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Adventures in entrepreneurship: No Map. No Guide. No Limits.

March 12, 2018

A couple of weeks ago saw the ‘Beast from the East’ meet ‘Storm Emma’, causing the UK’s worst weather in years. Snow chaos disrupted travel with hundreds of drivers stranded, hospital operations cancelled and closed schools across the UK, as the Met Office issued ‘red alert’ warnings of risk to life.

Blizzards, strong winds and drifting snow created some of the most testing weather experienced in the UK for years as temperatures plunged. The red warning – meaning ‘Widespread damage, travel and power disruption and risk to life is likely’ – was only the third such warning the Met Office has issued since the system came into force in 2011.

The dramatic weather also saw numerous examples of good deeds. Many 4×4 drivers volunteered to ferry around health workers or get supplies to people who were stranded. At home, sheep and deer in the garden coming down from the hillside seeking food and shelter kept the dog on full alert and full voice.

These extreme weather conditions reminded me of the images and achievements of famous explorers of the Polar Regions, filled with stories of entrepreneurial courage and endurance, as well as triumph and tragedy.

There’s an amazing list of adventurers – from Britons Ross, Shackleton and Scott, to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian, Australian Douglas Mawson, American Robert Peary, back to Erik the Red, a wild Icelandic youth, who discovered and settled Greenland. Then there’s Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first person to have reached both the North and South Poles.

Aside from the mentality of wanting to endure such extreme physical hardship in the pursuit of a dream, the thinking, behaviour and spirit of adventure of explorers such as Amundsen manifests itself in the focus, determination and flair of modern day entrepreneurs.

Successful explorers and entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they aren’t afraid of failure. The fear of failure can easily overpower your ability to take action and secure opportunities, yet faced with uncertainty, odds stacked against them and often an initial plan in tatters, intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs seek to pursue their goals with zeal and endeavour.

Close your eyes, imagine this: a little tent moves in the wind, under a harsh looking dark sky, snow in the air. You’ve pitched your tent becoming the first human ever to reach the South Pole. The image of that tent depicts perhaps one of the most important and dangerous places anyone has ever slept.

At 3pm December 14, 1911 Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. The tent and the camp surrounding it were given the name Polheim, which translates as Home at the Pole, by Amundsen. It was the temporary home of the pioneering crew who pitched the first ever tent at the South Pole.

Amundsen won the race to the Pole ahead of Scott, yet poignantly it was Scott’s crew that took the last ever picture of the camp – they rested there until starting off on their tragic return journey. Since they left, 105 years ago, the tent has never been seen and probably won’t be seen ever again.

Amundsen became the first man to lead a successful expedition to the South Pole, arriving about a month before Scott. He began a career studying medicine at the University of Oslo, but dropped out in order to go to sea. His first Antarctic trip was in 1899 when he was one of the first party to over winter in Antarctica. Here he established his credentials as a leader and as a resourceful expeditioner.

Amundsen left Christiana, Norway in August 1910 with provisions for two years and nearly a hundred Greenland sled dogs that were to be the key in his team’s subsequent success in reaching the South Pole.

The Fram and Amundsen’s party reached Antarctica and landfall at the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911 where a winter base was established. Depots were established between then and April when the sun set for the long Antarctic winter night, depots of stores that would be used in the push to reach the South Pole the following spring.

The winter was passed in orderly industriousness while the party prepared for the polar journey as well as settling into winter routines to maintain morale and make sure the men were kept occupied. Amundsen understood the importance of preparation for the winter and of maintaining spirits particularly during the dark days of winter.

The weather however was a constant source of frustration. When eventually Amundsen and his team of five men set off each with a sledge pulled by thirteen dogs. They made good progress feeding the dogs on seal meat and blubber. The men’s rations were meagre in quality, but sufficient in quantity.

Plans were made for the final push to the Pole based on setting out with dogs that would be systematically shot and fed to the remainder. They struggled on against poor weather, blizzards and bad snow conditions, which took their toll on both dogs and men.

At 3pm on Friday, December 14, 1911 the party arrived at the South Pole. They erected a small tent and placed inside it a letter and then set off back to their winter base. They arrived 39 days later with all five men and 11 dogs “hale and hearty”.

The party that had reached the South Pole first was: Roald Amundsen, Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre H. Hassel, Oscar Wisting. Truly innovators, truly entrepreneurs. They had done something nobody else had done before.

Amundsen continued his explorations in the Arctic becoming more and more interested in flying and airship travel. Alas he disappeared with no trace in 1928 while searching for the survivors of an airship crash in the Arctic.

So as we move on from the extreme weather at home, and can only imagine the conditions over 100 years ago that Amundsen faced, what are the lessons to be learned from him and his seemingly reckless cohort of fellow explorers for C21st entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own personal goals? What are the key traits in their attitude to adventure and pushing the boundaries that today’s entrepreneurs can look to replicate?

They don’t take a parachute When launching, most new business ventures face a significant risk on not knowing what they don’t know with little to no safety net.  Explorers like Amundsen anticipate a degree of trauma and failure along the way, but don’t have a prepared safety net. Instead they have an eternal optimism and positive mindset in their recovery, and have an ability to harness resources to build their own landing strip to catch themselves when they fall.

