Author Archives: leeinroyston

The art of destruction

I was first introduced to the subject of this blog about five years ago with the words ‘get one of these babies and your life will change forever’. It sounds like a sales pitch (it wasn’t) but the claim was actually true.

If you’ve ever tried to dismantle a wooden pallet with a hammer and crowbar you’ll know the air turns blue very quickly. Bent nails (the metal kind) and broken nails (the human kind) are additional reasons to swear.

The Pallet Dismantling Bar ™ produced by Cargo Cycles in Norfolk was the tool that saved my sanity and many a pallet, fuelling my passion for making household and garden items from reclaimed materials – see https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/green-and-grey

At this point I should make clear I’ve not been commissioned to write this review and nor do I know the people who run the company (although I’m hoping to get to know them better in connection with my work as a trustee of the UK Men’s Sheds Association (UKMSA) www.menssheds.org.uk)

And it’s not just me that thinks the Pallet Dismantling Bar™ is a life-changer. Last September I helped run a UKMSA stall at the Festival of Thrift in Redcar. We were joined by 35,000 people interested in living lightly at a brilliant inspiring and life-affirming weekend. Find out more at http://www.festivalofthrift.co.uk/about-the-festival. Throughout the two days we had a steady stream of people with a passion for pallets and surprisingly few knew about the Cargo Cycles Dismantling Bar™. All that changed as we invited visitors of all ages – as the photos show – to dismantle pallets and discover the delights of using the right tool for the job. I wish I’d been on commission for the number of people who took details of the tool and assured me they would be ordering one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, what are you waiting for? Go to http://www.cargo-cycles.com and tell them Chris Lee from UK Men’s Sheds Association sent you – your life with pallets will change forever.  Maybe see you in Redcar on September 22/23rd?

 

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Voyages of discovery

Sri Lanka born entrepreneur Robert Rajeswaran is passionate about solving what he describes as the ‘digital skills crisis’ by training young people to code in after-school and holiday clubs. Taking young people on a voyage of discovery – into the world of web development – reflects his own journey from an early age as a refugee, through countries and schools across the world. This may also explain why he comes across as a man in a hurry.

Within 15 months of starting his own business – Robert is founder of the GoCode Academy based at NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark facility in Milton Keynes – he has reached 3,000 children aged 6 – 18 and now has four fulltime staff.

A thirst for control and change

The roots of his success can be traced back to Robert’s dissatisfaction with a career start in investment banking in London where his work-life balance was compromised by long hours and where low expectations meant that progress was slow. A frustrating two years of being a small cog in a massive machine was followed by a fast-moving, fast-learning period with a financial technology start-up company. This experience inspired Robert to start his own business – to have more direct control and to make a real impact.

Robert credits NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark programme with giving him the space to explore – to find out what works well, to develop an openness to change. He warns would-be business owners about what he calls the “ugly baby syndrome”. Giving birth to a precious new business can blind the entrepreneur to the shortcomings of the new arrival. “Take constructive feedback” advises Roberts who credits a mentor with giving him guidance on how to ‘unfail your start-up’.

Building the team

Looking ahead, Robert is keen to grow his business – to generate the cash to increase capacity, to employ more people, and get his own space. But scaling up is not without its problems, as Robert acknowledges “Letting go is still difficult. When the business is part of you and you breathe it all the time – you recruit people who think like you and are as dedicated as you are. I’ve always tried to hire people who are passionate and share my vision.”

This may involve recruiting people who work in different ways. This can be beneficial – bringing in fresh ideas – but when it doesn’t work? “Hire fast and let them go early” is Robert’s short, sharp reply. He also warns against hiring family and friends. “Keep them outside the business – to keep those relationships strong. You can ask them for help and advice but they probably won’t challenge you. A good thing about hiring strangers is that you have to really sell your ideas – to get your views across convincingly to get them onboard.”

Robert’s man-in-a-hurry persona shines through again when he reflects on his experiences of the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme which he signed up to in London before joining Entrepreneurial Spark. Describing the 4-day ‘Explore Enterprise’ course politely as ‘well-paced’, he is less complimentary about the pace of change that followed. “I like to move fast and it took 18 months to develop a business plan. You can spend too much time planning.”

This ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ mentality extends to Robert’s top tips for other young entrepreneurs thinking of starting a business. “Get out to your customers as soon as possible. Before you’ve developed your product talk to them – get further faster with early testing. Spend less time on details – like business name and logo – time and money are in short supply when you start a business.”

