Category Archives: Out and about

Coming from behind

No – despite the title, this is not going to a piece about the Conservative leadership contest; it’s about a much more inspiring line-up of runners and riders – at Wimpole parkrun.

I came late to the joys of running (the subject of another blog post) – it certainly wasn’t parental influence! My dear old dad hated school sports and his only rule was ‘don’t come last’ – to sustain a modicum of self-respect. He was once trying to do this so hard he came third and had to run in another heat which, he said, annoyed him for the rest of his life!

This Saturday morning, I was a car park marshal at our local parkrun – one lap around the beautiful Wimpole Estate near Cambridge. I’m not telling you this to get brownie points (although brownie points are one thing you do get for volunteering…) but to explain the new experience that followed.

Despite the beauty of the Wimpole course, a major problem is that it’s pretty much only accessible by car – a steady stream starts around 8.30am and continues until 9am – so, although volunteer car park attendants can officially step down at 8.50am to join other runners for the start, there are still many cars still to be parked at that time.

Well, there were this morning which meant I joined the back of the pack after the start, as the leaders where disappearing over the horizon. Which is not to say I would have been a front-runner – I wouldn’t – but nor would I be starting from the back. This was new for me – experiencing the difference between passing others in front, rather than having people passing me, as we ticked off the five kilometres. No doubt there’s a parkrun statistic to show whether running from the front is more motivating than catching up from the back – ultimately it probably depends on personality.

I’m not competitive but, as readers of my past parkrun blog posts will know, like my dad before me I try to sustain a modicum of self-respect by being in the top third of finishers, by being in the top five in my age group, and by finishing under 26 minutes.

So how did I get on this morning? Two out of three – 158th of 477 runners, fifth in my age group. I was nearly two minutes behind my best time this year – not too bad, and it gave me something to write about here!

My love affair with running https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2019/04/09/my-love-affair-with-running

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Inside your comfort zone

Regular readers of this blog series will know that I go to a school reunion in York every May. Yes – I left school 46 years ago, but I’ve been ever-present at the past ten reunions, and probably more than that.

We do the same things each year (if it ain’t broke etc) and this May was no exception – same pubs, same visits to the school on Friday and Saturday, same Saturday night gathering at our regular Italian restaurant with 20 of us enjoying each other’s company.

But, I hear you say, what about doing something different; ringing the changes? We’re told that getting outside our comfort zones, taking risks, meeting new people, stretches us and enriches our lives.

That may be true, but I believe it’s also important to recognise that doing something predictable and familiar, including relaxing with people with whom we feel comfortable, has its own merits. With good friends we’re free to be ourselves; to have some meaningful conversation (particularly important for men) alongside the school-boy banter. Every year I learn new things about people I’ve known since England last won the World Cup (1966 if your memory needs a jog), I get new insights from comments that are made in passing, from differing views shared. I was also delighted to have a good chat with my former geography teacher – a man who had a massive influence on my early academic exploits. For me, the reunion would not be the same without him.

Of course despite the familiar formula, this year’s reunion was different from previous gatherings in a number of ways. From the more trivial – for my B&B breakfasts, I chose Eggs Benedict (look it up) and kippers, rather than my traditional order for a full English – to more serious subjects. The recent and unexpected death of one of our old school teachers meant we found ourselves reflecting on our own mortality (although our year group reunion members seem to be pretty healthy).

So, feel free to spend time in your comfort zone – it’s a great way to recharge your batteries, reflect on what you value in life, and the odd surprise is bound to crop up when you’re least expecting it.

And the significance of the platform planter in the photo? I discovered it while changing trains in Peterborough and in so doing I learnt about a new-to-me charity – the Bee Friendly Trust https://beefriendlytrust.org. You should never stop learning, even 46 years after leaving school.

A little story from another school reunion https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/08/27/the-joy-of-planning-and-the-unexpected

The will of the people

In an earlier blog post I shared the observation that a street demonstration is a manifestation of a failed democratic process.

To me it certainly felt like something of a ‘last resort’ at the Peoples Vote march in London, where folk of all ages united in a cheerful, peaceful and, I thought, powerful expression of ‘the will of the people by an estimated one million marchers.

