Authenticity, creativity and better business

In my work with young entrepreneurs thinking of setting up their own businesses, I stress the importance of honesty and integrity in business practices. This is not just about keeping on the right side of the law and avoiding business bullshit in promotion and sales, it’s about being honest about strengths and weaknesses. Being self-aware is important as long as it’s balanced – absolute honesty in our relations with others doesn’t always help…

It’s also about business values – red lines that would-be business owners will not cross. This came up in a meeting last week when a young entrepreneur told me “I don’t want to develop my business if that’s the kind of way I’m expected to behave.” She might have been talking about a recent edition of The Apprentice; it was actually something closer to home. I congratulated her on making that stand – her personal integrity being more important than the pursuit of pure (or, in her view, impure) business success and sales.

The red lines are not nearly so easily drawn in other, more creative, ventures. Last Friday I had two demonstrations of this at different ends of the same day.

At a breakfast meeting with a photographer we were talking about the digital manipulation of images which, at its most extreme is the difference being a documentary record and a digital artwork. The photographer’s view was that, in artistic terms, if the final image (whether manipulated or not) pleases the viewer that’s what matters. He backed up his argument by saying that landscape painter Constable would manipulate the view, re-arranging trees and other intrusions, to create the desired effect. Whether enhancement is digital (as in fingers) or digital (as in electronic) he suggested, it’s a widely accepted tradition.

Last Friday night, 14 hours after my discussion with the photographer, I was at our local folk club enjoying a breath-taking performance by a guitar-playing singer-songwriter backed by six very talented string musicians. The room was too small and too hot for comfort, the sound was unbalanced, and the guitar for the first number was out of tune. But the performance was amazing – raw, untamed… in a word, authentic. I bought a CD of the pieces the band had performed – engineered in a studio to iron out all the music imperfections. It was still a delight, but a pale imitation of the authentic original live performance.

For value-based enterprises, a business manifesto is one way to wear your heart on your sleeve http://www.valuablecontent.co.uk/blog/how-to-write-a-business-manifesto

See also https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/are-experts-overrated

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My birthday bucket list – part 2

In part 1 of this bucket list blog post I wrote “doing one [activity] a week during August seems logical but it might not work out like that” and that’s just what happened. I was a third into the month before I seriously thought about any of the four items so it was time to do at least one of them. In the event, I did the first two in 24 hours.

First up was Hitchin Lavender, which I discovered is not actually in Hitchin. It’s just outside a place called Ickleford. It could be could be an idyllic rural North Hertfordshire setting if it wasn’t for the Virgin Trains sweeping by on the main line to Scotland every 30 minutes or so.

Our visit to Hitchin Lavender itself could also have been a quiet and relaxing experience if it hadn’t been for the visitors (us included of course). Little did I know that it had featured on BBC TV just 4 days before because of the dramatic growth in Asian visitors, following publicity on Chinese social media. This may have explained the loving couple being photographed waist-high in the purple stuff, but I didn’t ask (despite my surname being Chinese for plum).

And there are lots for visitors from near and far to see. Yes, you can gather lavender (paper bags and scissors provided) for a fiver and visit an attractively small one-room museum, but you can also buy anything and everything to do with lavender. You can, of course, have a nice cuppa (I was surprised not to see an Ickleford Lavender Cream Tea) and you can even do yoga classes. I was impressed – as much by the entrepreneurialism of the owners as the size of the lavender fields. I also learnt, despite six years of commuting in to London, that the lavender fields are visible from the train.

Without a pause to consider which bucket list adventure to pursue next, a good weather forecast for the night – dry and clear – made it an ideal opportunity for sleeping under the stars. And not just any stars, it was the weekend for viewing the Perseid meteor shower promising 100 shooting stars every hour between 11pm and 4am. That morning I’d reclaimed an 8ft x 4ft wooden pallet from the builders next door – so my bed was sorted. Clearly choosing that day for my ‘night out’ was, er… written in the stars.

