crucial component of high performance, productivity and retention, regardless of an organization’s size. Meaningful engagement means cultivating a culture in which people care about and are fulfilled by their work, build healthy relationships, and co-create a workplace that they care about.

Building and sustaining a thriving team is a dynamic and ongoing process, an important growth objective for a startup. I like the imagery of a ‘thriving team’, one where energy, camaraderie and respect exists. It relies on the team getting to know each other, bonding and forming relationships.

At the same time, digital technology is having a profound effect on the human side of the enterprise, affecting where, when, and how employees get work done. Are the two compatible? The results of Deloitte’s Future of Work survey confirm that the ways in which new technologies will shape organisations and leadership roles as a topic of critical importance. Some 65% of those surveyed say it is a strategic objective to transform their organisation’s culture with a focus on increasing connectivity, communication, and collaboration.

Even as more business functions are augmented by new technology capabilities to uplift productivity, people remain the most critical asset of an organisation. Going forward, those people will be working in a more networked, distributed, mobile, collaborative, and real-time fluid manner. Such significant shifts will demand not only increased adaptability on the part of employees, but deliberate forethought on how digital communication tools are used.

Digital technologies offer the opportunity to create a more connected, if less engaging environment for employees, and a more adaptive organisation for the future in terms of automation. However, we need to create context, as we move away from email and toward more sophisticated collaboration tools and virtual teaming technologies.

New tools alone are not enough. As we sit on the cusp of potentially more sweeping technology-enabled changes from AI and more sophisticated algorithms, we need to develop the right cultural context for these new tools and adapt workplace processes and policies to make the most of digital capabilities on the way.

We need to build networks, not hierarchies, place more focus on facilitating the exchange of ideas, enabling the flow of conversations across the organisation, and providing greater autonomy at team and individual levels going forward. This shift from accountability to enabling organisational construct will be a critical component to the future of work. Digital tools must enable an empowered network of employees capable of acting autonomously, rather than waiting for direction.

Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Sometimes you have to disconnect to stay connected. Remember the old days when you had eye contact during a conversation? When everyone wasn’t looking down at a device in their hands, or screen in front of them? We’ve become so focused on that tiny screen that we sometimes forget the big picture, the people right in front of us.

Apply Pareto’s Principle to move the needle of your start up

Vilfredo Pareto was a philosopher, economist and academic, fascinated by social and political statistics and trends. Legend has it that one day he noticed that 20% of the pea plants in his garden generated 80% of the healthy peapods.

He took this observation into a study about wealth and income, and discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He investigated different industries and found that 80% of production typically came from just 20% of the companies, publishing a paper, Cours d’économie politique.

Sadly Pareto didn’t live to see the general appreciation and wide adoption of his principle, and it was left to Joseph Juran to suggest The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, that states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – a small minority will have a disproportionate impact, generating a disproportionate share of results.

Whilst there is nothing special about the number 80% mathematically, many natural phenomena have been shown empirically to exhibit such a distribution. I have 20 rooms in my house, but I spend about 80% of my time in just my bedroom, family room, kitchen and office (exactly 20%). On my iPhone, I have 30 different mobile apps pinned to the tiles, but 80% of the time I’m only using the six (20%) on my home screen.

When I go food shopping, I definitely spend the most time in the aisles that are around the edges of the store: fruit and veg, the fish stall, dairy, breads — and generally skip the aisles in the middle of the store (except for health and beauty, obviously). When I socialise, 80% of my time is spent with the same 20% of my friends. In perfect accordance with the Pareto Law, 80% of the people reading this blog will gloss over it and be on their way, but 20% will stop, reflect and take action.

Application of this universal rule also applies to the odds of success: your odds of winning go up to 80% when you achieve the 20% that give you the most results. That is great odds. Intuitively, we know this to be true, but very few people truly understand how far this principle extends into business, and it’s especially useful when launching a startup.

In research into the productivity habits of high achieving entrepreneurs, handling every task that gets thrown their way – or even every task that they would like to handle – is impossible. They use Pareto to help determine what is of vital importance, delegate the rest, or simply let go.

So how can you apply Pareto’s principle to gain more time in your startup life?

