Monthly Archives: May 2017

Get real

Reviewing Create Special – a new book on entrepreneurship

Writing a book for would-be entrepreneurs is not easy if you care about the people with the business ideas more than your reputation as a writer.

It’s easy to write a book along the lines of ‘if you care enough and want it enough you’ll get there’ and bookshop shelves show that many do – no doubt reflecting the famous-for-15-minutes-talent-show-con that pervades our TVs (ably assisted by series like The Apprentice)

It’s harder to write a book about the reality of starting a business – with all the pain that can inflict – because you risk putting off the very readers you hope will be inspired by your writing to rise above the barriers, reach for the stars, and be the best they can be (see, I’m getting carried away with that sort of bullshit myself).

Yes – passion and self-belief are important ingredients in any business start-up (why else would you put in the necessary slog to give your enterprise the best chance of success?) but it’s certainly not enough.

I come to be writing this review of Create Special by Jim Duffy though my day-job helping young people explore the world of enterprise and to start their own businesses if that’s the route they chose to take. I should declare an interest here – author Jim Duffy founded Entrepreneurial Spark – a network of business start-up incubators powered by [as they say] NatWest Bank around the UK, and I’m pleased and grateful to have access to one of those incubators, in Milton Keynes, for working with some of the young people who may become business owners of the future.

Ultimately, I feel it’s a disservice to anyone with a business idea to pretend that everyone can be successful if they try hard enough. There are able and less able people out there, and there are certainly good and bad business ideas. Even the best people with the best ideas can fail for very good reasons. For young people who lead complicated lives and have more obstacles than most to achieving business success, it’s dangerous to set them up to fail. Equally it’s also unhelpful to dismiss their abilities, as many authority figures have probably done already in their short lives.

So, in reviewing Create Special, I have a particular interest in assessing how well Jim Duffy has walked that tightrope – to balance inspiration and information – and whether this is a book for young people whom the system has failed and sent to the back of the queue.

I’ve already mentioned business bullshit and I think Jim Duffy scores pretty well on that (by which I mean low). As a lifelong bull-fighter against lazy language, I have my ‘red rag words’ – like ‘engage’ and ‘deliver’ which are meaningless without more detail (that then makes them redundant). Another, newer ‘d’ word I dislike is ‘disruptive’ – I think it’s often used to make something (or someone) sound more interesting than it/he/she is – like ‘new’ and ‘exciting’.

Jim Duffy gets as far as page 9 before using ‘disrupt’. I know lots of disruptive young people but you wouldn’t want them behaving like that in your business incubator! Yes – I’m the first to admit I’m a grumpy old pedant when it comes to language and communication.

Another bugbear of mine is the image surrounding entrepreneurs (particularly social entrepreneurs – about whom I’ve written in earlier blogs).  Awards, and not a few TV programmes with self-promoting, young (and often male) presenters are designed to give entrepreneurship (not quite the oldest profession… but one of them) an edgy and, dare I say it, ‘disruptive’ feel. While this is great for attracting young and young-at-heart entrepreneurs to give it a go, we need to guard against raising those false expectations.

While I think Jim Duffy comes close to presenting entrepreneurs as somehow super-human, he redeems himself by suggesting that creativity can be nurtured as well as being bestowed by nature and Channel 4. Also, that once developed, creative skills can be a real asset for navigating life in general as well as the world of business start-ups. I always say that a failed business start-up and the problem-solving skills it develops, can be a great springboard for later life.

In the world of entrepreneurship, case studies abound with the true tales of people who have overcome all sorts of physical and mental disadvantages to achieve business success (often defined as being wealthy beyond belief). And I’m not knocking them; such stories of success in the face of adversity make good copy and give hope to us all.

But whether you measure achievement in £-s-d or in some other way, I suspect that most successful businesses start from positions of relative privilege –  in university settings, in families where business is in the blood, in households where friends and family support – with contacts if not cash – in the early years.

A generalisation perhaps, but when working with young people who have an overlay of disadvantages such that turning up to a business advice session at an agreed time is itself an achievement, that starting point is important. In a section on focus, Jim Duffy suggests readers  could ‘lock yourself away in a remote cottage’ as one way to avoid distractions. Since even having a quiet space at home in which to write a business plan is on a wish-list for some of the young people I know, I’m delighted that Duffy also suggests you can shut the door to your study [or bedroom, or kitchen?] He also makes the case for having a notebook (and not necessarily one of the Mac variety…)  in which to write the right kind of #GoDo to-do lists; high-tech is not always best.

They say that parents should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’ and I think that in Create Special Jim Duffy just about gets the right balance between information for growing and inspiration for flying.  I regret that I came to entrepreneurship, and the creativity and problem-solving skills that places like Jim Duffy and NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark can unlock, relatively late in life. But it’s never too late to start – go create!

