You have 30 seconds to coach a start-up - what is your most vital advice? Your time starts now.
I’ve been asking a lot of people this question as an acid-test in interview. (‘Read more’ to find out why).
Clearly there is no right or wrong answer. The diversity (and quality) of answers is surprisingly vast. As is peoples’ ability to stick to answering within 30 seconds.
Working at Wayra, it is an unusual day if I’m not asked this question (in some form or other) - for real.
So here’s my answer:
“Identify the most powerful action that will move your business forward most; focus on its delivery ruthlessly; execute it brilliantly.”
Nailed. Or so I thought. Until I asked Mrs Devonshire, whose business mantra ‘top-trumped’ mine:
“Get paying punters - now. Winning paying customers is difficult. Everything else in business is easier by comparison - so focus on it immediately.”
I’m keen to hear your 30 second coaching wisdom. Please tweet your 30 second masterclass to me @Tallmanbusiness and/or #30secondbusinesscoach - I’ll post the best ones on the TallManBusiness blog. I’m especially hoping to hearing from superstars such as: Will King; Emma Jones; Raj Dey; Michael Acton-Smith; Mike Soutar; Doug Richard; Tamara Lohan; Dale Murray; Luke Johnson; Lawrence Tomlinson. And you!
Board advisors are essential to start-up success. Two questions to ensure great input from Non-exec’s.
I recently wrote about how and why the appointment of Non-exec’s are vital to the success of start-ups (including also: Board advisors, external coaches and mentors).
The post included some thoughts and recommendations on how to secure good ones.
But what I didn’t comment on is, having recruited such expert help (outside of your core operating team), how do you tell if they are actually delivering a positive impact on your business?
Before answering this, let’s establish some simple ground rules. In order to ensure that you get the most out of your Board advisors, first you need to:
- Always make clear the help that you value most.
- Set and agree clear objectives.
- Diarise your meetings as far in advance as is practical …
- … and equally important, commit to their attendance.
- If your answer is ‘yes’ - well done. Make sure that you write down the agreed action. You can now move-on to Step Two:
- If your answer is ‘no’ - then all that happened is that you had a nice conversation. Sadly, you don’t have time for nice conversations.
- If your answer is ‘yes’ - well done (again). Commit to your next meeting with the Board advisor. When you meet, make sure that you acknowledge the achievement of the agreed action. And agree the next action. Repeat indefinitely.
- If your answer is ‘no’ - then all that happened is that you had a nice conversation. Sadly, you don’t have time for nice conversations.
If now is the time of greatest opportunity ever - here are some helpful words of inspiration.
Working at Wayra, it is a privilege to meet and work with some of the best on entrepreneurs on earth.
Entrepreneurs are an interesting breed. They are rarely content to live alone with their relentless passion - they insist on spreading it about liberally in the hope of infecting others.
The best entrepreneurs are a constant source of energy and inspiration. They say things like (these quotes are not verbatim):
Live in the future. Build what’s missing.
The world is broken. Invent the solution.
Make stuff better than before you took it on.
Entrepreneurs see innovation as neither possible or impossible. They see innovation as inevitable. [An observation from Simon Prockter (CEO and Founder of Housebites) during a panel that we both participated in].
‘Inevitability’ is a great word that captures what this is all about. Great entrepreneurs see the realisation of their vision as something that is so inevitable it is as though it already exists.
Connect with the twelve year old version of you. No limits. Full of curiosity and possibility.
… hence the photo.
Entrepreneurs - if nothing else - swim. The health of your business starts with your well-being.
I think everyone that reads this blog will be aware of my passion for entrepreneurialism. Perhaps they are less aware that I’m equally passionate about swimming.
I believe that these two quite different activities are highly synergistic.
I swim three or four miles a week. It is rare that I don’t make the time to swim, even when travelling. And if I am forced to sacrifice my swimming, I greatly miss it.
I believe swimming is important, because:
- We all need some time exclusively to ourselves. Uninterrupted. Swimming is good for this.
- Time and space in which to either think, or conversely, to clear the mind and be devoid of thought.
- Swimming is a great way to keep fit. It provides an intense workout without the impact, stress and consequential injuries that other sports inflict on joints and muscles (especially running).
If you are an entrepreneur, I believe swimming (or any form of regular vigorous exercise) is fundamentally important to the success of your business because:
- Whether you like it or not, your team want a leader who looks after their well-being as actively as they look after the business.