Don’t hold out for better opportunities Amundsen seized the moment, beating Scott to the Pole with better strategy, planning and execution. He endured terrible weather conditions. Entrepreneurs take advantage of new opportunities even when the conditions aren’t optimal, and when others don’t make a move. It gets them a step forward first, ahead of the game. Savvy entrepreneurs understand that it takes a little elbow grease and sharp elbows to achieve success.

Work effectively under pressure There’s nothing riskier than riding on top of a Saturn V rocket with enough chemical energy to be the equivalent of a small atomic bomb, not to mention the threat of being sucked into the vacuum of space. In 1969, that’s what Neil Armstrong faced as part of his journey to become the first person to walk on the moon. Similarly entrepreneurs focus on the bigger picture, they push through the pressure and ignore the side stories to get closer to accomplishing their goals.

Don’t let stuff cloud your vision In 2001, Erik Weilhenmayer became the first blind person to climb the summit of Everest. But he didn’t stop there. He scaled each continent’s tallest peak (known as the ‘Seven Summits’), and kayaked 277 miles on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The way you perceive challenges affects your ability to conquer them. The most successful entrepreneurs find work arounds when faced with apparently immovable barriers.

Take the road less travelled Ed Stafford holds the world record for walking the entire length of the Amazon River. His journey spanned over 4,000 miles, including an 18,000-foot mountain, taking over two years to complete. He documented every step of his expedition. For entrepreneurs, the road less travelled often holds the hidden opportunity. They are driven by curiosity and chart their own path to success without following the steps of others.

Accept failure with open arms It only takes one customer to say ‘yes’ to make launch of your startup a success, but don’t be surprised if your journey takes you somewhere different than where you set out for. Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson, Nansen, Scott – all had to conquer whatever unexpected obstacles they encountered along the way. As an entrepreneur you must be willing to take risks in order for your business to succeed. The biggest risk is not taking any risk – that is guaranteed to fail,

Desperation drives creativity After leaving most of the crew behind on Elephant Island on his Trans-Polar expedition of 1914-1916, Shackleton and a few men crossed the Atlantic on an 800 mile journey to seek help, in a glorified rowboat. Forced to improvise, they built a makeshift deck of canvas, and sealed the seams with seal blood. It held up–even through hurricane-force winds–and they reached their target.

For entrepreneurs, constraints of money, time and expertise go with the territory, but they’re also a beautiful thing because they force creativity and innovation. Challenges will arise that no planning can anticipate, but in the end, success is more than a customer invoice. The ‘how’ of the ingenuity and grit shown along the way can be just as important.

Known as ‘the last of the Vikings’, Amundsen was a lifelong adventurer with a gift for organisation and planning. An Amundsen camp lives on at the South Pole, and is among the most visible things there. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a US-run research station right near the South Pole.

The first of ten was but in 1956, and it became the first permanent human structure at the South Pole, setting down some of the first human presence on the entire continent. The original station has been upgraded a number of times in the last sixty years, but it has retained its name as a tribute to the men who raced to reach the place it now stands.

I think the parallels between an entrepreneur and an explorer are quite clear. It’s about having fire in your heart and ice in your veins, being bold, being brave and being true to yourself. No one is so brave that they are not troubled by something unexpected, anyone can be bold from a safe distance, but explorers and entrepreneurs embrace adversity: No Map. No Guide. No Limits.


Entrepreneurial heroes: John McGeoch

March 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial learning journey: lessons from the Winter Olympics

February 28, 2018

Sweden outclassed hosts South Korea to regain the women’s curling Winter Olympic title in Pyeongchang at the weekend, winning 8-3 to win gold for a third time and improve on the silver medal won in Sochi four years ago.

Sweden were competing in their fourth consecutive Olympic final, winning in 2006 and 2010, whilst the South Korean team’s silver earned the hosts their first Olympic curling medal. The sport was relatively unknown in South Korea until the impressive run by the team of school friends, nicknamed the ‘Garlic Girls’ as they all come from a small garlic-growing region.

Team GB women’s team lost 3-5 to Japan in the third-place play off, having lost 5-10 to Sweden in the semi-final, ending my new-found love affair with the sport which has gripped me for the past week or so. Skip Eve Muirhead had promised she would thrive under the slow‑burning tension of an Olympic competition, but at the crucial point of both matches, we were unable to make it count when it mattered.

I became addicted to the spectacle of the curling competition, the sights, the sounds, the strategy and tactics, watching every minute I could of play on ‘sheet’ loving the shouting and the noise – The Roaring Game, originates from the rumbling sound the 44-pound granite stones make when they travel across the ice.

One of the world’s oldest team sports, curling originated in the C16th in Scotland, where games were played during winter on frozen ponds and lochs. It’s an icy alternative to shuffleboard, and I had to know more.

For example, did you know that the ‘sheet’ is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to ‘curl’, or deviate from a straight line? These water droplets are known as ‘pebble’.

When the stone touches the pebble, there’s friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the ‘house’ – the target that looks like a big bulls eye. The centre of the ‘house’ is known as the ‘button’, and basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

Obviously, this friction is not always a good thing, which is why you see frantic sweeping of the ice in front of the stone. The sweeping raising the temperature of the ice, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone, and keeps the stone moving in a straight line. Still with me?!