That night I lay on my pallet wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a tarpaulin to keep me dry from the dew (it didn’t). I’d like to report I lay back wide-eyed with wildlife sounds around me to be treated to an astronomic lightshow overhead. I wasn’t. The sounds were more man-made – motorbikes and cars on the A505, planes (Luton and Stansted airports are just 40 minutes away). Soon after settling down, I did see one shooting star out of the corner of my eye. I was then so intent on seeing more… I soon fell asleep as light clouds came across to deny me a real spectacle to sleep through.          

Next was Scott’s Grotto and it surpassed its low-key billing. You may remember, I’d been ‘finding time’ to visit for 23 years, and it was well worth the wait. An unassuming entrance – no neon lights and even the small official lamp post sign was unreadable – was easily missed.

If the word grotto conjures up images of Santa and his little helpers, well there was no Santa (but a very friendly and helpful guide) but there were plenty of little elves – rushing up and down the underground tunnels, flashing torches and knocking a shell off the wall in the process. It will take more than a lively child or two to damage the six underground chambers – the grotto has been there since 1760. And there were literally thousands of shells, flints and bits of coloured glass left lining the walls when they were gone – a truly impressive display. Like the lavender field’s proximity to the commuter line to London, I realised on leaving that I’d been driving regularly within about 50 metres of the entrance to Scott’s Grotto for the past 15 years. And did I mention the 18th summerhouse on the same site I’d also overlooked?

Watch badgers: Badgers permitting, this was potentially going to be the most exciting item on the list for me. I’d only recently discovered it was possible to do it through the local Wildlife Trust.

We had to wait a good few weeks to get to the front of the queue, but the visit was everything I hoped it would be. We entered the hide (glass-fronted from floor to roof) just as it was getting dark. As the natural light went down the show began across a natural floodlit stage. All it needed was Carnival of the Animals playing in the background. Rats were the warm up act – scurrying in and out from under the hide to eat the food the Wildlife Trust put out each evening. The scene was set for the main act – ahead stage right we could see what looked like a pathway down to the badger set. First a couple of rabbits with walk-on parts crossed the field ahead.

20 minutes in, the first badgers appeared – lolloping up the pathway towards the hide, in twos and threes. We didn’t know how many to expect – there were eventually ten. In between two appearances (the badgers were scared off back to their set, but not by us) two foxes ambled across the stage. The whole evening was brilliantly choreographed – not 100% natural but wildlife as close-up as possible, the wildlife relaxed and apparently oblivious to the audience (or playing to the gallery?) A great night.

Finally, I didn’t tell you that while waiting our turn for the badger-watching, I’ve added a fifth activity to my birthday bucket list – learning to hula hoop. I spent some birthday money from my mother-in-law on a hula-hoop which comes in six pieces making it easy to store and carry – very smart. Several YouTube videos later…

I’m still useless at hula hooping or however it’s described. Much to my annoyance, my wife is an expert. Once I’ve caught up with her, I plan to use a bike wheel rim for a real workout. I don’t know whether it’ll work but, in case it does, remember you heard about it here first.

Further information

Hitchin Lavender goes viral in China  www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-essex-40878901/hitchin-lavender-farm-experiences-huge-growth-in-international-visitors

Shell-lined grottoes are not as unusual as you might think  http://www.blottshellhouses.com/Products/Homes_and_Antiques_%20Sept%202013%20%20Cilwendeg.pdf

My birthday bucket list – part1 https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/by-birthday-bucket-list-part-1

Bucket list photo gallery https://www.facebook.com/leeinroyston/media_set?set=a.10155175734702104.1073741827.684052103&type=3

Trade secrets – paid advertising is a waste of money

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

Unless you have the money for a concerted quality advertising campaign in a proven media outlet, you’re unlikely to generate enough sales even to cover the cost of the adverts. And don’t even try to justify the expense as an investment in ‘raising awareness’ – it’s such a vague and unmeasurable objective as to be meaningless.