- Your team is not alone - investors possess a similar interest in your health, (and a keener eye).
- No-one in the team wants to see the visible consequence of stress and fatigue on their leader. It is totally fine for you to work too hard (they kinda expect it), but it is essentially that you do so gracefully. If they think that you are unable to cope; that running your business is either too difficult, or beyond your personal capabilities, they will not give you their unconditional support. Poor condition is a source of doubt.
- Journalists and commentators also have an interest in your condition too. It’s interesting when journalists include within their report their observations about the state of their interviewee. For example: “… so said the CEO, who sounded especially tired when asked about …”.
Your competitors will take an opportune look at you too. In both start-ups and in big corporates I have seen CEOs actively evaluate the condition of their peers. They want to know if you are struggling. Your pallor alone can speak volumes.
But more important than all of that, vigorous exercise is fundamental to the health, well-being and longevity of entrepreneurs.
Last year, I had the privilege of travelling on the Entrepreneurs Express, a special train destined for the Made Festival in Sheffield. On-board I was delighted to meet and chat with Duncan Goodhew, the Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer.
Duncan explained his view that entrepreneurs are massively fuelled by adrenalin, the natural source of energy we all produce that super-charges us for either ‘fight or flight’. He said that whilst this is a fantastic and effective source of energy it is also highly dangerous if not used properly. Duncan believes that the heightened level of adrenalin on which many entrepreneurs thrive, needs to be regularly burnt-off or it becomes corrosively harmful. In his view our bodies simply are not designed for adrenalin-rocket-fuel to lay latently within us.
I think he’s spot-on.
Entrepreneurs, the health of your business starts with your well-being. Swim.
An entrepreneurs ‘To-do list’ for Week 2 of a start-up.
At the beginning of the week I wrote a post to provide entrepreneurs with a To-do list for Week 1 of a start-up.
Now as the week draws to a close, I am compelled to issue a To-do list for Week 2.
At the end of your first week, take time off. Stop. Relax. Rest. Recover.
Take a moment to think.
Before the start of Week 2, singularly, define what is the most powerful action that you can deliver to move your business forward most.
Discuss and agree it with your team. And then, go and deliver it. Impactfully.
An entrepreneurs ‘To-do list’ for Week 1 of a start-up.
Today is a momentous day at Wayra London as we welcome the second cohort of brilliant new digital start-ups. It is Day 1 of the next chapter in the development of their businesses.
My advice to them is to embrace the experience and throw themselves at it whole-heartedly. Don’t waste a single second – you’ll be amazed how fast the time goes.
Start as you mean to go on.
Whether or not you are fortunate to have the benefits of a business accelerator like Wayra, I am keen to share with as many entrepreneurs as possible some of the core principles that I believe are fundamental to the success of a newly started business.
I am not going to publish on-goingly an entire weekly programme - but here I my thoughts and recommendations for success in that first vital week - may I strongly advise:
GET YOUR BUSINESS OFF TO A FLYING START IN THE FIRST WEEK.
An entrepreneurs ‘To do’ list for Week One of a start-up:
- Back-of-an-envelope summary: Write a succinct definition of your business / and it’s core proposition (date it - it will be interesting to see how this definition evolves over time). You’d be surprised how often entrepreneurs struggle with this simple task. If you can’t clearly and succinctly articulate what you do, how on earth to you expect others to ‘get-it’.
- Mentor wish list: Identify who your dream mentors are. Shoot for the stars – start with Bill Gates and work down from there.
- Set-up Board meetings immediately.
- Investor plan: If you are not able to generate revenue immediately, your business will almost certainly require funding. Start the hunt for suitable investment / investors from day one. You must not delay – do not think of investment as a future event, you cannot afford to, literally.
- Accelerator plan: If you are lucky enough to have successfully made it into an accelerator, document what acceleration services you would benefit from most. Don’t be vague and write “mentoring”, be specific, for example: identify and name a potential customer you want help to win.
- Sales plan: I am often amazed at how frequently start-ups convince themselves and give themselves permission to not start selling immediately. I have seen start-ups invest vital time drawing-up lists of all the reasons and obstacles that prevent them from selling. For example: the need for a nice logo; a slick presentation; a proto-type; a better proto-type; competitor analysis etc etc. If you are not making sales calls, you will not make sales.
As I have previously commented, hindsight is an exact science. When entrepreneurs tell me their story, (the story of their business), I often hear a profound and common regret: “Looking back, I wish I had done more to sell more, more quickly at the start. I wasted time”.
