Monthly Archives: March 2018

Back to school – no man’s land #8 part 2

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

May 2000

When I was young, I was lucky enough to be taken to the Liverpool Playhouse. The performances there were high quality because they were warm-ups ‘in the provinces’ for plays before they transferred to the West End. I shall never forget a performance in 1971 – I was 16.

It was Michael Redgrave in The Old Boys a play of the novel by William Trevor centred on a small group of old scholars reminiscing about their boarding school days in slightly nasty tones. I remember Michael Redgrave’s powerful performance more than the play itself. A reviewer of the William Trevor book suggests “It reminds us that at every level of every society there are groups of Old Boys cocooned in smug insularity.” I now suspect the resonance might have something to do with my age and the stage of my own boarding school education and an awareness about my privileged insularity.

In the years immediately after leaving school, I returned for the annual reunions while I still knew people at the school, particularly the teachers. There then followed a long break at the end of which I first experienced clinical depression, eight months before my 40th birthday, with further episodes in the following two decades. The ‘black dog’ can always return uninvited but hasn’t done so for more than two years.

I made a conscious decision to organise a 25th anniversary reunion to try to discover if any of my contemporaries had had comparable psychological experiences in the intervening years that might be attributed to our shared education. It was also a form of ‘coming out’ to my former class mates about my mental ill health. In the event, there was no great revelation at that gathering – we didn’t all start expressing feelings that had been suppressed over the previous three decades.

With my parents retiring to the north of England it was easy to return for the annual school reunions and I took on an informal role keeping our year group in touch with each other in the run-up to each reunion. Very gradually I learnt more about the boarding school experience of my fellow old scholars.

Those who were prepared to talk shared stories of prescription medication for anxiety, of hating everything apart from sport which, perhaps surprisingly, kept them coming back for the reunions. Then there were the night time escapades involving climbing over walls, motorbikes, and girls. These and other more daring exploits now seem like small rebellions against our cocooned existence.

Much was probably quite normal for post-pubescent boys, but I also remember some vicious, physical and psychological bullying (and of one teacher in particular) which seemed at odds with the pacifist ethos that was meant to pervade the school. I think it tended to focus on the intellectual deep thinkers; people interested in cerebral rather than physical exertions. I’ve always felt there were some anti-semitic undertones in some of the more unpleasant confrontations, but I have to say that Jewish friends I’ve asked about this had no such experiences. I once also thought there was some anti-semitism behind the antagonism towards Leeds United supporters (of whom there were many at the school). I now think it probably had more to do with the team’s success and style of play at that time – these were the days of Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter…

Ironically, it wasn’t until I started writing this ‘No man’s land’ blog series that I felt able to ask others about their emotional development while at boarding school. It was as if ‘research’ was a valid reason to ask personal questions, rather than being free to make supportive enquiries of friends of over 40 years (when the first half dozen years of those friendships had been forged 24 hours a day).

One of my contemporaries says of his own wellbeing. I find it difficult to be open about such things [mental health] having been conditioned by years in the NHS where stigma is embedded and to admit to anything marks you out as weak/vulnerable and therefore career limiting. The NHS is not very good at looking after its own people and inclined to exploit them. I did suffer anxiety in my last job in which I worked far too many hours and often felt I was not achieving very much.”  

In loco parentis’ is Latin for “in the place of a parent”. It refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. All boarding schools take on that role, and our school the more so, selling itself on the caring and inclusive environment it claimed to offer the parents of young men through adolescence.

At the time I didn’t consciously feel an absence of nurturing by the school, but I now realise that they didn’t do very well with the in loco parenting. This may not be too surprising as I’ve since learnt from a former Schools’ Inspector that the school was, by current standards of ‘good practice’, under-staffed by 30%. As with historical sexual abuse in wider society, it’s too easy to say ‘we’re talking about 50 years ago’; the impact of those years, and the lack of emotional support, are still being felt by those who endured that schooling.

In my time at boarding school, I can’t recall any members of staff asking me ‘how are you?’ – none of the pastoral support you’d expect from your parents and hope to have from those looking after your welfare 24 hours a day, 30+ weeks a year, for seven years. I’ve recently been reminded that the headmaster’s wife and the nurse in the sick wing did offer some pastoral support (but I had to be reminded about this…)

There was no offer of support to help us through the emotional and physical upheaval that is puberty – the delight and concern associated with wet dreams (what’s happening to me?!)   No one addressing the first flush of love – romances, crushes, infatuations – for either sex, but I accept that this may have been common in similar schools in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Our sexual awakening was not helped by the portrayal as members of the opposite sex as ‘others’ – residing on the other side of the city, protected by a headmistress who tried to convince us that being tucked up in our own beds was the only place to be after dark – probably for life, except for the act of pro-creation. Of course, such a stance made us all the more curious about the ‘forbidden fruit’ as those stories about after-dark escapades – re-told, and probably embellished – testify.

