The power of networking

Many years ago I went to a talk in Cambridge by Hilton Catt, co-author of The Power of Networking. I don’t know whether the publicity was ambiguous or what but, it being Cambridge, there was a digital divide within the audience – one half thought it would be about virtual networks, the other half thought it would be about ‘real’ human networks.

I’m pleased to say it was about the power of the face-to-face – in Hilton Catt’s case, for job-hunting. I was unemployed at the time and, while the evening didn’t result in my immediate employment, it reinforced what I’d been told by other jobhunters and confirmed my belief in the benefit of seeking and nurturing contacts for both professional and personal progression.

To this day, I still think you can’t beat close encounters of the personal kind – even in our tech-rich, time-poor working lives – and more so in an age of faux online friends, false news, and reality TV shows that suggest that, in business, someone has to lose for you to win.

Call me old-fashioned, but my experience of working with small business start-ups for more than a decade is that they have far more to gain by sharing their ideas (rather than protecting them) and seeking partners for mutually beneficial relationships. I’m not starry-eyed about collaboration and co-operation (as opposed to competition) but I recommend it daily, and will do so until someone convinces me there’s a better way.

In my day-job I support young people in their efforts to turn business ideas into viable and hopefully sustainable enterprises. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road to take, so I encourage then to seek out like-minded people – even the competition – for advice about mistakes made, lessons learnt, and what works well.

The young entrepreneurs are constantly astonished and delighted by the helpfulness of others (people who remember when they were starting out maybe) with no expectation of a payback. I also pull in my own personal and professional contacts when I can. In the last six months, I’ve fixed a fence erector up with a van, I’ve arranged a would-be photographer’s night at a music awards ceremony in London as professional snapper’s assistant, I’ve unearthed (pun intended) a garden designer to pass judgement on a newbie designer’s work, and I’ve steered others towards potential collaborators, including business networks.

The day that ‘who you know’ becomes less important than ‘what you know’ and online communications make face-to-face connections unnecessary, I think I’ll pack up and head for the hills (preferably somewhere there’s no broadband).

Small card, big message

In my day job I work with young would-be entrepreneurs to support them in setting up in business if they have an idea they want to pursue. As most people know, writing a business plan is a good place to start – to get the ideas out of heads and on to paper where it can be developed, adapted and, if need be, rejected.

When it gets to the publicity section I’m always intrigued that, in an age of social media and worldwide online communication, when asked how they plan to promote their business, nearly every young person writes ‘business cards’. How do they even know about business cards?!

I think the attachment to this humble handout is a combination of it being tangible (unlike things like ‘brand’ ‘values’ ‘and ‘social media’). It’s also cheap – most people know companies that will hook you in with an offer of your first 50 business cards free. Then there’s the comfort of conforming – ‘me too’ – everybody talks about business cards and seems to have then, so why don’t I?

This is not to knock the potential value of professionally produced business cards but, as money is always short, I tend to design and print my own (certainly when I’m paying for them) because I use so few. But then maybe, after 35 years in marketing, I’m missing a trick…?

A business card can, and should, say a lot about you and your business – your quality, character, professionalism, and quirkiness if that’s the business you’re in. Above all, it should be the ‘calling card’ that convinces your target customers that it’s worth making that phone call.

I’m someone with an interest in clear and concise communication in all its forms, so I find the business card an interesting challenge. Like most publicity pieces, it can be both ephemeral – one of many gathered at an event soon to be ‘filed and forgotten’, or essential for safe storage (in my case in a pile on my desk) for easy retrieval when the time is right. Surprisingly often I reach for one I know is in there somewhere, but the beauty of the business card for me is in the use of the limited space (in seconds and centimetres) for grabbing attention.

I’m a sucker for gimmicks so I’m usually more attracted to the design than the content. I’ve been working with a young person who plans to offer soft and hard garden landscaping services. We’re currently trying to produce a business card that grows using paper embedded with seeds. We’ve got the paper from my friends at the Frogmore Paper Mill.  Now it’s a matter of working out how to create the cards so they sprout and grow when watered carefully on an office desk – watch this space…

 

Last week in Bristol I was attracted to a slightly-larger-than-standard business card from a local company – Florentina & Chalky. What you can’t tell from the photo is that the card has a unique feel – like chalkboard – so they go one better than the company that ‘does what it says on the tin’!

