Author Archives: leeinroyston

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

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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.

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