Wednesday, 27 January 2010

#6: If you want a job done well..

Throughout Jan I've been posting the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series.

Installments so far: Introduction,
Lesson : #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

        "If you want a job done well, do it yourself."

I have heard this maxim uttered by some of the smartest self-starters I've had the pleasure and good fortune to meet. All to rarely have I had the freedom, and lets face it, the guts, to tell them they're talking utter tosh.

It is a glamourous fallacy that those who can conceive of great things necessarily have the skills to execute them.

In a former incarnation I worked as a professional choreographer, and I can tell you first hand that I was far better at that than I was a dancer. It is all well and good for me to have a notion for the way a body can move, to picture the lines of the movement in my mind. It is an unrelated matter to command my body to make those forms.

But I wanted a great performance, so did I 'do it myself'? No! I hired great dancers! It's a surprisingly simple notion. Just give the task in question to the best person you can lay your hands on who's skilled at that particular activity. If you can't lay your hands on them, stalk them! After all as far as I can ascertain, that's what Twitter was invented for!

I accept that the commonly accepted counter argument to this idea usually lands between "they dont care as much about my business as I do" and "I will work harder than anyone else because I stand to benefit the most".

Well and enough. I accept that I probably care about my business more than anyone else in the world; this makes sense, it's my business! Yet I am still not convinced that I care enough about Red Button Design to render me magically better at our accounts than our accountant, our sourcing than our procurement team or our appropriate design strategy than James. Infact, I'm certain that no amount of caring can make me more than merely competant at those tasks. It's just not my skill set. Therefore it is my job to make it worth someone else's while to care, either about my enterprise or presumably they care about their job? And working on the assumption that it is their job to do whatever it is you hired them to do, they're looking for you to be a happy customer and therefore their own self interest is in parallel to your self interest. As I have said before, when it comes to my business, linking their personal gain to my aims is the most comfortable I'm going to get.

So rather than a job done well being a job done yourself, it's ok to admit that you can't do it all. More than that, it's vital. An inability to accurately evaluate your talents might be embarrassing at a karaoke bar, but it's fatal in business. Hence, lesson #6:

If you want a job done well, learn to delegate

Saturday, 23 January 2010 Social Enterprise Challenge

I'm taking a brief break from the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series to tell you about a fantastic opportunity to win an entrepreneurial internship! But you'll have to be quick, deadline for entries is this Monday!

Do you have an interest in business and enterprise, helping your community and developing your entrepreneurial skills? The Social Enterprise Challenge provides a fantastic opportunity to empower young individuals (18+)  in the London region - and best of all, the winners have the chance to win exclusive internship opportunities with some of London's most successful entrepreneurs (as well as £5000 of sports equipment and £500 cash!). The deadline to sign up is this Monday January 25th so hurry and send an email with your details to a.dundas(at) or click here

Good luck if you're entering and we'll be back with the "12 lessons" next week.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

#5: Schrödinger's cat

Throughout Jan I will be posting installments of the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series

So far: Introduction, Lesson #1, Lesson #2, Lesson #3, Lesson #4

Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment which was devised by Erwin Schrödinger to highlight the absurdity of quantum mechanics.
It'll do just the same, however, to highlight the absurdity of business plans.

Business plans are, at best, a guestimation of what might occur if a particular set of variables fall out in a particular manner. At worst, they're a work of fanciful fiction.

Either way, they represent an attempt to model the future which often spans into a delightful set of parallel universes because, well .. it's unlikely you're in the business of predicting the future. So, you'll probably have the version where you barely get by, the one where you'll have your own private island before you're 30 and the one in the middle where you've averaged out all of the highs and lows to reach reason. Most people tend to go with the one in the middle.

In Schrödinger's thought experiment he envisages a box into which you sadistically put a cat and some poison before closing and sealing the lid. You would them head off for an hour, (presumably to work on your business plan!) and after 60 minutes the following question is posed:
Is the cat alive or dead?

Now, without looking in the box, you cannot tell. The cat could be alive but equally it could be dead, having succumbed to the poison. So, one version of the experimental outcome states that as long as you cannot tell which is true, the cat is both simultaneously alive and dead. However, we know rationally that when we do open the box, this is the one outcome that cannot actually be evidenced.

I would argue that business plans are like Schrödinger's cat. While on the one hand the only way to predict the future is to assume a mixture of good and bad outcomes, this does create a tendency for startups to write business plans around impossible averages; forgetting that 'in the real world' cats are either alive or dead, not both.

An example: We're in for two funding bids where, in each, there is a 50% chance we're going to win £10,000.
Odds are, we'll get £10,000 in one or the other. My fantasy business plan says we get £20,000, my worst case scenario says we get zip, nada, niente.
My "most likely scenario" business plan would model this as a £5,000 income in each case. Despite the fact that getting £5,000 is the one truly impossible condition. We'll win £10k or nothing, alive or dead.