In each ‘end’ (period of play), both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all sixteen stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that’s closest to the button effectively wins the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone.

Sounds complex, but it’s a lively spectacle and competitive, you soon gest the gist of the rules once play is underway, and like any Olympic sport, the commitment, passion and focus of the competitors is something to behold.

The last ten days made me an unabashed curling fanatic. The only problem? Most matches started at 1.30am in the morning. So, armed with as much green tea, toast and marmite as I could handle, I kept myself awake to the last throw of the key matches.

From there, curling adrenaline kept me going the rest of the way, and GB victories were frequent, at which point I was silently jumping up and down in pure joy, trying to celebrate the moment without waking my family. I often went to bed at 4.00am filled with pure joy.

I also became an armchair fan of the US men’s team, who beat Sweden 10-7 to win the gold medal. What made them so special? I thought about that question, and started to particularly focus on what made the US curling team such a good group, besides their curling skills.

I realised that each of the four players on the team brought something different, but important to the squad, and it’s an interesting aspect of building a team of different but complimentary skills and mindsets.

The unassuming John Landsteiner wasn’t a particularly loud voice during in-match tactics discussions. Instead, with quiet professionalism, he did what was asked of him and put his team in positions to win with his successful early shots.

Matt Hamilton occupied the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Loud, bold, and recognisable (with his trademark baseball cap and moustache), Hamilton always tried to identify and advocate for the most aggressive shot possible. His more conservative teammates often overruled him (correctly), but that willingness to take the tough shot came up big in vital moments.

The vice-skip Tyler George was active in tactical discussions, but that wasn’t his most notable trait. I couldn’t take my eyes off George after he shot, because no matter how well he did, he never looked satisfied. There was never any post-shot celebration, only thinking (or sometimes wincing) about how his shot could have been even better.

Finally the skip, John Shuster, has a fascinating story that’s worth a read. In short, despite numerous setbacks stretching back nearly a decade, Shuster never gave up on himself or his team, and with the weight of a nation on his back, pushed this group to heights never before reached by a US team.

So, does your team have John Landsteiners, folks who build the foundations via their quiet professionalism and skill?  Where are your Matt Hamiltons? People who are willing to occasionally make the outlandish call, do something special or fresh? Do you have a Tyler George, someone who is never satisfied with ‘good enough,’ and who are always searching for ways to be better?

Each Olympian strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – all of which we seek to emulate in a startup.

These are not ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up early and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having the world watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people, but are motivated with an exceptional level of personal drive, and learn to take on habits and traits that are extraordinary in order to achieve their goals. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen.

These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way.

As I watched their triumphs and defeats unfold, it was clear that the traits that make an Olympian outstanding are the same ones that define today’s most successful entrepreneurs. For example, you must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve, focus intently and follow your gut instincts, listen to your inner voice and put in the hard work that you know it will take to reach your goal.

So whilst our GB Ladies didn’t quite hit the heights at Pyeongchang, they certainly had the traits to take into your startup business, and pushed themselves to their limits in high-pressure competitive situations. The performances in PyeongChang reveal typical examples of the traits and attributes of entrepreneurs:

Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy. Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth to achieve a personal best.

Mental toughness: Sports psychologists have identified four components of mental toughness – control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Mentally tough athletes have a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity.

Lack of fear: The psychology of overcoming fear is particularly relevant to athletes in high-risk sports on ice, and for a startup, you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.

Bouncing back: There is no better example of this than Elise Christie, from her disappointments at Sochi in 2014 to her potentially games ending crash in the 1500m at PyeongChang, no one expected her to take to the start line for the 1000m, but take to the line she did. Sadly her games ended in yellow card, but how did she even make it back?

Block out negativity: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your startup business success, and get this energy. Olympians lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners with positive mind sets.

When you lead a startup dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and tenacity to keep going and vision that will succeed.

Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that their path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality. So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – a personal best.

There’s a starman, waiting in the sky

February 12, 2018

The Falcon Heavy’s boosters burned for 154 seconds before they jettisoned into space. The main rocket pushed on. Four minutes later, the nose cone opened to reveal its payload: a cherry-red electric Tesla Roadster with the top down. The sports car stereo’s playlist included Bowie’s Space Oddity, Life on Mars and Starman.

The image is startling, incongruous, barmy. A car in space. At the wheel is a spacesuit, seatbelt on. Earth hangs behind it. The image jars like bad Photoshop. But it is real. A PR stunt for the ages.

It was all brought to you by Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur and founder of Paypal, electric car company Tesla, and SpaceX,  manufacturer of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket on earth. The event is a stepping-stone to Mars.

The scene is spawned from Musk’s entrepreneurial bravado, endeavour and ego. It is human folly and genius rolled into one. Life on Earth feels precarious, so we took to the stars. The heavens navigated by a dummy astronaut in an electric car, with a handy note for aliens – Made on Earth by humans – imprinted on the circuit board.

Musk sold online payments firm Paypal for $1.5bn ten years ago and has evolved into the most iconic of entrepreneurs since Steve Jobs, capturing the public imagination as a crazy-mad-genius figure – part industrialist, part scientist, part philanthropist, part superhero.

