Entrepreneurial learning journey: looking backwards to move forwards

I don’t want a holiday in the sun, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. I echo John Lydon’s philosophy when thinking about my holidays and breaks, avoiding those vanity-fuelled sun-worshipping folks slotted by the swimming pool from 8am to 6pm and do-not-move fills my head.

Where to go for Easter? I fancied Mexico, simply from the colour of their shirts and the players’ names in the coming World Cup – Jose de Jesus Corona, the goalkeeper, why weren’t my parents more imaginative? The town of Oaxaca caught my attention, but it was out of season. Were we in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve, it would be the great Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes celebration. Got to be there.

I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. Apart from that, I’m easily pleased. Thailand beckoned from social media pushes, but then I read a piece warning travellers not to take a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The warning was inside the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines – a bit late if you’re on the final approach to Bangkok airport.

But I wanted to avoid the sun. For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon, as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called ‘North-of-England olive’ after two weeks away abroad, but would more accurately be described as ‘Lancashire white’ – not to be confused with the potato of the same name.

However, I gave up and defaulted to my favourite bolt-hole, and we were off. To North Wales. The seabirds calling as the wind carries them overhead, the unmistakable scent of salty water in the air as the tide slowly inches its way up onto the shore. North Wales has everything, a place that inspires, a place that appeals to all the senses – a place to see, hear, taste, smell and feel. It is a place to get away from it all.

My favourite spot, Penmon, is a promontory on the south-east tip of Anglesey. It is the site of a monastery and C12th church. Walls near the well next to the church may be part of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales. Penmon also has a fantastic stony beach and Trwyn Du Lighthouse lies between Black Point, near Penmon and Ynys Seriol, or Puffin Island

We operate in a fast paced life setting, driven by technology. Taking time-off with yourself once in a while will help chalk out your priorities in front of you. It gives you a clearer perspective on how you wish your life and business to pan out, focusing on the right and amending the wrong turns. I’ve always iterated that self-reflection helps you clear out the unnecessary from your mind, encouraging you to focus on the necessary.

We all have a tendency to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. A break brings that back and more. I feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and that’s not been the case for a while. Break time gives you more authentic life rhythm and a focus on things that matter. A friend once described his brain as a washing machine, hurling and tumbling the information that hit him from all directions.

We all face challenges differently. Some internalise stuff and become paralysed, some push on without looking back. Bottom line, there’s a time and place for both an emotional and logical assessment each time you press pause to avoid a stumble. Entrepreneurs should remember that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

The time you take away is an investment in being able to do better work when you’re back, and it’s about asking yourself the right questions. For example, Am I preparing for a better tomorrow? Am I sleeping off the right thoughts? How well am I maintaining my own perspective? How well am I mastering my time? Have I developed an honest philosophy with myself?

Good questions always lead to great answers. So having unpacked and decluttered my mind, and having no access to the Internet, here are my ‘thinking outloud’ takeaway reflections from my Easter break, a stream of random consciousness and musings that I hope give you some insight into my thinking on how to help your own entrepreneurial journey.

1. The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. If you say your priorities are your partner or your kids or your health or learning, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

2. To know what you think, write it down Not having technology and having to write things down myself in a notebook, to let it see light, was the best way for me to clarify what I was actually thinking about during the break. Writing is the painting of the voice said Voltaire. I realised that getting back to writing was the best way to talk without being interrupted.

3. Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity Having to think for myself, with just radio but no Internet access, made me curious. You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did.

4. Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on a break gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, give yourself some space.

5. Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

6. Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

7. Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s book, 168 hours: you have more time than you think from the local charity shop. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

8. You never know where you are on the big wheel You never know what’s coming, you have to have some faith that your moment is coming, but you don’t need to be Speedy Gonzalez all the time. Travel has many joys, luggage is not one of them. Live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we need more awareness and clarity.

9. Sitting idle and doing nothing Sitting idle and doing nothing is often viewed as a bad habit, yet researchers have shown that there are several advantages of ‘doing nothing’. Electrical activity in the brain that seems to set certain sorts of memories is more continuous and frequent amid downtime, offering your brain a reprieve from work without completely surrendering cognizance.

