What kind of cheese is your organisation?

Organisations look pretty imposing from the outside: pictures of corporate serenity, coherent matching wall paper and carpet, an organism at one with itself and its surroundings. A well sorted business entity.

However, you’ll soon realise after working with organisations for a while, that this appearance of solidity and uniformity, is in actual fact a mirage and that all your average organisation actually is, is a large piece of cheese: smooth and daunting on the outside, but full of holes in the inside.

An organisations’ holes become apparent when messages get lost, staff don’t return calls, emails get unanswered and letters get returned to sender. Things fall down the cracks in the middle of departments, never to be seen again.

Apparently,, the cheese industry calls holes in cheese “eyes”. This is particularly ironic for those organisations whose infrastructure is so shot to pieces, they resemble slabs of Emmenthaler or Appenzell – the cheeses with the largest holes in them. If one thing a holey organisation doesn’t have, is eyes: or ears too for that matter.

And most times its digestive system doesn’t function properly either, from one end of the organisation to the other. the organisation which resembles a chunky piece of Emmenthaler tends to leak from both ends, often simultaneously.  You just have to look at the recent track record of the British Government to see a piece of Swiss Cheese in action and see integrity, intelligence, truth and vision draining away by the day.

Scientists say that the reason Swiss cheese is so holey is not due to hungry mice or over exuberant bacteria but due to the buckets being used when the milk is collected from the Swiss cow being contaminated with hay. Scientists are yet to establish why the UK government is leaking so profusely from all pores and both ends, but chances are it has very little to do with mice, bugs or hay.

Does your firm own your arse?

It’s holiday time again and stories abound of friends flying around with agendas of lands to be visited, food to be eaten and locals to be gawked at.

Except that in these days of austerity, zero hours contracts and presenteeist-induced guilt, friends the length of the land are foregoing their holidays for the sake of finishing the unfinished job, securing the unsecured contract and completing the as yet incomplete project.

 ‘Just stay at work for a few more days‘ their firms are urging them; or even, ‘take that laptop on holiday with you’ or better still ‘look, forget the holiday. Just stay put. What do you wanna go travelling for in any case? When you’ve got everything you need on our doorstep?’

Guilt-tripped  friends are now either moving their holidays, not taking them or just ignoring them for the sake of keeping their employer off their necks and to save their jobs and reputations.

If you’re in one of those firms that think it owns your arse, just remember the terms of your contract. Assuming you have one. Remember what trade unions fought long and hard for over the centuries. Assuming you belong to one.  And remember the only person who owns your arse is you and make sure you take it with you on that well overdue holiday, fearlessly.

Tips for Business Start Ups: try living your life in a retailer’s shoes.

Start ups come in many shapes and sizes, reflect many fads and fashions and have more than their fair share of dreams and nightmares to look forward to. One thing they all have in common though is the act of trading: they all have something to sell in exchange for something else, usually, although not always, money.

Every start up has to learn how to sell at some point and there are endless Motorway Service Station manuals, YouTube sites and bubble gum vouchers which offer all sorts of tips, tricks and nonsense to this most elusive of business start up activity: trying to encourage someone to part with something they don’t necessarily want to part with.

Sheila, a young start up in Nottingham is approaching the moment of trade not a little nervously. She has developed a great line in lace lingerie but is utterly perplexed when it comes to the lines she’ll need utter when it comes to plying her trade. She’s seen the motivational videos;  “look at yourself in the mirror and imagine you’re covered in treacle: stand like you’re six feet tall and bark like a dog; shake your customer’s hands vigorously and don’t let go until they give you their bank card’s pin code: But none of these hold the slightest interest for Sheila. She’s bored by the rants and the rhetoric and wants to – needs to – find an entry into sales which doesn’t involve her having a frontal lobotomy beforehand.

