As the tide goes out, don’t be caught swimming naked

I’ve always been a keen swimmer. I remember those early lessons, squeezing into my trunks, a pound for the locker, a rubber wrist tag for the locker key and my weird fitting goggles. To this day I have not mastered the art of goggles – they are either too tight, let water in or foggy. I resign to the fact that they are part of the swimming experience.

In my head, I am an elegant swimmer, gliding gracefully through the water. Until a ten-year old whizzes past me with the grace, speed and poise of a dolphin and the sheer strength of the ancient gods. I wonder why these gods did not endow me with this gift. On good days, I can swim for up to an hour (not that time spent is a barometer for success). This is a long time for my mind to wander, in between worries of drowning or feeling like I could give Phelps a run for his money.

Recently, I’ve met a couple of blokes who are training to swim the English Channel. They are in the sea each morning at 7am as I walk the dog. I admire their commitment and motivation, and marvel at their sheer bloody-mindedness as they get into the water each morning, regardless of the weather, as I stay safely on shore. I am in awe of their tenacity and ambition for their challenge ahead.

All this talk of swimming allows me to introduce the Warren Buffet quote, Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. It’s a very apt idiom for the current business climate for startups. There’s little evidence that Buffet skinny-dipped himself as the motivation for the quote, rather Buffett is referring to the more mundane tendency of companies to overextend when times are good, only to regret their imprudence when the tide eventually (and inevitably) turns.

What he meant by that is when business conditions in general are favourable, most participants look good. Flawed business models/practices temporarily show decent profits. On the other hand, when business conditions worsen, it is much easier to see who truly has a good business model versus who is just getting lucky during the boom times – meaning, you don’t really know how well or how poorly a company is doing until it’s faced with a major challenge.

Well, the tide has just gone out again, and clues to who’s been swimming naked have begun to emerge, as the financial system is about to undergo its first real-life stress test since the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. While the full extent of the damage remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the virus will take a serious long-term toll on global economic activity.

There’s no reason to believe that anything of that magnitude of 2008 is lurking within the financial system today, but the financial plumbing is under pressure. All of this is unfolding after years of low interest rates, which have left the Bank of England with little room to manoeuvre. However, unsettling volatility surges into longer-term opportunities. Long periods of economic calm and growth also create the conditions for violent air pockets, as the economist Hyman Minsky research identifies: the phenomenon of prolonged stability breeds complacency as a precursor to instability. 

During turmoil, differentiation gives way to indiscriminate action, as explained by the market for lemons theory put forward by George Akerlof, and by the work of Nobel Laureates Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz. It becomes very difficult to signal your offering provides more value than others when the context is extremely noisy and volatility is unsettling, so even solid names get treated as ‘lemons’ initially.

There’s lots of talk about coronavirus as a ‘catalysing event’ for startups. For some, COVID-19 may be a jumping-off point that pushes them into an overdue pivot of product, or a much-needed refresh of digital marketing. For others, it will drag them under. So, what are your thoughts, given the challenges you’re facing right now, the tide is certainly out, what are you going to do to ensure you’re not caught out swimming naked in an outgoing tide? Here are some of my thoughts as you prepare to test the water.

1. Swim against the tide: allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind

Cultivate a capacity for reflection, and then as required, changing your mind. We live in a startup culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having a ‘north star’ and being full-on a hot-gas fuelled journey to success. But in reality, you could be working on hunches or insights, still experimenting based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction with customers necessitates.

We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to shape our own version of reality. We can simply be wrong, or kidding ourselves. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, I don’t know, but ultimately, it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right, even if that means changing your mind about a strategic belief, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

2. Pace yourself: build pockets of stillness

Read poetry. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom – the best ideas sometimes come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.

Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most importantly sleep, as besides being a great creative aphrodisiac, also impacts our every waking moment, our social rhythm and our moods. Be as disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of entrepreneurial badge of honour that validates our work ethic. But it really is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

3. Jump into the water: start, even if you are not sure

I have always thought too much and the in the past borne the resultant cost of being paralysed by the noise and not doing anything. I have found many reasons not to swim, many excuses – other things to do, it’s a cold day, I’ll go tomorrow – you get the drift.However, the questions do not go away unfortunately, they are always there in some form or the other. How you respond to them is what matters.

Nothing beats the questions, like starting or doing it. If I need a reminder of making a start, I re-read the Elon Musk quote on innovation: There was a time when only those with the largest mouths could enjoy potatoes. Thanks to the invention of French fries, now they will fit pretty much anywhere.

Also, remember why you are there and what you are aiming to achieve. You must be crystal clear on your goal, whether you want to swim 10 lengths or 100 lengths, improve your buoyancy or if you want to swim faster.

4. Focus: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives

The Anne Dillard quote above about how use our time reminds me to ensure we retain the capacity for enjoying what we do, that gives startup life some highlights amidst the graft. The cult of productivity has its place and getting stuff shipped is important, but presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a startup culture that measures our worth as humans by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that, but this loses sight of learning, having our own definition and perspective of success, and our purpose.

The tide will turn, and expect anything worthwhile to take a long time. It’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that, as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning post-Covid. The allotment doesn’t go from seed planting to blooming crops in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the process of the weeding, nurturing and growing. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

5. Be curious: enjoy what magnifies your spirit

Understand and tolerate the difference between where you are and where you want to be, and then make it a habit to ask questions and be curious, even when the answers to those questions are uncomfortable. At the core of curiosity is understanding that you see the world through a particular lens of your own experience and ambition.

