• A quick guide to better writing for CEOs (and anyone else)

    In last week’s Financial Times, Michael Skapinker bemoans the fact that standards have fallen in business communications (‘Corporate writing stinks and the CEO is to blame’). Skapinker worries that today too many people — from legal to comms — get involved in crafting corporate statements, resulting in a car-crash of style and a loss of clarity:

    “It is time for chief executives to write for themselves, or hire one decent writer, and tell it straight. It might not hurt as much as they think.”

    He’s right. But poor writing is not confined to corporate announcements.

    Today every business leader has the opportunity to share their opinion and expertise online. That’s the good news. But knowing where the ‘publish’ button is doesn't automatically make you a good writer. The challenge is not only in having something valuable to say, but to make sure it’s said clearly and simply.

    So here’s a quick guide to help improve a blog post or think piece:

    1. Keep it short. Brevity rules, so be ruthless in your edit. Short pieces have more impact.
    2. Edit by reading out loud. If you’re struggling with the editing process, reading aloud is a sure fire way of making every word count.
    3. Have an opinion. No-one’s interested in a fence-sitter, let’s hear what you think. Champion an idea, bust a myth, show your passion.
    4. Put ‘you’ in it. Don’t let bland corporate-speak creep in, write in your own voice.
    5. You only need one extra pair of eyes. Don’t write or edit by committee.Sending your draft to six colleagues will get you six different views. Instead just get one person to look over it before going live.
    6. Focus on your audience. Don’t include industry jargon and confusing acronyms if your audience won’t understand them. Make it gettable.
    7. One subject per post. Thought pieces should be single-minded — on one theme or one opinion.
    8. Done is better than perfect. If you‘re responding to something that’s time critical, make sure your post is good enough and then get it out there. If you wait a week to make it perfect, you’ll have missed the boat.
    9. If in doubt, hire a writer. A writer such as myself can help business leaders shape, capture and express their ideas, transforming abstract thinking into something concrete. (Click here to find out more and get in touch).
  • You don’t need to go far to find inspiration: lessons from a lunch break

    When I’m helping client businesses transform how they communicate it’s useful to look at other, unrelated, real-life businesses and brands for inspiration. For instance, I recently pointed a client to, to demonstrate the effectiveness of clear and simple language on a website.

    You don’t need to go far to find inspiration. Start by noticing what you like or don’t like about everyday experiences. Here are three examples - of likes and a dislike - that came from a single lunch break in Shoreditch last week:

    1) Clear and simple (Dishoom restaurant). I kicked off my lunch break at Dishoom and asked for the gluten-free menu. Restaurants have different approaches to displaying what’s gluten-free. For me, Dishoom’s approach wins. They’ve produced a copy of the menu where the GF dishes are annotated with a green highlighter. They didn’t over-complicate it - it’s clear and simple, easy to use. 

    2) Applying the ‘who? & what?’ rule (Rough Trade). How can you filter complex information into easily readable content? After lunch at Dishoom I popped into Rough Trade East. In their monthly guide ‘Albums of the month’ they introduce customers to new music via simple three paragraph approach: i) Who - who is the band and where are they from?; ii) What - what is the album like?; iii) With - which mix of artists does it sound like? It’s a great structure to tell a story.

    3) Build your website around your customer (Celia lager). After Rough Trade I picked up a bottle of gluten-free lager in a health food store on Commercial Street. It was a brand I hadn’t heard of, so I checked them out online. When I landed on the site I was met with a barrier - a pop-up asking me for my data to be kept in touch with events and offers. We’re used to seeing pop-ups like this but they’re usually easy to shut down. Not this one, there’s no ‘No thanks’ option; so the only way you can close it is by clicking on ‘Already subscribed’. In my mind their desire to capture visitor data - before you can even enter the site - shows they’ve put the business before the customer needs. They forgot to stand in the customer shoes when building the site.

    So if you're looking for inspiration, if you're looking for dos and dont's, try crossing borders: if your client is in tech, look for ideas in retail; if your client is an online consumer brand, try your local independent coffee shop. You never know what you might find.

  • Noticing the signs

    Ever had one of those days when every billboard or shop sign seems to be telling you something? To quit your job or to take a leap of courage?

    I had one of those days yesterday. But only because I made a decision to tune into my surroundings - I was on my second Street Wisdom, a walking-workshop that uses the urban environment around us to help guide decisions (you can read my blog post of my first experience here).

    Street Wisdom is a three hour event: in the first hour participants get tuned in to notice our surroundings; in the second hour we go off by ourselves to walk around and ask a question of the street (a career or business dilemma we may be struggling with); the third hour we come back and share our experiences with the group.

    One of the benefits of Street Wisdom is that you can utilise ‘in-between time’, perhaps using a walk in between the office and the park to solve a problem or come up with an idea. You don’t need a large amount of time. Of course most of us are too focused on listening to music, looking down at our ‘phones or just rushing from A-to-B to pay attention to what’s around us; Street Wisdom encourages us to slow down and look around.