Musk is known for his ability to come up with otherworldly ideas and then pursue them with vigour, emotion, intelligence and self-discipline. He has grabbed the private space flight and electric car industries, ventured into solar energy and artificial intelligence, and promised super-high speed magnetic train travel, in a tube, underground. Oh, and he plans to colonise Mars.

Most take Musk’s more wild ambitions and boasts about the future he will create with a pinch of salt. His companies have missed deadline after deadline and recorded massive financial losses. But popularity of Tesla’s electric cars, and the launch of the Falcon Heavy capped a string of successes that say, you know what, this bloke is making impossible stuff happen.

As a young boy, he was obsessed with science fiction novels and anything you could run an electric current through – hence the nod to Nikola Tesla. Ditching his education, he founded Zip2, an online newspaper platform, selling it in 1999 to Compaq for $300m. Musk ploughed his share into an online bank, which became Paypal. In 2002, Paypal sold to eBay for $1.5bn. At 31, Musk netted $165m and ploughed it all into three startups: Tesla, SpaceX, and a solar energy company called Solar City.

In 2004, Musk invested heavily in Tesla, founded a year earlier by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Tesla is a quixotic venture, a niche electric car company in a nation addicted to petrol. Musk set out a top-down plan for a low-cost, mass-market electric car. Having received hefty Government bailouts, in 2010 it became the first American car company to float on the stock market since Ford in 1956.

But serious production delays on its low-cost Model 3 have compounded years of losses – $675.4m loss in the last quarter of 2017, more than five times worse than the previous year, although revenue climbed 44% to $3.3 billion.

But to those who admire him, Musk is a visionary, an irrepressible Howard Hughes-like figure revolutionising entrepreneur. His two latest ventures, Neuralink and OpenAI, take him into the world of artificial intelligence – which he regards as the biggest threat to humanity.

With an estimated net worth of $12.7Bn and a clutch of projects we’d all give our give our right arm to be involved with, what makes him tick? Job search firm Paysa gathered speeches and transcripts of interviews from Musk. It put over 2,500 words through the IBM Watson Personality Insights API to perform an analysis. So, what are Musk’s top five traits? According to the study, they are intellect, immoderation, cautiousness, emotionality and altruism. Other traits Musk possesses include orderliness, self-discipline, self-efficacy and being cooperative.

An interesting analysis, but how do they manifest into his everyday habits and behaviours? From my own research, here is what is in Musk’s entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Musk is that no matter what the obstacle is, he never gives up. Musk is exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike other ordinary men, he displays outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Musk has a clear idea of what he wants and is wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desires. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Insane work ethic Musk is a hardcore workaholic person. He believes that there is no shortcut to success. He works for 100 hours a week and has been doing so for over many years. He once said, If other people are putting in 40 hours in a week, and you’re putting in 100, you will achieve in four months what it takes others a year to achieve.

Aim for the big picture Musk has targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and has no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself. He is targeting to place a man on Mars and wants to retire on Mars with 80,000 other colonists. He says, I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact!

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Musk’s enormous ambition to do what everyone says can’t be done far exceeds everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aims for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He’s always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

Work on the ground level Musk possesses the ability to think at the system level of design. He knows exactly what he wants and sits with his team, he is the connection between the market demands and engineers’ interest. Musk seems to be a taskmaster but his attitude sets the culture of the team. He believes he will know about the working of the product better if he gets his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. He himself test-drives many of the changes to Tesla cars.

Believes in self-analysis Musk believes in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He believes that people do not think critically enough. It is one of the reasons for their failure. They take too many things for granted and be true without enough basis in that belief. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a bad solution.

Deep-rooted passion I didn’t go into the rocket business, the car business, or the solar business thinking, ‘This is a great opportunity.’ I just thought, in order to make a difference, something needed to be done. I wanted to create something substantially better than what came before. Musk only tackles those problems where he has deep rooted passion and conviction.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Part of Musk’s ability to motivate his team to do great things is his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drives each of his companies. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every product Tesla brings to market is focused on this vision and backed by a Master Plan Musk wrote over ten years ago. Have a vision, make it happen.

Be audacious What he has done is something that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry – car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) – and created the best products in those industries. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies.

Focus on signals, not on noise Musk never invests in advertising, preferring to spend on research, design, development and production. He stresses that many businesses get confused and deviate their focus from things that make their products and services better. Musk believes that all the efforts that are not resulting in better products or services should be stopped. Many of Musk’s most entrepreneurial characteristics are behaviour choices within your own control.

Be a constant learner Musk reads the way most people watch TV. Musk is the definition of a bookworm. An avid reader from a young age, when he was in grade school he was reading ten hours a day. His childhood reading included Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series from which he drew the lesson that you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one. The books are centered around the work of a fictional visionary named Hari Seldon. This has been his guiding principle for life.

He is tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Musk also has an ace up his sleeve – he has a strong glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lies in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

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

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

Falcon Heavy was an extraordinary technical achievement with flamboyance and a touch of playfulness that is typical of Musk, but it should not be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Musk is not simply having fun building rockets and fast car, nor is he running businesses just to become wealthy or bear rivals. He wants to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity. Creating either of these companies would be a signal achievement, that the same person should have built and run them in parallel is remarkable.

