After my presentation at Inspire Live earlier this year - Why Curiosity Is My Compass - I sat down with the Marketing Academy for a short interview. They asked me about the importance of being curious at work and what advice I'd give my younger self. Here's the clip.
*Filtering posts tagged Ian Sanders
Hello from the window seat of the 16:35 Manchester to Euston train. I love a train ride, it's always a great opportunity to press the pause button, get some work done, catch up on some podcasts but also to daydream out of the window.
Wherever in the world you are reading this I hope you find time to take a break for five minutes, grab a coffee and check out some suggestions for being more curious at work.
I think curiosity is so important. It’s easy to get stuck with our head-down in our industry or organisational bubble. Shifting our mindset to explore other worlds and open our eyes to new possibilities can help us do our jobs better. I recently gave a talk about curiosity at Inspire Live at Google's London HQ. One member of the audience told me it had been a "shot in the arm" reminding him and his team to stay curious at work (if your team or organisation needs a shot in the arm, get in touch - contact details at the bottom of this email!).
So here are some practical steps to get you in a more curious mindset:
- Go outside. I know many people work in organisational cultures where they rarely leave the building, not even for lunch. So please, try and get outside at lunchtime, if only for a walk around the block. I bet you’ll find some clarity in the fresh air and who knows what opportunities you might bump into?
- Get your shoes dirty. My friends at Stripe Partners run an innovation consultancy rooted in anthropology. I love Stripe’s belief that in order to understand the world around us we need to get our shoes dirty and go and experience things first hand. So embrace your inner anthropologist: spend time walking in your employees’ or customers’ shoes, “get stuck in” to find the answers.
- Talk to strangers. Today I’ve been working at Media City UK in Manchester. Walking outside at lunchtime I got talking to a cleaning supervisor called Sonny. As we walked along we chatted about his job - he told me how much he loves it. I found that a conversation with a random stranger really fired up my afternoon. It also turned my perception of the job on its head.
- Take inspiration from unusual places. If you’re struggling with ideas or you need a fresh source of inspiration, I find that listening to a new podcast or watching a stimulating documentary can help kick start my creativity. This week I watched one of Benjamin Zand's BBC Pop Up documentaries and listened to the Happy Melly podcast (this episode - Discovering What Makes Us Tick - features an interview with me). And if you're looking for the perfect soundtrack for a train journey, let me recommend this wonderful concert from Tinariwen, a band from the Sahara Desert.
- Explore the unfamiliar. When you're traveling on business and arrive in a city you don’t know, rather than take the easy option and head to Starbucks, try going somewhere unfamiliar. On my recent travels, I’ve sought out side street cafes and independent record shops. For me these are the best places to stand back and look at things from a fresh perspective. The vibe is different, the atmosphere feels more creative and you get to meet interesting people who are more likely to take time and chat to you.
Let me know how you get on!
What is a “human brand”? Is the term just marketing fluff or can being human be an authentic behaviour for brands who want to do things differently and gain a competitive advantage by standing for something other than profit?
I’ve been working with the folk at Rooster Punk, exploring what it means to be a human brand in the financial services industry. I interviewed the leaders of brands including Metro Bank, Aviva, Co-op Bank, Virgin Money, Profile Pensions, Just and Squirrel to uncover the practical ideas they are taking to humanise their businesses.
You can read the series of ten stories in “Money Talks” a PDF download from Rooster Punk (grab it here).
We launched the report at a breakfast event earlier this month - in a Covent Garden pub - where I hosted a panel discussion with Rooster Punk CEO Paul Cash, and representatives from Metro Bank, Profile Pensions, Just and Squirrel (read about that event in this article from The Drum).
So what are the hallmarks of being a human brand? This is what we discovered:
You must have the right people. Hire for attitude, select people who believe in your mission
Your digital channels should be about improving the customer experience, not denying access to people
If your products and services feel very abstract, use storytelling to humanise your offering and build a connection with your audience
Walk in your customer shoes, understand their needs from their point of view
The brand promise shouldn’t just be a hollow marketing exercise, but you’ve got to live and breathe it. And if you don’t, be prepared to be called out!
Lifting the lid on the financial services industry was an eye opener. Conducting in depth research by talking to those at the heart of the organisation was an essential way to uncover the truth - and to see if they truly stood behind their claims. Telling the stories was one part. Getting some of these leaders together to debate on stage gave the project another layer, to test their claims about being human in front of their peers and a live audience. Let's face it, some research can be dull. Kudos to Rooster Punk for going with a refreshingly different story-led approach!
If you’d like to hire me to tell some stories in your organisation or industry, get in touch: email@example.com
Claire Van der Zant, Business Development Director at Rooster Punk said, “Having worked closely with Ian before, it was a natural choice to work together on a piece of storytelling research in the UK financial industry. It was just a seed of an idea when we first engaged with Ian, and with his help we developed this piece into something that took on a real life and energy of its own. Ian’s energy and enthusiasm for story was the real foundation of success for the research.”
Earlier this year Sarah Ellis asked me to talk at the Marketing Academy's 'Inspire Live' event at Google's shiny new Kings Cross HQ. The theme for the day was '10 Superpowers every leader needs.' Sarah asked me to talk about one of my favourite subjects - curiosity; how people can use curiosity as a superpower to unlock opportunities in their business and work lives (here are my slides)
One member of the audience told me it had been a "shot in the arm" reminding him and his team to stay curious at work. If your team or organisation needs a shot in the arm and you'd like me to run a workshop or give a presentation on curiosity, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
(thanks for the pic Matt Desmier!)
In the eighteen months since I started my coaching programme, taking business leaders, executives, creatives and freelancers on walk and talks around London, I've worked with a wonderful mix of people.
Simon and I spent a couple of hours walking along the Thames estuary on a sunny Monday morning. Helen and I made our way along the canal by Little Venice one lunchtime. Alastair and I met at Tate Modern and headed to Covent Garden along the south bank of the Thames. Alina and I took a route through the side streets of Soho and Fitzrovia (take a look at my testimonials).
I use the term 'coach' loosely, because I’m not your traditional kind of coach, rather I draw on my diverse experiences to offer a different perspective. Think of me as your go-to outsider, someone you can confide in, offload to and who’ll give you a fresh perspective.
People come on my walk and talk sessions looking for different things. They want help transitioning to a new role. They’re looking to make major change in their life and they can’t see which path to take. Or perhaps they just need a fresh pair of eyes on a project or business challenge.
Whatever’s on your mind, here are the benefits of coming on a walk and talk:
The chance for reflection. The importance of pausing for breath. Taking time to recognise what is unique about you, what’s driving you, what makes you tick. To get things off your chest. To uncover talents that may have lain hidden. To shine the light on your story.
Clarity on where to go next. Look at things from the outside, seek a clear direction on where to go next. I’ll help you navigate the way ahead, shining the light on the path that’s right for you.
Fuel for your journey. I’ll get you fired up, reigniting the passion and injecting a sense of excitement about the opportunities ahead.
You'll get tangible action plans too to help you make the change you need. If this sounds like the kind of help you need, email me email@example.com to find out more. And if you can’t make it to London, I offer coaching via Skype.
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.
When was the last time you tried something new in your business or work life? Experimentation has been a constant theme in my career — recently I’ve been ‘tinkering in my lab’ with some new ideas, developing my Fuel Coaching sessions and working with the BBC on a pilot storytelling workshop for TV journalists.
Experiments are a great way to test your ideas in front of your audience and get feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and then adapt accordingly. Bringing new approaches to what I do and how I do it keeps my offering fresh and relevant.