When all has been said (but not done) to bring the Brexit debate to a resolution that might unite rather than divide UK voters, I turn to pithy and humorous messages that typify most mass demonstrations for light relief and insight. As a lifelong lover of language, such placards and banners can capture and communicate in a short sharp way that no amount of bluster from MPs and commentators even can. Maybe the leave-remain debate should be decided by a showdown – placards at dawn?

What follows is a small selection of the placards at the Peoples Vote march. They’re broadly grouped under four headings – hasty handmade; pointing the finger; playing on words; using humour…

One placard – the first I saw – encapsulates all four elements (see right)…

The majority of placards were handmade – but it was the crude, handwritten and simplest ones had, for me, an added effectiveness – produced by real people speaking from the heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were prime targets for the strong feelings of the demonstrators; Theresa May and the members of the so-called European Research Group were, for obvious reasons, first in the firing line…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other placards went for a play on words – Brexit and breakfast, May the Prime Minister and May the month etc – some more contrived than others…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, there were ones of note for their subtle and not-so-subtle use of words to make people laugh. Humour is, of course, subjective but these are a couple of the other messages that made me giggle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to fellow marchers (including my family) for sending me home thinking that maybe we’re not all, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would put it – doomed. Thinks – maybe Dad’s Army could have done a better job with sorting out the Brexit shambles. Captain Mainwaring for PM anyone?

For a flavour of the march https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=52&v=81eLXg21VSA

More signs of protest – from the NHS March in London in March 2017  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/nine-healthy-signs-nhs

Thinking big

My dear old mum used to say that if all the money put into probation and prisons was invested in nurseries, after a generation prisons wouldn’t be needed. I was reminded of this when learning recently about a social enterprise that I think is simply brilliant.

70% of toddlers and infants aged up to four years in Brazil have no access to nurseries. A 27-year old entrepreneur has set out to change this by organising ‘community mothers’ to provide home-based daycare centres.  Like all the best social enterprises, Elisa Mansur’s initiative MOPI (The Movement for Education) is a simple idea that works at so many levels:

  • It trains community mothers of all ages in best-practice childhood education through play
  • It creates employment for those traditionally disadvantaged in the Brazilian jobs market
  • It provides accessible and affordable nursery places to free-up family members for additional purposeful activity
  • Above all, it gives the next generation the enriched start in life they deserve and need for a fulfilling future and for the wider benefit of society

Whenever I see what I think is a simply brilliant idea, I can’t resist imagining it being replicated in the UK. The need for accessible and affordable quality nursery spaces is real, as is the undeniable benefit of providing training and employment for people who might run them. But I’m afraid I can only see the heavy hand of bureaucracy spouting all sorts about safeguarding, quality assurance, and limited resources. But, given the reward of success, it doesn’t stop me speculating.

And my mother might well have been right about the long-term impact of investing in nurseries, but we’ll never know of course; politicians think they can only think-and-do short term – operating with five-year horizons. But we can dream, can’t we?

Here’s a short film about Elisa Mansur’s vision http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190307-the-27-year-old-protecting-brazils-hidden-job-economy

Investing in business success

In my work with young people wanting to set up their own enterprises, I take a particular interest in the insights of others similarly placed to provide support to business start-ups. In Milton Keynes, my meetings with young would-be entrepreneurs are held at the NatWest Accelerator Hub. Below I chat with two women who manage the Hub – Sharon Rai and Debbie Lewis – to find out more about them, their support roles, and their vision for the Accelerator Hub itself.

Sharon and Debbie are both steeped in business with combined experience in running a chain of hair and beauty salons, training, coaching, and other business development roles. Sharon grew up with family businesses around her – she describes her grandmother as a “serial hustler entrepreneur” so business is in her blood.

The role of ‘critical friend’ to entrepreneurs excited both women and it was the diversity and number of businesses being supported by the Accelerator Hub that attracted them – the scope for making a practical difference to the business development of over 120 would-be entrepreneurs each year.

“It’s about everyone in the Hub pulling in the same direction to achieve more than simply working 9 – 5 and getting an income; they want to make a difference and have a positive impact on the world around them.” Both also appreciate the freedom the backing of a major high street bank gives them to work out what’s best for the clients – without an agenda, hidden or otherwise.