    The objective is to get inspiration from everything around us - it’s not just about looking at signs - it might be finding a park bench, looking at an unfamiliar view. taking a random left turn or talking to a stranger that yields the results.

    That said, I was fascinated by how many of us found  clarity just by looking at physical signs, from shop facades to ads on the sides of buses. One member of my group identified the focus for her new business by looking at a shop front; another found that a shop sign - ‘Start’ - gave her encouragement to move forward with her business idea. I had a similar experience when I stumbled into a coffee-shop called ‘Paper & Cup’, I liked how the shop combined two of my passions (coffee and books); it encouraged me to continue blending different disciplines in my work life, a theme that was echoed by a van that said ‘Odds & Ends’. Then walking down a road towards Redchurch Street I saw a series of signs that spoke to me about the need for collaboration: a sign for a community centre, a van saying ‘Alliance’.

    And then as my hour was up, I saw this notice on a Redchurch Street lamp post. ‘Please check signs,’ it said.

    So perhaps all our answers are out there, we just need to look around us.

    1. Ian talks to James Victore about 'Take This Job & Love It'


    The ‘self-help’ industry is the usual source of inspiration for any burned-out executive looking to reclaim control of their career or take the leap into entrepreneurship and start their own business. But a self-proclaimed American ‘firestarter’ is looking to shake up the world of self-help with his own brand of professional inspiration. Having earned an international reputation as a graphic designer and artist, with his work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn based James Victore helps people in all walks of life get inspired, get creative and fall back in love with their day job. James is the antithesis of the traditional, self-indulgent, self-help genre. Having run a one day workshop-cum-career-revolution about ‘work, life and bucking the status quo’ in New York, earlier this month James brought ‘Take this job and love it’ to London for the first time. You can read my review of the event here; above you can hear a five minute radio interview I did with James.

    You can follow James on Twitter: @jamesvictore.

  • The story behind the story

    In Saturday’s FT Weekend Magazine I told the story of Matt Stillman, a New Yorker who sits at a table in Union Square and offers advice to strangers (First Person, 13/14 September 2014).

    Matt’s is a great story (there’s more about it on his website).

    But there’s a story behind that story; a multi-layered  tale that lies behind that single photograph and those 750 words. A tale of serendipity and grabbing chances.

    It all started a few years back when Matt Stillman followed me on Twitter; I think he’d read one of my books. Then one day last February I was standing on the platform at York railway station, when I tweeted:


    Matt tweeted back, if you have a spare moment in NYC I would love to say hello. I had a busy schedule and wasn’t sure I could squeeze him in, but I decided to follow my curiosity and we agreed to meet up. Over coffee at Stumptown I discovered Matt’s interesting story, that every Friday he sits at a folding table in Union Square with a sign that says ‘Creative approaches to what you've been thinking about’, offering help to strangers (here’s a little video I shot with Matt on the street outside Stumptown).


    So meeting Matt was a ‘stumble upon’, it wasn’t the result of some great journalistic strategy for finding interesting people, it came from a random tweet. Eighteen months later I pitched Matt’s story to my editor at the Financial Times. She liked it and asked me to write it up for ‘First Person’.

    This isn’t some remarkable revelation, this is how life happens. My life is full of such stories: how I met my wife online on the final day of an internet dating trial; how just happening to see the musician Dave Stewart on a street in Soho led to a book deal (you can read about that here);  how not getting served in a bar in Barcelona led me to talk to a woman who gave me the idea for another article.

    As a storyteller I revel in these stumbled-upon experiences, because that’s where the real nuggets lie.

  • 'Take this job and love it': career lessons from a firestarter.

    Last Friday morning I walked through a nondescript door at the eastern end of Oxford Street and into a space that had seen better days: a stained carpet, peeling paintwork and broken ceiling tiles. But actually, the quality of this pop-up event space didn’t matter, because Friday morning was definitely ‘about the coffee, not the cup’.

    I was here for the London debut of James Victore’s revolution-slash-workshop ‘Take This Job & Love It’.

    I first met James in 2012 at The Do Lectures, when we shared a car ride from Wales to Heathrow. James is well known as a graphic designer and artist, whose work has been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Now, a self-proclaimed ‘firestarter’, he speaks on stages around the world,  promising audiences to light a fire - ‘not only in your heart, but also under your ass’.

    So James was not in London to talk about his art; he was here to help rethink our relationship with that four letter word: w o r k. Of course I’ve dabbled in this area myself, my books ‘Leap!’, ‘Juggle!’ and ‘Mash-Up!’ are all about looking at our work lives differently. Today there are even more books and courses promising to reinvent our work lives. So what makes James’ perspective different? He’s not a career coach, he’s not an executive who’s taken the leap to become a freelance consultant; he’s an artist. In that sense, I see James as an outsider.

