• What's the point? Figure out the value by playing around first.

    Finding a sandwich bar in a foreign city that offers gluten-free bread is rarely easy. But last week in Barcelona I found one.  And there was only one reason I’d found Conesa: foursquare.

    I have to admit - even as a user - I’d often questioned the value of the location-based app foursquare. When I went to SXSW in 2009, people were using it to find out where the parties were (alas I didn’t have a smartphone then, so I was out of the loop). In those early days of the app, it seemed like many of us were using it as bragging-tool, letting our Twitter followers know we'd just arrived at a trendy NYC bar or an upper class airline lounge (fortunately most of us disabled auto-sharing on Twitter long ago). Founder Dennis Crowley describes it as a service that ‘combines social networks, location awareness and game mechanics to encourage people to explore the world around them’. Which rings true, but still doesn’t nail the value for the user.

    So whilst there were many fellow foursquare users in my network, few of us could have nailed its value back in 2009/10. Some were hooked by the gamification element, delighting in unlocking the badges that came with more check-ins, checking their weekly score. Sometimes the obsession became antisocial: I remember several meetings where the other person spent the first 60 seconds fumbling in their laps to check in to their venue on their phones.

    I’m still on foursquare today, although I’m inconsistent in how I use it. I may check in at venues in London, but not at ones in my own neighbourhood. Sometimes I don’t want everyone to know where I am so I won’t check in at all. And if I’m working with a new client, I don’t think it’s my prerogative to announce that I’m at their offices unless I’ve cleared it with them first. So my foursquare data is not a full reflection of my movements.

    My experience has reminded me that the value of a product or service is not always instantaneous, you need to play around with it before you 'get it'. So all these years later, here’s my ROI from being on foursquare:

    1. A special restaurant finder. As I’m gluten-intolerant, it’s hard finding restaurants and cafes that cater for me in a city I don’t know. Traditional search engines throw up too much noise - search on ‘gluten free restaurant Barcelona’ in Google and there’s a lot of irrelevance . But try searching ‘gluten free’ (or better, ‘sin gluten’ in Spanish) on foursquare and the results are specific to user tips at actual venues.
    2. A recommendation engine. When you’re in a new city and check in at different types of places (cafes, bars, art galleries), foursquare connects the dots with other user’s behaviour. Recently on a trip to Amsterdam foursquare told me that others who liked the cafe I’d been to and the gallery I’d visited also liked a suggested bar, which I then tried. Unsurprisingly it was my kind of place. It knows my habits.
    3. A location-based connector. Sometimes others in my foursquare network have found themselves near me with time to spare, and got in touch saying they happen to be on the same street. I’ve had several unplanned meet-ups with people that way.

    So sometimes it takes time - and time to play - before you figure out the value of a digital product. Of course founders need to define the value of a service at launch, but once the product is out in the wild they also need to be brave enough to listen to their users about where the real value lies.

  • ‘The Future is Freelance’: the realities of the F word

    The entrepreneur and Financial Times columnist Luke Johnson wrote in yesterday’s FT that ‘The future is freelance - and that is healthy’ (you may need to register to view the article). He said the growth of self-employed and freelance workers will have important implications for our politics, culture and economy:

    “Their growing numbers stimulate free enterprise, innovation and wealth creation, and create a more adaptable country, better equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern global economy.”


    As a long-time freelancer - I took the leap in 2000 - I share Luke’s enthusiasm for this trend. But there are a lot of myths around freelance work. So in response to Luke’s piece, here is my take on the freelance economy:

    1. Freelancing is more than just an economic model, it’s a completely different way of life. The act of going freelance not only means we have to replace the pay cheque with finding clients and invoicing them. Going freelance is a conscious decision to choose a different path, a desire to be more independent, to be more authentic, to ditch the rules. It re-negotiates our relationship with that four letter word: ‘work’.
    2. Being freelance isn’t only about self-sufficiency, becoming an all-rounder. It requires a whole new mindset. Success isn’t about how good you are at completing your tax return or how adept you are at creating PowerPoint slides, it’s about your attitude - having an enterprising mindset to turn your talent, contacts and ideas into invoiceable work. It’s also about staying agile, being able to react rapidly to opportunities rather than stick to a three year plan. In that sense being freelance doesn’t carry all the usual entrepreneurial baggage.
    3. We’re not all capitalist by default. Luke argues that ‘every self­ employed citizen becomes a capitalist by default – which means a more economically literate population’. I’m all for economic literacy, but again it neglects the reason why many people choose the freelance life. It’s not about following the moral code of The Apprentice contestants, it’s a reaction against the mediocrity of corporate life. So we’re not trying to build versions of the businesses we just exited, and we’re not all motivated by wealth-generation. We may be more excited by the flexibility our new work life offers in going for a lunchtime cycle, than by sweating to earn the most money we can.
    4. Freelance interests still need protecting. Luke says that the self-employed are the opposite of public sector workers who are frequently union members. True, but as the number of freelance workers grows, so too have communities where freelancers can hang out and get support. Look at the emergence of The Freelancers Union in the US, founded to protect worker’s rights. You won’t be seeing any unionised strikes, but you might see more groups form around freelance interests.
    5. You’re not a failure if you don’t scale to become a start-up. Being freelance is not necessarily a step towards full entrepreneurship. Luke notes that whilst most freelancers never end up hiring staff, many entrepreneurs - including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - started out as freelancers. True. But let’s be clear: it’s viable carving out a work life as a freelancer. You don’t have to scale to become a start-up entrepreneur. Freelance career trajectories are not always linear; in my fourteen years I have gone horizontal rather than vertical, crossing borders from one world to another, adding new strings to my bow, rather than build my expertise in one single, narrow area.

    I read Luke’s column yesterday morning, when I was using my local library as a workspace. As I cycled home at lunchtime to continue my working day, I happened to pass my father on the street. “Skiving?!” he joked, as he saw me. And that’s probably one of the biggest changes between traditional work practices (where my father spent his career) and being a freelancer in 2014: work is a mindset, not a place you go.

    [and if you’re interested in reading more, check out my post ‘Life after the leap. 14 lessons from 14 years freelance].

  • It’s 2014 but some brands and businesses are still getting it wrong on Twitter.

    Since I signed up to Twitter in 2008, I’ve spent a lot of time on the platform. It’s where I do my research, how I consume most of my news, where I share what I’m thinking, where I make connections with contacts.

    I’m particularly interested in how businesses and brands are using Twitter; as a business storyteller I advise clients on how to tell their story online and Twitter is a part of that picture.

    I’ve seen how businesses use Twitter: how some use the platform well and others use it badly. How some big service companies use it as an effective conduit for customer service, how consumers can use it to talkback (earlier this year I used Twitter to feedback to Essex Police who actually changed a practice as a result of my tweet). So I know what works.

    But I’m still surprised by how many businesses continue to miss a trick by under-utilising the platform. They think it’s enough to grab an account, get some followers, tweet out twice a day, and leave it at that. Below I’ve shared some ‘How to’s based on good and bad practice I’ve seen on Twitter in just the last week (you may think some of this advice is obvious in 2014, but some businesses are still not getting it right).

    How a business can raise its game on Twitter:

    1. Remember that it’s two-way.  Firstly, Twitter isn’t Facebook. People aren’t following your business because they ‘like’ you; it’s because they want to hear from you and engage with you. So make sure you’re equipped to handle two-way traffic.
    2. Twitter hours aren’t office hours. When do you most expect to go to a pizza restaurant? Probably at evenings and weekends. I tried to engage with Pizza Express recently. When are Pizza Express on Twitter? 9am-5pm Monday to Friday. I had to wait til Monday morning for a response. That doesn’t feel very 2014 (but once I found them, they were helpful).
    3. Make time for one-to-one conversations. If your Twitter account is just a stream of broadcast messages and you’re not having any direct conversations, you’re missing a trick. That’s hardly new advice, but still I see brands engaging in one-to-many communication, but missing out the one-to-one.
    4. Live within the constraints. The beauty of the platform is brevity. Nail your message in 140 characters. If you’re tweeting in a series-of-tweets (i.e. ‘this is 1 of a 2 part tweet’) you’re missing the point.
    5. Look through the user lens. One UK business magazine I follow likes to sends six news articles out one after the other. The result is I get a lot of noise in my feed. It says to me they haven’t bothered to stop to think how it looks for the user - it would be better to send them out across the morning, not all in one go.
    6. Be grown-up but have a personality. My award for best-practice on Twitter by a big company goes to my local train operator c2c Rail. They’re grown up, they’re serious, they provide an importance source of information about train times and delays but they also have a personality (and - when appropriate - a sense of humour). They engage in lots of one-to-one conversations, they’re helpful and they have a great tone of voice consistent seven days a week. They get it. 
    7. Be smart, don’t spam. The other day I tweeted that it was a sunny day in London and I’d decided to walk to my meetings. I got a tweet back from an app company telling me they could help me with my meetings. I asked ‘Why?’. I didn’t hear back. So I asked again. The company explained that they helped busy executives with their meetings. Again, I replied ‘how and why?’. I didn’t hear back from them. It wasn’t a very human-centric approach; they’d obviously searched for people tweeting about ‘meetings’ so they could sell me what they do. Two lessons here: 1) it was lazy. I wasn’t tweeting saying I couldn’t deal with my meetings or was stressed, I said I was enjoying walking to them; 2) when I did engage back, they failed to even communicate what they did or how they could help. Fail!

