Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: how to induce schizophrenia in your staff

It’s not lost on many people working in the public sector that we’re frequently asked to adopt two mutually opposing stances and attitudes at one and the same time. “Now run this way, now run that way – both at a very fast hard pace” is a commonly heard instruction albeit couched in terms which suggest the organisation knows what it’s doing and where it’s going.

Policy complexities of the poli-see and poli-do type (ie we say one thing vociferously and insist on doing the opposite equally vociferously) within a rabid target culture in which the targets are sometimes in front of you, sometimes behind you and sometimes imagined, contribute to a sense of working down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole in which nothing is as it seems, narrative logic is irrelevant and what counts is what doesn’t count.

This isn’t confined to the public sector of course; many organisations, of large, small or indeterminate size suffer from the syndrome of asking its staff to adopt mutually exclusive attitudes in the same body politic and organisational mind. It’s an occupational hazard of having an occupation and working in an organisation which may not be particularly well organised.

The trick for small business start ups is to maintain their vision and try to define their targets in ways which don’t induce schizophrenia in its staff. One way is to say what you mean and mean what you say, but as Alice found out saying and meaning, eating and seeing, and breathing and sleeping can commonly be confused with each other. Your job in setting up a start up is make sure you know the difference between all those bodily functions.

Tips for Business Start Ups: dance your pitch out!

It’s great to see a new start up take the first tentative steps to promoting their business to a potential investor through the dance that is the pitch. Their moves are at first awkward, ungainly – something reminiscent of an  academic stepping out on the dance floor after five days locked up in the confines of a conference which has involved them sat stock still glued to powerpoint slides, whilst handing out dog eared abstracts of their work to earnestly interested postgrads who are still learning their own moves on the academic dance floor.

But as the urgency of the pitch increases, and they get through the first twenty seconds of introduction which, like all the best pop songs includes the hook, the heart of the song and the punch line in its opening bars, their movement becomes more fluid, more confident and more assured. They stop looking at the feet and wondering where to go next.

After two minutes they’re in full flow. The business’s moral compass has been elucidated, the social need for the business contextualised, the personal drive elaborated and they’re into the features and benefits of the business proposition. Their movements now steer into the realms of contact improvisation and the most elaborate of improvisational techniques, playing fast and loose with the cash projections, the legal niceties and the future growth aspirations.

By the time their three minutes is over, they are exhilarated, we are exhausted and with any luck they have £250k of cash or its equivalent in terms of contacts, advice or expert time in the bank. It may not be Strictly Come Dancing but the choreographic expertise of the business start up has moved mountains in that three minutes and is worthy of a 10, 10, 10 and 10 from the panel of Tonioli, Revel Horwood, Bussell and Goodman. Or as Brucie would no doubt add, Didn’t They Do Well?

More Tips for Business Start Ups here.

Tips for Business Start Ups: how working with the grain of the wood can combat institutional fungal infection.

Many start up business men and women start up precisely because their current employer has an innate ability to shut down the burgeoning entrepreneur’s energy, vision and appetite for the work in hand.

Ray has been working in the public sector on and off for over 20 years: more off than on in recent times as he sees his employer become increasingly wooden in its response to the economic challenges it faces. It obsesses about targets, forgets about quality, treats it staff with ever increasing forgetfulness and takes on the appearance of an ash tree suffering from the later stages of ash dieback.

Whilst Ray has loved his work, he realises increasingly that this is not shared by the battalion of administrators who have taken root in the work place and who are trying to save the stricken fraxinus excelsior. Where once his work was concerned with public service, it now is increasingly preoccupied with spin, counter spin and presenting itself for maximum impact in terms which aim to woo venture capitalists from sunnier shores rather than reassure its local citizens of how it will enable them navigate the social service storms which are on the horizon over the next five years.

