How to avoid making slapdash U-turn decisions in your startup

At some point all startup leaders will make a bet-the-company decision. To make a good decision requires both prediction and judgment. But how do you get better at both – and when is it the right thing to do to reverse a decision and make a U-turn? Most of us change our minds all the time on the small stuff, but making a big decision is tough, and sometimes you realise you’ve made a choice… and it turns out you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Circumstances change, new information comes to light, our objectives evolve, so it’s normal for our decisions to develop with them. You may agonise over a U-turn, but suffering a period of self-doubt and a few embarrassing conversations is a small price to pay for making the right choice, second time around. John Maynard Keynes, the C20th economist, summed it up well: when the facts change, I change my mind, I alter my conclusions.

So, don’t ever rule out making U-turns in your startup, because one day you will face that challenge. When you realise you’ve made a wrong turn on a big issue or in a crisis, it can feel unnerving with the need for a rapid response. Searching for the right answer is pointless, this is the realm of unknowables. In this domain, a startup leader’s immediate job is to stench the bleeding, acting to re-establish order, working to transform the situation from chaos to stability. 

Doing the right thing because of a change of heart is better than pursuing a policy that will cause harm. It’s about judgement and authority too. Beyond the subjective nature of the ‘right thing’ there are also moments when the momentum is pulling so strongly in one direction, it becomes inevitable. But before we look at the right way to make a U-turn decision, let’s look at lessons to be learned from the government’s several screeching U-turns in their Covid response, highlighting how not make and communicate U-turn decisions.

Let’s start with an obvious point: governing in an unprecedented global pandemic is not simple. When coronavirus hit many of the government’s plans went out the window, ministers forced to react quickly to events. But it’s also pretty obvious that the government has changed its mind a lot in the last few months. In the last fortnight, over A Level/GCSE results and face coverings in schools, their positions changed significantly in a matter of hours, and its this frequent, seemingly knee-jerk reactions which creates instability and lack of confidence – key things to avoid in U-turn situations.

That’s led to real concerns that government don’t have a grip on the moment, and strategy and policies keep evolving without clear thinking. There comes a point in time when strategy-makers have to be firm, clear and certain, giving reassurance. All I’ve seen is the government making U-turns is reacting to pressure questioning their decisions, rather than shaping the response. That undermines confidence, as it appears the government is devoid of the ability to make a difficult argument and is making it up as it goes along.

Welcome to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s disasterclass, where incompetence is his core curriculum subject. Williamson, who exhibits no passion for his brief, endangered an entire A-level generation. On the one hand, the decision to cancel exams and have results set by an algorithm, using inadequate and patchy information about pupils, was made in April, so we must consider that he only had five months’ notice that students would not be sitting their exams and to come up with ways of handling the situation as fairly and accessibly as possible. However, each day seemingly brought new layers of unpreparedness.

Williamson insisted allowing pupils to use teacher assessed grades in lieu of exams would be unfair, as it would give a 13% inflation in grades this year, so instead he opted to use the controversial algorithm to downgrade the A-level results of 39% of pupils. The upshot was such a demonstrable shambles, that on 13 August, Johnson declared of the English A-levels: Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.

Four days later, following outrage over the downgrading of marks, Williamson announced that the algorithm-moderated results would not stand.

Williamson is present, but not involved, or, to put it differently, my attention was recently drawn to a way of distinguishing between white and blue collar work in the US – the America that showers before work and the America that showers after work. Williamson strikes me as are very much a man that showers during work.

In a crisis, you need to understand the limitations of both the evidence and the process through which it is channelled, and difficult as it might be, be prepared to act in the absence of scientific certainty – there weren’t enough facts, so make a judgement. Poor decision making is not an inevitable consequence of a crisis. But in a fast-moving situation, there may be little time or opportunity to fix early mistakes. That means thinking fast and considering implementation at the outset are all the more crucial.

The best decisions are made when you know not just what you want to do, but why you want to do it, within a wider sense of a convincing strategy. Greater focus on why this would have led to better outcomes all round, instead Johnson is ‘governing in hindsight’ with a series of forced U-turns, with the speed and frequency of policy shifts the crux of concern.

These are unprecedented times and you can’t expect to get everything right first time, but the propensity of U-turns suggests that the decision making approach is flawed. So, what can we learn from the government’s repeated screeching U-turns on how to do it better for your startup when facing the need to change a decision?

1.        Be less certain

In May, Williamson said that all primary children in England would have four weeks in school before the end of summer. But on June 9, he said there was ‘no choice’ but to scrap the plans amid concerns that the two-metre social distancing rule would make a full return impossible.

Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said overconfidence is the bias he’d eliminate first if he had a magic wand. It’s ubiquitous, the chances are good that you’re more confident about each step of the decision-making process than you ought to be.

So, the first rule of decision-making to avoid U-turns is to just be less certain about everything. Think choice A will lead to outcome B? It’s probably a bit less likely than you believe. Think outcome B is preferable to outcome C? You’re probably too confident about that as well.

Once you accept that you’re overconfident, you can revisit the logic of your decision. Have you prepared for a different outcome than your expected one? You can also practice aligning your level of your confidence to the chance that you’re correct.