If you order a copy of Create Special online from Hive, you also support high street bookshops… http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jim-Duffy/Create-Special–Think-and-Act-Like-an-Entrepreneur-to-Change-Your-Life/20820428

On social entrepreneurs  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

When John Noakes came to dinner

The death of a ‘TV personality’ who has been out of the public eye for a long time inevitably brings out reminiscences that have lain dormant for many years. Not so with John Noakes, a presenter with the renowned children’s TV programme Blue Peter from 1965 – 1978.

It was only last week I was thinking about Noakes when discussing after-dinner speakers with a group of young would-be entrepreneurs developing ‘elevator pitches’ to describe their business ideas.

Back in the late 70s when at university in London, I was involved with the Geographical Society –  an excuse for having fun rather than doing anything particularly geographical. Inviting John Noakes to speak at our annual black-tie Geography Society Dinner had started as a joke…  No one was more surprised than the organising committee when the great man agreed to attend (I seem to remember we discovered a connection with one of our fellow geographers which may have helped).

All went according to plan and he performed well, as you’d expect from a professional, although I now learn he was really quite shy and regarded each public appearance as ‘a performance’ as befits the trained actor he was. Four decades later I can only remember he spoke about his love of sailing. This was some years before his two failed attempts to circumnavigate the world. The second attempt in 1984 included a planned three-day stopover in Majorca where, instead of taking to the high seas, he stayed for the rest of his life.

Remembering that John Noakes talked about sailing is more than I can say about an after-dinner speaker at another Geographical Society Dinner. This time we had invited a professional public speaker (I don’t know how we could afford to have him there). To be fair, he did promise we’d remember nothing about his talk just moments before doing his party piece – clearing a space on the dining table in front of him before performing a headstand. His name was Gyles Brandreth and he’s quite right – I remember nothing other than his headstand!

I use that headstand as an example of a hook to grab audience interest when making a presentation. I suspect that the young entrepreneurs with whom I shared it will not be imitating Gyles Brandreth to grab attention at their next business pitches, but even something a little less dramatic will show they were listening to mine.

Is teamwork overrated?

“It takes three weeks to prepare an impromptu speech” Mark Twain

One of my hobbies is preparing ‘off the cuff’ responses to jargon-ridden (usually in business) bullshit. I already knew the “but there is ‘me’” response to the classic “there’s no ‘I’ in team”.

Now, thanks to writer Steven Poole, I know two more retorts – “but there are five in ‘individually brilliant’” and (as Poole puts is) a more forthright response “but there is a * in c*nt” (I’m saving the blushes of more delicate readers here)

I once worked with someone who, four years after leaving the Air Force (where I’m sure they go large on teamwork) had set up a successful social enterprise to meet a local need. He’d bypassed the local community and, when asked why he hadn’t involved other people – the politically-correct, textbook thing to do –  he replied “If I had, a committee would still be trying to agree a name for the enterprise.”

Throughout my career, my instinct has been to go down the collaborative route – probably related to my pacifist Quaker upbringing that advocates consensus as the route to conflict resolution. I still believe we can ultimately do more together than alone but, in the past decade, I’ve concluded that life is too short and real needs too great to wait to get everyone on board. A more productive approach (albeit potentially less sustainable in the long run) is to ‘just do it’ and bring in others later – on the principle that people want to be associated with successful initiatives and they will follow the ‘early adopters’.

Where I think that teamwork is essential is in bringing companionship into the office environment – mutual support that’s particularly vital when involved in emotionally-draining occupations.

Which is why I despair that some short-sighted policy wonk from on high is wreaking havoc with the morale of health service professionals by suggesting they take their laptops and ‘go mobile’ by working in their cars and at home. While this is no doubt meant to save the NHS on office costs, the result is that workers are leaving the Health Service in droves; it’s making them ill.

To read the worst examples of office jargon  http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Steven-Poole/Who-Touched-Base-in-my-Thought-Shower–A-Treasury-of-Unbe/15772172

Let’s talk about health and haircuts

 

 

 

Mental Health Awareness week is 8-14 May but, like dogs at Christmas, talking about mental health is for life, not just one week a year. So what about the reference to ‘hair’ I hear you ask. Bear with me…

We all know that men (myself included) are not very good when it comes to talking about the ‘important stuff’ – personal feelings, health and wellbeing etc.

Great news then that various new campaigns – In Your Corner and Heads Together being just two – are focusing on removing the stigma around mental ill health and getting people to talk (particularly men) about emotional health.