You’re faced with the constant challenge of limited resources. It’s not just your time you need to maximise, but your entire team’s capacity. Instead of trying to do the impossible, a Pareto approach is to truly understand which projects and activities are most important, and which specific tasks you need to focus on.

The temptation is always to try the new and exciting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but a Pareto analysis and an 80/20 mindset helps you to stay focused on your strategic plan and execution, and spend less time chasing endless new opportunities, which can be distracting and are often the cause of entrepreneurs losing their way.

No matter what your situation, it’s important to remember that there are only so many minutes in an hour, hours in a day, and days in a week. Pareto can help you to see this is a good thing, otherwise, you’d be a slave to a never-ending list of things to do. It helps your efficiency knowing that 80% of the outputs are the result of 20% of the inputs.

The 80/20 rule is also divisible, meaning that it is also true that 20% of 20% of the inputs (4%) generate 80% of 80% of the outputs (64%), and so on. While the 80/20 dynamic is powerful enough, it only gets more lopsided as it progresses. Consider, for instance, that with only three steps you arrive at 0.16% of inputs being responsible for an astonishing 41% of output.

The simple takeaway is this: Stop beating your head against the wall on working harder and putting in longer hours. Most of what you’re spending time doing doesn’t matter. 

Startup ventures are a bit harder to accept this thinking, and the 80/20 can appear paradoxical. We are predicting the future not measuring the past, so our thinking is to do everything because we can’t really decide what is important. Often I see exhausted entrepreneurs walking around wearing burnout as a badge of startup life.

This needn’t be the reality. The opportunity cost of doing the 80% is often not doing the 20% of what really matters. Once you internalise this you’ll focus on predicting the 20% instead of trying to get everything done, and always feeling you’re living on a hamster wheel and constantly behind.

So, what 20% of your work drives 80% of your outcomes? For example,

  • 20% of my leads result in 80% of my sales
  • 20% of my social connections do 80% of the sharing
  • 20% of my referral sources refer 80% of my leads
  • 20% of customers account for 80% of total sales
  • 20% of the reported software bugs cause 80% of software crashes
  • 20% of my clients soak up 80% of my time – 80% of the people who are ‘interested’ never buy

It is time to set some priorities, a focused intensity on work that matters. Ignore the numbers for a moment and understand the concept: a minority of efforts lead to a majority of good results. The 80/20 rule supplants the long established ‘work more’ mindset mantra of a startup. We should stop the wasted effort and focus on investing in the paths yielding the most sizable returns.

Startups adopting the 80/20 principle work in a precise and predetermined manner, analysing their results at fixed intervals in a data driven approach to startup strategy execution. Focus intently on the work plan by limiting distractions. If the effort does not yield significant results, change the work plan.

Results should be viewed both in a short-term and long-term perspective. In this way, startups should work to first applying the 80/20 rule by initially focusing the majority of work towards accomplishing short-term immediate goals. Correspondingly, minimal work output should initially be allocated to long-term goals.

Often, startups are an all-or-nothing proposition. It either works out or it doesn’t. In my view, the Pareto Principle for startups is actually that 20% of the initial work input is responsible for 80% of the first steps of success, and in this way no single decision matters, it’s good decision-making overall over many decisions matter.

In a startup the rate of decision-making is high, and staying on plan may not be the right thing to do. Some structure helps, but it is easy for it to become stifling, so 20% work becomes about doing the right things, as opposed to doing a lot of things. Working more hours does not necessarily increase the likelihood that your startup will succeed.

In fact, it may decrease it if it makes your thinking narrow and cloud your judgment. You may be too focused on breadth of work and not depth of work. For example, consider a startup which persists in directing its activities equally across its entire product range when perhaps 80% of customer traction derives from just 20% of the products. By discovering these statistics, the decision-making would clearly signpost where to direct your efforts, and probably that some products that could be discontinued.

So, here’s my Pareto Platform to you get started on a 20% focus:

* Develop a basic model of your key activities, the things you know that when combined and lined up, with focus, create success.