Further information:

About the business – http://gocode.academy

About the entrepreneur – http://tamilculture.com/child-refugee-tech-entrepreneur/#

For other profiles in the ‘Experts by Experience’ series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/experts-by-experience

Turning houses into homes  

Ask Sam Ryan to describe his business and his answer is clear and matter of fact. “I design and make wooden furniture and household items – to my own design for selling from stock, and on commission to the client’s specification. I’m also commissioned to repair, restore, and re-finish antique and modern furniture.”

Sam’s words belie the care and attention he puts into his work and the craftsmanship that oozes out of each item he creates. He has acquired those skills through three years’ study in furniture making and restoration and a further three years starting and running his own business – Sam Ryan Furniture.

His reputation is spreading and Sam was recently commissioned by a client in north Hertfordshire to re-size a large antique oval dining table made of solid oak. The client, Susanne Gallagher, was delighted with the craftsmanship. “I think Sam has done a great job with the table – it’s a complex piece and it’s now perfect for our dining room.  It must be quite a responsibility working on someone else’s treasured piece of furniture.” Sam was equally pleased with the commission. “The table is a really lovely piece, oak is a dense wood that’s easy and enjoyable to work with.”

Sam proudly describes himself a perfectionist, but he appreciates that attention to detail and high quality work take time. The master craftsmen status to which Sam aspires can only make for a viable business if there are enough people willing to pay for his upmarket handmade pieces. “It’s the perfectionism that people appreciate” says Sam “but it’s also a matter of getting a balance between quality and price.”    

Balancing perfectionism and productivity is just one of a number of issues confronting this young entrepreneur. On his professional journey since leaving college Sam has had to contend with periodic ill health following a major operation in 2007.  He bears that reality positively and has made the most of the support offered by The Prince’s Trust.

Sam’s involvement with the Trust started with a four-day Explore Enterprise business skills course in London in June 2016 after which he developed a business plan, with the support of a staff member from the Prince’s Trust London Office.

After a transfer between the Trust’s London and Stevenage offices, Sam successfully presented to a Business Launch Group in May 2017 and now enjoys further one-to-one support from a business mentor in Hertfordshire. Whatever the level of support from family and friends, starting a business can be a lonely affair and a business mentor for the first couple of years can serve as a valuable sounding board and ‘critical friend’.

This is confirmed by Sam himself. “The course was fantastic but the business mentoring has topped it off. It’s completely changed me from being a furniture maker and restorer to also being a businessman. I’m now more confident about running a business thanks to my business mentor.”

For Sam – the passionate perfectionist, ever keen to learn and taking pride in his work – a growing circle of satisfied customers is proof that all the effort has been worthwhile.

See Sam’s craftwork at www.samryanfurniture.co.uk

For profiles of other entrepreneurs, see  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/experts-by-experience

 

My love affair with Twitter

In 2012, when I was new to Twitter, I was advised that the usual pattern of adoption, if that’s the way I wanted to go, would be along the lines of:

Denial – I don’t need it or want it – a waste of time

Curiosity – I wonder what they’re all talking about

Ah-ha! – I can see this could be fun

Obsession – I know it’s probably not the best use of my time, but…

Like breathing –  It’s a natural and welcome part of my daily life

14,000 tweets later, I feel it’s time to take stock and decide whether I’ve been wasting my time on Twitter for the past 6 years. I have no doubt my wife would have a three-letter-word answer to that – so I don’t need to ask her opinion.

As Valentine’s Day approaches I have to admit, I love Twitter. I feel I’m somewhere between the obsessional and like-breathing stages in my… I refuse to say ‘journey’ because I can’t stand the over-use and abuse of that word.  So, what’s behind the love affair?

I have Twitter to thank for introducing me to Men’s Sheds and Repair Cafés – in the same week around five years ago. Both have made a massive and positive difference to my life in the real, rather than the virtual, world. I am the first to admit that most of the ‘best ideas’ I’ve developed in recent years have their origins in the Twittersphere. I am regularly inspired by the creativity and humanity of so many people out there – it gives me hope for the future (just as the nastiness that is undoubtedly out there also gives me cause for despair).

Despite the ongoing romance, I feel in control – both limiting the messages I choose to see and the amount of time I spend viewing and, when I want to, responding to tweets. I ignore the etiquette of following people that follow me – I’m quite selective about the people I follow (I flirted with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt but he was making me ill). I have a personal rule to follow no more than 50% of the number following me, so I get to see a reasonable range of tweets from those I do follow.

Like breathing, being part of Twitter is a daily pastime. Unlike breathing I can live without it – and do so when on holiday – and my mobile phone (much to the annoyance of some members of my family). For me, Twitter is a major source of news, comment and analysis and, for my paid job helping young people start businesses, it’s an essential tool for helping me to accumulate a steady stream of free business start-up resources that I drip-feed to over 150 young people every fortnight.