    And if you’re a business in need of help, give me a shout: @iansanders

  • Is it time to put corporate storytelling back on the shelf?

    Andrew Hill wrote a column in the FT earlier this week, ‘Corporate storytellers are best left on the shelf’, suggesting that now might be a good time ‘to put storytime back in the nursery’. So what’s the problem with corporate storytelling? Here is one of Andrew’s concerns:

    “...there is a risk that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves”.

    I agree that it becomes problematic when a business’s story gets divorced from reality; if a business leader’s story is bullshit, then it should be clearly filed in the category marked ‘Fiction’.

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater; a business needs its story. Not only as a marketing tool but also as a cultural touchstone to get an organisation aligned.

    So how to steer clear of creating works of fiction? Capturing and telling a business’s story should cut through the bullshit rather than create a new layer of it. Corporate storytelling is not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose, it’s not about mythmaking, it’s actually about holding up a mirror. When I work with client businesses I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is, and what it really is. I’ve found that crafting an - authentic - story can help bridge that gap; and also cut through the marketing puff. Organisations change, but often they don’t update their stories - they tell the old story that’s not relevant anymore. Standing back, getting an outside perspective to help capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect. In my experience it’s hard to manufacture a story when you apply that external journalistic rigour to tell it like it is. A business’s story has to be sustainable, it has to be believable. If the story is bullshit, then someone will blow the whistle sooner rather than later.

    Of course there is a risk that ‘star’ entrepreneurs and business leaders generate myths which they then stick to no matter what, and it panders to their egos. As Andrew says, “To avoid becoming heroes in myths of their own creation, business leaders need to be honest and transparent – with others, but above all with themselves.”

    By telling its founder story in that honest way, a business becomes more open and more real. By telling its - true - story a business can emphasise its ‘why’, its purpose. A story gives a business the tools to compete in a crowded or abundant market. Businesses likes Zappos, TOMS Shoes, Hiut Denim and Rough Trade have achieved commercial success not only because they have a good product, but also because they have a good story.

    So let's not put storytelling on the shelf, instead let's just make the stories more accurate. If you stick to fact not fiction, if you get the help of outsiders who can make honest evaluations, and the business is sensible and honest enough to reframe when they need to, then a business’s story is still a powerful touchstone.

  • The importance of 'place' in driving productivity and creativity

    This week I took my 'office' (well, me) to Amsterdam. Here's a little video I shot on why we need to think more carefully about the importance of 'place' in our business and work lives.

  • Injecting curiosity into your career and work life

    Last week I was delighted to give a presentation on curiosity to the nice folk at Dentsu Aegis, as part of their Route 500 career development programme. At the end of my talk I got asked some smart questions, so I’m sharing them - along with my responses - below:

    1. Q. How do you avoid getting digitally distracted when you’re being curious on platforms like Twitter?Checking Twitter is a great route for exploring and learning, but you might want to avoid getting lost down online ‘rabbit holes’. It can be hard to strike the right balance. What I try is to ‘check in’ with myself every few minutes. Check in and ask: is what I’m doing right now valuable? What have I learned in the last ten minutes? If you’ve caught yourself out and find yourself watching some random video after getting distracted from an article you were reading, maybe it’s time to take a break.
    2. Q. Being curious requires you to ‘think like a kid’ and ask questions without fear of failure; but how does that work in a practical sense - what if you're not comfortable being so inquisitive?Sure, we’re not all extrovert enough to go round asking questions of everyone we meet. In my own experience, it’s about switching into the right mindset, where I give myself that ‘licence to be curious’ to start talking to shopkeepers or to strangers in coffee shops. I don’t walk around with that mindset all the time, it’s a behaviour I switch on when I feel like it (check out my post ‘Do talk to a stranger’ if you want to explore this further).
    3. Q. How do you differentiate between people in life who are genuinely curious and those who use the internet to be curious, who are perhaps ‘fraudulently’ curious? I don’t believe one version of curiosity is necessarily better than the other. Both approaches are valid. Sure, nothing beats deep-dive curiosity when you are learning about something new, but sometimes it’s necessary to take digital shortcuts. I gave my own example of going to South By South West. Nothing beats going to SXSW in person, sitting watching a panel, meeting new people face to face. But it’s not always practical to spend the time and money going to a big conference like that; sometimes it’s more convenient to be curious by following a hashtag rather than being there in person. And that’s fine.
    4. Q. Any tips if you’re feeling stale and not getting very curious?When your curiosity muscle seizes up, change your surroundings. I always find journeys very productive for exploring my curiosity and coming up with new ideas. So, if I don’t have any business trips coming up and I’m feeling stale, I go somewhere. I take a journey (see my post on the value of ‘inspiration trips’ if you’re interested in finding out more).
    5.  Q. How can we make an organisation more curious? My advice is to get the people in an organisation hanging out together; getting them communicating and interacting across different disciplines outside of their comfort zone. Socially as well as in the workplace, informally as well as formally. I’ve found it’s that cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences that nurtures curiosity.
  • London-Austin for SXSW