* Identify the pivots/conversion points within that model, the things you must get right at all costs

* Put in place metrics that give you a sense of what is happening right now

* Identify the levers within those conversion points you can influence to get to significantly better results

* Make small tweaks – pull the levers – and see what happens, and track results over time

These are the principles I adopt whenever facing overwhelming workload or a set of apparent priorities from different projects. It’s a return-to-basics call that gives clarity.

Taking a longer-term perspective, the Pareto Principle offers equally good insights to guide startup thinking and doing:

Focus on 20% of your market It is possible to have a successful business that either focuses on a niche market and mass sells into it, or just a segment of an overall market. Your target isn’t the market, but identify a demographic and define your addressable market with precision to ensure you have discipline, clarity and focus on your customer development.

Scale your pricing Is your pricing scalable? Many startups sell direct to end customers – by necessity – in their early stages, only to subsequently realise that margins can’t accommodate resellers and distributors when considering new channels. Test your assumptions and do your homework before setting pricing, look at 20% customer price bands and test elasticity of demand.

Less is more
Is a national market automatically better? No. Uncontrolled demand driven scaling leads to all manner of headaches and cost-bleeding, Price erosion to support volume customers is almost always irreversible. Avoid this scenario and consider partnering using exclusivity to negotiate better terms and focus on the 20% of customers available.

Hyperactivity vs. Productivity Being busy is not the same as being productive. Forget about the start-up overwork ethic that people wear as a badge of honour, you don’t scale! Get analytical and stay analytical, use 80/20 principles to stop putting out fires, duplicate your few strong areas instead of fixing all of your weaknesses

Work with ideal customers Not all customers are created equal. Apply the 80/20 principle to time consumption: what 20% of people are consuming 80% of your time? Put high-maintenance, low-profit customers on autopilot, process orders but don’t pursue them or check up on them, and exit high-maintenance, high-profit customers – the money isn’t worth the effort.

Get intimate Likelihood is that 80% of your new customers result from 20% of your offerings. Therefore identify which offerings produces most new customers, and then use the identified offerings more often (and use the less-effective offerings less often, or not at all). Get intimate with your offerings, and focus on the 20% that your customers want.

Everyone wears several hats in a startup, with overloaded schedules and too much to do. We think ‘I’m busy and therefore being productive’, but getting stuff done does not have a linear relationship to doing the stuff that makes a difference.

You already have all the time you’re going to get, and the law of diminishing returns applies – time is a bandit, and we often use extraordinary effort to keep things moving forward, but this is simply not sustainable. Management by crisis and fire fighting can become the norm, but are hugely unproductive and energy sapping. Urgency itself is not the problem.

The Pareto Principle enables a startup founder to work ‘on’ the business, not just ‘in’ the business, providing visibility for thinking time and space to focus on priorities, working with the team to do the stuff that makes a difference. The reality is most of what we do doesn’t matter, so we need to change this and focus on the 20% that moves the needle.

Signs of Spring bring out the green-fingered entrepreneur

It’s been milder this week, and the first signs of spring are here – frogspawn in the dog’s outside water bowl (she just slurps it up without stopping, must be nutritious), salad has appeared at teatime and my daughter announced her thermal onesie and bed-socks can go back in the cupboard. Feeling reckless, I have put the snow shovel away.

I love spring. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth.  Trees are budding, the grass is becoming green again and in northern climates, people are renewing friendships with their neighbours as they finally get to spend time outdoors in the garden after a long, cold, dark winter.

In the business world, spring is a time for renewal and rebirth as well. Now is a great time to do some ‘spring cleaning’ of your business, review your strategy and assess your progress during the first quarter. If you achieved your objectives, set new ones for the next quarter. If you didn’t achieve them, reassess and put the necessary pieces in place to achieve them this quarter. Lighter mornings and lighter nights also make us feel reenergised, coming out of hibernation imposed by of dark mornings and dark evenings on the journey to and from work, and we stop wasting time mooching indoors.

Ah yes, wasting time. I read once that over a lifetime the average man wastes 394 days in the bath. That’s 56 weeks. I can’t understand that being defined as ‘wasted time’ as for me those 56 weeks are some of the happiest and most peaceful weeks of my life. I love being in the bath, contemplating life or reading, more than I love being on holiday. I certainly don’t consider it time wasted.

