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  • Notes from my holiday: three foodie brands serving the good stuff

    I’m just back from a week away in Suffolk. It was great to switch on my ‘out-of-office’ and head up the coast for a change in scenery, fresh air and (mostly) a WiFi free zone.

    One thing I love about Suffolk is its food scene. The county has an abundance of food suppliers, cafes, pubs and restaurants. There are small independent bakeries and vineyards alongside the more established brands such as Adnams, the business which powers the brewery, distillery, wine shops, pubs and hotels.

    My attention is inevitably drawn to the smaller brands: this is where the interesting stuff happens. I love hearing founders’ stories of how they turned their passions into a business.

    Here in Suffolk I found plenty of examples of small foodie brands who don’t simply serve the good stuff, but who are also driven by a strong purpose. And a purpose that feels genuine rather than merely a marketing slogan to stick up on a website.

    From my journey around Suffolk here are three brands that are worth watching:

     

    1. Pump Street Bakery. Famous for its hotel, long established oysterage and even longer-established castle, you won’t find much else here apart from a pub and general store. Now Orford is getting famous for something else. In a 15th century building on the village square lies Pump Street Bakery, started by father and daughter Chris and Joanna Brennan in 2010. When Chris retired from a job at IBM, he taught himself how to bake bread. Today he runs the bakery, whilst his daughter takes care of the shop and café. Not only do they serve up great bread, pastries and coffee - which you can enjoy around a large communal table - they have also built Pump Street upon some decent values. The bakery uses local flour and produce, they started a fund to support local community projects, they even give unsold bread to a family hostel in Ipswich. It’s the kind of place worth taking a detour to - the woman in front of me had come from Norwich just for the cakes. I told the kids we were going to Orford for the castle, but really it was for the coffee.
    2. Darsham Nurseries. On a stretch of the A12 between a petrol station and a railway level crossing is a left turn for Darsham Nurseries. In a ‘blink and you’d miss it’ spot, there’s not only a nursery for plants, but also a café and gift shop, selling everything from cacti to stationery. Whilst the menu has a middle eastern influence they still manage to grow most of the ingredients in their kitchen garden: lettuce, kale, chillies, greens and edible flowers. The project was started by Californian garden designer David Keleel in 2007 when he took over the then near-derelict premises. The café opened in 2014 and is currently run by head chef Lola DeMille. Recently it was honoured in the National Restaurant Awards, at number 80 in the 'Top 100 Restaurants in the UK'. Last week I spotted a beautiful summerhouse in the garden that’s available for private dining. It looks idyllic (picture above).
    3. Two Magpies Bakery. Four days last week we headed to Southwold beach where we soon established a routine. Whilst I set up basecamp on the sand with a picnic blanket and windbreak, my wife would head to the high street to pick up our fuel. Two Magpies Bakery wasn’t the closest coffee shop to the beach, but we knew from previous visits that their coffee was the best in town. It was started in 2012 by husband and wife Jim and Rebecca Bishop. Jim is a former bomb disposal expert who quit the British Army to learn to bake. Passionate about connecting people with great food, the Bishops have a busy cafe at the front of the premises with an artisan bakery at the back. Every day there was a long queue for the coffee, but it was worth the wait.


    It’s great to see indie brands and entrepreneurs thriving away from the big towns and cities, especially in a tougher market where consumers are watching their pennies. After all, these guys are competing on the quality of their produce rather than price. But it’s like my friend David Hieatt says: 'Quality' is a good business model...

  • 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! 

     

     

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “TeuxDeux Tales”: shining the light on people not products

    When I’m advising businesses on how to tell their story, I always say shine the light on people, not products. Your audience probably won’t care about the functionality of your product, but they might be interested in how it changes the lives of your customers.

    That’s how I approached a project for TeuxDeux . TeuxDeux is the to-do list app started by Tina Roth Eisenberg. What I love about the app is its simplicity. It replicates how I’ve been keeping pen-and-paper to-do lists for years. I rely it on every single day.

