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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

Podcasting from the factory floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m all lost in the supermarket: empowering customers through self-service technology

We all expect a ‘smooth and simple’ digital experience, including fast authentication and log-in, as well as seamless web and mobile interactivity. However, despite the focus on user convenience and simplicity, we do not always enjoy the ‘self- service’ process, wrangling with cumbersome digital-authentication requirements or leaving stuff in our virtual baskets.

Online is about speed, convenience, simplicity and saving time, removing friction with intelligent use of technology­­ to build credibility and trust with a brand. As organisations expand their digital based services, the need for an optimal customer experience within all aspects of the customer journey will only grow.

You can see this everywhere with the emphasis on self-service – from tax returns, self check-in at the airport, mobile banking and pay-at-pump petrol. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct before you go to Boots for paracetamol, but be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion. Then of course, there is the self-service supermarket, scan-and-pay.

On Saturday I ventured into the socially-distanced experience at my local supermarket. Having completed my shopping, and remembering to bring my own carrier bags, I was presented with a checkout choice: go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast-moving conveyor belt faster than you can catch it, or go solo and DIY with the self-service scanner.

For me personally, for the most part I like to interact and make conversation with the checkout operators, passing the time of day when I’m making my purchase. It just brings a sense of normality to the shopping experience, chatting whilst bagging whilst putting the world to rights. It’s oddly, therapeutic. But there were queues, so Checkout Number 4 please. Let’s go self-service. Here’s my digital experience.

I open my plastic carrier bag, clip the handles on the metal fingers, smooth it out so stuff goes in more easily. Unexpected item in bagging area. What? A carrier bag in the bagging area! Wait for assistant to approach with barcode crib sheet, which she scans to acknowledge the alarm. Scan product: brought own carrier bag. So far, so good. Scan first product. Alarm goes off: approval needed in a stentorian tone.

Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge I’m old enough to buy bottle of Pinot Grigio. Put wine in bag. Loose items: Please look up item: Ok, I have parsnip, does ‘P’ in vegetables. It’s there, Blip. In the bag. No alarm. Clenched fist. Get in.

Scan box of paracetamol. Alarm goes off: approval needed. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge (again) that I’m old enough to buy this item, just in case I got younger since last time. But she’s busy helping another innocent victim on the adjacent self-service lottery till. Get bored of waiting: ask another assistant to help. Sorry I don’t have authorisation. She scurries off.

Wait while the flustered assistant waves her all-powerful barcode card. She stares at me like I’m part of the zombie apocalypse. Shake head. Scan bread, yellow label, reduced price. Wrong price appears. Barcode blindness. Wait for assistant to figure out how to get the right price up. She can’t. Wait for supervisor to approach and stab screen impatiently. Repeatedly swiping, running the risk of repetitive strain injury. I tell her to cancel the item instead. I’ll go without bread; it’s tainted anyway with the stench of technological and human ineptitude.

It’s all about barcodes. No code – no can do. You might recognise the item as a melon and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word ‘melon’ on a sticker on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a barcode it might as well be an alien spacecraft (by the way, special offer: 2 for £99 million right now until next Sunday).

The man next to me seemed to have a sneaky system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound. A certain amount of trust is after all, involved already. When I confessed to having bought loose bananas, the screen asked me how many, and I duly entered nine, the correct number. I could so easily have halved it and put four and a half: nobody checked.

Trolley empty, just one final hurdle, alone again with the nemesis machine. It taunts me until I figure out which of the flashing orifices accept debit cards. A right palaver of paying. Get the hell out of the store and swear never to use the machines. Driving away, unexpected item in the bagging area is echoing in my head. Need some music therapy from my Apple Music: select I’m all lost in the supermarket, The Clash, to serenade me home. Sing Michael, sing.

During lockdown home food delivery via online portals became a popular alternative self-service from the supermarkets. It’s a paradigm shift enabling personal choice in the mass market, from one-size-fits-all to mass markets of one, where technology enables scaling to creating customer-unique, personalised value through mass customisation.