...Yes it seems simple now! but #5 was truly a lesson learnt the hard way:

Is Schrödinger's cat in your business plan?

Monday, 18 January 2010

#4: Too much love will kill you.

Throughout Jan I will be posting installments of the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series

So far: Introduction, Lesson #1, Lesson #2, Lesson #3

The thrill of starting a business arrives packaged with a rather daunting number of peripheral and unexpected tasks. Between the innocuous and the merely burdensome, there will be a few which invariably require new knowledge and the development of completely new skills.

For any entrepreneur, the natural response to discovering a task that you cannot easily complete is either to get someone else to do it, or learn to do it yourself. Unfortunately the natural state of being for any startup is dead broke, more often than not therefore ruling out the first option! Thankfully, knowledge (or at the very least the perception of it) is fairly easy to come across and frequently free.

Local authority support agencies, peers, Government advice publications, enterprise seminars, consultants, online forums, networking events, meet up groups and countless websites and blogs are waiting, eager to give you the answer that will propel you to success faster than you can say "the next Google" and if you really are a novel business with genuine growth potential they'll be clamouring over themselves to give you their opinion on your product & projections.

Is it altruism?
Is it heck! There's personal gain in the equation somewhere. The question is: where, how does this drive their motivation, and will it compromise the impartiality of their advice to you? I mean, is it really fair to ask a cash-strapped patent attorney their advice on whether you ought to engage in a world-wide patent or if UK & USA will suffice, when the differential is tens of thousands of pounds worth of business?

And all other things being equal would you rather take advice from a business advisor:
    - paid by the hour
    - paid in relation to the positivity of their client feedback forms
    - paid according to the number of cases they get through in a day
    - paid in relation to the number of companies they coached that reach tax threshold within 2 years

I’ve blogged before about how crucial good advice and support is to guide a promising startup through the tough transitions to healthy business. What I didn't say was, like so many things in this life: some is essential, too much can seriously set you back and the wrong kind will destroy you entirely. Brian May had it right as far as I'm concerned, “Too much love will kill you, just as sure as none at all”

You see the thing is, having 5 pieces of conflicting advice serving 5 different agendas, when you're uncertain .. well, it's not a great deal more helpful than having no advice at all, at least not in any practical sense.

Last year, after far too many months running around in circles, Red Button Design was lucky enough to get an introduction to The Ketchup Group who now provide us with support both tailored specifically to our business, and targeted only to the gaps in our knowledge. This creates minimum overlap and encourages us to confidently take the lead where we know best. Most favourably of all, due to the flexibility they afforded us in choosing a structure for our relationship, Red Button Design's success will directly benefit each of the companies in the group. And sod altruism, when deciding to trust someone to share my business decisions, linking their personal gain to my aims is the most comfortable I'm going to get!

Advice is essential. Take it where you need it and by all means give it where you can, but pick you advice sources carefully, examine their motives* and most of all, know when to stop asking and trust your own instinct.

Lesson #4

Too much love will kill you, just as sure as none at all

* I'm writing these blogs sharing my lessons of 2009 because I hope to increase readership and raise the profile of this blog. If you like them or find them useful (and I really hope you do!) please comment, subscribe by RSS or consider sharing the link on Twitter.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

#3: Brevity is good.

Throughout Jan I will be posting installments of the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series

So far: Introduction, Lesson #1, Lesson #2

It's generally the case that the more important the person you're contacting:
    a) the more valuable their time is
    b) the greater your desire to make a good impression

Quite often getting directly to the 'ask' or using bullet points is portrayed as rude. Real rudeness is writing a 500 word email when 50 words will do.

    - it wastes their time
    - it wastes yours
    - it lowers the chance they'll read and/or reply to you

Lesson #3:
Brevity is good

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

#2: You can’t half-ride a bike.

Throughout Jan I will be posting installments of the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series

So far: Introduction , Lesson #1

While it may be official that you’ll never forget how to ride a bike, the chances are good you'll forget the mindset which allowed you to learn to ride it in the first place.

On a bike, there are two points of safety. Just two.
The first involves having both feet on the ground, your hands on the handlebars and a stationary bike. The second is ... well, riding the bike. As any kid knows, you can’t half-ride a bike. You can’t keep one foot skirting the ground just-in-case (you’re going to need both feet to pedal), you can’t very well run along the road Fred Flintstone style, and as for riding a bike very, very, slowly … well, you just try that.
No? Well trust me, it doesn’t work either.