    I love outsiders (after all I’m an outsider too; that’s what I do as a consultant and writer). James brings lessons from his Williamsburg design studio to help people get back on track with their career, and not just creatives. In last Friday’s workshop James told stories, got us doing tasks, and even had us dancing and singing. James told the story of how people had ‘should-ed’ on him when he was growing up - ‘you should do this’, ‘you should do that’ - he explained how he had ignored them, and that it was good for you to do the same. Because only you know what’s right for you.

    One tenet of his work that resonated with me was the need to bring ‘you’ into your work, advising that the best starting point for a project is to ask ‘what’s interesting for me?’; to bring your passions into your work.

    He asked us to challenge the status quo via a slide that proclaimed ‘Life is a cliche’. How the perceived order of things is that familiar, linear path: go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, get kids, buy a bigger house, retire… and then ‘really live’.

    Why? Why wait until you retire to do the things that really stimulate you, why wait to be the real you? Why not put you in your work earlier?

    James suggested that to do a 9-5 job and to tow the line is actually the easiest thing in the world, but to have the balls to put yourself into your work, to know who you really are is much harder.

    Having put a rocket under my own career fourteen years ago to carve out a work life based on being Me, I know he’s right.

    [picture credit: James/ Laura Victore]

  • ‘Hacking better transatlantic work relationships’ at SXSW 2015.

    After four years away, I’ve decided to return to Austin, Texas next year for South By South West Interactive. I’ve put together a panel idea on a favourite subject of mine: cultural differences in doing business between UK/Ireland and the USA. Because we all use the same words, there’s often the assumption we speak the same language. But it’s not that simple in business; whether it’s pitching, hiring, selling or networking, there’s many cultural nuances that if overlooked could jeopardise relationships. Having covered this subject for the Financial Times, British Airways Business Life magazine and The Sunday Independent (Ireland), I’m assembling a panel from both sides of the Atlantic featuring:

    1. Feargall Kenny, an Irish recruiter in NYC, founder of New York Digital Irish.

    2. Grainne Barron, an Irish entrepreneur in San Francisco, founder of Viddyad.

    3. Katherine King, a New Yorker who heads up Invisible Culture, a cross-cultural consulting firm.

    The idea is now up on SXSW’s ‘PanelPicker’ site - along with 2,999 other ideas - until September 6th. We could do with some votes so if you think it’s a good idea please ‘like’ and share our page.


  • 'Same words, different language': transatlantic business relationships

    First, they didn’t get my self-deprecating sense of humour on the conference call; the next week on their visit to London they didn't understand why I ordered wine at lunch.

    That was twenty years ago: it was my first experience of handling transatlantic business relationships, managing a joint venture with ABC Radio Networks, USA. As I got to grips with everything from conference call etiquette to what style of memo worked best, I soon learned the dos and don’ts (like not ordering in wine for an internal networking lunch).

    My career has seen plenty of transatlantic relationships since: working for US clients, writing for US audiences, visiting the US. And more recently, in my two years writing for the Financial Times management pages, the majority of people I interviewed were based in the US.

    What I’ve learned is that while the UK and US use the same words, we don’t speak the same business language. Whether it’s pitching, hiring, networking or just everyday office culture, there are many cultural nuances that if overlooked could jeopardise relationships.

    This has become a favourite subject of mine. Last year I accompanied a UK Trade & Investment-backed digital mission from London to New York and wrote about my experiences in The FT, ‘How To Bridge A Cultural Ocean’ (you may need to register to view). Last month I followed that up from an Irish perspective with a series of articles in the Sunday Independent, hearing from Irish expats in the US. My latest piece is in this month’s British Airways Business Life magazine where I spoke to five Brits working in the USA: the musician and creative entrepreneur Dave Stewart (Los Angeles); entrepreneur Hermione Way (San Francisco); co-owner of Rough Trade record shop Stephen Godfroy (New York); startup co-founder Richard Newton (Austin, Texas); and chairman of Walt Disney International, Andy Bird, CBE (Los Angeles).

    If you’re not in a British Airways cabin between now and the end of August, you can read about their experiences and advice online here.

  • Change your working scenery

    Twelve months ago I co-founded a meetup group in my local neighbourhood; yesterday, when I stepped into my co-founder’s shoes to facilitate the latest meeting, I decided to shake things up a bit.

    Rather than meet in our regular coffee shop, we headed for the beach where I led an alfresco workshop on the benefits of changing your working scenery.

    Most of us know that if we stay in the same working environment too long, we’ll become stale. Our productivity will suffer and our creativity will plummet. But still, so many organisations continue to build cultures around board rooms and offices. I think we need to challenge the automatic belief that offices are always the best places to work. I explained to the group how in my fourteen years as an independent, I’d never had a single fixed office, preferring to work from a mix of spaces instead. As a collaborator of mine once put it: “You *are* your office”.