    So I was interested in what other users liked about TeuxDeux, and what difference it makes to their lives. The result is a short series of stories called ‘TeuxDeux Tales.’ I’ve really enjoyed capturing and telling these stories of working lives. Here are the links to the three stories:

    1. Toronto based illustrator Lichia Liu 
    2. London web designer Dan Howells
    3. Sugru founder Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh

     

  • 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

     

  • Let’s hear it for the barista entrepreneurs

    For me, the act of entrepreneurship is about making a business idea happen, having the guts to take a risk and try something.

    But when we hear about 'entrepreneurship' it tends to be stories about household-names or perhaps the tech scene. I think there’s a better example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller scale: look at the wave of independent coffee shops springing up in towns and cities around the world. Let’s champion the barista entrepreneur!

    The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to make their business idea a reality. They need to do their research, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it. In small coffee shops the man or woman serving your flat white is often the proprietor, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media. Typically operating in competitive markets, they will stand or fall on the quality of their product. Some will close down, others will scale to other sites.

    This week I met Ben Rahim at his coffee shop in Berlin. Tunisian born Ben told me it was his dream to open his own business. Having spent four years exploring coffee working as a barista in Brisbane and Berlin, one month ago, he opened his own shop Ben Rahim. He’s made his dream a reality, he’s taking a risk. Good luck to him!

    You can find his coffee shop in a courtyard of Hackesche Höfe in the eastern city centre of Berlin.

    I recommend the espresso...

  • "What do you stand for?" Twelve entrepreneurs/ executives tell me what they stand for.

    As a gig-going teenager in the late 1980s, I didn’t just go to gigs because I liked the music, I was there because I liked what the bands stood for. Back then it felt like Billy Bragg wanted to change the world, and I did too.

    And that’s no different from consumer relationships with brands. The customers camping outside an Apple store the night before a product launch are interested in more than just the iPhone 6: they are fans with a passion for everything the brand stands for. Consumers often make buying choices based on a brand’s values and culture, whether riding a Harley-Davidson or flying Virgin Atlantic. Now businesses of all sizes are realising they can compete on what they stand for as well as their products.

    I’ve been evangelising this to my own clients: that they compete on their point of view rather than on their products and services. Today many businesses operate in abundant marketplaces where they face competition from similarly-positioned businesses offering similar-sounding products and services. How do you stand out from the crowd? By standing for something.

    And if your business doesn’t stand for anything, if you don’t have a point of view, then I think you are missing a trick.

    But you don’t need to be a big brand to stand for something, it’s an opportunity for executives, solo workers, freelancers, even job hunters. Want to make your startup idea famous? Want a journalist to write about your business? Want people to read your blog post or follow you on Twitter? Want to make an impression at a job interview? Then stand for something.

    I’m interested in what makes people tick so I asked a dozen contacts - from the chairman of a global ad agency to the founder of a one-person business - “What do you - or does your business - stand for?” (click on the presentation below to see their responses).

     

  • 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.

     

  • The retailer as editor: #1 Ideas On Paper

    With the growing pressure from competitors online, some independent retailers are surviving by focusing on a distinctive ‘bricks & mortar’ experience, striving to offer something you just can’t get online.

    At the heart of this approach is the retailer as editor; where in contrast to a cookie-cutter approach of the big stores, small independent retailers can offer a carefully curated selection of products.

    That’s Alex Smith’s story. Having spent a career working for big retailers like Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, last year Alex founded Ideas On Paper, a small shop in Nottingham’s emerging creative quarter. Its products are linked by the theme of paper: magazines, journals, books and stationery.

    It’s a small shop so Alex has to think carefully about what to stock, about what products to include in his edit, what to exclude (for example, Monocle magazine and School Of Life stationery are in, poorly produced magazines are out).  In that sense, I think of Alex as an editor.

    I went to see him this week to discover the story behind Ideas On Paper.

     [Thanks go to Sarah King for the introduction to Alex. Thanks Sarah!]

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

      0:00

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

    You can follow James on Twitter: @jamesvictore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thanks!

  • '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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • ‘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'.

  • London-Austin for SXSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.