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There’s no room for ego driven Machiavellians in your startup team

July 16, 2018

One of the key drivers of an effective startup is the alignment, collaboration and shared values of the team. There is no room for slackers, know-it-alls, passengers, backstabbers or Machiavellian egos. But what happens when the behaviour of one individual puts themselves and their personal interests above the business and team?

We all know the damage and acrimony they can cause to a team’s morale and reputation, but how do you repair and recover from the destructive action of such an individual? Boris Johnson is a good example of such a renegade. He’s always stood outside from his collective responsibility, even at the top table in Government as Foreign Secretary. With his cultivated air of toffish buffoonery, he was a man out of time and place with C21st team oriented culture.

Last week he saved us further damage from his grotesque incompetence, showing flagrant disregard for cabinet collective responsibility and exposing himself as a self-serving charlatan, making even his resignation a set piece of rhetorical bombast for the British public.

A man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience or scruple, his ambition and superficial charm far outstrip his judgment or principles. Characterised by a calculated appeal his own self-worth, he will always be remembered as the man who made promises on the side of a bus that he had no intention of keeping. The casual dishonesty has had devastating consequences.

His resignation serves as a perfect metaphor for the tragedy and hypocrisy of Brexit, leaving the Government and its strategy up the proverbial creek, a recklessness that looks like courage in the eyes of his supporters, but which destabilises and sabotages the work of policy making and diplomacy.

Johnson has a long-proven record of mendacity, duplicity, dishonesty and careerism – he merely saw another opening in his Ophidian career and took it, never knowingly taking a leap into the abyss. Just as a fragile basis for Brexit negotiation emerges, his selfish drive for attention threatens that.

So how do you counter this sort of behaviour if it was to happen in your startup team? Say your maverick sales leader, always temperamental and prone to doing their own thing and frequently at loggerheads with you, storms out over a spat over pricing on a sizeable deal – the final act of a dysfunctional relationship, claiming a ‘disagreement over strategy’ yet in reality, the intimacy of a startup required more humility and collegiate thinking.

It creates unrest and destabilises the team – just like the Government, a bunch of people who are individually all smart and competent, but somehow as a team just aren’t together. So why is it that things come off the rails? The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure, and identified five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: an individual is unwilling to be vulnerable within the group, and creates a sense of self-imposed isolation from the team
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate, ultimately is not bought into the team based decision making process or outcomes
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation – everyone knows it, but it remains unspoken, thus creating discord and fractured trust
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour, which sets low standards – again, looking to protect their own position and not sit alongside colleagues
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Recognise these traits? So how do you regroup and reunite the team when a rebel causes such a self-destructive explosion? For me, whilst it’s the individuals operating with different mindsets within the team that causes the dysfunctional schisms, the place to start is with results.

Talk to your team about the results that they need to be getting that it isn’t getting, removing discussion about the disruptor, and you develop agreement among the team on the outcomes, which is what a team is all about – working together to achieve something. And then you get to ask the question, what’s happening in our team that prevents us from getting the results that we all believe we need? You need to instigate a transparent dialogue on performance.

So, you start to work backward, and from results you go to the question of behaviours: how are we acting in a way that is preventing us from getting the results we need and the work relationships we need? You start to identify the behaviours that are associated with an ineffective mindset.

Then you work backward one more step, which is to help the team identify how the mindset that they’re operating from is generating these behaviours which is getting them the results different from the results we’ve agreed we all want. So it’s a two or three step process, but it starts with the results.

Leaders are generally better at being transparent than they are curious in terms of looking to address these mindset issues, better at sharing their point of view than expressing curiosity about how other people think about the situation, or what they think about what the point of view is that they’ve just expressed.

The reason that it’s so important to ask questions is that’s the way in which you begin to surface what is on everyone’s minds, helping shape and opening up the new team culture as to what their concerns and motivations are. If you don’t do that, you’re just guessing that what you have in your head about your team is right, and if you plan a strategy based on that, it’s very easy to be off the mark and for your strategy to fail.

Part of being transparent is sharing what you’re thinking, and sharing how you got there, essentially, making your private reasoning public so people can share their reasoning with you and react to yours. Having removed a poisonous ego from the team, don’t replace that ego with yours. Leadership is about helping the team identify where they need to go to next, not imposing your own solution.

Having started an open dialogue to repair the broken culture, you are on the way to reestablishing trust in the organisation. Trust is everything, it is the bedrock when building a high performing startup team. Trust is the knowledge that people can be trusted to do the right thing when things go wrong.

Creating a culture where bravado is absent builds a continuous self-appraisal and peer review of how things are being done, and is a powerful way to increase accountability that will drive performance and trust. As the leader you want to get the balance right – you are taking charge without taking over, giving a sense of purpose. There are some specific actions to accelerate the recovery into your startup, such that the walk out of a big ego is soon forgotten.

1. Set the vision, and establish milestones to achieving the vision As leader, it’s down to you to set the goal for the group. It doesn’t have to be a vision with a capital ‘V’, just paint a picture of what you want to accomplish over the next few years.

You don’t want you’re team saying what the heck are we doing? Where is this leading us? The vision also needs milestones. People want to know how they’re doing in relation to their goal. Milestones let you tell them.

2. Agree on ‘rules of the road’ Basically, how are we going to run his business now we’ve got the bad egg out of the way? Try out new ways of talking and listening, routines and styles. Refresh to remove the old chunky ways of working, put some personal freedom of voices, choices and space into the working environment and set a new rhythm, whilst also focusing on the results everyone has signed up to deliver.

3. Build new structures and processes that enable creative collaboration When attempting to carve new realities, explicitly encourage your startup team to start experimenting again with different thoughts, relationships, and actions in order to learn what happens and what works. The emphasis is less on getting things right the first time and more on being attentive to feedback, adjusting, and trying again. Put learning back into the heart of the business agenda.