Fancy trying something new? Here are seven ways to inject experimentation into your work life:
- Walk in other people’s shoes. Sometimes we get stuck in a ‘bubble’ — our fixed way of doing things. So when was the last time you looked at your business, brand or product through a different lens? Whether you’re a marketing director for a brand or a freelance web designer, I recommend walking in other people’s shoes. Read about my experiences getting my shoes dirty.
- Re-frame your work life around YOU. It can feel a luxury to stop and focus on what fulfills us, but answering the big questions is vital to our personal and professional success. Questions such as: “how can I do the work I really want to be doing?”, “how can I re-frame my working life so it’s more Me?” or “how can I up my game to make more of an impact in the organisation?” The last few weeks I’ve been continuing with my walk and talk coaching sessions. I’ve worked with an executive who wants to pursue a new path, a consultant looking to take his career up a notch and a senior marketing executive transitioning to a new role. One common theme is the opportunity to re-frame a work life around You. Make some changes in your work life, take some inspiration from what I discovered on my walk n’talks.
- Fix things that suck at work. If you’re wanting to experiment in your organisation or workplace, a great place to start is by looking at those things around you that feel broken, and think about what you’d do to fix them. Whether your organisation has too many meetings or the office around you is uninspiring, what would you do to change it? Check out my post of what I think is broken in the world of work, and my prescription for change.
- Shine a light on your thinking. Many people miss a trick by hiding away their opinion and stories. But to stand out in your industry, organisation or job market, you need to share what you’re thinking. Find the digital medium that works for you — whether Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium — and let us know what’s under your bonnet. See what gets traction and how it changes perceptions. If you need help to get started on Medium, check out my ten tips.
- Test an idea on the side. If you want to try out an idea without taking a huge “should I actually quit my job?” risk, why not test it on the side? From Tina Roth Eisenberg’s temporary tattoo company Tattly to Matt Lane’s beer subscription club Beerbods, there is plenty of inspiration out there for brands and businesses that started out ‘on the side’. Whether it’s testing an online business idea or starting a meetup group in your community, if you’ve got an itch to scratch, do it!
- Celebrate your point of difference. If you’re stuck in a job where you struggle to stand out, or worse, feel like you have to put on a mask each time you walk into the office, how you could celebrate what makes you different? Being YOU gives you the authenticity and courage to stick to your guns. To be confident with that different point of view, to be happy zigging when everyone else zags. Sometimes easier said than done, see if my post helps: Having the courage to be different when everyone around you screams “fit in!”
- Read something different. One of the things I like about Twitter is that I’m able to discover interesting articles in publications that I don’t regularly read. From the New Scientist to The New Yorker, it’s great extending your world view. I love to the do same offline — browsing a magazine stand or bookstore to discover new journals. One of my favourite newsstands is Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum in Amsterdam — when I was there recently, I stumbled across a great magazine called ‘Nous’. If you don’t have a magazine store near by, consider a subscription to Stack (they send you a different independent magazine every month).
So try something new tomorrow. Write a blog post. Turn a boring meeting into a reinvigorating walk and talk. Shake things up. Let me know how you get on!
And if you need a hand, I’m here to help. Whether you need someone to give a talk or workshop to get your people fired up about doing things differently; or you need a fresh perspective to figure out and capture the essence of your business; or an outsider to guide you through your career or work life via one of my London walk and talks, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though I left the classroom thirty years ago, there’s something of the ‘back to school’ spirit that remains at this time of year. Wasn’t the best bit about returning to school the visit to the stationery shop to stock up on shatterproof rulers and pencil cases?!
So have you sharpened your metaphorical pencils lately? Are you feeling energised for the term ahead? Read on for some tips to make the best of the coming months.
- Choose the right space to work. The importance of where we work is so often under-estimated. We obsess about what software to use to do our work, but much less about where we do it. Here’s my 90 second riff on why we should think carefully about our working environment (watch video).
- Fuel-Up your business! Businesses and organisations can often lose sight of who they are, what they do and why they do it. My new ‘Fuel-up!’ package gets to the essence of your business in five weeks. 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. We now feel more confident in taking our story out to the world.” Click here to download my PDF with all the details.
- Ignite your work life. Earlier this month I went to Amsterdam for three days to try out my pop-up office experiment. It was really productive: a change of scenery created space for new thinking. Check out my post: “8 tips to ignite your work life: my pop-up office experiment.”
- Deal with stress. Whether you work for yourself or for an organisation, stress always impacts our work and personal lives. Earlier this year I was editor at large on The Stress Report, a 134 page book from The Do Lectures (available here). Here’s one of my stories from the book. It's all about London executive Nick Creswell who likes to travel by boat to his office at Canary Wharf,“Why you need to stop taking the shortcut to work.”
- Walk n’talk with me. I’m currently running my one hour lunch break walk n’talks where I help executives, entrepreneurs and freelancers crack one big question in their business or work life. Earlier this week I took Andrew for a walk to help him figure out his future. He emailed me yesterday to say, "I'm still on a high after yesterday's session. It's really fired me up on where I can take things next." If you want some lunchtime clarity email email@example.com and we can fix a time for sessions either in London or by the Thames estuary in Leigh-on-Sea.
- Benefit from clarity. It's that moment when the fog clears and inspiration strikes: that blinding flash of clarity when a breakthrough idea arrives. I call it my Clarity Klaxon. Here are six things I do in my life to get it to sound more often:"When inspiration strikes. My 'Clarity Klaxon.' "
- Set your ideas free. Lots of us have great ideas about our work and business, but we don’t share what we're thinking with the outside world. Show your co-workers and clients what lies behind your job title by publishing your thoughts online. The objective? To get you noticed, start conversations and shine a light on your story. If you need help blogging, I’m launching a one-to-one programme to capture and communicate executives' thinking. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
And finally, if you literally need your pencils sharpened, let me recommend a great little pencil shop I discovered in New York's Lower East Side earlier this year: CW Pencils (they have an online store too!).
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 email@example.com and I’ll send it to your in-box).
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
*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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
“Aren’t there any venues like this closer to London?” asked a fellow speaker at the Snap Photography Festival earlier this week.
He had a point. Fforest Camp on the west of Wales is a five-hour-plus drive from the capital, the last hour by narrow and winding country roads. My iPhone told me the 300 mile journey from Leigh-on-Sea would take five hours, actually it took seven hours.
But whilst it’s hard to get there, you’re rewarded with a unique experience in a stunning setting. Fforest is designed as a place to enjoy “the simplicity, pleasures and beauty of outdoor living in an outstanding natural environment.” It sits on a 200 acre site by the River Teifi, next to the Teifi marshes nature reserve. So I answered: yes, the UK does have other venues closer to London, but this one is quite special. Perhaps like a lot of things in life, you have to put in the effort, but it’s worth it once you reach the destination.
The only non-photographer speaker, I’d been invited to give the festival’s two hour opening presentation and workshop on storytelling and finding your fuel. I’ve spoken to different audiences over the years and it was a thrill to be amongst 110 photographers. Since being given my first Kodak Instamatic camera as a child, photography has been a thread throughout my life. It feels like I spent most of the 1980s glued to my Pentax K1000, taking it to live gigs and documenting the world around me. I’m still passionate about photography. Yesterday morning I took half an hour off and walked around Fforest with my Canon digital camera.
Sharing tents and outdoor cabins with strangers is not for everyone (disclosure: I was staying in an Airbnb in the local village) but something special happens when attendees mix together. Although I stayed off site, I joined in the communal dining, and I loved sitting down at the next available seat and chatting to new people. As I’d told the audience in my presentation, I thrive on curiosity, going to interesting places and meeting interesting people. Here at Snap It felt like the ‘United Nations of Photographers’. I shared meals with a Canadian, Croatian, Hungarian and Italian. I took a tea break with a guy from Poland and a woman from Chicago.