What next – a scratch and sniff business card for a cheese shop?

http://florentinaandchalky.blogspot.co.uk 

http://www.thepapertrail.org.uk

PS – a re-use tip: If you’ve gathered a pile of business cards with blank backs and you don’t want them, you can use then as a deck of cue cards for your next talk – a handy-sized pack of prompts.

Belonging: people, place or something else ? – No man’s land #4

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

I have an interest in ‘new’ communities. In my first year at university studying Geography, we had a field trip to Harlow (a much newer town then than now) and I semi-seriously asked our guide which was higher, the murder or suicide rate. At the time, we were standing outside the front door of a home in a low-rise ‘Spanish-style’ apartment block surrounded by grey concrete with petrol fumes from an ill-designed car park wafting up from below through an equally badly-positioned grill beneath our feet. To be fair it was a grey wet day; we weren’t seeing Harlow at its best.

Later, as part of my university course, I studied a community that had been de-canted from Handsworth in Birmingham for a ‘better life’ on the edge of the city. I was looking at whether those residents had been able to re-create the old community in their new location – the right mix of people and place. I interviewed those who had moved and those who had stayed and concluded, of course, that the sense of community is more to do with the people than the place (but I also detected some latent racism in my interviewees which may have distorted the findings).

Fast forward four decades from my university studies and, 20 miles from Harlow and 100 miles from Handsworth, my office base is in another new town, Stevenage (or St Evenage as we like to call it). Across Hertfordshire’s county boundary, I also work with young people in a newer new town – Milton Keynes (and however many times I go there, I’ve never worked out how to get from A to B without a map)

My other half works in Letchworth – the world’s first Garden City and, as some may know, the site of the first roundabout dating back to the early 1900s.  On the edge of York, my mother spent the last ten years of her life living in an innovative ‘continuing care community’ (Centreparcs for the over 60s I called it) which was itself located in New Earswick – a community created to house the makers of Rowntree’s chocolate. [I also lived for two years near another model village founded on cocoa – Bournville in Birmingham. And Royston is the HQ for Hotel Chocolat; the confectionery community connections go on!]

After making the decision the move from North London, from the largely anonymous neighbourhood that was Stoke Newington, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was interested in getting to know the ‘new’ Royston community as soon as possible after arriving.

As in London, having a toddler was a wonderful way to meet others in a similar position and many of those new parents we met over 20 years ago in Royston had also recently arrived from other parts, so we had much in common. The ‘newcomers group’ gave us access to a group of potentially like-minded people and, in fact, many of them have become and remain good friends. The mothers (and it was primarily mothers) who met for coffee with their offspring soon extended their socialising to regular ‘girls’ nights out’. The fathers who had less opportunity to meet in the working week, were not to be outdone – with monthly ‘lads’ nights out’ at one of Royston’s eight pubs (for a record 23 dads on one notable occasion).

But just as there is a world of difference between the pain of loneliness and the joy of solitude, so ‘residing in’ and ‘belonging to’ a particular place are very different experiences.

Belonging (and love) is level three in Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs. My personal definition of belonging in Royston is quite simply meeting someone I know whenever I walk to the shops. For a town with 16,000 people where I’ve lived for more than 20 years, that’s quite common now. I also say ‘hello’ to people I don’t know, most often when I’m running and they’re doing the same or walking the dog. [What is it about people thinking you strange or worse still, threatening, if you try to be friendly, unless it’s obvious why you’re both out and about at the same time?]

But I reckon it took around five years after arriving to feel I belonged in Royston and could say hello to strangers. And on the subject of ‘stranger danger’, I refused to bring up my daughter to see every man as a potential rapist.

And that confidence and familiarity only came from going out of my way to do things that would help me connect and be good for my health and wellbeing – running off-road with friends (and trying to set up that local parkrun) and singing in a choir being just two.

There’s a Quaker proverb that says ‘It’s better to light a candle than complain about the darkness.’ It speaks to my condition (to use another Quaker phrase) and has done so from an early age when I had it on a poster on my bedroom wall. But it’s only really in the last 15 years I’ve really taken that idea to heart as a way to feed my longing to belong and to feel as though I’m making a difference, however small.

Since 2000 I’ve tried to connect people in Royston (including myself of course) with some success, by starting things. Community-building is how some might describe it; for me it’s more self-interested than that if I’m honest.

