Repairing the world

Who said “Waste isn’t waste until we waste it”?

Learning of this clever quote was one of many pleasing things I gained from an event in Cambridge yesterday which could legitimately be said to have a global significance. It’s not every day you can say that about spending nine hours in a church on a wet Saturday in November.

The man associated with the quote is Will.I.Am – someone I associate with a name which I regard as, er… unusual, and whose performances on ‘The Voice’ leaves me cold. In contrast, I’m impressed by his behind-the-scenes activities; the music-man-come- style-celebrity gives his name, time and money to many worthy causes. This includes an international campaign – Fashion Revolution – which aims to sew social, ethical and environmental responsibility into the fabric of the fashion industry.

The essence of the campaign is ‘telling the story’ behind the clothing items that arrive on our high streets and sell at rock bottom prices with, in many cases, scant regard for the people and processes behind their production.

For me, the story behind the product was also at the heart of my uplifting day in Cambridge. It was at an attempt on the record for the World’s Biggest Repair Café – a mass fix of pre-loved and still-wanted broken items – bikes, clothes, electricals, toys, high and low tech kitchen gadgets, gardening equipment, ornaments, phones, laptops, even an umbrella. We were seeking to mend more than 150 items – a record set in France in 2013.

I worked on eight items and was pleased with the result, though many of the fixes where a lot more straight forward than those of my fellow repairers working on more technical problems on either side of me.

There were two garden forks with broken wooden handles (with a combined age of 140 years!) and both deserved more TLC than I could give them in the time I had to work on fixing them. The older of the two was 100 years old – originally owned by the great grandmother of the little girl who attended the Repair Café with her mum. As the current owner said to me “I could get a new fork or replace the wooden handle, but it’s my mother and her mother’s hands that worked the soil with this particular handle – that’s what matters to me.”

Or the 40-year old binoculars case – a wedding present I think – the leather hinge between body and lid worn torn in two from regular use. This is now replaced with some new leather in a cack-handed repair which, while certainly not beautiful, will hopefully keep those binoculars protected for another 40 years.

Or the 25 year-old hand-crafted ornamental wooden horse and carriage from Russia. A cherished memento that needed some refurbishment – new reins for the horse, re-fixing the carriage harness, reconstructing the passenger’s parasol – it’s journey to be recalled and treasured, I hope, for generations to come.

Then there were the little food related highlights – the edible nuts and screws on some lovely biscuits, the wonderful free three-course meals served up from surplus food by Cambridge Foodcycle.

Most important for me is that yesterday was about keeping so many things in use for longer. The eight items I worked on had a combined age of over 227 years. “But did you set a new world record?” I hear you ask. It doesn’t really matter but, yes, we did – with over 200 items fixed – we well and truly broke it and so, of course, we now need to repair it…

Further photos at  https://www.facebook.com/roystonrepaircafe/photos/a.709787542553843.1073741847.168583403340929/709787559220508/?type=3&theater

Fashion Revolution http://fashionrevolution.org

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Trade secrets – selling at rock bottom prices can be good business

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

As a rule of thumb for start-up businesses, they should compete on quality not price. A price war with bigger, more established competitors is rarely won. Discounting should only be used with great care and as part of a marketing strategy, not as an act of desperation.

That said, most high street supermarkets discount food products as they come close to their sell-by dates. For them this makes absolute business sense – it reduces food waste (a tick in the corporate social responsibility box) and it costs much less to sell the product at high discount than have the cost of disposing of it themselves. It also generates good word-of-mouth publicity in the locality, and the bargain-hunter may also buy full-priced products while bargain-hunting around the supermarket aisles

The general lesson for entrepreneurs is that, in negotiating terms with suppliers, you may be in a much stronger position than you think; a quoted first price is rarely fixed.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Trade secrets – you can impose whatever payment terms you like

What they don’t tell you about starting a business…

Other than terms and conditions for supply of goods and services dictated by law, you can publish whatever terms and conditions you like.

And make sure these are clear and easy to find and read; ‘the small print’ is often used as a euphemism for something which, while legal, is not within the spirit of the law

There’s a temptation to look at others operating in the same business sector and replicate their terms and conditions, particularly in a competitive industry sector. This can be dangerous when the cost-base for different businesses in the same market differs widely. The current trend in online trading in fashion – to offer free delivery and returns, no questions asked – is causing havoc to the viability of smaller operators, unable to compete with the industry giants.

Sometimes it’s possible to challenge traditional practices with success. In the low-budget hotel and Bed and Breakfast sector, you may be expected to pay on arrival (to reduce the risk of guests disappearing leaving unpaid bills). This is unusual in more upmarket guest houses, but a successful luxury B & B in Sussex does things differently.

Not only do the owners expect customers to pay for their accommodation on arrival, but they also ask for payment in cash. In three years of trading there had never been any push-back from visitors who come from all over Europe. The terms are clearly spelt out in all publicity and Tripadvisor commendations and repeat visits are testimony to customer satisfaction.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets

Back to school – No Man’s Land #8 part 1   

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

Birkenhead, September 1969

They [the products of the British public school] go forth into the world with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts. An undeveloped heart – not a cold one. The difference is important”                               E M Forster

If you’d asked me on leaving boarding school in York after seven years what I’d got out of my schooling, I’d have said (and I can actually remember saying it at the time) it was self-confidence and independence. Following a ‘year off’ after leaving school, I felt I was well prepared for further education. The maturity that came from a privileged education, followed by work in Handsworth Birmingham and the south of France was confirmed in my first term at university when I was astonished by the number of people who guessed I’d been to public school. “You just have an air of self-confidence about you” they’d say.

