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.

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.

What is a SuperBusiness? 9 questions which will help shape the answer.

Spark Up in Liverpool makes much of creating 500 SuperBusinesses in 5 years across the Liverpool City Region. In a region whose business support services have generated many types of business and entrepreneurial activity, what is it that will make a SuperBusiness?

On one very straight forward level it has to mean starting up businesses which generate super levels of employment, turnover and profitability; businesses which can make a major contribution to the regional business economy. But being a SuperBusiness is much, much more than the bottom line metrics and measurable outputs.

SuperBusinesses will not merely operate in the Liverpool City region: they will have an acutely developed moral compass which which help shape it for the better: This means for the social and cultural ‘better’ as well as the economic ‘better’.

SuperBusinesses could shape either the region from hell – much like Tokyo in Bladerunners – or they could shape an en-nobled, ennobling, civilised and civilising space in which people’s entrepreneurial behaviour is directed towards the greater good. A region with 500 SuperBusinesses could either be filled with wide boys, hoods and spivs – or it could be like Venice. Or both. The choice is ours.

So what will tell us whether we’re seeing a SuperBusiness emerge in the next 5 years? And what might be the defining characteristics of those ventures? There will be several indicators which tell us whether we’re dealing with a SuperBusiness or just a bunch of charlatans out to make a fast buck and they’ll be seen in their responses to the following questions:

How are you engaging with the poor, excluded and disillusioned?
How are you giving air time and political influence to individual spirits?
How are you connecting nano-, micro- and mini- SMEs with the larger corporate players?
How are you recognising and responding to local culture – not just traditional, mainstream arts and museums but the myriad of ways in which people go about things and create value, difference and impact?
How are you valuing diversity and difference?
How are you not only tolerating dissent but appreciating it?
How are regulating yourselves and your public behaviours?
How are you valuing risk, challenge and uncertainty?
How are you engaging with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” (Wikipedia)

This is not just a job for the entrepreneurs and eager business men and women. If we want our SuperBusinesses to shape our city region we’re probably best starting at home. Our own businesses, whether super or not, could also begin to address those questions. If we want those SuperBusinesses to emerge from the gloom of the recent recession and spark up our region, we will all need to become at least a little bit ‘super’ in our own businesses for once in a while too.

For more information about Spark Up, please visit the website here.

Tips for Business Start Ups: 7 ways to engage Generation Y-ers in business

Time Magazine printed an article in 1967 to worried parents across the USA that Baby Boomers “seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics.” Time was following in a well worn tradition of media frenzy. The Dallas Morning News in the 1920s described its young people “as not caring about people and not having any sense of shame , honor or duty.”

So, we need to be careful about any predictive process when it comes to basing economic or social policy on the stereotypes of young people (or indeed anyone else). Bearing that in mind, what might the stereotypes of the Millenial – the Generation Y-er – suggest about how they may or may not get involved in the messy business of business start ups?

Well, the stereotypes fly thick and fast when it comes to trying to assess what constitutes the typical Generation Y-er. According to Psychology Today, they include:

being the toughest generation to manage;
growing up in a culturally diverse school and play environment;
being tech-savvy, enthusiastic, self-centred, confident, well networked and achievement-oriented;
one of the best educated generations in history;
confident with a constant need for variety, challenge and instant gratification;
Represented by the “Prizes for All ” generation.

At work, Generation Y-ers are said to:

expect their opinions to be heard and considered and are not usually shy;
want to know that what they are doing is valuable to the company and/or environment, as well as valuable to them and their career;
have a strong desire for rewarding opportunities – for them and their company.
are driven less by money and more by accomplishment;
Want to express their creativity and be able to complete tasks on their own – using their own methods;
want to know they have access to an open door to ask questions;
want to engage in work relevant to them and important to them and the company.

So if we expect Generation Y-ers to blindly follow career or vocational paths that have been laid for them, and which have been paved with rewards that may have been acceptable to Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers, we’re going to have a few surprises.

We may need to think less of how do Generation Y-ers fit into business, and more about how the business world can be shaped by a Generation Y culture.  Perhaps we might even see some of the Baby Boomer and Generation  X orthodoxies of business being challenged.

So, here’s a guide on how to engage sterotypical Generation Y-ers in business: by changing business practice around them, rather than trying to fit them into your business.

1. Be aware of the boot camp and other military metaphors

Enthusiastic entrepreneurs all over the UK are currently being inundated with all types of business support programmes from every conceivable source: their local council, their friendly bank and the taxi driver who’s trying to take them to their next networking opportunity but who has of course lost his way to name but three.