It’s a momentum issue.
When you’re 7 or 8 you get this, there’s no middle ground. You have to commit to the act of riding the bike and accept that you may fall, or bail on the activity completely. Thankfully most 8 year olds think they’re Evel Knievel and don’t know the meaning of ‘caution’... Sadly, most Entrepreneurs aren’t 8 years old.

This time last year I was splitting my energy between freelancing as a marketing consultant, a PT sales role, speaking at business events and careers fairs, acting as a course-mentor to three entrepreneurs and participating in a couple of Enterprise UK focus groups, amongst other ephemeral opportunities (!) We’d just returned from The Earth Awards in New York and James was entering the final 6 months of a full time Masters Degree with curricular split between two Universities..

We clearly hadn’t fully committed to our business. Despite believing I was giving it my all, Red Button Design was at best a side project for the first few months of 2009. Yet, we hadn’t bailed on it either and at the time I truly thought I was making progress. As it turns out, I was standing over a stationary bike making ‘vrooom’ noises.

If you’re working to start a scalable business, you’re attempting to do something extraordinary. You’re doing something new, something better, more efficient or more attractive. How many of us, if we're honest with ourselves, can say we'll be better than established competitors in our spare time?

Of course, there are excuses. Damn good excuses for the most part. I'm not even going to start on the things I either haven't had, or have had to do, since I shunned paid employment to work full time on Red Button Design. It shouldn't be possible to survive indefinitely without a wage, yet making the impossible, possible, is only the first in the set of daredevil skills an entrepreneur needs. No matter how much effort and focus you devote to your enterprise, you're still putting yourself at risk of bumps, scrapes and that word that scares us Brits so deeply, 'failure'. I don't know how many times you skinned your knees learning to cycle.. I recall a fair few topples myself, but just take a quick look at your knees today, to see that the scars of failure heal.

So take a step back and if it's clear you haven't already decided, decide today. Commit or Bail?
...and if you're not going to give up that easily, then take a deep breath and pedal as fast as you can because it's my second lesson for 2010:

Commit or Bail. You can’t half ride a bike.

Monday, 11 January 2010

#1: A favour given isn’t necessarily a favour owed.

Throughout Jan I will be posting installments of the "12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009" series I introduced last Friday

Let’s picture a reality in which you wrote a lovely blog piece about me.
Yeah, I know.. but imagine you had found a few kind words to say and strung them together into some elegant and witty prose; perhaps you linked to my blog, my twitter, the company site, even my Amazon wishlist* all entirely unprompted and of your own volition. That’d be nice of you, wouldn’t it?
And let’s say I even got a few customers from your efforts. That’d be really nice.

Now imagine you get in touch with me a few months later, you know how successful your post has been in driving me valuable traffic and you suspect you’ve helped increase my sales. You approach me at an event and ask me to endorse your new product on my, now pretty well eyeballed, site because.. y’know, you wrote that post a while back and it’d be kind of me to return the favour. You heavily imply that I owe you and speak as if my agreement is a given. As it happens however, as nice as you might be and as kind as you may have been, I don’t rate your product at all. Worse than that, I've actually only ever had negative experiences of it.

You’ve put me in a pretty tough position, torn between feeling indebted to return the gesture and my own integrity.

Will your previous kind actions weigh it into the balance of my decision? Of course! I’m nice like that. Do I consider a tacit agreement to have been made? No I do not. If you’re doing me a favour with the underlying motive of receiving something in return, you need to be upfront about it. State your proposition! If what you can offer is beneficial to me, and if what you want in return is agreeable to me, I’ll most likely agree to the trade. If what you want in return isn’t something I am comfortable to give then I’m not going to be swayed by a series of kind gestures impressing a sense of obligation onto my shoulders. That sounds... well, a little like bribery to me.

This lesson, of course, goes both ways. If you simply can't give me what I am asking for, no amount of me being lovely to you will, or should, persuade you to make that compromise for me.

More than once last year did I find myself going uncomfortably out of my way to help someone, motivated simply by a feeling of obligation to ‘hold up my end of the bargain’ when no such bargain has been made. Hence the first lesson I’ll be carrying into 2010:

A favour given isn’t necessarily a favour owed.

* Lesson #1b, it never hurts to try ;-)

Friday, 8 January 2010

No Regrets, Only Lessons From Another Year at the Fair

"New Years Resolutions" ..I've not checked, but I wouldn't be surprised if a week into 2010 this is still trending on Twitter. Come Jan 1st most of us make them, break them, then forget them. Starting with the infamous groan on New Year's Day "I'm never drinking again!" and rapidly cycling through a series of health & well being promises, visions of prolificacy, of rediscovering your work ethic, keeping better control of your finances and acquiring new skills.. every year the same core aims make our lists.

