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  • More than marketing fluff. Why your business story is a touchstone for the whole organisation.

    A good story well told stays with us. It fires our imagination, gets us emotionally engaged, it makes an impact.

    Stories have the same value in business.

    But if I walk into some offices or boardrooms and talk about ‘storytelling’, I might get some odd looks. There’s a fair bit of cynicism around it.

    The Financial Times’ management columnist Andrew Hill is one commentator who has expressed his concern over storytelling. He wrote,

    “...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 it’s a problem if a business’s story gets divorced from reality. If a business leader’s story is bullshit, then it should be treated with the disdain it deserves.

    But when told honestly, a business story becomes so much more than a marketing tool, it’s a cultural touchstone that gets all parts of the organisation aligned.

    So how to steer clear of creating works of fiction? Business storytelling is not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose and it’s not about mythmaking. It’s about holding up a mirror. When I work with organisations I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is, and what it really is. Crafting an authentic story can help bridge that gap. It can help the organisation find its essence: who it is, what it stands for, where it’s come from and where it’s headed.

    Organisations are always changing and growing, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell an outdated story that’s not relevant anymore.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 an 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 isn’t credible or authentic, then someone will blow the whistle sooner rather than later.

    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. Brands such as TOMS Shoes, Sugru and Hiut Denim  have achieved commercial success not only because their products are good, but also because they tell a good story: one which aligns with their values and mission. It applies in the same way in B2B, where customers choose companies such as Mailchimp or Basecamp  because they demonstrate their personality via the stories they tell. The stories those businesses tell about themselves - and their customers - helps them stand out. These stories make the customer the hero, shining the light on how their products help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow.

    Getting an honest evaluation from objective outsiders will help craft a story full of fact, not fiction, and will help the business leaders be sensible and honest enough to reframe when they need to.  So let's not dismiss storytelling as just another business fad. A business story told well is a powerful touchstone.

    What’s your business story? If you need help, hire me to tell your business or brand story. Make 2017 the year to tell your story! Get in touch hello@iansanders.com


    Watch my video: Make the customer the hero. How to use storytelling in B2B.

  • Figure out the essence of your business in five weeks

    How’s your business doing?

    Do you know what your customers really think of you?

    Have you captured your business story?

    I meet a lot of businesses with similar challenges. They’re growing so fast they need to update their value proposition. They're not competing on their story. There’s a disconnect between what they say they do and what they really do. Everyone in the organisation is too close to the business to stand back and see the bigger picture.

    That’s where I come in. As an outsider with a wealth of knowledge I bring a fresh perspective to rapidly figure out the essence of a business: its purpose, its positioning, its story. Recently I worked with Stripe Partners, a global strategy and innovation studio.  Stripe’s Tom Hoy told me:

    Working with Ian has given us the confidence to continue to be different. It provided the validation from a smart, external perspective that we should stick to our guns and focus on what gets us excited rather than dilute our story. We now feel more confident in taking our story out to the world.

    ‘Fuel-up Your Business’ is a five week, four-stage programme. It’s a shot of insight gleaned from spending time with you and your team, hearing from your most valued clients about why they choose you. I distill those insights into a series of content you can use as a touchstone internally as well as externally on your website.

    It gets you back on track, gets you all singing from the same hymn sheet, and gets your customers falling in love with you again!

    If your business, organisation or brand needs a fresh perspective and the fuel to grow, click here to download my 2 page PDF from Dropbox (or email hello@iansanders.com and I’ll send it to your in-box).

  • Making Crazy Happen: The Stress Report

    It was a crisp Tuesday morning at the end of February. I was sitting around the table in David Hieatt’s farmhouse in west Wales. The fire was burning, candles were lit and coffee was poured.

    David announced his lofty vision to those of us around the table: for The Do Lectures to create a series of printed reports, each on a single-theme, in 134 pages. Reports can be boring, David’s idea was to make these ones engaging and accessible via stories, data visualisation, research and experiments. This first report would be on the subject of stress.

    David told us we had three months to get it done. So we started there and then, mapping out a plan with a pack of Artefact cards. After lunch we relocated to the chicken shed and mapped out ideas on the whiteboard.

    It wasn’t until the long train ride home that it hit me. A very small team, with only one full-timer. A 134 page publication in three months? I’ll be honest, it seemed over ambitious.

    Friends of mine who worked in publishing said it sounded crazy. “That’s impossible,” one told me.

    And it was crazy. But David is good at getting the right people together to ‘make crazy happen’. After all, he’s spent eight years building a not-for-profit global event/ community The Do Lectures alongside starting a made-in-Wales jeans brand, Hiut Denim.

    David is a visionary, but he also knows when he needs to be brutal. As publisher and editor, he was brutal about what we had space for, and what we didn’t. He appreciates the beauty of the edit. For example, there were some brilliant pieces I’d commissioned that were left on the cutting room floor, but it was David’s job to wield the knife (so yes, The Stress Report was stressful at times….).

    The Stress Report is out now (buy it here). Inside is the tale of the London commuter who takes the boat to work to cut down on stress. The story of the creator of Moshi Monsters who’s building a movement around calm. An essay by Tim Leberecht, artwork by Anthony Burrill, words of wisdom from Derek Sivers, experiments from our very own guinea pig Mark Shayler, tips, resources, insights and much more.

    I’m proud to be part of it. Credit to David, Kacie, Joby and Mark for making it happen.


    Here’s to the next crazy project.

  • ‘The Entrepreneurs Live’ at Monocle’s Midori House.

    Last night Monocle threw open the doors of Midori House for ‘The Entrepreneurs Live’: a live broadcast of Monocle 24’s weekly business show. In a change to the show’s usual format, Monocle’s Daniel Giacopelli and Andrew Tuck moderated a panel discussion.

    I always enjoy listening to ‘The Entrepreneurs’. In the early days of the show I was a regular contributor interviewing everyone from big names like Guy Kawasaki to business founders under the radar. Last night I took my seat in the audience, sipping chilled white wine and enjoying the breeze blowing in from the the terrace.

    On stage with Daniel and Andrew were four entrepreneurs: Julie Deane (CEO and founder, The Cambridge Satchel Company), David Abrahamovitch (CEO and co-founder, Grind & Co), Pip Jamieson (Founder, The Dots) and Geoff Mulgan (CEO, Nesta).

    What stood out for me? It was good to hear founders being honest about the importance of luck in their business journey. David told the story of how there was a Starbucks next door to Grind’s Old Street roundabout shop. One day the Starbucks closed for a month’s refurbishment. Grind doubled its customers. Even when Starbucks reopened, Grind retained those ex Starbucks customers. David admits he couldn’t have put that on a business plan.

    Another discussion was around values. As more and more business become purpose-led, it’s useful to have a set of values that employees can buy into. Pip explained their values at The Dots help with hiring. “We stick to our values like glue,” she said. Andrew Tuck told us that when he was hiring the Monocle team ten years ago they would take on candidates based on whether they could sit next to them on a long haul flight. That sounds a good test.

    Below are some quotes I scribbled down in my notepad.

     

    Geoff Mulgan

    “The first idea isn’t always the best idea.”

    “Make your idea really clear. Express the essence of what it’s all about.”

    “It’s not always about originality and creative genius. It’s having the hunger to pull together ideas from other people.”

    “Most business plans don’t survive their first contact with reality.”

     

    Julie Deane

    “An initial investment of £600 took me to a £13m turnover.”

    “I opened a factory, brought machines in from other countries and started apprenticeships. You see products that are ‘designed in Britain’, but made elsewhere - that’s really dishonest.”

    “There is no cookie-cutter approach to being an entrepreneur. Everyone is different. I disagree with two thirds of what this panel said. Forget the ‘entrepreneur’ tag, just start your own business.”

    “Sometimes you don’t want to go home with an app, you want to go home with an amazing bag.”

    “You can’t stop and look over your shoulder. You’ve just got to get on with it. People will always want bags.”


    You can listen to the show here.

  • A walk to wake you up, find your fuel and sort out your future

    Sometimes we get so engrossed in our jobs and work lives, we lose sight of what we stand for and where we are headed. Other times we end up in roles that are at odds with who we really are. We know there must be something better out there, but we don’t know what directions to take.

    That’s why I started my Fuel Safaris. To uncover your ‘fuel’: to figure out the essence of your professional offering, to know what really makes you tick. You’ll go away with clarity about where you’re headed, whether that’s reframing your existing role or identifying a new path.

    My Fuel Safari is a one-to-one, half-day walking-workshop around an urban jungle: London’s side streets and hidden alleyways. Colville Place is one such street. Just thirty seconds from the traffic fumes of Tottenham Court Road, this is a pretty pedestrianised street lined with Georgian town houses. At one end it opens up to reveal a tiny park, Crabtree Fields. On my latest Fuel Safari my client Alina and I sat here on a bench in the Friday afternoon sunshine, reflecting on the question I’d just posed.

    The safari takes us down my favourite streets*, places that I first discovered in London’s A-Z as a “runner”, when I worked for a TV company in the early nineties and ferried video tapes to edit houses in Fitzrovia and Soho. Now I’m using those same streets to take executives, entrepreneurs and freelancers on a journey, making sure they’re headed in the right direction.

    I love side streets as they allow the space - and peace - for my client and I to talk properly, with stops at benches in parks and gardens. I have a set of questions to pose, otherwise there is no agenda. Often I give my client the choice of where to head next. “Straight on or right?” I asked Alina. “Let’s go down Adam & Eve Court,” she replied spying an alleyway heading down towards Soho.

    There are stops for coffee and note taking. That Friday Alina and I even took a deviation towards Heal’s furniture store and Soho’s Gosh! Comics for some inspiration.

    On our walk, I try to pose questions that haven’t been asked before. I learned about Alina’s backstory, her ambitions, what gets her fired up. Sometimes a street sign will echo or amplify a part of our conversation. We were talking about Alina’s global outlook; how she’s lived and worked in different countries. By chance, the words inscribed on a glass door behind her said ‘Global Citizen’. Later that afternoon a stationery store proclaimed ‘Make your mark!’ on the window at the same time as we were talking about her desire to make a dent in the world.

    Sometimes the smallest things can reveal something we might not otherwise have found. The elastic band holding the cards with my questions snapped. “That’s because I don’t want to be restricted,” Alina replied without missing a beat. “I don’t want to be boxed in!”

    What’s the outcome? My Fuel Safari provides you with the insight and tools to reach your ‘what next?’ After our session I create a personal compass for you, a mind map that captures your story, your purpose, your needs and your strengths.

    Out here on safari, away from your desk and digital distractions, we look at your life from a different perspective, uncovering insights that might otherwise have remained hidden. Exploring paths you might not have walked down before.

    If you’re lost and have no idea where your career and life are going, and would like to discover your true purpose and what feeds your soul - a Fuel Safari is for you. Now I’ve been on a Fuel Safari with Ian, I much better understand who I am as a person, what’s driving me, and where I want to go next.  Alina Truhina

    Fuel Safaris are available in one hour and three hour formats. Prices start from £250 (plus VAT). More details: iansanders.com/coaching Email hello@iansanders.com

     

    *Where did we go?

    That Friday afternoon we started at Seven Dials in Covent Garden, then headed via Phoenix Garden (another hidden gem) and Soho Square towards Fitzrovia. Up through Rathbone Street and Charlotte Mews to Charlotte Street and then on to Fitzroy Square where we found a bench to talk. Then we walked south to Crabtree Fields and Colville Place for another sit-down, before heading west through the alleyway by the Charlotte Street Hotel to Newman Passage and onto Eastcastle Street. Down to Soho for a stroll through Berwick Street market, then west down Old Compton Street and back to where we started.

     

  • If we’re going to have longer work lives, let’s make room for experiments

    This weekend a band called Brigade is reuniting in London. They’re playing a gig at The Academy in Islington, ten years to the day their debut album was released. Their journey started back in 2003 at The Bull & Gate pub in north London. I was there. As a founding partner in Open Top Music, Brigade was our first project, an experiment in managing and developing new talent. Open Top Music was a great adventure, an opportunity to work with old friends and contacts in the music industry. Like the best adventures we didn’t have a map, instead we made it up as we went along. We aimed high and had fun; even attending the international music fair ‘Midem’ in Cannes in 2004. The venture didn’t last too long, but it was a fun experiment. We were trying something new.