In some settings self-service works. The pre-paid Oyster cards have served travellers well on London Underground, enabling large numbers of passengers to pay and travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. Before long, perhaps, the Pinot Grigio glitch will be overcome by fitting the machines with biometric facial recognition that can tell by the number of wrinkles on your face or the world-weary look in your eyes, that you are of alcohol-buying age, are a regular purchaser of alcohol too – back again and in need of a drink!

Welcome to the age of DIY. ATMs were the first self-service machines introduced into the UK in 1967. They are the best example of a self-service technology that is well established, but the term ‘self-service’ originated some time ago, in 1917: Clarence Saunders received a US patent for a ‘self-serving store.’ Rather than compiling a list of goods for a clerk to retrieve, customers in Saunders’ store walked around the shop, collected the items they wanted to buy, and presented them to a cashier before leaving. Saunders licensed this brand-new concept to independent grocery stores with an interesting brand name: Piggly Wiggly.

But despite my experience at the check-out, we now consider it second nature to use self-service via a smartphone or an app, where digital self-service tools deliver a better engagement and highly personalised customer experience. Similarly, chat bots are used to deliver virtual customer service, deployed to deliver a more experiential approach to customer service at scale.

For startups, the message is clear: your product strategy has to include self-service elements, adopting software application development that can understand the language patterns being expressed by users. What’s needed is an intelligent self-service capability that enables you to build a truly scalable digital support capability, tapping into the systems and data in place, and then unifying the digital support experience.

The trend is clear: for every startup business, the need to give customers the best customer service experience is a key to achieving customer success, so how can self-service technology can boost startup growth? Here are some thoughts on the key elements:

Reach users where they are in the product The best digital support reaches customers where they are in the product itself, when they need it, and in the context of what they are doing. By deploying intelligent self-service within the application, customer adoption and usage of the product increases, as they don’t have to leave to find answers elsewhere. You maintain control over the experience they have, while gaining detailed insights that ultimately help you deliver a better product.

Provide recommendations to drive adoption and engagement Self-service leaders have more data, but it needs to be put to work to inform every interaction. Machine learning can leverage that knowledge at scale and proactively suggest ‘next best’ support content or training resources to guide users along their self-service journey. Recommending the right content drives customer adoption and engagement, as well as potential upsell.

Create a single source of truth Provide a single source of truth for your users wherever they go to find information on your platform. This includes intelligently unifying access to all relevant resources that help a customer with their task-at-hand, through FAQs, an up to date knowledge base, ‘how-to videos?’, tutorials, screenshots or community discussion board.

Deploy dynamic personalised self-service features  Keeping customers engaged requires a rich and dynamic user experience, and a self-service functionality with smart search suggestions, dynamic options for filtering results, while allowing for quick views and rich content is key. Also users expect you to leverage everything you know about them to provide personalised experiences based on their profile, search and browsing behaviours. You can then use the insights gathered to intelligently adapt the experience you provide. Customers are demanding. They want answers fast.

Optimise self-service for mobile users User’s expectations are such that you have to enable them to get things done conveniently and with simplicity from their comfort zone – and that is predominantly via a smartphone. Setting up a responsive mobile app for your site or brand is one of the best self-service strategies you can employ to ensure strong user engagement.

As users increasingly develop DIY mindset, they will choose providers that allow them to interact easily with consumer-controlled touchpoints. Since users won’t be able to keep up with the level of self-service required to manage their digital lives, they will delegate to their own bots to manage it for them. The customer self-service of the future is not just about the customers themselves, but both customers and their bots.

This means a startup has to embrace the user not just from a product-solution fit perspective, with unique elements in the value proposition, but moving from focusing on market share and marketing to the mass market, to cultivating personalised relationships with each customer and connecting on an individual basis based on experience, creating customer intimacy at scale.