It was great to discover that people had travelled from all over the world to come to Snap. Suddenly a seven hour drive to get here didn’t feel so bad; especially when the guy from Poland told me his journey had taken three days.
[photo credit Lee Allen/ Snap]
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- ‘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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
A couple of mornings a week I like to work out of my local coffee shop, Barlow & Fields. They serve a decent long black, the music is good and there’s usually a like-minded bunch of people to chat to. Recently I shared a table with a woman who said she often saw me in there but wondered what the hell did I actually do?
Well, the last twelve months has been a mix of storytelling and advising. If we want to succeed in this unpredictable world of work, I think we need to be adaptable, multi-dimensional and have a go-getting attitude. I’m glad that 2015 is proof of what I preach: a varied and eclectic bunch of projects. Here are some highlights:
- Creating digital content in the Alps. In January I was at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, embedded with their digital media team. Here I produced real-time content for the WEF’s ‘Agenda’, creating highlight posts from panel discussions on gender equality to keynotes from Senator Kerry and President Hollande.
- Re-energising a two hundred year old organisation. I was hired to bring some clarity and ideas to a London law firm. They needed an outsider to help identify what made them unique, and to find the ‘fuel’ at the heart of the organisation. I provided them with the energy to move the business forward.
- Inspiring entrepreneurs about the ‘power of story’. I gave presentations from Harrogate To Paris on how businesses can leverage their story to get heard.
- Firing-up students about their futures. In February I was guest lecturer at the University of East London’s school of arts and digital industries. My brief? To tell my own story and fire up students about career opportunities in the creative industries.
- Telling stories to bring brands to life. Over the last twelve months I’ve used storytelling to bring visibility to businesses and brands. As ever, it’s been a wonderful mix of clients from Buzzacott, the London accountancy firm, to TeuxDeux, the to-do list app.
- Walking around London, helping people find their fuel. This year I launched my Fuel Safari, where I help executives, freelancers and entrepreneurs ‘find their fuel’; reconnecting them with their story, purpose and passion to guide them towards their ‘what next?’
- Telling my own story. In June I was on stage at the Do Lectures in Wales where I’d been asked to tell a true, previously untold story about ‘how I got to here’.
- Seeing my idea land on doormats. Alongside all the paid work, it’s been great to find space for two side projects this year. One of which was as co-founder and editor of Trawler - a crowdsourced, crowdfunded community publication - it was great to finally see our launch edition land on doormats.
- Having conversations with curious entrepreneurs. This year I continued my collaboration with film maker Michal Dzierza on another side project: our interview series ‘Curiosity & Opportunity’. One really interesting conversation was with Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, founder of Sugru.
- Helping an author shape her book. At the end of the year I was sat outside the fabulous Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris (pictured above) with Nilofer Merchant, exploring and shaping ideas for her next book on Onlyness (out in 2017).
If you - or your business - need reinvigorating and re-energising in 2016, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org and let's start a conversation. In the meantime, I wish you a happy New Year!
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:
- Toronto based illustrator Lichia Liu
- London web designer Dan Howells
- Sugru founder Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh
I just got asked what is an effective storytelling technique or mindset I would recommend for business leaders. Here’s my answer:
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’:
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 email@example.com if you’d like me to help your business tell its story]
Earlier this year I created a manifesto (designed by the talented Lizzie Everard), 'Ian's Five Ways To Fire Up Your Business & Work Life'. I got a few requests asking if the manifesto would be available to buy as a poster.
Well it is now! Follow the link to Etsy, but hurry, there are only a handful available.
Any questions, please shout firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography has always been one of my passions. In the late 1970s it was a Kodak Instamatic, in the 80s - and pretty much for the next twenty years - a trusty Pentax K1000. Today I have a digital SLR, but like most of us I tend to use my iPhone 6 more - after all, the best camera is the one we have with us.
Whilst I didn’t pursue photography professionally, I still loving taking pictures (you can follow me on Instagram here). So I’m delighted to be on the speaker-line up at next year’s SNAP Photography Festival where I’ll be talking about storytelling and finding your fuel.
SNAP is a rather special event that mixes conference, immersive learning, a creative retreat - oh, and glamping - at the lovely Fforest Farm (the old home of the Do Lectures) in Cardigan, Wales from 18th - 22nd April 2016. Imagine The Do Lectures for photographers, and you get an idea of what SNAP is all about.
SNAP has been designed to inspire existing professional photographers as well as those interested in turning a hobby into a business. Check out snapphotofestival.com for more details. There are a variety of accommodation ticket packages available alongside some offers: the code EARLYSNAP will give 10% off or you can use the code DEPOSIT to pay 50% now and 50% in November.
See you there!
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.”
- Ian Sanders, People not products (2:22)
- Ian Sanders, How to tell a better story (2:31)
- Ian Sanders, The three acts of a story (2:46)
“It’s time to stop tiptoeing around my past. To take back my narrative and insist on a different ending to my story.”
When I first attended the Do Lectures in 2012, I was there as a storyteller. Not standing on stage telling stories, but in the audience, writing an article for the Financial Times and reporting for Monocle radio.
Those who met me at Do in 2012 might have viewed me as a journalist or a writer, but the part those roles played was just the tip of the iceberg, a tiny part of The Ian Sanders story. It was great to be invited back in 2015 as a speaker and given a brief to share a story I had never told before. I decided it was time to change the narrative, to tell the real story about who I am and why I do what I do professionally today. It was time for me to stop tiptoeing around my past and to be honest about the roadblock I encountered fifteen years ago that forced me to change direction in life. And most importantly, I decided it was time to shine a light on the parts of the story I had previously edited out - the depression and other struggles I faced as a young man.
Speaking at Do was a great experience, but also one of the hardest things I have ever done: not only to nail my story in twenty minutes, but also to stand up and talk openly about facing and overcoming adversity.
It can be hard to stick your head above the parapet and expose your vulnerability, it’s not a very British thing to do. But it was made easier because of the environment. The Do Lectures is special. And yes, that may sound cheesy, but it is really like no other event I have been to. Held on a farm in the Welsh countryside, sleeping in tents under the stars. 90 minutes from a main railway station, the hard to reach location means the event attracts a different kind of attendee. But still they came, and not only from the UK but also from the Netherlands, the US and South Africa. The people who come want to make a change in their life or do something different.
Some of my fellow speakers had products and businesses to talk about, others just had a story to share: Matt Lane on starting his online beer club in a shed; Anna Jones on becoming a food writer; CJ Bowry on starting a charity that finds new feet for outgrown kids shoes. And then Ryan Holiday, a former director of marketing at American Apparel surprised us all with his passion for the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Yes, there were plenty of surprises, even for me (including the moment I choked up on stage talking about my eight year old self).
A few years ago I would have run a mile from speaking on stage. I’d lost my confidence and my voice. But now I’m back, back on stage and feeling back where I belong.
I’d like to thank: David and Naomi at The Do Lectures for inviting me to speak; the Do attendees who listened to my story in the barn; Nilofer Merchant; Sarah King; Michael Townsend Williams; Mark Shayler; Nancy Duarte; David Sloly; Hannah Allen; and Zoë Sanders who provided me with the fuel and confidence to find and share my story.
[Thanks to Andy Middleton for the photograph]
When the Welsh jeans brand Hiut Denim launched three years ago I spoke to founder David Hieatt about his plans for the business (you can listen to the interview I did for Monocle 24 here).
Last Saturday I went back to see David at his factory in Cardigan, Wales.
Here’s the Hiut Denim story in David’s own words:
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 email@example.com and I’ll let you know once they are available).
Three years ago I made the three hundred mile journey west to The Do Lectures. Twenty speakers and just eighty attendees sharing ideas in a big tent in the Welsh countryside.