    I believe taking risks and experimenting with our work life can benefit us in many ways. In last weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper (‘How to live to 100 and be happy’) painted a picture of a future where we’ll work into our mid seventies, with multiple ‘acts’ in our career instead of just pursuing a single-track. Perhaps experiments could take place in the ‘intervals’ between each act? On my recent Fuel Safaris I have been advising executives and entrepreneurs to inject some experimentation into their work lives, whether it’s scratching an entrepreneurial itch or adding a new string to their bow.

    The last sixteen years of my career - my third act- has been a real adventure and involved lots of experimentation. Here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed along the way:

     

    1. Make ideas happen. A couple of years ago, I co-founded and edited a crowdfunded, community generated, publication Trawler. It was a test. Could we produce a newspaper, could we raise enough money to make it happen? Although it was a not-for-profit side project, it was satisfying reaching the finish line, knowing that we made our idea happen. The important thing about an experiment is that you don’t leave it as an idea on the shelf, you do something.
    2. Get experience in other worlds. One experiment saw me launch a little business called Ignission, that (amongst other things) created websites for parliamentarians. This was in 2001 when not many members of parliament were online. I remember going to meet a peer in the Members’ Bar at the House of Lords to talk about his website. It was a step into a completely different world. An experiment can take you out of your bubble into other worlds.
    3. Learning by analogy. On the face of it, advising start up businesses on storytelling may feel a long way from the smoky bars and pubs where I helped launch a rock band in 2003. But both activities are ‘startups’, and I was able to take lessons from a band to a brand.
    4. Be entrepreneurial. In 2005 I had a meeting with a senior executive at Benetton who wanted an introduction to an ad agency to get an ad placed in the London Evening Standard. None of my contacts could move fast enough (he wanted an ad designed and placed that week), so I stepped in, creating an agency of my own - OHM London - and sorting everything out in 48 hours. What I thought was a one-off experiment turned into a relationship with the fashion brand that lasted eighteen months. An experiment can be a low-risk way of testing a business model, generating new revenues.
    5. Have fun. Let’s face it: many people’s work lives are not fun. Going off piste to test an idea, start a side project, or try something with friends should be fun. Looking back at my Open Top Music adventure, it wasn’t about the money (there wasn’t much of that), but it was certainly fun.


    In a world where we are living and working longer, where the notion of retirement will seem as old-fashioned as a life without smartphones, let’s have more adventures.

    In the old days, it seemed career success was about reaching a destination, getting that brass name plate on the door, having a grand job title. In the future of work, I think the emphasis should be on enjoying the journey, not reaching the destination.


    So let’s experiment along the way...

  • Doing one thing well - New York’s pencil store

    I’m fascinated by owner-run small businesses, especially in retail. I love to see what people’s passions are, what shops are viable, what niche makes commercial sense.

    I like stationery so I’m always drawn - excuse the pun - to stores selling pens and paper. When I was in New York last week, I headed to CW Pencils on the city’s Lower East Side. As the name suggests, this is a pencil shop. It doesn’t sell a range of notepads or pens. It sells pencils. Pencils from as far afield as India, pencils from as near as Jersey City.

    Founder Caroline Weaver - an amateur pencil collector but lifelong pencil lover -  told me whilst she always had a passion for pencils she admitted she wasn’t sure how popular her store would be, would it turn out to just be her sitting in the shop alone?

    But a year after launching, the shop is busy and she even has a team working for her selling online. It’s a great success!

    As I sat drinking coffee down the road in Café Henrie, I took out my new pencil and scribbled down a question, “What is it about CW Pencils that makes it a success?”

    I concluded there are a number of ingredients that make Caroline’s business idea work. First, the business is a mix of online and offline. That’s an obvious point, but with limited opening hours and an off-the-grid location, it’s important to reach a wider audience. Second, the founder is passionate about what she sells. She told me she’d always loved pencils, and what better foundation for a business than that. Third, she’s confident that selling just one thing - pencils - will be enough. Business advisors may have suggested she stocks books or other stationery items to make her shop more commercially viable. But that would have diluted her proposition; instead - by sticking to one thing - Caroline has a niche idea that stands out. She’s doing one thing well.

    As Caroline says on her site,  “as simple as it may be, the pencil is something which despite advances in technology will never become obsolete.”  Here’s to the power of pencils! 

     

     

  • Turning it inside out: extracting the real story

    As a storyteller-for-hire, brands and organisations ask me to capture and craft their story, whether it’s an external marketing piece, or internally helping employees and new hires understand what the organisation is and where it’s headed.

    I sometimes think about this process as ‘turning it inside out’. It’s my job to look under the bonnet, to be curious, to ask questions and to turn the spotlight on those hidden corners that haven’t been exposed before.

    Sometimes in those hidden corners lie difficult parts of the story: perhaps the first iteration of the product fell flat on its face or the co-founders fell out. I have learned that capturing and sharing these imperfections is an essential part of the process. These imperfections are what gives a brand its purpose but also its personality.

    The same applies to individuals. Over the last few weeks I’ve guest lectured at universities, my advice to students is to put themselves at the heart of their career and business plans. “Don’t let anyone knock the You out of You,” I told them. Part of that is being honest about your real story. And just like those brand stories, it is the imperfections that might make their offering more distinctive and allow them to stand out from the crowd.

    Whether you’re a student, an executive, an entrepreneur, a startup or a big business, telling your real story is rarely easy. Sharing everything - including the ups and downs - means you can emotionally engage with your audience.

    I’ve just been through this process myself. Last year I was asked to speak at The Do Lectures. The brief was to tell a story I hadn’t previously told, to tell the truth and to be vulnerable. The talk went online this week (you can watch it below. If you'd rather listen to the audio podcast, here's the version on SoundCloud).

    It’s a very personal - and sometimes raw - story, but it’s a reflection of who I am and what makes me tick. Like the best stories, it’s a reflection of the truth: I turned myself inside out.

     

  • Get clarity, re-ignite your passion and shape your story!

    “I came to Ian frustrated and ready to pack it all in because no-one seemed to get my idea. Ian synthesised a clear message from the jumbled thoughts in my head that will instantly resonate with potential stakeholders. More importantly he did not fail to deliver on his lofty promise to reignite the passion in my own project.”

    Niels Bischoff, founder of Flowcus

     

    You’re an early stage entrepreneur. You’ve been living and breathing your startup idea for a while. But before you take your idea to market, you need a fresh perspective on it. Are you communicating your idea most effectively? Is your story fit for purpose? Do you still get fired up about it?

    My 'Fuel Up' package will get you back on track. It’s a rapid, affordable service to reinvigorate you and your business idea, giving you the tools and confidence to sell your idea. Whether your audience is investors, new recruits, partners or journalists, I’ll bring clarity to your business idea, reconnecting you with your purpose and re-crafting a fit-for-purpose story. And I’ll get you fired up about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

    The package costs just £950 (plus VAT; discounts may be available for non-VAT registered entrepreneurs).  Here’s how it works:

    1. we have an initial meeting (in London or via Skype);
    2. you then complete a questionnaire via email;  
    3. I’ll create two deliverables for you based on the meeting and questionnaire: i) a crib sheet - a why, who, what, how one-pager that will both help you communicate your idea and also be a touchstone for you internally; ii) your simple and gettable startup story in less than 300 words.
    4. we’ll have a second meeting (in London or via Skype) where I present my work to you and you can ask questions.


    Why work with me? I bring my twenty five years’ experience to every project I touch: I have run businesses, advised startups & entrepreneurs, and written about startups for the Financial Times and British Airways Business life magazine. I’m good at bringing clarity to business ideas.

    Want to talk? Get in touch: hello@iansanders.com.

  • Why is storytelling an essential tool within organisations?

    I was recently interviewed about storytelling for Turnstone’s ‘Founder Focus’ series (Turnstone is part of the Steelcase Inc. family of brands). You can read the full interview here, in the meantime, here are some highlights:

    1. Why is storytelling important? How is it different than a mission statement? A mission statement can feel detached from reality – like something a management team devise behind closed doors in a boardroom one Friday and then reveal to the organisation on a Monday morning. Storytelling holds a mirror up across the entire organisation, it’s human, it’s real. Stories can bring an organisation to life.
    2. What are the elements of good corporate storytelling? Let’s be clear. This is not about creating works of fiction. It’s not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose—it’s about holding up that 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 crap.
    3. Can it be “too late” to craft the corporate story? It’s never too late. Last year I’ve worked with clients from an early-stage entrepreneur just shaping his idea, through to a 200-year old organisation. Often more established businesses recognise they need to update their story, or craft a new one, to make sure it is ‘fit for purpose’.
    4. Why is storytelling an essential tool within organisations? A client of mine headed up a strong team within an established organisation. But he told me he felt like he was standing on the bridge of a ship not sure where he was headed. I worked with him to extract and capture the story so he could tell the team where they were going.
    5. How does it help employee engagement? A corporate story is like a magnet that pulls people together in one direction. It’s also a lifebelt for times of uncertainty—like when you hit stormy waters. A story rallies people around a common purpose so they feel like they are part of something.
    6. How do you tell a story that is changing, i.e. an industry in transition or startup that is pivoting? You update the story. The origin story (why you started) doesn’t change, but your future story (where you’re headed) might. Organisations change, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell the old story that’s not relevant anymore. There’s a disconnect. Standing back to capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect.
    7. What are the ways to capture a company’s story? Make a commitment to storytelling. You need a storyteller, whether that’s an outsider or an in-house resource. Someone whose job is to be curious, to ask questions, to look under the sofa and behind the curtains and share what they see.
    8. As an advisor to businesses on how to tell their story, your focus is on people, not products. Why? Storytelling is about leveraging emotions. It’s human. I’m not interested in products and services, I’m interested in how your business changes the lives of its customers. The same applies to your audience.
    9. What are your 3 top tips for business leaders on storytelling? First, make sure that the story you are telling your organisation fires YOU up. Because if it doesn’t get your fist-pumped, how on earth do you expect it to inspire others? Second, make your story simple. Don’t reach for the dictionary just because you’re telling a story in a business context. Speak in the same way you’d speak to your friends or family. Third, keep it human. Your story should be about people, not products. If you want to change hearts and minds, make sure your audience can relate with the people in your story.

    Thanks to Kelly Hoey for asking me to be part of this interview series.

    If you want to hire me to help tell your story or you need advice around storytelling in organisations, email hello@iansanders.com and we can set up a call to discuss.

  • The ‘pick n’ mix’ work life: lessons from my portfolio career

    It’s sixteen years ago that I took the leap to work for myself. In the early days I set my stall out as a go-to project manager/consultant, working for my former employer and contacts I'd made in my previous role. The goal back then was twofold: work as many days a month as I could, and at the highest rate I could charge.

    After a couple of years I wanted more variety so I switched to a portfolio with a broader mix of projects and ventures. Alongside the revenue generating work I made space for side projects that I did for love rather than money. I loved the variety of working days that segued from running a marketing project for Benetton to managing a band with a bunch of friends. I’d carved out a ‘very Ian’ work life. It’s a model I’ve continued to this day (“What the hell does Ian Sanders actually do?” 10 Things I Did In 2015.)

    Herminia Ibarra wrote about this new way of working, ‘The Portfolio Career Mystery’ in the FT last month. “Pundits have hailed (portfolio-working) as the future of work, offering flexibility, novelty and autonomy,” she says. Herminia went on to outline the challenges of this new way of working such as dealing with isolation and how to label what you do.

    What have I learned about portfolio careers in the last sixteen years? I've covered some of this in my books: in adapting to a self-employed life (in my book ‘Leap! Ditch your job, start your own business and set yourself free’ ); and in advocating a multi-dimensional worklife (in my book ‘Mash-up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier’).