Curiosity is at the core of what drives the entrepreneurial spirit, the belief that you can solve problems with unique solutions and innovate on the status quo. Building a company relies on curiosity about testing different hypotheses and continuously iterating. This might be frustrating and you want to simply move forward, but I always tie this trait back to recognising the value of feedback.

I’ve been reading about musician Patti Smith, discussing her creative influences. She talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit – it’s a beautiful phrase and notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, be curious about them and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once your fading momentum has already infected your vitality, but as an ongoing vaccine while you are healthy to stimulate your curiosity and protect your radiance.

6. Push on: don’t be afraid to be an idealist

There is much to be said as entrepreneurs for focusing on the constant dynamic of startup interaction we call immediate progress. But which side of the fault line between nurturing and doing are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing customer demands, but the idealist in me says the role of the entrepreneur is to lift people up, excite them with innovation.

On your startup journey, the richest inspiring days are lifeboats, but there are also submarines that descend to us to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the startup soul where our deepest embarrassments and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Idealism is the alchemy by which you should strive to create something new, the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

The sea, the green sea, the scrotum tightening seas – the words of James Joyce in Ulysses captures the reality that the sea doesn’t like to be restrained, it has a serene brutality, filling the wet, briny air. As Buffet highlighted, you can’t be caught swimming naked as the tide goes out, you need to set sail and not be tied at anchor, and sail not drift. Whatever the imagery, prepare yourself for the coming challenges by being thoughtful, balancing thinking and doing, but don’t be left standing with the water waist high, waiting to be embarrassed.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

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

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

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

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

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

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

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

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

– never working faster than a walking pace mentally

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

– letting my mind’s appetite guide my working focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amelia Earhart – a role model for C21st female entrepreneurs

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

The words of Amelia Earhart. Spoken like a true entrepreneur, this quote captures her drive and focus. Her flying achievements are extraordinary, and demonstrate her strength and spirit as a female pioneer.

Yet despite Earhart’s achievements and those of other iconic female role models, female entrepreneurs with the ability, influence and passion to transform a generation are often ignored, with just one in five startups that receive investment being founded by a woman. Why?

One reason could be that female entrepreneurs seeking investment for their new idea are likely to be almost entirely male faces. Just 13% of senior investment teams are women, and almost half of investment teams have no women at all. This surely contributes to a stark gender imbalance in the businesses that investors fund.

The gender bias female entrepreneurs face undoubtedly deters many. Add to this the reality that women still take on a far larger share of family related responsibilities than men, and it is no surprise that so few female innovators take the plunge. While this is fundamentally unfair in a diverse, democratic and open-minded society, it is also economically short-sighted – research shows that the UK is losing out on £250bn of economic value each year because of the daunting barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

However, there are signs of some positive change, with the Government’s commissioning of Alison Rose (Deputy CEO NatWest) to lead an independent review of female entrepreneurship earlier this year. The review shed renewed light on the barriers faced by women starting and growing their own businesses, and identified ways of removing them.

In response, the Government has announced an ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by 50% by 2030, equivalent to nearly 600,000 additional female entrepreneurs. The Rose report and Government response is hopefully the catalyst needed for society undergoing a shift in outlook. While the UK is in many ways the startup capital of Europe, it lags well behind the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the US and Sweden in terms of the proportion of female founders.

For investors, putting money into female founded startups makes financial sense, as there is substantial evidence that gender diversity fosters creativity and results in better decision making by encouraging new perspectives which men frequently lack or disregard. Yet women-owned enterprises represent less than 25% of UK business.

Alison’s report thus identified three fundamental changes needed to overcome the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs:

Increase funding directed towards female entrepreneurs. Access to and awareness of funding was highlighted as the number one issue for female entrepreneurs across the entire entrepreneurial journey, from intention to scale-up. Female-led businesses receive 53% less funding on average than those headed by men at every stage of their journey.

To combat this the Alison recommended making more start-up funding available to women. The rewards for the wider economy and society could be huge, even if Britain does not achieve full gender parity in levels of entrepreneurship, but catches up with its best-performing peers.

Provide greater family care support for female entrepreneurs. Disproportionate primary/family care responsibilities affect female entrepreneurs throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

Making entrepreneurship more accessible for women Increasing support through accessible mentors and networks is key to boost female entrepreneurship. Alison found three reinforcing cultural barriers affect women at all stages of the entrepreneurial journey:

– Women typically have higher risk-awareness than men and are more cautious, limiting their willingness to risk their livelihood on an uncertain venture.

– Women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills: only 39% of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. This is a perceived gap in ability, rather than an actual gap in skill sets.

– Women are less likely than men to know other entrepreneurs or to have access to sponsors, mentors or support networks.

Alison’s report recommended eight initiatives.

Initiative 1: Promote greater transparency in funding allocation through a new ‘Investing in Female Entrepreneurs Code’, which commits all financial institutions to the principles of gender equality for investment.

Initiative 2: Launch new investment vehicles to increase funding going to female entrepreneurs, who can thus access new, potentially profitable market opportunities whilst helping women-led enterprises to grow.

Initiative 3: Encourage investors to support and invest with a specific focus on gender diversity by launching funding rounds for businesses in female-dominated sectors such as healthcare and services.