    Earlier this week on another hot summer’s day, I was pleased to see some workers had taken their meetings outside; in the glorious surroundings of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Gardens, a group of executives in summer dresses and rolled up shirtsleeves huddled around a table amongst the plants and flowers. Perhaps we should stop seeing alfresco meetings as a nice treat, and instead see them as a potentially better way of conducting business, where attendees are fired up by their surroundings, rather than sit yawning in an identikit bland meeting room?

    At yesterday’s meetup I explained how Nilofer Merchant had championed the ‘walking meeting’, getting exercise at the same time as a fresh perspective from the constant change in scenery. I introduced the group to Street Wisdom, the brainchild of David Pearl and Chris Baréz-Brown that shows us how we can use our surroundings to help guide decision-making; how the environment around us is full of wisdom that we tend to be too busy to notice. Having experienced my first Street Wisdom earlier in the year (read my post on that here), I tried a couple of exercises with the meetup group.

    Having warmed everyone up with an exercise to get them noticing their surroundings I then got them asking the street (or in yesterday’s case, the beach and promenade) to help them navigate a career or work decision.

    As the twenty members of the group came back from their ten minute walk, it was fascinating to hear how tuning into their surroundings had brought them clarity or a new direction. One guy explained how that seeing channels of water in the mud reminded him how he could pursue multiple options in his career, and how if it failed ‘the tide would come in again’. Another member of the group said how a ‘Keep off this structure’ sign on a jetty had reminded him how much he struggled being told what to do, and how we was more productive without having any rules.

    As the morning progressed, the beach filled with groups of school children on a day out to the beach. Whilst the noisy, excited kids were at first a distraction to our meetup, we soon noticed how the kids were having fun on the sand without a care in the world. This was a reminder to many of us to reframe our working lives, to make sure we make time for childlike curiosity and having fun.

    What we all learned in two hours is that taking meetings outside is more than just having a pretty-picture backdrop to conversations, it’s using our surroundings to inspire us to be more creative than we could possibly be inside meeting rooms and offices. Most of the group (hopefully) came away inspired and invigorated.

    So let’s stop looking at meetings-out-of-the-office as indulgences that are counter to our business culture; and instead recognise the business, human and cultural benefits that come from working and meeting in weird and wonderful spaces.

    [I’ll be hosting a free Street Wisdom in Southend-on-Sea in September; in the meantime if you’re interested in having me host an al fresco workshop to get your business inspired about the benefits of changing your scenery, get in touch hello(at) iansanders(dot) com]. 

  • ‘spaghetti lines’ are okay - why straight lines are overrated in delivering innovation

    It was an apt location for a discussion about innovation: last Tuesday evening I was at Wayra London for the latest in a series of events organised by the innovation consultancy The Foundation. The venue they’d chosen - Wayra - is the business incubator run by Telefonica that provides financial, managerial and technological support to digital startups. But we weren’t there to talk about startup innovation; innovation within larger organisations was on the agenda.

    I touched on this subject last year in an article I wrote in the Financial Times (‘The Product as Market Research’), where I spoke to the director of innovation at Nordstrom, the big US fashion retailer. I heard how Nordstrom is borrowing approaches from the startup community to rapidly prototype new product ideas.

    Of course we know it’s easier for innovation to thrive in smaller companies who are more agile and better at taking risks than large organisations. It’s that much-cited speedboat VS supertanker juxtaposition. Last Tuesday The Foundation assembled a panel at Wayra to discuss the challenge for those ‘supertankers’ [The panel line-up was: Natalie Ceeney, responsible for improving HSBC’s customer service and complaint handling; Dan Salmons managing director of PayPoint Mobile, previously director of global innovation at Barclaycard; and Mark Stansfeld, chairman of Giffgaff, a consumer led mobile operator, previously sales director at O2].          

    The panel agreed it’s hard for big organisations to balance short term health of the business with innovating whatever’s coming next. They recalled their experiences where innovation often gets stifled by boards, by business plans, by road maps that don’t allow for random left turns.

    From the discussion I’ve cherry-picked three factors to consider when encouraging innovation in larger organisations:

    1. Avoid the tyranny of finance. Mark argued that in order to thrive, innovation needs to be liberated from a finance-led culture of forecasts and KPIs. His advice was to grant autonomy to teams tasked with innovating new products and services, to free them from a business-planning culture.

    2. Think about innovation when you’re failing. The best time to look at innovation may not be when a business is succeeding, but when it’s failing. Natalie reminded us that First Direct - which has been a huge success in disrupting consumer banking - was launched by Midland Bank when the bank was failing.