    Today, hundreds of my fellow Brits are flying to Austin, Texas for this year's South By South West Interactive. It's a few years since I've been at SXSW; whilst I've heard grumbles that it's now got too big, there's no denying it continues to be a hugely influential festival. Whether you're a freelancer looking for inspiration, an executive looking to network, or an author, brand or product looking for a breakthrough moment, these few days in Austin, Texas remain THE annual place to be.

    This week British Airways launched its first London-Austin route, and published a special 'switched on guide' to both cities.  I've written a short piece about London's Silicon Roundabout and also profiled six tech startups. The magazine is available in the BA cabin - you can also check it out online here.

  • Balancing the purity of what you want to do, with the need to earn money

    Often in our careers and work lives, we think we have to make black or white, all-or-nothing, choices. We might dream of giving up the drudgery of a boring job to become an artist. But the reality is that success is not about transitioning from one to another, but instead balancing what we do for love with what we do for money. The designer and entrepreneur Paul Smith talked about this last week in a presentation at The Design Museum.

    When Paul started out in a tiny shop in Nottingham, it only opened two days a week. The shop was his dream but he knew it wouldn’t sustain an income five or six days a week. So he freelanced as a photographer and stylist. Paul explained that he spent the majority of the week doing whatever it took to earn money – all to keep the creative purity of his shop afloat.  

    “For the rest of the week I would make all the compromises that I had to, but for the two days a week, I was able to keep it completely pure, he said.

    Paul explained that this balancing act has been a constant through his life. In the Q&A afterwards a woman asked how he approached designing a new collection. Paul returned to his balancing act: how he needed to balance designs that would be commercially successful with the purity of his ideas that may be less commercially popular. Paul told us his jeans collection generated much more revenue than his mainline collection; he relied on the popularity of the jeans business to pay for his office and staff overheads. If he had one without the other it wouldn't work; but if you can get the balance between the two, then it becomes viable.

    Paul’s story interests me because most of us can relate to this tension between 'Love' and 'Money'. It’s true for freelancers as much as it is for small service businesses like creative agencies. Last year some of my best experiences were projects that had low revenue attached; alongside this I admit I had a couple of projects I did for the money. A portfolio of solely passion projects would not be commercially viable; a work life comprised only of commercially lucrative gigs might not satisfy me creatively. But as a mash-up it is viable (this was at the heart of my 2012 book 'Mash-Up!').

    Paul Smith is right. We’ll always have that tension between the purity of our dreams and our ‘bread and butter’ work. Rather than think of it as a battle of either/or, perhaps we should accept we need them both?

  • Watch my 'On Being Curious' talk...

    Here’s a video of my ‘On Being Curious’ talk I gave at MILC (‘Made In Leigh Conversations’) last week. If you'd rather read something I've uploaded a written version of the talk on Medium.

  • Are you capturing and sharing your thinking?

     I talk to many businesses who are in search of one thing - visibility. They want to get known for what they do.

    And I tell them the same thing. Stop selling your product, and start selling your thinking.

    Because I’ve yet to meet an entrepreneur, business leader or founder who hasn’t got something interesting to say. The trouble is too many of them keep their opinions to themselves and their close networks. They don’t share it with the outside world. Imagine all that untapped potential they’re sitting on.

    Why should you bother sharing it with the outside world? Demonstrating that you have an opinion, a set of values or a strong purpose behind your business can help you engage with your audience, get you noticed and - ultimately - attract more clients.

    If you want to stand out, you need to stand for something. So try capturing and sharing your business thinking via white papers, manifestos, social media, blog posts, guest columns, videos and wherever your audience will see it.