2.        Ask How often does that typically happen?

The Government promised regular testing of two million care home residents and staff, starting July 6; Professor Jane Cummings, the government’s adult social care testing director, said that the earliest date by which it would reach all care homes was now September 7.

Kahneman uses the example of when he was collaborating on a book and asked his co-author to estimate the date on which he’d complete their first draft. He said between 18 and 30 months. Then he asked an experienced author, who had been involved in many textbook projects, how long it typically took. He answered, 40% never finish the book, and he couldn’t think of a project that had finished within seven years. The person’s mistake, and the point of Kahneman’s story, is that they should have thought about how long similar projects typically take.

Research suggests the best starting point for predictions – a key input into decision making – is to ask How often does that typically happen? The idea with both prediction and judgment is to get away from the ‘inside view’, where the specifics of the decision overwhelm your analysis. Instead, you want to take the ‘outside view’ where you start with similar cases before considering the specifics of your individual case.

3.        Accept there is no silver-bullet solution 

Johnson pledged a world-beating test, track, and trace operation to isolate new infections would be in place by June 1. The much-vaunted app, trialled on the Isle of Wight, has still not been launched. The head of the UK’s Test and Trace programme, Dido Harding, has refused to put a timeline on when the app could be launched. 

We badly want a silver bullet solution, a simple action that will leapfrog the competition or supercharge performance in one fell swoop – but the next time you ask yourself Is there a simple solution to this problem? be prepared to answer probably not.

The pressure to make the right decision is huge. That makes it even harder to say that we made the wrong choice. Failure is recoverable, regret is much tougher.

 4.        Consider alternatives explicitly

Building on the first three points, recognise decision making is about choices, and you can’t make good choices without good alternatives. Most of us do not explicitly formulate and evaluate alternatives in making big decisions – we are focused on the answer.

So, imagine this scenario: you want to expand your online capabilities. You can build your own team and invest, or consider strategic partnerships, and joint venture arrangements. The act of formulating and evaluating explicit alternatives invariably improves the quality of decision making. The next time someone recommends a course of action, ask two simple questions: What alternatives did you consider and reject? and Why?

5.       Have a strategy and use your U-turn to inspire others  

25 August: advice on wearing facemasks in schools was changed overnight. The communication of that decision was a bit messy. On Monday, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries played down the need for face coverings. Just over 24 hours later, the government was announcing its policy change.

There is no need to apologise for a U-turn, you can justify it by explaining the reasoning behind your decision. Be confident, holding onto your conviction. Your boldness in changing direction can inspire others, lots of people wish they had the courage to change course too.

Acting on your awareness is a critical step, and acting sooner rather than later may actually save the day. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to be confident and show flexibly is required for leaders who want to make things happen despite U-turns in a time of uncertainty.

6.        Don’t underestimate the challenges involved in execution 

Back in June, ministers defended the decision not to pay for free school meals in England over the summer, highlighting other chunks of money given to councils to help. Marcus Rashford’s campaign made that defence less sustainable. The outcome: Marcus Rashford 1, Boris Johnson 0, and the government with egg on face.

The complexities associated with a big-stakes decision rarely end with the decision itself, research indicates that only 12% of large-scale changes are executed as intended. That’s because change is hard and the bigger the change, the bigger the risks.

All leaders, startup and government, have to demonstrate on a perpetual basis that they are heading in the right direction and broadly taking the correct path. Too many U-turns and the impression is of leaders simply keeps getting things continuously wrong instead, with credibility being chipped away.

Frequent changes of heart can be damaging, but a U-turn is not a sign of weakness. You shouldn’t beat yourself up when you decide to change track. Circumstances never remain static, so why should our responses to them be forever locked in their initial form? But when asked to provide direction, don’t nod along with whatever bumper-sticker solution is available.

A startup faces many unknowns, and things change rapidly, so U-turns can be an effective tool if done right, but too many undermines any pretence of leadership, it looks slapdash. If done swiftly, the pivot looks strong, reactive, and decisive, and is often the right thing to do.

The innovator’s DNA of John Peel

Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, Listen, mate, life has surface noise – John Peel.

Sunday was John Peel’s birthday, he would have been 81, but alas he died 25 October 2004. Happy birthday to the great man. I owe so much to him for introducing me to so much good music and getting me through many a night shift on essays and studying at school, University and beyond.

To this day my music collection is full of bands he introduced me too on his late night show: Cocteau Twins, The Fall, Joy Division, The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, The Ramones, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Wedding Present, Echo And The Bunnymen – and Magazine: 20 January 1978 Shot by Both Sides. Devoto’s vocals have been characterised as a speak-sing voice that veered between amused croon and panicked yelp.  Glorious.

Peel was Britain’s most consistently innovative radio presenter for almost 40 years, enduring thanks to his relentless reinvention and discovery, and an ability to adapt to changing musical fashions to remain at the cutting edge of taste. He was an innovator. He had a seemingly endless enthusiasm for the new and the disruptive, and in his time, he championed many new musical styles and new bands before they crossed into the mainstream populism. Once they did, he lost interest and went off in search of the next musical innovation.

Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heswall near Liverpool a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War, his life was changed in the 1950s like that of so many of his generation by the advent of rock’n’roll. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. After initially working in America, he returned to England at the heyday of pirate radio stations, and with no outlet for a broadcaster of such eclectic tastes on the BBC, he joined Radio London, which rivalled Radio Caroline as an offshore broadcaster.