10. Walk the dog three times a day on the beach It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. The best listener has fur and four legs. In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi-human – the point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

I could live like Robinson Crusoe. A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the wood and other incongruous objects washed up by the ocean, all stirred my thinking. For me, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write postcards of notes to self. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.

Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way. The sounds of surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, it opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to think a problem through.

Sometimes our perception of a situation can blind-spot us. Walking whilst thinking and having no other voices other than your own in your head helps to provide perspective on a situation, and assists our brains in properly processing it in a way that fosters a healthy outlook. This allows us to function better and get more done. When you start to think about the things that have caught your eye and are important to your thinking, you gain the ability to start to process them against your own sense of purpose.

Thinking on your own teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude, how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our inner voice and personal experiences, and fully inhabit our inner lives. It translates the inner to the outer. It just goes to prove that the best place for a break, and the cure for anything, is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea – and looking backwards to move forwards.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: equal parts flour, eggs, butter, sugar & perspiration

The Great British Bake Off ended last week with a nail-biting final that proved a triumph for Candice Brown. Mel Giedroyc brought the last bake to a halt by announcing: You can do no more ! You’ve finished! However, the climactic Showstopper Challenge failed to feature the one dessert I craved, namely, a custard pie. Being slammed in Paul Hollywood’s face. What a tart.

The GBBO shows all the traits of any great entrepreneurial endeavour – stepping outside of your comfort zone, being tested time and time again, and having to make spontaneous decisions in a challenging environment. Whilst it’s reality television, the situation created in the bake-off tent reveals many parallels to startup life.

There were three challenges: the Signature Challenge was to make a family-sized meringue crown; the Technical Challenge was to make a Victoria Sandwich, which seemed elementary, and the Showstopper Challenge was a picnic hamper consisting of forty-nine items – sausage rolls, quiche, scones, fruit tarts, and a chocolate cake.

The final was close, with all three bakers in contention as they approached the Showstopper. Andrew Smyth was the boyish aerospace engineer from Ireland with ambitious ideas and ambitious shorts; Jane Beedle was the maternal, traditional contestant, a garden designer with two kids and an interesting haystack hairdo, with which I readily identified.

Finally, Candice Brown, famous/notorious for sending more time fixing her appearance than fixing her ingredients, and as Mary Berry put it, ‘liking to do things over the top.’

The bakers had a mammoth five hours to make twelve puff pastry sausage rolls, twelve mini quiches, twelve savoury scones, twelve fruit and custard tarts, and one plain chocolate cake. Mel and Sue shouted Bake! for one last time. Andrew is so nervous he drops his bowl, but it didn’t shatter.

In the Signature Challenge, Jane made three tiers of meringue – a Pavlova with strawberry and raspberry compote, blueberry compote, and white flesh nectarines. Candice went a little further and made two different meringues. The three layers contain Prosecco-soaked strawberries, mango curd, gold-dusted physalis and glittered pistachios. Then there was a fourth tier inspired by the tiny crown of Queen Victoria.

Andrew somehow managed to stick his pecan praline to the wrong side of the baking paper where it became glued solid. His victory in the Technical Challenge meant he was back in the game, but his Signature Challenge did not turn out well thanks to that cursed pecan praline.

Candice’s Queen Victoria Meringue Crown on the other hand was remarkable. Paul bestows upon her the highest accolade: the Hollywood handshake. Candice squeals in the manner of a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Andrew is like the only kid at Christmas not to get a cracker.

The edginess around the Victoria Sandwich was palpable. A Victoria is all about having exactly the same amount of the ingredients – I should know, my wife bakes World Class Victorias every week – but the contestants were given no measurements. Equal parts flour, butter, sugar, eggs and tears today.

It’s 259 grams of everything asserted Jane. Quite precise. For the jam, her ratio of sugar to raspberries is 50-50. Andrew has only half the quantity of sugar and is following his grandma’s recipe from memory. Candice’s ratio was 350 grams to 150. Who knew jam could be so controversial?

Candice over-cooks her sponge cake, which the judges frown is too dark on the top. Her jam hasn’t set and is really a jelly not a jam and the buttercream is quite grainy. Fussy. Apart from that it’s fine.

The Showstopper is a picnic fit for her Majesty. To produce such an (absurd) array of different food Andrew has a spreadsheet detailing what he should be doing in every five-minute block of the whole five hours. The amount of multi-tasking going on here is mind-blowing, remarks Andrew. If I didn’t have a plan I’d be flapping.