One of the problem for well-meaning people is that they don’t quite know how the get conversations started – they worry about ‘saying the wrong thing’. But you needn’t worry – just starting a conversation is a major contribution in itself. Ask ‘how are you feeling today?’, resist the temptation to interrupt if there’s a pregnant pause, and above all, listen.

Choosing the right time is another concern – we all lead such active lives (which may be part of the problem!) and it’s easy to use ‘busy-ness’ as an excuse for delaying/ putting off the conversation.

Which is where hair comes in. Readers of an earlier blog will know I’m intrigued by the recent growth in the number (five at the last count) of barber shops in Royston where I live. Taking a lead from an initiative in London, I’ve launched a little local campaign – Two Heads – to get barbershops (a good place for head-to-heads) talking about men’s health. I’ve created a Facebook page and a resources pack for the five Royston barbers – with posters, a list of useful resources, including apps, organisations, and links to professionally produced information sheets. I’ve offered the barbers informal training in mental health awareness and the tell-tale signs of self-harm. Watch this space.

So what are you waiting for? Put together your own pack and get on down to your local barbers – whether or not you need a haircut (or, like me, have no hair worth cutting) – this Mental Health Awareness Week.

www.facebook.com/TwoHeadsHealth

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/hair-care-in-the-barbers-chair/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/news/be-in-your-mates-corner

https://www.headstogether.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

My four mothers – no man’s land #5

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

Family gathering at my grandfather’s funeral 1965. Was my jaunty pose a front and where were my male cousins?

My mum used to say she only ever wanted to be a mother (admitting in the same breath many could not afford to have a similar ambition). She believed parenting was an essential skill and a noble calling for the wider benefit of society. And who could argue with that?

She also said she felt her life’s work was to leave the world a better place than when she was born – so she didn’t limit her horizons to bringing up a family!

My mum’s maternal desires meant that I was one of four children – the youngest, and the only boy. I believe she would have gone on having children until a boy came along, so it’s just as well I appeared when I did (although I think my parents would have considered adoption if I’d been a fourth girl).

I know that in my early years I was spoilt. I was ‘the baby’ of the family (and feel I have remained so ever since) growing up with four mothers. At school, my friends would say how lucky I was to have three sisters at home to do the housework. I was lucky – I love them dearly – but it didn’t get me out of cleaning and tidying up; I had five family members making sure I did my fair share of the chores.

I’ll never know whether, if I’d spent my adolescent years at home with my sisters, my self-image as a boy and a man would now be different. I didn’t have the opportunity to find out as I went to a boy’s boarding school from 11 to 18 years, more about this in a later blog.

What I do know is that living for the first ten years of my life in a house filled with women – not just my mother and sisters, but all their school friends – gave me a pretty one-sided view of the ‘opposite’ sex. Or you could say it gave me an accurate view – of girls as people rather than objects of desire. Obviously I could never see what attracted boys to my sisters, but that’s probably the same for all siblings.

Not that my pre-boarding school life was entirely bereft of male company. My next-door neighbour – a friend until his untimely death aged 52 – was only slightly older than me and we did all the things pubescent boys do. We argued, bust up and made up on a regular basis, dabbled in girlie magazines, talked and watched football, went to see Mott the Hoople surprisingly often across the Mersey in Liverpool, made dens and climbed trees in the woods behind our house.

Of course, parents would never allow unaccompanied trips to the woods these days (I only had one dirty old man expose himself to me) but maybe the fact we often had our two elder sisters with us made it OK. Both those sisters were described at the time as ‘tom boys’ and only recently I read someone’s observation that there was never an equivalent description, that wasn’t derogatory, for boys who liked to do the same sorts of things as girls.

I know I was quite a sensitive young man. Before going to boarding school, I went dinghy sailing with another sister’s boyfriend. I don’t know how or why, but I read a love poem he’d written (someone suggested it might have been referring to my sister but that would be just too romantic…).

50 years on I can just about remember the poem – so touched was I by its sweet simplicity and his use of words

I remember her face (I think)

and a summer evening

standing on the shore

watching the Mersey

turning in its sleep

and the seagulls crying

sliding down the sky

like kids on banisters

while we wrote

I love you

in the sweaty summer sand

with sticks

and skipped across rocks

and both held hands

to keep from falling

out of love

But we couldn’t

That sense of lost love must have struck a chord with me, even at that stage in my life, and yet if you’d asked me to describe love I would have been hard-pressed to do so (but maybe this would be the same for most boys of that age, if not for most girls as well).

I was surrounded by love – my ‘four mothers’ and a father whom I now realise has had a massive influence on my whole life – good more than bad (but more about that in a later blog). Maybe that’s why being ‘sent away’ to boarding school felt like rejection, even though it was done for what my parents considered to be all the right reasons and with my complete agreement.

To be continued…

For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land