Adopting the name John Peel, he called his late night show The Perfumed Garden. When the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed offshore broadcasting in August 1967, Peel was one of several pirate DJs to switch to the new BBC Radio One. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the counterculture of the time, often in open conflict with the BBC hierarchy and more conventional DJs, whose chart-orientated musical tastes he openly derided.

During the 1970s, Peel’s influence waned a little as the music he had been responsible for popularising became increasingly mainstream. Then in 1976, punk exploded, and Peel became its most vocal champion on the airwaves. The event that ostensibly changed the face of the show for good was the first play of a track by the Ramones, Judy Is A Punk, on 19 May 1976. The musical make-up of the programme did not immediately revolutionise, but more and more of punk’s first wave began to find its way onto the show.

As he switched his playlist to a diet of the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Undertoneshe discovered an entirely new audience who loved the fact that he could play a record like Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and then declare he liked it so much he was going to play it all over again – the first time that had ever been done on BBC radio.

He went on aligning himself with challenging new music for the rest of his career. There were a number of major innovations that Peel introduced to radio, but two have stuck in my mind. Firstly, The Peel Sessions, which were radio debuts from new bands, often playing four songs live; secondly, an annual tradition of Peel’s show was the Festive Fifty, a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners.

Peel’s over-arching dictum was that he wanted to hear something he had never heard before. It is notable that his favourite acts tended to be those where there was a strong, original and identifiable presence, whether it was the guttural singspiel ofThe Fall, the languid mocking commentary of Half Man Half Biscuit or the jingling guitar sound and sharp lyrics of The Smiths.

The first time I listened to Peel was towards the end of 1977. A few of the lads at school were talking about the new Manchester bands, and Peel’s show, so I tuned the radio late at night and heard the new songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again. In that one night I heard The Fall and Joy Division. They played stuff the likes of which I had never heard before. The most memorable song I ever heard on Peel’s show was Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil, sung by Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins.

I became a dedicated listener from early 1978 onwards. It was a golden period, every night finger poised over the record button with the microphone in front of the radio – because another thing Peel did was play the record in full and not talk over it, so you could record it. Brilliant! There’s a box of C90 tapes in my attic of the various recordings I made.

By the close of 1984, at university, I was still listening to Peel every night, but as time passed and I started work and got married, I drifted away from the 10pm to midnight slot he had. I got The Wedding Present and The Smiths as my last two gifts from John. I would still listen from time to time, especially The Festive Fifties, and there were still some great discoveries in there, but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a wife and you can’t spend two hours every night listening to the radio, can you?

In those early years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music. By a rough count, 80% of my iPod music comes from stuff I heard on Peel’s show.

I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1990, only when staying in hotels working away with work or up late studying my accountancy exams and then my MBA. No more listening to his show on headphones, half-asleep under the duvet: no more sessions from obscure and noisy bands from the middle of nowhere making you go ‘wow!’.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to innovative music, introducing new bands and avoiding the commercial push to play the already popular bands. He was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved and stuff that he thought you should listen to. For the generations of music fans who grew up on Peel’s eclectic and very human late-night radio show, he opened the door to a whole new world of music, the kind of stuff you’d never hear on daytime radio, let alone find in mainstream High Street record shops.

Peel showed all the traits of a disruptive innovator, highlighted in The Innovator’s DNA, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, build on the idea of disruptive innovation to explain how and why the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are so successful. They identify five core traits and skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from the rest of us, and how they are restless and repeatedly come up with great new ideas. They researched five hundred innovators and identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovators.

First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill called ‘associational thinking’. ‘Associating’ happens as the brain tries to make sense of novel inputs, it helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as ‘the Medici effect’, referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a range of disciplines – sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase the building-blocks for ‘thinking outloud’ from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioural skills more frequently:

Questioning. Innovators hold a passion for inquiry, frequently challenging the status quo, asking questions to understand how things really, they are today, why are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. They found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation but are valued at least as highly as good answers.

Observing. Innovators are also intense observers, carefully watching the world around them where observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things: Peel attended three concerts a week to check out new bands, gaining a rich observational insight of emerging bands.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.

Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out and piloting new ideas, unceasingly exploring the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things.

Collectively, these discovery skills – the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioural skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – constitute what Christensen et al called the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.

I think Peel showed he was made of an innovator’s DNA. He embraced a number of musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae, which you can subsequently market he once said. Peel’s attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony

For many of us his shows were a source of the brilliant, the rubbish and sometimes the downright unlistenable, but it was always interesting and it made you think. He gave innumerable bands their first big break and routinely exposed diverse and emerging genres. Check out his eclectic tastes on his own Desert Island Discs list:

http://www.johnpeelarchive.com/john-peel-desert-island-discs/

Peel was ironic and humorous, a stream of random consciousness seemed to come out of the radio speaker from him either side of the music. I recall he introduced a Fall session with the words, Really needs to be played loud enough to start a civil defence alert. His demeanour was one of pure delight of an innovator when something new has come to pass and he can share it with the wider audience.

I hope you enjoy this one. He said and meant it. He never pandered to the audience. A catchy, addictive tune might be followed by a few minutes of sheer noise. What he most liked, he once said, was not only music he had never heard before, but music he could relate to nothing else.