But 56 weeks is nothing compared with the amount of time I really do waste, standing outside the front door in the freezing cold in the winter waiting for my wife to find the door keys in her ‘winter’ handbag, and this is in addition to the ages I waste waiting for her to answer her mobile phone – the delay often being explained it was lost in my handbag. Analysis of this response simply confirms that it was never lost, just that the handbag is too big. And another thing, the keys are always found nestling at the bottom of her bag…underneath her mobile phone.

The good news is, however, that the winter handbag (similar to Sherpa Tensing’s rucksack) is being replaced by a jaunty, smaller piece of lady-kit because it’s Spring. I assume the emergency rescue flares, extra-large can of windscreen defroster and crampons will be removed for the next six months or so. The American army thought they had a tough time seeking Osama Bin Laden holed out in a cave somewhere in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but they should thank their lucky stars he didn’t choose to hide out in my wife’s winter handbag.

But back to Spring. People who know me best know that at I am a secret but fervent gardener, and its great to be back out there. I’ve always had a passion for pottering and potting, I find the physicality rewarding, and being in the fresh air a great counter to my Monday to Friday routine housed indoors with clients. My garden has taught me about how things grow and thrive in a vibrant and sustainable manner, and the cycle of seed-grow-harvest. I’ve often reflected on this and parallels to encouraging growth in business, and to the ways I apply my attention and energy. Spring means its time to get out there and throw off the shackles of winter.

A gardener sees the world as an ecosystem of interdependent parts, where you need to get everything together, where connected and healthy, sustaining relationships are essential to the vitality of the whole. A real gardener is not a person who simply plants flowers and creates something good to look at, but a person who cultivates the soil, and thinks about shaping the garden for the long-term. The garden has taught me about patience and persistence and the principles of nurturing and working hard to create something you want, and feeling proud of once achieved. Appreciating the annual seasons and cycle of a garden has illuminated to me the stages in growing a business, looking at a business year as four three-month periods in which to grow and develop.

I’ve learned that it’s not just what you plant, but how you plant, and the thinking and design before hand, which brings long-term rewards. Gardeners know that once strong roots are established, followed by careful nurturing, natural growth will bring your garden on in leaps and bounds. The same goes for business, set your thinking to fix the foundations in place, and then with attention, thought and effort, your business will grow. Also gardening, like business, is inherently a local activity, set within an ever-changing and unpredictable global climate – the weather and the economy throw unexpected challenges just when you think you’re on an even keel.

Showing up in person, shovel, seeds, compost and humility in hand is essential, you’ve got to put a shift into your garden or it can get overgrown by weeds and go off track. Gardeners, like entrepreneurs believe in potential – and can be known to be pathologically optimistic. We can vividly imagine the bloom and the scent of the rose even in deepest of winter, and that our new business venture can be a success. In essence, the gardener’s work is like an entrepreneur – a life of passion, effort and care, we cultivate abundance from scarce resources, we nurture, encourage, fertilise and prune when necessary.

William Rosenzweig wrote a thoughtful piece around the parallels of gardening and business which inspired me to write this blog, so as Spring beckons, here are some seeds of thought he inspired in me from his writing to cultivate new habits in your business:

Make sure you’re planting what you want to grow I don’t like green beans, so if I were to plant them, they would be quickly shriveled from lack of water, and would be overgrown by some very healthy weeds. That’s because I wouldn’t care about growing them! In your business, which goals matter to you, and what are the actions that will help you to achieve them? Follow your passion in business, because that will create a compelling proposition to customers.

Don’t over plant It takes a lot of work to grow a healthy garden, there are things to do every week. The more you try to grow, the more time you need and we all have lives apart from our gardens. In business, if you set out to cultivate 10 new habits you are likely to fail at several, and then feeling despair, give up altogether. Limit your plantings and increase your success. Focus on one part of your business at a time.

Mix in some compost Stuff grows in the garden, but flourishes if you provide some compost, nutrients and organic matter to stimulate not only growth of your plants, but more importantly, make your soil healthy. Apply some of this thinking to yourself, and invest in training and personal development to grow yourself, for today and tomorrow’s business challenges.