Initiative 4: Focus banking products aimed at entrepreneurs with family care responsibilities, to help parent entrepreneurs manage their businesses and the challenges of raising a family.

Initiative 5: Improve access to expertise by expanding and encourage private sector actors to offer their time to business hubs.

Initiative 6: Expand mentorship and networking opportunities, with public and private sector organisations coming together to share best practices and support a centralised networking platform to create greater connections.

Initiative 7: Accelerate development and roll-out of entrepreneurship-related courses to schools and colleges by commercial organisations to collaborate on education focused on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and self-belief.

Initiative 8: Create an entrepreneur digital first-stop shop, encouraging private sector actors in partnership with public bodies to collaborate to create a comprehensive nationwide digital first-stop information shop for female entrepreneurs.

There is no silver bullet that will transform the landscape for female entrepreneurs overnight. Many barriers are cultural and societal, and will take many years to overcome. However, the eight initiatives provide a starting platform for the significant and sustained action required to release the unrealised potential of women as entrepreneurs.

In the modern world, female role models are plentiful, to transform a generation. For example: Sylvia Plath, Malala Yousifazi, Margaret Cavendish, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, and Anita Roddick to name a few – but Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and back to her quote at the top of this blog – is the stand out to me for today’s female entrepreneurs.

It was when Amelia attended a stunt-flying exhibition that she became seriously interested in aviation. On December 28, 1920, pilot Frank Hawks gave her a ride that would forever change her life. Earhart took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921 and, in six months bought her first plane, a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow – The Canary – and set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Then in April 1928, she took a phone call: How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic? After an interview in New York, she was asked to join the flight. She left Trepassey Harbour, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F7, Friendship, on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales 21 hours later. On her return, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a White House reception with President Calvin Coolidge.

George Putnam entered her life, too. The two developed a friendship during preparation for the Atlantic crossing and were married February 7, 1931. Intent on retaining her independence, she referred to the marriage as a partnership with dual controls.

Together, they worked on plans for Earhart to become the first woman and the second person to fly solo the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Paris. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced her to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland.

President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with a gold medal, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross – the first ever given to a woman. Earhart felt the flight proved that men and women were equal in jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.

In the years that followed, Earhart continued to reach new heights. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to California.

In 1937, approaching her 40th birthday, she was ready for her biggest challenge: to be the first woman to fly around the world. Despite a botched attempt in March that damaged her plane, a determined Earhart had the twin engine Lockheed Electra rebuilt. I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it, she said.

On June 1, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan departed from Miami and began the 29,000-mile journey. On June 29 they landed in Lae, New Guinea with just 7,000 miles remaining. Frequently, inaccurate maps had made navigation difficult, and their next hop to Howland Island was by far the most challenging.

Howland Island, in the Pacific, is a mile and a half long and half-mile wide. Every unessential item was removed from the plane to make room for extra fuel. The US Coastguard was stationed off Howland Island and two other US ships, burning every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers.

On July 2, 10am local time, the pair took off. Despite ideal weather reports they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made celestial navigation difficult. As dawn neared, Earhart called the US Coastguard reporting cloudy weather, cloudy. At 7.42am, the Coastguard picked up the message Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. The ship replied, but the plane seemed not to hear.

At 8.45am, Earhart reported We are running north and south. Nothing further was heard from her. A rescue commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On July 19, after spending $4m and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the search was called off.

In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead. Neither the plane nor bodies were recovered.

There is no doubt that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements for women. In a letter to her husband, written in case a flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear: Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart is a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance and failure at her final challenge. Like all entrepreneurs, her success was down to passion, sheer effort, thinking big and bold, and having a clear focus.

The unprecedented energy and attention around gender equality for entrepreneurship makes this a moment when extraordinary progress is possible. We short-change women if we set our sights too low. In the earliest days of American democracy, Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams, and mother of John Quincy Adams) urged the architects of the Constitution to ‘remember the ladies’. Now is the time.

So on the back of the eight initiatives of Alison Rose’s report, and the memory of Amelia Earhart, I believe our goal should be to expand women’s power and influence in entrepreneurship. I think of power and influence as the ability to make decisions, control resources, and shape perspectives. It is something women exercise in their homes, in their workplaces, and in their communities, and they can have the same impact on business.

 

The importance of trust between startup founders and investors

Most startup founders have an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to the future of their venture. They’re always in sales mode – to themselves, early customers and investors, and the world in general. Startups that are on the brink of huge success are often also on the brink of spectacular failure, the line between the two extremes is often wafer thin.

Early stage startups, by definition, are almost always missing something as they iterate on product-market fit. Meanwhile, early stage angel investors can often see past these shortcomings due to their experience and learnings from their own mistakes, and provide the care and nurturing to founders needed to unlock success.

Investors focusing on early-stage startups understand this reality and accept the associated risks in anticipation of making bets on founders working on ‘10X’ ideas to realise outsized rewards. This relationship between founders and investors is a key ingredient to startup success, and isn’t just from a commercial perspective, but at a personal level – rapport, respect, mentoring and trust are vital.

Early stage investors invest because they believe in the founder at a personal level. There is something about you, and your idea that convinced them that you could make it happen. Usually, it is just a feeling and not some tangible thing they can put their finger on. Ironically, most angel investors will imagine a future version of a startup far more enticing than most sane founders are willing to pitch.