Was my dysfunctional self-service checkout experience building any semblance of customer intimacy? Too many glitches, too many unexpected items in the bagging area exceptions for it to offer a smooth and simple experience. If many shoppers like me need help when using self-service checkouts, retailers need to be looking at the technology and the user engagement, experience and satisfaction. If so many people need help, it’s not helpful.

I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I’m tuned into the three for two offers, and save coupons from packets of tea as Mick Jones sang. Technology, it’s progress, right? For me, I left my soul somewhere between the aubergines and the pre-packed salads as fear of those tills is greater than the daleks created when I was aged seven.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in entrepreneurship from Thomas Telford

For thousands of years the only way to cross the Menai Strait to Anglesey from the North Wales mainland was to walk it at low tide, a perilous experience at the best of times, or to make an equally hazardous ferry crossing. But on January 30 1826, as bands played and locals waved flags and cheered, the Menai Suspension Bridge formally opened, the world’s first modern suspension bridge.

Last Saturday, August 10, marked the two hundredth anniversary of when work had begun building the iconic bridge in 1819, led by Thomas Telford. He had been given the task of improving the London to Dublin journey via the Holyhead road, a route that became the A5. Completing the bridge shaved nine hours on the London to Holyhead journey, and was immeasurably safer.

Because of the high banks and fast flowing waters of the Strait, it would have been difficult to build piers on the shifting sands of the seabed, and they would have obstructed navigation. Also, the bridge had to be high enough to allow the passage of the tall ships of the day. In view of this, Telford proposed that a suspension bridge should be built.

Construction of the bridge began with the towers either side of the Strait. Made from limestone quarried at nearby Penmon, they were brought by barge to the site. The towers were of hollow construction, reinforced with metal girders and stanchions inside. The problem of spanning the 600ft Straits was solved by creating sixteen giant chain cables made from iron, each of them weighing 121 tons.

The cables were strung from the towers across the water in huge loops. In order to stop them rusting, the cables were soaked in linseed oil and then painted. The stonework on the towers was finished in 1824, five years after it had begun. Stringing the giant cables took a further two years. The magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge was called the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car.

I was about eight years old when I first stood on the bridge where Telford once stood. It was my grandfather, Sydney Brookes, born on Anglesey, who taught me to love the bridge, with it’s industrial history, that produced such a magical sight. This was to be my first encounter with the Scottish stonemason-architect-engineer-entrepreneur, Thomas Telford, and his achievements have stood out in my mind since.

Telford is a role model for any modern day innovator and pioneer, designing and building an enormous chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain, revered by engineers and industrial archaeologists alike. Born at Glendinning, Eskdale, Scotland in 1757, his father John was a shepherd and died in November the same year. He received elementary education at the local school and also helped out with various jobs around the area. He was known locally as ‘Laughing Tam’.

Aged fourteen he was apprenticed to a stone mason, and examples of his work can still be seen in Langholm and Westerkirk areas today. In 1780 he moved to Edinburgh and worked around Princes Street. In 1782 he travelled to London and gained promotion to a first class mason. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard as a supervisor, where he developed his design and project management skills.

In 1815 he was commissioned to improve the route from London to Holyhead, which included major works such as Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed, Nant Ffrancon pass in Snowdonia, and the Menai Bridge. The commission was extended to include the Bangor to Chester road, which involved the headland roads and tunnels at a Penmaenmawr and Penmaenbach, the embankment crossing the Conwy estuary and the Conwy Suspension bridge. The whole commission was completed in 1826.

He constructed the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte, which carries the Llangollen canal across the Dee Valley in a long iron trough. The aqueduct opened only a few weeks after the battle of Trafalgar, with a flag-flying ceremony that echoed the mood of a nation that was being melded together by industrialisation and military victories. Telford was in the vanguard of this movement, building things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom.

Telford grew from a poor shepherd boy from the Borders to become a self-made man and an audacious visionary. In his seventy seven years, the iron-willed Telford worked on many ambitious projects, including ninety-three large bridges and aqueducts. He cut the great waterway, the Caledonian Canal, from sea to sea across the top of Scotland. He constructed more than a dozen road schemes in England and Wales.