    [I know it can be hard to capture and articulate an organisation’s thinking from the inside - that’s where I help. I bring clients my unique outsider point-of-view to: i) explore; ii) capture; and iii) communicate that thinking through idea-driven content. See how I can help - get in touch hello (at) iansanders (dot) com].

  • Communities don’t happen by themselves

    This morning I was awoken by the sound of fog horns out on the Thames estuary. I love living by the coast. But although I have made Leigh-on-Sea my home - and yes, can often be found working from its coffee shops - I don’t tend to work with any clients locally; my clients, together with the publications I write for, are worldwide.

    But still, I’m passionate about my local town. I think our community of local doers, makers, creatives, artists, traders, small businesses and freelancers is something to be cherished..

    Last year I helped Michael Mentessi launch a local meet-up group. Already that group has started a ‘Made in Leigh’ movement to champion local talent and business; next month (on 5th February), we’re hosting ‘MILC’ - Made in Leigh Conversation - an evening of stories, conversation and inspiration. We have seven speakers covering subjects from ‘Prototyping a happier life’ to ‘Exploring creativity’. I’ll be speaking about the power of curiosity.

    I think we can easily take our local neighbourhoods for granted. We might assume that all the things we love about them - from great cafes to independent shops - will always be there. That there will always be a natural sense of community, without it being nurtured. But let’s not be complacent. Communities need building and nurturing - they don’t make themselves. They need an injection of ideas, organisation and effort. That’s what we’re aiming to do with Made in Leigh. To celebrate the collective independent, creative and entrepreneurial spirit of our town. But we won’t be limiting MILC to the people of Leigh, we’ll also be posting up videos online later in the year.

    And if you live in east London or Essex and want to join us in Leigh-on-Sea on Wednesday 5th February, there are still tickets left via Eventbrite.

  • Print ain't dead (yet): three titles building businesses on print

    2014 might not sound like the best time to be launching a niche print magazine but a number of entrepreneurs are experimenting with business models around the launch of print-only publications.

    Melbourne based web designer Kai Brach launched a magazine for the web design community; but rather than do it online, he created a high-quality quarterly magazine that retails at £14 a copy. Offscreen magazine was launched as a side project; last year Kai made the leap to run it full time. Another venture bucking the online trend is a side project from London branding agency Tomorrowland - Courier, a free paper aimed at the startup community. Distributed in cafés and shops in London, founder Soheb Panja believes there is an opportunity to create a new title with a different take on 'business'. 

    As the big media players figure out ways to create viable future-proof business models it’s good to see these ‘new kids on the block’ creating print-based - rather than the more obvious screen-based - newspapers and magazines. There's something special about print. If I'm reading on-screen I tend to slalom from one publication to another; I never read a single publication back to front, digitally. But with a hard-copy publication I'll sit down on the sofa or in a coffee shop and consume it in a linear way. I find I can appreciate it more that way.

    Here are three print-based titles that currently interest me:

    1. Courier: a free London paper ‘for the creative, tech, fashion, media and startup scene’. It’s good to see that Courier aren’t tech-startup-obsessed; the current issue profiles a number of food startups that have adopted the ‘prototype-and-scale’ model.

    2. Offscreen: a global magazine for and about ‘pixel people’ - web and app designers. Whilst I’m not in the target audience, it’s always an interesting read, and a good source for finding out more about tech founders and designers. They have an interesting - and viable - business model: there’s no advertising, but each issue contains a few sponsor messages. It has a very high cover price, but this does not deter people from buying it.

    3. Caffeine: a free magazine about the UK independent coffee scene that launched in 2013. The indie coffee scene has become enough of a movement to merit its own publication, this is a consumer-facing mag but it also features articles on the process of making coffee as well as stories about the founders behind coffee shops.

    So - print ain't dead (yet).

    I look forward to seeing more new print titles in 2014. In the meantime, I’m pleased to have an opinion piece in this month’s Courier. It’s about how I think we need to rethink business and reinterpret the ‘B word’. You can read a PDF of my column here.

  • 'Instructions for anyone with a burning desire'

    This might be the shortest, simplest life advice ever:

    If you have a burning desire to do something, for f**k’s sake, do it.

    Many of us don’t have a burning desire and that’s fine. It might be something you need to work at. But if you are lucky enough to possess that burning desire, that niggling won’t-go-away calling, that constant dream pulling at you, then please try it, start it, do it.

    A desire burns for a reason. It’s calling you to do something about it. And it probably won’t go away until you get started.