I wonder how far Sharon and Debbie can stand back and put the emphasis on clients ‘doing it for themselves’? Both are clear about their role… “At the interview stage [for admission to the Hub] self-motivation is an important assessment criterion. It’s not our role to enthuse them; we’re there to pick them up when they are down, slow them down when their heads are in the clouds, and reflect back their comments when they need a dose of reality.”    

Support for Hub clients

There are two programmes on offer to would-be business owners; Debbie and Sharon makes the distinction between the two…

“The Pre-Accelerator Programme is for early-stage, or what may simply be ideas-stage businesses” explains Debbie “It’s an eight week predominantly digital [so arm’s length] offer to help with client discovery, validation of the business idea, and basic steps to assess whether the business has legs. After further reflection and work on the business idea (which might result in big changes to the original concept), entrepreneurs may then be able to apply for the Accelerator Programme.”

Sharon explains the sort of entrepreneurs coming on to the Accelerator Programme. “We may have people who are not yet trading, but may have secured investment, may have built a prototype or MVP [Minimum Viable Product], and have enough early interest to warrant the support the Hub can give them. In contrast, we may have businesses that have been trading for a number of years but want to make a step change. The critical element on the Accelerator Programme is that we’re looking at scaleable businesses. They have access to up to 18 months of support (reviewed every 6 months) but it may not be best for businesses stay for the full 18 months in one go. For some it’s a matter of getting out into the business world, or fixing a part of the business that’s not going well, and then coming back for the next step.”   

What’s in it for the bank?

The Hub in Milton Keynes occupies the second floor or a large building occupied on the ground and first floors by staff involved in commercial banking activities. It offers free facilities and programme support to Hub clients with a team led by Debbie and Sharon. I wonder about the commercial rationale behind this philanthropy and both are quick to answer…

While we’d obviously like clients to bank with NatWest there’s no obligation to do so. Indeed, if you looked at the cost per acquisition it would look like a very expensive way to get business customers! Ways in which the bank benefits from the Hub include an Entrepreneurial Development Academy where the Hub team are training ‘entrepreneurial thinking and doing’ in banking staff. Intrapreneurship is how they describe it. Fintech [technology specifically relevant to financial services] businesses and entrepreneurs may also be able to help the bank – through a healthy two-way exchange of ideas and insights.

A third potential benefit for NatWest is innovation, as Sharon explains “Being at the forefront of innovative technologies and solutions, we can feed that thinking and behaviour back into the bank.” And Debbie believes that the inter-change of ideas does effect change…

In the relatively short time I’ve been in post I’ve seen continual review and feedback and I haven’t found the frustrations of slow progress that other organisations experience. What we’ve reported gets considered, though obviously, it’s not always acted on.”

I learn that NatWest wants to be seen as the number one bank for entrepreneurs, so anything the Hub can do to turn clients into advocates must be good for business and brand. This also fits neatly with the vision for the Hub, which is to be a household name and first-choice provider when it comes to talk about ‘tools for entrepreneurs’ in and around Milton Keynes.

Defining success

I find it hard to believe that a business support facility backed by a major bank wouldn’t want some hard facts and figures to show the return on their investment. Sharon confirms that they’re working to certain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the productivity of the Accelerator Hub. “For me, the really important measurement is the percentage success rate, and our 87% success rate compares very favourably with the 50% success [or 50% failure rate] of unsupported businesses. We also measure investment attracted, jobs created, and number of entrepreneurs supported.”

Alongside these ‘hard outputs’ are the ‘soft outcomes’ that result from bringing entrepreneurs together under one roof. These include the connections being made – between entrepreneur and mentor, or at a peer-to-peer mutual support level – to create a local community and support ecosystem that is invaluable. “The stories behind the figures are what drives the magic – creating something that is sustainable, long lasting, and with a significant local impact.” 

Sharon also identifies what she describes as a ‘fluffier element’ when defining what success looks like. “At the Hub we talk a lot about having a growth mindset – this is about supporting and enabling people to take ownership of their decisions. Success is when those same entrepreneurs hire their team and use those same principles.

Another measure of success is our ability to get entrepreneurs out into schools to inspire the next generation, to give them a sense of purpose and the heightened sense of self-worth that comes from surviving the highs and lows of starting and running a business.”