Ray is faced with a conundrum. He has been seduced by the vision of plotting his own destiny as an independent trader through the economic squalls which batter his home city’s frontiers. But he knows too that a lowly carpenter in a large public sector organ is not going to find it easy to persuade the wider world to buy his skills and products which are increasingly being squandered by the infected tree at the bottom of the allotment.

Whilst he’s been adept at knocking out things from his shed in a remote part of the organ’s empire, he’s worried about his ability to sell anything and scale up his production line which would enable him to pay the bills. The organisational fear he’s been fending off for years is in danger of infiltrating the grain of his carpenter’s soul.

However, his skills on the lathe, plane and jigsaw; his knowledge of the many grades of sand paper and different types of lacquer means that he knows intuitively how to erase any obtuse pieces of bark, wear away any unsightly stains and polish a seemingly dull veneer into something resembling mahogany. He knows too that working with the grain of the wood, rather than against it, is likely to produce a much more satisfying working environment for himself – as well as higher quality finished artefacts.

Ray may have honed his carpentry skills in the workshop by applying them to unprepossessing lumps of 2 be 4 – but he’ll find that they can be transferred to dealing with customers, estate agents and bankers. All he needs to do is look hard inside his own woody workshop soul, make an inventory of his tools, skills, knowledge and experience and start to make his skills work for himself, rather than for the infected lump of organisational driftwood he is currently wasting his time in.

Ray may have worked in wood for years and worked with wood in the work place for even longer: but his future now depends on his carpentry skills being applied to his life outside his workshop. If he doesn’t get out now, the fungus infecting his current employer is likely to infect the young sapling of a business he is currently nurturing in the potting shed at the bottom of the allotment.

Tips for Business Start Ups: beware the business of business start up programmes

If there’s one good business to be in at the moment, it’s the business of business support, whether this be of the start up or growth variety.

Governments, local authorities and private sector investors across the world are all looking at their ailing manufacturing base and their imploding public sectors (which they’ve all contributed to incidentally) and rapidly coming to the conclusion that if anything is going to save their collective economic skins, it will be in the small, micro and nano business sector.

The SMEs, the verySMEs, the nanoSMEs and the atomicSMEs (such as the rag and bone man and the kids who clean your car windows at traffic lights) have been charged with rejuvenating our ailing economies and much resource has been allocated to bring about the catalytic changes needed to sustain a postmodern capatalist economy and its associated life styles of having a lay in on a Saturday morning after too much carousing on a Friday night.

And in order to effect those changes we all hanker after, a new model army of business advisors (including yours truly of course) has been gathered to direct our collective intellectual, emotional and financial resources at the hoardes of new businesses, old businesses, briefcase businesses, businesses that don’t exist and businesses that shouldn’t exist with the intention to start them up, grow them up and get them producing new products and services which will replace the car industry, the steel industry, the NHS and the welfare state as a whole.

All this is well and good and more often than not the new model army of business supporters is filled with good intentions, useful budgets and strategic nous so that authentic business support is effective and meaningful. But for you new business start ups out there, you need to be aware of the fifth columnists who have infiltrated this heady movement of well intentioned economic architects.

You should watch out for the advisors who are more concerned about ticking boxes and collecting outputs than making sense of your business outcomes; the agencies who will throw cheap loan money at you without a second glance at your daft financial projections; the enthusiasts who wax lyrical about boot-camps, water boarding and other military metaphors; and the growth accelerators who get more kicks out of your impossibly stretched stretch targets than they do out of their usual Friday night supply of illicit intoxicants.

Be afraid – be very afraid – if you’ve met an advisor, a mentor or a snake in wolf’s clothing who will get you to sign forms and write rubbish before depositing cash into your empty bank account and who will fill your head with helium so that you end up talking in high pitched squeaky voices about the economic powerhouse that your car window cleaning service will represent in the new modern economy in your village, city or country.

A massaged bank balance and personal ego will make you feel fine for about a week or so – but you’ll then wake up one Saturday morning with a far worse hangover than the one you were used to after a Friday night out on the town.