But by no means should Musk count his high-torque photovoltaic astro-turbo chickens yet, like all entrepreneurial ventures there is room for failure. I suspect he needs what I call James Bond luck. He needs to dodge the avalanche, avoid the gunfire, ski off the cliff, pull the ripcord and glide to safety into deep, blue, warm water below, so that he can save the world.

But maybe he can. He has the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation, rapid learning and constant improvement. He’s more than just ideas and allure. Elon is a rare business leader who is interested in mankind as a whole and wants to explore how tech can change the world we live in.

Pacesetters guide the field. It may not matter in the end of you don’t win, but it brings people along. And if Musk personally doesn’t deal the death blow to the internal combustion engine, he will always have a lovely red car in space to console himself.

Startup storytelling

January 29, 2018

For thousands of years, storytelling has been an integral part of humanity. Stories play a vibrant role in our daily lives, from the entertainment we consume to the experiences we share with others. Even in our digital age, stories continue to appeal to us just as much as they did to our ancient ancestors sat around the campfire.

Modern-day storytelling is reflected in the popular TED Talks, and its slogan of Ideas Worth Spreading. Analysis of the most popular TED presentations found that stories represented 65% of their content.

Throughout time, storytelling has proven to be a powerful delivery mechanism for sharing insights and ideas in a way that is memorable, persuasive, and engaging, and so storytelling is a great tool for startups seeking to connect with new investors, customers and employees.

Stories are powerful in shaping a startup’s messages around their values, strategy, brand, culture and product. An inspiring narrative helps people relate and connect to both the founder and the startup idea, providing a unique perspective of the founder’s voice. As a result, the best stories take on a conceptual role in creating a company’s core purpose.

They have more impact with customers than simply listing and highlighting ‘features’ about a particular product or service. Indeed there are two ways to share knowledge with people – you can push information out, or you can pull them in with a story.

For startups, storytelling is key because attracting the spotlight is difficult without a marketing budget, particularly when the product is interesting but they have no brand recognition. Good stories deliver a competitive edge to a startup because it is easier to attract an audience and enable the conversations. It begins with having a real grasp about what they do, why what they’re doing matters, and their target audiences. Once that story comes to life, it is easier for storytelling to happen and be the differentiator.

Your startup is innovative. Is that enough? No, in an age of immediate social media, data and competition, building an innovative technology product isn’t enough. The information age has democratised promotion with social media, so how do you get noticed, offering a comparable experience at a comparable price?

Equally, a world of commoditised tech means that building a great product and putting it in front of users at a good price is not enough to distinguish your startup. When customers can find the same service elsewhere with a few clicks, it is an emotional connection that drives loyalty. Your startup needs to win hearts and minds by telling its story, and that’s all about your position and purpose.

For example, Frank is a socially responsible entrepreneur who has set up a fair trade coffee shop. Why would consumers drop in to Frank’s café and not Starbucks? It’s not because consumers lack for places to go to get caffeinated, it’s because their core purpose is to help consumers build a more equitable world through socially mindful buying.

What are you really selling? Frank isn’t positioned as a coffee shop, he sells compassion. Frank’s customers are proud to support a company that makes life better for those less fortunate. They’re excited for the opportunity to buy coffee grown by farmers who are paid a living wage. They’ll pass a closer Starbucks to buy from Frank’s.

For tech startups, as barriers to entry continue to fall driven by microservices and cloud technologies, competition will increase and the startups that reach their target customer bases with the best messaging, building the most effective brands will win.

To thrive, you can’t simply rely on selling a great product, you must sell a vision as well. The future success of your startup depends on its messaging. If you can connect with your buyers, sharing your vision with them and giving them a reason to buy, you will reap loyalty. If you cannot, you’re just selling another startup product easily abandoned.

So you called a cab, but no one’s showing. The only thing the cranky dispatcher will say is He’ll be there in 15. You call back in 15, and he now says Driver’s on the way. Any minute now. Click. It’s cold, it’s getting dark, and you’re already late. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app that let you tap into an unused supply of empty cabs and cars to get you where you want to go, perhaps with a little style? So goes the legendary inspiration behind Uber, a story now encapsulated in a single tagline: Everyone’s private driver.

So, recognising startup storytelling is a way to help in the positioning, purpose and creation of your value proposition, they have to be good stories and have a purposeful message, here are some considerations for building your own startup story.

Stories spark emotions We have an intuitive, emotional side as well as a deliberate, rational side to our decision making, and for a startup, rather than just trying to connect with people on a rational level, create an emotional engagement about your vision, purpose and journey so far.

Storytelling gives startup founders a way of inspiring in a way that appeals to both sides of our character. A story has a core message, but can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the lens through which it’s being heard.

A startup story is a narrative about your north star Every startup founder has a story in their head about what their work means for them, through which they put their north star into context. Startup leaders able to tell their story create a strategic narrative that can engage people in the wider context of the journey the business is on, giving people a reason to understand them and their business.

Research shows that telling stories helps people understand information you are sharing. A London School of Economics study found that 10% of people retain information when you simply share a statistics, and 30% will retain it if you include a story with your statistic. But if you simply tell a story, 70% will retain the information shared. That’s powerful! In these days of information overload, a good story will always win over a proposition explained just using data.

A story communicates your values What is your brand and startup about? Are you innovative and quirky, fun or just really believe that your products or services are great? Define what makes your company great, work out how you are least like the competition and tell that story. If your story doesn’t divulge something personal or unfamiliar about your brand or business, your story could end up being boring.