Use this hindsight to give yourself and your business foresight. You will not get back the time you invest now. Use it wisely.
Take a moment to think:
- Where are you now?
- Where do you want to be?
- How are you going to get there?
Make all of your answers to these vital questions numeric/quantifiable.
Finally, in the words of our youngest daughter: “IMMEDIATELY. NOW!”
Digital entrepreneurs have the power to enable us to leapfrog everyday barriers.
Wherever we experience friction, obstacles, inconvenience, risk - entrepreneurs see opportunity.
The world now has:
- more access to more computer processing power;
- more pre-written open-source code;
- and more connectivity
… than at any time in history.
Which is why one entrepreneur I spoke with last week described the current global context as a “gold-rush”. Paradoxically the same week that Spain declared 26% unemployment. Es una locura (it’s crazy).
Our job at Wayra is to help digital entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses. What I especially like about that is it also helps to bring forward the arrival of future technology; to realise the benefit of innovation and the creation of new economy, and make it happen more quickly. For certain, we need those new jobs now.
I am incredibly lucky to work with such brilliant entrepreneurs. Each innovation created by these digital pioneers is another positive step forward, however large or small - the cumulative effect enriching our lives demonstrably in an ever shortening time-span.
Whether it is as trivial as efficiently connecting our need of a taxi to the nearest empty cab. Or as profound as the elimination of cash. We are witnessing the birth of a new economy, a digital economy - our lives, jobs, opportunities are all indelibly changing at an incredible pace.
Often the only limit to our entrepreneurial progress and its positive impact, is our collective imagination. For many, these are troubling times. Optimistically, creativity and innovation are capabilities that humans are good at.
By way of example, allow me to help fuel that creativity by declaring my passion to eliminate ticketing in public transport. And I’m not just talking about paper tickets.
Barriers at railway stations are not just a metaphorical form of friction, they are a literal obstacle that commuters battle with daily.
To help reduce this friction, the UK has Oyster Cards - an electronic form of ticketing that uses pre-paid cards. The Oyster Cards feature NFC technology to enable customers to “tap-and-go” in order to pass through the barriers.
According to Wikipedia, the Oyster Card system will celebrate its tenth birthday this July. More than 40 million Oyster Cards have been distributed.
There is no doubt Oyster reduces friction in comparison to queuing to buy old-fashioned paper tickets. However, as The Evening Standard recently reported, more than £53m lies on dormant Oyster cards. Frankly I’m surprised it’s not a lot more.
Perhaps friction can change state?
But it’s not the registration and topping-up of Oyster Cards that I see as the biggest form of friction - my issue is with the actual mechanical barriers themselves. They require huge capital investment to install and significant operational cost to manage and maintain. The system is so inefficient that we have to pay people to stand by the barriers in order to manually let people through.
And yet, the smart phone on which you may be reading this blog knows:
- When you got on the train.
- When you got off the train.
- It knows who you bank with.
- And that you wish to pay the train/bus company.
- It could forward your payment directly to the train company without involving you in the transaction.
- You’d never have to think about buying a ticket ever again.
- Train companies could reduce their operating costs by billions …
- … which of course they would pass-on to their passengers.
I call this form of innovation ‘Predictive Intelligent Convenience’. It will enable us to leapfrog the barriers currently in our lives.
If you have ideas like this - if you find innovation exciting: form a team; develop your idea; apply to Wayra. Together we can change the world.
There has never been a better time to be alive.
After months of harsh cold weather, finally, Spring has sprung. Brilliant warm sunshine. What a difference it makes. But it’s not just the weather that has been gloomy.
The press have proved expert at emphasising the turmoil we see all around us:
- The banking crisis in Cyprus
- The boarded-up shops on UK high streets
I love this recent Tweet from Alain de Botton: “If only news organisations could make money selling resilience and pessimistic calm, rather than fear and paranoia”.
And yet paradoxically the press also reported recently: ”UK household wealth is at an all time high”. Anecdotally, the world seems to be a progressively more prosperous place.
And so, I’m left wondering, are we experiencing:
- A banking crisis?
- Or an economic crisis?
- Or perhaps, is the crisis more to do with how we all feel?
This is important because different diagnoses require different cures. In-fact, the remedies for each condition are arguably almost exactly opposite and therefore potentially counteractive:
- economic crisis apparently requires austerity …
- … which does nothing to help those suffering a crisis of confidence.