First it was the Royston Time Bank which traded time to make the point that we all have something precious to share – our time – and that give and take is good for us. Free exchange is at the heart of another initiative – our Royston Recycle network of 6,500 people keeping items in use for longer through the giving away pre-loved-but-now-unwanted items. This freecycle group spawned the Royston Repair Café – quarterly gathering to assess and, where possible, mend broken items – bikes, clothes, furniture, electrical and electronic items.

A friend in Bedford introduced me to cash mobs. The idea is a wonderfully simple, social-media-assisted direct action to help revive a local economy. A semi-randomly selected independent high street shop is targeting for a surprise spending spree (£5 each) by the gathered ‘mob’. For me, the demonstration effect – it’s better to light a candle etc – is as important as the financial benefit to the particular shop, so publicity before and after is essential. When one of the gathered mobsters asked if I’d got permission to organise the event (‘permission to spend money in local shops?’ I asked) I realised what I was up against. But we organised four cash mobs in all – descending on a different retailer each time – with indirect benefits in abundance.

Then there’s the Mill Road Little Library. The first 15 years of my working life I sold books (with a book distributor, then a publisher) and although I’m a slow reader, I’m sure it’s parental influence that explains my love of printed books and reading.

In our early years in Royston there were two bookshops – one run by a traditional bookseller in a malodorous shop, the other run by a malodorous bookseller in a clean and fresh outlet. Both bookshops are now gone and the popular and well-run library (a treasure trove for our growing daughter) has had its funding cut and is now largely DIY and run by volunteers on reduced hours. Opening a new bookshop is not on the cards of course, but the Little Library outside our house – on a commuter route – has a steady turnover of real books as copies come and go. A ‘tiny library’ – to catch ‘em young – is the next development.

To be continued…

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

For more about cash mobs, see https://www.facebook.com/RoystonCashMob 

 

 

Nine Healthy Signs (NHS)?

Some years ago a wiser man than I observed that, while the ability to demonstrate on the streets is often cited as a manifestation of democracy in action, this is not necessarily the case.

He argued that a public demonstration is, in fact, a last resort when all other means have failed to get our voices heard – as such is it a failure of the democratic process. He’d had more than enough time to come to this conclusion having spent many years in solitary confinement in a Middle Eastern jail – fallout from a clampdown on free speech.

Without meaning to make a trite comparison, it felt a bit like a last resort to me last week as we gathered in Tavistock Square (home of the British Medical Association’s HQ) to proclaim and reclaim #OurNHS. The march from WC1 ended in Parliament Square, home of a government that seems bent on dismantling the NHS in the name of increased efficiency – by which they mean meeting an ever-growing need with ever-decreasing resources. Even the best miracle cures cannot square that circle.

In the face of such apparent indifference to reality, ignoring the views of health professionals at the frontline, and a dogmatic refusal to consider other views, maybe marching, chanting, and singing is all we have left in our armoury to foster a sense of common purpose, fellowship and, however small, power and influence?

In the end the #OurNHS march was a great day out with family and the weather was kind. But it didn’t feel like a mass demonstration and the mainstream media coverage was disappointing, even the rallying speeches at the end seemed a bit tired. But in one respect the loudest noise was made, not by voices, but by the messages on placards and banners. Each competed for attention with their soundbite 140-character quips and some seriously clever imagery.

 

With camera phones capturing and communicating every detail, we live in hope that social media might somehow magnify the impact of the march itself and make it all worthwhile. Maybe those placard bearers will have the last laugh. I share some of their messages here in the hope they will help lift your spirits and stave off the need for you to use the NHS for a little longer.

Hair care – in the barber’s chair

royston-barbers‘There’s something about a barber’s chair, and the way the gown disables the arms, putting phones and real life out of reach. The mirror somehow forces introspection, under the caring eye and reassuring touch of a man who has seen it all.’ 

As those fine folk at Time to Change launch their latest campaign to raise awareness about, and reduce the stigma associated with, mental ill health, it seems like a good time to talk about barber shops. In your corner is the campaign targeting those men and boys least likely to talk about mental health. Which is where barbers come in.

This time last year journalist Simon Usborne re-visited his old barber in south-east London 25 years after first being sat on a plank for a short back and sides. Simon discovered another side to his barber Paul’s business – the male mental health care he’s been administering right there in his chair for over five decades.