A simple trick when it comes to sales is to go to shopping: not with the purpose of shopping, but with the purpose of finding out what encourages people to buy. Sheila realises if she can look at the act of selling through the eyes of the buyer, she’ll learn lots more about how to sell her lingerie than she would if just kept looking at the transaction through the eyes of the seller.

And this is something that’s easily done as most of us, at one time or another in our lives, have gone shopping. Probably even today. So what happens when you go shopping? What’s your predisposition to the shop before you even go into it? Do you want to get the hell back to Kansas as fast as you can?

How do you respond to the shop assistant who walks alongside you, perpetually smiling at you whilst you choose your evening meal? Do they remind you of all those Apple Store operatives who seem to have had permanent dental surgery?

How do you react to the layout of the shop? The proximity of other shoppers? The possibility of picking up the goods, squeezing them hard and then putting them back on the shelf before anyone notices?

Whether they’re selling algorithms or apples, there are hundreds of other aspects to shopping which the Start Up would do well to observe and learn from: but not from the shoes of the seller, but from the viewpoint of the buyer.  Try living in the shoes of a retailer for a day: it will do wonders for your sales technique.

Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: do things differently and keep the status quo.

Another New Year back at work and already our New Year Resolutions are being tested by a whole host of diversions, seductions and irrelevancies.  It’s tough facing a New Year when the Old Thinking seems intent on holding us back, especially if you’re a Start Up looking for your own special way of disrupting the marketing place and staking your claim for immortality.

This year we’re being exhorted to Do things differently and you’ll get different results. It’s a handy little aphorism, occasionally attributed to Alberto Einstein, and is being used in as many different contexts as there are atoms in the universe. Business start up, economic regeneration, social behavioural policy – even Doctor Who – are all inviting us to do things differently if we want to achieve the goals we have set ourselves in our lives.

Want to lose weight? Do things differently.
Want to lower unemployment? Do things differently.
Want to increase the nation’s GDP and your personal libido at the same time? Just do things differently, damn you!

It would be silly to argue that doing things differently won’t result in different outcomes. But we can’t know whether the different actions we”re intent on pursuing are going to produce the outcomes we want. Difference doesn’t guarantee improvement, just difference. Doing things differently might just generate collateral damage of things getting done substantially worse for a while.

Because, unlike those awkward bloody Daleks, we thankfully have not yet quite reached a robotnik stage where every thought can be monitored and controlled and every action can produce a predetermined reaction.

So three cheers for human unpredictability and downright cussidness. It may not get us the changes we want immediately, but it will at least mean we can enjoy the promise of the New Year without fretting about what it is actually bringing.


Tips for Business Start Ups: every question asks a story.

You’re starting up a new business and as much as you’d like to be able to start selling straight away and drawing down the king of all business start up requisites – cash – the reality is that cash isn’t going to start flowing out of that tap for some months to come.  Not only do you need some liquidity in your system (it’s Christmas after all and there’s all those office parties to go to and dance around like you’re the next David Brent from The Office), but you’ve spotted an ideal scheme which is offering countless thousands of pounds of grant to enhance your business growth prospects.  The deadline is just a week away – so what do you do?  You give it your best shot, even though you may never have filled in this kind of application form before.

Before long, you’ll find yourself sweating over the criteria, the funding guidelines and the translation of what the funder wants, what you want and whether or not the two sets of desires are mutually compatible.  If they’re not compatible, then now is the time to consign the application to the WPB and get out to your Christmas networking activities, safe in the knowledge you haven’t just wasted a precious week of your business time on something that was going nowhere quickly.

However, if you sense that that money in the funding pot has your name written all over it, then the first thing you’ll be faced with is the application questions.

The ones which ask you to identify yourself should be pretty straightforward if you’ve got this far in life.  Name, address, email, phone number – if you don’t know these by now (especially your name) then it’s time to pack up the business idea immediately and join your colleagues on the networking dance floor (all assuming you know who they are of course).