The startup game isn’t for everyone – it isn’t really for most people. At the end of the day the most likely outcome is failure, even angel investors expect most of their bets in startups to fail. In this cauldron of uncertainty and high-stakes, the most important element of the founder-investor relationship is trust.

Startup founders have the singular authority to address high-stakes challenges and make tough decisions. However, to a large extent their autonomy rests on the willingness of the investors to cede it to them. In other words, it depends a lot on investor’s trust. Leaders who violate that trust soon find themselves ousted – Travis Kalanick, whose brash and at times inappropriate behaviour repeatedly raised eyebrows at Uber, was blamed for creating a toxic culture and forced to resign by an investor revolt.

Founder trust has also been eroded by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. In April 2018, Zuckerberg was before Congress and questioned about Facebook’s commitment to data privacy after it came to light that the company had exposed the personal data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica. Then in September 2018, Facebook admitted that hackers had gained access to personal information of 50 million users. Then a New York Times investigation revealed Facebook had given Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon access to its users’ personal data, including in some cases their private messages.

So when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would launch a dating app, I shook my head. And then they announced releasing an app that allowed people to share photos and make video calls. Why would anyone trust Facebook with personal data on something as sensitive as dating, or with a camera and microphone given its horrible track record?

Our need to trust and be trusted has a very real economic impact. More than that, it deeply affects the fabric of society. If we can’t trust other people, we’ll avoid interacting with them, which will make it hard to build anything, solve problems, or innovate.

Startup founders can’t build trust unless they understand the three fundamental promises they make to investors and the resulting responsibilities: economic – to provide value to customers that enhance their lives; legal – that they will follow the letter and the spirit of the law; ethics – investors want founders to behave with integrity.

To investors, if founders repay the trust of investment made by delivering the above promises, it means returns; and to society, it means growth and prosperity. But trust is fragile, it waxes and wanes. It means being competent, playing fair, and most of all, acknowledging and, if necessary, remediating, all the impact your decisions have, whether intended or not. Of course, it’s not always possible as a founder to make decisions that completely delight investors, but it is possible to make decisions that keep faith with and retain the trust they have in you, by being authentic and acting with integrity at all times.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means bringing the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in making a business case for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfil that. Once you act this out, you need to remember this image because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. That you are interacting daily on a superficial level is odd, as betraying trust means betraying yourself.

Thinking about authenticity made me aware of my own conversations I’d been involved in as an angel investor, and recall the awkward situations where I considered my trust had been abused. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face to face conversation, and once these behaviours have lapsed, trust is broken and I’m done with that relationship.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being original doesn’t mean you will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing your underlying principles and values – being totally clear about who you are, your purpose and what you stand for. When your rhetoric gets out of sync with your values, you lose your integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.

So I’ve used trust as a key part in assessing my appetite to work with startup founders, and my experience is that it is a hallmark of high-performing startups – employees are more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, put in greater discretionary effort, are less likely to leave, and are healthier than those working in low-trust ventures. Startups that build trust among their customers are rewarded with greater loyalty and higher sales, and negotiators who build trust with each other are more likely to find value-creating deals.

I’ve developed an approach to assess the trustworthiness of founders on five dimensions: competence, motives, means, impact and sincerity. I’ve found that founders who demonstrate these five dimensions can deepen the trust others place in them and foster stronger relationships. Conversely, founders who don’t pay attention to them can easily behave in ways that undermine trust, often without even realising it.

For me, motives and sincerity are the essential qualities I look for, they make up the moral or ethical domain of trust, the areas where I judge founders on the choices they make, whether it’s whose interests they serve (motives), how they go about achieving their goals (means), or whether they own all the effects they have on others (impact).

By understanding the behaviours that underlie trust, startup founders are better able to elevate the level of trust that investors feel toward them, and for me this can be captured into the following three elements:

Positive relationship trust is in part based on the extent to which a founder is able to create a positive relationship with investors. To instil trust a founder must:

  • Be empathetic to the concerns of investors
  • Be open minded and listen to advice
  • Respond to feedback in a constructive way

Good judgement the extent to which a founder is able to show balanced judgement, shrewdness and perceptiveness gives an investor confidence. This means:

  • They show balanced judgement when making decisions
  • Creating conviction when expressing their ideas and opinions
  • Can anticipate and respond quickly to problems, offering solutions

Consistency The final element of trust is the extent to which founders walk their talk and do what they say they will do. Investors rate and respect a startup leader highly if they:

  • Are a role model and set a good example at all times
  • Follow through on their commitments and keep promises.
  • Act in the best interests of everyone, not just themselves

Watching the current political discourse (and deadlock and chaos), I experience a longing for an authentic discussion of the core values that ought to be guiding us as a society. I feel that we are morally adrift, that we do not have a clear sense of how to ground our identities and actions to ultimate values that transcend time and place.

That is not to say that our society is largely immoral. Just amoral, lacking a clear compass or foundational guide at a critical time. Instead of a moral compass, people are constructing their own moral decisions. They don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t seem to know that they are doing the right things with their lives. They don’t seem to know what the right things are.

And that’s a parallel to startup culture, where founders pursue their own unilateral agenda, failing to ground their perspective in a moral perspective and the legal and ethical commitment they made to angel investors who gave them their first chance. I’m seeing founders following a loose, poorly defined moral individualism that, for many, bleeds into an extreme moral relativism.