Stories help people learn Stories are a great way of learning from others, and can help shape a startup business, internally and externally. Stories give people the space to consider, reflect and discover the implicit meaning of what’s being said, enabling them to learn what they need in context for themselves. However, in your startup story don’t tell them everything, leave gaps to give people time to think and reflect.

Your story reveals who you are Your startup story reveals who you are implicitly, without having to explain your career history or hand out your business plan. Your story creates a timeline of experience, learnings, medals and scars – there is nothing wrong with revealing your emotions. It could be that tough lessons have been learned, but it’s all about communicating who you as a business are, sharing your identity and person. Positioning the founder’s story helps a startup become what it is.

There is beauty in brevity We all understand and appreciate the art of long-form writing, but short attention spans and being overloaded with content and data is part of our everyday lives. If you can make your story descriptive and captivating, yet short and sweet, that will be memorable. Remember, brevity doesn’t just mean short, it means the exact use of words in writing or talking with impact.

Start with a meaningful opening line Unless you’re telling the story of how to land a plane safely or the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, resist the urge to begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc, as the stuff you need to hook people doesn’t tend to happen early on. Events need to build, one after the other, emotionally rather than sequentially. To have real impact, your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily the one that the audience expects.

Know your audience – keep the customers interest in mind Remember, what’s the problem you are solving? Think about what is interesting to your audience as consumers and work that storyline. What interests you as a founder may not match up with what consumers are interested in. Who is the story for? Tell the story for your audience, and always keep their interests in mind throughout the creative process.

Show, don’t tell A fundamental maxim of storytelling is ‘Show, don’t tell’, rather than talking at your audience, telling them what to do or feel, share the story so that it unfolds naturally and your audience comes to their own conclusions. People don’t just absorb facts and information, they actively listen and make their own inferences.

Describe what’s happening as if the action is unfolding right now in front of you, and as Mark Twain said, help people to answer the question What does this looks like in practice? Founders sculpt the best startup stories by using anecdotes, with a sense for what the outside world might think of as interesting angles.

Make it personal It doesn’t matter if your startup builds smartphone apps, cloud infrastructure or designs medical devices, human beings are still driving the action. Personalise the protagonists and journey of your story. Make her seem real enough so that the audience feels a stake in (and wants to know) what happens to her next. People connect with other people, so make sure you focus on the real-life characters in your story.

Use customer’s stories What could be more personal than a hard drive in the cloud? Practically anything, but it’s all in how you use it. When Dropbox releases a new feature set, they celebrate by launching a site thanking their users while encouraging them to share what Dropbox has enabled them to do. Customer stories bring a whole new dimension to your product.

It’s not always good times Something always goes wrong in start-ups, and these present opportunities by telling a story of recovery and remedy. Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success, it’s the doubt and concern that keeps us engaged. Hone in on your problems or barriers to achieving your goals, what challenges have there been to date, what is standing in your way.

By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend credibility to your story. Your story needs to be authentic, few startups proceed in a linear way to success without hiccups along the way, a fake story begs for a backlash. As you sculpt your own story, make sure your tales don’t grow too tall in the process.

Stories are the language of humans, they make connections, create engagement and spark responses on calls to action. People like to hear a story, since sitting around the campfire, or the end of the school day. As a result of a good story, people change their behaviour and the way they think, so use your startup story to create a vision of the art of the possible and take customers, employees and investors with you on your startup journey, creating advocates along the way.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the startup life cycle

January 22, 2018

So, you’re on the journey from idea to product, through startup to a high growth business. Each stage of the startup lifecycle brings a set of obstacles and challenges to deal with and overcome. You have to be alert and flexible in your thinking, adapting your strategy as you progress, different approaches are needed for each stage.

Your startup leaps through stages of growth just as our own human development lifecycle. Birth begins when we shoot out into the light. From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test, casting your first vote…life is a series of milestones.

The story of your life, and life to be lived, is a series of chronological steps, so what are the parallel steps in your natural development and your start-up life journey?

Stage One – Being born: problem-solution fit

Birth marks the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid. Yet perhaps life starts with conception, followed by the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. What was the genesis of your startup, the moment of passion that created that ‘eureka’ moment?

Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day. Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark. You’ve got your business idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess just how viable your startup is likely to be.

In some ways, this is the soul-searching phase. It’s where you take a step back and experiment with the feasibility of your business idea, and also ask yourself if you have what it takes to make it a success.

At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? and Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second, then you’ve got problem-solution fit, and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing your idea.

Stage Two – Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. Man crawls, walks upright and then resorts to a walking stick. Walking involves unconscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on a camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension – so be careful your first articulation of your startup is a clear conversation, not babble!

This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent going back-and-forth, tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be noise and some trip up and painful moments too.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk. Once you’ve validated your MVP focus on getting users into your product – it’s time to grow your customer base and get out into the market.

There is a big gap between what early adopters expect from a product, and what the bigger chunk of the market actually needs. The main reason behind ‘startup infanticide’ is the failure to identify and overcome this gap.

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm best describes the Grand Canyon that every adventurous entrepreneur must leap over to ‘get to the market’. The Chasm is the region of uncertainty a business goes through before it gets to product/market fit. And the shortest way to get there is by actively listening to the customer and implementing the promised features on schedule.