He was the architect of over thirty churches in Scotland, worked on water works, improved river navigation and devised drainage schemes. Towards the end of his life he surveyed early railway routes, and died in 1834 just as railways were spreading across the country.

Telford shaped the lives of the Victorian civil engineers who followed him and led the Royal Institution which still guides the engineering profession. Almost everything he built is still in use. An intensely private man, Telford never married or had children, but he was an amateur poet who sent his verses to Robert Burns, a contemporary. He was also a friend and travelling companion of the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who came up with his soubriquet – Colossus of Roads.

He was always on the move, hugely energetic, a man in a hurry to get things done. He wasn’t an inventor, but he was brilliant at seeing possibilities in a project, then finding the right people. One of the joys of his work is that pretty much everything he built was beautifully designed and architected, not simply functional. People cared about the beauty of structures then in a way they don’t now – Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about one of his iron bridges.

Telford advanced the art of building in iron, with many of his bridges remaining in use today. He is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, known as the man who joined up the kingdom, not only as an engineer, but as an entrepreneur who could take risks, who knew about design, financing, business, and the importance of teamwork to evolve superior engineering feats at a rapid pace.

So as we admire his finest legacy spanning the Menai Strait some two hundred years after the first block went in place, what can we take from the heritage and spirit of endeavour from Thomas Telford, into our C21st entrepreneurial ventures?

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Telford was that no matter what the obstacle was, he never gave up. Telford was exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Telford had a clear vision of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desired. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Telford targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and had no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Telford’s enormous ambition -to do what everyone said couldn’t be done – far exceeded the vision of everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aimed for breakthroughs and the big picture every time. He brought revolutionary thinking into engineering advancement.

Work on the ground level Telford possessed the ability to think at the system level of design. He knew exactly what he wanted and sat with his team, he was the connection between the vision and engineers’ interest. Telford seemed to be a taskmaster but his attitude set the culture of the team and project. He believed in getting his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. This pragmatic style of leadership never goes amiss in a startup.

Belief in self-analysis Telford believed in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He thought that people did not think critically enough – and it is one of the reasons for startup failure, founders often take too many things for granted without enough basis in their business model and market assumptions. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a potentially bad solution.

Being a competent engineer requires you to solve complex problems and navigate around difficult situations when they arise, a useful skill for any entrepreneur. There is little structure and lots of complexity in engineering projects that you need to navigate daily, as someone who is running a start up. You have to assess risks and challenges wisely, and pivot when required.

For both engineers and entrepreneurs, reflection and self-conscious analysis are essential. Both need to examine their projects to prototype better solutions, make changes quickly and persevere even if challenges seem great.

Problem Solving skills Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many entrepreneurs started their companies in a garage – from Apple, Amazon to Harley-Davidson. For many, the idea of a garage is synonymous with tinkering, and you can imagine Telford working through different versions of his thinking – given many of his engineering feats were ‘firsts’ in terms of design and solution

Analysing a problem from a “What if… then” point of view allows a startup founder to face a challenge with an open mind and to reach an educated solution. If the solution is not met, the experiment is not a failure; it is simply restarted.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Not a phrase around at the time of Telford, but it’s a phrase that captures the inspirational work of Elon Musk, and it applies to Telford. Part of Telford’s ability to motivate his team to do great things was his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drove each of his engineering ventures. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every project Telford completed was focused on his vision and backed by a Master Plan. Have a vision, make it happen.

Musk says I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.

This is the ideology of Telford, and though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built amazing operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve, or indeed Telford delivered.

Telford was Britain’s greatest civil engineer, who can take the credit for much of the industrial revolution’s sublime architecture. His achievements were truly remarkable. Throughout his life he remained a peripatetic bachelor, hurrying from one job to the next, writing instructions and plans from country inns by candlelight.