    3. Don't ask the customer what they want. In the Q&A it was asked whether validation by focus groups and customer research is important before taking a new product to market. The consensus said not to rely on customer research. Natalie told the story of AT&T conducting customer research before the introduction of mobile telephony. They asked customers if they were interested in owning a mobile phone. Since the customers didn’t understood the benefits of having one (after all, they’d never seen or heard of one) they said no. Those results meant AT&T didn’t move forward in what proved to be a lucrative sector.


    In my own work as a writer/thinker, I’ve encouraged grassroots entrepreneurs to ‘unplan’ their business ideas to make them happen, rather than get paralysed by long-term planning. You might think large organisations aren’t brave enough to embrace such radical thinking. So I was pleasantly surprised by the views of a panel who’ve spent their careers in big business, I was encouraged by their advice to ditch the business plan when it comes to developing new products and services.

    Towards the end of the discussion someone voiced the view, straight lines and order are overrated; i.e. it doesn’t matter if you don’t take a linear path to making innovation happen, it doesn’t matter if you took a circuitous and unconventional route. If you have ‘spaghetti lines’ behind you, that’s okay. All that matters is that you took your innovation to market and that you made it happen.

    Amen to spaghetti lines.

  • A business that actually makes stuff: behind the scenes at sugru.

    Over the last twenty years I must have visited a few hundred ‘places of work’: co-working spaces, big corporation HQs, small business offices, artist studios, factories, and other workplaces of all shapes and sizes.

    But inevitably, most of the places I visit don’t actually make anything on site anymore, having outsourced production overseas; and whilst I’ve been impressed by the number of tech and digital businesses I’ve seen - if they make anything at all - they make things at a screen. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing to touch and feel.

    So no wonder  I got such a buzz visiting sugru’s HQ last week. Here - in an unassuming building in a mixed street of houses and workshops in south Hackney - they actually make stuff!

    Over 500,000 people in 155 countries use sugru - a brightly-coloured self-setting rubber for fixing, modifying and making ‘stuff’. The invention of Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, sugru was born out of an idea she had whilst a student at The Royal College Of Art.

    I noticed a tangible buzz as Jane showed me around the office/factory. There’s noise. Machinery. Hums and buzzes. There's a loading bay. Boxes being secured with packing tape. A room where they mix the ingredients. A lab staffed by a woman in white coat and goggles, a (miniscule) production line. With its small scale and bright colours, it looked like a toy factory scene, like something made by Playmobil.

    And behind all this buzz and industry is an entrepreneur with her feet firmly on the ground, and a dog under her desk. Jane says that growing up on a farm in rural Ireland helped shape her idea, one that encourages a new generation of consumers to embrace repairing items instead of throwing them away.  She told me: “Like a lot of people from rural areas and farms in particular, I grew up in a family where home-made was the preferred option for a lot of things. One of my Granny’s favourite things to do was to mend our clothes on a Sunday, and I loved watching her work”.

    Why should you be interested in sugru’s story? Because it's doing things differently and they’re a great success. On the bus-ride from sugru back to Soho, I scribbled down five things that make the business distinctive:


    1. It’s a unique product. Try and describe sugru and it’s hard to do so; that’s the business’s marketing challenge - and opportunity.  It’s a brand new invention.
    2. Its customers are its sales force. We often hear how a business’s customers can ‘help do the heavy lifting’, by helping selling the product. So how do you sell the benefits of a product that has infinite applications? You get your customers to share examples, via video and photos, of how they’ve used the product.  Thereby inspiring new customers to buy the stuff!
    3. sugru stands for something. I’m a great advocate for businesses competing on their values and thinking as much as their products. sugru is smart because Jane has built a business based on a philosophy that it's better to fix things rather than throw them away. That purpose unites all the customers and makes them proud to use sugru, and to become advocates for the brand. People that use it are passionate about it.
    4. They have their own factory. As I’ve already noted, here is a business in London that makes stuff and sends it to customers around the world. That’s not just a novelty, it has advantages, I love how the factory is next to the office.  They could have split the operation across two sites or even outsourced production. But no, there’s just one door between them. The proximity of the founder of the business to functions like production and research is impressive. That gives them an operational and management advantage, being so close to where it’s made.
    5. They’re good at mixing offline with online. They built the business online, but they’re now reaching out to customers and markets offline. For instance, you can now buy sugru in the UK retailer B&Q, and they're expanding into other retailers worldwide.

    When we hear about start-up success stories, tech and digital businesses tend to dominate the attention, with the emphasis on shiny apps and digital tools. So it’s refreshing to see a business that makes something you can not only touch and feel, but also mould into infinite applications.

  • Personalised newspapers: taking digital content offline.

    If you still prefer reading newspapers over digital editions or you're the kind of person who prints out online articles to read them off the screen, you may be interested in PaperLater, a new product from Newspaper Club.