Take cuttings I often get cuttings from friends to put into my garden, it’s a great way to introduce new plants. In business, investigate ideas and insights that have worked elsewhere and make them part of your thinking.

Planning & preparation You can’t have a great garden overnight just by planting indiscriminately. The job must be broken down into tasks, and some will need to be completed before you can begin others. You need to start your seedlings or take cuttings, turn over your soil, provide extra nutrients that your ground is lacking, and create a plan for what will grow where. You need to know when you will take care of each of these tasks. And have a back-up plan, it inevitably rains cats and dogs on your scheduled planting days – as in business you need some options in case things change, as they inevitably will.

Dig in! You can spend forever planning every detail, and never get holes dug and seeds in the ground. It’s time to get out there and put your foot onto the spade and get it into the ground. My business mantra is the same – 20% thinking, 80% doing, you’ve talked about it for long enough, get started! Digging over vegetable beds and pruning trees makes me sweat. So does mowing the lawns and pulling out piles of weeds. Perspiration is a sign that I have put some effort into life. It’s the same for business, customers and sales don’t happen by staring at a spreadsheet.

Weeds and bugs I do everything organically possible to prevent weeds in my garden, but weeds and bugs happen. Weeds certainly seem to grow faster and stronger than the other plants. It’s the same in business, you’ve got to attend the everyday washing-the-pots tasks, they may be mundane but it’s the detail that matters, and remove any threats to your business, stuff that’s getting in the way and choking out new ideas. Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them said Eeyore, but I’m not so sure. Equally pruning, trimming and cutting back is vital – sometimes in business you have to reshape and refocus when it’s not going how you want it to do.

The gardener and the entrepreneur are alchemists alike, with a vision and a plan, turning ideas into designs into reality. We really do reap what we sow. In gardening, as in business, taking short cuts and slipshod efforts do not work. Like anything worthwhile in life if you want to succeed, hard work and commitment come first.

Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow, and that you’re looking forward. To dig a spade into the earth, has life anything better to offer than this on a Spring Saturday morning? Of course, you can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt too, but the most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are optimistic, enterprising and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have done before. If you take that attitude into your business, you won’t go far wrong.

To me, there’s something magical about being in my garden, it seems to make me calm and refreshed. I will make time for my garden every single day without fail, even if it’s a quick walk to the bottom down the hill first thing in the morning. It just feels like something that I need, and maybe I do, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

Fertilizer happens! In fact, nothing much grows without it. When people don’t weed their business, it gets overrun by nettles. If you don’t tend to your garden, the end result is a lack of colour. Gardens, like a business, are not made by sitting down in the shade – so get up now and go get your hands dirty, be a green-fingered entrepreneur and go for growth.

Because it’s there

I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.

I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall. Several were in Welsh, whose titles I didn’t understand so ignored, but I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni & Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.

I started to read The Fight for Everest first. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.

Some 30 years on, I have still marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, some 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:

There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.

No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.

On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. All the clothing labels showed the same. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.

Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.

Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business. Latterly Reinhold Messner has been celebrated as the greatest climber in history, making the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen and the first climber to ascend all fourteen world peaks over 26,000 ft. but the fate of George Mallory makes him the most revered climber for me.

The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world, the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, of horizon and zenith. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.

Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there, which has been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

It turns out that Mallory actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip: The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes.

I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was possibly the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet, which Mallory had climbed. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.

Mallory epitomises unwavering ambition and the attitude to succeed. He has focus and clarity on his goals, and also a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

  • Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. They see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
  • Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.
  • Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.
  • Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
  • Highly motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
  • Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.

If you’re anything like me, you need to remind yourselves every now and then why you’re working so hard every day. Sometimes if you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work.

Likewise, my mantra is that if you don’t have an appetite for turning up everyday, getting some disruptive thinking going into new opportunities and giving a ‘personal best’, then you’ll just get lost in life’s busy shuffle and something must be wrong with your internal compass.

I don’t want to live my business life with any regret. At times it is not easy, and has all sorts of unexpected twists, but Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.

As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this? – and you have the answer from Mallory, because it’s there. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest, because it’s there.