Radio is by its nature ephemeral, but those Peel Sessions were innovation showcases, capturing emerging new talent. They are testimony to his desire to seek out and share new ideas, and a fitting legacy to his life’s work. Make your mark as an innovator like John Peel, gone but never forgotten.

My mentoring advice to startup founders: do the work that is in front of you

During lockdown I was ‘zoom mentoring’ a number of startup founders, focusing on them as a person, not their startup ventures, which were paused. The word mentor emerged from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, King of Ithaca. When the king went to war, Mentor became a friend and advisor to the king’s son Telemachus.

Mentoring isn’t just about telling someone what to do, rather it’s all about helping them work things out for themselves to see the potential inside themselves, encouraging them to look ahead and help navigating a course to their destination, with a gentle, nurturing push in the right direction.

A mentor typically has some relevant experience they draw on to help the mentee. Not to say I would do this but to basically say, Okay, let’s look at this question, or What do you think about that? They basically use their wisdom to help somebody else develop wisdom of their own.

So, let me share some of my recent endeavours, with lessons and takeaways from my mentoring experiences, as to what shapes an effective mentor-mentee relationship. The names have been changed by the way!

1. Ensure there is personal chemistry and empathy

Johncalls me. It’s 2.30am. He’s an absolute mess, drunk, crying. Is it cashflow problems again, lost a key customer? I ask. No. He’s just split up with his girlfriend. I’m no better trained to counsel him than I would be to talk him through replacing a car battery or laying a parquet floor, but he assumes I am. An hour later and we’ve had a good chat. I feel the same weird endorphin rush as after closing a fund raise, exhaustion plus exhilaration and the vague feeling of having done a good thing – like some of you may do after running a 10k for charity.

There has to be personal chemistry and ‘fit’ between mentor and mentee, you have to invest in the relationship with your mentee as a person. And speed mentoring doesn’t work. For mentors, the fit can be assessed by asking: can I clearly be helpful to this potential mentee? Can this person be completely open and honest with me? Are they willing to provide deep context about their problems and vulnerabilities?

Mentees should choose someone who is close enough to their industry so that very quickly shorthand explanations will do, and they can immediately dive in and understand the primary challenges. Questions to ask include: can this person give actionable advice? Have they said something straight away that makes me stop and think?

To stand out as a mentor, you really have to get to know your mentee on a personal level – the stuff that makes them them. Be an active listener, making a conscious effort to truly pay attention to what and how they say things, instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Ask open questions, and act as a sounding board. Nothing engenders trust faster than giving someone your undivided attention. Remain engaged and committed to bringing your full emotional intelligence and intellectual horsepower to each meeting.

Takeaways:

  • Be open about your own mistakes and vulnerabilities
  • Avoid relationship droop, keep the exchanges energised
  • Don’t give homework, focus on execution progress

2. Don’t assume anything – set expectations together at the outset

Fiona. She has two settings: silence and shouting. She always has to have the last word. And it’s a loud one too. I tell her if you hear hooves clip-clopping outside your bedroom door, it could be a zebra. But when you take a look, it will almost certainly turn out to be a horse. She says maybe, and spouts a metric-tonne of moaning. She never slows down or pauses. I’m currently on Amazon ordering her a key ring in the shape of a zebra.

Many mentors think they’re ‘going to give them the benefit of my experience’, when actually, that isn’t necessarily what the other person needs, or wants. Effective mentors speak for less than 20% of the time. The key is to say just enough to get the other person thinking.

The skill is to use your experience to craft questions that stimulate the mentee to think out loud. But be careful with those questions. If you know where the conversation is going this is not a mentoring exchange, a predictable sense of direction doesn’t stimulate reflection. Part of this is setting the tone, style, structure and approach to the relationship and expectations early.

Takeaways:

  • Kick off relationships around distinct problems or challenges
  • Create a schedule – but keep it loose, don’t impose a rigid or unrealistic cadence
  • Show up prepared with questions

3. Have an open dialogue to reframe the problem

Gerald, angel investor. On a zoom call, trying to recover a car-crash pitch for a mentee. How the other half live. He’s sat in his extremely posh study at home. Then his extremely posh eight-year old daughter comes in during the call and asks a question about the economy. Before he answers he asks her a question. Do you know what the economy is darling? Sure, she replies, it’s the part of the plane that’s terrible. You can see how revolutions start. He looks like the Nazi at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. I tell him we’re withdrawing, there’s no emotional fit. What have I said? It’s perfectly good advice.

All I really try to do is have a good, two-way dialogue as opposed to a discussion – trying to create some new meaning not just exchanging points of view. It’s an opportunity for collaboration which takes emotional energy, empathy and asking tough questions. Helping someone through an obstacle is about helping them look at the problem differently.

What I do is change perceptions and get mentees to tell themselves a different story. This reframes their mindset as to what they perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing appears unsolvable inside a particular point of view. Enlarging the box, and problems take a different dimension, potential new opportunities appear.

It’s also important to create rhythm, routine and boundaries. Rhythm and routine are essential to keeping us alert. Boundaries are key too. The airline truism suddenly becomes very real: we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. I will be of no help to anyone else if I burn out.

Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear, practical based on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you think better. The quality of your questioning defines the quality of your thinking. With Gerald, I never lost the Raiders of the Lost Ark image. Indiana Jones I’m not.

Takeaways:

I always try to follow this meeting progression:

  • Mentee explains challenge they’re facing.
  • Mentor explains how they’ve tackled a similar challenge.
  • Mentee explains how conditions might be different based on their situation.
  • Mentor suggests what to replicate from her experience based on her mentee’s specific context.

4. Don’t let your mentee treat you like a genie

If wasn’t doing what I was dong I’d work for the NHS. Who doesn’t love the NHS ?(apart from Matt Hancock). It’s unlike any other national asset, no one talks in fond tones about the Bank of England. The NHS does an amazing thing for us all. They delivered you when you were born and one day they’ll zip you up in a bag, but until then they’ll do everything that medial science allows to see you on the road from cradle to grave just like Bevan promised back in 1948. NHS workers are genies.

A mistake mentees often make is to think the mentor will be always available for them, seeking immediate gratification. I’ve got a problem my mentor could solve, so I’ll call her now. The mentor isn’t there to be at the beck and call. Also, the mentor isn’t there to sort your problems. Your mentor is there to help you work things through yourself. In fact, when you bring an issue to the mentor, first thing she might say is, So tell me about your thinking about this issue so far?

Also don’t set the mentor up as a role model or simply pump them for answers in the path of the development of the relationship. What’s important is to say I want to be myself, but there are things that I can learn from them, which will be useful for me. We tend to believe that having a mentor is about getting the best solutions to a problem on demand, a guardian angel who ensures we avoid failure by giving us the answers. That isn’t the case. Mentoring is about helping the mentee find the right path, shaping the opportunity to think it through critically on their own.

Takeaways:

  • Solve for the long term
  • Help your mentees embrace failure as growth
  • Measure progress every meeting

5. Don’t boil the ocean every meeting – focus on your mentee’s blind spots

Jane. Always goes round the houses. Some ninety minutes later and I’ve missed the first half of ‘Hamilton’ thanks to a conversation that over ran and didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on in the second half. Debriefing with wife afterward, watching the first half didn’t seem to have helped her understand it either.

One of the hazards of mentorship is that there can be far too much to discuss. Very few startup have one major challenge or problem on their plate. It can be tempting to unpack everything that’s going on, but this will only limit how deep your conversation can go on the issues that matter most.

Be intentional about picking the key questions you really want to solve in a session. Try not to veer into big, conceptual thinking, it’s easy for your time to run out without actually tackling the practical stuff that’s coming up the next week or month. Try to keep things tied to the decisions that need to get made, or solutions that need to be found by unpacking blind spots.

To achieve this, I ask questions like Why is that important? instead of straight up saying something is or isn’t. This gives mentees the prompt they need to develop their own insights.

Takeaways:

  • Be honest and transparent
  • Celebrate their achievements, convey belief in ability and potential
  • Avoid a meeting agenda that is too jam-packed

6. Provide an underlying philosophy: do the work that is in front of you

Michael from The Bay Area calls. At last someone from San Francisco, this is my entry point to Silicon Valley! No, he’s from the Morecambe Bay area. It’s a shame our child protection duties don’t extend to vetoing some of the terrible names my clients saddle their babies with. Michael tells me he has a baby called Sayton (pronounced Satan, as in King of the Underworld). Later that day I chat with another mentee who brings his newly born daughter onto the zoom: Lesanye. Pronounced Lasagne. As in Lasagne.

I read a quote from Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut.com and it’s stuck with me: I just do the work that is in front of me. I don’t know if she’d still say she works that way but it’s the way I’ve worked all these years, and the way I continue to work too.

I talk with Michael about the various enemies of doing our work. I say Make your work ‘happy work’. For me, happy work is best done when we take our long-term plans somewhat lightly and work from moment to moment. It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which anything can be done or satisfaction received.

What I really crave, more than anything, is a continuity to my days. Not an accumulation, the sense that they’re adding up to anything, just a continuity, the sense that one day leads into another leads into another and on and on, that they make some kind of chain of progress. I did yesterday’s work yesterday. I’m doing today’s work today. I’ll do tomorrow’s work tomorrow.

Takeaways:

  • Do the work that’s in front of you
  • All good things must begin sometime
  • Avoid fluff and grandstanding, there are jobs to be done

So that’s my mentoring experience, which highlights our top three leadership tools:

  • Our ears: listen, listen some more, and then some more
  • Our eyes: look for any dissonance between what is said and what you see
  • Our mouth: speak to acknowledge, then clarify, then inspire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner-vation: step outside your comfort zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, ask yourself: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does your startup have a moonshot ambition?

The photo is Buzz Aldrin wearing a Burnley FC hat, taken some four years ago when Buzz was in Lancashire: Astronaut, entrepreneur and a Claret!

Some 51 years ago today – 20 July 1969 – Buzz became the second man on the moon, nineteen minutes after Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind. An estimated 600 million people – at that time, the world’s largest television audience in history – witnessed this unprecedented heroic endeavour. Only twelve men have shared this vantage point looking back to the Earth.