    With PaperLater you can save web pages to print, it’s a bit like the ‘read it later’ service Instapaper but delivered to your doormat in a newspaper. I just had my first issue delivered: a mix of ‘long-read’ blog posts and articles I decided I’d rather read off screen.

    I’m finding it interesting how the articles I selected for PaperLater change impact by going off screen. I still would have read them on a digital device, but probably would not have lingered over them for so long, just one of tens of articles I consume on screen every day. But when you get an article printed in a newspaper format, it gives it a higher sense of importance. I’m valuing that content more.

    It's a smart service (one that starts at £4.99 a copy), but of course it does beg the question about copyright and the intellectual property of the original writer/ publisher. All PaperLater needs to make it better is a mechanism where the publisher, writer or content creator can benefit financially from having their work printed out. Perhaps we’ll see the PaperLater team white-label their service to online publishers and sites who will offer these service to readers, and share in the revenue?

    Let's see how this grows...

  • The rise of crowdfunding

    In this month’s issue of British Airways ‘Business Life’ magazine I’ve written about crowdfunding. It’s a useful overview for anyone looking to learn more about the different types of crowdfunding and the rewards it offers backers and investors. In the piece I’ve interviewed managing director of Crowdfunder, Phil Geraghty, and profiled three businesses that got off the ground using crowdfunding: Good & Proper Tea, Chineasy and The Bicycle Academy.

    The magazine’s available all month in the BA cabin; you can read it online here.

  • Stepping out of my comfort zone to press pause.

    I’ll admit, it was not a typical Saturday evening. Along with six people I’d only just met, I spent my evening sitting around four lit candles in the otherwise dark surroundings of the ancient St.Peter’s chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea (built 654 AD). On my first yoga and mindfulness retreat, I was attempting to meditate.

    Mindfulness is big business. No longer dismissed as a fad, it’s championed by many entrepreneurs as just as important as going to the gym. Last year tech entrepreneur Loic Le Meur wrote about why he finds it essential to hit the pause button by learning to meditate; he’s not alone, other business leaders admit to practicing mindfulness whilst corporations like Google and General Mills host mindfulness sessions for their staff. Today’s FT reports on a business school professor who’s teaching MBA students meditation.

    Pressing ‘pause’ is something I’ve been trying hard to do for fifteen years. The trouble is, I’m not very good at it. Four years ago I went on a one-day course run by Andy Puddicombe and I subsequently tried his Headspace web app. More recently I’ve been trying BreatheSync, a breathing and relaxation app.

    I decided it was time to try something more intensive, to venture further out of my comfort zone. So I booked on to Yvonne Booth and Mike Elliott’s weekend retreat at the beautifully located Othona community. I’d only tried yoga once before, so in a group of eight attendees - me and seven women, including my wife - I was the newbie. But Yvonne and Mike reassured me, talking about the importance of bringing the ‘beginner’s mind’ to these disciplines, free of assumptions.

    Did I master yoga and meditation? No. But did I find value, did I switch off? Yes.

    For me the value was in the overall experience - the place, the people, the vibe, the sunny weather (and also, the fact I had no signal on my ‘phone). It forced me out of my routine, it forced me to find stillness and disconnection which I doubt I could have found in a community centre or conference room. Here in this beautiful, remote corner of England I was struck by the stillness: birdsong, the occasional hum of a machine harvesting the fields, the distant whirr of a wind turbine (Othona make all their own electricity).

    My highlight was Sunday morning at 06:55: just me, birds, rabbits and this view (above). Later that morning I skipped a yoga session to spend some time by myself, to do some sketching, to walk along the sea wall. That was a rarity.

    Some people have asked me on Twitter whether I would recommend going on a retreat. Yes, I would. But also: do what works for you. Mike Elliott told us that being mindful is about noticing the ‘raw experience of what it feels to be alive’. You can do that on a retreat in the middle of nowhere, but you can also try that in a busy street (as I did last month at Street Wisdom), or on a run, or on a train with an app. It’s a portable skill.

    I’m not about to go out and buy a yoga mat and sign-up to weekly classes, but I am glad I went out of my comfort zone. I’m going to make an effort to get unplugged more often, to switch my ‘phone off, and to find some peace in the everyday. I’ll let you know how I get on...

  • Finding answers in the street: ‘Street Wisdom’

    I walk around London a lot. Walking - in any city - is my preferred method of transport. I love to discover side streets, to take random left-turns and see where I end up. Often I’ll choose to walk from east to west London, clocking up several miles in between meetings. I like how walking gives me the space to think: it beats a crowded tube carriage.

    Last Friday morning I spent three hours walking around central London, but I wasn’t heading to a meeting, I was trying something new.  I walked down streets I’d hadn’t seen before, I looked up at buildings, noticing what was around me, sometimes walking at a snail’s pace. With fifty other people I was taking part in ‘Street Wisdom’, the brainchild of David Pearl and Chris Baréz-Brown. Street Wisdom is based on the idea that the environment around us is full of wisdom that most of the time we tend to ignore. If only we can tune-in to what’s around us, then we can learn something new or solve a business or work challenge.