The roads and bridges he built carried fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, built the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to new lives in North America: all of them were his.

Telford had the entrepreneurial spark. He was more than just ideas and allure. Telford was a rare business leader who was interested in mankind as a whole and wanted to explore how engineering could change the world he lived in. The Menai Suspension Bridge is a remarkable testimony to this spirit, and his entrepreneurial endeavours.

Take a giant leap for your startup

On July 20, 1969, the world slowed down to watch a key moment in human history. Dinners went cold, families stayed up late, staring at their television sets. After a journey of eight days, three hours, eighteen minutes, thirty-five seconds Neil Armstrong walked a few steps down a ladder and placed his boot in the fine light-gray moon dust, followed by Buzz Aldrin. We were all standing there with them.

President Kennedy’s vision for putting a man on the moon stretched the best minds in aerospace to their limits and necessitating new ways of thinking and working – everything a startup needs to do.

It was incredible innovation, but it was also intimate. The Lunar Module was small – the two astronauts had 4.7m3 of pressurised volume between them, roughly twice the volume of a red telephone box. A tiny world, but a fully functioning spacecraft like none before it. Everything else on Apollo had been tried out at a smaller scale, but there had never been anything like the Lunar Module, designed to come down to land by its commander’s hand and eye in a place where nothing had landed before.

Humans going into space, the prospect of an unprecedented experience. Their hearts are beating fast. They see the moon surface in contours, pocked surface, hard-to-judge distances and near horizons, which gives them the ‘Earthrise’ view of Earth.

At the critical moment, Aldrin got a klaxon ringing in his earpiece. The console responded with error code 1202. Despite months of simulations, Aldrin didn’t know what this one meant; Armstrong, equally baffled, radioed Mission Control for clarification. The stress in his voice was audible. In that critical moment, hurtling like a paper plane toward the surface of the moon, the guidance computer had crashed.

The two men had trained for a computer error scenario, but it was up to Houston to make the call. When Mission Control heard Armstrong’s tense request for information, a well-rehearsed sequence of events played out. The scenario was a go – because below a 100 feet altitude an abort was no longer possible. Armstrong would be forced to attempt a landing even if his computer was malfunctioning.

He had little margin for error. On a hard crash landing, the astronauts might be killed; on a not-so-hard crash landing, the astronauts might survive, only to be stranded on the moon. In this nightmare scenario, Mission Control would bid Armstrong and Aldrin farewell, then cut communication as the two prepared to asphyxiate. Michael Collins, in the command module, would make the long journey back to Earth alone.

Imagine pulling the plug on the moon landing. Imagine not pulling the plug, then explaining to a nation and their families why two astronauts had been killed. By the time Houston relayed the message to Armstrong, almost 30 seconds had passed.

Armstrong resumed assessing the course to the landing area, from spending hours studying surface photographs, committing landmarks to memory. He’d noticed earlier that his trajectory was a little long, but before he could fully react, Aldrin queried the computer for altitude data. As before, he was answered by an alarm. The computer crashed again.

Back at Mission Control, was Don Eyles, 26 years old, who had programmed the software for the final descent. The first restart had alarmed Eyles. The second terrified him. This was not just a glitch but a crash. Eyles was out of the command loop, but he knew how the computer worked better than anyone. What Eyles deduced in that terrifying moment he would not reveal publicly for years to come: this scenario was not a go. It was an abort.

The console displayed nothing, just blank. Armstrong’s heart began to race, rising to 150 bpm, the same as a man at the end of a 100m sprint. With the moonscape zipping by outside his window, he was the closest any human had ever been to another world.

There were five computer crashes in four minutes. Mission Control went quiet, there was nothing useful left for them to say. Armstrong, following protocol, assumed manual control. He was going to have to eyeball it, piloting a malfunctioning spacecraft on an alien world.

