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!

Tips for Business Start Ups: transforming the energy of the idea into the matter of the business

One of the givens of the business start up is that there has to be a idea at the heart of any business proposition: a flicker of a brain wave which makes the entrepreneur sit up sharply, temporarily blinded by its brilliance and go ‘That’s it! That’s my business idea!’

All too often though the bright spark of an entrepreneur fails to recognise that bright sparks of ideas are just that: momentary flashes of brilliance which light up their night skies in an entertaining manner but which often fail to set light to the surrounding landscape in any long term or transformational manner. The idea is bright, startling and sometimes thrilling: but not necessarily sustaining or sustainable.

The challenge for the bright spark of the entrepreneur is to recognise that ideas are like transient meteor trails which fly through our consciousness, burning a trail of inspiration behind them. They come, they go, they lighten up our lives for a bit, but they die out as rapidly as they arose. They give us comfort at dinner parties during long dark winter nights and romance in the long, light summer ones.

They are not though businesses in their own right. The temptation for the young entrepreneur is to claim the idea as the business. Worse still is when the entrepreneur tries to claim sole ownership of the idea: “That was MY idea!” some will protest after the idea has sparked someone else’s interest and galvanised them to action, leaving our misfortunate entrepreneur back in the dark where they started. Ideas cannot be owned, corralled or guarded against theft any more than the light from a shooting star can be switched on or off.

The witnessing of an idea does not guarantee whatsoever that the entrepreneur who experienced it has anything like a viable business on their hands. Transforming an idea into a viable business takes a lot more than claiming sole ownership and pinning it down into a pitch, elevator or otherwise.

The entrepreneur needs to understand what the idea has illuminated during its short life as it crossed their night sky, assess the terrain it has lit up and bring in several other forces to bear (the allies and advocates, the makers and shapers, the crafters and the worriers) who take the energy of the idea and convert it into the matter of the business.

This is neither a romantic or comforting process – but it is likely to ensure that the temporary insight that the idea afforded the entrepreneur stands a chance of being transformed into a business which provides comfort, sustenance and a livelihood for many more people than the temporarily blinded entrepreneur.

Tips for Business Start Ups: 9 questions which will tell you whether to do it or not.

The recession in the UK is generating several bizarre phenomena, not least being the fashion to encourage many more people to start their own businesses irrespective of their abilities, wishes or state of mind.

Many reasons are wheeled out as justifications for this life changing activity: you can be your own boss, you can turn up to work any time you like, you can turn a hobby into an income generator, you can play a game of golf whenever it suits. The fact you may come off the unemployment register is also a bonus to statisticians and politicians, massaging as it does the figures on the unemployment register.

But the notion that setting up a business is a realistic and achievable option for everyone, especially if they have just completed 30 years service for the same employer is a mirage.

Setting up your business isn’t an easy option which you can blithely dive into, with keys to your new premises and golden clock in hand, which will provide you with an easy route out of employment or a bit of diversionary relief to a retirement which is becoming riddled with boredom and inertia.

There are several questions to ask yourself before taking that plunge:

1. Are you prepared to wake up every morning of every day of every week of the year, preoccupied with the challenges you will face that day – and for which you will take the ultimate rap?

2. Are you comfortable with scary levels of risk? The occasional feeling that you are standing on a precipice, not knowing where the next weeks income is going to come from or how you’re going to fend off your increasingly noisy creditors?

3. Do you have any knowledge of the stuff of the business you want to set up? If you want to set up a restaurant for example, do you know anything at all about the restaurant trade apart from knowing what your favourite pizza topping is?

4. Can you add up and / or write in coherent sentences?

5. Are you handling the transition to Internet shopping, e-commerce and social networking with aplomb?

6. If the answer to any of the above is ‘no’, are you bringing in other expertise and voices to your dream which will turn the ‘no’ into a ‘yes’?

7. Is your motivation for setting up a business explained in terms of days off, visits to golf clubs or any other type of diversionary activity?

8. Is this business opportunity you’re dreaming of a great way of getting out of the house and avoiding the imminent marriage disaster you’ve seen coming for years?

9. If the answer to questions 7 and 8 is ‘yes’; and if you answer question 6 with a ‘no’, then stop hallucinating, pack the business plan back in the attic and don’t give up the day job. You will save yourself and your nearest and dearest a whole load of heartbreak – and may even enjoy your retirement to boot.

Tips for Business Start Ups: immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be

We’re regularly reminded in the popular press failure rates of new businesses: 40% of start ups fail in the first year of trading; 70% fail within 10 years; and no doubt there are some figures somewhere which show that an unacceptable 99% of businesses don’t make it to their 100 years anniversary. Shame on them: yet another searing indictment of modern day capitalism, the waywardness of youth and the irresponsibility of the public sector or any other modern ill you care to remember.

The language of failure is however one which needs some early retirement itself. Businesses – human beings even – don’t have a God given right to last forever and there is nothing pathologically or morally wrong with the notion that businesses last for as long as they’re needed – after which they are likely to come to an end. This is not failure but recognising that everything – including businesses – have their time and their space and their role is to inhabit their time-space node, contribute to those around them and when the time and space is right – to gracefully withdraw from action.

