Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.

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Birkenhead revisited – no man’s land #7  

 

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

I believe Birkenhead has always suffered from being just across the Mersey from Liverpool – with the Beatles, scousers and two top football team. In contrast, Birkenhead doesn’t often hit the headlines and, when it does, it can be for the wrong reasons.

But unlike Liverpool, Birkenhead can boast that it’s on the Wirral. Yes, ‘the’ Wirral because it’s short for the Wirral peninsula – the bulge across the water from Liverpool that’s bordered on three sides by the rivers Mersey and Dee and the Irish Sea. Then there’s the debate about whether its ‘in’ or ‘on’ the Wirral. In 2014, an online poll of Liverpool Echo readers showed that 73% of respondents would use the phrase “on the Wirral” in everyday conversation, as opposed to “in the Wirral” or “in Wirral”.

I was intrigued to see a recent piece in a national newspaper hailing some famous people from the Wirral, with one from Birkenhead. Half, in fact, were not from the Wirral. War poet Wilfred Owen is from Oswestry (not the Wirral), actor Daniel Craig is from Chester (not the Wirral). The late great John Peel was from Heswall on the Wirral, and Jodie Taylor (England and ex-Tranmere Rovers footballer) is a Birkonian!

And I am/was also a Birkonian. For the first 15 years of my life when I wasn’t away at boarding school I lived in Birkenhead. I have happy memories of those years, but have never really felt I belonged there. Despite return visits for family gatherings, including funerals, I’ve never thought I’d live there again. Of course, if the family business had survived I might have been destined for a career in textiles and my life would, undoubtedly, have turned out very differently.

If you don’t know Birkenhead, enough to say my mum said she spent 50 years trying to get away from the place; she used to say you never meet people going to Birkenhead – they have always come from there. To mis-quote comedian Sue Perkins “Birkenhead is less a place, more the punchline for a joke.”

But like the Therfield Heath jewel in Royston’s crown, Birkenhead has its own gemstone – Birkenhead Park – and with it, a place in the record books. I can do no better than the description by Bill Bryson (yes – him again) so I won’t try. It is a typical large Victorian City park, with playgrounds and playing fields, some woodlands, a picturesque lake with a boathouse and rustic bridge… It was a pleasant, wholly conventional urban park on a Sunday morning, but Birkenhead has one special feature; it is the oldest urban park in the world… purpose-built for the amusement of all people.

If Bill Bryson had visited the park on a Saturday morning he might have witnessed Birkenhead parkrun (yes, it’s a lower case ‘p’) – with over 300 runners lapping the park three times from 9am every week at vastly different speeds since July 2015.

Such public access and enjoyment would have delighted American journalist turned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who, as Bill Bryson relates, built more than 100 parks across North America.

Olmsted’s most famous design was Central Park in New York – as Bob Harrison, a Birkenhead parkrunner, was proud to remind me when we bumped into each other (not literally) at Wimpole parkrun in south Cambridgeshire. Wimpole, a National Trust estate, is my local parkrun. As readers of an earlier blog in this ‘No Man’s Land’ series may remember, I spent 9 months of my life trying to set up a Royston parkrun on Therfield Heath but finally ran into a brick wall in the shape of the Heath Conservators (capital ‘H’, capital ‘C’)

Despite the appeal of Birkenhead Park, the Fab Four and various boyfriends, I think it’s fair to say that my three older sisters, like me, have never felt inclined to move back there, suggesting their sense of belonging was no stronger than mine. And my sisters went through primary and secondary education in the town so they had the opportunity to build even stronger ties.

Unlike my sisters, my  exam results weren’t good enough for a free place in a local independent school so, when the possibility of going to a single sex boarding school in York came along, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Getting away from girls, the extra help with my studies and, above all, making a canoe – I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

It would be churlish to criticise my parents for doing what they thought was best for their youngest child, but I now believe my secondary schooling had a massive, and not entirely positive, effect on the rest of my life.

For a well-observed and funny portrayal of Birkenhead, listen to Mark Steel’s in Town – Birkenhead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEgPktmj9Tg 

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

Counting what counts

Last Friday I found myself staring at a quotation on a hotel wall at 7.30am. I was about to enjoy a community breakfast meeting that I attend each month at the same hotel. I’ve seen the quote many times before and I like it almost as much as a full English breakfast, even though it’s widely mis-attributed (including by the hotel) to Albert Einstein.