Much has been written about how the NASA Apollo lunar programme in the 1960s galvanised the US and inspired millions around the world. It was the first ‘moonshot’ – which became the term capturing a hugely ambitious endeavour – something that is novel, unexpected, difficult and risky, but is also worth it as a noble pursuit. It has a special magic that other bold initiatives do not have, as an act of human courage, imagination, and determination that challenge people to perform beyond what they think possible.

Selected by NASA in 1963 into the third cohort of Apollo astronauts, Aldrin became known as ‘Dr. Rendezvous’, in reference to his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics at MIT and his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous. From this Aldrin devised the docking and rendezvous techniques used on spacecraft in Earth and lunar orbit. These became critical to the success of the Apollo missions, and are still used today.

Aldrin had an entrepreneurial mindset driving many of NASA’s experiments and innovations. He pioneered underwater training techniques to simulate spacewalking, and in 1966 on the Gemini 12 orbital mission, Buzz performed the world’s first successful spacewalk. During that mission, he also took the first ‘selfie’ in space.

I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

I’ve always had a keen interest in Space. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles. There was nothing for ‘Astronauts’, so I didn’t apply to NASA. There probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat anyway.

For me, Apollo XI landing on the Moon is the greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon!

President Kennedy launched the original moonshot challenge by urging his country to commit to putting humans on the moon. This combined the age-old human imagination about the moon along with a spirit of adventure, pioneering, and patriotism. Kennedy had the vision, first presenting a moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition shows how people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. His vision was a fantastic statement of intent, and subsequently an astounding achievement. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI adventure for startup entrepreneurs, to give your venture a ‘moonshot’ ambition ? Here are ten thoughts, with quotes from some of the engineers involved in the venture.

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it succeeded, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

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

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

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones and iterations: phase 1 fly to the moon; phase 2 orbit the moon; phase 3 land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of validated learning.

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

They expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And there we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot 

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed with just seconds of fuel left.

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

4. A startup is an experiment

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

NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and asking ‘What if?’ As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. It’s about calculated risks: don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead. 

Apollo XI was about turning an idea into reality: We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, reflecting the spirit of endeavour.

5. It’s about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, ensure they are aligned, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly. 

6. Recruit for attitude

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down to people who didn’t know how to do the things, but were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people without experience with a certain task may seem counterintuitive, but it was something NASA actively encourage – the average age of the key Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity with responsibility.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo program made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was an opportunity to learn and improve. For a startup, getting out of the building, talking to prospective customers and using validated learning to inform retrospectives should be an ongoing part of your growth cycle, iterating towards product-market fit.

8. Celebrate success as a team

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

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of the team back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work. 

9. The startup leader creates conviction

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation, and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; absolute leadership commitment to make it happen. A startup leader is a dealer in hope, creating the belief and passion in the team to be the first to do something remarkable. Simply, you have to lead the charge.

10. Dare to dream

Aldrin and Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Startup life has twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Aldrin lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to Apollo training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

One of the legacies of the Apollo initiative is the philosophy of a ‘moonshot’ endeavour. For a startup, this means operating with limited time and funding, tight deadlines, and with out-of-the-box approaches. Creating breakthroughs is the core of a startup, asking searching “what if?” questions, about when and how something innovative and bold can be accomplished.

Aldrin epitomised the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, from the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing this:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, capturing the Apollo XI endeavour and spirit – and that of entrepreneurship. Celebrate their achievement today, what a leap for mankind they made. They risked going too far to find out how far they could go. Make the same leap for yourself with your own startup moonshot.

Do not adjust your mind – there is a fault with reality

The title of this blog is a quote from famed Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a controversial and unconventional practitioner, whose progressive methods caused controversy in the medical profession, but later radically changed perceptions of mental health around the world. I thought it captured the essence of the context in which we are trying to shape our current business thinking.

When patterns are broken, new business worlds emerge. When things come apart, there is always the opportunity to put them back together differently. This has become our new lived business reality. It feels like we have been dumped rather unceremoniously into a strange in-between state, a place filled with tensions, unknown unknowns and paradox.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc.  We are practising social distancing, working from home and venturing out again as lockdown is eased. Things are eerily different, yet the same.  Most businesses are highly vulnerable, especially embryonic startup ventures. How can we become more effective in making sense of uncertainty in these circumstances, to accept that the future is complex and unpredictable, and that there is no certainty, and everything is more fragile?

We all need a scaffolding to build some sort of framework to hang onto in order to help make sense of stuff. We are all in uncharted and turbulent waters together. All answers are, to be honest, guesses, transient at best. Questions matter now. A key question I’ve been posing myself is what do you do when you don’t (or can’t) know what to do?

It is hard to make sense of this pervasive, perpetual uncertainty. Despite having a clear sense of my own personal direction, it’s hard to articulate a near term focus and objectives to aim for. Some days I feel trapped by busyness, yet I make no real progress. I’m not sure if this is a personal fuzzyness, or if I am caught up in the macro situation.

Now as we emerge from lockdown, there are billions being poured into business rescue schemes, providing a safety net for recovery. But it’s just an illusion that we have more time to think, more space to craft a reboot strategy. The reality is very different: most businesses are struggling to build and maintain a framework with boundaries for thinking and doing, decision making and a sense of timing.