A young entrepreneur was tempted to pay for a ‘special offer’ – an advert and linked feature (also known as advertorial or paid content) in a quality local monthly magazine. She didn’t part with her hard-earned cash and, Instead, she got free feature coverage in the same magazine. A feature is more trusted than an advert so the editorial content should have generated a better response.

The feature generated… no enquiries. It could have been a costly mistake; she’d learnt that the chance of a particular reader needing the particular service she was offering in that particular month was very slim. It would have needed a costly year-long advertising campaign to have a reasonable chance of being seen by the right readers.

Any even then there would be no guarantee of sales.

Trade secrets – a start-up business plan is always wrong

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

Whatever goes into your business plan pre-start-up is unlikely to happen like that. Unless you can foresee the future, reality tends to get in the way.

There’s a famous military quote ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ and this applies as much to business plans as battle plans.

A start-up business plan charts 12 months ahead in a linear, orderly fashion (with words and figures hopefully describing parallel journeys) but we know that real life – personal and professional twists and turns – mean that’s unlikely to happen. We say that the business plan should be a ‘living document’ – dynamic and being constantly updated – but I wonder how many really are…

A first business plan is not a promise; it includes figures that are, at best, guesstimates. Predicting the future with no past performance for guidance is incredibly difficult, and the same goes for a new business. After test-trading, and with a year’s actual activity to feed into the plan, the picture for years 2 and 3 will be much clearer.

Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a business plan, see https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/the-business-plan-paradox

Trade secrets – you can start a business without money or time

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

Tradition says that you need money to start a business and ‘friends, family and fools’ are the most common source of that funding. While some businesses need money to buy equipment, get premises and pay staff, many can get started and test-trade with limited cash.

Nor do you need to spend months getting all the bits of the jigsaw in place before you launch. ‘Fail early, fail fast’’ is sound advice for the bold (some would say irresponsible) risk-taking entrepreneur. The theory is that getting your product/ service out there as soon as possible means your relatively limited investment of time and money will mean you’re more willing to accommodate failure, learn, and change your plan accordingly.

Which leads us to the concepts of the ‘lean start-up’ and ‘minimum viable product’. Both are about saving money until you have evidence to justify expenditure (for short term benefit) and investment (for longer term benefit).

There are other ways to save time and money at the start-up stage. Make the most of an amazing range of free business support. For a selection of free support and advice see https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/free-lunch-business-support

You can also create a minimalist business plan until you have more solid information on which to base your future business development. To quote Michael Fowle from the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University “Full business plans are a distraction. Use the Business Model Canvas and post-it notes for a near instant plan that is more flexible and valuable than the back of the envelope. [Newcastle Business School] allow 77 days to develop the idea and get “traction”, and then 77 days to turn the proven idea into a properly resourced business.”

Finally, some advice from readers of the Guardian newspaper…

  • A 30-day MVP [Minimum Viable Product] works well for IT [techy] products, but is harder (though still a useful exercise) for bricks and mortar and services start-ups
  • Superniche [a very specialist and targeted product or service] is exactly right. The only person that really matters is the customer who will fund your business (try The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick).
  • Know your customer. Get their commitment before you waste time and money.

Further reading:

Running on fumes https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/running-on-fumes-a-case-for-lean-business-start-up/

Lean thinking  https://www.squawkpoint.com/2012/07/lean-thinking

Prototyping: https://www.fastcodesign.com/1663968/wanna-create-a-great-product-fail-early-fail-fast-fail-often

The Lean Start-up http://theleanstartup.com

Minimum Viable Product https://blog.leanstack.com/minimum-viable-product-mvp-7e280b0b9418

How to start a business in 30 days www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2016/aug/19/how-to-start-a-business-in-30-days

The Business Model Canvas https://strategyzer.com/canvas/business-model-canvas

Men’s Sheds tread lightly in Redcar

Credit: Tracy Kidd Photography

It’s said that men talk shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face. This is confirmed by Shedders, mainly men of a certain age, for whom gathering in Men’s Sheds – community work-and-play spaces across the UK – means purposeful tinkering and friendly chat, well-oiled by tea.