It’s not your average business conference. There are no name badges, the dress code is wellies rather than suits, everybody stays in tents spending the evenings around a fire. Oh, and there’s no wifi.
And these are the reasons I liked it so much. The speakers don’t disappear on their flight home as soon as they come off stage, attendees don’t spend lunchtimes huddled over their iPhones checking Twitter, there are no VIP parties. Everyone is here together to inspire each other to DO, to get fired up, to get inspired, to make changes in their business or work life (what’s it all about? Read my post ‘Why The Do Lectures Exist’)
In 18 days I’m back at The Do Lectures. But this time, it’s different. I’ll be on stage as a speaker.
I’m currently putting some ideas together for my talk. Their brief:
“Be human. Be vulnerable. Don’t do the talk that you normally do.”
This is going to be a big one for me, putting my head above the parapet, telling my real story of how I got to here. Telling a story I haven’t told before.
Videos of the talks will go online later in the year, but in the meantime tickets for June are available here: http://www.thedolectures.com/events/do-wales-2015
I recommend it.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
Last week I spent two and a bit days in Berlin, my first trip to the city. Although my visit was primarily for pleasure, I soon realised this is a great city for working, and I’ve already added it to my list of favourite places to go to get fired up, the kind of place I might go to write my next book.
In my short time in the city I found some great cafes and restaurants, most of which I stumbled upon (which is always the best way to discover a new city). So whether you’re going to the city for work or for pleasure, here are my Berlin picks:
- The Barn [Auguststraße 58, 10119 Berlin]: a tiny shop serving great coffee. That’s all you need to know.
- Ben Rahim [Hackesche Höfe, Sophien Strasse 7, Berlin]: I stumbled upon Ben’s shop at 5pm. Seeing a sign on the door that said they shut at five, I guessed I was too late for a coffee. But I was wrong. Ben couldn’t have been more welcoming, he’s only been open one month and with an attitude like that, he’ll go far. Check out his story here.
Hackescher Hof [Rosenthaler Str. 40/41, 10178 Berlin]: a simple, diner-style, all-day restaurant. Bacon and eggs, orange juice, a pot of tea with great service. A good place for a working breakfast or just to sit and read the papers.
- Barcomi’s [Sophie-Gips-Höfe, Sophienstraße 21, Berlin]: as well as hosting a deli and coffee counter, this hidden-away cafe serves bagels and salads. There’s some seating in the courtyard outside.
- Antipodes [Fehrbelliner Straße 5, 10119 Berlin]: a pavement A-board advertising Antipodes caught our eye so we followed a side street and discovered an awesome cafe run by a New Zealand couple. Great music, a stack of magazines, decent salads and a great long black. We felt at home instantly, I would go at least once a week if I could.
- Simon [Auguststraße 53, 10119 Berlin-Mitte]: It was a Monday evening when we stumbled upon this quiet neighbourhood restaurant. Initially we struggled with the German menu but then I recognised an Argentinian entrecote that went very nicely with a couple of glasses of red. Result.
- Strandbad Mitte [Kleine Hamburger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin]: I love this place. It’s everything a restaurant should be. Located down a short dead-end street I stumbled upon it one afternoon when it seemed to entice me over. I chatted with a waiter about gluten-free options on the menu; when I returned a few hours later the chef had prepared a three course gluten-free menu, just for me, just like that. Excellent food, great wines, decent prices, friendly service and a great vibe. I wish it was closer to home. I’ll be back.
Magazines & books
A beer in a deckchair
- Do you read me? [Augustraße 28, 10117 Berlin]: this is a great magazine shop, I went twice in two days.
- Gestalten Space [Sophienstraße 21, 10178 Berlin]: a bookshop/ gift shop from the publishing company of the same name. If I didn’t have an Easyjet one-bag rule, I may have carried home a stack of their lovely books. Luckily you can buy them online.
Cafes beside Spree River in MonbijouPark [Mitte Berlin]: Having walked around town for a few hours, I wanted to sit in the sun. In this park there’s a bunch of cafes with deck chairs outside on the grass. Grab a chair, order a drink and watch the world go by.
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).
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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.’
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.
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.
Inspired by Todd Sattersten’s #YearInReview, a few years ago I started the annual ritual of posting ‘what I’ve shipped’. This is more than a brag-blog, it’s an exercise in standing back and looking at the work I’ve produced, the content I created, the projects I made happen.
Looking back on my year also helps me reflect on the different ingredients in my work life and what the dominant themes have been.
There’s been two sides of Ian Sanders in 2014: 1) STORYTELLER, helping clients capture and tell their stories, also writing articles for publications; 2) CREATIVE CONSULTANT, advising clients, bringing clarity to propositions, adding value from my outsider point-of-view.
This year I’ve continued to be prolific in creating content for clients and for publications. In January I set myself a goal of creating 100 pieces of written content this year; I’m up to 97 so I’m nearly there.
So here’s what I shipped:
Telling stories for publications: This year I’ve continued to write for The Financial Times and British Airways Business Life magazine, and I’ve also added some new outlets: Ireland’s Sunday Independent and Cool Hunting. I’ve also contributed interviews for Monocle’s ‘The Entrepreneurs’ show (here’s a link to my online portfolio).
Helping clients capture their ideas, culture, stories: I’ve worked with a range of clients from an innovation agency to an energy trading business, capturing their thinking in articles, op-eds and other content. I’ve also been working with a law firm helping them explore and tell their story.
Helping clients grow: I’ve advised clients from a young digital agency to a content business on growth and development opportunities. I’ve also helped my energy trading client transform their marketing communications.
Workshops & talks: In February I co-hosted an evening of talks in my local community, in March I spoke to an audience of Dentsu Aegis execs, in July I hosted a meet-up on my local beach and earlier this month I hosted a Street Wisdom event .
Side Projects: I co-created and edited Trawler, a publication that will launch next year via a crowdfunding platform (it’s *nearly* shipped!) and I also co-created a video series Curiosity & Opportunity.
This marks my fifteen year anniversary of being self-employed. It’s been quite an adventure; when I started out in 2000, I could never have anticipated the shape and direction it's taken. When I look back on the last fifteen years the biggest change - and opportunity - has been in the role ‘Digital’ plays: in my own daily working practices; in how I develop and maintain relationships; and also in developing a new area of expertise, where I advise clients around digital communications.
Thanks to everybody I've met and worked with this year. Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s to the next adventure!
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!]
When we’re looking for answers in our working lives, we might pick up a book, go online or ask a friend. We probably don’t tend to look in the street for answers.
That however, is what Street Wisdom’s designed for, a three hour walking-workshop to find inspiration in the everyday environment around us. Having been on a couple of Street Wisdoms facilitated by its founders Chris and David, I decided to organise my own, inviting Lucy Taylor to join me as co-host.
So this is how I came to spend last Friday afternoon standing outside Leigh-on-Sea library, giving instructions to a group of people to walk around the town looking for patterns, seeing what they were drawn to, slowing right down.
I’d chosen the library since traditionally it’s a place people go to find answers. Instead our group headed outside, searching local alleyways, dead ends and shopping streets for their inspiration. They each went off with a question to ask, such as, what direction to take their business in 2015; how to find new clients; how to incorporate the local community into what they do.
Having experienced Street Wisdom events in Soho and in Shoreditch, this experience in Leigh-on-sea felt different. Here, in a coastal town where the river Thames meets the sea, the attendees were much more familiar with the local streets than they would be in a big city.
Admittedly a cold Friday afternoon in December wasn’t the perfect weather for walking around slowly, so two hours after we started, against the backdrop of a stunning estuary sunset, we gathered in the warmth of the Peter Boat pub in Leigh-on-Sea’s Old Town. Over mulled wine and coffee the attendees shared their feedback. They told us that even though they knew Leigh well, today they had managed to walk in unfamiliar streets, they saw noticeboards, shops and businesses they had never previously. ‘It’s there but we don’t see it,’ said one.