4. Think of your work as a craft, not an assembly line Maybe things had got tense and too serious, and the pressure valve opened up as a result of pent up anxiety. In describing China’s transition toward a socialist market economy, former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping used an evocative image of discovering, rather than planning and solidifying everything before starting: We are crossing the river by feeling for stones.

This is a lovely analogy of thinking about progress, so maybe take a step back and refocus more on creativity and innovation than simply ‘getting stuff done’ and scaling.

5. Sense and respond In a startup it’s important to ‘feel the pulse’, being in touch with everyone to have a sense for the hidden and silent things. Schedule regular informal face time with each of your team, don’t underestimate the importance of ‘checking in’. When it doesn’t happen, you can see the team start to gradually drift into their own quiet corners.

In a startup team there is a high degree of flux at any moment in time. There is no paradigm, no precedent, there is nothing. You have to carve it. To carve a new world means to bring forth something new by patiently and gradually working, with a sensitive hands-on connection, with the particular reality in front of you. It means the opposite of imposing a fully formed idea of what you think must be. Don’t lead the metaphorical charge, lead the thinking.

When we collaborate, by sharing ideas we strengthen relationships, joined up thinking creates momentum and a sense of purpose. Working together, we achieve so much more. Losing a Machiavellian personality, no matter how selfish and destructive they are, will cause immediate challenges and uncertainty, but in reality, many like Boris Johnson are energy sappers, not energisers to the team. But you can recover, and move forward.

Everyone matters in a startup. If you’ve got a Boris Johnson in yours, just reflect on their real impact on results, morale and teamship. Read the signals above the noise. Remove the egos. For Boris, what passed for disarming eccentricity was ultimately exposed as cringemaking incompetence. Long ago, it became that the veneer of faux levity and badinage encased no hidden depth in a constant night of the long knives. His ego saw himself in Churchillian terms, whereas for me, I cast him as a character for a remake of Blackadder, in a blond wig.

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

July 9, 2018

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

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

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

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

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

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

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

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

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

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial learning journey: pearls of wisdom from Atticus Finch

July 2, 2018

Startups, and the entrepreneurs behind the ventures, are in vogue everywhere. Cities across the world are sprouting incubators and accelerator programmes to attract innovative talent, to foster new firm formation.

The fascination with entrepreneurs is not new, literature dating to the C18th explores what drives entrepreneurs and whether their traits matter for the outcomes of their ventures. Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (1921) marked the launch of research on the personalities of entrepreneurs that set them apart.

Research continues to investigate the characteristics that prompt people to become entrepreneurs, and motivations that keep them on their chosen path. Many scholars have tried to understand the homo entreprenaurus (a moniker introduced by Professor Roope Uusitalo, 2001).

For me, it’s unnecessary to compare Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to the average person, because for every Jobs or Musk there are a thousand self-employed entrepreneurs seeking growth-oriented businesses simply for themselves. The collective impact of these individuals on our economy is enormous, even if they don’t start the next Apple.

The top two entrepreneurial personality traits I’ve seen at first hand are perception and intuition – success doesn’t come to those who are smartest, rather to those who see opportunities and take them.

Besides having a range of skills and traits, the majority of successful entrepreneurs are, in my experience, decent people with a strong moral compass, likeable, with integrity and honourable intentions. However, I know others with a big ‘look at me’ ego, cultivating the aura of a pantomime villain. We often focus on the positive traits of entrepreneurs, but there are less attractive, unspoken flaws.

The ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurs I’ve seen includes high levels of narcissism, Machiavellian in their manipulation of people, and over-assurance to the point of being egotistical – letting ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. I’ve seen paranoia reach delusional proportions, workaholic tendencies becoming unbalanced, and as a result, frequent emotional and temperamental outpourings as they look at the world myopically through their own coloured lenses.

We all know the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, but you don’t have to be sharp elbowed and arrogant to be a successful entrepreneur, good guys do win – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home! So who would be your role model be? For me, this is captured by a comment in President Obama’s farewell presidential address: Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch.

Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a lawyer, and the father of Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and Jean ‘Scout’ Finch. The character of Finch, as portrayed in an Academy-Award winning performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption, saw him proclaimed as the greatest hero of all American novels and cinema.

To Kill a Mockingbird unfolds against the backdrop of Atticus’s representation of Tom Robinson, a black man, has been accused by Mayella Ewell, a white woman, of rape. While Atticus is assigned to be Robinson’s public defender, he earns the townspeople’s ire in his determination to actually defend him, honorably and fairly, to the best of his abilities, at a time when racism in the Southern US was culturally strong.

The life lessons Atticus teaches us are priceless around humanity, personal conduct and ethics. His are more than just great one-liners, Atticus gives us example after example of how to be a decent human being and a terrific parent, leading by example more than anything, a quality to be admired. He earns respect for himself without demanding it. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom, and how they relate to entrepreneurial behaviours.

Just be yourself

Finch: Before you can live with others, you have to live with yourself.

Know who you are and manage yourself well. When you know who you are others will regard you as trustworthy. To be authentic you must operate without pretences. Be confident and honest, do not compare yourself to others and do not put any effort into being someone you are not. Atticus is authentic, not trying to impress because what he already possesses internally is impressive, workable and successful.

Think for yourself, instead of following the crowd. Throughout the story there are numerous subplots, the most telling being about the mysterious neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, through which the ultimate lesson that is tactfully weaved is that it’s important to be yourself.

Be interested in others

Finch: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

When you are not self-centered, you will enjoy listening to others share about themselves. Recognise each person, whatever their status, as someone you can learn from. Being interested makes you a great networker, because people will sense you have no hidden agendas. People will appreciate the depth of your interest and experience you to as genuine and likeable, making them feel open and willing to do business with you.