What is especially clear is the need to act fast in order to save the patient.
I’d like to explore that paradox a bit more closely. Let’s take a moment to compare and contrast the relativity of what life was like when my parents were the age that my children are now (8 and 10 years old):
- When my parents were children the world’s number one objective was winning the 2nd World War.
- The number one strategy to achieve this was industrially killing people.
The world now is undoubtedly a more healthy, prosperous, safer place that offers more possibilities than ever before. The trends are unquestionably consistently positive.
And yet, despite today’s relative comfort and security, I believe we are experiencing the worst crisis of insecurity in history.
I find myself overwhelmingly and passionately compelled to address this issue, and to encourage all of us to unite in doing so. I publicly committed to advocating this at the impressive launch of Tech London Advocates this week. Why? Because I see the current situation differently. I believe:
- We are witnessing the arrival of a new economy - the birth of the digital economy
- I think that this transition is the most significant evolution ever experienced by mankind
- I believe that the birth of the new digital economy is more profound than the birth of the industrial revolution (when people fundamentally transitioned from working the land to working machines)
- I think that in years to come we will look back at this time and realise just how significant this transition is
- We will equally be amazed at how rapidly it happened
- I think that this is a massively unsettling experience with a high degree of uncertainty for many
Despite this genuine and valid anxiety, what I see is:
- More computing / processing power than ever before
- More connectivity than ever before
- More scope to add-value than ever before
- More opportunity than at any time history
- I think the tech community is key to unlocking this potential - which is why I’m passionate to support initiatives like Tech London Advocates
One of the things that makes digital entrepreneurs so fascinating is the power of their businesses to enhance our lives. To make our lives easier; more productive; more rewarding.
In a word ‘progress’.
Where ever we see obstacles; risk; ‘friction’ - digital technology has the potential now to intelligently detect; predict; avoid; navigate - and thereby adding demonstrable / tangible value and convenience to our lives.
The value-add opportunity could be as trivial as pre-ordering and paying for my coffee so that I don’t have to queue at Starbucks; or as significant as the elimination of ticketing (paper or electronic) from our public transportation systems.
Digital entrepreneurs have the potential to unlock the positive benefit of innovation and excitingly, thereby enrich our lives. More importantly, they have the vital capabilities required to unlock and realise the economic potential of this ‘life enrichment’.
The point is, there has never been more potential to add-value than there is today.
Importantly, the digital start-ups that pursue these opportunities might employ one person; five people; five hundred people. Virtually all big companies start small.
The economy I grew-up with as a child is changing. What’s certain, we need the economic value and the jobs that the new digital economy has to offer. And in the words of Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete (COO of Telefonica Globally, and the Father of Wayra) speaking at the One Young World international summit: “It’s urgent”.
To which I’d add: “It’s exciting too”.
April: Happy Financial New Year to one in four UK Registered Companies.
I have just enjoyed a brilliant break in Sri Lanka with my family. The photo is a festive decoration for a four day celebration starting today to welcome the New Year here in Sri Lanka.
Back home in the (freezing) UK, April marks the start of a New Year too. Specifically I’m talking about the start of a new financial year for many businesses.
In-fact according to official stats from Companies House, 1st April is the start of a new financial year for approximately 25% of UK Registered Companies.
Year-end is an acid test - simply put: did your Company grow year-on-year, or not?
If you are looking for external investment, this matters a lot.
At the end of the day, there are only four ways to grow your P&L. Here’s my earlier post on the subject.
I am proud to have run the P&L for the Business Division of O2. It’s a privilege to work on such a huge piece of business (c. €1bn annually). But despite both the enormity and complexity of running a mobile-telco, I was always delighted that Ronan Dunne (CEO of Telefonica O2 UK) asked us to report the P&L on a calendar-year basis. Everyone knew:
- month one is January; month two is February; (I could go on);
- second-month-third-quarter is August (a difficult month for sales due to holidays);
- September to mid December a vital trading period, in the run-up to …
- … Year-end on December 31st.
And so, my request is, don’t just lead your business, command it. Choose when is the best month for you and your business to report it’s annual results - discuss this with your accountant. It’s fine for year-end to coincide with the Birthday of the Company, but don’t just default to year-end falling on this anniversary, (you can go down the pub for that celebration - knock yourself out, take the team to a Harvester).
Business is hard enough already. Take every opportunity to make your business more simple; easier to manage; and more directly actionable.
Orchestrate the governance of your P&L so that everyone knows exactly what happens when.