Some of that magic will be revealed over the weekend of 23/24 September at the Festival of Thrift in Redcar – a celebration of living lightly, saving money and cutting waste. Organisers are expecting over 35,000 visitors to the free event over the weekend, and you’re invited to be one of them.

This is the first year the UK Men’s Sheds Association (UKMSA) has been at the Festival and it comes with a warm welcome from Festival Director, Stella Hall. “The Festival of Thrift is about building creative community together – and it’s great that Men’s Sheds are doing just that! We welcome the UK Men’s Sheds Association to our event and hope they will inspire a new generation to get involved.”

Throughout the weekend, UKMSA members will be sharing their skills and expertise in the Stable Block. Men, women and children can discover how to turn a wine bottle and pallet wood, into a wall-mounted candle-holder. Most Men’s Sheds make pallet wood products and some will be displayed with a chance to make simple items and have a go at dismantling a wooden pallet safely.

There will be a #FuninSheds photo competition for festival-goers with great prizes for three lucky winners. For crafty visitors, there’ll be demonstrations of pyrography (the art of decorating wood by burning the surface) a display of walking stick handle decoration, and lots more.

Further information:

Go to www.menssheds.org.uk to find your nearest Shed and advice about setting one up if there isn’t one nearby

For a BBC Countryfile profile of the Boughton on the Water Men’s Shed www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q93p9u6pl88

Discover delightful ways to have fun with thriftyness http://www.festivalofthrift.co.uk/workshops

For photos of some of the stallholders at the Festival of Thrift 2016, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/green-and-grey-a-christmas-gift-guide

What young people have taught me about starting a business  

I’m a year into my new job with The Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme, supporting young people aged 18 – 30 as they explore enterprise and self-employment. It seems like a good time to reflect and take stock.

As someone old enough to be their parent (and, dare I say it, I could be their grandparent) there’s a temptation to think that the wisdom of age and experience trumps all other knowledge. Of course it doesn’t – I never stop learning. So what have I learnt over the past 12 months from the young entrepreneurs?

Many of the young people I meet expect to be told what to do and castigated when they don’t (or can’t) do it. The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme is not about pushing young people to start their own businesses – it’s about enabling them to make informed decisions about where they want to get to in the world of work, and how they might get there. Self-employment is just one possible destination.

A lot of the young people are surprised by this laid-back approach. It’s a fine line between encouragement and more assertive guidance but, in reality, if they can’t motivate themselves to develop their business ideas they’re unlikely to succeed. And if they want a regular boot up the backside, I suggest to them they find someone else to do the kicking.

It’s easy to make achievement one dimensional – as if only what can be counted counts. Yes, it’s important to celebrate success and statistics about new business starts, number of loans made, and mentors matched; these are tangible and easy to compare year on year. But the real progress may be far less visible. Given the complicated lives of some of the young entrepreneurs, arriving at a meeting at the right time and place can be a major achievement in itself. Many are trying to set up a business against all odds – and there are some remarkable successes, even within some ‘failed’ businesses.

Passion is not enough. TV talent shows have created this myth for young people that if they want something badly enough they’ll succeed. This is unfair, it sets up unrealistic expectation in the young entrepreneurs – their business idea may be a bad one and/or they may simply not have what it takes. Managing expectations calls for sensitivity and sometimes, as with parenting, you have to bite your lip and allow young people to make mistakes and, hopefully, learn from them.

A final lesson I’ve learned from these young, sometimes inspirational, entrepreneurs is that setting up a business is often their ‘plan B’. Plan A is to get someone else to pay you to work 9 – 5 with limited responsibility and certainly with someone else working out Tax and National Insurance.

And that’s where The Prince’s Trust can also point to success.

A large number of young people may not be successful business owners but, after attending a four-day ‘Explore Enterprise’ course, mentoring, and developing a business plan, they’re more confident and employable. And a good number then get work – job done!

If you’re 18-30 and want to explore the possibility of starting your own business (or you know someone who does), The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme is for you. It’s free and available both face-to-face and online, visit www.princes-trust.org.uk/enterprise to find out more.