Talking to many startups, founders are putting off essential decisions which have immediate impact and consequences, while spending hours discussing things like rebranding. We are avoiding important decisions on the now, instead dithering on details of future issues that in reality will have little impact in the dysfunctional reality of today. One thing we cannot afford now is paralysis. Waiting and seeing, moving deck chairs around on the Titanic is the worst thing we can do. We need decisive action, even when we don’t have sufficient information to guide our actions. But this is easier said than done.

We all need to let go of the need to feel that we need to make the right decision. Rather than correctness, ask yourself: with what I know right now, what is the next best action I can take?. The most important thing now is to keep moving, don’t get stuck. It might feel like we are in chaos, but take a step back, it’s more about being confused,  overwhelmed and under informed at the same time. There are so many different opinions and sources of information and advice, we feel stuck between overly rigid constraints and no constraints at all.

So how do we step out of this virtual reality that looks like a wash-rinse-repeat groundhog day, with perpetual fog clouding everything? Here’s a suggested decision-making framework.

On 12 February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of State, used an until then little known framework to help him in making the case for the invasion of Iraq: the Knowns and Unknowns framework. I think it is fair to say that the reception by the press was mixed: some accused him of playing with words with little meaning, while others saw method in what he was trying to do.

The Knowns and Unknowns categorisation has been used since ancient Greek times. It is a powerful tool to surface what we know and don’t know about a problem. The simplicity of the approach is deceiving, but can help us to unlock our current decision paralysis and frame our business thinking to the new situation:

– what do we know already (known knowns)?

– are we aware of our assumptions (known unknowns)?

– what about biases and unconscious decisions (unknown knowns)?

– are we conscious of what we are not exploring (unknown unknowns)?

The knowns and the unknowns have to be treated in very different ways. We need to adapt our decision-making approach to the type of knowledge, and our gaps in knowledge. If you are working with your unknowns, you need to use exploratory techniques: How might we surface some of those Unknowns? How might we prepare for the surprises ahead? If you are working with what you already know about a problem, you have to work in an inductive way – the how might we approach: How might we use those facts to learn new things? How might we test our hypotheses?

NASA first used the framework as part of risk analysis in space missions, especially to uncover Unknown Unknowns, in evaluating the risks in the return journey of the Space Shuttle. They concentrated on moving the unknowns to the known realm. It is believed that it was a senior engineer from NASA that told Rumsfeld about the framework.

At its core, the way of using the Knowns and Unknowns is simply as a reminder to take all forms of knowledge into account. By doing this, we make the problem space larger and so the solution space also becomes larger too. It’s not about making the right decision, rather the best decision under the circumstances. The value of the approach comes from using a combination that allows you to surface all knowledge and lack of it, and thus mitigate cognitive bias, false assumptions and misguided guesses.

So, how would you apply this to your startup today?

Known knowns

  • Known Knowns (facts): use data to check the facts, the things we are aware of, that imply risk, but since we know them can be measured.

Facts are Known Knowns, with them you generate more knowledge. Lateral thinking techniques, like analogies, allow you to see these knowns in a different light, to create a parallel reality from the one you know. The goal is to create something valuable and new from these facts to give insight to do something new from that which is already being exploited.

Known Unknowns

  • Known Unknowns (hypotheses): things that we know that we don’t know can be confirmed or rejected with measurement to determine the risk.

With the Known Unknowns you want to create hypotheses in a relevant context. A good way that translates your thinking here is creating quick sketches or diagrams with potential solutions that lay out your thinking, and then you then need to pass through the filter of a sense check with either your team or test with users. These are basically just ideas or thoughts based on existing knowledge, ‘thinking out loud’ so to speak, ensure you don’t let bias state them facts.

Unknown Knowns

  • Unknown Knowns (our intuitions): use data you trust to put them aside and close the gaps and nonsense contradictions.

If you want to unravel Unknown Knowns, you need to speak your mind aloud without too much structured thinking. Brainstorming with your team fulfils this, the presence of a group is important, because something that one person says serves as the catalyst for others to join in and surface related facts. The technique also removes closed, personal agendas, and enables rapid collective collaboration. Be mindful to avoid groupthink though.

Unknown Unknowns

  • Unknown Unknowns (it can be anything!): look for patterns and outliers about things we don’t know that we don’t know – these are the dangerous things.

This is the tricky one! Unknown Unknowns are often dismissed and left behind as being ‘beyond our control’ and not worth spending time on. However, in reality this is what most startups should think to uncover innovation opportunities and be the source of great insight. By exploring the gaps in our data in an open-minded way, we can recognise patterns and hidden behaviours that might point to opportunities to solve very unique problems. That is the kind of insight that takes you on big leaps to understanding the problems and to creating products that solve them.

The best startups consistently focus on the known unknowns, which is a mountain you know you have to climb, but you haven’t yet found the path. Sadly, many do the easy stuff and don’t maniacally focus on the hard parts.

First, a startup begins with a problem a small group of users have. You envision a product that might solve it, and build many versions of the idea until that small group can’t live without it. That’s your first Known Unknown. You know what you think they want; then you have to prove it. It’s all that matters. Hopefully, you’ve enough capital to iterate enough times to figure it out.

Your next job is to find scaleable repeatable ways to grow. You need to figure a version of this path. Anyone can put massive numbers to put on a top-down TAM slide. The hard part is the bottom-up plan, outlining how you take on a large market, one bite at a time. That’s your second Known Unknown.