As time passes, Andrew starts flapping, skipping round frantically in his alarming shorts and boyish cheeks getting redder and redder. But Candice nails it. I loved her little piglets, her sausage rolls filled with black pudding, which have peppercorn eyes and a curly tail made of crackling. Aside from that, her bravery by putting rhubarb into her custard tarts is the ball-in-the-back-of-the-net moment for Mary and Candice’s ambitious bakes.

Candice could bake, but raised the stakes with a combination of her technical skills, her artistic flair and her strawberries soaked in Prosecco. In the second week, she wowed with a cake model of her parents’ north London pub. It was authentic in every detail, right down to the sticky (gingerbread) carpet. Over the three-months of competition, cockney Candice became the Eliza Doolittle of the GBBO tent, cheeky and spirited, determined and passionate, showing undoubted entrepreneurial flair.

This was the winning spectacle of ordinary people surprising themselves by doing extraordinary things, with a dash of eccentricity thrown into the mix. It was a humdinger of a Showstopper. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein and James Martin.

For me, to win GBBO you have to be resilient and brave. There’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable. Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and confidence, triggering anxiety.

Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves. By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

As always, there are several lessons we can take into our startup business thinking from observing entrepreneurial endeavour in a non-business environment:

Be clear about your vision, the big picture and the end product Contestants visualise the process and their end product. The same applies to business outcomes. We need to use our imagination to create our vision and 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. The Lean Startup advocates holding the vision but pivoting on the detail, which is a good approach to crafting a forty-nine-piece picnic!

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants have to think through each and every small 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. Having a clear and agile strategy is also key to a startup founder.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with instructions. In a startup, ambiguity or inaccuracy can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful scaling a business.

Customers have different personalities Mary is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. Paul is sometimes sarcastic and quick to criticise, but had 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.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants tried to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Experimentation and testing are good startup business principles, but so is the discipline of an MVP.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency, unplanned events having adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and to respond with a back-up plan to pivot in an agile way is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under pressure and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm and present what is completed with conviction, even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have. The build-measure-learn principles of Lean Startup apply here.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each GBBO episode the challenges have clear goals, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product Contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, 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.

GBBO is a good example of stepping out of your comfort zone as entrepreneurs do everyday. It’s important to push the boundaries. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? 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.

The idea goes back to an experiment in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal but not such that they are destructive.

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 idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the GBBO competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. I call this the learning zone.

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you step up and can deliver amazing results. However, pushing too hard can cause a negative result. I call this the panic zone, where you are unable to think logically with any structure, the box of frogs has opened in your head, your thoughts are jumping everywhere. After this, is the blind panic zone, where you really are uncomfortable, there is no semblance of order, simply a stream of unhelpful random consciousness.

As an entrepreneur, you should operate with optimal anxiety in the learning zone, that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

So ask yourself:

  • Have you identified what the next level of startup success looks like?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Why not create a crisis in your startup to create a learning moment?
  • Are you curious, constantly looking to learn about your customers?

Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil and seasoning, and then hey, the world is our omelette.

Whether you love or loathe GBBO, the tension and the temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Stepping out and becoming comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, pushing and stretching yourself provides new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

Good entrepreneurial habits from the Lean Startup toolkit

The Lean Startup methodology is recognised as a proven strategic management system that combines entrepreneurial principles, innovation development activities and an iterative learning-based process to enable startup ventures to make better decisions about how to create customer value.

The approach has at its heart the philosophy that a startup is an experiment. It is searching through testing hypotheses to create a sustainable business model, managing risk at each stage of the problem-solution design-customer fit journey. This is based on a focus of customer development and putting customers at the heart of a startup’s business model.

It forces the entrepreneur’s thinking to focus on the problem they’re solving, recognising customers are forever in motion, and demands that a startup constantly explores, learns, iterate and adapts to create a value proposition. Lean strategy aims to be what Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, calls a balance between clear leadership and chaos.

Many people tend to fall in love with their ideas and start tunnelling, seeing early stage funding as a validation of an idea or business. People prefer to spend an incredible amount of time building the perfect product instead of getting a quick ‘Not that, but this’ and then finding out how to improve it.