The correct attribution for ‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted’ appears to be William Bruce Cameron. The first reference found is as recent as 1986, but that was 30 years after Einstein’s death in 1955. That doesn’t matter to me – it’s the insight I value – but I expect it would bother Cameron.

A day after re-admiring the quote, I had its significance confirmed at parkrun – a free timed 5 kilometres run involving over 1 million runners of all ages and abilities across the UK every Saturday morning at 9am, not to mention a vast army of volunteer marshals. The big thing for me about parkrun is (apart from it being independent of government and the 2012 Olympic legacy) that, as is always emphasised, it’s a run not a race.

We’re also told that parkrun is all about community – everyone supporting each other – it’s not about the running. But last Saturday for the first time in four years and 64 parkruns I forgot to take my barcode – essential for getting a time for my run. In my 15 + years of off-road running I’ve only run competitively on three occasions – I run for fun, not to compete with myself or anyone else. So, I was taken aback by my reaction to discovering (after my 5K run) that the time wouldn’t appear on my personal parkrun profile.

I was surprised to be bothered about not being able to get my parkrun time, although I think it was as much annoyance about my own forgetfulness. Then I remembered that William Cameron quote and I realised that what really mattered was running around a beautiful National Trust estate on a sunny Saturday morning in August with 350 lovely parkrunners.

More on measurement https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/measure-what-matters

Discover parkrun at www.parkrun.org.uk

Are experts overrated?

In my work with young people who are thinking about setting up their own business, I constantly stress the importance of honesty. I mean honesty with themselves as much as with anything else. Being self-aware and having the confidence to share personal weaknesses, as well as strengths, can be very powerful in our famous-for-15-minutes-for-doing-nothing society.

Of course, we’re taught to ‘present our best side’ at job interviews and on CVs and a certain amount of ‘embellishment of the facts’ is almost expected. But I tell young entrepreneurs when it comes to business plans, it’s best to be realistic but positive. Business pitches with sky-high sales expectations and false claims about relevant skills (‘extensive experience in market gardening’ was how one young man described his two-week work placement) will be found out and can ruin reputations.

Which is not to say we have to spend all our time telling others why we’re a liability rather than an asset – that’s not the way to make friends and influence people.

In a previous advisory role I worked with charities and social enterprises and, at a first meeting, I’d say “tell me a bit about your organisation”. I still remember the Chief Officer who said “we’re good at this, this and this, we need to get better at this, this and this”. Here was someone I could work with – he knew what he didn’t know (if that doesn’t sound too Donald Rumsfeld). Not surprisingly I’ve forgotten those who, at that first meeting, denied they had any areas for improvement (in which case, why was I being brought in to support them?)

Readers of earlier blogs will know of my love of language and my loathing of carelessly used abbreviations, jargon, and red-rag words such as ‘deliver’ and ‘engage’ which are so vague as to be meaningless. It’s a lexicon for self-styled experts, so insecure in their knowledge and status that they feel the need to dispense wheelbarrow loads of bullshit.

Whenever I doubt my own knowledge (more often than not!) I tell myself that a real expert is prepared to admit their ignorance. Many years ago I was at a public meeting with the then Chairman of the Forestry Commission. He was asked an apparently very straight forward questions by a lad in his early teens. Lord Taylor (the ‘tree expert’) paused for a moment then said, “you won’t believe this, but I don’t know the answer to that… but I’ll find out and let you know.

And even if you are an expert – with certificates, letters after your name, and all the associated bells and whistles to prove it – don’t think you can sit back and bask in the glory. There’s something else to keep you awake at night – the ‘impostor syndrome’. Also known as the fraud syndrome, the term was coined as recently as 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It afflicts high-achieving individuals who are unable to acknowledge and accept their accomplishments and, as a result, they have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud’.