I duly made mine last year, 10 in total, which took pride of place pinned to my office wall all year. I managed to succeed at an impressive 5 of them, very nearly achieved a further 2, and made epic failures of the remaining three, (and no, I shall not tell you what they were!)

But between you, me, and the little thing they call t'interweb: 2009 was nothing short of an utterly rampageous year for me.

People seem to like to describe the lives of young entrepreneurs and their nascent businesses as if we were on a roller-coaster, and I get that, really I do! The highs, the lows, the thrills and anxieties undeniably come to permeate every aspect of your life. Yet last year, if proof was even required, served to deftly illustrate quite how over simplified this analogy is. There's not only a roller coaster in the entrepreneurial fairground, there’s the spiraling helter-skelter, a haunted house, a shooting gallery (always rigged) and a candy stand where we can prove, yet again, that entrepreneurs have 'eyes bigger than our stomachs'.. and don't even get me started on the caged-in cycle of the carousel, or the dodge ‘ems with at least one driver who thinks he’s in a bumper-car.. It's all at once exhausting and dazzling.

Through 2009 I struggled at times between being so goal orientated I became inflexible and unresponsive, and so open minded and eager to learn that I was led astray by every bandwagon and exciting new idea. A lot is made of the 'art' to keeping resolutions, very little do we consider the art of allowing ourselves not to achieve our set goals if the goals are no longer appropriate. There are so many things from 2009 I might respond to differently should they recur in 2010, certainly too many to list and keep on my wall. So I have only one resolution for 2010:
'Carry no regrets, only lessons'.

And in a series beginning next week I will blog 'The 12 entrepreneurial lessons I learnt from 2009'.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

WARNING! Disconnection Will Cause Adverse Side Effects..

Happy New Year, I’m sure many of you have amongst your resolutions a commitment to learn something new? Well let’s start January off with a little bit of science*.

Here’s a little psychological experiment but do remember, kids, don’t try this at home!

Our participant for this particular experiment is called Amanda, like me. And, oddly, in almost every way imaginable, Amanda is like me.

Amanda has just moved into a new flat. She likes it a great deal but it’s not yet hooked up with a landline or broadband and all her neighbours have sensibly passworded their connections with unguessable passwords. That’s ok, however, because we have provided her with a Blackberry and a Dongle for her Mac.

For 6 days we leave Amanda alone to settle in and simply observe her routine. On the 7th day, at 9pm, we inexplicably stop the Blackberry’s data package, bar outgoing calls & texts, and disable the dongle.

What happens next?

A) Our participant fusses, half heartedly, for a few minutes with the devices before breathing a sign of relief, running herself a bath and getting an early night.

B) Our participant systematically troubleshoots the Blackberry, Dongle and the Mac to no avail before giving up and settling on the sofa with a book and some wine, breaking periodically to check and re-check all devices.

C) Our participant displays mild signs of distress and spends an entire hour shutting down all devices, trying to restart them in different combinations, checking and double checking all phone lines and connections as well as trying to call the relevant customer care lines only to remember the phone is non-functional before finally resorting to working on her flagged email list offline, queuing the completed emails to send, presumably from her regular Starbucks the next day.

D) Our participant displays signs of severe anxiety, continually checking all three devices, repeatedly turning them on and off again and futilely attempting to channel Angelina Jolie’s character from Hackers and connect to local protected networks. Resorting to distraction techniques fails as she attempts to stream The Big Bang Theory on 4OD, search for podcasts on iTunes and discover new music on Spotify. Disoriented, she wanders from room to room with the dongle and the Blackberry seeking a connection, apparently unable to set the devices aside and work offline productively. Finally she attempts to look for local 24 hour internet café’s, or a pub with wifi, by using Google before realising her mistake and lapsing into a catatonic state.

Answers on a postcard ;-)

All in all, the experience was a little too like the time my business partner attempted to discover if my caffeine addiction was psychological or physiological by switching everything I had to decaf without me knowing. When, by mid afternoon, I excused myself to head home ill citing my symptoms as migraine, nausea, mental fugue, inability to concentrate and unbearable lethargy, then he sought pity on me and confessed. A couple of medicinal venti, extra-shot, skinny cappuccinos later (his shout, obviously) and we were able to definitively conclude that the experiment did not need repeating. I didn’t quite get it legislated in the shareholders agreement but be warned, it doesn’t say “caffeine addict” on my business card for no reason and, after yesterday, “net addict” may be appearing beside it with the next print run..

Is there a moral to this rambling story? Perhaps a final thought about the increasing over-dependence of society on online and digital communication? Or perhaps an argument towards internet access as a human right?

I don't know, or care, I don't have time to think about that now I have the internet back in all its glory!

* If you really do fancy learning some creative-entrepreneur friendly science go check out the fabulous boys and girls of Prism Magazine