Don’t underestimate the positive impact that simplicity can have on your business.
Do not change your year-end date without discussing it with your accountant. (There, I’ve told you three times now).
There are rules about changing the year-end date of your Company, for example, that you can only do so once in five years. It’s easy to search for the latest terms and conditions and the necessary forms on the Companies House website.
Huge thanks to Jeff Lynn, CEO and Founder of Seedrs who was recently appointed Non-Executive Director of Companies House. I briefly mentioned my view and Jeff kindly connected me to the public data available.
I like numbers, and thankfully those clever chaps at Companies House make lots of their numbers publicly availble. The catchily titled: Statistical Tables on Companies Registration Activities 2011/12 provides vital economic data on the births and deaths of UK Registered Companies.
What I find more entertaining is Table A5 which tells us which months they were incorporated. Nothing to do with the state of the nation, but just interesting because, what this says is:
- In-summary the month of incorporation is fairly evenly spread across the whole year - each month accounting for approximately 6 to 7% of the total number of registered businesses.
And then there are two months that are notable exceptions:
- December which accounts for 15%
- March which accounts for 22%
Therefore, excluding March and December, more than half of the Companies Registered in the UK have their incorporation dates pretty-much evenly distributed throughout the remainder of the calendar year.
This data gives us the month of incorporation, not the month of year-end. However, over the years I’ve spoken to literally thousands of businesses. Anecdotally, more often than not, incorporation date and year-end date are one-and-the-same.
What I’ve seen is that businesses year-end accounting is quite evenly / randomly spread across the year.
De-facto, for many businesses year-end is the Company Birthday.
Does it matter? Theoretically no. However, the accountants among us may advise that different dates have different implications from a tax-filing perspective. For me, it’s more than that. Forgive me for saying this, but a year that begins on June 1st and ends July 31st is complicated as hell. “So we’re going to get our year off to a flying start, and then, then, we’re all going on holiday. And when we get back we’re …” Sorry, I’m out.
Finally: My photo, taken in Negombo, Sri Lanka. If you’ve not been to Sri Lanka, I cannot recommend it highly enough: beautiful people; incredible food; remarkable ancient history; charming culture.
The best entrepreneurs invent beyond the imagination of their customers. Why Henry Ford is my business hero.
In a recent interview I was asked: “Who is your business hero?”. My answer: Henry Ford.
Referring to his customers, Mr Ford is famous for having said “If I’d asked them, they would have asked for a quicker horse”.
(The irony, given my last post was about how much quotations have the capacity to irritate - however, I think this quote is genius).
People celebrate Ford’s excellence primarily for his expertise in pioneering mass-production manufacturing techniques. But I think Ford’s greater talent is entrepreneurialism, which is brilliantly captured in the above quote.
Ford had a remarkable ability to identify a need before the realisation of his customers, and invent a solution for that need beyond the imagination of his customers.
He is not alone, it is a trait of brilliant founders, for example Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In 2005 a billion people did not know they needed a Facebook.
Great entrepreneurs out-invent their customers. Crucially their ideas are original but not necessarily ahead of their time.
I am proud to have run the small business division of O2 UK for five years - it now serves c. 450,000 small business. I started at O2 in 2007, the year that iPhone launched. When I think back, it never fails to amaze me that as little as two months before launching iPhone, if I’d asked my business customers if they would sacrifice their beloved Nokia, voice-only mobile and instead replace it with a device that:
- a) enabled them to use the internet in the palm of their hand (“what for?”)
- b) made doing mobile email really easily (“why would I want to email when I’m out?”)
- c) wasn’t a Nokia (“not a Nokia!?!”)
- d) in-fact, a device that did not have ‘buttons’ (well, only one)
- e) cost probably three or four times the price of their current device
… literally, they would have laughed me out of the room. And now, those same people can be found queueing round the block with the annual launch of the latest new iPhone.
What sets Ford apart is that he was one of the first to create such phenomenal commercial success by tapping into his inventive / visionary entrepreneurial talent. He didn’t allow himself to be overly influenced by market research or constrained by the conventional thinking of the time.
What makes Ford’s success even more remarkable is that he did it in the analogue world, not the digital one in which we live in today.
Analogue being inherently less viral, less contagious than digital. By comparison, we have it easy. Which is why this new digital era is so amazingly exciting.
In the new digital economy it has never been easier to invent, build, industrialise, connect and commercialise your ideas than it is today.