So maybe bullshitting has its appeal after all…

20 reads about repairing, sharing and reusing

The ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of cutting waste, saving money and fixing the planet

If you have problems with downloading, copy and paste link in your browser

 

The Fixer’s Manifesto http://repaircafe-esslingen.de/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/sugru_manifesto.pdf   

How to run a Repair Café  http://circularcambridge.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/How-to-run-a-Repair-Cafe-updated-12April16.pdf and www.instructables.com/id/Host-a-Repair-Cafe

Keep the date – FixFest 2017 https://therestartproject.org/community/fixfest

Repair and Share Guide: profiles of 6 inspirational organisation keeping things in use for longer, plus with top tips for setting up your own http://cfsd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Repair_and_Share_PRINT.pdf

 

What is a library of things?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNca7UVW6g4   

Citizen-driven repair: research sources www.cfsd.org.uk/research including a global survey of Repair Cafes

Eco guide to the repair economy www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/02/the-eco-guide-to-the-repair-economy?

A Greenpeace guide to the repair-ability of your mobile device www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/Global/eastasia/publications/reports/toxics/2017/howrepairableisyourmobiledevice.pdf  

Care and repair – your clothes http://loveyourclothes.org.uk/care-repair

Farnham Repair Café YouTube channel www.youtube.com/channel/UCkzO-v8mM-TeEf_dFqV5pCw

UK Funding for local waste reduction http://ciwm-journal.co.uk/funding-boost-councils-target-weee-reuse

Join the campaign against product obsolescence  www.rethink-it.org sign the petition and check out your product

DIY repair guides:

www.patagonia.com/worn-wear-repairs

www.wikihow.com/wikiHowTo?search=Repair

www.instructables.com/howto/repair

www.ifixit.com/Guide

 

Reduce, reuse, recycle www.epa.gov/recycle

20 Simple ways to live more lightly https://theconsciousvegan.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/20-small-ways-to-make-a-big-difference  [photo]

The forgotten R … repair https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-forgotten-r-reduce-reuse-recycle-and-repair 

 

 

List compiled August 2017 by Chris Lee. Royston Repair Café  www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

Thanks to Prof Martin Charter www.linkedin.com/in/martin-charter-frsa-6289097/?ppe=1           http://cfsd.org.uk/events/farnham_repair_cafe

My father’s shadow – no man’s land #6  

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

When I was of an age to be going out into the world – just before secondary school and at the onset of puberty I suppose, my Dad said to me “If you see an opportunity son, grab it with both hands”.

I’ve tried to follow this advice throughout my life and, in the family home, I had every opportunity to do so. I had it easy, my three elder sisters had fought all the parental battles for me – staying out late, drinking in pubs, hitch-hiking. And my parents also had a view that, as a boy, I was that much more able to look after myself, so I was even allowed to hitch-hike [if you’re too young to know what that is, look it up] on my own.

You might think from this that my Dad was a happy-go-lucky, glass-half-full kind of a person, but his approach to own life was more sanguine. More than once he’d say: “I assume the worst is going to happen, so if it does I’m prepared and, if it doesn’t, I’m pleasantly surprised.”

This says much about a man I loved and admired and who had a profound effect on my life that persists long after his death – not least in fuelling my love of words.

The radio, not TV, was ever-present in our house (My Word – a panel game – being a family favourite) as were shelf-loads of books. But I think I probably inherited my love of language and communication from my father; he was a great thinker and a skilled user of the spoken word in particular. He loved deep intellectual discussions – even with strangers and when, in later life, his job required ‘small talk’ he had to work hard (checking in with my mum from time to time to find out how he was doing). If you know about Berne’s levels of communication, my dad was keen to jump from ‘ritual’ to ‘rapport’ in one leap.

His ability to articulate his deeply-held inner beliefs is perhaps best illustrated by his refusal, as a Quaker, to fight in the Second World War. He went before a tribunal with three possible outcomes – imprisonment, work on a farm, or complete discharge. His ability to convince the panel of the sincerity of his pacifism meant he was given a complete discharge, spending the war years voluntarily fire-fighting in the East End of London. My dad was the first to admit that equally sincere Conscientious Objectors ended up in jail because they didn’t have the means to put their beliefs into words.

I’ve often wondered whether, if the need arose, I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty for my beliefs and, if I had the opportunity, whether I would be able to put heart-felt feelings into words. It’s not a thing that most men are very good at – which pretty much explains the genesis of this ‘No man’s land’ series of blog posts.

I’ve never pretended to be an armchair psychologist, and I don’t intend to start now, but that doesn’t stop me looking at the similarities (other than our shared love of words) and differences between me and my Dad, and reflecting on some of the memories that have lingered the longest.