I personally regret the increase to allow tweets of up to 280 characters. As someone in marketing for 40 years, I liked the greater discipline to write clearly and concisely imposed by the old 140-character limit. But the new limit does potentially facilitate more meaningful exchanges. I’ve recently been party to an interesting conversation with similarly-minded people on the portrayal of older people in the media (and what we ‘should or shouldn’t’ be able to do as we grow older).

Finally, who follows me and how others respond to my own tweets, retweets and comments on others are, in my view, a real and meaningful barometer of what ideas and views (mine and those of others) strike a chord within the part of the Twittersphere I choose to inhabit. The fairly instant feedback is something that, after a 40-year career in communications, I value or, dare I say it, love.

See this wordsmith’s blog on the power of the Tweet  https://prism-clarity.com/2017/12/finding-story-part-3

www.facebook.com/TheRepairShed  www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

Enterprise essentials – 21 tips from StartUp 2018

It’s January 13th 2018 and hundreds of entrepreneurs both young and old (but mainly young) are gathered in East London to consider anything and everything to do with starting a business. A great day with loads on on offer – so ‘pick and mix’ was the way to go.

The event was also refreshingly free from business bullshit and the hero-worshipping of edgy, sweary entrepreneurs spouting ‘awesome’, ‘cool’ and ‘disruptive’ all day. In no particular order (as they say on Strictly) I picked up the following tips by keeping my ears pinned back during the day.

  1. The recommended maximum number of questions and completion time for market research surveys is 22 questions and seven minutes (after that there’s a severe drop in response rates)
  2. Success in starting  business is largely down to a combination of ideas, skills and persistence, and lot of them – 90% of business start-ups fail within a year, 47% of retail businesses survive for 10 years
  3. Making products is not business, selling products is the business
  4. Focus on your passions, understand the core mission of your new business, be clear why you are different from other similar businesses (the competition)
  5. The difference between masculine and feminine marketing is the difference between ‘hard sell’ and ‘heart sell’
  6. Talk to as many people as possible- share your ideas freely. Unless your product is technical, forget patents (they’re expensive) and concentrate on protecting your trade mark
  7. Get your products out there as soon as possible – stop talking, start selling – just do it!
  8. Write down 50 people you think should know about your new business, decide how you’re going to reach them, and tell them
  9. “Success is selling something that doesn’t come back to people who do” A cliche, but true.
  10. Work hard, be nice to people, do your research, know your customers, be prepared to sacrifice sleep
  11. Start small, never stop learning and the business will grow with you
  12. When you start out in business think about your definition of success – is it making money, making a difference, or what?
  13. Ideas are worthless, execution is everything
  14. In your business pitch start with the pain for your customers
  15. When you start business planning, list all your assumptions and test each one [before someone else asks you awkward questions]
  16. Mentors are great for keeping you on track and keeping you going, particularly at start-up stage
  17. The highs and lows are more extreme when starting your own business [rather than working in someone else’s]
  18. Know your strengths and [particularly] your weaknesses when starting a business
  19. Tough times at start-up stage can be a springboard for great business development
  20. Understand your brand, focus on the core of your mission, follow your passion, talk to lots of people
  21. Starting a business takes three times as long as you think it will

Further support from http://www.enterprisenation.com and http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/help-for-young-people/support-starting-business

 

Learning to learn

As some of you may know, I’m trying to learn to Hula-Hoop (not sure it should be written with capital ‘H’ and ‘H’ and is it a verb?) To help the process, I hope, I’ve now decided to set a target – 30 minutes by 30 January –  watch this space for updates if you can be bothered.

I’m planning to learn through YouTube videos and with support from my wife (who can do it already). She says it’s easy, but this observation is not particularly helpful because most people who can already do something – like riding a bike – have usually forgotten the trials, tribulations and frustrations of the learning process.

But I know that encouragement is important – which is why I’ll never forgive my daughter’s teacher from primary school. Two weeks into her first term, the teacher in question said our daughter was useless at maths. Our daughter has lived with that assessment – which proved to be wrong – for the past 20 years, and we wonder how many other lives have been blighted by that teacher’s thoughtlessness and insensitivity.

I’m not setting myself up as some armchair expert on teaching (but I have done two train-the-trainer courses…) – it’s easy to criticise – but I know the basic principles:

Make it fun. Apparently humour uses both sides of the brain – the logical left side and the creative right side – so when you’re having a good time learning something you tend to absorb the information better. And, of course, it makes you keener to learn other things.

Encourage learners. Our train-the-trainer tutor not only made our studying fun, he also said there were few rules about how to teach well but he did say that encouragement will always get your learner further faster, than by being critical in a negative way (like our daughter’s maths teacher two decades ago…)

It’s all about the learner, not the teacher. While training is something of a performance, the audience’s needs must always come first. You may have all the right skills and use the techniques correctly, but if the learner doesn’t learn, you’ve failed.