Immortality in business life – often referred to as sustainability or legacy – is a seductive concept and, in human affairs, is frequently the cause of great art and music. It is not however the cause of great business: the conceit that your business will last for ever leads to sleepless nights, increasing bar bills and bedroom floors strewn with empty pill bottles. If you can accept that your new start up may peak early, deliver beyond its promise and then burn out as quickly as it started, then you stand a chance of surviving notions of failure long enough to do it all over again with the next love of your life: your next new start up.

Tips for Business Start Ups: imagine a cashless life

This may be completely counterintuitive to many young thrusting entrepreneurs, but the idea that you can run your business without cash is one worth considering for a couple of hours, even if – particularly if – the idea fills you with horror. Cash is king, surely? The oil in the engine? The green stuff that makes all things move, shape and manoeuvre in all the ways we desire and more besides?

Well, this is true and also not; cash has the uncanny ability to lock you into a mind set which demands you are constantly asking yourself where the next source of it is coming from, what you’re going to do with it when it arrives and why there’s not more of it than there is. Rather than oiling the wheels of your business imagination – the machinery that really counts in your business – cash can act like sand in the gear box, gradually seizing up your ability to shift through the gears, gain traction in your endeavours and generate the green stuff that really matters – the green shoots of your business ideas, what-ifs and may-bes.

Of course, the thrusting young entrepreneur might scoff, have you ever tried doing anything without cash? Do you know what it’s like to be really poor? Where you’re scrabbling around wondering how your going to feed your family at the end end of the day because there’s no green stuff lining the vaults of your bank account? And the answer from many wizened business tycoons is yes to all of that – they have all lived with the threat of impending bankruptcy, having mortgaged off their lives, family and pet dogs up to the proverbial hilt.

And what they will tell you will be surprising: cash is not king but a servant (wilful at times, for sure); it is not the oil in the engine that is vital but the presence of the engine in the first place; and that a business life without cash is necessarily worth imagining so that you don’t grind to an intellectual and emotional halt. Your business is fundamentally much more than being about cash: it’s about your imagination, your capacity to generate, edit and shape your vision and your desire to create something out of nothing. And that includes a zero sum bank balance.

Tips for Business Start Ups: beware the evangelising business adviser

Georgio is the sullen ICT type. He shuffles half heartedly into the office but has not a lot to say other than ask where the funding is. He hasn’t done very much (any) thinking about his business idea, or the business plan, or indeed much else around the concept that he rather pathetically shoved across a table at you in his first meeting. No-one yet has told him that his business proposition sucks, his attitude sucks and that he has much chance of making a success of his sucky idea as I do of winning Wimbledon this year.

All your instincts are saying to you: tell him straight, show him the door. Don’t give up the day job or whatever it is that got you through my office door. Whatever you do, don’t set up in business. You’ll have a terrible time, you sullen young thing.

However, what you don’t recognise is that you have other instincts too that are saying; I’m going to get him through this; he’s going to become a top selling business man if it’s the last thing I get him to do. I’m gonna show him a really tough time and roughen him up in the best Duncan Ballantyne toughing tradition and at the end of it, he’ll look back, dressed up to the nines and thank me for it, he really will. This is gonna be a case of tough business love and he’s gonna take it like a man.

At this point either the business adviser or the sullen proto-business man should probably leave the room or someone should throw a bucket of cold water over the both of them.

It’s not in anyone’s interest to make that relationship between evangelical adviser and sullen prototype a happy one. It’s not going to be happy. Ever. Get over it Mr Adviser and take your evangelical fervour to those who will respond to it in the happy clappy way that sets your and their world alight. Sullen Georgio will remain in his kind of happy sullen way for many years to come and its not your right or responsibility to knock it out of him.

And a word to Sullen Georgio too: if you ever share a space with a business adviser who is trying his hardest to enthuse you about your idea, tell him to mind his own business – and you get on with developing yours, in your own, inimitable, sullen way.

Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: learn Mr Kelloggs lessons early on.

Rumour has it that Mr Kellogg, after he invented his infamous Cornflakes, was so enamoured with his creation that he wanted to make sure that everybody who ate them did so knowing exactly how they should be eaten: the right shape of bowl, the right amount of sugar and the perfect temperature of milk. He wanted to ensure that everybody experienced the product perfectly. Trouble was, that as no-one had ever eaten a Cornflake before, there was a huge amount of distrust in the market about this new fangled food product.

This meant, he thought, that he had to personally visit every household who bought a packet of Cornflakes in order to engender trust between him and his customer. This worked for a couple of weeks but of course as word got around, and families tucked into one of the worlds most popular processed foods, the possibility of visiting hundreds of enthusiastic families before 8 in the morning became, of course, impossible.

Mr Kellogg realised – with the help of his wife, so the rumour goes – that he needed something else which stood in his place and which instilled public trust and confidence in his product, but without him having to be there in person.