Debbie continues… “For young people, having someone coming in to school as a non-parent and non-teacher, and showing interest in them can give them a real buzz and a sense of importance. And it can be particularly powerful when the entrepreneurs are of a similar age to the students.

Having a vision for the next generation seems appropriately forward-looking for a sector like banking and financial services that has been transformed in less than a generation, let alone between generations. As we finish, I reflect that ‘banking on the future’ summarises our conversation quite neatly.

For further information about the Milton Keynes Accelerator Hub, e-mail miltonkeynesaccelerator@natwest.com, go online at www.natwest.com/accelerator and you can book onto one of the Natwest Entrepreneur Milton Keynes events via www.eventbrite.co.uk

How to sell a free service

From the Lisbon Chill Out Tours website…

We are a team of creative and free-minded tour guides who work as a part of United Europe’s independent network of free walking tours throughout continental Europe. If you support sustainable tourism or you’re just looking for a tour free of formalities, free of commissions, free of pressure and full of authentic experience – just show up to our meeting point.

There are three magic words in the marketing lexicon – new, you, and free. Despite what we may say, we’re all attracted to something flagged up as ‘new’ and ‘free’. But is it possible to run a viable business by offering a free service? Chill Out Tours seem to have done so – they’ve been operating free walking tours around Lisbon for nine years. Here are some insights into the apparent secret of their success,

Make it free and easy to join The freedom alluded to in the website blurb is not just about not having to pay for the guided walking tour – an important element in their offer – but also the convenience of being able to just turn up at a fixed time and place; no need to book. You can leave the three-hour tour at any stage.

At an accessible central location, the guides are easily identified with bright yellow bags from about 30 minutes before the start time. Importantly, they also advertise their business on their bags as they walk around the city.

Keep your publicity simple Their main publicity tool is a credit-card sized folded leaflet – printed on recycled paper. It’s handed out at the meeting point before the start of the tour, distributed to visitor accommodation (including Airbnb) and given to walkers at the end to distribute any way they can. They could have been handed out on the tour, but our guide didn’t do so.

The leaflet includes essential information in English or Spanish – meeting times and place (with a simple map), membership of different associations, contact details through social media and an invitation to find out more and share feedback. Enticing photos are used to tell the story on their website and through social media – with lots of images on Instagram and short video clips on Facebook.

Establish your credibility There’s fierce competition for your time if not your Euros – Trip Advisor lists 15 walking tours in Lisbon, and a rival provider of free (but sponsored) tours set up in 2013 with the same start time and location. So standing out from the rest is important.

The folk at Chill Out Tours do this by emphasising that all their guides are local to Lisbon and experienced – our guide Rafael had been leading tours for six years. In a veiled reference to the immediate competition, they describe themselves as the ‘original’ free tour company and stress their independence – they are not paid by any of the businesses along the tour route. They also establish their green credentials – see below – and their membership of a European-wide association gives reassurance. Ultimately, they can point to happy customers – on Trip Advisor Chill Out Tours are #29 out of 650 tours in Lisbon, with a 91% rating as ‘excellent’.

 Build your brand The public imagine of the tour company is everything if independent of support from providers of travel and accommodation. For Chill Out Tours their green credentials are important. As their website blurb makes clear, they push walking as sustainable low-impact tourism, their leaflets are printed on recycled paper, and their identifier bags are handmade from waste materials by a local company. Like all good businesses, they encourage their customers to spread the word – on and offline – at every opportunity, knowing that personal recommendation is always the most cost-effective promotion.

Make it personal With a rival company touting for business at the same time and place, it was important that the Chill Out Tour guides were  friendly and forward, without being pushy, from the start. They welcomed people coming especially, tried to attract the odd passer-by (we gained two en route) and informally they kept a check on waiting walkers who had gone to the nearby coffee bar for refreshments before the start.

At a first stop on the tour (in a quiet backstreet) everyone was invited to give their names and countries of origin, sharing a bit about their particular interests in relation to Lisbon and Portuguese culture – our expectations for the tour. Our friendly guide – Rafael – introduced himself with a bit of background (establishing his authority) and explained the plan for the three-hour tour. The tour commentary was informed and informal with references to the interests of the walkers where relevant. In short, we struck up a friendship with our guide and the group very quickly – skilfully orchestrated by Rafael – and the time passed quickly.