We shared a boarding school education, albeit 40 years apart. Like many others sent away for their schooling by their parents, I’ve often wondered why someone who himself disliked the experience would even consider sending his own son away to be ‘parented’ by strangers. Admittedly my father went to a boarding school when he was eight (I was 11 years and 1 month), but even he attributed his lifelong nervous ticks and twitches to that early schooling. So he couldn’t even use the well-worn refrain ‘well, it never did me any harm…’

Both my parents loved music and sang in a choir – a passion they passed to us four children in pretty much equal measure. Along with the sound of his singing, and guitar playing, I have happy memories of my Dad whistling (why do so few people whistle these days?) I took it to be a sign of his contentment. Only later in life did I realise that it often, but not always I like to think, indicated he was getting agitated; impatient about us not getting in the car maybe, or something not turning out as he’d planned.

If only I’d been more aware, maybe I could have responded to the early warning signs whistling in my ears. But, as I say, males of all ages seem to be conditioned to keep sensitivity at arm’s length and their feelings inside.

That said, a rather more direct expression of my father’s annoyance when we weren’t doing what we were told came in the form of two ‘threats’ that, looking back, were somewhat at odds with his non-violent beliefs. The first warning was a verbal “do I have to hit you to show you I mean it?” (I hasten to add he never did) and the second was non-verbal and arguably more threatening.

For some reason, my dad always had a stash of pins in his jacket lapel. I never knew why but, since he was in the textile business, maybe he picked them up all day at work and simply stored them there. Whatever the reason, if he wanted us to do something that we didn’t, he would make an exaggerated move to pick a pin from behind his lapel to threaten us with it. The pin never came out far, but I’m sure social services would have something to say about this in the current climate.

His application of amateur psychology also manifested itself in more benign ways. When I couldn’t sleep at night, he’d promise me half-a-crown [look it up if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about] if I stayed awake all night. The effort of doing this sent me straight off to sleep of course. I fell for it every time.

For men of a certain age, their paid work often defines them but not, I think, in my Dad’s case. He worked in the family firm until he was 55 when the business closed down. He said he was less upset about this than others. This may be because, as Financial Director, he’d lived with the possibility of closure for five years or maybe it was him denying his true feelings.  The only break from the business – which wove textiles and hand-crafted tapestries – was a period during the war when, through his pacifism, he refused to work there because the factory was making uniforms for the armed forces. Like his conscientious objection to war, this principled stand – in his own family firm – impressed me greatly; something that I believe had a profound effect on me in later life.

My dad seemed to work a pretty fixed week – leaving home around 7.30am for the 20-minute walk to work. He would arrive back in time for tea at 6pm around the kitchen table – an important family fixture in the working week.  After tea, he’d dedicate equal time to each of us four children. For me this might be kicking a football on the rough ground next to our house or helping me with my homework. His patience and dedication were amazing and much greater, I think, than mine was with our (only) daughter.

Weekends we did father-and-son things like going to football matches – Tranmere Rovers, Everton or Liverpool. He also cultivated my love of woodwork and generally doing things with my hands – which I think has ‘saved me’ in later life. All very much boy’s stuff – but I think this was a well-intentioned and conscious effort to counter the female influence in our home.

He was pretty much ever-present at home before I went away to school, all except for an annual six-week business trip around Europe making the most of his foreign language skills. During those sales trips, we took it in turns to sleep next to my mum in their bed. I don’t think she got much sleep during those six weeks, but when it was my turn I was excited all day at primary school. Even now I can remember sleeping soundly, that wonderful feeling of being safe and secure in a warm cosy bed.

Returning to my father’s strict moral code (not that he overtly imposed his views on us children) I remember a summer fair at which there was a ‘guess-the-number-of-currants-in-the-cake’ stall – a fundraiser with the winner having the cake that was there on display. Quakers are against gambling so, rather than guess, my Dad counted the number of currents he could see on the surface, measured the size of the cake and did the necessary calculation to come up with the answer. He duly won the cake with a clear conscience!

The clarity with which I remember things like this – that happened over 50 years ago – is a sign of my dad’s continuing presence in my life (and probably the fact that favourite family stories were often re-told). On an almost daily basis I still catch myself repeating my father’s sayings, but always with credit … ‘as my old dad used to say’.

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