One of the group had been brave enough to ask strangers for help with his question, and got great insight from talking to a homeless man. Several fed back that they had found value not so much in finding answers, but through the exploration, in the process of Street Wisdom itself that unlocked something new.
Friday’s Street Wisdom gave people the opportunity to try something new, to be curious, to slow down in a town they thought they knew so well. As one person told me, ‘it gave me permission to stop, think and dawdle.’
I think of Street Wisdom as a live experiment, a process to reset your mind and rethink your approach to everything from creativity to problem solving. As Matt told me, as someone who walks around town at high speed, focused on where he’s headed, just the act of walking slowly was a new way of looking at the world.
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.”
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.
- Keep it short. Brevity rules, so be ruthless in your edit. Short pieces have more impact.
- 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.
- 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.
- Put ‘you’ in it. Don’t let bland corporate-speak creep in, write in your own voice.
- 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.
- Focus on your audience. Don’t include industry jargon and confusing acronyms if your audience won’t understand them. Make it gettable.
- One subject per post. Thought pieces should be single-minded — on one theme or one opinion.
- 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.
- 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).
Ever had one of those days when every billboard or shop sign seems to be telling you something? To quit your job or to take a leap of courage?
I had one of those days yesterday. But only because I made a decision to tune into my surroundings - I was on my second Street Wisdom, a walking-workshop that uses the urban environment around us to help guide decisions (you can read my blog post of my first experience here).
Street Wisdom is a three hour event: in the first hour participants get tuned in to notice our surroundings; in the second hour we go off by ourselves to walk around and ask a question of the street (a career or business dilemma we may be struggling with); the third hour we come back and share our experiences with the group.
One of the benefits of Street Wisdom is that you can utilise ‘in-between time’, perhaps using a walk in between the office and the park to solve a problem or come up with an idea. You don’t need a large amount of time. Of course most of us are too focused on listening to music, looking down at our ‘phones or just rushing from A-to-B to pay attention to what’s around us; Street Wisdom encourages us to slow down and look around.
The objective is to get inspiration from everything around us - it’s not just about looking at signs - it might be finding a park bench, looking at an unfamiliar view. taking a random left turn or talking to a stranger that yields the results.
That said, I was fascinated by how many of us found clarity just by looking at physical signs, from shop facades to ads on the sides of buses. One member of my group identified the focus for her new business by looking at a shop front; another found that a shop sign - ‘Start’ - gave her encouragement to move forward with her business idea. I had a similar experience when I stumbled into a coffee-shop called ‘Paper & Cup’, I liked how the shop combined two of my passions (coffee and books); it encouraged me to continue blending different disciplines in my work life, a theme that was echoed by a van that said ‘Odds & Ends’. Then walking down a road towards Redchurch Street I saw a series of signs that spoke to me about the need for collaboration: a sign for a community centre, a van saying ‘Alliance’.
And then as my hour was up, I saw this notice on a Redchurch Street lamp post. ‘Please check signs,’ it said.
So perhaps all our answers are out there, we just need to look around us.
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:
Feargall Kenny, an Irish recruiter in NYC, founder of New York Digital Irish.
Grainne Barron, an Irish entrepreneur in San Francisco, founder of Viddyad.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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”.
“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 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:
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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'.
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.
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?
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].
This morning I was awoken by the sound of fog horns out on the Thames estuary. I love living by the coast. But although I have made Leigh-on-Sea my home - and yes, can often be found working from its coffee shops - I don’t tend to work with any clients locally; my clients, together with the publications I write for, are worldwide.
But still, I’m passionate about my local town. I think our community of local doers, makers, creatives, artists, traders, small businesses and freelancers is something to be cherished..
Last year I helped Michael Mentessi launch a local meet-up group. Already that group has started a ‘Made in Leigh’ movement to champion local talent and business; next month (on 5th February), we’re hosting ‘MILC’ - Made in Leigh Conversation - an evening of stories, conversation and inspiration. We have seven speakers covering subjects from ‘Prototyping a happier life’ to ‘Exploring creativity’. I’ll be speaking about the power of curiosity.
I think we can easily take our local neighbourhoods for granted. We might assume that all the things we love about them - from great cafes to independent shops - will always be there. That there will always be a natural sense of community, without it being nurtured. But let’s not be complacent. Communities need building and nurturing - they don’t make themselves. They need an injection of ideas, organisation and effort. That’s what we’re aiming to do with Made in Leigh. To celebrate the collective independent, creative and entrepreneurial spirit of our town. But we won’t be limiting MILC to the people of Leigh, we’ll also be posting up videos online later in the year.
And if you live in east London or Essex and want to join us in Leigh-on-Sea on Wednesday 5th February, there are still tickets left via Eventbrite.
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:
- the importance of collecting
- re-use ideas
- allow your mind to wander
- the importance of noticing
- 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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You still have to work at talent. Creative confidence needs nurturing. A genius still needs to practice their talent six hours a day.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Last Wednesday night I was in a bar in Geneva listening to an amazing story from a woman who’d ended up running a business in Sierra Leone, hearing how curiosity had informed much of her strategy. I was in ‘Manifesto’ on Geneva’s Rue de Stand, where fourteen people had gathered to discuss what it means to live a life driven by curiosity. Welcome to Ideas Tapas, a concept I launched with my friend DJ Forza.
Ideas Tapas is a ‘pop-up’ ideas club - a Salon/ dinner party mash-up - where two hosts and twelve guests unite over tapas & wine for a lively discussion, hearing and sharing inspiring stories. Having initially developed Ideas Tapas with Zoe Sanders to trial in my hometown, the opportunity for a collaboration with DJ Forza meant we could aim higher, and her current home of Geneva was the perfect place to prototype. DJ and I met around a campfire at The 2012 Do Lectures; we discovered a shared passion for curiosity and kept in touch with a desire to collaborate - Ideas Tapas represented a good opportunity to try something together.
Often, partnerships and ideas can get paralysed by the need to have a big plan. Fortunately DJ and I share a similar mindset - we didn’t do stacks of research or planning, we just thought we’d give it a try. Geneva gave us a great mix of guests from a start-up to NGOs with so many different voices, cultures and disciplines around the table.
The evening started with people getting-to-know each other, aided by ice-breaker “I’m curious about....” name tags. DJ and I then gave a talk about the power of curiosity before hearing stories from everyone else. We all agreed how refreshing it was to sit around sharing stories and experiences face to face, as an antidote to an age where we tend to do so much of that online. One of our guests said that against this digital always-connected lifestyle, Ideas Tapas is what slow food is to fast food. It reminded me the importance of a bar or coffee shop in generating ideas. In the 18th century, people would meet at the coffeehouse to shoot around their ideas; in 2013 we’d chosen a tapas bar, not just for the food and the vibe, but also with tapas as a metaphor for sampling not only plates but also ideas. We’re currently thinking about how we’ll roll this out - certainly there will be events in London and other places later in the year, you can sign-up here to be kept in touch and follow us on Twitter.
There’ll be another post on what we learned about curiosity from the tales around the table. But this is not just a story about what happened in a bar in Geneva, it’s a reminder that if you have an idea, however fluid that maybe, you don’t have to make it perfect or fully-formed to launch - you just need to do something, to take action. We could have deliberated on paper for months about what Ideas Tapas is and what it might become; much better to test it for real, and then work out the plan as you go...
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.
Good coffee plays an important role in my work life: taking time for an espresso is a daily ritual for me and independent coffee shops have become my favourite places to think, work and meet. For me, the independent coffee shop experience is about more than just the coffee, it’s an expression of my values and what I think matters.