    I was talking to a friend at a drinks party. Like many of us, she’s found herself doing a job that isn’t really her.

    So, what do you really want to do?” I asked her.

    I ask this question a lot. Lots of time I hear back, “I don’t know”. Other times you see the person’s eyes light up, their voice get excited and it couldn’t be clearer.

    That’s what I saw this time. My friend said her real dream was to become an art teacher. But she acknowledged there are a few obstacles in the way, and understandably, the obstacles had deterred her.

    But hang on,” I cut across, “this desire to teach art, is it a burning desire?”.

    I could see it in her eyes. An unequivocal yes. It was what she wanted. Now that was established, we talked about how she might be able to knock down those obstacles. We came up with some ideas to start exploring this dream.

    The route to your burning desire may not be straightforward or easy. It will probably be daunting. But your passion will provide you with the fuel to get started.

    Of course, having a burning desire doesn’t automatically provide a magic wand. Having the dream doesn’t mean you wake up the next morning and start living it. You still have to work at it. JK Rowling was rejected twelve times before she got lucky. My editor at the FT turned me down the first time I suggested I write for the paper. And the same happened the first time I approached the publisher who would end up publishing my first book. I got rejected. But yes, I had a burning desire. To write a book, to get published. And so I persevered.

    There is no magic formula — but if there was — it might look something like this:

    Burning Desire + Perseverance + Hard Graft = Your best chance of pulling it off.

  • What did you ship in 2013?

    I don’t have a boss. I don’t have an annual appraisal. As an independent worker, I tend to rely on self-accountability.

    That independent spirit requires me to check-in with myself, to review how I’m doing. Last year, prompted by Todd Sattersten’s #YearInReview list - inspired by Seth Godin - I started an annual blog post listing what I shipped in the previous twelve months.

    The ‘what did you ship?’ metric is important because it focuses on what we put out there, what we had the guts to press ‘launch’ on. As Seth Godin reminds us:

    “It doesn't matter whether it was a hit or not, it just matters that you shipped it. Shipping something that scares you ... is the entire point.”

    So here’s what I shipped this year:

    1. Ideas Tapas: a discussion & tapas club that I launched in Geneva with DJ Forza. Thanks DJ for helping me make it happen.

    2. ‘On Being Curious’: this year I experimented with a short-form, quick-read, quick-release book. I sent out sixty copies of the booklet to clients and contacts; and created an espresso-priced Kindle book.

    3. ‘My year of living curiously’: I created a for-the-hell-of-it DIY video series interviewing Tina Roth Eisenberg, James Victore, Phill Jupitus, Tim Ferriss, Matthew Stillman, Kathryn Parsons, James Caig, Alec Ross in New York, France and London, filmed from the back of a cab to a Eurostar carriage.

    4. Meet The Innovators: I worked with New York based Women Innovate Mobile’s Kelly Hoey to bring the Meet The Innovators lecture series to the Apple Store in London’s Regent Street. I appeared on the panel for a discussion on entrepreneurship, you can watch the video podcast here.

    5. The Leigh-on-Sea meetup. I’d wanted to start a meetup group for local entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers ever since I moved to Leigh. But I’d never done anything with the idea. Until I met Michael Mentessi. Michael’s a real  do-er, and it was him who made it happen. It’s been a great way of getting people together in the local community.

    6. Telling business stories in the FT. In 2013 I continued telling stories in the Financial Times about trends, businesses and entrepreneurs that spark my interest.

    7. Other places where I’ve told stories this year: British Airways Business Life magazine, Caffeine magazine, Courier newspaper, The Hiut Denim Year Book, Monocle radio’s ‘The Entrepreneurs’.

    8. I shipped a lot of words again this year. In 2013 I posted twenty posts on Medium and racked up 38 blog posts on .

    9. More video: a video interview with Andy Kershaw, and other videos with Billy Bragg, Hugh Garry and Nick Couch.

    10. And of course, there’s been a full portfolio of client assignments this year, helping entrepreneurs ship their own business ideas: providing advice, creating marketing content and capturing/ telling their stories. I’ve worked for clients in the US, Switzerland and UK this year and traveled to the US and Amsterdam in pursuit of making projects happen.

  • Bring your personality to work with you

    One of my favourite jackets is a pinstripe.

    But if you know me well you’ll know I’m not a pinstripe kind of guy.

    I like this jacket because of its inside lining - a black and white print of a mixing desk with buttons and faders. I like it because it mixes playful with serious. If it were just a smart pinstripe jacket, I wouldn't have bought it.