    If you’re thinking of switching to a portfolio career, here are my ten tips:

     

    1. Be resilient. Carving out your own work life is rewarding but it’s also hard, especially when there’s no-one else to help shoulder the knocks. At times it will feel like a rollercoaster ride - with plenty of ups and downs - so hang on in there.
    2. Develop by-products. Offering the market just one skill may become limiting (and you might find it boring). Be multi-dimensional - ask yourself, what else can you offer? From offering training workshops to writing books, develop by-products.
    3. Nurture your network. In 2015, 80% of my work came from referrals and approaches from my network. ‘Biz dev’ often isn’t a sales job, it’s about managing and nurturing relationships.
    4. Leverage social networks. Getting proficient with social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter is essential. I’ve won projects, been offered book deals, got speaking engagements and met key contacts through Twitter.
    5. Don’t just measure success by how much you’re billing. My objective isn’t to earn as much money as I can, it’s to carve out a work life that suits me, to be able to choose how I spend my time and what I want to work on. I’ve found that autonomy, flexibility and having a sense of purpose is more valuable than how much money I’m earning. Look beyond the spreadsheet! 
    6. Ideas-led not skillset-led. When I’m talking to an organisation about working with them, I don’t pitch my skills at them, I present ideas that could make a difference to them/ their business. Don’t sell your skills, sell solutions to client problems.
    7. ‘Work’ is a mindset, not a place you go. In a portfolio career, ‘work’ is not a place you commute to. Discovering where you work best is about finding those places that provide the most creative energy, where you’re in your element. Check out my post ‘Out Of Office: five lessons from fifteen years without a proper office’ for some practical tips on how to choose the right space for the right task.
    8. Develop a unifier. When you have a portfolio career, a job title won’t cut it anymore. Instead, develop a unifier: a phrase that unites everything you do. It might help with the ‘what do you do?’ question.
    9. Get comfortable with uncertainty. This is not the place for the five-year-plan mindset. Instead embrace the ‘unplan’, stay open-minded about what comes next and don't try o guess the future. Be adaptable, go where the water flows.
    10. Frame it around ‘You’. Frame your portfolio career around you: around who you are, what you stand for and what makes you tick. You’re the boss in this new way of working, so make sure the working life you carve out reflects your talents and desires.

     

    Good luck!


    If you need a helping hand shaping your portfolio career, get some help from someone who’s been there ahead of you. Join me on my one-to-one Fuel Safari, where I work with executives, entrepreneurs and consultants to help them find the ‘fuel’ at the heart of their offering.

  • How to fire up your work life in 2016!

    Here are seven themes that have been present in my working life for some time now. Each of the ideas below has made a difference to HOW I work and improved my ‘quality of work life’ so I wanted to share them with you:

    1. Follow YOU. Put your story, purpose and passion at the heart of your business and work life. You can use who you are and what you stand for as a compass; if you get lost, follow You. Here’s why I think authenticity matters.
    2. Know what to do when your fuel runs low. We all have bad days. That’s inevitable. So know how to refuel when you’re running low. Check out this post I wrote for ideas and tips: ‘Five things to do when your fuel tank is low.’
    3. Find a ‘fourth space’ to think. We all need a place to think. Not the office, not the cafe, not home. Somewhere else. Where is your go-to place for the big thinking? Want to know more? ‘Put some white space in your life’.
    4. Be curious. Curiosity is underrated in business. Too many of us get locked into the usual way of doing things. We don’t go out of our bubble to try new things. So step out, be curious. It can give you a fresh perspective on old problems. Grab a coffee with someone you met on Twitter, take out a Stack magazine subscription (they send you a different title every month), walk a new way to the office. If you’re curious, I wrote a little Kindle book on this.
    5. Stand for something. Don’t be a fence-sitter. If you’ve got an opinion about something, express it. Whether it’s battling sexism in your industry or you have a desire to make the world a better place, write a blog post, share your thinking.
    6. Tell stories. You meet someone at a conference. Instead of asking ‘what do you do?’ share some stories. You want your business to stand out in a crowded market? Don't sell your business, tell some stories around how it changes customer lives. You want to bring about change in your organisation? Use the power of story to get your employees on side and to understand where you’re headed. I help businesses - and entrepreneurs - capture and shape their story. If you need help, email hello@iansanders.com .
    7. Get out of the bloody office! The best meetings I’ve had this year? Walking along the streets of cities like Paris, London and Bristol, and sitting in coffee shops. The best events? The Do Lectures in the middle of the Welsh countryside. Why do we think the office is fit for purpose for doing our best work? Get out of the office! That’s why I’ve launched my Fuel Safaris, one day walk-around-the-city workshops where I reconnect people with their story, passion and purpose.

    If you’re stuck at the crossroads and need more fuel for 2016, come on a Fuel Safari. If you book one now for January 2016, I’m offering this one day programme at £500 rather than £1,000. Get in touch by email hello@iansanders.com and I’ll send you back info and availability. 
     

    Here’s to good times in 2016…!

  • Opening eyes to new possibilities. A day on a Fuel Safari...

    The Fuel Safari was everything I hoped it would be, and many things I hadn’t even considered might be possible. Without a shadow of a doubt, that was down to Ian, his approach and his ability to pick out details others overlook. I can see myself undertaking a Fuel Safari each year.

    Simon White, Formation London

     

    It’s ten thirty on a Thursday morning and I’m sitting on the steps of the Seven Dials monument in London’s Covent Garden. Takeaway coffees in hand, I’m here with Simon White. Ahead of us lies six hours of discovery: walking, talking and plotting. Welcome to Fuel Safari, my one-day session to rediscover your fuel.

    Fuel Safari is different from traditional coaching. I guess I’m an ‘AntiCoach’, I bring my passion, curiosity and outsider point-of-view to ask the right questions. The morning is about inputs, walking around Soho and Fitzrovia, asking questions, getting inspiration IN. The afternoon is about outputs, mapping the ‘what next?’, laying down the building blocks, getting inspiration OUT.

    Today’s client is the founder of Formation London. Formation London helps brands, agencies and organisations innovate, adapt and thrive. The company has had a good year, now Simon needs the fuel to lay the foundation stones for 2016.

    Much of my work is around storytelling and today’s Fuel Safari is no different: it’s about identifying and mapping a future story. Also my objective is to make sure that my clients are putting their real selves into their careers, work lives and businesses. That’s what I’m obsessive about: reconnecting people with their stories, purpose and passions. Making sure that the path ahead is aligned with who they are.

    Fuel Safari is a journey, taking executives, entrepreneurs and freelancers from where they are now to where they could be. I like to start the day here at Seven Dials, at this hub in the centre of seven ‘spokes’. Too often we are forced into making simplistic binary - yes-or-no - decisions in life. But life is more complex than that. There are often more than two options. Here at Seven Dials, we look around us and see seven routes going off in different directions. Which path shall we choose?

    We head north, taking the side streets; busy streets are no-go areas on my safaris. We’re away from the hustle and bustle, so we can slow down, follow our curiosity. Pausing to look at a piece of graffiti on Cleveland Street (“All the good things are wild and free”), stopping at a bench on Fitzroy Square. I have a rough plan for where we’re going, weaving through the alleyways and cut-throughs north of Oxford Street. At Margaret Street I give Simon a choice. “Do you want to go left or right?”

    “Straight on!” he replies.

    As we walk I’m asking questions, listening, noticing. Stopping to capture thoughts and ideas on a pack of Artefact cards in my pocket. And when we need our own fuel, we find a pit-stop. Today it’s Kaffeine in Eastcastle Street.

    After a stop on Carnaby Street for lunch, we grab a table at the Hospital Club and fan out this morning’s cards. Simon adds in his own suggestions and we’re away: building and mapping. Mapping the core proposition, ideas for new products, ways that his business can stand apart. Throughout the process I’m searching for alignment: is he bringing Simon - and what he stands for - to every fragment of the business? By 4pm Simon’s fuel tanks are full: he says we’ve opened up opportunities that he just wouldn’t have considered on his own.

    We’ve gone on a literal and metaphorical journey, on the move most of the day. Most of us get too busy to stand back from the day-to-day and ask why we do what we do. I listen, then connect the dots.

    If you’re looking for personality profiling, go and see a coach. But if you’re stuck at a crossroads, looking for way forward and need someone to help navigate your what next, come and see an AntiCoach (email hello@iansanders.com and we can arrange a conversation*).

    I’ll leave you with some more thoughts from Simon.

    Going on a Fuel Safari opened my eyes to possibilities that I had previously overlooked, as well as plenty of ideas and paths that had been hidden in the undergrowth that is modern life. Ian helped to strip away the complexity of things to expose some incredibly interesting thoughts. And he even managed to encapsulate what it is I do in with Formation London a simple, single-minded statement that resonates clearly with others.

    The follow-up exercise in the afternoon of mapping out those thoughts was so useful - a chance to discuss, pick apart and rebuild thinking as part of the open-minded approach Ian has devised. Not only did it demonstrate how I’d got to where I am, but it shone a light on the right places to go next.

    Best of all, I’m left with something I can draw upon for inspiration as I move into the year ahead - and beyond.”

     

    * Fuel Safaris cost £1,000 for the day. If you make a booking by the end of January 2016, pay just £500. Email hello@iansanders.com to start a conversation.

  • If you want to fly, make sure you bring ‘You’ to work!

    Here’s a question: when you arrive at work, do you leave your personality in the umbrella stand at the door or do you bring it in with you?

    There’s a lot of cynicism around the idea of “authenticity” at work. I’ve heard people snigger at the suggestion that we should be ourselves when it comes to how and why we make our living.

    But I’m serious about authenticity. Lots of us put on a mask to go to work. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine how different business life might be if we chose roles — and re-crafted existing ones — that were more “us”. I think we’d be happier and more fulfilled (and as we spend so much time at work, aren’t these things important?).

    Here’s my take on why authenticity matters:

    1. It’s harder to put on a mask for the working day when the borders between work and home have eroded. When do you take the mask off? Before or after your 9pm conference call? Today it makes no sense to separate the Work You from the Real You.
    2. But it’s bigger than that. If we lose sight of who we are, that’s where it all goes wrong. Looking back to my own story and the stresses that led to a burnout 15 years ago, it all went wrong when I stopped doing the work that fired me up. If I’d stuck to being me, I might have avoided the burnout.
    3. If we want to be happier and more productive in our lives, shouldn’t we inhabit organisational cultures that bring out the best versions of ourselves? I’m writing this in a buzzy coffee shop, sitting up at a bar. There’s music playing. For many tasks, this is my ideal workplace. If you put me in a sterile corner office I know I wouldn’t be as productive.
    4. But I’m not saying we should turn workplaces into outposts of Starbucks. I was talking to an American working in London who bemoaned how her British co-workers start their Monday morning asking how the weekend was. She doesn’t want to know the ins and outs of coworkers’ personal lives, she wants to get on with her work. That’s her preference, but knowing a little more about what makes a co-worker tick can only foster better working relationships (but OK: spare me the details on your poorly cat).
    5. Bringing ourselves to our work is not just to what we do, but also how we do it. How we manage relationships, how we conduct meetings, how we make presentations. Who knows: perhaps your distinctive business style will get you noticed?
    6. If we lose sight of our passions, our purpose and our story; if we fake it, put on a mask, and do jobs that aren’t us then what’s the point? I wouldn’t want to hire anyone who didn’t feel fired up about what they’re doing and I wouldn’t want to work for an organisation that didn’t want to let the real me in.
    7. Because here’s the thing: the best experiences I’ve had in my work life, the times when I’ve felt in flow, in my element? No surprise here — they’re the ones where I’ve not been trying to be someone else, it’s where I’ve felt most me.

    The graphic designer Anthony Burrill said recently “My personal values dictate and inform what kind of work I produce.” That’s no surprise for an artist, but why should a banker or a sales director be any different? Why don’t the rest of us bring ourselves to our work?

    This year I’ve started leading Fuel Safaris, a one-day walk-around-London coaching programme where I help executives and entrepreneurs reconnect with their passions and purpose. What I’m discovering on my walks around town is that when we get lost in our careers or working lives, we need to look to ourselves to navigate the way forward. We need to set our compass towards ‘us’.

    There’s a lot of uncertainty ahead in the job market. But one thing is clear — we’re going to have much longer work lives. Full retirement just won’t be an option for most of us. So why defer your Real You work life until you retire? This IS your life. If you’re going to spend your working life leaving your personality at the door, then surely that’s a waste of potential?

    If you want to fly, make sure you bring ‘You’ to work!


    I run one day, one-to-one coaching sessions in London where I help people reconnect with their passions, purpose and story. Fuel Safaris are ideal for anyone stuck at the crossroads and unsure where to go next. Details here or give me a shout hello@iansanders.com.

  • Five things to do when your fuel tank is low

    If, like me, you work for yourself — or even if you don’t — you’ll have days in your working life that are quite frankly, crap. The phone doesn’t ring, no-one gets back to you, that project didn’t happen, oh and it’s a miserable day outside.

    And on days like these, it can be hard to stay positive.

    Whilst there’s no magic wand to finding your mojo, there are some steps you can take to refuel. Start by accepting how you feel, rather than trying to deny it. If you feel really crap, then so what? Be okay with that. Don’t wallow in it, but just recognise that’s how you’re feeling. Once you’ve acknowledged it, you can do something about it. Here are five things to do when the fuel tank is low.