I explore this thinking further in ‘Meet your match’ - my article for the latest issue of Caffeine, the magazine for London coffee lovers. The magazine is available in most London speciality coffee shops, you can read the article here.
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:
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.
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.
I’d not heard of James Victore until I saw his name on the bill at last year’s Do Lectures; but arriving there a day late meant I screwed up my chance to see him (you can watch his talk here). We shared a ride back to Heathrow and that piqued my interest enough to check out some of his work, I started following him on Twitter and love his weekly ‘Q&A Tuesday’ videos.
James is a designer, artist and teacher whose work has appeared in The Museum of Modern Art. But whilst on the face of it James’ world might be art & design; it’s clear this guy’s advice is valuable for all of us. His advice on being courageous and adopting a ‘warrior not worrier’ approach really spoke to me and helped get clarity on a work problem I was facing. When I was in NYC last month I went to visit him in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio. In this little video I recorded with him, James talks about the importance of putting ‘you’ into your work; not only for your authenticity but also if you make your work personal, it can talk to a greater audience. I think this is a lesson for most of us, whatever we do in our work.
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:
- Swissmiss - a design blog
- CreativeMornings - an inspiring monthly event where creative people meet (now happening in cities around the world)
- TeuxDeux - a to-do list app
- Tattly - a temporary tattoo company
- 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:
For the latest ‘Year Of Living Curiously’ video I’ve been talking to Phill Jupitus. I first saw Phill perform back in 1985 at Peckham Town Hall as a stand-up poet supporting Billy Bragg; today he’s a writer, musician, actor, broadcaster, comedian and cartoonist. Phill’s drawn pictures from an early age with his cartoons published in The Times, The Guardian, Radio Times and The Beano.
I’m interested in Phill as he’s at the intersection of two themes I’m curious about: first, that he’s very multidimensional (that’s the reason I featured him in my book ‘Mash-Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier); and second, that he’s always drawn pictures to tell stories - whether single cartoons, doodles or comic strips. I went to meet him at Cafe Valise in Leigh-on-Sea - where there’s an exhibition of his work - to talk about what drawing means to him and why it’s such a valuable storytelling tool.
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...).
I was reviewing my pile of Moleskine notepads over Christmas; a stack of black pocket notepads full of scribbles, notes and cuttings - my preferred format for capturing thoughts and ideas. On a typical page you’ll find lots of words, some newspaper cuttings, the occasional doodle, but not many illustrations. In 2013 I’m aiming to change that: by starting to draw again.
I’m excited by the power of visual communication, how pictures can be more effective than words alone. This was a real theme of last year rearing its head in a number of ways:
- Discovering John Willshire’s Artefact cards that got me mostly scribbling, but also trying doodling
- Seeing my wife create the doodles for my fourth book ‘Mash-Up!’ under the creative direction of David Sloly
- Hearing from Sunni Brown, Mike Rohde and others for my Financial Times article ‘The Simple Power Of The Doodle’
- Listening to Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte on the importance of visual image-led presentations over text-based slide decks
- Recognising the power of visuals and infographics to effectively communicate complex propositions
- Discovering Gosh! Comics in Soho and browsing their impressive supply of graphic novels and comics - I bought lots of Christmas presents here (including ‘Couch Fiction’)
This last week I’ve been reading Mike Rohde’s ‘Sketchnote Handbook’ - it’s a great how-to guide for anyone looking to master sketchnoting - or visual notes - in their working life. Mike shares practical techniques for taking visual notes during meetings and events, but the lessons here can be applied to any sketch, doodle or illustration to capture and share ideas. Like many of us, whilst I was good at drawing as a kid, I’ve forgotten how to draw. So my biggest challenge is not embracing a new mindset; it’s just the ability to draw. Mike reassures the reader that sketchnoting is simply a way to think on paper using images and words, it’s not about being good at art. “Even the roughest drawings can express ideas effectively” he says.
One of the most valuable parts of Mike’s book is an exercise where you have to draw objects. I tried it quick-fire - without the help of Google Images - and you can see my attempt in the photo above.
So I’m going to try and fill my Moleskine with more pictures in 2013....
POSTSCRIPT: to do this post justice I should reference Tom Fishburne. I met Tom at SXSW in 2010: here's a little video I recorded with him in London at the end of 2011 where he explains how visual storytelling can help break through the clutter:
One benefit of my slalom-career is that I rarely stand still: I’m constantly moving, open to new opportunities and new ways of doing things. On that journey I’ve learnt new skills and found out about new disciplines, whether a discovery for a client assignment or learning how to write a 40,000 word book. Inevitably no how-to guides are available: you have to learn as you go.
One new skill for 2012 was how to write an 1,100 word piece for the Financial Times. That might not sound new for someone who already writes for a living, but there’s a huge difference between writing a 40,000 word book, a blog post or an 1,100 FT article. In a recent Times interview with Caitlin Moran, the cookery writer and former journalist Nigella Lawson recalled her fondness for the structure of a newspaper column:
“I like being a carpenter. I remember my Latin teacher, Miss Plumber, at school saying, ‘None of you girls will ever know the satisfaction a carpenter gets from making a table or chair’ - but I think as a journalist, you do. When something has to be 1,100 words, and you must assemble all the sentences in the right order for it to work”.
I too have come to enjoy that process of assembly: weaving multiple voices into a single meaningful narrative, capturing and communicating a business story in a defined format. Admittedly I don’t always get it right first time - I’m lucky to have the input of my editor and his team to help rebuild it when needed. It might only be a digital file or a salmon pink page of newsprint rather than a handcrafted piece of woodwork, but I still get that sense of satisfaction that comes from making something.
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:
- an assignment for a marketing agency, helping them tell their story & capture their thinking
- 12 articles for the Financial Times
- a bunch of audio reports for Monocle magazine
- my fourth book 'Mash-Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier'
- two assignments helping businesses tell their story online
- an assignment helping a tech business position a new product for market
- an assignment identifying fresh commercial opportunities for a client’s product
- guest columns for Virgin.com, TomPeters.com, Fast Company, The FT and Elite Business magazine
- a video for a client, from concept to production
- Skype coaching/mentoring
- 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’...!
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:
- Develop a side project. A side project gives you an opportunity to learn new stuff, experiment and make you a better entrepreneur.
- 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.
- 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.
- Avoid digital sloppiness. Digital tools may make business communication rapid but remember to“Stop, look, edit” before you press publish/send.
- 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.
- 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]
I’m skipping the top-ten-business-trends end-of-the-year post for something essential to my working life: coffee in London. Two years ago I posted Ten London Coffee Shops To Get Your Ideas Flowing; this year I’m posting my updated Top Ten London Coffee Places.I like to live a nomadic work life, working out of different spaces, punctuating my working day with a few espressos. Whether it’s providing a hit of inspiration or offering a place to meet, work or think, London’s independent coffee scene is important to me. Whilst I have a regular neighbourhood favourite, when I’m in London I like mixing it up. This selection is not necessarily about great spaces with wifi for working; they’re simply places that contribute to my productivity and ideas (oh, and they all serve damn good coffee).
- Monmouth, Park Street, SE1: whilst I’m more of a regular at their Monmouth Street shop; I prefer the Borough Market one for hanging-out, either sitting at the communal table, or my favourite space up the steps at the corner window. You’ll always have to queue here, but I like the buzz and productivity of the coffee-production-line. This is great for people-watching and connecting the dots on some ideas. Here my electronic devices stay in my bag - it’s a strictly Moleskine-and-pen kind of place.
- Prufrock, Leather Lane, EC1: this street has a couple of decent coffee shops, Prufrock is my favourite. Whilst the coffee is always guaranteed to be good - and they’ll often have a guest bean to sample - it’s the physical space that draws me in. It’s a great big place that always inspires, whether to meet someone or to get some work done.