    The jacket is by Paul Smith. Last week I went to London’s Design Museum to see the exhibition ‘Hello My Name is Paul Smith’. Paul’s first shop was in Nottingham - it was 12 foot square and was only open two days a week. That was 1970. Today, the Paul Smith brand is world famous.

    But I don’t just admire Paul Smith as an entrepreneur, I love his sense of playfulness evident throughout his designs. Many of us could do with borrowing a splash of Paul’s spirit and inject into our own way of doing business. And I don’t mean by wearing his clothes, I mean by letting our personality into the office and work lives, rather than leaving it by the door.

    One of the shirts on display at The Design Museum is a print of plates of spaghetti. If you were thinking of how to design a shirt you might not start with an idea of plates of spaghetti. But then again, why not?

    As I walked around the exhibition, I scribbled down some techniques from Paul Smith that will generate and inspire ideas:

    1. Be curious and ask ‘why?’ Paul says that if you want to look and see things in a different way you need to follow your curiosity and ask the question ‘why?’. Challenge conventions and norms and try breaking some rules.

    2. Also ....ask ‘why not?’. Inspiration and ideas can come from anywhere. Paul takes an image from one place and puts it in another: on a jacket. Another print on a jacket is a building facade in Cuba.

    3. Explore. Paul takes a camera everywhere to capture what he sees. He loves to visit cities, often touring a city in just 24 hours, grabbing ideas from unfamiliar places. He often finds inspiration for his fashion collection from street markets and shop windows.

    One of my favourite exhibits was a mock up of Paul’s office in Covent Garden (photograph above). It’s the antithesis of what you might expect a CEO or founder office to look like: a messy space full of books, gadgets, bicycles, old cameras, ‘stuff’. Full of technicolour. And amongst all the clutter - one thing was clear: Paul Smith doesn’t leave his personality at the door when he comes to work.

  • Where ideas come from

    The need to have good ideas is like oxygen for many of us: we need fresh ideas to do our jobs effectively. In simple terms, I wouldn't have a business without any decent ideas. But most of us aren’t taught how to have good ideas, we just learn as we go; I know what makes me good at generating ideas - usually going to a new or unfamilair place - but I don't know why it works.

    Last week I hung out with Hugh Garry, who’s been teaching a course ‘Where ideas come from’. In this short video ‘Being curious about… where ideas come from’ Hugh shares some key learnings from his course:

    1. the importance of collecting
    2. re-use ideas
    3. allow your mind to wander
    4. the importance of noticing
    5. connecting the dots

    Hugh told me how important place is in unlocking creativity, how going to a new or unfamiliar place can get us generating ideas:

    “It’s good to walk away, to stop thinking about work and just let the surroundings ease the ideas out.”




  • Unleashing our creative confidence

    When I started working in broadcasting, there was a clear delineation between ‘creative’ roles and ‘non-creative’ roles. You were a researcher (creative) or a production manager (non creative). I never liked that; I liked to mix disciplines up. When I transitioned from a role producing a live event (creative) to apply for an internal post of production manager (non creative) my CEO warned me that this was a fork in the road - I had to make a career choice. Did I want to be a creative or a non-creative? He said if I applied for the production manager role, I was choosing a non-creative path.

    That conversation was twenty years ago, but I don’t think much has changed. Today many organisations assume creativity and innovation are the domain of ‘creative types’. That’s always felt very flawed to me. Even when I worked in management roles - managing the creatives - I still felt creative. But, to be honest, I think I lacked ‘creative confidence’.

    So I was really interested to go to London’s Royal Academy last night to see IDEO founder, David Kelley and his brother Tom talk about their new book Creative Confidence. In the book David and Tom argue that each and every one of us is creative.

    I haven’t finished the book yet, but in the meantime here are seven points I scribbled down from their talk - some useful takeaways to help us unleash our creativity:

    1. Know what drives you. Rate out of ten each thing you do every day. Note what drives you up to a ten When David got cancer he started rating what he’d done each day. He noted that driving along in the car singing out loud to music scored high; going to faculty meetings scored low. He stopped going to so many meetings.

    2. Leave planning until later. At the start of a creative project, have a bias towards action, not planning. Tom and David said the tendency at the start of a project is for everyone to get their laptops out to start planning. But don’t. Dive in to make your project happen; you can worry about planning it later.

    3. Choose a creative life. The Kelley brothers talked about what they had learned watching people who described themselves as ‘non creative’ making the transition to become creative. It’s all about making a choice; if you want to have a creative life, you may have to choose it.