The emerging reflections on right and wrong generally reflect weak thinking and provide a fragile basis upon which to build robust businesses. Moreover, founders behaving like this do not rely on any moral traditions or philosophical ethics to make decisions. Instead, the basic position is for each individual to make up their own rules and do what is good for them.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal integrity, the state of being honest, and respecting trust given. The golden rule: don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong or right, that is determined by each person, their experience, their perspective. And of course, we have laws. They pretty much cover it.

I believe that in healthy humans there is an inner compass that guides right from wrong. It may get modified through various lenses of philosophy, religion, and culture, but I think integrity and not causing harm by breaking trust are pretty universal. Unfortunately, it is also possible to get estranged from that compass, the influence of others, circumstances and opportunity may divert us from the path we know to be right.

For founders, it can be hard not to diverge from the path guided and shaped by trustworthiness with their early stage investors if they can see a quick personal gain. However, look in the mirror, and can you reconcile breaking the trust given to you? For certain, it is good to stay in balance and in touch with being a founder your investors trust, as much as you can.

For me, I am never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again, and tell myself that the mended whole is as good as new. What is broken is broken, and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it, and see the broken pieces to remind me that you broke my trust.

Leading a startup in times of political & economic uncertainty

The current global economic indicators make uncomfortable reading, even before the impact of Brexit is factored in. The UK’s Q2 GDP figures recorded the first quarterly fall since 2012, indicating the economy going into reverse. As investment and exports continued to fall, the conclusion is an economy stalling at best.

Consumer spending and government expenditure are currently keeping the economy afloat, a pattern we have seen for a while. Boris Johnson seems intent on easing the public purse strings, announcing a new commitment to spending money every day on health, education, social care and crime. However, this contradicts his tax cutting promises – you simply can’t have a high spend, low tax financial strategy. His numbers don’t add up.

So we are likely to see a growing imbalance in the UK economy, as rising consumer spending and government expenditure offset declines in investment and exports, and the risk of ‘no-deal’ and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit stalls investment. The Bank of England’s low interest rate policy is exacerbating these imbalances too, by supporting borrowing and encouraging savers to look for more risky investments because the returns on bank and building society deposits are so poor.

A Brexit-driven recession in the UK may be avoided, but there is still little clarity on whether the UK will be in or out of the EU come November, making Brexit the big story for the economy with this uncertainty. Johnson has begun to brace us for a no-deal Brexit, ramping up public spending by £2.1bn on preparations including stockpiling of medicines, and a public awareness campaign about potential disruptions.

Businesses remain largely unprepared for a disastrous cliff-edge no-deal and are in sit-and-wait mode, while the CBI continue to speak out against the ongoing economic chaos. At the same time, inflation unexpectedly rose above the Bank of England’s 2% target in July, putting renewed pressure on British households as the cost of living increased.

Also in July, the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9% while the number of unemployed rose by 37,000. The number of vacancies – which had been on the rise since 2012 – started falling at the start of the year and continues to fall. This suggests that the UK labour market has started to turn down and that weaker economic growth and the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit could be starting to impact the job market, although the jobless rate remains at the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The average British worker still earns less than they did in 2007. In place of rising wages, consumption is being driven by growing unsecured household debt, which is now the highest we’ve ever seen in the UK. With incomes low, savings drained and debt levels high, a turn in the business cycle will mean financial hardship for families.

Outside of UK specific issues, the global economy is slowing at the end of a ten-year-long weak recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Germany has fallen into negative growth and is heading towards recession. In the US, Trump’s confrontational strategy to a trade war with China is having a negative impact on both countries. Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up the threats of tariffs on each other, dragging down global trade volumes and economic growth.

It all adds up to fearing the worst that the first global recession since the crash of 2008 is just around the corner. Recessions usually happen every ten to fifteen years: business confidence drops, investment declines, employment stalls and demand shrinks. Eleven years on from the crisis of 2008, expectations are that the next recession is unlikely to be a repeat of the last crash, as while there are risks to financial stability, none will impact the economy in the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

So, let’s draw breath on the economic analysis. As a startup entrepreneur looking for meaning in this analysis, the information has contradictions, a mix of emotion, biases and cold-eyed calculation, yet expresses something about both the mood of investors and the temper of the times. Yes a recession is so far a fear, not a reality, but it is evident firms are struggling to get to grips with uncertainty, and anxiety could turn to alarm.

Often danger signals are ignored until too late. America’s decade-long expansion is the oldest on record so whatever economists say, a downturn feels overdue. For me, the portents are evident, confidence is being eroded and the storm clouds are gathering. My fear is that we’ll have a torpid economy at best, that is prone to curtailing innovation, entrepreneurship and startup investment.

There’s just no way to completely prepare for future uncertainty facing your business, simply understand that circumstances change and unforeseeable events occur, and you can make smart choices to prepare well. Not only will this provide you some peace of mind that you’re as ready as you can be, but you’re more likely to respond quickly and more effectively when trouble strikes, so here are some practical tips designed to help your startup prepare for the unknowns.

1. Stay in the now It’s easy to get caught up in your own startup bubble, but that’s a trap to avoid. One of the best ways to combat uncertainty is to stay abreast of economic indicators, as highlighted above. By being aware of the general state of the economy, and how economic forecasts might affect your business, you can put yourself a step ahead of others.

A forward-thinking entrepreneur understands the value of analysis, and not just ‘gut instinct’ intuition. Are you consistently reviewing your business strategy assumptions, value proposition and pricing to ensure they remain valid?