My sex education at school was gleaned from the (anatomically incorrect) graffiti on the toilet walls. The only health education I remember was being told if we combed our hair regularly it would stimulate the follicles. No reference to how the soft porn magazines hidden in those same toilets might stimulate other parts of our bodies!

As regards homosexuality, I think I lived in a bubble. Apart from a teacher and sixth form student leaving the school following an ‘affair’, I was unaware of covert or overt homosexuality. There was no education about homosexuality, let along the associated physical and emotional baggage. Maybe this is not so surprising as some of the teachers were not much older than us – being straight out of teacher training college.

It has taken 45 years for me to learn there were as many as five young gay men in a year below mine. Other than heterosexual marriages, I still have no indication of the sexuality of my contemporaries – such is the repression of expression of emotions and feelings amongst this particular group of boarding school educated men.

Most shocking for me was something I learnt quite recently from one of my contemporaries. He, like a good percentage of our age group, had come to our school in the third year, having previously been at preparatory school (prep school) which often meant boarding from a younger age than I had. This particular friend confided that he’d been sexually abused on a number of occasions when at prep school and that up to that point – more than 40 years after leaving school – he’s never told anyone else about this, other than his partner.

I know my emotional development suffered from leaving home at 11, for others that went away to prep school at a younger age, the impact may have been even greater. A former classmate notes “I was away from home age 9.  In my case I think I missed some family dynamics and goings on I’ve only recently discovered, and I think my sister who was left at home without her brothers considers herself to have been the one who suffered.  And though I’ve never been especially close to my brother, and he never liked boarding school, I probably benefited from his already being there.”

My father had some lifelong nervous twitches which he attributed to his boarding school education (he too had gone to a prep school at an early age). Clearly he didn’t like being sent away to school and his education served his emotional development poorly, so I’ll never quite understand why he did something similar to his only son.

But I don’t want to finish this blog so negatively. My contemporaries have recently pointed to some positives which are no doubt shared by others. Those who describe their prep school days as ‘miserable’ say their later schooling – including the friendship of fellow students and teachers – made a refreshing change. While some point to damaged family relationships from being away from home, others (including myself) pay tribute to the subsequent support of partners with strong, loving and enduring relationships that defy our being ‘cocooned in smug insularity’ in our formative years.

Many who gather on a regular basis at our annual reunions confirm the value of the lasting friendships they made so many years ago. This group is, of course, self-selecting and others may be suffering in silence, not suffering at all, or have come to terms with our shared educational experience. I believe that I owe the school my self-confidence and I know others do so as well. A friend talks of gaining resilience from his schooling but then suggests that very resilience [and self-confidence] may ‘obscure an awareness of natural human frailty and therefore not recognising a need to ask for help’.

Further reading

Part 1 of this blog https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/back-to-school-no-mans-land-8-part-1/

https://buildingboys.net

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

 

 

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Uniform

Exactly three years ago, I posted a blog about male identity. It alluded to the importance of uniform in the working lives of many men. Even something like a suit can give self-confidence to the wearer and may instill authority and status in a business context.

All the more so when the uniform – like those of the emergency services – is also associated with an ‘important’ role, particular skills and expertise, and makes the wearer instantly recognisable in public places. As such uniforms may genuinely be described as life-savers in emergency situations.

Even work-wear such as a high-viz jacket says something about the wearer; I certainly tend to associate them with someone I assume knows more than me about the particular situation in which I find myself – whether it’s on a building site, in a traffic jam, or taking part in parkrun (at which I’m sometimes the high-viz wearer).

When I posted that blog in March 2015 we were about to get fleeces and polo shirts for the Shedders at The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead. Soon after the arrival of the bright red garments I realised that I should have brought them in much sooner. They’re practical – keeping Shed members warm, and their own clothes clean – but equally important I think, is the sense of ‘shared identity’ it gives the group. I’ve never asked, but I’d like to think that it gives wearers a sense of pride to be associated with others and, hopefully, a great commitment to the team effort.