Thinking back, playing forward with nostalgic innovation

German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk played eight live performances in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall recently – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 was a chronological performance of classic master works from across their celebrated repertoire, with spectacular 3D visualisations and effects. The performances showcased 40 years of musical and technical innovation, from Autobahn, to Trans Europe Express to Tour de France.

Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider formed Kraftwerk in 1970 at the Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. They achieved international recognition for their revolutionary electronic ‘sound paintings’ and musical experimentation with tapes and synthesizers creating the soundtrack for the digital age. Their compositions, using innovative looping techniques and computerised rhythms, have had a major influence on several musical genres.

Kraftwerk were the first true pop music futurists, they wrote pieces about motorways, train and air travel, computers and nuclear power, and were obsessively interested in how technology was changing the way we lived, worked and communicated. It used to feel as if they’d been transported back in time from the future, so prescient were they, thirty years before the iPad.

As you made your way into the Turbine Hall you were given a black cushion to sit on (though everyone stood) and 3D glasses to watch the slide show projected onto a large screen, in front of which the four Kraftwerk members stood, impassively, at their synthesiser consoles, twiddling buttons and sequencing sounds. They were dressed in luminous one-piece bodysuits, like demented space age surgeons. There was no interaction with the audience, not even a cursory good evening from Ralf Hütter, the 66-year-old frontman and sole remaining founder member.

As a teenager I was interested in the synthesiser sounds of Ultravox, John Foxx, early OMD and The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Kraftwerk. I loved the way they looked and dressed, pale faces and short haircuts. The sounds they made intrigued me by the use of technology, and the cold austerity and isolation of the music.

Some 30 years on, the ultimate effect of the Turbine Hall performance on me was one of melancholic nostalgia. Kraftwerk no longer seem as if they’ve come from the future, they come from a time before the Internet. They have become nostalgists, endlessly reworking and reinterpreting their best work. It’s 2013, Kraftwerk joined up the dots between electronic music past and present, thinking back but playing forward, a multi-sensory and hypnotic offering, illustrating just how far you can push the format of one man and his Mac.

Kraftwerk were pioneers, but it’s 22 years since I last saw them. I was glad I went but I think I was disappointed – the show they played this time was greeted as a kind of remixed Greatest Hits, a recap of the near past, rather the next bold step into our future. For Kraftwerk, ultimately like all innovators, time has taken its toll and we all sleepwalk into the future. But the memories of their ground-breaking innovation made the nostalgia more evocative.

The challenge is how to create ‘nostalgic innovation’, combining the warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia with innovation, and reinvention, not standing still. One industry that has built commercial leverage on nostalgia is the sweet industry – loose sweets from large jars are back in fashion, with the number of traditional sweet shops rising by 15% over the last year, in spite of overall decline in sales of confectionery and high street footfall. What is it that has people hooked?

The sweet shop is a pilgrimage, it’s a sensory feast. The bright colours, the smell as you go in. Boutiques lined with glass jars of sparkling, brightly coloured sweets and old-fashioned chocolates are drawing in more customers, who are returning to the tastes of their youth. Nostalgia and novelty is an essential part of the enjoyment of sweets, stimulating a resurgence on the high street.

The sweet shop was born in the C18th, as the price of sugar dropped and the middle and lower classes could purchase a bag of aniseed balls to eat on the street. The 1800s saw the creation of butterscotch, Kendal mint cake, Turkish delight, and sherbet, and after the arrival of the Dairy Milk bar in 1905, the game was on to develop mass-market British confections for a hungry public.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, British chocolate companies like Cadbury, Rowntree’s and Mackintosh grew with a wave of confectionery innovation, when our most popular products originated: Aero, Smarties, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Black Magic, Dairy Box, Rollo, Fox’s glacier mints. By the 1970s consumers had established an even deeper relationship with brands and their marketing – remember the Cadbury’s Flake girl and the James Bond like Milk Tray man?

Sweetshops remind us of what it was like as children, they transport us back to a particular moment in our life, when we used to ride our bikes and catch frogs and girls were great because they were rubbish at hide and seek. It’s pure indulgence of nostalgia that takes us into these confectionery emporiums.