    1. Go do something else. If your working life doesn’t look in great shape, taking time off may not sound like the best advice. Shouldn’t you be hitting the phones trying to find a new gig to replace the one that slipped through your hands? But if your fuel is low, you won’t be in the right mindset to tackle your to-do list. So switch out of work mode. Go do something else for an hour or two. Come back when you feel better. Which brings me on to #2.
    2. Know what fuels you; go and do that. Those experiences when you feel in your element? Baking a cake, writing a blog post, going for a 40km cycle, playing the piano? Just go and do whatever that is, and as soon as you get into your stride, you’ll feel your fuel levels rise.
    3. Have someone to lean on. When everybody else is chest-puffing, tweeting and posting about how damn successful they are, it can be hard to be honest about how you feel. Have someone you can be honest with, who you can lean on and tell it like it is. Call them up, go and chat with them.
    4. Get fired up by someone else’s story. If your own fuel tank is empty, try looking somewhere else for inspiration. Read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a Do Lecture. Get fired up by listening to someone else’s story.
    5. Look after yourself. Remember, if your fuel tank is low, it’s a sign. A sign that you need to look after yourself. Not just your physical health, but your mental health too. Get plenty of sleep, go for a walk. Oh, and switch off that digital device.

    What fuels me is helping others find their fuel. Whether it’s taking people on my walk n’ talks (check out my Lunch Break walk n’talks) or helping businesses grab hold of their story, purpose and raison d’etre (check out Fuel-up Your Business) I get people, organisations and businesses fired up about their work, helping them develop and grow. 

  • Fuel-up for winter! Inspiration for your business & work life

    Hello. Perhaps you’re reading this in a cosy coffee shop, or maybe you're at your desk. Wherever you are, I hope your work life is in good shape. Here’s my roundup of posts and links to get you thinking as we head into 2016:

    Get back on track for 2016. Stuck at a crossroads in your career or work life, unsure where to go next? Join me on a one-to-one Fuel Safari in London; I’ll reconnect you with your passion and purpose. Here’s what Michael Starke said about his experience. “Ian’s Fuel Safaris are perfect beacons for anyone seeking clearer direction on their personal journey.” Fuel Safari launches in 2016 at £1,000; whilst it's still in beta-mode, it's just £500. More details here or email hello@iansanders.com and we can set up a call to chat.

    Don’t let life rush by. Earlier this month I took a Monday off to spend with my family. It reminded me the importance of focusing on the Now. Here’s what I learned by implementing a 'Bonus Sunday'.

    How to stand out from the crowd. I’ve just finished a storytelling project for Buzzacott, the London accountancy firm. If you’re looking to stand out from the crowd in an abundant market, stop selling your services and start telling stories. Here’s why it matters.

    Get fired up. My manifesto ‘Five ways to fire up your business & work-life’ is now available as a limited edition poster print on Etsy. If you’d like a postcard version of the manifesto, send your address to hello@Iansanders.com and I’ll mail you one back free of charge (but when they're gone, they're gone!).

    Why values matter. The cynics might not agree, but I think values matter in business life; they are the ties that bind us together. Here’s my two minute take on why you shouldn’t take your organisation’s values for granted.

    Five lessons from fifteen years without a proper office. Do you spend an increasing amount of time working outside of an office? Here are my tips to get the most out of nomadic working.

    Lessons from the world’s top 50 management thinkers. This week I was at Thinkers50, billed the ‘Oscars of management thinking.’ Here are the lessons I took away.

    On stage 2016. Next April I’m delighted to be speaking at the Snap Photography Festival in Wales about storytelling and finding your fuel. Details of the festival are here. And if you would like to hire me to speak, let’s talk!

    Craig Finn plays ‘Extras’. Music is important to me, it fuels much of my 'head-down' work when I'm writing a story. In September Craig Finn (from Brooklyn band The Hold Steady) played a set at my local record shop. I went along and grabbed this video of him playing Extras. Grab yourself a coffee and check it out.

    My 8 year old's to-do list. "Do stuff. Be nice. Write stories." I found this on the side of my son's bookcase. Not just a to-do list, a mantra for life! 

    Thanks for reading. As ever, get in touch hello@iansanders.com to have a conversation about any of this. And please do share this if you know anyone who might like a slice of this content!

    (This is my Winter 2015 newsletter that was sent out to subscribers today. You can subscribe in the box at the foot of the page)

  • Lessons from the world’s top 50 management thinkers

    A few months ago I was at The Do Lectures, a conference on a farm on the west of Wales, where delegates and speakers sleep under canvas. On Monday I was at Thinkers50, an event held in the palatial surroundings of London’s Drapers’ Hall, a building that was once Thomas Cromwell’s London mansion.

    Talk about worlds apart! At the Do Lectures, the dress code is wellies and hoodies; here at Thinkers50 it was suits in the daytime followed by tuxedos and evening dress for dinner. It’s those kind of juxtapositions I enjoy about my working life; after all it would be tedious if every event looked and felt the same.

    Thinkers50 is billed as the ‘Oscars of management thinking,’ an event that ranks the top management thinkers in the world. The day included panel discussions and lightning round presentations, closing with a gala awards dinner. Here are some lessons from the day:

     

    1. Power belongs to the individual, not the organisation. Nilofer Merchant told us how the individualisation of power creates value for what she’s branded our Onlyness: that each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. To have power in the old days, we had to belong to an organisation. But today, ‘digital’ lets us find other people who care about the same thing as us (look at #BlackLivesMatter).
    2. Value isn’t what I know, it’s how what I know benefits someone else. And similarly, leadership is not what you do, it’s how what you do benefits others. Thanks for the reminder Dave Ulrich.
    3. Not knowing is an opportunity. There’s a lot of bullshit in management; I’ve rarely heard a business leader say “I don’t know.” So it was refreshing to hear Steven D'Souza’s say knowledge can lead to overconfidence, and that not knowing unlocks answers. By having an open mind - or better, a clear beginner’s mind - we can delight in new possibilities.
    4. Being out of your depth can be a good thing. Steven’s ideas were a neat segue into Liz Wiseman. Who wants a job they’re qualified for? asked Liz. The more challenged we are, the more satisfied we are.
    5. Work out now what you want to do in your 60s. Marshall Goldsmith coaches CEOs with what their ‘what next’ - what will they do when they retire? Marshall’s advice was to work out now what you want to be working on when you’re sixty (oh, and playing golf is over-rated).
    6. Each life stage is not about age, it’s about mindset. I smiled at Dan Pink’s revelation that at the age of fifty one - and as a bestselling author - he still has moments when he wonders what’s he doing with his life. Dan asked us what life stage we’re in now and where we’re headed next. I replied that my different life stages have not been governed by age, but by mindset and circumstance. Some of us reinvent ourselves professionally in our sixties; I’ve reinvented myself in my thirties and forties (and will continue to do so).
    7. You can’t separate the dark side from the shiny side of talent. Jennifer Petriglieri said employers need to invite people to bring their whole-selves to their work. In her own case she said she can’t bring her creativity to a role, without also bringing her angst. You can’t separate the two sides.

     

    Of course like all the best conferences, my highlight was sitting in a booth at Hoi Polloi restaurant at midnight, a Havana Club in hand, meeting a bunch of new people and putting the world to rights.

    I look forward to the next Thinkers50: it’s just that next time I’m going to copy Umair Haque and wear my leather jacket...


    Thanks to Nilofer for the invite.

  • Three storytelling tips for business leaders

    I just got asked what is an effective storytelling technique or mindset I would recommend for business leaders. Here’s my answer:

    Three things.

    First, make sure that the story you are telling your organisation fires YOU up. Because if it doesn’t get your fist-pumped, how on earth do you expect it to inspire others?

    Second, make your story simple. Don’t reach for the dictionary just because you’re telling a story in a business context. Speak in the same way you’d speak to your friends or family.

    Third, keep it human. Your story should be about people, not products. If you want to change hearts and minds, make sure your audience can relate with the people in your story.

     

    If you want some more tips, check out my two minute video ‘The importance of storytelling: How to tell a better story’:

     

     

  • “Simplicity is powerful. Because you can't hide from it.” The Gospel According To Dave.

    Isn’t it refreshing when someone comes along and tells it like it is? And says, enough of the jargon, enough of the bullshit.

    That’s what I like about Dave Trott. Dave is a former ad agency chairman and executive creative director. Born in east London, he went to art school in New York on a Rockefeller Scholarship. From there he began an illustrious career in advertising, as part of the creative team behind 'Hello Tosh Gotta Toshiba', the Cadbury Flake ads and many, many more.  He’s been training young copywriters and art directors since the 1970’s. Promoting an ethos of ruthless simplicity, Dave’s message is to stop being so damn clever.

    Last week Mark Borkowski hosted a breakfast chat with Dave at The Ivy Club. Sitting there I realised how quotable - and tweetable - Dave is. Rather than flood my Twitter feed with his one-liners, here are some notes I scribbled in my notepad.

    The Gospel According to Dave:

     

    1) On tech

    “Don’t start with technology. Start with the people and work back from there.”

    2) On standing out from the crowd

    “If you’re going to be a pirate, you don’t want a navy full of pirates.”

    “I don’t want to be the wallpaper. I want to be the picture on the wall”.

    3) On creativity

    “Creativity isn’t a discipline, it’s how you do your job.”

    4) On punters

    “Why have we forgotten how the punter’s mind works? Our market is punters. You’ve got to talk to them in the right away.”

    5) On simplicity

    “It’s like Einstein said. If you can’t explain it to an eleven year old, you’re over-complicating it.”

    “Simplicity is powerful. Because you can’t hide from it.”



    Every industry needs a Dave Trott. Whether it's advertising, journalism or recruitment, we can get so wrapped up in jargon and the way things are meant to be, we need a reminder to take it back to basics, to keep it simple. To call time on the bullshit.



    [Thanks to Mark Borkowski for hosting the event]

     

  • Don’t sell a product, tell a story.

    You’re a digital agency. Or perhaps you’re a law firm. The services you offer are identical to your competitors across the road. You realise that the long list of services stencilled on the wall behind your reception won’t get you noticed. So how do you stand out?

    It’s a familiar problem for any business that operates in an ‘abundant market’ - surrounded by similar-sounding, similar-positioned businesses. Competing on products and services won’t cut it.

    So how do you get noticed? Switch from selling your services to telling stories.

    My experience as a storyteller has shown me that every organisation has a story, it’s just that sometimes they aren’t easy to spot. You need to dig and scrape to find the good stories. You need to ask the right questions. You need to look in unlikely places.

    What makes a good story? The best stories you can tell are about how you helped transform a customer’s business. How that website you designed gave a customer the confidence to win a new project. Shine the light on people, not products. Make it interesting by focusing on the human aspect.

    Recently I've been working with Buzzacott, a 270-person firm of chartered accountants. Moving away from a traditional brochure, Buzzacott created a magazine ‘Beyond the Numbers’, full of stories about their people and their customers. As part of the project I sat down and interviewed their Head of VAT Services. A story about VAT may not sound a very interesting subject, but as we got talking I found out about eventful road trips across the US to meet clients. It felt like something out of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’ I’d found a human story!

    So the next time you go to meet a prospective customer, don’t bore them with a long laundry-list of services, tell them a story.

    Stories are unique to you. They’ll get you noticed.

    Working with Ian was wonderfully easy. The Buzzacott brand is a peculiar one and we are very sensitive to tone of voice so it was refreshing to find someone who immediately knew what we were trying to achieve and who told a story that fit in seamlessly with our other communications.”

    Samantha Bisson, Director of Marketing and Communications, Buzzacott


    [email hello@iansanders.com if you’d like me to help your business tell its story]

  • The ties that bind us together. Why values matter.

    In yesterday’s Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway railed against businesses that publish their values. Her rant was based on the fact that out of 24 well known businesses, only five of their managers could recognise their own values from a list. Kellaway says that whilst values may be important, they are also “slippery.”

    The minute anyone tries to write them down they become trite and unhelpful,” she says.

    I agree they can be slippery but that’s exactly why you should write them down! If you haven’t nailed and captured your values, then how can you expect your organisation to align with them?

    What are values anyway? In his post The Difference Between Culture and Values, Matt Blumberg says values “guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right." Values, identified well, should underpin a brand or organisation.

    Kellaway reported a recent piece of research of FTSE 100 businesses that found three words - integrity, respect and innovation - cropped up in values over and over again. If you set your values by ticking off a list of business buzzwords, then of course they will be meaningless. But just because some businesses fall into a cookie-cutter approach to value-making doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother at all.