    4. Don’t worry about dropping the balls. They talked about a colleague at Stanford who helped people overcome their fear of failure by desensitizing them to the fear of dropping balls during juggling. If you don’t have a fear of dropping them, you become a better juggler.

    5. Your work environment is like your body language. Someone asked how important it was for an organisation looking to embrace creativity to have a radically different sort of office space. The Kelley brothers replied every organisation doesn’t need to have a space like IDEO’s, but your office space should be true to your belief system. It's like your body language.

    6. You still have to work at talent. Creative confidence needs nurturing. A genius still needs to practice their talent six hours a day.

    7. Creative confidence starts with the individual. Someone asked whether creative confidence is an individual issue or an organisational issue. They replied it's an individual issue - that’s where it starts, but the collective result is in cultural change within organisations.

  • My new short book on curiosity

    I love to capture and share ideas whether it’s writing books, columns, blog posts, newspaper articles, whatever.  

    Whilst I’ve really enjoyed writing 40,000 word books, I’ve been itching to create a short-form book, as an experiment apart from anything else. So a couple of months ago I decided to capture my thoughts on the power of curiosity in work and business. The result is a 3,400 word book.

    I called it ‘On Being Curious’ and it’s now available on Kindle for less than the price of an espresso; and It will only take you thirty minutes to read.

    The book is all about applying curiosity to think - and do things - differently, and in it I outline seven principles to help you embrace curiosity:

    1. Be fluid
    2. Think like a kid
    3. Embrace discovery and exploration
    4. Be an idea collector
    5. Travel without a map
    6. Read, watch and listen wildly
    7. Dabble

    Who's it for? Anyone who wants to think differently about their job, their business or life in general. You may be an executive in an organistion or a startup CEO, a creative worker or a freelancer working at home. All are welcome - so long as you're curious.

    Think of it as your personal handbook to living a more curious life. (For now) it's on Kindle only - you can grab it here on Amazon UK, and here for Amazon US (also available in other territories). And you don't even need a Kindle device - you can read Kindle books in your browser via

  • Alec Ross: blending tech with international diplomacy

    When you think of where you might find innovation, you might not expect to look in a government department. But that’s Alec Ross’s area of expertise -  Alec was senior advisor for innovation at the US State Department, where he worked for Hillary Clinton in a role blending technology with diplomacy. He led the State Department's efforts to find technology-led solutions for foreign policy issues from poverty to human rights.

    Alec was in London last week speaking at the FT Innovate conference; I grabbed a chat with him as part of my ‘Year Of Living Curiously’ video project, watch it here:


  • The value of an outsider - helping ‘the locals’ see things differently.

    At the weekend I was standing in the graveyard of St Clement’s Church in Leigh-on-Sea, England, listening to a guy tell stories about my home town and the Thames estuary behind him.

    But this wasn’t a local historian or even an expert on Leigh-on-Sea, this was a guy from Pittsburgh, USA, 3,700 miles away. Justin Hopper is a writer and artist who was in Leigh to showcase his ‘Public Record’ art project (as part of the Shorelines literature festival). Justin explained he’d focused on Leigh-on-Sea and the Thames estuary because he had seen parallels between this area and his own home town of Pittsburgh, particularly in the way both towns had experienced change since the advent of the railway.Justin’s guided walk around the cobbled back streets of Old Leigh drove home to me the value an outsider can bring in seeing things differently, in capturing what the locals can often miss.

    Being able to have an outside perspective is critical in many situations. It’s how I work with client organisations. I’m able to spot things that ‘the locals’ — in my clients’ case, people in the organisation itself — can’t see. I capture a client’s ideas and values with the clarity that comes from looking at something for the first time. I’m able to bring value because I’m an outsider.

    An outsider doesn’t only bring a fresh take on things, she also brings curiosity and naivety. She is liberated from the culture, preconceptions, assumptions and — well, baggage — that can come with being an insider.

    I write for the Financial Times. My editor said he hired me because I live in a different world. I’m not just a freelance business writer, I do other ‘stuff’ and my experiences include people and businesses that are interesting to FT readers. If I was embedded as a full-time FT journalist or wrote about business full time, I wouldn’t bring that unique viewpoint to the newspaper’s pages.

    Which brings me back to Leigh-on-Sea. After fifteen years living in London, I moved back here seven years ago. I think this dislocation from the capital — it’s only 50 minutes away — creates a sense of separation that also makes me a better storyteller. London is where my clients are, it’s what stimulates me and I often write about businesses based there. But I don’t live and breathe it seven days a week.

    Now I’ve moved away from London, I have an enhanced sense of curiosity that I can bring to my storytelling. I’m the outsider again.