He slowed the forward momentum, then rotated the legs toward the surface. Aldrin read aloud a steady stream of figures. With almost no fuel to spare, the Lunar Module dropped in slow motion to kiss the surface upright, and the particles of moondust hung suspended in the sunlight until the gentle lunar gravity pulled them back to rest.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, including a rest period of seven hours sleep. They blasted off back home, knocking over the American flag they had planted. They reunited with Collins, then three days later, splashed down in the Pacific.

Now, half a century after Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon, a new era of space exploration is beginning. Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will range from the big business of launching and maintaining swarms of communication satellites in low orbit to the niche one of tourism for the wealthy.

Back in 1969, I was there. I saw Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind in grainy black and white images on the television screen. I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for ‘Accountancy’ roles. I never got to ‘Astronaut’. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated Apollo seat.

Landing on the Moon is, for me, mankind’s greatest entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the anniversary of this extraordinary achievement for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

President John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon. To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic.

2. Have a sense of purpose

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases – Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down from the big vision into small steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

On descent to the moon, the Lunar Module’s computer died, threatening the landing sequence. Likely crash at an alarming velocity, Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If they hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go – Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

Without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risk, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a small founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required aligning the entire team with set priorities. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone assumes the same priorities. Create a communications plan, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do things, and were expected to go find out how to do it – Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience may seem counterintuitive, but NASA actively encouraged this – the average age of the Operations team was 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity to grow.

7. Keep asking questions

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your model, not one-time events, it is crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into this. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you – Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit.

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team.

Armstrong dared to dream. Life has its its twists and turns – he was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life for a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive. Now whether you’ve launched a brick-and-mortar startup or mobile app, taking an idea into a product is a miraculous one. Fifty years on we’re reminded of the legacy left behind.

Armstrong had the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit: We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise 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.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said poet T.S. Eliot, capturing everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that makes them true entrepreneurs. What a giant leap for mankind they made. Now go and make a giant leap for your startup.

George Mallory’s entrepreneurial motivation: because it’s there

A photo captured last week by Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja Magar showed a near continuous line of hundreds of climbers bottlenecked on the summit ridge of Everest, all trying to take advantage of a narrow window of good weather, tantalizingly close to the top of the world.

The 2019 climbing season on Mount Everest, which just came to an end, was a record setter, more climbers summited (825) than ever before, but it was also notable in a grimmer regard: at least eleven climbers died, the most in four years. Nirmal’s image went viral, sparking a debate about whether the high number of casualties was due to too many climbers.

Eleven fatalities is far from a record, but previous years’ high death tolls can be attributed to unforeseeable accidents, like the 2014 avalanche that killed sixteen climbers, or the 2015 avalanche that killed nineteen. This year, only two fatalities can be attributed to falls; the rest have been reported as edema, exposure and exhaustion, suggesting that too many climbers are spending too much time near the summit, a place where strength and mental faculties quickly fade, leaving too few resources for the dangerous trip down.

It’s less the climbing than the altitude, climbers are not climbing beyond their ability but instead beyond their altitude ability. Unfortunately it is difficult to get experience of what it is like climbing above Camp 3 (8,300m) without climbing Everest. Climbers invariably do not know what their ability above 8,300m is going to be like. In Everest’s ‘death zone’ above 8,000m, the lack of oxygen can cause high-altitude pulmonary edema, in which fluid floods the lungs, or high-altitude cerebral edema, which causes the brain to swell, even leading to high-altitude psychosis.

But to put things in perspective, the risk of death on Everest can be overstated. The death rate of those who climb above Base Camp is less than 1%.

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. It’s the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, with the ultimate panoramic horizon. 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.

Mount Everest was first recorded in the Atlas of the Whole Imperial Territory as Qomolangma, its traditional Tibetan name, in 1719. It was discovered to be the world’s tallest mountain in 1856 and named after George Everest, head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

It was in 1924 that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine got near – or perhaps reached – the summit on a third attempt, but never make it back down. Mallory’s body was found at 27,000 feet in 1999. It then wasn’t until 1953 when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary reached the summit to officially claim the recognition of first to conquer the peak.