    If you set your values based on what’s true for your organisation, then they can be a powerful touchstone for employees and customers alike. The design and consulting firm IDEO created The Little Book of IDEO. This is a handbook that aims to capture “the ties that bind us together as coworkers," including such values as “Talk less, do more” and “Take ownership.” In its introduction CEO Tim Brown explains that for many years he’d shied away from capturing the organisation’s values:

    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 Little Book of IDEO is not just written by the CEO. It features contributions from employees which reflects the different voices and attitudes that make up the organisation (you can see a slideshare of some it here).

    So perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your values. Do they mean anything or are they just jargon? Do they reflect how you behave as an organisation, as a brand, as an employer? Do you put them into practice?

    Keep your values hidden, and you can get away with ignoring them. Put them on your wall, wave them about online where all can see, then if you don’t actually live them, people like Lucy Kellaway have the right to call you out.

    Need help capturing more meaningful values within your organisation? I can help, get in touch: hello@iansanders.com

     

  • How to get unstuck.

    Most of us get stuck. Whether we’re deciding to take a new job, to go freelance or to launch a new product, we get to that stage where it feels like we’re banging our head against the wall: we struggle with the same question and can’t move on.

    In his new book The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Bernie Roth provides help to address those questions that continue to bug us, the things that keep us awake at night. Prof Roth - who is a professor of engineering at Stanford University and a director of the d.school  - suggests if you’re stuck with a problem, you’re probably asking the wrong question.

    The way to find out the right question is to ask: “What would it do for me if I solved that problem?” Here’s an example from the book:

    • First Roth takes the question, “How might I find a spouse?”
    • He says if you are stuck on this, ask yourself “What would it do for me if I solved this problem?”
    • The answer to this can be converted to a new question e.g. “How might I find companionship?”
    • This new question unlocks possibilities.
    • If you get stuck with that question, the process can be repeated at a higher level e.g. ask yourself,“What would it for for me if I found companionship?”
    • Again, that delivers a new question, “How might I feel less lonely?” that should unlock fresh ideas.


    Roth argues reframing the question brings fresh solutions: you just have to commit not to hang on to the original question, but to let go of it.

    You can find out more about Roth’s book on his website The Achievement Habit and watch his recent talk at Google’s offices here:

     

  • The importance of telling stories in business: my presentation in Harrogate

     

    Last month I was in Harrogate, Yorkshire to speak at the launch of ‘How’s Business’, an initiative from the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership. ‘How’s Business’ is a website where business owners and founders can get advice from fellow business people. The emphasis is not on business theory, but on “real life, straight talking business advice.”

    My presentation was on the importance of storytelling in business. You can watch the video above and see my slides below. There are also a series of bite-sized videos from my talk:

    1. Ian Sanders, People not products (2:22)
    2. Ian Sanders, How to tell a better story (2:31)
    3. Ian Sanders, The three acts of a story (2:46)

     

     

  • Stick what you stand for up on the wall

    If you know what makes your organisation tick, if you know what you stand for, why don’t you stick it up on the wall so that everyone can see it?

    That’s what TheFamily has done. TheFamily is a Paris-based accelerator housed in a beautiful space in the city. When I arrived there yesterday, it felt more like a hotel lobby - or perhaps an intellectual salon - than a tech co-working space, with plush armchairs, bookshelves and wooden furniture, of course punctuated by the sight of obligatory MacBooks on every lap.

    I was at TheFamily to give a presentation on how startups can leverage their story and purpose to get heard. As I waited for people to take their seats, I took a look at TheFamily’s manifesto that’s on the wall by the front door. This is their story and purpose, for all to see.

    And what better place to put your manifesto than on the wall so everyone can see it?

    As Simon Heath commented on Twitter earlier, “it's the most important thing about values. You have to embody them. Otherwise they're just empty words.” He’s right. If you keep your values hidden, perhaps you can get away with not adhering to them. I think putting your values up on the wall for everyone to see is an exercise in transparency - if you’re not living up to them, then people have the right to call you out.


    So if you know what your organisation stands for, don’t hide it away, stick it up on the wall. Put your values where everybody can see them.


    (If you don’t know what you stand for or you've lost sight of your story, and you need someone to help extract and capture it, that’s what I do -  hello@iansanders.com).

  • A Manifesto to fire up your business and work life

    My focus this year is helping others - whether startups, established organisations or individuals - find their fuel, uncovering and capturing what makes them tick.

    I’ve just created this manifesto (nicely visualised by Lizzie Everard): Five Ways To Fire Up Your Business & Work Life.


    (If you’d like to buy a poster print of this manifesto, email hello@iansanders.com and I’ll let you know once they are available).

     

  • Put some white space in your work life. Finding a fourth space to think.

    Last week I met a business acquaintance for coffee.

    His working life is typical: split between a central London office (a first space), working at home (a second space) and working/ having meetings in the same bunch of coffee shops (a third space). Like many of us, he has a demanding role which relies upon his ability to think creatively, to come up with ideas, to solve problems. And he confessed, like many of us, he also struggles to find the ‘me’ time to do the serious thinking. Whilst it’s great to get out of the office, he finds coffee shops too buzzy and home working too distracting for the ideas to flow.

    I said to him he needs to find ‘a fourth space’. A space where he can think more clearly.

    And at that, he pricked up his ears.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love working out of coffee shops (I’m writing this in one right now) however they’ve become the de-facto office for so many of us, we need to find another space, one that allows us to think.

    In my fifteen years working for myself, I couldn’t have achieved the same results without going to a fourth space, whether spending the afternoon at Tate Modern or taking a train journey somewhere new. Last year, when my work life felt stale, and I needed to reframe it, I went to Amsterdam to get back on track (watch the short video below).

    It’s not however always the fancy destination that’s important, as long as you know it will fuel you creatively. Or even if you don’t know, just try it and see what happens.

    I wonder if our lives have become so jam-packed — a seamless segue from home-to-office-via-coffee-shop — that we’ve left no space to do the Big Thinking, whether ideas for our organisation or just giving our own work lives a check-up. Imagine how much more fulfilled we might be, how productive and creative we could become if only we gave ourselves permission to get some distance from our day-to-day routine, to find new spaces to work from.

    Here are four ways to put some white space into your working life:

    1. Shift your relationship with the office: we all know being productive is not about the number of hours you spend at your desk, it’s about knowing where you work best and going there more often.
    2. Identify your own fourth space: consider the places where you could get some of your best work done. Where will fire you up — is it an art gallery, a train journey, a walk in the country?
    3. Make going there a regular fixture: if you work for yourself, regularly schedule fourth space time; if you work for an organisation, demonstrate to your boss the kind of value a fourth space would bring. And then get a commitment to let you go there.
    4. Set yourself some goals for when you’re there: when you go to your fourth space, set some goals about what you need to achieve while you’re there. Give it some structure.

    Put some white space in your work life.*

    *Try it. Let me know how you got on, where got you fired up, how did it work? You can keep me posted on Twitter @iansanders

  • Curiosity & Opportunity: Dan Rubin

    Episode three of our series Curiosity & Opportunity - co-created with Michal Dzierza - features photographer, designer & creative director Dan Rubin. Dan explains how curiosity and passion is at the heart of everything he touches, why he says yes to most opportunities and how curiosity led him to embrace Twitter and Instagram.

    When was my Big Break? There isn’t a big break, just a lot of little tiny ones,” he says.

    (this episode was filmed with an iPhone 6).

     

  • Bored of your job? Rather than quit, try redesigning your job.

    One of the benefits of working for yourself is that you are in control of your own destiny: you can create your own job (and change it when you feel like it).  But designing your own job is not only an option for the self-employed; if you work for an organisation with the right culture you too can rip up the job spec to create a role that reflects your talents and desires.

     

    Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, wrote recently about how he had worked at IDEO all this life, never needing to quit his job because he could redesign it:

     

    “Over the last two-and-a-half decades, I’ve gone through multiple job titles and even more roles. Even since taking on the mantle of CEO some 15 years ago now, I’ve done my best to redesign the job every few years so that I continue to grow my impact and learn.”

     

    Tim’s story echoes my own experience. Before I started working for myself, I was lucky to spend seven years at a media group that was small and flexible enough to allow me to design my own job. I treated the official job spec as just a starting point, a canvas on which to paint new layers. Having been hired as a studio co-ordinator, I soon crossed borders to other departments, becoming a producer in live events, then a radio production manager, before slaloming through other mashed-up roles that saw me simultaneously head up one division as MD, project manage joint ventures, edit the company external newsletter and organise the annual awayday. At my own instigation, I changed my job title every twelve months.

     

    So redesigning your job may sound like an attractive idea, but how the heck do you actually do it? Here are some tips:

     

    1. The onus is on you. Your boss won’t come and ask if you want to change your role. It’s up to you to take the bull by the horns and lobby for change.
    2. Before seeking to redesign your job, make sure you have done enough of what you were hired for in the first place.  Prove yourself in the role you were hired for before arguing to shake things up.
    3. Follow your curiosity and cross borders. Be curious, go and ask questions, get to know what other people do. Get to know what goes on in other departments, build relationships with people at other sites and in other teams. This will help you give a sense of where you might be able to add value outside of your current role.
    4. Embark on an internal PR campaign. You’ll need to make sure people around you know that you have ambitions beyond your current job spec. When I started out at the media group, I got good at managing a broadcast facilities company, so I was seen as the 'Facilities guy'. I had to work hard to remind people around me, including my boss, that I had other skills. I had to move away from the label that people had attached to me. Make sure people in the organisation have a sense of what you stand for, of your purpose, the values and skills you’ll bring to your work, whatever you touch.
    5. Be vocal and visible outside your core area. At company-wide meetings ensure you’re making contributions and getting heard on other areas outside your current role. Demonstrate your other talents by blogging, by tweeting, by showing evidence of side projects or hobby businesses.
    6. Put your hand up. The boss is looking for volunteers to come in at the weekend to staff a welcome desk at an event? The company is looking for someone to guest edit the newsletter? Put your hand up and volunteer.
    7. Be enterprising. If you’ve got ideas for how your division could grow, take the initiative and make recommendations to your boss. If you suggest there’s a new product that can be launched, put yourself in the frame to lead it or work on it. Create your own opportunities.

     

    This should help you redesign your job inside an organisation. Of course it relies upon the culture of the organisation being progressive enough to allow employees to change direction and carve out new roles. But give it a go, you have nothing to lose. And if your boss says no, then maybe you are working in the wrong place.



    If you want to find out more I’m holding a ‘Pop-up Revolution Workshop’ in central London on Friday May 1st where, together with Mark Shayler, I’ll be inspiring you to get fired up about your work life. Email me hello@iansanders.com for details.


    You can also read my book ‘Mash-up!: How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier.’

  • Finding Onlyness... in Paris

    It’s the first week in March, the sun is out and Parisiens are taking up position outside Les Deux Magots café. A cluster of small dogs huddle around the feet of an elegant lady in sunglasses as church bells from Saint-Germain des Prés mingle with the rumble of car tyres over cobbles.

    Les Deux Magots has a tradition of great ideas and creativity, being a magnet for such creative luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. So whilst this early Spring sunshine is a tame imitator of the Californian heat, these charismatic streets a world away from Silicon Valley, it is fitting that it is here in the 6th arrondissement, that US management thinker and innovator Nilofer Merchant has made her home (well, for a year or so).

    Nilofer has personally launched more than 100 products and worked for major companies like Apple. More recently she's become well known for her 2013 TED talk ‘Got a meeting? Take a Walk which has been viewed over 1.7 million times. So it’s no surprise that when she arrives to meet me at the café, she doesn’t sit down - we’re off on a walk towards the Seine. And although we’ve only just met, a walk n'talk seems a natural way to get to know someone.

    In her TED talk Nilofer argues that fresh air drives fresh thinking, and prompts a different way of looking at the world. Instead of going to coffee meetings or fluorescent-lit conference room meetings, I ask people to go on a walking meeting, to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week. It's changed my life,” she says.

    As we walk, we share our career stories and I hear about her experiences moving from the US to France. When we reach the Eiffel Tower we take a side street away from the Seine heading past The American Library where Nilofer says she often goes to read The New York Times.

    Our brains are full of ideas and our feet tired, so we rest on a bench outside Malabar. Over a glass of wine Nilofer tells me more about her other great belief, that of ‘Onlyness’ - the unique qualities that each of us can bring to a situation (watch the short video below).

    “Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as ‘perfect’ as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create.”