We all learn in different ways. Broad learning styles can, and have, been defined for many decades. But what works for you will be very personal (I learn by reading and doing) and knowing your particular learning style can help you make better progress, and help your teacher get you there faster.

Be clear about ‘learning objectives’.  That’s just a posh way of suggesting you should know why you’re learning and how you will measure success. Which bring us back to my target to be able to Hula-Hoop for 30 seconds by 30 January.

I’ll let you know how I get on and I’ll also be publishing further blog posts in this new ‘learning circle’ series throughout 2018.

Further reading: Learning Styles  https://teach.com/what/teachers-teach/learning-styles

 

How to stay healthier and happier for longer

In June 2016 I gave a TEDx Talk – ‘Male, stale and in a Shed’ with mixed success. Following that scary but exciting experience, I resolved to write a series of blog posts under a ‘No man’s land umbrella. The blog posts attempt to explore the issues in my short talk and, in particular, to try to identify the roots of my mental ill-health over the past two decades.

12 months ago I published the first of my ‘No man’s land blog posts and, although I only intended it should be a year-long series, the posts continue. The more personal they get, the harder they are to write.

One thing that writing and reflection has done is to help me identify what I think has worked for me in keeping at bay for the past two years what Churchill famously described as his ‘black dog’. There are three main ingredients in my recipe for staying healthier and happier for longer, the first is connecting…

Connecting with people – I used to say with like-minded people, but some of my most interesting recent encounters have been with people with whom I disagree but who are prepared to debate in a grown-up and respectful way. It can be scary but exciting to have your views challenged!

Connecting with places – I believe the need to belong is powerful for many people. It’s one I associate with places as well as people and it can be something as simple as going into town knowing I’ll probably meet someone I know. But it still took me around five years after moving from London to a market town of 17,000 to get that level of connection.

Connecting with our feelings – perhaps the most difficult for many older men. I try hard to fight an inbred tendency to supress emotions, particularly negative ones, and I avoid talking about my innermost concerns. I haven’t yet cracked it and I know I’m not alone. I organise school reunions and it was only six months ago that a friend from school days admitted to me something he’d told only his wife until then – that he’d been sexually assaulted when he was nine years old.

Then there’s creating… I most enjoy being in a Men’s Shed, or any shed for that matter, when problem-solving and being creative – it’s the closest I come to experiencing what they call ‘flow’. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean creating stuff: making things; writing – stories, poetry; or cooking – creating a special meal, preferably to eat with others.  It could be gardening – growing plants of even creating natural colour in a garden, or maybe it’s artwork – painting or photography. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, but I think it’s important that it’s something that pleases the creator; something that matters to them. And if it pleases others, so much the better.

I once made a wooden case for carrying and displaying books. I still remember my mum – forty years ago – looking at it in wonder and saying to me and others present ‘He made this! He took pieces of wood and he made this!’ She was so proud and, looking back, so was I.

The last ingredient for staying healthier and happier for longer is carrying on… When older people say ‘I want to die’ I don’t believe them. I think when older people really want to die they simply stop carrying on – and do so. Until then there’s something – anger, curiosity, love or something else – keeping them alive.

Carry on learning: There’s a famous Gandhi quote… ‘Live like you’ll die tomorrow, learn like you’re going to live for ever.’ I love it for urging us to never stop learning new things – facts, skills, whatever. We know that learning keeps our brains ticking over and wards off deterioration. I’m learning to hula hoop – there’s no time to explain why I took it up and my longer term plans if I succeed. Suffice it to say I’m still learning!

Some years ago I read a book called ‘How to Age by Anne Karpf. I was struck by her observation that we talk about ‘growing’ old but ageing is usually seen in negative terms – a winding down rather than a process of growth and development. The University of the Third Age is the fastest growing community organisation in my home town and that delights me (I’m hoping a new Men’s Shed will come a close second) as they share that thirst for learning in later life.

Carry on moving: For me that means running and walking, for others it may be swimming, cycling, even dancing. It doesn’t have to be long, hard or fast – just regular and enjoyable (which raises the brain’s serotonin and lowers cortisol; good for managing stress)

My wife works in the NHS and knows the stresses and strains that afflict the service. As  a consumer of a full range of medications over the past 20 years – from Prozac for depression to Alendronic Acid for osteoporosis – I consider it my duty to try to now stay clear of the health service for as long as possible through self-medication with connecting, creating, and carrying on.

Male, stale and in a Shed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ1e8FVcWEo

No man’s land https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/?s=no+mans+land