2. Prepare for multiple outcomes It’s wise to stop assuming a single outcome will turn up as the conclusion of a situation. You should prepare for multiple outcomes regardless of what you expect. Foresight enables you to respond effectively. The best way to prepare is to include your team in the planning process, you’ll get fresh, unique perspectives that are more likely to result in critical and innovative thinking.

There isn’t a crystal ball to help you predict the future, and there are many factors completely out of your control. Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. For example, focus on product improvements, customer communications, experiment with pricing and new marketing strategies.

3. Build relationships to create opportunities to grow In times of uncertainty, is a spreadsheet going to help you regain solid footing? It’s possible, but unlikely. The best investment you can make for future stability is relationship building to help weather the rough patches.

What are the signals telling you it’s time to be different and bold? Signals to watch for regarding customers are: Are your regular customers asking you for new things? How are new product/new customer sales against forecasts? When your regulars ask for new offerings they’ve shown you the direction where you’re likely to succeed.

4. Know your numbers When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it’s essential that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers, cashflow and KPIs so you can make the appropriate changes quickly. Also, sit down with your sales team daily. This will help you pinpoint the messages to be taken between ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators.

5. Regain control of your time Evaluating how you and your team spend your time helps you stay focused on the tasks that grow your business. For example, spending time writing content means you must understand what the timing and targets are for following up leads.

What’s more, tracking your time keeps you in control. It’s like weeding your garden; if you don’t stay on top of the weeds, they’ll eventually consume your entire garden. Also you should automate and delegate as much as possible so you can focus on those aspects of the business where you can personally make a difference.

6. Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured spectacles, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs, being positive on the upsides and conveniently ignoring the downsides. In times of uncertainty, to convert your passion into tangible business, emphasise a strategy that makes financial sense based on how the elements of your business will come together. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions. The numbers fall out from this.

7. Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an essential ingredient, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market with customers. To turn your passion into revenue, always think about your business from the customer’s perspective. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

8. Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ and ‘What if?’ mind-set, and map out alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in resetting a ‘business as usual’ model in turbulent times. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

9. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 10,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

10. Don’t be too opportunistic, don’t be too defensive Strike a balance. Adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach is likely to maximise the chances of you surviving a period of uncertainty. Recognising that cost-cutting is necessary to survival while also understanding the role investment and innovation plays in long-term growth, is key to steering your business through choppy waters.

A balanced strategy accepts the reality of the present and reacts accordingly, while also preparing for the future. You can not only survive uncertain times, but also learn valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead for longer term success. Judicious investment, proactive innovation, increased operational efficiency, refocused propositions, honed processes and competitive advancement are all possible when it’s tough going, there are silver linings.

So, are you preparing for the potential recession into which your startup maybe heading in the next six months? Don’t ignore how much is beyond your control nor take your focus off of what is within your control. Develop the resilience, flexibility and competitive edge to ride through the rough waters and come out in good-nick, ready and aligned for when sailing becomes smooth.

Strategic readiness comes through a combination of awareness, flexibility, strong navigational leadership, resilience, collaborative working, considered learning, ongoing innovation and agility. Now is the time to act. Make the necessary adjustments to your business now to help prevent it becoming another statistic of an uncertain environment.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about, but you can research and keep your ear to the ground too – the process of planning is important – but in the end you have to work from your instinct and be fearless. When you’re feeling the apprehension about the horizon, that will help you manage the ambiguity of an unknown future and forge ahead in confidence.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of a future lies in the present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to take a risk to see your dream into reality, even if the waters are choppy. Security is mostly superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, 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, 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’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 Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

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 have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy 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 an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. 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 that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change 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 going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. 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.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book 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 island bookshelf.

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

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. 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.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’

Choose your startup co-founder like you would a spouse

They started to arrive about eighteen months ago, an endless cascade of luxuriously quilted envelopes, thumping onto the doormat. The wedding invitations. Nothing to do with Harry and Meghan, but friends of my children. It’s that mid to late twenties age group.

It’s unstoppable, luxuriously creamy envelopes the thickness of a letter bomb containing a complex invitation. They are a triumph of paper engineering, a comprehensive dossier of mobile phone numbers, email addresses, web sites, how to get there, what to wear, Amazon gift lists.

This isn’t the first wave of weddings I’ve been witnessed, that was when many of my contemporaries married soon after university. In these wedding photos the bride and groom are seen raising pint glasses, raucous groups of silly 1980s haircuts, and modest wedding gifts.

There was a second wave, the late-twenties weddings, which still retained a little of that tongue in cheek home-made quality. The most memorable was a reception that took place in the groom’s parent’s gardens in Bristol, vows were self-composed and rigorously secular. But a cold, hard edge of professionalism had started to creep in: the idea of the pre-prepared ‘wedding list’ had begin to rear its head.

I remember the ‘entertainment’ was from an all-girl band – including the bride – that had obviously taken a series of wrong-turns and bad choices in their musical direction. Their sang their own songs, one was about miserable summer jobs. The bride subsequently packed up the band and took a course in Circus skills until is transpired that she had none. Trapeze was not the answer.

Then the third wave emerged, proving to be the most spectacular, weddings of friends in the early to mid-thirties who had been working for the best part of a decade, and had some money to throw at a once-in-a-lifetime event. Country House hotels, vast marquees like Bedouin tent cities; silk grey morning suits and top hats, hired and worn with absolutely straight faces, string quartets and Ceilidh callers, even ice sculptures. One couple left the reception in a hot air balloon.