However, the Lean Startup recognises that strategy is a bet on the future, a hypothesis about how the customer landscape is going to evolve . Under these conditions of extreme uncertainty, the Lean Startup provides clarity with its framework and principles and that every statement about the future strategy should be seen as a hypothesis to be tested, not accepted based simply on a hunch.

Creating hypotheses allows us to move away from spending time and effort designing a product in isolation before we reveal it to the customer, and encourages the creation of prototypes and experiments to find out if the customer actually values what we are planning to make. Get out of the building is the call to action, find out what the real problem customers have, and what value they place on a solution.

As Ben Yoskovitz’s says, Lean Startup allows entrepreneurs to move from providing the right answers to asking the right questions (preferably early and often). This underlying narrative also captures economist Keynes’ sentiment of it’s better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong in your business thinking.

It’s more important to learn about what customers value, and improve your value proposition by shaping a MVP, than to ship more stuff early and more efficiently, no matter how tempting that is. The focus is on learning, not revenue. We first need to determine what customers value enough to pay for, before we invest our time into building a business that offers products that might end up on the shelf.

The main point of MVP is that you can start to gather feedback and behavioural data, which provides validated learning. At this point, you’re no longer relying on your subjective hunch and belief, and can proceed to develop those bells and whistles based on the real needs of your customers.

This build-measure-learn feedback loop is another core principle of the Lean Startup approach, identifying key themes and using metrics to guide future decision-making based on developing the MVP. Themes are discovered through customer interviews, user experience testing and analytics.

This enables the entrepreneur to focus on their North Star, guided by the one metric that matters. This one metric approach allows everyone to focus on the same thing, creating freedom for experiment whilst ensuring effort is focused.

The MVP is a thoughtful, structured approach for curating development of a startup’s product, making it fast and releasing it, listening to customers and data, data, data – and adjusting accordingly. It enables a startup founder to make a series of bets, make them quickly, and learn from them.

Whilst entrepreneurs have a free-thinking style, the methodology shapes their actions, providing a focus and a discipline that underpins any methodology. It’s a toolkit that provides a process supporting a sense of direction to follow from a product engineering perspective, and aligns thinking and doing.

I see the Lean Startup as a growth hacking tool, supporting entrepreneurs’ high tolerance for ambiguity and shaping an entrepreneur’s habits. For me, this is one of its unrecognised yet key benefits. In guiding their behaviour, thinking and actions via a roadmap of routines and processes, all of this cultivates an entrepreneur’s habits around iterative and incremental learning.

So, what do I see as the key habits that the application of the Lean Startup supports?

Habit 1: Always looking forward Being a startup innovator is all about being bold and forward thinking, to go beyond simply following current market trends. You need to be a pioneer, always keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, and if anything is a critical part of a good habit set, it’s a willingness to do just that. The Lean Startup provides a framework for evaluating the outcomes of taking chances, supporting innovation and discovery.

Habit 2: Be customer centric Startup success requires an unwavering commitment to the customer. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers’ wants and needs provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Focus away from profit as the purpose of your startup, focus on finding, winning and keeping customers. This is the core of the Lean Startup approach.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be decisive. From product feature to customer conversations, waffling with indecision won’t work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your velocity and direction of progress. The Lean Startup provides metrics to help guide you – flagging where you can trust your judgement but combining gut instinct with facts along the way.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy the crowd or ‘hot’ the opportunity – is a recipe for mediocrity. Remarkably successful people habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition based on a hunch. The Lean Startup enables an entrepreneur to turn their instinct of opportunity into hypothesis, and provides a framework to test them.

Habit 5: Always be selling I once asked a number of startup founders to name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think selling’. Selling isn’t manipulating, pressuring, or cajoling, but convincing other people to talk with you, and then work with you, to build long-term relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to communicate. Get out of the building is the Lean Startup call to action, and an essential habit for startup success.

Habit 6: Start at the end The Lean Startup is based on an entrepreneur’s vision, and then supports a disciplined planning approach to lay out every step along the way to make it happen. Never start small where goals are concerned, the habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth. Make visioning a habit to be supported by disciplined execution.

Habit 7: Make small bets and pivot There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Using the habit of pivoting allows a startup to respond to circumstance to change course and act. The habit of pivoting allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty.