    A couple of hours later I’m back on the Eurostar to London, reflecting that days like these - traveling to another city to meet an interesting person - are part of my ‘Onlyness’, bringing my curiosity to explore and capture new ideas.

     

  • Should CEOs tweet? 5 tips for rookie executive tweeters.

    Last week The Financial Times asked the question, “Should CEOs tweet?” They reported that of the world's 224 biggest listed companies, only 32 have a CEO on Twitter and only 20 of those accounts are active.

    In my mind, the question “Should CEOs Tweet?” is a bit like asking whether a CEO should use email or be on the telephone. Can you afford to ignore it?

    Here’s the thing: in a world of similar looking businesses providing similar products and services, it’s your opinion and your ideas that will make you stand out from the crowd. Twitter gives you the CEO - and your business - a microphone, to tell your side of the story, to share your opinion and expertise with the outside world, to communicate with the audiences that matter to you.

    So if you choose not to be on Twitter, I think you’re missing out.

    But just because it’s easy to send a tweet, don’t be fooled that it’s easy to use Twitter as a business tool. Just because you can share a message with the world in a few seconds from the back of a cab, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think before you tweet (after all, you don’t want to end up like Rupert Murdoch).

    Here are my five suggestions to improve your game on Twitter:

    1. Remember that Twitter is a two-way street. It’s not a one-way channel to broadcast press releases - you need to engage with your audience. Invite debate, ask for feedback, perhaps even schedule a regular Q&A.

    2. Live within the constraints of the platform. Learn to master brevity, get your message across in a single tweet rather a message that runs to multiple tweets. Similarly, if you only use Twitter to link to other communications - blog posts and news releases - and don’t use your 140 characters to actually say anything, you’re missing the point.

    3. Know your audiences. Your audience might include customers, employees, press and investors. When you hit send, remember everyone will see it. So your tweets need to be relevant and gettable to everyone who follows you.

    4. Let your personality in. Bland tweets full of corporate-speak aren’t going to build an audience. Be human: sprinkle the ‘real you’ throughout your tweets so your audience gets a sense of who you really are.

    5. Don’t be a fence sitter: express an opinion. Twitter can be a great platform for thought leadership, so share your opinion. Tell us what you think and what’s getting you fired up, good and bad.


    Ian Sanders helps organisations better nail & communicate what they do, including how they use Twitter. You can follow Ian on Twitter @iansanders

  • Curiosity & Opportunity: Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh

    I love using video to tell stories.

    Last year I started a side project with Michal Dzierza which we’ve called ‘Curiosity & Opportunity’. In this video series we talk to founders, entrepreneurs and creatives about the balance between curiosity and opportunity in their work lives.

    Here is the second in the series. I talk to Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, the inventor of Sugru (Irish for 'play'), a self-curing substance similar to silicone, which has thousands of uses (and users). Here she tells us the story behind Sugru and how curiosity plays a key role in her business life.

     

  • Introducing 'Curiosity & Opportunity'

    Some people's careers and businesses are driven by a curiosity to try out new things. Others follow the opportunities that are presented to them.  My own life in self-employment has been crafted out of a combination of the two.  My gig at the Financial Times was borne out of my curiosity; my two year assignment working with Benetton came about from spotting a commercial opportunity, which I then turned into a big project.

    I'm fascinated by the stories behind people’s work lives and that balance between curiosity and opportunity. I also love to use video to tell such stories.

    Throw those two things together and you get my latest side project - ‘Curiosity & Opportunity’, a collaboration with Michal Dzierza.

    In this series we’ll talk to a bunch of interesting people from creators to entrepreneurs and ask them what has guided them: curiosity or opportunity? In our first episode, we hear from designer/firestarter  James Victore about how he’s never followed the dollar and what curiosity means to him.

     

  • 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).
  • '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.

  • 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'.

  • 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.
  • 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].

  • '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 IanSanders.com .

    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 read.amazon.com


  • 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:

     

  • Five things to remember in making your business idea happen

    This week I was a member of a panel on innovation and entrepreneurship at The Apple Store in London’s Regent Street. Meet The Innovators is a speaker series curated by New York-based startup incubator Women Innovate Mobile (I’m one of their mentors) and the line-up for the evening of discussion included: (left to right above) Kelly Hoey, founder of Women Innovate Mobile; Alex Depledge, Founder of Hassle.com; me; Dr. Sue Black, founder of Savvify; and Courtney Boyd Myers, Founder of audience.io. We talked about how the internet had been a democratising force for ideas - where in 2013 all you need is broadband, a digital device and an idea to launch and test your business. Here are five points that came out of the evening that can help get your idea happening:

    1. The barriers to entry are down. Services like cloud computing are becoming as cheap and ubiquitous as electricity, you don’t need to invest huge sums in infrastructure and servers to start a business. Alex explained how the infrastructural cost for powering her business was so low,  it made starting a tech-based business much more accessible than ever.
    2. You don’t need a digital product to be a digital business. We hear so much about the tech scene as the focus of entrepreneurship, but of course you don’t have to be making an app or a piece of software to exploit digital opportunities. I talked about products like Tattly (an online store for temporary tattoos) and BeerBods (a beer subscription club) as examples of great little niche businesses that use digital platforms to bring their communities together.
    3. Your network of contacts is critical. Alex said her business would not be where it is today without the generosity of an agency that gave her space to work from when she was starting out. The startup scene is full of people who want to help you out, so tapping into that community can be powerful.
    4. What’s your business model? Most of us on the panel agreed we’re tired of seeing great products that have no way of making money. If you’re launching a digital product you may need to educate your customers that if they value it, they need to pay for it. I told the example of the to do list app TeuxDeux (disclosure: I’m a paying user). I use it every day so am happy to spend a few dollars a month to get it. We need to learn to pay for online products we value.
    5. A nomadic worklife can drive productivity. At the event I spoke about how coworking spaces are often essential for solo entrepreneurs and freelancers to incubate ideas and nurture collaboration. But Courtney reminded us you’d struggle to get the important stuff done if you worked out of a coworking space every day. We agreed that a mix of spaces best suits different tasks, rather than working from the same space every day. Most of the spaces where we get our best work done include our living rooms, home offices, co-working spaces, coffee shops, railway carriages, ‘planes and …. sometimes …. even a desk in an office.


    The evening is available as a free video podcast on the iTunes store and more events are planned for 2014; watch the hashtag #meettheinnovators for more.

  • What makes entrepreneur Kathryn Parsons tick

    Earlier this month I joined Kathryn Parsons on a train from Paris to London. Kathryn is co-founder of Decoded and winner of this year’s Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of The Year awards in the New Generation category. Kathryn is a leading member of London's Silicon Roundabout tech community and is championing the cause of women and technology. Passionate about languages, Kathryn has studied French, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek, Japanese and Mandarin, and is now focused on decoding the language of the web.

    In this short video below - as part of 'My year of living curiously' project - I asked about her working life: we spoke about the importance of starting young; how ‘betterness’ drives her work at Decoded; and how she took a random idea - Ping Pong Fight Club - and rapidly turned it into a successful side project. Watch the video here:

     

  • Sometimes we just need to show up

    Last Thursday morning I was at a table with a bunch of people that included a games designer working in mindfulness, a photographer looking for a career change, a coffee startup entrepreneur, a homeworking web developer, a former special FX director, a copywriter, a leadership development coach who blogs about happiness, a book cover designer, a graphic designer and a creative director/designer/photographer.

    No-one would have choreographed such an eclectic guest-list; it was just the people that showed up for a local meetup group I co-created. As I looked around I wondered what unites everyone. And then I realised. We each shared a desire to ‘show up’. We were all curious, interested, open minded and action-oriented.

    I love that Woody Allen quote, “eighty percent of success is showing up,” because it’s sometimes easy not to bother. We make an excuse, we get apathetic, we leave it to others to do the work. And then we complain we’re not getting the results we want.

    Showing-up represents a commitment to take action: to step up to the plate, to give something a go, to put ideas into action, to follow through. When we’re surrounded by people who show up, a project can get real energy and momentum that becomes infectious.

    I think we often over-complicate why projects don’t work, businesses fail or ideas don’t happen. Sometime we just need to show up more.

  • Selling an idea, not a product, may be your most effective marketing strategy

    recently blogged about the opportunity for businesses to compete on their thinking - to focus marketing efforts on sharing a big idea and what you stand for, rather than just sell your product features. One business that does this well is Hiut Denim, the Welsh jeans start-up launched by Do Lectures founder David Hieatt (you can hear an interview I did with David in April 2012 here).

    If you want evidence of a business with the guts to put their thinking ahead of selling their product, look no further than Hiut Denim’s Year Book. This isn't a conventional brochure or catalogue. Indeed you’ll need to delve deep to find details of their jeans on sale; instead the 140 page book is full of essays, quotes, photographs and inspiration from people like David Allen and Craig Mod (I’ve also written a contribution myself, 'Ploughing my own furrow').

    Hiut Denim does this well because the brand knows its customers: they all buy into the brand’s values of independence, creativity, hard work and doing it differently. Your own business may not have the appetite to produce a 140 page book; but it’s a good reminder that what you stand for is as powerful in marketing as how good your product is - if you can wrap that up in a book, a website or even a one-page manifesto, it may prove to be your most valuable marketing tool.

  • You need to get out into the real world to watch your business at work

    A guy in shirtsleeves wearing a small backpack has just walked in to the upscale fast food restaurant where I’m eating. He stands by the door looking around him, as if surveying the scene for the first time, watching the customers at the tables on the far wall. He takes his time looking around. Next he turns his attention to the long tables and benches closer to him, watching people eating. Then he goes to stand by the queues for the counters, watching the counter staff taking orders, dealing with customers.

    Amidst the constant flow of customers streaming in for lunch, you might assume he’s just another customer deliberating what to order. But he’s not. I’ve seen ‘Mr Backpack’ before in other branches; he’s part of the management team running this chain of restaurants. He doesn’t announce himself to anyone, and when I look up again he’s gone. He’s left the building.

    And that experience reminds me why this is a well run business. Because someone’s watching over it.

    Mr Backpack didn’t come and ask his staff how they were - it’s 1.30 in their busiest time of the day (and I’m sure he’ll be back for that). He was observing, taking it all in, watching the details.

    So you may not run a chain of restaurants or have a roomful of customers to visit, but it reminded me we need to get better at getting closer to our end users, looking at the business from the customer point of view, out where it happens. Too many of us remain siloed in our offices, pouring over customer archetypes, looking at business plans, that we actually forget to get out into the real world and watch our businesses at work.

  • If you want your business to stand out, focus on what you stand for, not what your product does

    My wife recently bought this pair of wedges from TOMS Shoes, the company founded by Blake Mycoskie where for every pair of shoes purchased, they give a pair away to a person in need in the developing world.

    They’re a cool pair of shoes but my wife’s not just buying them because she likes the design, she’s choosing TOMS because of what the business stands for. She’s buying their mission and values.

    TOMS might be an obvious example of a mission-led business, but doesn’t every business have a mission? Whether it’s a big organisation or a one-person company, your business may be on a mission to disrupt a particular industry, or to be insanely customer-centric, or be fiercely independent. So instead of focusing your marketing efforts on your product, start talking about your values.

    In an abundant marketplace where so many businesses have seemingly similar offerings, you may struggle to differentiate your products and services. What you stand for may be more unique.

    So capture the DNA of your business; put your ideas, thinking and story at the heart of the brand, of your website, of your stores, of your offering. Start talking about what you stand for....


    *And if you’re too close to your business and can’t work out what you stand for anymore, email me [hello at iansanders dot com]. That’s how I work with clients - I’ll help clear the fog by capturing your values. Get in touch and I’ll tell you all about it over a coffee.....


  • Doing it your way

    When my school headmaster said I should study company secretaryship at college, I said no thanks, I’ll stick to my dream of working in broadcasting. When my first boss said I had to choose between a creative or management role, I said I’d try both at the same time. When a boss asked to see a three year plan for my new product idea, I said let’s just launch and try it out instead. When I was advised to send off a written proposal to try and get my first book published, I sent a link to a YouTube video instead. And when the moderator told us to go off and brainstorm with a flip chart in the boardroom, I took everyone to the coffee shop instead.

    It’s not that I’m a rule breaker for the sake of it. I just know where I play best, where I’m most productive, most effective. If you’ve developed your own business style - and it works well - stick to it.

    Don’t try and shoehorn into ‘their way’ of working and doing business, do it your way.