Now I’m on the fourth wave as I say, friends of my kids. This weekend I was at one in Cheshire. I was on table twenty-four, near the back of the room. I didn’t take it personally, although I was tempted to tamper with the seating plan. What’s the main course I asked? The rumour mill says salmon. Salmon, salmon, salmon at weddings, I feel like swimming upstream.

A wedding requires immense reserves of love and commitment and time off work, not least from the guests. Confetti costs two pounds a bag – it had to be Vintage Rose Pink and White Heart Biodegradable Tissue Paper Wedding Throwing Confetti. A bag of fragrant boil-in-the-bag jasmine rice from Aldi wasn’t approved by my wife.

Will it be bonding, soul mates for life, or the start of melancholy, wet winters of recriminations, slammed doors and watching TV together in silence?

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that hooking up with a new partner launching a new business is just like getting married and gaining a spouse, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. So you should prepare for a co-founder relationship in much the same way you would for a marriage – even when two people are a perfect fit, there are going to be times when someone needs to speak up, and say something difficult.

Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business. When you build a business with someone, your lives will inevitably intertwine, and as in marriage and business relationships, you have to have each other’s backs.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships. How did these individuals find their business buddies, and what made their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration? Not surprisingly, many were long-time friends, classmates, or relatives, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, another one wants to make money, and another wants to be famous, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person on day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills too. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and BAU operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Setup a management board and decide what kinds of decisions are made by the board, and which ones don’t. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries.

Learn to trust each other The underlying question here is Can the founders work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one or more of the founders has some ‘tic’ the others don’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to include people on the team who have a particular skill. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is the secret sauce behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

Of course, besides the ‘strategic’ stuff, there’s also the everyday realities of working together. The face you see day in and day out, no matter what hour of the day, what day of the week, will be your co-founder. They know everything about you – while it may start with knowing about your business personality, their knowledge of your life will soon extend to everything personal. They will also know what your poker face, happy face, sulky face, and goofed-up-big-time face looks like.

Whether you’re married or not, your co-founder will always prove to be your alter spouse, so what about the real day to day issues you need to be aware of when selecting a co-founder. Here are a few:

Tantrums and bickering Each mind is different and there’s going to be noise. It will be fun for the honeymoon – and then reality sets in as you deal with everything under the sun. Hopefully your passion for the startup will always be enough adhesive to bring you together again.

You’ll learn about each other’s likes and dislikes Your co-founder will know what order to place for you at the coffee shop. The same goes for you, you’ll know if she prefers to work with music on in the office or in the quiet. More times than not, you’ll have learnt these things the hard way

Washing the pots In a startup, there will be loads of little, time consuming things to do and only the two of you. You’ll split the workload between yourselves, the good chores and dirty chores alike. Remember, the most important four words for a successful marriage: I’ll do the dishes.

Compromising to get along You’ll be scanning every small area of expenditure. There will always be disagreements over what you need and what you don’t need, and learning to compromise is key.

Keep it fresh Like spouses, business partners need their own ‘date night’, relationships won’t flourish without regular, open and honest communication.

The things that make startup co-founders work effectively together reflect spouses’ relationship in a successful marriage. Most important it that you make it a habit to set aside time for getting together to review priorities, discuss challenges, concerns, frustrations and generally check in with each other.

In the end, the best way to determine whether you should work with someone is to choose a co-founder like you would a spouse. The best type of relationship is the kind where you share a vision and purpose, see yourself building things together, where you know there is give-and-take.

Marriage is a wonderful invention, then again, so is the bicycle repair kit, but it offers us insights and parallels to a successful co-founder relationship. They say don’t marry the person you think you can live with, marry the individual you think you can’t live without. Apply the same to choosing a co-founder.

When you feel like you’ve finally found that with someone, take the leap; don’t bother with those luxuriously creamy envelope for invites, just get on with it.

Entrepreneurial heroes: John McGeoch

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. It triggers a mental reaction, our moods vibrate in response to what we’re listening too. We can set free profound emotions with the intensity with which music affects the nerves and impacts our consciousness, and at the same time uncovering the hidden sound by bringing silence to life.

The music I like is for me, the isolation of being in one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing yourself in the moment or to memories of past, feeling, life, motion and emotion, good and bad. Music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetises us to the present yet contains within itself all that ever was and ever will be.

When I first dropped a needle on the LP Real Life by Magazine back in 1978, I was hooked for life. Whenever I subsequently put it on the turntable, then the CD and now the digital file, I recall the advice given on the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: To be played at maximum volume – and then I do.

Magazine are one of my favourite bands, not least because of their brilliant guitarist, John McGeoch. Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of his death, aged 48. He died in his sleep. His CV encompasses some of the most innovative, influential and respected music with a number of bands of the post-punk era, notably Magazine, Visage, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Public Image Limited.

Testimonies from leading guitarists today go some way to illustrate the extent of his contribution – Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood cite him as a ‘big influence’, John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers said that he taught himself to play ‘learning all John McGeoch’s stuff in Magazine and Siouxsie and The Banshees’, whilst Jonny Marr cites him as a favourite.

The late 1970s were a time of re-invention in British popular music, and McGeoch demonstrated a talent for expressive, textured chords and brooding rhythms. Born in Greenock, in 1955, John McGeoch moved to the Manchester area in his teens. In 1975 he attended Manchester Polytechnic, where he completed a degree in fine art.