Atticus explains why he respects everyone’s opinion, even those who disagree with him, but that he must make decisions about how to act based on his own moral compass.

Stay Calm

Finch: You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. Try fighting with your head for a change.

Be present at all times when others are communicating, no matter what their tone. Make it your intention to stay absorbed in the information being discussed, focused on the conversation and the other person. Listen to understand, not to respond. When you are not distracted or impatient to share your own perceptions, people will enjoy connecting with you.

When people feel heard and understood they relax and become more drawn to you. When you are attentive trust is developed and opportunities are more generously offered because people will feel confident they are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Be empathetic

Finch: I think there’s one kind of folks: folks.

Show understanding and compassion for the emotional struggles and self-doubts of others. Develop a perspective of compassion needed to imagine another person’s pain, avoid dismissing others as weak or lacking ability. Become a compassionate listener, it enables you to become better at solving problems, making decisions based on the mix of your logic, experience, perception and the person you are dealing with.

If Atticus had one dominating virtue, it is his superhuman empathy. Whenever his children felt angry at the misbehavior or ignorance of the individuals in their town, he would encourage their tolerance and respect by urging them to see the other person’s side of things.

Be open minded

Finch: No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.

Be open to receiving and letting other people in, especially when they have a different point of view to yours. Being guarded blocks opportunity and learning, it discourages others from trusting you. Demonstrating an open minded attitude works both ways, opening yourself up to new reciprocal relationships and opportunities for moving forward. Do not stunt your growth or someone else’s.

Atticus’ approach was to be fair to everyone, to sit their side of the argument and see things from their perspective, seeking to understand, not to simply win the argument. This is a great skill set every entrepreneur needs when selling.

Be accepting

Finch: At the end of the day, you know what’s right and wrong. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Be patient enough to never shut others out with prejudgment. Come to view everything with opportunity and learn to embrace human differentiation. Refrain from criticising the choices others make, even if you would never make those choices for yourself.

By practicing acceptance people will feel they can be true to who they are around you, creating openness and the possibility of opportunity. You will develop more diverse relationships and connections, and thus greatly increase your opportunities for success. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have to ‘win’ every time.

Be a relentless optimistic

Finch: It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.

Live in optimism, when you live through a positive mindset and the ‘art of possible’ you become an infectious person to be around. As you become comfortable in yourself to see possibilities, you will instantly lighten the mood of those around you, giving them self-belief and seeing opportunity for themselves. Always look for the silver lining, the growth opportunity. Be an energiser.

Atticus is an optimist, uses every situation as an opportunity to pass his values on to Scout and Jem. Atticus’ delighted in helping people see a situation in a positive new light, and they listened and respected him because of this. One of my favourite Atticus lines is this one to his kids: Keep your head up. Your dreams are in the sky not the dirt.

Simply, be humble

Finch: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.

Be satisfied and fulfilled in life by your own volition, work ethic and commitment to your success. Enjoy the serenity that comes when you don’t need to be the star of the show. Always acknowledge that your success has come with the help and support of others, and show appreciation for those who helped you get to where you are. Never hesitate to share the spotlight. When you are humble, people want to partner with you.

Atticus defends his client Tom Robinson from an angry mob with absolutely no violence. He diffuses them with the power of his words and his ability to stand tall and strong while they insulted him. Atticus represents morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a character, Atticus is even-handed throughout the story, an attractive virtue for every human, not just entrepreneurs.

Give your time freely

Finch: Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.

Develop an attitude of abundance, be generous with giving your time freely to help others. In giving of yourself and your time you will become more reflective and a richer human being. You will need less from others as you discover the satisfaction of lending a helping hand to people who need it. As others sense this in you, they are confident asking you for guidance or assistance.

Atticus embraces the quiet quality of giving people the time they need, and as a result, people are naturally drawn to him. For an entrepreneur, people will be curious about you. Use your time to gain more knowledge and try new things. Turn down the volume, talk less, listen to others.

Have moral courage

Finch: Push harder than yesterday if you want to win. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

There are different types of courage: physical, intellectual, and moral. While unassuming, Atticus certainly possessed physical courage: when Tom Robinson was in jail, he sat outside all night reading and faced down an angry mob intent on lynching the prisoner.

But moral courage is arguably the most important type of bravery, and this Atticus had in spades, and is a key trait for entrepreneurs. Atticus’s decision to represent Tom Robinson brought a slew of insults and threats to him and his family. But he was willing to bear the onslaught with head held high.

Moral courage involves the strength to stick with your convictions and do the right thing, even when you can see shortcuts – but you know it would be the wrong thing to do, even if it gave you advantage in the short term.

Never seek to be the biggest show-off, simply strive to be the hardest working.

To Kill a Mockingbird has stood the test of time despite the fact that Atticus is almost too eloquent, ethical, honest and forbearing. He represented the rule of sanity over hysteria, principle over passion, and tolerance over fear.

Barack Obama’s reference was deliberate and in the context of appointing a Supreme Court Justice to embody his quality of empathy. It’s not a quality you often see on the list of traits of successful entrepreneurs. Many would say entrepreneurs are at their best when they coldly and mechanically apply their own self-interests to get things done. There is no place for climbing inside anyone else’s skin as an entrepreneur. There is only your ambition and cold desire to win.

However, Atticus Finch’s assertion of trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the definition of empathetic entrepreneurial activism. I have come to think of him as the patron saint of patient, quiet listening, a quality to which all entrepreneurs ought to aspire.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: the deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

June 25, 2018

Johnny Marr’s third solo album, Call The Comet, was released last week, with a North American and UK tour, culminating in Manchester on 18 November. It’s a bold and inspiring collection of tunes.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Marr formed The Smiths with the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. Marr gave the signature indie guitar sound to the band, nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold Marr, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described his sound as a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on the all-time classic This Charming Man.

Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F-sharp to accommodate Morrissey’s vocal range, and also used open tunings, and is known for creating sophisticated arpeggio melodies and chord progressions, applying open strings while chording to create chiming.

Call the Comet is easily his best and most confident work as a solo artist, deep and rich both musically and lyrically. It serves as a true testament to the idea that Marr has plenty to offer musically at this stage of his career, it clearly showcases his ever-present vitality with melody, or that gorgeous, liquid guitar playing.

Call the Comet carries songs that embody both Marr’s humaneness and his musicality, as the proud singer of expansive songs, which proclaim a more positive vision. Rather than wallow in the mire of the now, Marr dreams of a better tomorrow.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, and on his three solo albums to date, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those with melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks, none more so than There is a Light That Never Goes Out.

By the time Marr departed The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar.

He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups. All roads lead back to Johnny Marr, arguably Britain’s greatest guitar stylist.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? The same question can be asked of entrepreneurs, what gives them that edge, that spark of extraordinariness?

It’s not down to talent, yes there is a base level of skills, but fundamentally research shows it’s down to hard work and practice. Successful sports men and women have long understood the value of time and practice in improving their skills to uplift performance, and thus the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

But this is a process. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking was reinforced by groundbreaking research in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – deliberate practice. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough.

Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentless focus and inventing new ways to improve, rooting out shortfalls. Results are the grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up.

As an entrepreneur, do you do this, reflect and seek to improve, or simply rely on energy, relentless effort and your natural life force? Imagine if you combine your motivation to do stuff whilst also focus on improving your skills? The research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

You have to do the same thing again and again and again to wire it into long-term muscle memory. Do you practice your sales skills, or do you just keep making the same mistakes? It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike.

Ericsson studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

Ericsson concluded that whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information. The best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket, or you pouring over your presentation deck. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, embracing feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s statement genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealing that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Olympian Matthew Syed picks up on this in his book Bounce, and argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in your field. Those that start their pursuit early have a head start and an advantage, plenty of time to bank those 10,000 hours.

Ericsson showed this in a study at the Academy of Music in Berlin on three groups of violinists. The first group had star pupils, the second good students and the third students who would probably never play professionally. The groups had all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.

However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours.

The journey to truly superior performance – music, sport or business – is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.

So let’s look at the lessons to be shared from the research into the context of a startup founder, what are the common attributes, behaviours and qualities we can take from the research to help you become a high performing entrepreneur?

Discipline For entrepreneurs, to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, is discipline to focus and not deviate. The game plan is simply consistency. Having the idea is one thing, having the discipline to make it happen is what matters most. Creating a repeatable, scalable sales process takes a startup into a business. Practice and develop your customer facing skills.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo; entrepreneurs have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from customers. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead. Practice clear thinking.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers. Practice reflective thinking.

Patience Patience is as important as the ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush to talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, and attack it with great precision. Practice means preparation, not going off instinct and spontaneous action every time.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they make the most of 30-second breaks when the game stops. During those brief seconds, they enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. Practice grounding yourself, adrenalin gets you to the table, clam thinking closes the deal.

Many entrepreneurs say they enjoy the frantic nature of the day, it’s non-stop and you have to work fifteen hours. Nonsense. They are simply allowing themselves to get caught up in the heat of the moment and are missing opportunities for learning by not pausing for reflection.

As a result, they leave too much stuff to chance. Pausing to collect your thoughts will create habits and the ability to sense, anticipate and overcome those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions. You create the conditions for more success by practicing your craft. Johnny Marr just doesn’t turn up for a gig on the night, there is a sound check.

Many of the greatest entrepreneurs’ success are a result of constant effort for improvement, testing and refining – their own version of deliberate practice. For example, James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. Thomas Edison captured it in his quote I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Deliberate practice is a mindset. For entrepreneurs, the goal is to practice and learn at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to getting familiar with his new tunes and seeing Johnny Marr in November, enjoying the results from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, an innovator, a musical entrepreneur. As Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Johnny Marr. The light that never goes out.

Iceland show the traits of a startup in a David v Goliath situation

June 18, 2018

We’re into the 2018 World Cup, thirty-two national football teams in Russia, including Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify, with a population of just 330,000. Every team will play a minimum of three games in the group stages before the top sixteen advances to the knockout competition.

There have been twenty World Cups since the tournament’s founding in 1930 with just eight countries sharing the victories, all either Latin American or Western European. This is not surprising given the popularity of the sport in these regions and the level of league competition that nurtures the talent pool.

On Saturday it was Argentina 1-1 Iceland: Lionel Messi missed from 12 yards as the Vikings held out in Moscow. The eighth-largest country on earth were held to a draw by the World Cup debutants. Iceland were as you’d expect; resolute, organised, brave and direct. It wasn’t complicated but it was effective enough, the onus on Argentina to make something happen, while throwing every hulking body they had in front of the ball.

The most famous of those bodies is now that of Hannes Halldorsson, the goalkeeper who guessed right and palmed away Messi’s penalty. From that moment on, another 35 minutes of backs-to-the-wall torture, Iceland held out. Finnbogason made history with Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal. Argentina had 78% possession.

Iceland caught the imagination by being a team built like the volcanic rock from whence they came, fully-formed as they emerged from the magma. Their football was unfussy, they fought hard. It doesn’t always win games but it rarely fails to win hearts and minds to see a small nation, disadvantaged against far greater adversaries, punch above their weight.

Most tournaments produce a surprise and trauma for the big teams – Iceland beating Portugal and England at the 2016 European Championships – which shows that population and money are not the only ingredients for success.  Iceland is punching way above its weight on the international football stage and has already defied the odds just by being in Russia.

Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson has shown that it is possible to rise up from humble beginnings to achieve a truly audacious dream. The chasm between the haves and have-nots is not too wide to cross with the right strategy and mindset. Underdogs can still win, as they always have won, by committing to overcoming adversity and pursuing a goal with passion, courage, grit and humility. These traits have defined the underdog’s journey since time began, and will continue to pave the path for every dreamer.

Entrepreneurs perpetually play the role of David against established Goliath firms, and, just like their biblical counterpart, defeat their larger entity by outwitting, outmaneuvering, and out-imagining them. The business lesson is this: when underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win. Don’t think of a plucky underdog that got lucky, rather Instead, think of a confident, determined competitor who is more than happy to be underestimated, and used it’s own unique capabilities to win.

The story of David and Goliath is a tale of how a little shepherd boy defeated a famous fully armed giant warrior. I often use this story as a source of inspiration for startups to give them insight and belief as how they can overcome the odds against larger rivals.

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Old Testament is the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, challenged the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. But Saul and the Israelites were afraid.

David hears that Saul has promised to reward any man who defeats Goliath, and accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his amour; David declines, dressed in his simple tunic, carrying his shepherd’s staff, sling, and a pouch of five stones. David and Goliath confront each other.

The giant cursed him, hurling threats and insults. Goliath with his armour and shield, David with his staff and sling. David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might, and hits Goliath in the centre of his forehead. Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David cuts off his head.

Like David, entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to operate as insurgents because they’re more willing to take risks, more alert and agile, and challenge the conventions about how commercial battles are fought.

So what’s the strategic mindset of a ‘David’ as a startup?  Take a look at the story again. The lesson isn’t simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might win by chance. Sometimes the key to success is obscured by our own misconceptions. See the situation more clearly from David’s vantage point, what can he use to his advantage? Don’t take the battle on their terms, create the conditions where you have an unfair advantage on your terms, reframe the debate.

But look at the research. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft researched every war fought in the past 200 years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5% of the cases. That is a remarkable fact, especially when the result is in the context of the sample of conflicts analysed was where one side was at least ten times as powerful in terms of armed might and population as its opponent – even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

What happened? Simply, the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded.

So how can the entrepreneurial ‘Davids’ succeed against their Goliath adversaries?

1. Self-belief Before confronting Goliath, David had faith that Goliath could be defeated. Faith is simply the ability to act despite tremendous doubt. As an entrepreneur, you must never see your competitors as infallible. You must see a possibility to out perform them. With this mind-set, success will be yours.

In David and Goliath the Israelites had faith that Goliath will someday be defeated but none had self-belief. David not only had faith that Goliath could be defeated, he also had the self-belief that he was the one to do it. As an entrepreneur, you must believe you can do it.

2. Leverage Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth, said Archimedes. Leverage is simply the ability to do more with less, and ask yourself: how can I compete favourably with fewer resources?

David acknowledged that Goliath was taller and stronger than he was, so he asked the question; how can I defeat Goliath without engaging him in a hand-to-hand combat? That answer came in the form of leverage. That leverage was his sling, and his speed.

The weapons of both had the potential to kill but the difference emerged in their speed. David’s sling was lighter and smaller, it had the ability to reach its target faster than that of Goliath. How fast is your plan and how fast is your strategy?

3. Agility David’s strategy and tactics surprised Goliath, he wasn’t expecting to be confronted by such an opponent. David’s agility outwitted and outsmarted Goliath’s ego and complacency. He wanted it more, and made it happen for himself.

In business, you must develop a smart strategy to help you achieve your aim. David’s strategy was to subdue Goliath with minimal effort. He employed the following agile thinking and tactics:

·     He picked just five stones

·     He avoided engaging Goliath in a hand to hand combat

·     He exploited Goliath’s ego and over confidence

·     He aimed at achieving his goal with the first shot

·     He took Goliath by surprise and caught him off guard

4. Play to your strengths Big firms’ perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages. David is a shepherd boy, and refuses to wear armour. Why? Because he realises that heavy armour will weigh him down. Goliath could easily kill David with his sword, but only if David were foolish enough to walk right up to Goliath. Of course, that’s the last thing David plans to do.

The misconception is that David goes into battle with only a sling. But it’s a highly effective weapon David has used many times to protect his flocks from wild animals. He’s not going to fight Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, he’s using his experience and expertise to fight on his own terms,  Goliath can’t counter this. When David lines up, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

That’s exactly what David did, walks right up to Goliath (but still far enough away that Goliath’s swords and javelin are useless) and kills Goliath with a single shot to the head. Recall, the scene in Indiana Jones shoots the intimidating Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark – he made the most of the moment on his own terms.

5. Focus on the moment in front of you Large companies suffer when they lose touch with the basics, they focus on scale and become complacent and lazy about their approach to customers, believing their brand will keep customers. Often they’re not close enough to customers, a distant manager adjusts pricing numbers on a spreadsheet, but customers react and in a click of decimal points, they switch to a rival.

The value of an individual customer is always greater for small businesses than for large corporations, and you can create intimacy. Make each customer feel they are your only customer, and the only thing that matters in that moment.

Small businesses can feel their own pulse, sensing the stream of day-to-day reactions as they happen and respond accordingly. This high level of sensitivity is unique to small businesses. The pulse gives you a sixth sense, an intuition for what needs to be done, and how to retain your customers.

David and Goliath is a metaphor for improbable victories, but when you consider that David was fighting on his terms, you realise Goliath is a sitting duck. He didn’t have a chance. The parallel in business is that it’s not about company size or budget, it’s about what you do, and how you do it. Startups aim to overpower the juggernauts of their industry, yet many fall into a trap of one-upping the competition and focusing on features, instead of understanding what their customers want and need, and doing it better than their larger, established counterparts. Perhaps Airbnb is the best example of this.