Tips for Business Start Ups: Hang out the laundry!

Business start ups can get so engrossed in the daily nitty gritty of survival, plotting the next step and welcoming the first clink of cash in the bank account that they can often forget to mark the very special moments of achievement they bring about as their business gathers pace and starts ruffling a few feathers down at the business allotment.

They plough on and on, tweaking websites, signing bank mandates and ordering shed loads of stationery ignoring the significant moments of the first sale, the first press review, the first glowing testimonial on TripAdvisor which wasn’t written by their mum or dad.

Whilst they don’t want to get carried away at every milestone by opening up a bottle of Moët, the new self found fledging entrepreneur does need to value those special moments with some out-of-the-ordinary action.

Hanging out the laundry would be one special way to mark a special day if you don’t have a collection of Union Jacks to run up your office flag pole; treat yourself to a frothy coffee using your own milk whisker if a lunch table at the Savoy is out of reach at the moment: or if needs must, dance a little jig on the edge of the station platform when you’re headed off to meet your next customer. It won’t be exactly like an out-take of Riverdance but it will give you added oomph for the day and help mark those special start up moments.

Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: It ain’t over if the fat lady’s still in her dressing room.

There comes a point very soon in the new start up career when the first flush of enthusiasm has worn off, the bills start arriving and the income has mysteriously decided to take an annual vacation. The paying customers are conspicuous by their absence and whilst there’s plenty of window shoppers grazing through your shop, no-one’s putting their hand in their pocket and pulling out a wedge of used bank notes to pay for your hard wrought product or service.

Alfredo, an enthusiastic proto-entrepreneur from the Algarve soon realised that his offer of Mediterranean seafood to the assembled hoardes of inner city Northampton (the furthest you can get from the sea in England apparently) was taking its time to convince them to change their foodie habits from shoe leather to octopus and calamari. One might dispute whether there’s any difference but that’s another matter.

He became despondent very quickly, his anxiety ratcheting up by the day when the friendly bank relationship manager re-discovered his nasty streak and one of his main suppliers decided that the future of seafood sales was no longer in Northampton but back in Lisbon. Alfredo looked at his shaky business, the pile of bills and the crates of eel still wriggling on his warehouse – ie his car – floor and threw up.

Faced with almost immediate economic annihilation and the consequent personal and social ruin that he thought would follow, Alfredo was on the verge of dropping his warehouse keys back with the bank and jump on the next Easy-Jet to Faro when an email popped up on his phone screen out of the blue.

It was from the local over-dramatic opera star, Betty Van Westerhoosen, diva to the East Midlands stars, putting in the largest order of clams, sea urchins and assorted shell fish Alfredo had ever had the pleasure to read. She paid a whacking 20% deposit up front and suddenly, for the time being at least, Alfredo got to save his start up from ignominy and lived to meet the local fat lady who saved his bacon – or in his case, his langoustines.

In Business Start Up land, and indeed in life in general, it’s never over till the opera singer flexes her vocal chords: and we all need the vision of Argus All-Seeing to be able to realise when she hasn’t even left the changing room before drowning in a fish soup of despair.

Tips for Business Start Ups: why you should start a small coffee shop next door to a Starbucks.

Sven and Svetlana have just opened a brand new coffee shop in the heart of the city. Months in the making, they’ve planned until their eyes have popped, they’ve double checked and treble checked the sub-clauses in their contracts and have finally opened an exquisite new unit, complete with stylish graphics, a cool interior and polished pine furniture to boot. They’ve also opened up 50m down the road from a Starbucks, with all its steam, froth and logo force bludgeoning customers off the pavement and into the darker recesses of their deep emporium.

The odds against Sven and Svetlana succeeding are surely massive. People are sucked through the doors at Starbucks whereas Sven and Svetlana look forlornly out of their newly painted shop front, at the trickle of people who find their cafe more by accident than design. They’re unable to compete with the 93 varieties of coffee, the 17 additional flavours, the 36 toppings and the consequent 56,916 permutations which the Starbucks industrial plant teases its customers with.