    During our morning of walking the streets, David taught us to notice our surroundings. We were tasked with following the story of a street, of finding beauty in a drab street scene, of seeing what happens when we slow right down in the middle of Trafalgar Square. And then, we were set a challenge: we had to pose a business or career challenge to the street and see how it responded. I found myself heading to Soho Square: I went into a church I must have passed over fifty times but never been in; I looked at street signs and notice boards, I kept an open mind and saw how my surroundings gave me signals. Yes, 'the street' gave me a fresh direction on my work challenge; by looking around and being more mindful of my surroundings I was able to see things from a new perspective (and there's a great post by a fellow Street Wisdom participant, Simon Heath, here).

    I guess I’ve always found trips to other cities really valuable in unlocking creativity or giving me the clarity to make decisions. In the past I've been on ‘inspiration jaunts’  to places like Brighton, Paris, Dorset, Amsterdam and Nice to get fired up creatively. What I like about Street Wisdom is that I may not need to get on a ‘plane so often when I’m looking for inspiration -  I may become more self-sufficient in London and my local neighbourhood. As David Pearl told me, “it might help me get away without actually going away”.

    As well as London, Street Wisdom has already rolled out in San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and Sofia: co-founders David and Chris are offering it free of charge to anyone who wants to try it. Here’s a little chat I had with co-founder David Pearl on video:



  • Towards a more human-centered approach to business: why every organisation needs its yin as well as its yang.

    A while ago I was hired by a new client. The guy that hired me recognised I was different, that I wasn’t a traditional consultant. He liked the fact that I lived in other worlds, that I wore other hats. He’d followed me on Twitter and found me interesting. He admitted he couldn’t precisely describe what I did, but he also recognised that my sense of being a ‘misfit’ added value to what I did for him. No-one else looked at things like I did.  He valued my ideas and the work I delivered.

    Then the guy who’d hired me left the company. His successor had a more traditional approach to doing business. On first meeting her, I suggested we grab a coffee in the foyer; she replied she’d rather the boardroom. She asked about my strategy, about similar projects I was doing for other clients. I explained that my strategy was founded on my curiosity, that the rest of my portfolio was a real mash-up of different projects from different worlds.

    The next morning she sent me an email explaining that the company would not be using my services any more. My initial reaction was disappointment. I liked working with the business and I’d miss it. I guess no-one likes to be dumped. But then I remembered not everyone likes the taste of Marmite. And that’s fine.

    Because there are those who like to do things the usual ways, who fit into neat boxes with labels on them. And then there are the rest of us; who have different approaches, who flip traditional thinking on its head.

    I was reminded of this juxtaposition reading Chris Baréz-Brown’s new book ‘Free!’; Chris talks about the ‘Yin and Yang’ of business. Businesses have always been very yang. This is the ‘machine-like’ approach, sticking to the way things have been done before, very planning-led, relying on empirical evidence and data. That’s not me.

    Chris argues that whilst the yang has served us well, today organisations need more of the yin. We need a more human-centered approach, based more on gut and emotion than spreadsheets and plans. That is me (it’s the kind of approach I’ve advocated in my own books, ‘Mash-Up!’ and ‘Zoom!’).

    From 2012-2014 I was a regular contributor to the Financial Times ‘Business Life’ pages; here in a newspaper that deals with very complex issues, I had the opportunity to tell simple stories from a human-centered point of view. My articles were successful because  - in crude terms - they were stories about people, for people. You didn’t need prior knowledge of startups or innovation to read them. Whether you were the woman sitting with her iPad at a midtown Manhattan Starbucks, or the bloke in a London pub flipping through the paper in the evening, everyone could get what I was talking about. Reflecting on Chris’s book I realised I was the ‘Yin guy’, bringing a human-centered approach to the pink pages of the FT.

    So I think every business needs to embrace the yin - to challenge conventional thinking, to suggest new ways of working and doing. And perhaps those of us who who bring the yin to work do get treated like Marmite, but that’s okay:  the value is in looking at things differently, shaking up the status quo.

  • Don’t hide your values away, share them.

    I was sitting in a company’s boardroom recently. Stencilled on the wall was a smartly designed statement of their values, what it means to work there, what the company stands for, what its purpose is. I was impressed. But I was also surprised, because until I walked in there, I had no knowledge of the company’s values. They hadn’t shared them anywhere, they weren’t on their website or on their Twitter feed. A limited number of people will ever walk into that boardroom - so by hiding their values away, are they missing a trick? I think so.