Fast forward three years and this week I was talking about uniforms with a young person planning to ‘create a fashion brand’. We had an interesting discussion about the importance of labels – the literal brand. We established that designer labels, and people being seen wearing them, is about the wearer wanting to make a statement about themselves and to project an image (that may or may not be accurate).

We also concluded that fashion is a bit contradictory – while it unites people under certain style banners, those same people hope they’ll stand out in a crowd – so they want personal and group identity at the same time! We ended the conversation by noting that when a brand or style become too popular and the clothes become ubiquitous, there’s a natural (or is it orchestrated by the fashion industry?) search for something different. Note I say ‘different‘; fashion developments are not always new – as shown by the current trend for tears in jeans.

When the young entrepreneur works out what he means by ‘creating a fashion brand’ I think and hope he’ll go far. For a 20-year old who realised college was not for him he deserves to go far.

Men’s Sheds and male identity https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/mens-sheds-and-male-identity/

The Repair Shed www.facebook.com/TheRepairShed

Eight tips for business start-ups    

Share your start-up ideas

You may be tempted to think your business idea is so clever that others will steal your idea as soon as they hear about it. Chances are your idea isn’t so unique, and you have more to gain from telling everyone who is prepared to listen than keeping your cards close to your chest. Unless you have a potentially patentable product, don’t waste time and money on protection – even with a patent you probably can’t afford to defend it. https://youngfoundation.org/social-innovation-investment/social-enterprise-mistakes-worrying-that-someone-will-steal-your-idea/

Consider a lean start-up

We talk about finishing a business plan before launching a business to lay solid foundations to give the business the best chance of success. In reality, a business plan is never finished – it’s a promise not proof and sometimes waiting to ‘get it right’ is an excuse for doing nothing. Sometimes it’s good to jump in before all the details are worked out. At that ‘test trading/ piloting’ stage you’re doing real life market research and you’ll probably be more willing to make changes because the plan is less fixed and you’ve committed less time to it. https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/running-on-fumes-a-case-for-lean-business-start-up

Things always take longer than you want/ expect

When you’re fired up about your business idea, you don’t want to be told that it won’t develop as quickly as you’d like; that things won’t follow the time-line in your well-worked business plan. You’ll want to keep the momentum going but remember – your timetable is no one else’s. If you’re collaborating with others and depending on the support of partners who have less interest in your success than you do, you may have to be patient – they have their own timetables.

Passion is rarely enough

People are too eager to say that passion is all you need for starting a business (it certainly helps) and if you want it badly enough you’ll succeed. The latter is not true and sets up people to fail. Some business ideas and the people behind them have no chance of success and ‘managing expectations’, if not actually damping down their enthusiasm, is often kinder in the long run. That said, being proved wrong is always a delight! https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/lesson-1-roots-wings-and-balance

Be prepared to stop making products you want to sell and start making products that people want to buy.

The paying customers is (almost) always right – if they want it, make it. Business is business – don’t let your personal views stop a sale (unless it’s a commission that simply won’t work).

If you’re making products, you’ll probably take pride in your creation having spent a lot of time and effort in the process. But you have to let go – in business you must be prepared to sell your favourite pieces, even to people who don’t appreciated your talent. You may also have to compromise your standards and at times; accept ‘good enough’ to operate competitively. https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/the-paying-customer-is-always-right

Keep it simple and limit choice

Whether it’s pricing and discounts / membership processes and application forms / product and service ranges, keep it simple. You shouldn’t need a degree to work out the price of an item after taking off the discount, adding delivery and VAT etc. It’s also proven that limiting choice will result in higher overall sales. So, don’t display 15 different ‘bespoke’ mirrors – put 5 in the spotlight and keep 10 under the counter.

The ‘right way’ is rarely clear cut

‘Getting it right’ is usually a question of balancing different options. Whether it’s balancing social and financial objectives, pricing for affordability vs pricing for viability, and balancing quality against cost-effective production, there’s usually a judgement to be made. Making 150 bird boxes is good for business but not for the wellbeing of workers who want to be creative.

You can’t run a business on fresh air and goodwill

You can go a long way by appealing to your friends and family and tapping into the time and expertise of volunteers – there’s a lot of free support and advice around, particularly for start-ups. But sustaining a functioning business in the longer term, is likely to need at least some paid staff input. A contract of employment is important for underpinning commitment and reliability.

For more start-up lessons go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/learning-about-earning

 

What makes a great business idea?

As readers of this blog will know, I work with young people to help them launch their own businesses. Business start-up success is, of course, as much to do with the capabilities of the would-be entrepreneur as the quality of their business idea, but invariably I judge the latter before I know the former.