At first he printed up life-size cardboard cut outs with his image printed on them which he dispatched with crate loads of Cornflakes to towns in the Midwest. He insisted that each box of Cornflake product was accompanied by one of these life-size models, accompanied by a personalised speech bubble which he personally wrote. The best to you each morning was one of those speech bubbles in the early days. Mrs Kellogg was hugely influential in this aspect of the process, so we are told.

This primitive form of marketing worked too for some months, and involved the production of many thousands of Mr Kellogg Cardboard Cut outs distributed across the United States. However, it soon became clear that this form of marketing was also unsustainable: there were only so many hours in the day and Mr Kellogg needed to keep on reinventing breakfast product, not writing speech bubbles for cardboard cut outs.

So, the next innovation he made was to completely rethink his presence. He scaled down the cutout to the size of a postcard, turned it into flimsy paper and put pictures of the product on it along with a selection of the best speech bubbles. Thus was the first promotional leaflet born.

This is a valuable lesson for many business start-ups: if you cannot be present at every sale of your perfect product, you’ll need a surrogate ‘you’ which instills the same level of trust and confidence in that product, as if you were there in person. The promotional leaflet is the perfect solution. And as Mr Kellogg also found, they frequently taste better than the actual product they are meant to be promoting. Particularly with a spoonful of sugar, 35ml of milk at 4 degrees Centigrade and in a plain white teardrop shaped porcelain bowl.

More Tips for Business Start Ups and Lessons for Life on the Business Allotment here

Tips for Business Start Ups: Start Up? A Business? WTF would I want to do that right now?

Whatever they say, we’re still in recession. Whatever they say, the banks aren’t lending. Whatever they say, the climate is still atrocious and it won’t stop raining and it’s still very cold out there in the harsh economic world. For many, many people the tender green shoots of economic growth are just that: algal bloom in a stagnating river of economic effluent. There’s a million and one reasons why there’s never a right time to start up a business. And a million and one why it’s the right time.

You get to shape your own future, rather than have it shaped for you by distant beaurocrats in the HR department. You get to develop your own ideas, unhindered by the pressures and politics of more noisier colleagues who are always putting you down. You get to shape the culture of your workplace rather than being the unwitting object of other peoples outdated cultural habits. You get to employ people, create jobs and make a difference to others around you.

Sure, none of this easy, and none of this makes for sleepless nights and a stress-lite existence. For a sleep-full and stress-empty life, you might be better retiring to the hills, writing your memoirs and feel comforted in what coulda been, what woulda been, and what shoulda been.

But if you have an idea which is itching to get out, which will contribute to your community, your society and the people around you, then now is absolutely the right time to set up your new business.  It won’t stop the rain, the banks won’t have a change of heart and the recession is likely to continue for a lot longer than we might like: but your business will make it a bit sunnier for some and will stick it to those mad-market-morons who are driving the economy ever deeper into the ground. That’s exactly why TF you would want to do that right now.

Tips for Business Start Ups: 5 things your MBA won’t teach you. And 1 it will.

If you’re about to set up a new business then you need to know that you’re not about to enter a Newtonian type universe where every cause has an effect or where every action has a reaction. You’re joining the slippy sloppy world of quantum mechanics where minor variations in inputs have surprising unplanned and unexpected consequences on your outputs. You’ll need to be reading up on chaos theory soon.

But if you don’t have the time to wade through complexity, strange attractors and topological mixing, then here are 6 essential tips to prepare you for those next strange journeys you are about to encounter.

1. Working hard doesn’t necessarily get rewarded. You can work your backside off over many years but it’s a guarantee of nothing. There’s no straight forward logic between effort and reward.

2. The market place is not a fair equitable system which is built upon civilising values of integrity, honesty and balance. Markets are not like super-bazaars where there’s a variety of stalls selling you 7 sorts of trinkets. They’re imagined, fluid and fickle apparitions which wander Second Life. You’ll be dealing with 2 dimensional avatars not 3 dimensional people in those virtual spaces. Avatars have questionable ethics, suspect memories and indefinable bank accounts. They’re not who they say they are, they don’t do what you think they’re doing.

3. It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know either. No, it’s what you imagine that will get you through the days. What you know is probably outdated; who you know was another avatar from another second life. You can at least trust your own imagination as it resides in your mind and body, not anyone else’s.

4. Be clear what your targets are. Proper targets are things like what time you get up in the morning, how much sugar you put in your coffee and what time the bar’s open. These are knowable, quantifiable and achievable. Concepts such as wealth, love, happiness are not targets at all but mirages with a mind of their own. They will come (or not) to you when they’re ready, not when you decide you want them.

5. Will there always be trade? To paraphrase what Milo Mindbender in Catch 22 was fond of saying? No, there will always be a desire for selling and buying and pretending to buy and sell. Whether there is any actual buying and selling is another matter altogether. There will always be pretence, mirage and unexpected consequences.

6. Cash is king. This is true.