These support programmes are being promoted through a variety of metaphors which express the spirit of growth and enthusiasm which drives the people behind the programmes: everything from growing an allotment through to levitation systems (getting your idea ‘off the ground’) hothouses, hatcheries, nests and even the occasional business meeting womb.

The most insidious of these however is the military metaphor which describes the process of starting up in the starkest of terms: entrepreneurs are encouraged to attend boot camps: they are persuaded to ‘put their bodies on the line’; they have to ‘go over the top’, ‘batten down the hatches’ and ‘take one for the team’. Whilst this may be of use to some entrepreneurs who are thinking about setting up a private army which will compete of course with the publicly funded armed forces when larging it around the world’s hotspots, the military metaphor is a pretty hopeless way of describing activity whose moral compass is guided more by the desire to create jobs, improve the economy and do good in the world.

2. Engage more sorcerers than apprentices.

A new business start up is not a mature business and not necessarily a reasonable place to work. It is fragile, uncertain of its place in the world and whether it is likely to survive out in the wilds of the market place beyond the first year is open to a lot of doubt. There’s a forest load of wild animals, poison ivy and bear traps to face if you’re setting up a new business and the last thing you want is a co-pioneer complaining about their employment contract.

A new start doesn’t need solutions imported to it from mature businesses with notions such as ‘employing staff’ driving its thinking. It needs new solutions which confront the needs of its newness. The new start up doesn’t need staff at all – people who will honour contracts and deliver a job to the best of their ability in return for a negotiated remuneration – but generators: people who can not only deliver the business core activity but who can also generate more activity, more income and emulate the entrepreneur who has brought them to the party.

New businesses need people who have the ability to generate something from nothing, to make value from where there was none before, to act as alchemists rather than as commi-chefs who can follow recipes to the letter but who don’t have the inspirational touch which invents, creates and conjures further opportunities from thin air. They need to engage a lot more sorcerers – not more apprentices- in the kitchen that is the new business.

3. Work in, on and under the business

Perhaps what’s more important than working in and on a business, is an understanding of what was going on under the business: the stuff which tells you why a business is important to other people and why it matters. Working in the business is important; working on the business is essential; but working under the business will provide Generation Y-ers with the energy and motivation to sustain their businesses through the long dark nights of recession and economic challenge.

4. Cash may be king but even royalty needs a moral compass

Business is frequently portrayed as a moral free zone with no rights or wrongs other than can it sell? Can it make a profit? What are the loop holes? and is exemplified in Milo Minderbinder’s moral code of ‘there will always be trade‘ as he cleaned up after organising the bombing of his own squadron at Pianosa by the Luftwaffe in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

5. If in doubt, use the C word

Dropping the ‘c’ word into any business venture is bound to galvanise the Generation Y-er and the wider workforce, impress investors and stoke up the heat of admiration upon you. It doesn’t matter what the ‘something something something’ is (you could have equally said blahdy blahdy blah): the fact that you’ve introduced the ‘c’ word to your proposal is what’s fired up the meeting.

In the olden days we would have used the words ‘magic’ and the effect would have been the same. These days, ‘creativity’ has replaced the word for ‘magic’ (and ‘alchemy’ and ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘snake oil’ for that matter) and the world and it’s business offices have become far happier places as a result.

So, if in future you’re stuck in a turgid negotiation, CRM update or monitoring moment, just drop the word ‘creative’ into proceedings and see your Generation Y-er grow wings and fly to the heavens. He or she may not last long up there as they get too close to the sun, but your colleagues and customers will thank you for liberating them from their non-magical daily grinds.

6. Join a movement – Slow, Guerilla or Digital

If your Generation Y-er has got bored with your business then you could do a lot worse to align it to one of the many movements out there which in their own way are crying out for new forms of activist engagement. Just add ‘slow’, ‘guerrilla’ or ‘digital’ and your business will discover new legs and give you added oomph when you wake up in the morning. Failing that, you can always make your own movement: try ‘Independent’ ‘messy’ or ‘chaotic’ when it comes to rejuvenating your business and watch those customers come flocking.