So instead of wishing you had the resources and scale of bigger competitors, and get downhearted at their scale, focus on how you can be nimbler by knowing your customers better and solving their problems faster. Stay focused on the distinctive way you can delight customers. For example, the rental car market is filled with companies offering daily rentals, but Zipcar discovered that customers wanted to rent a car by the hour. Zipcar saw an opportunity to delight customers and created a distinctive service as a result.

Equally Zappos, the online shoe company, is David compared to counterpart Amazon. How do they compete? Zappos has a 365-day return policy compared to Amazon’s 30-days. In addition to creating happy customers, this policy shift also led Zappos to discover that customers with the highest return rates were also the most profitable for the company.

While many aspire to be Goliaths, instead embrace the advantages of being an underdog. As you grow and put your best foot forward, don’t forget the foundations that made your startup strong.

Despite their own stuttering starts, most oddsmakers will tell you Brazil or Germany are favourites to win the World Cup. But only one nation stands as favourites to win my heart: Iceland. They know they aren’t going to out-play their more talented, more skilful opponents, they don’t have much in the way of household names, but make up for this in grit, tenacity and facial hair. They play to their own strengths, and the bigger ‘better’ teams can’t match them.

So if you want to support a Goliath, go cheer for Brazil or Germany. If you want to stand and root for the underdog, go boom-boom-CLAP with Iceland, and watch them deploy the tactics of David. Gangi þér vel, Johann Berg Gudmundsson!

Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

June 11, 2018

On 12th July 1962, Ray Charles was number one with I Can’t Stop Loving You, The Beatles had recorded their first single Love Me Do and The Rolling Stones, debuted at The Marquee Club, London.

Some fifty-six years later, The Rolling Stones are still performing, and last week hit Manchester, half way through their latest tour. The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two childhood friends still fronting the most iconic rock ‘n roll band, both now into their seventies.

Jumping Jack Flash kicks us off. Engaging with the audience, Jagger lithe and agile. Richards full of intent, a craftsman, artisan, musicianship as intelligent and insightful as Mozart. They’ve lost none of their potency despite the advancing years. The stage graphics turn monochrome showcasing the band as various images explode and parade across the stage backdrop. Paint it Black. Gimme Shelter.

Familiar riffs ricochet from Richards’ septuagenarian fingers. It’s his sheer presence, the swagger and attitude that you notice, lips pursed, back arched, hammering out these classics tunes. Every single guitar player in every single band in the world has been influenced by Keith Richards. He is the living embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For Keith himself it’s all about the music. It’s the music that matters.

I was introduced to The Stones by my wife, they’ve some ok tunes, but it was Keith Richards the man and musician, rather than the band’s music, which particularly interests me. His biography, Life, is a wonderful voice and narrative of his, well, life, funnily enough. I guess I wasn’t expecting much more than some version of Get high, play music, crash…Get high, play music, crash…. but I found him articulate, witty, intelligent and thoughtful. By far the most impactful aspect of the book are the life lessons from a talented, high performing individual that you can take to influence your own entrepreneurial thinking.

Meeting Mick Jagger in 1961 on Dartford railway station was a moment of history that saw co-founders collide to form one of the most creative and long-lasting partnerships in modern music, one that has shaped the cultural history of the last fifty years with music that has roused the world.

Richards is acknowledged as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists, but he’s even more legendary for his near-miraculous ability to survive the debauched excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle. His prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol and tightrope-walking hedonism would likely have destroyed most of us. On-stage he epitomises guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Jagger’s extroverted frontman. Yet that part of Richards’ mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy.

His lean, punchy, muscular sound is the result of his unerring sense of rhythm and intuitive use of space amidst the noise. There is music in the silence too. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards prefers to work using open-chord tunings drawn from the Blues, his guitars strung with just five strings for cleaner fingering to enable his distinctive sound. While he confesses to wanting to have been a librarian, music has been his life: Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life, he once said.

Whilst most of us are unlikely to be rock stars, like Bowie, Eno and Lennon, Richard’s performance legacy identifies entrepreneurial insights and learnings relevant to creating your own music, albeit in a business sense. So get your headphones on, tune into Exile on Main Street, and read on.

Start with the 10,000 hours. Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Herbert Simon calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, a prescription further developed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Richards probably completed his 10,000-hour apprenticeship in his early twenties, so he’s now well past the level of mastery and into some other realm.

As Richards noted about his early days, The Beatles had nothing on us. We spent all our waking hours studying Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.

They would sit for hours asking How the hell did they do that? How did they get that sound? How did they play that chord progression? How can they do that much with two chords? Etc. They were modelling the greats. Richards created his own autonomy, mastery and purpose. He invested in himself.

Choose your attitude Richards’ family didn’t have a record player, but because, rather than in spite of his humble beginnings, he was still able to play music. He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is a driving force.

His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay determined his journey as a self-taught guitar player. Rather than allow his reduced economic circumstances to act as a barrier to achievement, he accentuated the positive, that he had a guitar and proceeded to play every spare moment I got.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blow me away. I never thought of him as such a hard worker as he clearly is, nor, frankly, did I think he was such a perfectionist. I don’t suggest you call upon quite as much pharmaceutical help to do it as Keith did, but he is an incredible role model for standing up not just for quality work, but the best quality work – and not just mostly, but all the time. Reach beyond your expectations, be a master of your craft.

Work ethic The musician’s bohemian lifestyle is all part of the alluring mythology of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, but the story is apocryphal. Richards is the ultimate professional rock ‘n’ roller but invested a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing, simply working hard, whether to sell records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

In their early years, The Stones released two, sometimes three, albums a year, while touring and writing new material. The Stones recorded more than fifty tracks in 1964. This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life, his autobiography, recounting countless rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions – they were relentless. It’s about building a body of work, creating your own voice and making it heard.