As Simon observes: ‘For more than half a century [Paul] has watched hairlines recede, fashions change and lines around eyes map the advance of age and changing fortunes. New jobs, bereavement, illness, depression and big decisions: all of life has been here, and so has Paul. “It’s a peaceful place, you know,” he says. “There’s no rush here and you can talk.”

Such is the relationship between cutter and customer that five barbers in North London have received “first aid” training in mental health, to help them reach vulnerable young black men in particular who, Simon Usborne writes, can be even less inclined to reveal their suffering.

At a time when issues around male mental ill-health are at last, slowly, coming out of the closet to be discussed if not face-to-face, then should-to-shoulder in Men’s Sheds, and now face-to-scalp, it’s a welcome development – retell, as opposed to retail, therapy.

LawnMowerHead
Regular readers of this blog will know that hair is, unlike my own, a recurring theme– I have laughed at the expense of slap-heads like me, grown silly moustaches each Movember, and reminisced about the time the Guardian newspaper published my letter about anti-dandruff shampoo for men with beards – Chin and Chest.

I was thinking about this the other day when I noticed that in Royston where I live, like the miracle fix for Elton John and Wayne Rooney’s follicly-challenged pates, barber shops have started sprouting up all over the north Hertfordshire market town. No less than five have joined Royston’s nine women’s hairdressers – all this for a population of just 16,000 heads, and not all of us needing haircuts. Will any of them, I wonder, be hair today but gone tomorrow?

Further information:

royston-hair-spots

Going head-to-head: Those fourteen Royston hair carers in alphabetical order: Anderson’s  /  Archer’s /  Carlo & Co / Gio’s / Head Quarters / Hendrick’s  / Jane Hair Stylist /   Lordsman / Manmade/ Nina’s Hair /  Royston Gents / Saks /  Studio 26 / The Hair Boutique

Time to change In Your Corner campaign http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/get-involved/share-your-corner

In Paul the barber’s chair http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/barbers-are-receiving-first-aid-training-in-mental-health-so-could-they-offer-the-best-talking-cure-a6882216.html

Balding and blogging https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/balding-and-blogging 

Pooing in public places

heath-poo-2There’s something puzzling up on the Heath near where I live. It’s an area much-used by dog-walkers and, for the most part, the dogs’ owners seem to be a responsible bunch when it comes to their (dog’s) poo. The Heath is well provided for with red bins which fill up quickly.

Recently a new red bin was installed near the woods at the back of the Heath. That too  was soon filled but, just as quickly, it was sealed up (with the filled bags inside for all I know – I guess we’ll find out for sure when the weather warms up…)

Why the sudden change of heart I wonder? We’ll probably find out it’s a case of the left hand not coordinating with the right; that the people who install red bins are not the same people who empty them, and no one thought to arrange for the new bin to be added to the round.

Whatever the reason, in my experience such unexplained silliness can be like a red rag (or should that be red bin?) to otherwise responsible dog owners. They don’t seem to realise they can use the ordinary rubbish bins for their poo bags and either leave them at the base of the bin or, worse still, hang them on bushes and trees to the disgust of most of us. Yes, If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to ‘hit the fan’ as it were on local social media, it’s bags of dog poo hanging in trees. Most people would prefer to see those responsible left hanging in the trees.

Once under attack, dog owners tend to come out snarling. I recently read one respondent asking ‘why don’t riders have to clear up their horses’ sh*t’? Well the main reason is diet madam; horse dung is relatively odourless, it doesn’t stick to your shoes (unless the horse in question overdid it on curry and beers the night before) and it’s good for making things grow (cue joke about putting manure on your rhubarb rather than custard…)

horse-diaperYou may not know that, in York at least, the horses have been known to wear nappies. To be more precise, the nappies that were piloted thirteen years ago – to capture the ‘emissions’ of the horses pulling tourists around in carriages – have now been adapted to look more like hammocks for… cats and dogs. And if the carriage drivers have any entrepreneurial acumen, they’ll sell off the manure as Yorkshire’s finest.