    I recently blogged about the importance of capturing and sharing your organisational culture (‘Capture your business culture while you can. Or you’ll lose it’). Because if you don’t grab hold of it, communicate it and share it, you risk it slipping through your fingers.

    The trouble is, some businesses struggle with the notion of aligning themselves too closely with a fixed set of values or culture. If they are adaptable, in a state of constant flux, they might not want to set it in stone, they may not want to make that kind of commitment.

    That’s understandable, but it doesn’t mean you can’t capture what makes your business tick. Tim Brown is CEO of the global design consultancy IDEO; for many years he too shied away from capturing his organisation’s values. Tim explains how he typically responded when clients asked about IDEO’s culture:

    “For 20 years, I did a lot of hand-waving and gave vague answers. Then, about a year ago, we decided we really should put our values in writing”.

    The result is ‘The Little Book of IDEO’. It’s not just authored by the CEO, it features contributions from others in the organisation. That gives it a plurality, a natural reflection of the different voices and attitudes that make up IDEO (You can see a slideshare of some it here).

    But you don’t need to be a global business to capture what makes you tick. Two years ago I sat in a cafe in Barcelona and cranked out a charter of twenty things that make me tick. There was no grand strategy, no preparation, no editing process, it was a straight brain dump. It doesn’t exist in a pretty book, it’s just handwritten in my notepad, but I still use it today (you can see the list here). It’s like my Little Book of Ian, a compass to help guide me.

    So whether it’s a smart book or a handwritten list of bullet points, get it down on paper. It will help you navigate where you’re heading. And if you share it with your clients and audience, they’ll know where you’re heading too.

  • Capture your business culture while you can. Or you’ll lose it.

    I’ve seen some interesting conversations around organisational culture recently.

    This week airbnb founder Brian Chesky shared his internal note ‘Don’t fuck up the culture’ on Medium. ‘Don’t fuck up the culture’ was the advice investor Peter Thiel had given airbnb. One of the reasons he invested in them was their culture, but he also warned once a business gets to a certain size, it’s inevitable they “fuck it up.” Chesky wrote:

    The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products”.

    Then Scott Berkun weighed in with this critique of Chesky, where he argues that most organisations ends up screwing up their culture:

    “There is a presumption among many executives that culture is an asset created and managed like technological resources, which is a mistake. Culture is emotional. ... It is hard to describe culture rationally or in the same easily measurable terms the business world operates on, which explains why so many attempts by business leaders to control and scale culture ultimately fail.

    Berkun is right; too often within organisations ‘culture’ is intangible. It’s there, everyone can sense it and recognise it, but if it’s not captured, how can it scale?

    Culture is important for every business, not just tech startups. It remains the reason why people work somewhere, and why clients choose a business. I’ve seen many businesses where people working there knew there was something special or distinctive, but they hadn’t stopped to identify it. And if you haven’t grabbed hold of it, labelled it, articulated it, then you risk losing it.

    Of course, your culture will change as you grow and hire new people; a 1,000 person business can’t retain the intimacy of a twenty person business. But I don’t agree culture doesn’t scale. Look at what Tony Hsieh did with Zappos: how he famously created a large organisation united by a common culture and spirit. Why did that work? Because Hsieh was clear at the outset about the values of the business; he instigated a Culture Book which fed back and captured what was special about working there, created by workers from every part of the organisation.

    Businesses fail at scaling culture because they don’t appreciate what they have in the first place. I worked with a small successful business that made that mistake. In their formative years they developed this great culture where everyone from the CEO down took full and collective responsibility for what happened in the business. Everyone answered the ‘phones; when a courier turned up anyone who happened to be around would sign for a package; people in finance and admin roles stayed close to the core of the business and ‘got’ what the business did, they knew who the clients were, so they could engage with them too. This created a really strong culture that came to define the organisation. 

    But as the business grew, it was decided that there needed to be more organisational structure. A mantra of ‘that’s not my job’ was encouraged to focus on individual responsibility, office walls went up, other people beyond the founders took responsibility for hiring. When it was small, the founders interviewed every hire; when other managers did the hiring, they chose people who could do the job, and not those who reflected the culture and unique spirit of the place.

    Departments became fragmented. The passion got diluted. You might put some of this down to symptoms of ‘growing pains’, but ultimately it lost its unique spirit because it hadn’t grabbed hold of it and realised how precious it was.  Because it lost its spirit internally, externally it also lost its special ingredient that clients had fallen in love with.

    So Thiel is right - don’t fuck up the culture. If you need it, get an outsider's help ( a professional outsider like me) to capture your culture; to make it less ethereal, more tangible. Once you have it nailed, use it as a compass to help navigate decisions across the business; from hiring new staff to setting up new premises. Your culture is such a huge asset, it mustn't be taken for granted.

    If you value it, you’d better capture it while you can.

  • 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.

    If you're looking for a guidebook to going freelance, check out my book 'LEAP! Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free'.