 

When I first hear a business idea, I subconsciously and unfairly assess it by whether the idea personally appeals to me. My passion for social enterprise, for example, tends to make me more positive about business ambitions that are more than just ‘making money’.

Over the past 20 months I’ve been told about over 100 possible businesses. Beyond my personal interests, what can I conclude about the elements of a potentially good business idea?

Is it a novel idea? If you take the ‘five f’s’ – fashion, food, facial treatments, photography and fitness – out of the frame, there are probably less than 50 other ideas. Of these, few have been particularly different, but two stand out.

The first is a shoe-selling service for people with different sized feet and amputees with only one leg. A young entrepreneur with mild cerebral palsy has feet that are two sizes different meaning she needs to buy two pairs of shoes to get ones that fit properly. She knows how costly this is and wants to solve the problem for herself and others by selling odd size pairs and single shoes.

The second business involves selling pearls in oysters that are then set in jewelry pieces of the customer’s choice. Each oyster (scanned at source to ensure it actually contains a pearl) is opened live on social media, with the owner looking on, creating an excitement which builds as the jewelry piece is created in the following weeks (for supply in the oyster shell?)

What are the start-up costs? Cost is as much about the time as the money it will need upfront. Even techy start-ups – with the right in-house expertise – can launch a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) to test the market without a major financial investment. I’ve written elsewhere about the value of not investing too much time and money in a new venture, making it relatively easier to ‘recover’ if/when the enterprise doesn’t take off. Some argue that a high personal investment makes the entrepreneur work harder to make the business succeed (but it can also make them blind to the dead horse they’re flogging).

What’s the competition? Novelty adds interest and ‘instant appeal’, but the most unusual business ideas may be novel for a very good reason; that others have tried unsuccessfully to make them work. This may be down to timing or location, but the rate with which some restaurants continue to change hands on the same site after successive failures makes me think that many restaurant owners believe they alone can buck the trend.

That said, there is something to be said in favour of starting a business in a crowded marketplace – a coffee shop for example. The number of people already selling coffee confirms there’s widespread demand for the product and/or service. And, to some degree, publicity for just one coffee shop benefits all coffee outlets in the locality. When competition is fierce it’s then ‘just’ a matter of doing better than the others. Like the barbershop in my home town which opened on Sundays when the other four barbers didn’t (now three of them do).

One way to tackle the competition is to go for a niche within the particular business sector – something that, with the advent of cost-effective communication through social media, is now more possible than ever. One young photographer is specialising in photoshoots with new born babies aged 5 to 10 days. The beauty of catching ’em so young is the scope for repeat business with milestone photos.

Is the idea simple to grasp? Business start-up ideas tend to be over-complicated. This is partly a reflection on the muddled thinking of the would-be entrepreneur – buzzing with too many ideas and thinking they have to be firing on all cylinders from day one. But if the product and/or service is not clearly communicated, the business tends to suffer because it expects too much of potential customers to understand the offer – they lose interest and look elsewhere.

It’s almost as if young people think a simple idea makes them sound, er, simple. But in a room full of business ideas of varying complexity, the best idea (on a particular day I’m recalling) was described quite simply in three words – cleaning people’s houses. A great business idea – easily explained, low start-up costs, repeat business practically guaranteed for an affordable quality service, and potential customers almost literally on the doorstep. The same goes for the would-be gardener, dog-walker and ‘man with van’ who knows what s/he is doing.

Does it meet a real need? The clichéd definition of marketing ‘selling things that people don’t need at prices they can’t afford’ is, happily, less common now than when the phrase was first coined. If there’s a genuine need for a product or service – rather than one which is somewhat contrived (for examples, look in one of those problem-solving household gadget catalogues that drop through the letterbox) – so much the better. I also like business ideas that try to meet more than one need (without getting over-complicated). One young entrepreneur came up with an interesting idea to provide pamper sessions for young mums at playgroup locations – so both generations could benefit from some play at the same time.

Sad to report that business hasn’t taken off… yet. Business success is never guaranteed and even the best ideas in competent hands can fail for very good reasons. ‘Back to the drawing board’ is not just for would-be architects.

Further reading:

Business ideas to launch in weeks https://startups.co.uk/10-great-start-up-business-ideas-to-launch-in-weeks/

How to turn an idea into your dream job  https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/14/how-to-turn-an-idea-into-a-dream-job-by-people-who-have-done-it   

Business ideas for 2018 https://startups.co.uk/business-ideas-2018