- Allpress, Redchurch Street, E2: I like the mix of this space. On the right it feels industrial with the roasting operation, on the left plenty of seating. I like taking a stool at the high table, reading a newspaper or scribbling some notes.
- The Espresso Room, Great Ormond Street, WC1N: I’ve only been to this place once - just last week - and I instantly liked it. It’s tiny with very little space to sit but they have tables outside. You won’t linger here, it’s a pit-stop on a way to a meeting kind of place but great coffee, good service.
- Notes, St Martin’s Lane, WC2: I only discovered Notes this year; this one in St Martin’s Lane mixes coffee with music. It’s busy, buzzy and the surroundings give it a European, almost Parisien feel.
- Look Mum No Hands, Old Street, EC1: Of course LMNH is all about cycling, which gives it a soul and raison d’etre beyond doing good coffee. A very friendly space for lunch or coffee, or just to sit up in the window with your MacBook.
- Market Coffee House, Brushfield Street, E1: This is a first-coffee-of-the-day place for me. I like the old-meets-new juxtaposition between the old buildings on Brushfield Street and the Spitalfields development opposite. It’s got a good vibe on a rainy day helped by Radio Four which is often on behind the counter.
- Fernandez and Wells, Somerset House, WC2: all F&W are good, but I’m picking the bigger off-Soho shop at Somerset House. This is a great big, grand, white space: I find the clarity of the surroundings give me a clarity in thinking, it’s like a giant blank canvas or opening a notepad for the first time.
- Wild & Wood, New Oxford St, W1: (hat tip to John Willshire for this one), in that non-descript area between Holborn and Covent Garden, a cosy space for a winter’s day. Pick one of their little booths and it all feels rather Dickensian.
- Flat Cap, Strutton Ground, SW1: the last twelve months has seen more coffee carts out and about, in London’s churchyards and markets. Flat Cap has carts dotted around the city for good coffee-on-the-go. My favourite is the one on Strutton Ground, because it’s in such ordinary surroundings at the end of a market, outside an old pub.
I was meeting an old friend for coffee last summer. I suggested we meet outside his office and stroll over to Monmouth Coffee in Covent Garden. He texted back he had a better idea; he’d grab a couple of free coffees from the machine in his office lobby. He added that they’d taste better because they were free. Of course he was wrong - ‘free’ isn’t better; the free coffee from his office machine tasted awful. I didn’t drink it.
I’ve been connecting the dots this morning on two things that happened yesterday. First, the furore from Instagram users over the company’s new terms and conditions. Second, a question on Twitter asking how to bypass the FT.com paywall to view my article on women in tech. And I thought - perhaps it’s time we got used to paying for services and content we value?
I like Instagram. I don’t want my images used or exploited without my consent. So I’d be happy to pay a subscription fee to keep it ad-free and my data private. Similarly good content comes at a price: that’s why The FT has a paywall (although you don’t have to pay - you can register to see a limited number of articles each month). It’s just not commercially viable to give away everything for free. If the FT did that, how would I get paid as a contributor?
I stayed at a new London hotel recently - I was impressed. I like what the brand stand for and admired the quality of their online magazine, so fired off an email to their agency to see if they were interested in me as a London contributor. The agency checked out my portfolio and replied yes they were interested, could I pitch some ideas? Great, I responded, what rates do you pay. “We don’t pay writers” they replied. Does the agency work for the hotel brand for free? Did they go to the web designers and ask them to work for free? Can I go into the hotel and stay for free?
(In fairness to the hotel, their agency did say they’re developing a system where magazine contributors can earn points against a stay in the hotel). But that’s not viable. Part of my business offering is that clients pay me to write. Apart from a guest post in a prestigious magazine, an advice column or an article promoting my new book, I won’t write for free. ‘Free’ won’t pay for my train ticket, my daily coffees or my broadband subscription.
So brands and agencies should remember that it’s the content that delivers web traffic: and they must invest in that content, and in that writing. And for consumers and software companies - if you love services like Instagram, maybe it’s time to think about paying for the stuff we value?
Increasingly I find myself in the storytelling business. It’s the unifier that ties in my client work, writing my books and writing for the Financial Times. Rewind a few years, executives and entrepreneurs may have scratched their heads about the relevance of storytelling to their business life - now many recognise that marketing is about competing on their story. A great story can make the difference between visibility and invisibility; it can make a business gettable and memorable.
For example, Ruark Audio is a British business making digital radios and music systems; they started out making hifi loudspeakers founded by a father (a cabinet maker) and his son (an engineer). Sure, they can compete on their award winning design but it’s their simple story of a father and son collaboration that makes Ruark different from competitors. Gettable? Yep. Memorable? Hopefully.
Of course your story is not just valuable externally; it also helps people inside an organisation understand the vision and culture, so they ‘get’ what the company stands for.
Yesterday I met with Bobette Buster, a storytelling expert who works with the major film studios in Hollywood and lectures on how to tell great stories well. Bobette’s experience is that many people over-complicate a story and therefore lose any emotional engagement. All this was brought home to me when I read my two young sons last night’s bedtime story. They’re a demanding audience (and I’m a choosy reader) so one author we constantly reach for is Oliver Jeffers, whose simple imaginative books delight both Dad and sons. Last night’s read - ‘The Way Back Home’ - has all the ingredients of a simple gettable story.
I’m not going to make some clumsy analogy taking businesses lessons from a kid’s book, instead I’ll leave you with some advice from Bobette. When shaping your business story, ask yourself: “Will the audience have an emotional attachment to that story that will move them to take an action?”
If you follow me on Instagram or you happen to see me at a client office or in a coffee shop you might have seen me scribbling out ideas with a sharpie and a pack of blank yellow cards. These are Artefact cards - the brain child of John Willshire. Having seen John talk at Google Firestarters last year and then followed him on Twitter, I was part of a testing group when he prototyped Artefact earlier in the year. I then wrote about them in a Financial Times article and I did a brief Q&A for his site about how I use the cards myself.
This week I met up with John at Wild & Wood Coffee in London and asked him to explain i) how the cards can be used to communicate ideas; ii) the big idea behind them. Here’s our chat captured on video:
My activity on Twitter tends to be a good metric for how excited I am about a project. It’s the same at a conference or talk: if I hear something that resonates - and if I can get it down in 140 characters - I like to share it.
At yesterday’s FT Innovate 2012 conference when speaker Wendy Tan White said “Men are from Foursquare, women are from Pinterest “ it felt instantly tweetable. Okay it wasn’t going to change the world: it’s just a smart soundbite, but as you’ll see from the above screen grab, I wasn’t the only one to find it so tweetable!
I struggled to fit the highlights into 140 characters so here are my three takeaways from day two at the conference (they’re all about innovations in attitudes to business rather than tech innovation itself):
- Go sit by the sea. Wendy Tan White founded the website builder Moonfruit. She said that if you’re looking for stimulation in business "go painting, go sit by the sea, go talk to someone you don't like". I love this: indeed I ‘wrote’ this post on a seafront run at lunchtime today; last month I went to Barcelona principally to get business inspiration. It works!
- Be the outsider. Lady GaGa’s manager Troy Carter talked about the the power of the outsider. “The founder of Coca-Cola wasn’t a beverage guy,” he told us. When Troy set up his business many of the team were from outside the music industry, the COO was a teacher. I too trade on being an outsider. Whilst some clients might hire me as an industry expert, others do for my fresh perspective, able to apply lessons from other experiences to their business.