My fascination with the mountain and Mallory began when 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.

I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni and Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.

I started to read The Fight for Everest. 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 40 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. 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.

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.

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. These have often been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

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.

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.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. 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 entrepreneurial ambition and the attitude to succeed. He had focus and clarity on his goals, and 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.

Sometimes if you haven’t got your head up from the startup grind for a while, 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. Do stuff because it matters, for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it made a difference. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.

Don’t get lost in startup life’s busy shuffle and the noise. Remember those three words: Because It’s There, the drivers of George Mallory, possibly the first man to reach the summit of Everest. 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’. Make it count, where it matters, for yourself.

The myopic thinking of 110% effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to weather the perfect storm facing your startup

Despite what you may read as prevailing headlines, running a startup is not all balmy sunny days and clear blue skies. In fact, founder entrepreneurs will tell you it is frequently stormy, a struggle with minimal hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and financial instability. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the sturm und drang that may wash over them.

A confluence of unforeseen challenges may create uncertainty around you – not enough customers, cash flow, product instability, hiring gaps – it’s enough to make you feel all at sea. The challenge facing many startup founders is not unlike that described in the Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm.

Junger’s book chronicled the storm that claimed the lives of six fishermen and the captain of the Andrea Gail. The storm left a trail of destruction from Nova Scotia to Florida, killing 13 people and causing $500m damage as it lashed the coast.

In late September of 1991, the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail departed the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts with six men aboard, for a month-long fishing trip. The Andrea Gail was a 12-year-old, 70-foot vessel, scheduled to return to port after a sword fishing trip to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, more than 900 miles off shore.

In late October, a powerful storm began to build in the North Atlantic, a storm that came to be known as The Storm of the Century by those in its path, and simply, The Perfect Storm by meteorologists, who watched it come together.

Unknown to Captain Billy Tyne and his crew, one of the rarest meteorological events of the century was developing. Three separate weather systems were on a perfectly aligned collision course. A Great Lakes storm system (moving east), a Canadian cold front (moving south) and Hurricane Grace (moving northeast) were all headed for the North Atlantic. They would eventually meet where the Andrea Gail was located.

After Andrea Gail endured various problems, the crew struggled to sail through pounding waves and shrieking winds. The vessel encountered an enormous rogue wave. They attempted to drive the boat over the wave but it crests before it can get to the top and the boat is overturned. The Andrea Gail and her crew were never heard from again.

Junger describes what it is like to be helpless in the grip of nature. All of the fishermen know the danger, they have lived alongside the sea long enough to know they may not come back, that once in the grip of such a storm, they can only hold on and hope. Junger’s book becomes an elegy for all those lost at sea.

George Clooney plays the role of Captain Billy Tyne in the film version of Junger’s book a grizzled, jumper-wearing fisherman, who loves fishing so much, the playful acquaintance with the gulls, the ‘throwing a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid’ as he enjoys the freedom of the ocean, shouting inaudibly into the driving wind and rain. In drenched and windswept stories like The Perfect Storm, the forces of the sea complicate and intensify human dramas and human conflict as the Beaufort scale cranks upwards.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, how skilled your team is, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or spread capital too thin, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best clients. Crises like these are individually preventable – you could have foreseen them and worked to avoid them – but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your business on the line. So how you should you respond to such setbacks, especially when a few come together in a Perfect Storm?

Don’t let pain stand in the way of progress There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. Pain is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.

Own your outcomes Don’t blame bad outcomes on anyone but yourself. Whatever circumstances brings you, you will be more likely to succeed if you take responsibility for making your decisions instead of complaining about things beyond your control.

Be radically open-minded The two biggest barriers to good decision-making are your ego and your blind spots. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions by getting most out of others. Both prevent you from seeing things accurately, and understanding things.