The questions which follow tend to be more open ended and ask you to do some original thinking.  Not original copy and pasting from Wikipedia, previous applications or last week’s shopping list, but some honest to goodness new thinking straight out of your brain which will need to be expressed in a written form.  Yes, I know it’s difficult, and yes, I know it discriminates against people who would prefer to express their application in the form of expressive dance, but the sad fact is that these questions need answers and they need them to be communicated in a way that the person reading the form will be able to understand.  So, writing it is, writing it has to be and preferably in a language that the form is written in.

Once you’re into form filling mode and are getting the hang of having to answer questions, a useful approach is to use the questions to tell the story you want to tell about your business or project.  Not an act of fiction, or  a work or art necessarily, but an account  which describes your intention with clarity, purpose and logic.  Sometimes people use bullet points to tell their story and this is understandable if you working to a word limit.  But have you ever read a compelling short story made out of bullet points?  I suspect not and the same principle holds for writing application forms for cash.  A good story will seduce, fascinate and wow your readers.  Bullet points merely make readers they’re being fired at.

So, when faced with those questions, face up to them, figure out the story they want to hear and make sure you tell it in a form which most people could follow.  You don’t have to be Quentin Tarantino when it comes to the stories needed to help the growth of your business: although it might help of course if you want to sell  a slate of post modern classic films (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and your name happens to be Quentin Tarantino.

Tips for Business Start Ups: sack your customers and grow, grow grow

Martin, Madge and Moriarty are part of a refreshing new business trend: sacking your customers if they don’t do what you want them to.

It’s refreshing because for far too long businesses have had to kowtow to the whims and vagaries of customers who never know what they want, constantly change their mind and generally spend most of their time faffing around the most simplest of decisions. It’s made worse by a culture which values the concept of personalisation: where every customer counts, where every individual’s foibles are treated as delightful idiosyncrasies and every punter’s preferences are sanctified.

Our 3 Ms – Martin, Madge and Moriarty – have grasped the counter notion that this obsession on the customer’s needs is completely misplaced and the sooner they knew their place in the economic reality of the world, the happier they would be. So, Martin, a personal trainer dropped five of his fattest clients ruthlessly one Saturday lunch time after their pizza intake had over-run ; Madge, a travelling hair dresser disposed of all her customers who were incapable of turning up on time and Moriarty, a chiropodist decided to sack 80% of his customers just because he didn’t like the colour of their socks.

Six months later and business is booming for all three of them. Their reluctance to take any old customer for any old reason has given them a kudos in their respective market places by elevating their remaining customers into clients who warrant special attention and who now have to stick to their best behaviour in case they too get slung out into the cold grey world of other customers searching for their lifestyle nirvana.

Sacking your customers may sound counterintuitive but elevating the ones you have to the status of clients, partners or, heaven forbid, interesting human beings, can be a sure way of giving your business the shot in the arm it needs to get through the coming autumn.

Celebrate Easter and join Aspire’s virtual Hunt the Easter Elephant competition!

Yes, you heard it here first folks: instead of laboriously schlepping around the garden or your local park to hunt for pass-their-sell-by-date Easter Eggs, you can hunt for Easter goodies from the comfort of your own armchair, bathroom or bus queue – or wherever you read the Aspire Trust website from!

During Easter Sunday, we’ll be hiding 12 Easter Elephants through the many pages of the website (www.aspire-trust.org) – and if you can find all 12, just email info@aspire-trust.org with your name and email address and you could win a prize!

Everyone who identifies the location of all 12 Easter Elephants (ie the name of the webpages) will be put forward to a prize raffle which will be drawn at 12.00hrs GMT on Easter Monday: the winner will win 2 free tickets worth £50.00 to the opening keynote speeches at our All Our Futures conference on Monday 16 June (more details here).

So, if it’s pouring down on Easter Sunday and you’re worried how to break it to the kids that you won’t be spending any time soon foraging amongst the shrubbery for their Easter Eggs: then just log in here, look for the 12 Easter Elephants with your kids and family– and enjoy our site at the same time!