Be honest and upfront about the deal Although ‘free’ is the main hook (a selling point in the broadest sense) the website and the guides make clear that walkers are invited to donate what they think the tour is worth at the end. Of course, a dissatisfied customer can choose to pay nothing (but will probably not have stayed to the end – literally voting with their feet!)

The pay-what-it’s-worth principle puts obvious pressure on the guides to impress (and can make decisions about ideal group sizes a bit tricky) but the ratings on Trip Advisor confirm they’re doing a consistently good job. We were told of this payment arrangement at the start, during, and at the end of the tour.

Have a big finish – the reward As we got to the three-hour mark, and with legs getting weary, Rafael urged us on for a final climb (Lisbon is very hilly), promising a reward for our effort. For us that reward was a fine view across the city and a recap on the route we’d taken and the sights and landmarks along the way.

For Rafael the reward was genuine appreciation from the group – reflected in generous donations. Most of the 15 – 20 people in our group seemed to give willingly and without embarrassment. Comparable paid-for tours charge between 12 and 22 Euros per person and I’d estimate this was replicated by the donations on our tour.

And for Rafael, even after six years, one hopes he gets great satisfaction from knowing his obvious passion for the job, for Lisbon, and it’s living history had fired a similar interest in our small, happy, dispersing walking tour group.

Author’s note: These are my personal observations – based on a walking tour in September 2018 – I was neither paid nor encouraged to write this blog post.

Further information https://www.lisbon-chillout-freetour.com and Trip Advisor  https://bit.ly/2Rby6Rj

The story of a broken piano stool

Last Saturday I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours at New Broadcasting House contributing to a BBC World Service radio programme* about Repair Cafes.   These community repair events have gone global since being founded nine years ago by the brilliant Martine Postma in the Netherlands. There are now nearly 1600 Repairs Cafes in 33 countries.

On Saturday morning I had lots of examples of successful fixes ready to share with radio listeners but, as often happens, I only had time to recall a couple. One unshared repair job stands out in my memory; I think it sums up perfectly what the Repair Café concept is all about. In fact, it was my first introduction to a ‘live’ Repair Café, it fired my interest and I’m re-telling it here in the hope it will spark interest in others in the run-up to International Repair Café Week 2018 in mid-October.

Before setting up the Royston Repair Café five years ago, I arranged a visit to one in London at the wonderful Goodlife Centre. Alison Winfield-Chislett, the genius behind the Centre, offered me a cup of tea as I walked through the door and suggested I just ‘get stuck in’, buddying me up with the owner (we’ll call her Sue) of a broken piano stool. This was lucky because, if I have a repair specialism, it’s furniture. I soon learnt that the stool had been broken by Sue’s 16 year old son. She didn’t say he’d ‘lost it’ in the middle of a particularly demanding piano lesson but that was the image in my mind’s eye.

The big thing about the best Repair Cafes is that, where possible, the owners learn how to mend their broken items themselves. After a bit of instruction for Sue, I watched while she dismantled the broken part of the stool – unscrewing the wooden leg from the metal bracket that had held it in place. Sue glued and clamped the leg and, while the glue dried, we drank tea and had a chat with others at the Repair Café – a lot of that goes on at these events.

Back on the job, Sue bent the bracket back into shape and reconnected the broken leg to the main body of the stool, while I had another cup of tea and offered the odd bit of advice. Within about an hour and a half the stool was fixed. The proud smile on Sue’s face made it all worthwhile.

As she left Sue said, almost as an afterthought, “What I didn’t tell you is that my son’s now 21. This piano stool has been broken for five years! I can’t wait to see his face when he sees it in one piece again, he feels very guilty whenever he looks at it. And when he finds out that his mum fixed it…!”

*Programme to be broadcast in October 2018 in the World Hacks series  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04d42vf

Find out more…

Visit your nearest Repair Cafe https://repaircafe.org/en/visit                                                              International Repair Cafe Week 2018 is 13-21st October https://repaircafe.org/en/international-repair-cafe-week-2018/

Royston Repair Café www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

 The Goodlife Centre https://www.thegoodlifecentre.co.uk

More blog posts in this Repairing the World series https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/repairing-the-world