Stage Three – Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before. Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment of where conviction meets doubt is that leap of and the irrational jump from dependence to independence, from security to self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, winning customers to prove your value proposition. You’re now creating you own forward momentum, but as Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, an epic contradiction from just a minute ago when to stay balanced you had to stay still, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, not knowing to self-belief, just like learning to ride a bike you focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions and with options of turning left rather than right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. An engaged user community is the fastest way to get to any startup to the next stage.

Stage Four – Facial hair: scale

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew a moustache. Well, not exactly, it was stubble, but the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly, and it got me thinking back to that first shave at the onset of puberty. The rite of passage seems monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. There are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Startups in this puberty stage often see rapid growth as the business model is emerging and you build a repeatable customer process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

This is perhaps the most important stage in the lifecycle of a startup, getting to a point where customers can comfortably whip out their wallets and pay for the service they receive on a regular basis, scaling is a tipping point of capability and capacity.

Stage Five – Your first kiss: maturity

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending. Unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang.

You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, rational speech is cut off as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

Understanding your position in the startup lifecycle as you hit maturity might help you keep your feet on the ground whilst metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. Now is not the time to get giddy, emotional and let your feet to leave the ground. However, it is the time to develop proper long-term relationships based on trust and value.

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order – everyone’s biological clock has its own unique time line. Some see astronomical growth – for example Airbnb – whilst others’ jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, or a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable.

As John Lennon says, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans. However, based on my experience, many startups will see a growth journey that has some resemblance to the stages defined above, and awareness may help you anticipate what is coming next, and how you can best prepare yourself.

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language; next year’s words await another voice

January 15, 2018

Thinking about ourselves – our feelings, our past, our hopes and dreams – is something that most of us spend a good deal of effort trying to avoid when working in a startup venture. We keep away from thinking about ourselves because much of what we could discover threatens to be uncomfortable and awkward. We might discover how much there was to feel inadequate, and guilty on account of recalling the many errors and misjudgements we have made.

We just want to get on with making stuff happen, rather than reflecting upon ourselves. We have a lot to hide. It is part of the human tragedy that we are such natural self-deceivers. Two are worth focusing on in particular: our habit of thinking too much, and the opposite, our proclivity for thinking too little.

When we think too much, we are filling our minds with impressive ideas, which blatantly announce our intelligence but subtly ensure we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of reflection and critique, upon which our development of our startup nevertheless rests. Our minds are crammed with arcane data. We tend to over think and thus over complicate things.

Then there is our habit of thinking too little. Here we pretend that we are simpler than we really are and that too much psychology might be nonsense and fuss about nothing. Just do stuff. Get on with it. We lean on a version of robust common sense to ward off intimations of our own potential awkward complexity. We imply that not thinking very much is evidence of a superior kind of intelligence – we’re smart and rely on gut instinct.

We deploy bluff strategies and sideline avenues of personal investigation as unduly wasting time, implying that to lift the lid further could never be fruitful. We use the practical mood of Monday morning 9am to ward off the complex insights of 3am the previous night, when we unpick the entire fabric of our existence against the backdrop of a million stars. Deploying an attitude of vigorous common sense, we strive to make our moments of radical disquiet seem like aberrations – rather than the central occasions of insight they might actually be.

However, at the start of a new year, having had holiday downtime from the frantic life of a startup, we need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our self deception of ‘just do it’. We cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut off large portions of our minds and end up stubborn tetchy and defensive. Our neglect of the awkward sides of self-evaluation buckles our very being, revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have.

Self-critique is a precondition as a measure of sanity as a startup leader. Two weeks in, how has the new year started for you? Now is the time to get the balance right. We have renewed vim and vigour to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in, energy and intention to get stuff done. However, rather than throwing yourself in like a whirling dervish, stepping back and reflecting on what is truly timely and important is more beneficial.

Now is the time to get the balance of thinking and doing in place. Time is an ingredient in every entrepreneurial endeavour. At the start of the twelve month journey, my preference is to initially focus as to 80% thinking, 20% doing, and then having got my thinking straight, flip this into 20% thinking, 80% doing. Here are my thoughts as to what can make a difference as the year stands before us.

1. Review and refocus your long-term growth goals We trip up and get blinded by what is in our immediate line of sight. Whilst ‘getting stuff done’ and execution is a key startup principle, everything should be linked to your purpose – your ‘Why?’ – and your vision.

Of course, no strategy survives as a business plan document no matter how finely crafted, things never turn out exactly as you imagine or hope them to be, but it’s important for your growth strategy to know your north star and your direction of travel to inform and guide everyday activity.

Begin by reviewing the growth strides that you made in the previous twelve months. Did you make progress toward your purpose, vision, key goals and objectives? What worked, what didn’t, what got left behind and forgotten? It’s a chance to refocus and ensure you realign everything towards your long-term aims.

2. Pick out the vital few energising short-term growth goals The long-term goals that you have determined as future strategic milestones should inform the immediate near-term goals. This can include month-to-month customer, new hire and product releases, and weekly activity goals around networking.