Tips for business start ups: when is a festival not a festival?

A good friend of mine, Richard Haswell, once advised me as we looked over the wastelands of Wirral Waters pondering the wisdom of holding an arts festival there, that there was much more to a festival than having a band on a stage in a field. There had to be an air of festivity about a festival: this might involve things like celebrating local and ancient myths, establishing annual rituals and dressing up in strange clothing; it might include being prepared to spend days up to your eyes in mud: and it would almost certainly involve the proximity of intoxicating substances on a very large scale meaning that if you were a festival goer, you would, before long, be out of your mind due to the combination of your creative expression through contemporary dance, blocked Portaloos and the most recent legal highs extracted from horse dung imported from Patagonia.  You would have made the transformation from festival punter to festival celebrant.

The business opportunities at festivals are of course immense but as a young start up, you need to be careful that you don’t get drawn into so called festivals which are nothing more than the equivalent of a couple of bands on the back of a tractor attached to a spluttering generator.A new start up needs to watch with a degree of caution the promotional opportunities that present themselves as ‘Walking Festivals’, ‘Chess Festivals’ or even ‘Festival Festivals’ as there is a strong likelihood that there is nothing festive about any of these events. Instead, they are more than likely to be incoherent programmes of activity which are dressed up as essential festival content and which try to persuade you that you’re a celebrant when in fact you’re nothing more than a punter.

If you are faced with the opportunity to present your business at the next big un-festive festival, ask yourself 6 things about that event:

Is there Ritual? Myth? Debauchery?

Will I be able to establish long term relationships with other festival goers?

Will I be able to sell more than it’s costing me to attend?

Am I a seller?

Am I being sold to?

If your answers become increasingly of the ‘yes’ variety as you work your way down this list, then you’ll be a field with a load of other punters listening to some lousy cover band banging out some-one else’s top 10 hits: if they become increasingly of the ‘no’ variety, you’re more than likely to have a life changing transformative experience in the strangest of places which will do wonders for your life, nevermind your business.


Like, snog, shag, marry, avoid? The relationship guide for would be business mentors.

Business mentoring has been getting a great press recently and for lots of good reasons: having a mentor is a great life choice for anyone in any stage of their life, not just when they’re in the process of starting up their business. But what does being a mentor actually entail? How can you become an effective one and ensure that your mentoring skills and knowledge are applied for their maximum effect?

Many mentors will tell you that the heart of a good mentor – mentee relationship is exactly that: it’s a relationship. It’s all about you and them. Simples, as the meerkat relationship managers might put it.

Well, yes, in one very important sense the process is based on a relationship between two people, rather than a person and a tree or a person and a pet budgie. On the other hand, just waving it away as merely a matter of ‘relationship’ as if that explained everything isn’t quite enough.

Assessing potential relationships along the ‘Like, snog, shag, marry, avoid?’ paradigm is one way of planning a mentoring relationship but opens itself up to all sorts of misunderstandings, walks of shame and life long regrets.

We might start by seeing the mentor – mentee relationship as a dialogue between two people whilst understanding that there are at least a further two people sat on the shoulders of each party whispering into the ear of that party. This ‘dialogue’ is really between four parents and their two children who are still wrestling out their own voice in the world.

We might also recognise that both the mentor and mentee (does anyone else squirm at that word, ‘mentee?”) exist in all kinds of contexts, the economic being just one. They are both rooted into complex soil systems of other relationships, networks, practices and habits: all these affect the ‘relationship’ between the two parties and need exploring to ensure a healthy relationship between the two of them.

And finally, we need to recognise that if a mentor mentee relationship has undercurrents of power surging under the surface – if the mentor is driven by the need to ‘do good’ or ‘help people’ for example – then there is a real risk that the ‘Like, snog, shag, marry, avoid?’ paradigm becomes the modus operandi of that relationship. And whilst that might be fun for a few star filled nights on far flung beaches, the hangovers of the morning after might not be what the business needs in the long term.

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