So faced with the heavy load of the articulated truck that is the chain coffee shop, why doesn’t the small time operator just get out of the road and save their skin, bank balance and reputations?

The answer to this partially explains the pleasure of working with new businesses in the first place. The small business owner is necessarily – although not always consciously – a force of opposition to the mainstream; a source of resistance to all that decides that resistance is futile; and they provide a course for action which is based on hope and optimism rather than the grim determination which says might is right, numbers are everything and there is only one monolithic way to live your life.

Whilst the bigger operators fake personalisation by waving the magic mirage mirrors of choice into the eyes of customers, it’s the micro-operator who commits their customers’ names to their memory rather than writing it on the bill. The micro-operator may suffer from cappuccino envy: but they can more than make up for it when it comes to satisfying a customer’s interests head on.

Tips for Business Start Ups: what watering the allotment will tell you about your place in the business ecology.

You’ll know when you have an allotment that water is a pretty important commodity which, in this climate at the moment, runs out pdq.

So you take to watering the various plants on aforesaid allotment and realise quickly that the trees require a damn sight more water than your average marigold. They drown in the stuff; give them a tub full and it’s gone and they’re screaming in their own plant way for more. It doesn’t stop, their need for water, because they’re so damned big and greedy.

But they are what they are: trees. And they demand a lot.

Businesses are like that in the ecology they inhabit. Like it or not, there will be a tree in the midst of your business ecology which is soaking up resources which you could do with. You could do do much more with what they demand. We all know that, but the fact is, they’re a tree and you’re a marigold. You both have an equal right to inhabit and thrive in your mutual economy but they will always need more than you.

Trees in your business world ? Get over them. They’ll be here long after you, unless you take an axe to them – but then just watch how the whole climate suffers.

The Business Allotment: Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life

Starting a business is much like working an allotment. You have a seed of an idea; you nurture it in a little clay pot until it struggles into the daylight; you stress about providing it with enough manure in the form of funding so that you can eventually transplant it into the wicked, wider world of the adult vegetable patch with all its attendant predators, parasites and pitfalls.  With any luck your seed of an idea makes the journey from an innocuous looking seed into a strapping begonia which flowers annually with the minimum attention from you, allowing you to tend to other seeds or sit back and bask in the glory of your potato crop.

Often though, that process of business incubation is all too fraught and too many seeds of business ideas fall on the rough ground of customer disinterest or are devoured by the foxes of enterprises which are faster and more cunning than you when it comes to protecting the febrile business that is struggling into the daylight.

My book, The Business Allotment,  introduces various tips and tricks which are designed to help you start and protect that business of yours.  It’s an allotment because your business – anyone’s business – cannot survive alone but needs other businesses of different shapes, types and flavours to flourish.  An allotment allows for cross trading, cross fertilisation, mutual collaboration and the sharing of ideas in ways which might sound misplaced in the context of a cut and thrust, capitalist market place: but one thing all entrepreneurs know deep down is that they can’t do what they do alone.

They need the input of others, whether this be in the form of shovelling up the shite, digging protective trenches against the voracious slug or simply holding an umbrella over you as the sun burns down on your life long desires.  They need manure – obviously – but also need a collection of sharp and blunt tools, good quality soil, an absence of wasps nests and a good supply of that magical ingredient, water. So simple, so obvious and yet so mysterious – water is to the allotment what vision is to the business.

There’s no guarantee these tips and tricks will work; but if at the very least you can see your business start up as your very own allotment – and not your own private back garden – there is every chance your business will make it through the winter and be around next summer for you to sit in and admire your burgeoning brassicas.

Of course, starting up your business is also very much like trying to steer your life, irrespective of whether you’re in business or not.  So, I hope these posts help you navigate your life as much as they are intended to help you tend your beautiful business idea.

The Business Allotment: Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life now on sale here!

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