Habit 8: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures – that’s a lot – but he learned from each one – that’s how I came up with the solution he said. If you want to create something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. Validated learning embraces failure as an entrepreneurial experience, from which we can pivot to the next iteration.

Habit 9: Look for 80/20 outcomes There’s a strange phenomenon in life that almost always holds true: if you examine your life, you’ll often see that only 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. If you want to quadruple your productivity, focus on the 20% first, and if you can, cut the other 80% that just makes you busy. The Lean Startup has its roots in the Lean philosophy, so make sure lean thinking is a core habit.

Habit 10: Ask ‘Why?’ like a five year-old Entrepreneurs aren’t satisfied with the status quo, they ask ‘Why?’ over and over again, until they get to the bottom of things, rather than accepting the explanation ‘That’s just the way it is’. This relentless inquisitiveness in fact helps entrepreneurs find and fix the 20% wrong that causes 80% of their problems, and the use of hypotheses testing helps them get there. Great entrepreneurs have the habit of curiosity.

Each of the habits detailed above are set in the context of having another good habit – having a passion, a vision and a purpose for your startup endeavours. This ensures your actions are aligned with the intention behind your goal, to avoid being side-tracked along the way. It’s impossible to grow a business when you’re always busy putting out fires, the distractions waste time, money, effort and opportunities to grow.

You need a guiding north star to ensure the critically important decisions don’t get lost by you jumping straight into tactics. Without having a big picture, ‘doing stuff’ is letting the tail wag the dog – you’ll be chasing your startup, not leading it – chasing sales for numbers and not chasing customers for learning, and consequently your business is managing you and not the other way round. This is a bad habit.

We are what we repeatedly do, nothing is stronger than habits. Use the Lean Startup approach to help guide your entrepreneurial flair, and adopt the framework to instil good habits. In doing this, you will live less out of habit and more out of intent.



10 books about Startups to take to a desert island

What’s your favourite holiday? I’m a beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. There’s nothing I’d rather do than live on a desert island someday, it wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a beach hut. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert island, you think of a tropical island, with sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, with music and books, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941, of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC. That letter reached the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest, called a ‘castaway’ during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded.

Plomley’s first castaway was the Viennese entertainer, Vic Oliver. The first piece of music chosen by Vic Oliver, and therefore by any castaway, was Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor. The most popular piece of music requested is Beethoven’s Symphony number 9 in D minor, ‘Ode to Joy’.

Plomley continued to present the programme until his death in May 1985, and was replaced by Michael Parkinson. Parkinson presented the last of his 96 programmes on 13 March 1988, when Sue Lawley became the first female presenter. Over the following 18 years, she interviewed 750 people, leaving in August 2006 and replaced by Kirsty Young, the current presenter.

Plomley originally wanted the sounds of ‘surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds’ to open and close each programme, but it was refused as it lack definition. Instead, By The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates was chosen for the first show and has remained the signature opening and closing theme of the programme since. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island. A listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

The instantly recognisable tune of By the Sleepy Lagoon sounded for the 3000th time in 2014, as Desert Island Discs reached a magnificent milestone, when Royal Navy test pilot Eric Winkle Brown was the landmark guest. The 96-year-old is the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot, holding the record for the highest number of flight-deck landings, and was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier. He also interrogated leading Nazis, including Hermann Goering and plane designers Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel. He was a spritely and entertaining guest.

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music, and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but ordinarily have not had the patience or time to read cover-to-cover. Perhaps on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy going through them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as a spiritual activity that stirs my curiosity. When I read a book I conduct a private conversation with the author with scribbles in the margins by the passages that impress or challenge me. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis I was going to be rescued from my isolation, so I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business idea. So in no particular order, my desert island bookshelf would have these great books:

The Innovators Dilemma: Clayton M. Christensen.Authored by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, this is one of the most respected and useful books for entrepreneurs. His theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ has changed the way we think about innovation, showing how most companies miss out on new waves of innovation.

The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Most new businesses fail, but most of those failures are preventable. The Lean Startup is a new approach that is changing the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before it’s too late.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Steve Blank. When the tech boom began in Silicon Valley in 1978, Steven Blank was on the scene. Although he retired in 1999, Blank had accumulated a wealth of knowledge that he shares in The Four Steps to the Epiphany. It’s a must-read for those launching tech startups, Blank clearly outlined how to organise sales and marketing, discover product flaws and test assumptions.

Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

The Startup of You: Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha. Co-written by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, this book gives entrepreneurial hopefuls advice on how to thrive in the fast-paced and changing networked world. The most important lesson from Hoffman and Casnocha, however, is how to take control of yourself to make the most out of your life, career and business.

The Art of the Start: Guy Kawasaki. The one question to ask yourself before starting a venture is: Do I want to make meaning? The two questions that should underlie your business model: Who has your money in their pockets, and how are you going to get it into your pocket? Few books about startups are this clear.

Blue Ocean Strategy: Renée Mauborgne & W. Chan Kim. How to make your own market space and make the competition irrelevant? The authors argue that cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool. The authors argue that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating ‘blue oceans’ – untapped new market spaces ripe for growth. A landmark work that upends traditional thinking about strategy.

Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder. This is the first book that allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your bookshelf.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEO face in the ‘Build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve rad, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Steve Blank. Volume One of Steve Blank s collected blog posts, features war stories and lessons from 20 years in Silicon Valley startups, how to build a successful Customer Development model, and practical advice on creating a successful venture capital pitch. Includes thoughtful ideas on balancing family and career, it’s a personal look at the life and times of a Silicon Valley veteran.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered in these books from these practitioners, can you learn the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur? How do entrepreneurs learn? Does entrepreneurial learning impact subsequent entrepreneurial know-how?

The practice of entrepreneurial learning is integral to understanding entrepreneurial activity and startup development. This learning is socially embedded and provides the entrepreneur with human and social knowledge resources. With an understanding of the dynamics and nuances of entrepreneurial learning, is there scope to more fully figure out how to develop entrepreneurial competencies, and thus the chances of startup success?

Entrepreneurs learn through doing, in developing and sharing stories of their ventures, and through social interactions within their ambiguous and dynamic environment – which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’ – to create the ideal setting for the delivery and assessment of practice based action learning in the realistic context of the entrepreneurial world.

A central part of entrepreneurial learning is about constructing the ambiguous, uncertain and individualised reality of the entrepreneur. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

We know story-telling is an important practice in making sense of the startup adventure, and in sharing it with others. It is difficult to decouple learning process and content from context, where the context mirrors the equivocal, multi-faceted and multi-directional nature of the challenges encountered by the startup environment.

Furthermore, the evidence from each of the ten books in my list suggests a preference for a continuous entrepreneurial learning processes, consisting of multiple practice learning tasks, rooted in related social learning mechanisms, including peer and reflective learning. These seem to resonate with entrepreneurial learning in real life – let’s remember that not all learning experiences of the entrepreneur are positive, and dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

For many entrepreneurs in the creative sector, a challenge in learning about entrepreneurship can be their difficult relationship with their own entrepreneurial identity. The creative industries are structured such that artists often need to become entrepreneurs to support their creative practice, but some struggle with the tag. There are parallels here with specialist in many technical fields, who may identify more strongly with their specialism than entrepreneurship.

In a series of startup workshops I delivered with a group of artists seeking to set up businesses such as galleries, workshops and their own outlets (online, at events and permanent venues), this reluctance to see themselves as entrepreneurs was evident, particularly in the early days. I noted a pragmatic and a tactical entrepreneurship – pragmatic because they set up businesses to create opportunities to show their work, and tactical as they moved in and out of different formats to best sustain their practice.

None had a burning desire to becoming business owners, but instead saw this as a way of supporting their artistic activity. Of course, in doing that, they had opportunities to learn a great deal from experience about setting up new ventures, but to do so they needed to reflect on their entrepreneurial actions and for that to happen, they needed to see themselves as entrepreneurs.

My biggest takeaways were about the stop-start nature of entrepreneurial learning regarding experimentation and reflection. The reflective process and the learning this supported was enhanced as some of the artists began to develop their entrepreneurial flair and confidence around proposition development, negotiation skills, and customer development, on their way to create a self-sustaining enterprise built around their passion, purpose and skills.

I think I’d enjoy my time on the desert island, reading and thinking about entrepreneurial learning, and taking the lessons from each of the books, although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’