So what are the ‘nostalgic innovation’ lessons for your business from the retro experience of cherry lips, fling saucers, rhubarb and custard, and strawberry laces? – and note how the pick ‘n mix has become click ‘n mix, as the high street outlets have online shops too. Do you capitalise on what is familiar, giving it a slightly new twist to appeal to an existing audience? Or do you take the risk of being something completely different, innovating your business in a new direction of some sort?

There are pros and cons to both approaches. Let’s say that you are opening a new restaurant, for instance. If you take the former route, you would take some time-honoured recipes, give them a twist, and do your best to live up to those old expectations. You want to make that classic dish better than anyone else, but there is a distinct possibility that you’ll just get lost in the crowd of everyone else making the same dish.

On the flip side, if you take the latter route, you’ll come up with brand new recipes that are unlike anything that anyone else offers. You may attract that initial novelty factor from a new clientele, but will you be able to retain them in the long term? More importantly, will they like your new and fresh approach at all, and then see beyond the novelty factor to become regular customers?

What do you think? Is it better to capitalise on nostalgia or novelty when it comes to your product offerings? Can you combine them? The car industry has leveraged this in recent years with the relaunch of the Mini, an icon of the 1960s, under the ownership of BMW in 2001 with a redesign but an anchor to its heritage. A brilliant commercial that demonstrated this was the little boy dressed as Darth Vader, when he used ‘the force’ to start his Dad’s Volkswagen. The commercial visualised an unexpected way to use the auto start function of the Jetta that made all of us feel like kids again.

Into my fifth decade now, I find that the past interests me more and more, yet the future preoccupies me as a source of heightened anticipation and possibility too. Increasingly the present seems to have its moments, mainly around the growth and development of my children, but it’s merely a station through which events travel forward. It is well over a decade now since the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a highly digitalised world.

So maybe its all about innovation, and connectivity to nostalgic reminiscences and the ‘good old days’ (when the weather was undoubtedly better) is because of the ever-present past we now live – the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded and indexed automatically, and a journey back so easy at the click of the mouse. There are email trails leading back a decade comprised of many, many thousands of ephemeral traces. Even nostalgia has gone digital.

From a business perspective, thinking back but playing forward, I believe that this ‘nostalgic innovation’ is attractive as a business strategy, because it allows your customers the opportunity to re-engage in a past activity but in new ways and with new rewards and experiences. Because the underlying activities are nostalgic, there is a familiarity that makes them easy to understand, adopt and engage.

This is shown in the advent of social media, where companies can now share their brand with a much wider audience of consumers and members of their product community. Facebook, and Pinterest have taken us back to sharing of photographs and experience, the commercial value of the underlying nostalgia and the connection they provide for marketing is well understood.

While these are technological innovations, they lead the consumer to move beyond the application, offering the cultural linkages that the original activities – photography and scrapbooking – provided. How often do you get the ‘old photographs’ out now, or maybe you’ve scanned them in as digital images? That’s my point.

Taking old activities and using technologies to let people re-engage is a great model for aspiring new companies. Turning your nation into a huge subsidiary of Tescos is not what gives you respect and influence in the world, nor a sense of dignity and value in your society, so we do need rabid innovation to invigorate our future, even if it is inevitable that many of the ‘next-big things’ of the past will become little else but memories as they are eclipsed by their younger, sleeker iterations.

Given the speed of innovation, there’s a very good chance that many of the devices and cultural hallmarks that we’ve grown up with in the last decade will be extinct before the next generation of digital natives knew they ever existed. Even recent technology is generating nostalgia – the brown plastic tape of a cassette getting chewed up, going to Boots to collect physical prints of photographs, handling my first CD and the sound of a modem connecting – are my experiences that my children will never know.

Privacy, not having a mobile phone, and not knowing exactly what all of your friends are doing and thinking at every moment seems unfathomable to my 17 year-old daughter, as does my affection for Kraftwerk, although she will always accompany me into the sweet shop hoping for a Willy Wonka golden ticket. For me, the past is only the future with the lights on, and reality leaves a lot to the imagination if you’re looking forward. William Faulkner said Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Never look back, you only find what you left or let go, and don’t look back in anger I hear you say, not least today.