  • Lessons in living a curious life from Ideas Tapas

    What do you think of when you hear the word ‘curiosity’? I think of my seven year old son at breakfast last week, with his book of facts, wide-eyed, full of wonder about his latest discovery. Many of us lose that childlike sense of exploration and discovery when we start our careers. I’ve focused on carving out a working life driven by being curious, and in doing so have discarded a traditional career ladder in favour of a bunch of interesting stories.

    Curiosity was on the menu in Geneva last week as DJ Forza and I hosted a discussion ‘How to live a curious life’ at Ideas Tapas (here’s my post on what Ideas Tapas is all about). It was great hearing twelve different perspectives around the table from a mix of voices, disciplines and mindsets.

    So I’m on a mission to reposition ‘curiosity’. Some may think it’s only valuable at the edges of our life for learning and discovery. I disagree - it can actually be harnessed as a business tool, a powerful mindset to bring to work and business, where you open the possibilities by asking ‘what if?’. After all, where would start-up ideas be without curiosity?

    At Ideas Tapas we heard some great stories. How one person’s curiosity led him to randomly discover a website where he spotted an ad for the job he’s now doing; a role he would have never set out to seek. Another guest told the group not to cease to be curious - to follow your dream, even when you think you’re too old. His advice was not to shut down potential opportunities because they’re outside your core area, revealing after a life-long career in aviation, he’d reinvented himself as a headhunter. We heard an incredible story from the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone - how curiosity had led to an entrepreneurial adventure with a truly innovative street-marketing campaign.

    At the end of the evening in Geneva’s Manifesto bar, my collaborator DJ and I passed around a bowl of temporary tattoos made by Tattly for our guests to sample. I told the story of how Tina Roth Eisenberg - aka SwissMiss - started Tattly purely out of curiosity after her daughter came home from a party with a poorly designed tattoo. Tina wondered whether she could improve on it; today it’s a successful business employing a team of people, an idea that started with a ‘what if?’ rather than a business plan.

    Our guests left the tapas table with inspiration to inject more curiosity into their daily lives. Before she left, one guest told us: “inspiration comes not from a Google search but from real people’s life stories, like here at Ideas Tapas.

    Stay curious....


    [if you’d like to sign up to be updated on Ideas Tapas - here’s the link]

  • Life’s too short for crap coffee

    It was February 2013 and in just 24 hours I’d learned a handful of important lessons.

    I’d got into partnership with someone who proved to be less than reliable, I’d had enough of chasing him and of hearing his false promises. I decided to walk away. It was more important to erase the toxicity than stay for the money. It felt good.

    The same week on a trip to New York, I’d opted for a cheap tourist hotel to keep costs down. The trouble was, it wasn’t me, it was a miserable place and I had a sense of foreboding each time I walked through the doors. I quit, moving to a hotel which was more my style. The cloud lifted and I felt reinvigorated, happier and instantly more productive. Everything fell into place after that.

    Strolling down to the hotel lobby for a coffee, I counted twenty people in line at Stumptown coffee. It was quite a wait, but my patience was rewarded with my best espresso in the city.

    And then I remembered: “Life is too short for crap coffee”. Whether it’s removing toxicity from your life, refusing to tolerate a mediocre experience, or making sure you live your life true to who you are, I was reminded what is really important in life. To stay true, to not compromise, to never settle for mediocrity. To be the real you, to put ‘you’ at the heart of all you do.


    And also, never, ever, to drink crap coffee.

  • If what you do professionally can’t be given a single label

     

    A couple of weeks ago I conducted this simple experiment, tweeting, ‘What is Ian Sanders expert at?’

    I got a bunch of different answers, albeit with some common themes: writing, business storytelling, looking at business differently... and yes, espresso. It reminded me what I already knew: that being multi-dimensional means there is no one right answer. Inevitably, people will latch on to the most gettable parts, such as my gig as a Financial Times writer. Whilst the FT gig is just one of many projects, to many people it becomes the shorthand for what I do.

    Of course a single job title just won’t cut it for many of us, that’s why I developed the concept of a unifier - a word or phrase that unites all we do (I explore this in my book ‘Mash-Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier’ - you can download a free chapter on the unifier here). My own ‘business storyteller’ unifier is as close to a label as I may get: it encompasses everything from writing for the FT to helping clients capture and tell their stories. Again, it doesn’t nail *everything* I do, but it’s memorable - when I met Billy Bragg recently he said ‘Ah, you’re the business storyteller’. He might not remember my name but he’ll remember that bit.

    So if what you do professionally can’t be given a single label, don’t fret. Plurality can be good - people will latch on to what they want to; different parts of your portfolio will resonate with different people. And if people get it wrong, at least it’s a conversation-starter. I met a guy recently who asked me what it was like being a financial storyteller. It wasn’t his fault making that assumption but it gave me the opportunity to tell my story. Okay, that story might not fit on a business card or in a LinkedIn category, but it’s hopefully a more interesting answer.

    It’s like what I said to someone over coffee recently, “Sometimes it feels like what I do is fuzzy”.

    “Yes, but at least fuzzy is interesting” he said.

  • Just start doing it

    My friend’s been telling me she wants to try her hand at being a portrait photographer.

    She’s creative, I know she already takes good photographs so I said, ‘great, do it’.

    ‘It’s not that simple,’ she said, telling me there’s a book she needs to read first and a course she needs to take.

    I think it is that simple - she has a camera.

    I saw her this week and asked how it was going. She said she needs a telephoto lens and a special flash before she can start.

    Stop obsessing about the tools and the training.

    Writers, write. Makers, make. Coders, code. Photographers, photograph. And yes, doers, do.


    So just start doing it.

  • Letting your gut do the due diligence

    I was sitting with friends in a bar recently comparing wounds on professional partnerships gone bad. How we’ve had to exit relationships or fold projects because the other party failed to deliver. I told them about my own experience - a partnership where my collaborator failed to show up and our project had to be abandoned. This cost me money (always painful) but also time (much more painful). Over our second glass of wine, we chatted about whether we could have anticipated these collaborations going wrong. The question was raised: had we done our due diligence?

    Traditional ‘due diligence’ - poring over spreadsheets conducting a financial health check - might spot a failing company or a flawed business model but it won’t necessarily reveal your risk of simply ‘being shafted’. Most of us employ our own version of being diligent, whether it’s deciding to work for a client or wondering if the agency building our website is reliable. For me, due diligence is less about detective work and more about trusting my gut; along with some common-sense steps like meeting them face to face, hearing their story over a coffee, seeing their work and watching how they express themselves online. In my own case of my vanishing collaborator there were no signs that he would run away and fail to return calls or emails. He’d passed the ‘gut’ test, but him being based in a different continent meant we fast-tracked to collaborating without spending time in the bar or coffee shop.

    All the due diligence in the world won’t spot whether someone is just a great performer and a poor executor: sometimes you have to learn the hard way. But remember that Skypes, emails and ‘phone calls won’t show you the complete picture - so before you rush into a professional partnership get to know them first over an espresso, a glass of wine or dinner. Inevitably these moments will be the most revealing in what a person is really like.

  • Lessons in business from Billy Bragg

    "You've got to think like a small business because that's what you are. People who are buying your records and are coming to your gigs  - that’s a business transaction and they’re paying your wages."

    Billy Bragg, May 2013

  • Inspiration isn’t only for artists: let your employees sit by the sea

    I was chatting to a friend who’s an artist. She hadn’t been productive lately because she wasn’t finding time to let the inspiration in. Not only in seeing views that she might want to paint; but also in nurturing her creativity. And of course, getting inspiration in isn’t only for artists. For any of us who rely on new thinking or creative energy, we need to get inspired, whether we’re an entrepreneur, an exec in an organisation or a freelancer. That’s how we get our ideas.

    Like my friend, we need to create the time to go and get inspired. I did this last Friday, taking two hours off to walk along a sea-wall in a place I’d never been to before, to look at some big skies and bring clarity to some ideas. I also took my camera with me.

    It felt good. And it reminded me of a story about another friend, David. Back in the ‘90s he was working in radio production. Tasked by his boss to devise some programme ideas to pitch Radio 1, David asked whether he could go and sit by the sea to do it - that was where he’d be most productive. His boss laughed at his suggestion.

    Hopefully employers’ attitudes have changed since and bosses today - especially in the creative industries - know that generating ideas won’t happen sitting at our desks.

    So if you claim to be an innovative business, here’s the test - will you let your executives go sit by the sea?

  • Don’t only invest in the up front

    One evening on holiday last year we walked a little further than usual and discovered a restaurant down a side street.  As we sat down and waited for menus the proprietor came over, propped up a blackboard on a chair and - with great theatre - talked us through the dishes. She spoke with passion about every item on the blackboard, describing the dishes in great detail, bringing examples from the kitchen, telling us the freshness of the ingredients, how the tomatoes came out of the soil that very morning.  We were impressed. And when she had done with us, she moved on to the next table where we witnessed her give a repeat performance with the same passion. She was good.

    The food arrived, and it lived up to the billing. But there was something missing.  Once we’d got our plates in front of us, there was no more theatre: she didn’t stop to ask how our food was, she didn’t smile when she busied past our table, in fact she didn’t even speak to us again. And when we paid the bill to our waitress, and looked to say goodbye to the proprietor, she had vanished into the kitchen. It felt odd to have such a great intro but then such a poor follow-through.

    If you over-invest in the up front, and then neglect the follow-up, you’ll leave your audience disappointed. Don’t expend so much energy in the sell that you have none left for the delivery; don’t give an amazing first meeting and then disappear for the rest of the relationship; don’t give a great pitch and then not bother returning calls.

    We didn’t bother going back to that restaurant again.....

  • Your story is your lifebelt

    I know an organisation that grew rapidly from having a single entrepreneurial founder with a handful of staff and a single product, to a multiple management team, tens of people and a portfolio of products and services. When it was small, everyone had a clear idea of what the business stood for: telling the story was simply a case of retelling what they’d heard at the job interview and company meetings. Everyone understood the business: staff knew why they were passionate about working there, clients saw the story as a point of difference. The story worked. But then something changed. Staff numbers grew, new managers were hired, new departments started up. But the management team forgot to change the story. Executives would go out and pitch the business but tell the ‘old’ story. It didn’t fit. The organisation lost its magic touch because the story was neglected.

    So shaping and telling your business story is more than just marketing. It’s a touchstone for what the business stands for, it’s a tool to get your team motivated and understand where you’re headed.

    In my business I help clients tell their story - communicating it is often the easier bit; crafting it can be more complicated. But once you nail it, a story can reinvigorate an organisation with focus and clarity, engaging staff and clients alike.

    So don’t dismiss storytelling as a marketing activity; your story can act as your organisation’s lifebelt - when conditions gets rough, grab hold of it to stay afloat...

  • Where’s your ‘for the hell of it’ project?

    Your working life or business will inevitably be full of projects that you and your co-workers do for good strategic reasons, i.e. because it makes commercial sense.

    I think we should also make space for projects and activities that are completely unstrategic - the kind of project where someone might ask, “Why are you doing that?” and you might answer, “I’m just doing it for the hell of it”.

    You never know where a ‘for the hell of it’ project might take you. For the unfulfilled worker, it may provide a spark of creative inspiration. If you’re hating your job, it may give you something to fall in love with again. Whilst for the business that’s lost its way, it can be a sandpit to play in with with no-one asking questions about strategy or ROI. A ‘for the hell of it’ project is not the same as any old side project (I’ve blogged about side projects here) - side projects are often strategic, you’re doing them to learn a new skill, to create some revenues.

    My current ‘for the hell of it’ project is a little idea I had in the shower. Being driven by curiosity and stimulated by meeting new people, I decided to create a short ‘quick n’dirty’ series of video interviews. I’ve called it “My Year of Living Curiously’. So far, I’ve grabbed Tim Ferriss, Phill Jupitus, Tina Roth Eisenberg, James Victore, Matthew Stillman.

    There’s no plan to my ‘for the hell of it’ project: no strategy, no need to measure success, no hidden agenda. I’m just doing it because I want to.

    Don’t assume you need to be self-employed or freelance to start a ‘for the hell of it’ project: you could make time in your morning commute, in your lunch hour, or persuade your boss to make space in your working day. And when people ask, "is it in your job description, where is the ROI, where’s your business plan?", you can rejoice in telling them you’re just doing it for the hell of it...

  • The benefits of giving a space in the office to an outsider

    If you’re a freelance designer or copywriter who usually works solo, you’ll appreciate the value of working out of client offices, co-working spaces or even the local coffee shop. Because whilst tech might allows us to work from anywhere, we still like hanging out with like-minded people.