Be a collaborator Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership with Jagger produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows the chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist he knows, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, their deep personal resonance.

Creative partnerships are special – Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. Their partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one.

Equally, effective teams can cope with change. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. There are sparks of creative tension and disagreement between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, the chemistry and camaraderie is underpinned by respect, which creates the conditions for creativity.

Have an identity Branding is vital to establish your image. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for the band in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful rock brand marketing. It’s a consistent message, it’s about being who you are.

Remain humble, and be real In the interviews and the stories of lore about this great musician, I think Richards has in his own right remained humble about what he has achieved from his life, his longevity and legacy, and how thrilled he is that fans still come and see them perform, play and buy their music.

Last week Jagger sparked the crowd with It’s great to be in Manchester. Richards got a bigger roar when he quipped, whilst laughing to himself, It’s great to be anywhere – recognising his own mortality.

Play-on At 74, with a lifestyle afforded from his success, Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of successful individuals is that I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. Will you still have the passion and drive Keith has at his age? As John Cage said, There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

Richards epitomises the fact that winners work hard. If you don’t want to succeed more than you want to watch Netflix you have no one to blame but yourself for failing. Some struggle with finding enough time to grow their businesses, yet others find enough time to watch television on repeat loops.

This is not to stop you from starting, but encouraging you to step up to the plate and do what is necessary for your success. Look at the comments from Richards on practice and attitude. As an entrepreneur, you have to out-hustle and out-work your competition or they will out-hustle you.

Make your own noise Richards has spent his life rooted in leather jackets and amplifiers turned up to fifteen, doing what is necessary to write, record, produce and publish his own music, and playing live. Like bootstrapping your startup, the DIY ethic means you take action on your ideas today, rather than waiting for someone to give you permission or do it for you. Start today, make your own noise.

Rock music is a lifestyle, but it’s also a business. There are recording deals to contract, tours to organise and merchandise to sell, copyrighting songs written. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a traditional business setting.

Here’s a great quote from Richards which is as powerful statement about entrepreneurship as anything you’ll read from either Jobs, Gates or Bezos:

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. No one ever learned how to swim by standing up in the shallow end.

Even if you’ll never strum a guitar let alone write great tunes, you can learn a lot from one of the greatest musicians of all time. Who are you role models? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Life, why would you want to be anyone else if you were Keith Richards?

What’s your startup ideation strategy?

June 5, 2018

Nearly forty years after its invention, the world’s most confounding cube of colours is still going strong. It is estimated that there have been 400m Rubik cubes sold worldwide, a simple colour puzzle that offers 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations (that’s 43 quintillion in shorthand).

In the mid-1970s, Professor Ernő Rubik worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. Teaching geometrical shape concepts, he designed the cube as a teaching aid to show the possibility of 3D modelling. He did not realise that he had created a puzzle until the first time he scrambled his new cube and then tried to restore it – it took him over a month to solve it.

On the original classic Rubik’s Cube, each of the six faces was covered by nine stickers, each of one of six solid colours: white, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow. White is opposite yellow, blue is opposite green, and orange is opposite red, and the red, white and blue are arranged in that order in a clockwise arrangement.

An internal pivot mechanism enables each face to turn independently, thus mixing up the colours. For the puzzle to be solved, each face must be returned to have only one colour.

He called the wooden prototype Bűvös Kocka: the Magic Cube. Rubik applied for a patent, but it took a few years to get the idea to market. In 1979, the Hungarian state-owned toy company Konsumex presented the cube to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, where it caught the attention of entrepreneur Tom Kremer.

By the end of that year, Kremer had convinced the Ideal Toy Company to take a chance on the puzzle. Ideal licensed the cube, and within two years it represented 25% of the company’s revenue.

At the end of 1980, Rubik’s Cube won awards for best toy across the world. By 1981, Rubik’s Cube had become a craze. As most people could only solve one or two sides, numerous guide books were published. At one stage in 1981 three of the top ten best selling books in the US were books on solving Rubik’s Cube, and the best-selling book of 1981 was James G. Nourse’s The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube which sold over 6 million copies.

Every legal permutation of the Cube can be solved in 20 moves or less. The current world record for the quickest solution is 4.59 seconds – but a robot solved it in just 0.637 seconds. There are also World Records for the fastest one-handed solving (6.88 seconds), feet solving (16.96 seconds).

Though sales fell from their peak in the 1980s, and were negligible in the early C21st, with the advent of the Internet, fans connected and shared strategies, and sales increased. Then earlier this year it featured in the SuperBowl, and in the new Taylor Swift/Ed Sheeran video, cementing the puzzle’s rise back to cultural prominence. It is estimated that one in seven people have played with this fascinating and frustrating puzzle.

Rubik’s Cube is an example of an innovation that took the world by storm, evolving into a populist toy from a device originally developed for teaching. Like many innovations, it came about almost by accident, a successful outcome arising from trying to solve a different problem.

For startups, the combination of original thought, timing, serendipity and chance encounters with future customers, often define the innovation journey. Innovation is not a very well understood process, by its very nature, it involves hits and misses because there is always an element of guessing and pre-empting the future, which by definition, is unpredictable.

Every sphere of human life today is undergoing rapid technological driven innovation, from cryptographic currencies changing the shape of money to the Internet of Things and Blockchain creating a new ‘Internet of Everything’. Newer, innovative technologies are developing faster than the speed with which we can rein in its unintended consequences.

New technologies track your every move, habit, communication or location, reducing privacy and opening pores to access your personal experiences. Startups are establishing Platform businesses, which in turn are disrupted by Blockchain, which promotes disintermediation and elimination of third parties. The biggest human experiment is a Hegelian pursuit of the one truth.