In April 1977, he answered a small ad placed in a record shop by Howard Devoto who had just left the Buzzcocks after the Spiral Scratch EP and was looking for musicians ‘to play slow music again which would transcend the limitations of three-chord punk’.

Devoto found what he was looking for in McGeoch and the pair formed Magazine, along with Barry Adamson, Bob Dickinson and Martin Jackson. They made their live début at the Electric Circus in Manchester and their eerie appearance and moody sound caught the attention of Virgin Records.

In January 1978, the urgent, menacing debut single Shot By Both Sides made the lower reaches of the Top Forty while Real Life, Magazine’s seminal album début, made the charts. A great foil to Devoto and Formula, McGeoch shone in that setting and Magazine released a string of classic tunes, all co-written by the guitarist.

Howard Devoto created darkly literate songs of icy alienation, violence and psychological nonconformity. McGeoch, using flangers, a chorus effect and a percussive arpeggio technique to achieve his influential new sounds, complimented him perfectly. Nothing, and I do mean nothing else sounded like Magazine did when their remarkable album, Real Life, was released.

For such a young man, the prematurely-balding Devoto’s deeply cynical lyrics betrayed an intense and often-self loathing inner life. As a poet he was particularly adept at portraying insanity, social alienation and toxic anxiety. The music from McGeoch was simultaneously jagged and angular.

McGeoch played on Magazine’s first three albums, Real Life (1978), Secondhand Daylight (1979) and The Correct Use of Soap (1980). Truly, Magazine were one of the most instrumentally formidable bands of their day. McGeoch quit the band in 1980, shortly after the release of the third album, frustrated about their lack of commercial success despite being popular with music critics. Devoto subsequently disbanded Magazine, finding no suitable guitarist to replace McGeoch.

McGeoch moonlighted as a session musician with Bauhaus and Generation X before joining Siouxsie and The Banshees. It was with the arrival of McGeoch in early 1980 that Siouxsie’s imagination appeared to take flight on a series of rich and innovative records that confirmed the band as the progenitors of a genre of mournful, introspective music. It was arguably Siouxsie’s most creative and successful spell. He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist the Banshees ever had.

McGeoch produced dense textures using a combination of signal processing, such as chorus and phasing, and a distinctive combination of picking and using open-stringed drones. When The Cure’s Robert Smith was drafted into The Banshees to fill in for an ill McGeoch, he struggled to play the guitarist’s complex parts.

However, McGeoch suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stresses of touring, and collapsed on stage at a Madrid concert. This marked the end of his time with the band. McGeoch then joined Public Image Ltd in 1986. McGeoch had been an admirer of PiL, particularly John Lydon’s lyrics. McGeoch remained with PiL until they disbanded in 1992, making him the longest-serving member apart from Lydon.

In 1992, McGeoch was invited by Björk’s Icelandic band, the Sugarcubes, to play guitar on their Stick Around for Joy album. After this, he gave up performing and trained as a nurse in 1995, and then lived in America for a decade, returning just before his death.

He was a distinctive player, greatly admired for his use of textures rather than his solos, but able to dream up dramatic riffs and chord changes and blistering fills. The Magazine track Because I’m Frightened and Spellbound by Siouxsie would have to be considered the ultimate performances for McGeoch, as he plays solos through both entire songs. A technical aspect of his style was creating the illusion that no part of his hands were ever moving, including his fingers.

John McGeoch was without doubt one of the greatest post-punk guitar players. The simple and subtle, yet tinkering on the edge type of playing was the perfect foil for Devoto’s lyrics, he inspired Siouxsie to new levels of creativity, and gave shape to Lydon’s angst and anger in his lyrics. I can’t think of another guitarist from that era who was as innovative as John McGeoch, the Mozart of his generation. So I keep listening to him

As an artist, how do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? What can we learn from John McGeoch in terms of his thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from him that should spark a startup.

Passion – do it because you love it John McGeoch wasn’t thinking of anything else other than personal fulfilment when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.

Open mindedness McGeoch’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their uniqueness is the product of constant change and combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely their own, with a prowess for throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

Restlessness & reinvention McGeoch never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each period in a new band he emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork McGeoch wasn’t really productive, although his time with the Banshees saw him at his most creative. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. McGeoch always sounded like someone in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on his laurels.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose McGeoch was strong minded and did whatever he wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values. Like a musician, put a tone of voice into your startup and stamp it with your personality.

Being different matters more than being better McGeoch became successful because he was different. He grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Don’t copy other people’s work Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. McGeoch had his own style and image too – what’s yours?

Playing it safe gets you nowhere If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Deviate from routines. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation or disruptive technology. McGeoch never played it safe.

His enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and delightful tunes, and memories of an on-stage presence. His tunes are always fine soundtracks to my life’s more dramatic moments locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

McGeoch teaches us that you have to be authentically yourself, to find what’s right for you, leading from your own place of uniqueness. Trying to be what others want you to be will lead ultimately to failure. You have to find what you do best, and find what is best about you.

The formula for his endurance is like a restless entrepreneur, never resting on their laurels, they retain the mix of uplifting, anthemic melodies with craftily serious lyrics in a business context. McGeoch was a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

You start to feel old when your heroes begin to die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for me, John McGeoch was an inspiration as any entrepreneur with his spirit of innovation and creativity.