    Nick Couch is the founder of Open Studio Club who spotted an opportunity here: yes, freelance creative talent often need a home to stimulate productivity; but agencies with spare desk space might also benefit from some fresh blood to reinvigorate the office culture.

    Enter Nick’s idea: Free Desk Here, an initiative to give creatives a free (no-strings) desk space at agencies around the world whilst nurturing cross-pollination of ideas and collaboration. Think of it as airbnb for creative workers.

    As many of us become more nomadic, this opportunity allows us to go to a foreign city for a few weeks and have a base to work from, to share ideas and meet people. I’d love to see it extend outside of creative agencies to other businesses who have downsized and have all that office space available (banks maybe?). Injecting that creative talent could help reshape a business’s culture.

    Here’s a little video with Free Desk Here founder, Nick Couch:

     

  • Getting nostalgic about the old days won’t get you anywhere

    I went to a talk the other day about writing and publishing.

    A writer on the panel was bemoaning how things aren’t how they used to be.

    That publishers aren’t paying hefty advances anymore.

    That there aren’t any decent magazines commissioning anymore.

    That kids don’t read anymore.

    That Twitter has ruined writing because everything has to be communicated in 140 characters.

    ....And he was wrong on a number of levels, but it was his pessimism that concerned me. Right now, lots of people are understandably pessimistic about their working lives - towns have had their high streets disappear, job prospects for school leavers are poor whilst in countries like Spain and Greece, youth unemployment is at catastrophic levels. And these people have every right to be pessimistic.

    But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking here about the creative classes; people who write, design, create and publish for a living. Since the emergence of digital, many of our work lives have changed beyond recognition. It’s tougher to make a living, to stand out from the competition, to monetise our talents. But pessimism will get us nowhere.

    Instead, we can move on and look for a way that *does* work: reinventing how we execute our roles, how we get paid, who our clients and audiences are, how we distribute and monetise our work. Will it be easy? No. Do we have all the answers? No way. Will we earn the money we used to in the ‘old days’? Probably not. But we can give these things a shot.

    Every industry, every role is being disrupted like never before, facing challenges from new technology or budgets being slashed. Whatever the challenges - and yes, there are quite a few - we have an opportunity like never before: we can make music on our laptops, we can set up radio stations in our bedroom, we can publish online in an instant, we can start businesses overnight.

    So we have a choice: get nostalgic about the old days, or try something new.

  • Take your ideas for a walk

    I saw a tweet earlier in the week from The Names Not Numbers ideas festival; it was a quote from the writer Aminatta Forna, "Paul Klee said he took a line for a walk when he drew. I take a thought for a walk." 

    And it reminded me that I actually do take my thoughts for a walk.

    Since I quit the conventional office I’ve worked from a mix of spaces to suit the task in hand, wherever I’m most productive. I’ve learned that the bits in between are just as valuable - either just walking from A to B; or going for a stroll, a cycle, or a run with the intention of connecting the dots on an idea. Living by the coast, the big skies of the Thames Estuary are the perfect backdrop for taking ideas out in the fresh air.

    I might be seeking a solution to a client’s challenge, exploring a new approach or trying to make sense of an early-stage idea; I find that act of walking & thinking is like shuffling a pack of cards.

    And by taking my ideas for a walk, I tend to return with them in much better shape.

  • Fixing things that don’t work: entrepreneurship, swissmiss style

    Tina Roth Eisenberg is a Brooklyn-based designer/ entrepreneur who’s created - by accident more than design - a mash-up bunch of products and ventures:

    1. Swissmiss - a design blog
    2. CreativeMornings - an inspiring monthly event where creative people meet (now happening in cities around the world)
    3. TeuxDeux - a to-do list app
    4. Tattly - a temporary tattoo company
    5. Studiomates - a coworking space in DUMBO, Brooklyn

    So, what’s her driver? The desire to fix something that didn’t work.

    Whether it’s creating a simple to-do list app or improving on the temporary tattoo her daughter wore home from a party, her products aim to’ fix it’. Sure, many of us *think* about doing something when we spot things like that, but how many of us actually *do* something about it...? So I think Tina’s a great example of a 21st Century entrepreneur who just ‘gets on and does’.

    Here’s a little video chat I had with Tina at Studiomates: 

     

     

     

  • Lessons from Tim Ferriss in the back of a cab

    Curiosity is a big driver for me: I love to explore new ideas, venturing out of my comfort zone to meet new people, hearing and capturing interesting stories. I’m fortunate I have a ‘licence to be curious’ both as an author/ Financial Times writer and in my client work, where I capture and tell business stories in organisations.

    I’m billing 2013 my ‘Year Of Living Curiously’ and am capturing some of the year’s connections and conversations in a (quick n’ dirty) video series. Here’s the first one: author, entrepreneur, startup advisor Tim Ferriss in the back of a London cab last week. Tim is author of The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef; and is featured in a Financial Times article I’m writing about lifehacking/ worklife productivity. In this video Tim talks about how to stay focused on being productive by not being distracted by the shiny tools. He also shares a tip on combating email and tells me how he too has thrived on being curious (you’d expect a guy like Tim to use his time wisely, so I thought it was smart that we used the cab ride back to his hotel to have a chat...).

  • Mash-up your work spaces: why I don’t stay in the same place too long

    The start of a new year seems to spark talk from entrepreneurs and executives promising to innovate and disrupt over the coming twelve months; how they’re going to discover breakthrough-ideas that will become game changers for their business or industry. But here’s the problem: many don’t appear to be game changing in their working practices. After all, if you’re still sitting at a desk in your office - unless you’re daydreaming out of the window - you’re unlikely to create breakthrough ideas.

    Just as I advocate ‘Mash-up’ working - a work life of multiple projects, disciplines and talents - I also advocate a plurality of work spaces to deliver that. We’ve all had those moments sitting at a desk, completely stuck: we can’t find inspiration for an idea, we struggle to solve a problem. We know if  we were to walk around the block or take a shower we’d have that breakthrough. So why don’t we just build other spaces into our daily working lives?

    I’ve always taken a ‘pick n’mix’ approach to where I work: choosing a space to match the task, each change in environment kickstarting my productivity and helping connect the dots. Sure, I do have a dedicated workspace but I just know the thinking, writing and ideas won’t flow there. I’m most productive working from coffee shops (here’s a list of favourites), members’ clubs, hotels, art galleries, lobbies of public spaces, my garden summerhouse (you can see some of my favourites 2012 spaces in the montage above). Staying flexible means when I get bored or stale, I move on to a new space. I doubt I could be that productive or creative if I restricted myself to just a desk and a meeting room in an office, like so many still do. The film & TV writer Aaron Sorkin famously takes a lot of daily showers to fuel his productivity; okay, you might not be able to get to a shower that often but try re-mixing your working day, throw in some new spaces whether a park bench or a coffee shop.

    If you trade on agility you should also be agile in your working practices. So try moving your ‘desk’...

  • What have you shipped?

    When I first met Guy Kawasaki back in 2011 (when I was writing my third book ‘Zoom! The Faster Way To Make Your Business Idea Happen’), he spoke about the importance of shipping. As he explains in this short video, “you’ll know more about your product after the first week shipping than 52 weeks thinking about it (in) focus groups”. Seth Godin echoed this, saying: “Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.” 

    I love this. The act of shipping is where we should all be heading, and it’s not just a lesson for startups with tangible products. What use is a blog post still sitting in draft, a product not launched or an idea never delivered? If you don’t ship your ideas you don’t stand a chance of making an impact, getting noticed or building your reputation. 

    So I liked Todd Sattersten’s #YearInReview list (inspired by Seth) that captures all that Todd shipped in 2012. This exercise is more than just bragging; it’s a benchmark for what we actually commit to executing, versus what we talk about doing. Sure, you might have had a stack of ideas last year but how many did you have the courage to convert, to stick your head above the parapet and deliver? 

    They might not all be physical products in jiffy envelopes (like my my most recent book), but everything I shipped last year is just as important: these are my own products, the stuff I make, what I get paid by. So with thanks to Todd (and Seth) for the idea, here’s my own list of what I shipped in 2012:

    1. an assignment for a marketing agency, helping them tell their story & capture their thinking
    2. 12 articles for the Financial Times
    3. a bunch of audio reports for Monocle magazine
    4. my fourth book 'Mash-Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier'
    5. two assignments helping businesses tell their story online
    6. an assignment helping a tech business position a new product for market
    7. an assignment identifying fresh commercial opportunities for a client’s product
    8. guest columns for Virgin.com, TomPeters.com, Fast Company, The FT and Elite Business magazine
    9. a video for a client, from concept to production 
    10. Skype coaching/mentoring 
    11. 24 blog posts and a bunch of video posts/ interviews

    So whatever you do this year, whatever your dreams, goals or aspirations make sure you focus on shipping it. Press ‘go’...!

  • My Licence To Be Curious: six ideas to give your business life an edge in 2013

    It was called a ‘Uher’ and as a BBC local radio contributor in the late eighties, it was a required tool of the trade. An allegedly portable - yet bulky - reel to reel tape recorder, I lugged it around concert venues interviewing everyone from Billy Bragg (interview here) and Hank Wangford to Flaco Jimenez and Guana Batz for the BBC Essex ‘youth programme’ Revolver. It might have been an unpaid role, but the opportunity to meet musicians I admired was a kid-in-the-sweetshop moment for an eighteen year old music lover. That Uher, my BBC name badge and a typewritten sheet of questions gave me my very own licence to be curious.

    26 years later, in 2012 a renewed licence arrived in in the form of a side project writing for the Financial Times ‘Business Life’ page. With my iPhone and Moleskine notepad proving more portable than the 1980s Uher, the FT gig provided me with a fresh challenge - how to nail storytelling in 1,100 words. Writing for the FT gave me the opportunity to shape stories around people, businesses and trends that have been on my radar for a while: from the emergence of ideas festivals to the benefits of coworking spaces. In the last twelve months this voyage of curiosity has taken me from a wet field in Wales (The Do Lectures) to the Microsoft NERD centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (The Venture Lab bootcamp).

    From the 12 FT articles I wrote in 2012 I’ve picked out six ideas to give your business life an edge in 2013:

    1. Develop a side project. A side project gives you an opportunity to learn new stuff, experiment and make you a better entrepreneur.
    2. Nomadic working can get results. Productivity is not about sticking to your desk in an office; it’s about recognising that you might be more productive away from your desk, whether working at home, on the road or being location-independent.
    3. Rethink how you prepare presentations. Don’t use your slide deck as your speaker notes. Avoid making slides full of bullet points; start using pictures instead.
    4. Avoid digital sloppiness. Digital tools may make business communication rapid but remember to“Stop, look, edit” before you press publish/send.
    5. Learn to draw again. Try using doodles and visual notes to capture and communicate  ideas. Visual communication is a powerful tool  for getting others to understand complex concepts.
    6. Mash-up your skills. Celebrate your multi-dimensional talents and add new strings to your bow. Try applying your knowledge in one discipline to solve a problem in an entirely unrelated one.


    Finally, thanks to the sixty people I’ve interviewed for the FT in 2012: Michael Acton Smith, John Bardos, Chris Barez Brown, James Barlow, Scott Belsky, Paul Benney, Jim Bland, Edward Boches ,Stephanie Booth, Andrew Branch, Moshe Braun, Sunni Brown, Joel Bukiewicz, Ben Casnocha, Jose Castillo, Ariel Chait, Kelly Dawson, Genevieve DeGuzman, Jennifer Dorian, Nancy Duarte, Anna Felton, Jocelyn Goldfein, Hugh Griffiths, Ann Handley, David Heinemeier Hansson, David Hieatt, Mark Hillary, Kelly Hoey, AnnaLise Hoopes, Dan Jansen, Charles Joynson, Lisa Kay, Jennifer Keller Jackson, Will King, Jamie Klingler, Peter O’Neil, Jesse Noyes, Gerry Newton, Alexandre Papillaud, Sarah Parmenter, Christian Payne, Ella Peinovic, Neil Perkin, Maria Popova, Dan Porter, Garr Reynolds, Kevin Roberts, Mike Rohde, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Laura Sampath, Sharon Tanton, Wendy Tan White, Tam Thao Pham, Steve Tongish, John Vincent, Emilie Wapnick, Phil Waknell, John Willshire, Lea Woodward and Mohan Yogendran. 

    [picture credit:Uher by James Cridland]