Yes – I had a very privileged education – public school (I’ve never worked out how private schools came to be called ‘public’) followed by university in London in the days before loans. In my defence I would say that, even then, I was well aware of the exclusivity of the education and I made every effort to invest in that education for the benefit of wider society in the years that followed – grand ambitions indeed!

It’s taken the best part of my adult life since leaving secondary school to understand the impact of that period – my formative years. Unbelievably perhaps, it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve really found out about its impact on others with whom I shared those school years. This probably speaks volumes about my own and other contemporaries’ reluctance to think, let alone talk, about it. I know I’ve found writing this blog post the most difficult to date.

If you ask me now – 50 years after starting at secondary school aged 11 – what I feel about my boarding school experience, I focus more on the downsides. It robbed me of an important part of my childhood – the emotional development associated with puberty – I couldn’t be myself. Until my years in the sixth form I was living two lives – at school in term time and at home in the holidays. A school friend came home one holiday and he was amazed to see ‘my other side’; he recently confirmed this observation of my double identity. “I remember thinking that you had two personas – school and home. At school I recall that you were well behaved and rule-bound and somewhat the opposite in your home environment (nothing extreme though)”.

As I mentioned in the previous blog in this ‘No man’s land’ series, it was a single sex school. There was an equivalent girls’ school on the other side of the River Ouse and relations between the two (and the school students within them) were carefully controlled. It was almost as if, until the sixth form, we were ‘let out’ at different times by design. But if love does really conquer all, it bridged the River Ouse and gave me that tingling-down-the-spine sensation as my mind wandered to thoughts of my first ‘true’ love. When the relationship ended I was devastated. I went into a slump that, looking back, was something more than just feeling unhappy. I seem to remember the girl of my dreams got some sort of pastoral support from her school over the breakup while I was probably expected to man-up. But the love story has a happy ending – we’re still friends, in touch, and happily married (just not to each other).

Did you know there’s a website for ‘survivors’ of Boarding Schools? I learnt this many years ago when helping to organise some of our annual school reunions. I say ‘organise’ but apart from some major gatherings (20 years was the first big one) they organised themselves around the official school reunion weekend. Our gatherings continue to run alongside it and a hard core are regular returners coming back to complain about their time at school – being on tranquilizers in their final year, surviving only because of their love of sport, and other such revelations that have come out over the years. This might seem like a contradiction – returning to the scene of unhappy experiences – but maybe it’s something like criminals returning to the scene of their crimes?

Guardian journalist George Monbiot, who himself boarded from the age of eight, is vociferous in his condemnation of boarding schools for young children brandishing it as ‘child abuse’. He says “We end up with a [boarding school educated] elite, of people in positions of power, who are emotionally damaged. That’s a very dangerous place to be because children who are taught to deny their own feelings, also learn to deny other people’s feelings…

I’ve kept in touch with a good number of my former school mates through our re-unions, but only recently have I made it my business to share experiences of those distant but potentially still influential years. A number have contributed their views, but I’ve assured them their anonymity – we still live in mysterious times when unguarded or misinterpreted remarks can come back to bite us.

So, what have I learnt about inter-actions in the school – in particular antisemitism, bullying, sexual discovery – and being away from home?  To be continued…

Further reading:

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

George Monbiot and Alex Renton on the abuse that is boarding school education https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/08/school-boarding-secrets-crimes-alex-renton-kipling-rowling-dahl-churchill

The Boarding School Survivor’s website http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk  

 

Authenticity, creativity and better business

In my work with young entrepreneurs thinking of setting up their own businesses, I stress the importance of honesty and integrity in business practices. This is not just about keeping on the right side of the law and avoiding business bullshit in promotion and sales, it’s about being honest about strengths and weaknesses. Being self-aware is important as long as it’s balanced – absolute honesty in our relations with others doesn’t always help…

It’s also about business values – red lines that would-be business owners will not cross. This came up in a meeting last week when a young entrepreneur told me “I don’t want to develop my business if that’s the kind of way I’m expected to behave.” She might have been talking about a recent edition of The Apprentice; it was actually something closer to home. I congratulated her on making that stand – her personal integrity being more important than the pursuit of pure (or, in her view, impure) business success and sales.

The red lines are not nearly so easily drawn in other, more creative, ventures. Last Friday I had two demonstrations of this at different ends of the same day.

At a breakfast meeting with a photographer we were talking about the digital manipulation of images which, at its most extreme is the difference being a documentary record and a digital artwork. The photographer’s view was that, in artistic terms, if the final image (whether manipulated or not) pleases the viewer that’s what matters. He backed up his argument by saying that landscape painter Constable would manipulate the view, re-arranging trees and other intrusions, to create the desired effect. Whether enhancement is digital (as in fingers) or digital (as in electronic) he suggested, it’s a widely accepted tradition.

Last Friday night, 14 hours after my discussion with the photographer, I was at our local folk club enjoying a breath-taking performance by a guitar-playing singer-songwriter backed by six very talented string musicians. The room was too small and too hot for comfort, the sound was unbalanced, and the guitar for the first number was out of tune. But the performance was amazing – raw, untamed… in a word, authentic. I bought a CD of the pieces the band had performed – engineered in a studio to iron out all the music imperfections. It was still a delight, but a pale imitation of the authentic original live performance.

For value-based enterprises, a business manifesto is one way to wear your heart on your sleeve http://www.valuablecontent.co.uk/blog/how-to-write-a-business-manifesto

See also https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/are-experts-overrated

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

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.

For other Trade Secrets in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/trade-secrets