See the world through other’s lens Rather than thinking that you’re right, think about how do you know that you’re right? Recognise that to gain the perspective that comes from seeing things through another eye’s, you must suspend your own judgment for a time, and evaluate another point of view. Remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

There are many industries currently facing the disruption of their own Perfect Storm – take automotive for example, a backlash against diesel and carbon dioxide emissions, slumping demand from China, and uncertainty of trade tariffs post Brexit – plus the seismic shift to autonomous and electric cars.

Disruption is now such a familiar term, it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Yet its ubiquity reflects the perfect storm of revolutions – geographic, demographic and technological – that are rewriting the rules of business everywhere dramatically.

You have to deal with a new reality, where the new normal is no normal, where everything is volatile – your business model, the tastes of customers, the calibre of the competition. A startup founder’s perfect storm reveals a serendipitous union of illogical and uncontrollable events that result in the worst of times to test you to the limit.

By definition, a perfect storm is a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors. This type of situation is latent to the very essence of entrepreneurship because where risk is plentiful, volatility can soon follow. So, what are the practical things you can to in your startup business environment to ster through such turbulence?

Team unity: make the team not individuals the focus. In times of turbulence, create an environment where all members of the team feel they are essential, that each has a key role to play. There are no individual superstars with a special place.

Prepare, prepare, prepare: remove all excuses. Winning teams set out to ensure that every element of their business model is known to all and is functioning to the best of their combined ability. Make sure no one has an excuse for failure. That means preparing for things that could go wrong, as well as driving things efficiently that go right.

Balanced optimism: find and focus on the winning scenario. Startups will inevitably encounter setbacks, and need to pivot. The first step is to define ‘success’ – is it more customers, more revenue, more product? Of course, all of these are vital, but everyone needs to prioritise during a crisis.

Relentless learning: build a robust culture of leaning and innovation. The best startup teams learn quickly from experience. That means they take action, reflect on outcomes, and gain insights that help them continuously improve. Innovation and new ideas are the norm, even in times of uncertainty.

Calculated risk: be willing to sail into the storm. Every startup is a big risk, and there is no quick path to success. Winning requires situational awareness, always understanding the critical success factors, and working to stay aware and ahead of current realities around you.

Stay connected: cut through the noise of the wind and the waves. The information blizzard today is just as noisy as the storm outside. Don’t let it cloud your decision making, ensure you have your compass, North Star plotted and your defined dashboard of key metrics.

Step into the breach: find ways to share the helm. In adversity, any team member can be faced with a burden too heavy for one person to carry. A good team draws on each other’s strengths, and shares the load. One captain but every one is a leader in a crisis. Keep an eye out for each other, be supportive.

Eliminate people friction: deal with the things that slow you down. Fix the problem, don’t linger. Confront differences in ability without blame, add coaching; alleviate anxiety and mitigate conflict; provide time to talk about the crisis.

It is the perfect storm of entrepreneurship, the failures followed by immediate highlights of success, that is an underlying reality. Life’s personal challenges, uncomfortable business learnings, struggles and setbacks. It is the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.

The perfect storm that faces every entrepreneur can be likened to the ‘eye of the storm’, where calm winds exist at the axis of your business and blue skies abound, but nonetheless you are in the midst of severe weather. It can also manifest as a storm, so that it seems impossible to overcome the centripetal force that jostles you recklessly, forcing you into uncomfortable pivots and confusing turning points.

But instead of sticking your head in the sand when storm clouds brew, you need to develop the necessary fortitude, resilience and perseverance to weather the challenges. When the ground rumbles, when the waves swell, and the alarm sounds, resist the temptation to simply watch the waves come in. There are no safe harbours in the daily life of a startup.

Entrepreneurs arrive at this place because like real storms, you can rarely predict the exact time, location, and intensity of your challenges. And when everything appears to be spinning out of control it is essential to see your way clearly, stay the course and move forward.

As an entrepreneur, you need to realise that you can’t win by sailing around the edges of the perfect storm ahead. You have to hit it with an innovative plan, and you need a confident and disciplined team to get you through it. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor says an old English Proverb, and that’s true for entrepreneurs too.