7. Write your own business language

Like many people who want to set up a business, the following language fills the Generation Y-er with dread, suspicion and horror:

* Connect with your customers confidentially
* Identify your USP intelligently
* Optimise your Search Engines efficiently
* Motivate your employees easily
* Maximise your value added effortlessly
* Shake your booty heartlessly
* Strut your stuff engagingly
* Wedge your bling tellingly
* Fluff your tail provocatively

Don’t worry: lots of potential entrepreneurs and business start ups look aghast at the terminology they are expected to use as they hunker on down in the depths of business speak land. Many of them throw away perfectly respectable business ideas just because of the language they are expected to subscribe to.

But fear not: if your idea stands a chance of surviving the challenges of that language, it will survive anything: and it may turn you into a guru in your own right which will allow you to coin your own aphorisms, cliches and incontestable business jargon.

A great way to start is to generate four columns: in the first, write a list of verbs which might be used in any military, medical or porn movie context. In the second, write a list of personal connectives: my, your, our – that sort of thing. In the third, write a list of any part of your body and in the fourth, write any adjective that might describe a boxing match.

Before you know it, your business lexicon will blow away your competitors and you’ll be calling the shots, imperiously.

One thing that is guaranteed is that the Generation Y-er will engage with your business with all their usual, stereotypical intelligence, panache and style – and may well help you innovate and radically reshape your tired business propositions and orthodoxies.

Maybe, just maybe: the role of the artist entrepreneur.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could answer the question of how the fuck are we going to manage when public sector funding has dried up? When audiences are becoming more conservative? When the corporates are opting for the safe and secure? When the cliches are running rings around new thinking opportunities?

Maybe, just maybe the artistic entrepreneur can see opportunities for new productions and new services…

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur can carve out new marketplaces rather than be beholden to preconceived ideas of what constitutes the marketplace…

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could ignore boundaries of professional, amateur and community and facilitate engagement processes which work with the power of the artistic vision rather than the pragmatism of the cultural realpolitik.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could reimagine a future which is based on vision, critical engagement and personal and social transformation.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could galvanise the artist to wake up to what their power and possibilities are, and to quell their worries and anxieties.

Tips for Business Start Ups: the first signs of Spring

“I quit my job this week.”

Joey has been struggling with the transition from regular paid employment into devoting himself to his rickshaw business for some months now. He’s faced the common but still scary challenge of stepping out of the so called comfort zone of his regular pay check, the status in his friends eyes and the increasingly apprehensive look in his children’s eyes when he’s stepped out of the door every morning and left for ‘work’: their look gives away their concern that every time he comes back later that night, his nerves are a little more frazzled, his temper a tiny bit more frayed and his breath laden with a touch more whiskey than it was the night before.

The safe space of the regular job has become increasingly hostile recently: it’s now an uncertain and distrustful environment with colleagues looking over their shoulders and minding their backs in an attempt to avoid the next round of cuts and restructuring. Joey has never seen so many people sidle around the company corridors like crabs with their backs to the walls, attempting vainly to stop someone else knifing them between their shoulders as they go about their increasingly futile daily grind.

Today contained an epiphanic moment for Joey. A phone call from an eco-friendly transport company in Glasgow placed an order for 50 rickshaws which had to be delivered by Christmas. The task is immense: but it’s given him the security to step out of the unsafe safe space of full time work into the safe insecurity of finally being able to dedicate himself to truly looking after himself and his children. He has no idea what will happen after Christmas – but the first signs of Spring have come six months early for Joey.

“I quit my job this week…” has never sounded so optimistic and his six children can breathe easier knowing their dad will finally be sobering up before he bids them goodnight when he gets home from his real work: running his own business.

Tips for Business Start Ups: step up to the plate and don’t let us down.

It’s a funny old thing, hearing about the emergence of a new business. You don’t necessarily see any change on the landscape, there’s clearly no sound of new born babies squealing, and to all intents and purposes the world before the business existed is very much like the world after it started to trade.

Except it’s not. The presence of a new business – symbolically seen in the fact that it now has a ‘proper’ name with the letters ‘Ltd.’ after that name – demonstrates that rather than nothing at all happening, the start-of-trade moment is a declaration of optimism, hope and ambition.

The declaration sends out signals that good things will happen: people will be employed and paid for their work, other people will buy goods or services which should make their own lives just a little bit easier to cope with and the world at large might benefit – however microscopically – from the new kid on the block. The start up trading moment offers glimpses to a better future for everyone.

So to all you new start ups out there: well done, it’s fantastic that you made it this far. Now, go forth and multiply and don’t let us down. We’re investing our hope for a better future in your endeavours and will live your triumphs and defeats with you.

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