Entrepreneurs must be focused only on the Known Unknown, you don’t have time to focus on the stuff that doesn’t matter. If a problem has moved from a Known Unknown to a Known Known, where you understand the what and the how, you’ve got product-market fit and now it’s time to think about differentiation and innovation.

The reality is that we live in a business world our questions create, yet I think most of us would say we live in worlds our answers create. But startups exist because of asking new questions and focus on finding new answers to new questions. In the volatile and fast-changing context of post-lockdown, what we think we know today may not be true tomorrow. Discovering new questions, by using new techniques to shape our thinking, will broaden our perspective.

The Known and Unknowns approach enables oblique or naïve perspectives from adjacent fields the chance to inform our thoughts, and radically different insights and perspectives will emerge. The right question takes you right to the essence of a problem, and helps you solve it. For example, working out what your startup’s defensibility is, is far more useful than defending the addressable market size. The wrong question wastes time:  What cool feature should we build next? is the wrong question, when your onboarding funnel itself is leaky.

You can never completely eliminate your blind spots, but with this technique you can reduce them enough to improve your performance and spare from the mistakes that in hindsight should have been obvious. The framework opens up possibilities and forces you to think more holistically. It’s hard, at times, I have to force it as a discipline and not be put off by doing some deep thinking that makes your head hurt!

Life might be a race against time but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.  Value questions, not answers, said Einstein. Being curious (as opposed to being opinionated) and asking questions will get us much further than looking for answers to known questions.

The head fox at the ministry for henhouses reports that as number of eggs increased significantly last month, there will be no further need to count chickens. Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Don’t think about using the F-word, triage your startup

Start-ups have always been risky, perpetually hovering with an uncertain future, but the pandemic is turbocharging natural selection and causing a hiatus for many. In just a few weeks, many have cut or furloughed employees, and funding is drying up – startup funding in the first three months of 2020 was on a pace for its second-steepest quarterly decline in ten years, said CB Insights. The virus just nailed it.

The fallout is hitting the highest-profile tech businesses too. For example, Airbnb. valued at $31Bn, has stopped hiring and has suspended $800m of marketing. The coronavirus outbreak is economically akin to a major earthquake occurring for weeks on end. There are no distractions now, there is no coddled. You need to have thick skin and a high adversity quotient.

Start-ups in some sectors – telemedicine, food delivery, online learning, remote work, gaming – are thriving amid the quarantine, but the pain is now deeper and most likely just beginning as investors, already bruised by the collapse of a string of tech unicorn valuations last year, become even more cautious. Indeed Sequoia Capital issued a warning to start-ups, calling Covid-19 the black swan of 2020, and calling on its portfolio firms to rein in costs, conserve cash and brace for capital scarcity.

The coronavirus strikes at a time when many of the tech unicorns were looking ropey. Their perpetually loss-making business models and exuberant valuations were increasingly being questioned. Most telling, the gospel of growth at all cost has gone out of the window. After years of ‘blitzscaling’ being done without much focus on profits, path to profitability is the new watchword. The law of economic gravity has returned, as some discern an echo of the bursting dotcom bubble of twenty years ago. The F-word is out there. Failure. Others are more sanguine. Whoever is right, startup pastures that emerge in the aftermath will look very different.

Unicorns have come a long way since Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Venture Capital coined the term in 2013, to convey wonder and rarity. Post Covid-19, it’s reckoned that a third of tech unicorns will thrive, a third will disappoint and a third will be taken over or die. But the euphoria began to ebb last year. First, Uber’s IPO priced at a 30% discount to what the investment bankers had promised, Slack disappointed, then, in October, WeWork disclosed that it lost as much money as it generated in revenues. Its valuation was cut from $47bn to $8bn. A different F-word there.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week, as I’ve heard a few tech founders use it in the UK, and it’s become part of their vocabulary. Yes, Failure.

We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. So rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments, based on the severity of their condition that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for after death, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn? You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that we won’t make the same mistake twice, but as Jason Fried said, You might know what didn’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can we turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking, that the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

So, what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them. Now is the time to focus on purpose, not revenue.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as a big raise, going public or being acquired, it is a skewed measure of success. How about sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe? You may need to reset your North Star.

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Now is the time to experiment, not being maudlin about failure.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product. Use this time for more customer discovery than you’ve ever done before.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startup founder’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be in control of your emotions, or your team will see through you. Being down-in-the-dumps and muttering the F-word isn’t going to help anyone. Mental toughness is needed now. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. Keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge – but keep shooting for the horizon. Noah built an ark – what are you going to build?

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process. Now’s the time to double down on marketing strategy, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t move slow. Move fast. Moving at a snail’s pace and waiting for the next blow to your business can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting customers first. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward. That’s a better F-word – forward.

There are entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but people generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. But don’t enjoy the scratched knees. Appreciate where you are at each point. Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the dark clouds clear. Keep walking with your head held high, reaching for the sky and not walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles. I forget where I recently read this anecdote, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

For me, keep pushing forward and having a triage mindset to encounter the wounds experienced in your startup life. Failure is not an option, be relentless, be limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. If what you’re doing now is not a viable solution in this new world and in a different economy, then find something that is. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.