You can work backwards, taking your 2018 goals into quarterly metrics, so the weeks, months, quarters and year really takes shape. In doing this, your near-term goals should energise you, as you continue investing time into your startup, they will provide short-term payback, and results reward and excite you for your efforts. Remember that if you aren’t excited and confident about your startup, it will be difficult to inspire others to be.

Take stock of your schedule. Is each of your workdays oriented that will allow you to grow long-term aspects of your business? Ensure that each day has periods blocked out for thinking – growth isn’t all about doing.

3. Start every day with an ‘at zero’ mindset Each day is like getting on a bike, every new ride starts with getting in the saddle, the wheels are still. We start again. Every day the odometer shows zero. Where shall we go today, what’s our plan to reach a daily goal?

For both cycling and startup growth, measurement is vital, observing visible progress is motivating. Feeling like you have 80% of the work ahead makes the daily contribution to the goal important, it’s a step forward, but avoid complacency; once your direction is set, begin each day with a blank slate.

Hold the big vision but make small steps with discipline, clarity and focus.

4. Make a long-term commitment Startup founders have unbridled ambition but they are also prone to the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ – they look for the next new opportunity and ditch their current choices. Yes, we often need to pivot when user feedback and iterative learning informs us to do so, but you have to muscle through the ‘shiny penny syndrome’ by making a commitment.

Don’t fall into the trap of setting goals in short-term cycles. Nothing happens in six months, it takes two years to become an overnight success. When you make bets, you need to go all in and think long-term. During that time, you’re not allowed to think anything other than I’m going to make this idea succeed.

Avoid distractions. Gather the courage to stick to the things that are important to you. We are all easily swayed by what others think.

5. Demonstrate your passion Orient towards personal growth and learning, rather than money and glory. In the early days, founders of tech giants like Apple and HP started from a love of computing. At the time, there wasn’t any money to be made doing what they were doing.

These startups started from pure passion. Do what you love and love what you do. The right reason to start a business is not the money or the prestige, but the chance to follow your dreams and do something remarkable. Your early customers look for passion, and that starts with the startup pitch.

Put passion into every customer conversation. When pitching, hook potential customers with a deeply personal story about why you are doing what you’re doing and building the company. The best pitches are visceral, emotional and personal. You feel the passion from that founder.

6. Build with scale in mind Often startups struggle to get beyond early adoption. This may be due to a lack of understanding of the market, but also the inability to thoroughly map out a path of success. Learn to dream big and have the ambition to develop a high growth business model of scale.

While it’s important to start small and build an MVP with a simple use case, keep in mind that you are developing a product in order to maximise growth and build something of significance.

Entrepreneurs who understand economies of scale from the very start can envision potential challenges far earlier, allowing them to develop truly innovative products that have a wide-ranging impact. At the start of this year, what are the key drivers to scale your business? Don’t lower your sights, focus on the horizon and do the tough stuff first.

7. Make each connection count At the start of a new year, reach out and make more critical customer conversations happen, refresh your thinking about making each connection count:

  • Impart personal energy and warmth in every interaction to make each conversation memorable
  • Listen with intent, not simply waiting to speak
  • Be a trusted advisor, show credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. Trust underpins every relationship
  • Always offer something of value before expecting or asking for something in return. Key to this is not focusing on reciprocity.
  • End every meeting where you’d like to start next time
  • Prepare for every meeting. Magic happens when your sincerity is powered by diligent preparation.

8. Avoid ‘Frankenstein Days’ Everyday you can do something. It’s extremely tempting to try and do it all. But ‘doing it all’ is as impossible as it is impractical.

It’s so easy, no matter how experienced and organised you are, to end up with ‘Frankenstein Days’ because you’re taken on too much at once, without a clear sense of what’s most important.

Focusing isn’t simply about avoiding the temptation to multitask until a priority is complete, it means truly understanding what you want to accomplish and centre your activities for the day entirely around that.

9. Focus on the intention of your work I have an uncanny ability to juggle many important projects and priorities without losing focus, this emphasis on what I call ‘intentional work’ has helped me on rigorous prioritisation and execution.

I spend a lot of time making sure there is real clarity of intent before digging into specifics and implementation. Focus is really about aligning with your purpose – whether it be your purpose on a specific project or your higher overall purpose for your startup.

When actions reflect intentions, you’re in alignment with your personal mission. Only then can you truly progress and grow.

10. Roll your sleeves up, put your hands into the engine Startup life isn’t about traveling in a straight line and enjoying the ride, you have to build in the flexibility to change course and get stuck in, hands-in, from the outset. Hands-in means you pay rapt attention and learn how you need to turn the rudder.

  • Speak your mind when something is bothering you.
  • Pay attention to things in the moment.
  • A lot. Don’t limit yourself to what’s on the Internet – they still print actual books you know.
  • Forget what you see online: real life is happening right in front of your eyes. Go out and live it, make it happen
  • You can’t be a spectator, double down on actions that will help you reach your intentions.

I’ve always been an advocate of making it happen for myself, I don’t look to others to sort me out. Note to self: it doesn’t matter where you came from, all that matters is where you are going. Think big, life’s too short to think small. We become what we think about. Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of curiosity.

Don’t be too timid and squeamish about uncertainty and not having a detailed plan, all startup life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. As T S Eliot said, last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice – but before you speak, think about it properly first.