- Stay customer-centric, ditch ‘users’. Tom Hulme is the Design Director of IDEO who spoke about the need to be more consumer-centric. It’s an obvious point but many businesses develop propositions without involving the customer at an early stage. He also suggested - echoing a point made by Jack Dorsey - that tech companies should stop calling their customers ‘users’. I agree. A ‘user’sounds detached and inhuman- it doesn’t nurture a customer-centric mindset. So let’s change the language.
Finally back to Twitter. I didn’t see much of day one of the conference but I did catch Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco. He was asked why, despite having an active Twitter account, he hadn’t tweeted since 31 December last year. Mr Clarke sais he hadn’t tweeted as he now blogs instead, kind of missing the point; after all it’s not as if blogging has superseded tweeting. But there’s another point here: every CEO doesn’t have to be on Twitter. Sure a brand like Tesco needs to for customer-engagement, but the head of the company doesn’t. Perhaps Mr.Clarke should have replied that he tried Twitter but it wasn’t for him; he prefers to blog. Business leaders and execs should play where they play best. And that’s why you’ll never find me on Facebook...
(Videos are available of the conference here, although you’ll need to sign-in -it’s free. Disclosure: I write for the Financial Times and interviewed some of the speakers at FT Innovate. However this blog post was written in a personal capacity)
In most of what I do, I’m driven by curiosity. I like to explore new ways of doing things, different approaches from the norm, connecting with people and businesses who are game changers. I’m fortunate that my work as a writer gives me a licence to be curious: my brief at the Financial Times is to think differently, providing me an opportunity to hear - and tell - interesting stories.
However good my research, inevitably it’s those people I bump into by accident that provide the more interesting stories. I love those unplanned, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it connections. Whilst Twitter is a great serendipity engine, you don’t have to be online to benefit from chance encounters. One of my recent FT articles featured an academic who I happened to share a train journey with. If I’d got on my usual train carriage I wouldn’t have had that conversation. It was just luck. That same article featured a woman I met sitting outside a bar in Barcelona - not only did I end up interviewing her for it, she actually came up with the initial idea. Again, it was just luck. I was headed for one set of tables outside a bar, and then at the last minute headed for the other side. I only started talking to her because we were both struggling to get served. Without that serendipity the article wouldn’t have happened.
Online, Twitter continues to throw up connections and opportunities from those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ tweets that pique my interest. When my book ‘Mash-Up!’ came out, someone happened to tell Emilie Wapnick and we both connected on Twitter. Emilie is based in Portland Oregon and shares my interest in multi-dimensional work lives. So when I wrote about plural work lives for the FT, Emilie was an obvious candidate to feature. She was kind enough to interview me via Skype for a chat about my new book - I’ve posted the video below (thanks Emilie).
So embrace your curiosity - you never know where meeting interesting people with interesting tales may lead. And sometimes all it takes is switching what table to sit at or changing your regular train carriage.
Some businesses are value-led: they have a strong sense of purpose, they have a mission or an ethos, they only work with certain types of clients. It can be easier making decisions in a value-led business - if the organisation gets lost or struggles with how to make a decision, they can check against their values. Those values become part of the operating manual for the business.
When I was on my trip to Barcelona at the beginning of October I found a delightful neighbourhood coffee shop - Cafe Cosmo, on Carrer d'Enric Granados (pictured above). I felt instantly at home there and as I sat with my espresso I got out my notepad and without thinking, started a list. I headed it ‘My Charter’ and there and then, with no editing, quickly cranked out a list of twenty do’s and don’ts. I hadn’t planned doing it, but the vibe in Cafe Cosmo that morning gave me a sudden focus and clarity to articulate what matters most in my business life.
Until yesterday that list was just between me and the pages of my Moleskine. But then I happened to have a coffee with David Hieatt, (ex-founder of howies clothing, founder of The Do Lectures, the entrepreneur behind Hiut Denim). We were talking about the values behind David’s restaurant venture The 25 Mile. And as we talked about the values at the heart of his business life, I remembered something that used to be on the walls of the howies shops he’d founded. It was a big list in the changing rooms of twenty seven lessons he’d learned, there for everyone to see.
As I remembered David’s list I realised something - my Barcelona list captured my values: this is my own compass to guide me when I get lost. For when I don’t know whether to take that meeting, to work with that client, how to take that decision: I can look at my charter. David’s story encouraged me to go further and post my list up on my own ‘shop wall’ - here it is below (or click here).
(thanks for helping to connect the dots David...)
This was my view out of the window last Monday morning as I flew over the Pyrenees towards Barcelona. The guy sitting next to me asked if my trip was ‘business or pleasure’ and I struggled to give him a straight answer.
For anyone following me over the next few days, it may have looked like Ian was on holiday: sitting in cafes in the morning, a trip to the beach in the afternoon, meeting friends for dinner in the evening. But if they’d looked closer they would have noticed my trusty moleskine notepad by my side forever scribbling thoughts, answering questions. I was on my annual trip to recharge, reframe and rethink my business life (yes and I'd brought my beach towel).
We all get busy. Stuck in the same ways of doing things. Never stopping to press pause or stand back to look at things from a different angle. If you work in an organisation you might go on a company or team 'awayday', where you sit in a windowless hotel function room with a flip chart resetting goals and rethinking the business. If you’re like me and you work for yourself, you probably don’t have awaydays. Which is good news as you won’t have to sit in dull brainstorming sessions all day. But you could still benefit from posing those questions about the business, rethinking what you do and how you do it. So every year I try and take a trip away somewhere, accompanied by that beach towel and a list of questions to consider, ideas to generate and a strategy to map.
If you don’t have the time or budget to go away for a couple of days, try an afternoon trip out of town. For me a change of scenery and a journey someplace never fails to get me productive, scribbling ideas and solving problems that I would struggle to back home. I used to call these trips ‘inspiration jaunts’, prompted by how historically many artists embarked on trips to inspire their creativity.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you aren’t going to solve those business problems or generate ideas in the same environment. Inspiration out requires inspiration in; so go somewhere and get inspired....
The saying goes ‘write about what you know’ and I certainly know my subject when it comes to living the multi-dimensional work life. From my Saturday job as a teenager right through to today I’ve always enjoyed juggling more than one role; sometimes by default rather than design. In my last proper job at the back end of the ‘90s I ran so many disparate projects and businesses I invented my own job title ‘Special Projects Director’ to attempt to cover that breadth. Now, we’re more than a job title. Many of us have mash-up work lives, blending the day job with a side project, taking on more than one role at an organisation or just choosing to carve out a plural life that reflects our talents and desires.
I have packaged up all my experience and know-how into a brand new book ‘Mash-Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier’ - out today (out in US next month). In writing the book with my co-author David Sloly I’ve spoken to a bunch of interesting people: IDEO’s Tom Hulme who told me not only did the organisation encourage employees to be plural, but they relied on it; Phill Jupitus who told us about the unifier that sits at the heart of all he does; and Kevin Roberts, the multidimensional CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi.‘Mash-up!’ is your guidebook to a successful multiple work life. It shows you how to start going plural with a side project, through to reinventing yourself to add new strings to your bow and most importantly finding your ‘unifier’ - the theme or idea that unites all you do.
Not much is certain in this unpredictable world of work and business; but one thing is clear - those who can offer more than one skill, those who can pivot or reinvent themselves to reflect a changing business landscape, those who are adept at being multidimensional will prove to be more of an asset.Want to know more?
Throughout my working life I've learnt a lot about what it takes to come up with ideas - whether for a book, a business, another creative project, or a marketing solution for a client - and I know what it takes to execute.
A couple of months back I met up with Marianne Cantwell, founder of Free Range Humans who shot a little video of me for her online course. This two minute extract below captures how I come up with creative ideas, what I learnt from music legend Wilko Johnson, my tips on idea execution and what on earth I'm doing working out of an art gallery!