For a startup, innovation should always be customer centric. Never build something that you’ve not tested with users, and that ultimately customer won’t pay for. Startups with product innovation that doesn’t evolve with their customers’ lives don’t survive too long.

So many startups set out to innovate, but lose their way. All of the time, money, and energy invested loom over them like an ominous shadow. There was so much momentum, goodwill, collaboration, and then the painful, crash into the wall.

If you are striving for something new outside of the existing paradigm, think of the first trial or two as a learning investment. You may stumble upon revenue or insights that lead to giant leaps of both customer traction and inspiration, however, embrace this tension and good fortune at the right moment.

Startups often make the mistake of viewing innovation as a set of unconstrained activities with no discipline. In reality, for innovation to contribute to growth, it needs to be designed as a process from start to deployment.

When startups lack a formal innovation pipeline process, progress tends to be based on delivering the best demo or slide deck. Instead, there is a necessity to talk to customers, build minimal viable products, test hypotheses or understand the barriers to deployment.

Startups need a self-regulating, evidence-based innovation pipeline, a process that operates with speed and urgency, and that helps to curate and prioritise problems, ideas, user testing and feedback. Most importantly, minimal viable products and working prototypes will have been built and road tested.

A clear-cut innovation process inside a startup is one focused on ideation, a process that hustles game-shaping ideas by creating customer solutions that deliver remarkable impact at the intersection of purpose and profit – not just ‘disruption’.

Ideation is the act of moving ideas down the track from conception to implementation. It seeks to create clarity and a pathway from imagination to execution. Ideation embraces lean startup principles – hold your vision, but take small steps, and focus on learning as a true measure of progress, providing life-shaping insights that change our trajectory or sober us with reality that kills the ‘awesome’ idea we once thought we had.

While there is no perfect ideation to optimise innovation outcomes, the following is a helpful process that I’ve used and refined over the years while working with numerous startups:

Curation On a regular basis – say every three months – startups should get out of the building and talk to potential users and customers to help explore and identify new solutions that can be deployed rapidly. Gaining reflections to find where a given problem might exist helps to find opportunities for commercially available solutions to problems.

This process also helps identify who the customers for possible solutions would be, and even what minimum viable products might look like. Some ideas may drop out when you recognise that they may be technically or financially unfeasible, but that’s validated learning.

Prioritisation Once a list of innovation challenges has been curated, it needs to be prioritised. One of the quickest ways to sort innovation ideas is to use the McKinsey Three Horizons Model: Horizon 1 ideas provide continuous innovation to a company’s existing business model and core capabilities; Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets or targets; Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities to take advantage of or respond to disruptive opportunities or disruption.

There will be some projects in Horizon 0 – graveyard ideas that are not viable or feasible.

Frame the challenge From the prioritised list, articulate, document and frame what the challenge you’re seeking to solve for is a foundation for the next stage. Jumping to a solution before understanding the context of the problem is premature. Ask yourself questions like What is the real problem we’re trying to solve? or What is the real job to be done?  are essential to ensure we don’t leap with a populist, unstructured idea.

Exploration & hypothesis testing Ideas that have passed through the filters so far now enter an incubation process, which aims to deliver evidence for data-based decisions. For each idea, build out a business model canvas. Everything on that canvas is a hypothesis, designed to be tested.

The framework gets you talking to potential customers. This is another major milestone: to show compelling evidence that this project deserves to move into engineering or, alternatively, that it should be off the list and killed.

Diverge & Converge The main goal of this element in the process is to generate lots of diverging ideas from the results of the hypothesis testing, all of the crazy thoughts you have on potential options and alternatives. Make it a rule at this point to never say ‘no’ to any idea, but keep the time defined to give focus.

Once you have a ton of ideas, it’s time to converge through design thinking, to identify common threads, building upon each idea by connecting them, and then determine one or two ideas that are desirable, feasible, and viable. Now is the time to stand back and ask: Does it make business sensee?

Prototype One of the most practical ways to test out a solution is to build a prototype. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate or costly endeavour. Whether the prototype is digital or done through user testing with hands-on customer experience, the goal is to uncover new insights. A good prototype will force idea refinement and iteration.

Iterate Forward A startup should have a culture committed to constant experimentation, and iteration will continue to foster and accelerate this thinking. It will take a few cycles to get a process working with the required diligence and patience, but keep iterating forward. What’s next?

Refactoring: At this point, it’s time to integrate the innovation into the existing business model. Trying to integrate new, unbudgeted, and unscheduled innovation projects into a startup results in chaos and frustration. In addition, innovation projects carry both technical and organisation debt for startups.

Technical debt is often ignored in order to validate hypotheses and find early customers. This quick and dirty development can become unwieldy, difficult to maintain, and incapable of scaling.  Organisational debt is the culture compromises made to ‘just get things done’ in the early stages of an innovation project.

The solution is refactoring, fixing stuff to make it more stable, and avoid the myopia of innovation over business as usual. Whilst technological advantage degrades annually, standing still means falling behind, so it’s all about having the business case from the early stages in the process to act as a bookmark for reference.

Startup innovation is hip, complete with beards and fancy coffee machines, but to do it right can’t be left to chance and serendipitous moments, it requires a rigorous process. Innovation means you have to move the needle, not just vanity of being a ‘unique, disruptive startup’.

For startups, ingenuity and rebooting the offering is essential, but It’s important to be clear about the difference between invention and innovation. Invention is a new idea. Innovation is the commercial application and successful exploitation of the idea. Anyone can invent, not everyone can execute.

Think big, start small, keep moving. Like the Rubik’s Cube, if you are curious you’ll find the puzzles sat in the palm of your hand. If you are determined, you will solve them, with deft visualisation, ideation and execution.