Leaving London – No man’s land #3

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

In the wider world, Royston is a place for arrivals, departures and intervening connections. House prices reflect good transport links via international airports (two within 45 minutes), motorways (two within 15 minutes by car on a good day) and 10 minutes by train to Stevenage for rail links to the north and Scotland, and south to London.

royston-to-london-milestoneIronically, Royston is more connected to the rest of the world than the rest of Hertfordshire, and, in fact, the rest of North Hertfordshire. I know at least two 20-somethings in Letchworth who have never travelled the 12 miles to Royston (11 minutes by train). I think Royston and District (that’s the SG8 postcode) should be declared an independent republic. Most or the one million inhabitants of Hertfordshire have never been to Royston. Even work colleagues in the other corner of the county used to ask me whether I actually returned to Royston at the end of each day; for them it was another world (‘there be dragons…’ etc)

Unlike in the trading days of old, many more people have driven past Royston without stopping – it’s on the A10, the old London to Cambridge route before the M11 was built.  Even for us, our first visit from our home in North London to Royston was for house-hunting. I had sworn I’d never commute into London but my wife convinced me that it needn’t be difficult as I was working near Kings Cross station at the time and her family lived in Norfolk – making Royston a much more accessible place to live.

I could say that we finally decided to leave Hackney when we heard someone being shot dead on their doorstep after a late-night party bust-up. But that wouldn’t be true; we heard the fatal shooting but we’d already decided to move out.

In fact the final push for me was returning to London after a weekend in Norfolk. Our two-year-old daughter was fast asleep in the back of the car, my stress levels were rising with every mile we travelled, then crawled, towards the city. I could almost smell the air as we arrived home. Like many before us, we moved out of London for the fresher air, reduced congestion, and affordable property when our toddler needed her own bedroom.

clissold-park-cafe-2I have never regretted the move although I do miss the cakes in the Clissold Park cafe (since tarted up and, no doubt, now selling… tarts).

During 16 years studying, living and working in London, I never made the most of the opportunities on my doorstep. In our first week at university, our tutor warned us we’d put off discovering London until it was too late.         She was right.

It wasn’t even about money; I just kept putting off the sightseeing to a later date that never arrived. I got to know only very small parts of the city (Willesden Green, Finchley, Islington, and then Stoke Newington) feeling most connected in the final two years there when our daughter was born and we got to know other new parents.

While working in London, my professional and personal lives were kept quite separate; a practice that has helped me, apart from some notable lapses, to sustain a sort of work/life balance throughout my career. I say ‘sort of’ because my work has been less a career path more a lifelong cause – something I’d probably do whether or not I was paid. This was illustrated by my young daughter, at a time when I often worked from home. She asked me one Saturday morning “Are you working today Dad?“No” I said, trying to be helpful, “I’m doing what I did yesterday, but today I’m not getting paid to do it”. I think that confused rather than clarified the situation for her.

In London I lived at various addresses north of the river. For a couple of years my MP was Margaret Thatcher and her signed response to my complaint about the state of the roads for cyclists (I was one then) was a treasured possession for at least a week. I spent two years in Islington living with a journalist who, I later learned, was charging me 90% of the ‘shared’ rent to pay for her drug habit. I also learned she’d chosen me as a flatmate because she’d heard I’d travelled in South America and (wrongly) assumed I’d returned with, at the very least, a handful of coca leaves.

The move to Hackney was to move in with a Bart’s nurse who was to become my wife. We lived in a terraced road off Stoke Newington High Street for several years. It was wonderfully quiet but this didn’t stop thieves stealing the bonnet from a neighbour’s car across the street on a hot summer night when everyone had their windows open – that takes skill. All we had stolen were headlight surrounds, a car radio, and a Vauxhall bonnet badge from my wife’s Chevette (much sought after for spares…)

prince-of-wales-n16The pub around the corner was good for the odd drink after a busy week; a semi-regular two pints on Friday evenings almost made it our local. The real regulars would prop up the bar night after night. I assumed they were loneIy old men (one looked just like Lord Snooty from The Dandy kid’s comic) seeking solace in a pint at the Prince of Wales, or the POW as it was known. Then one evening, after a couple of years, I heard one of the regulars saying he was off home because his missus would have his tea on the table. Maybe I was right after all – lonely old men in loveless long-term marriages, more at home in the pub than at home. (The POW has since been tarted up and re-named ‘The Prince’ – Lord Snooty must be spinning in his grave.)

Compared to Hackney, Royston was a backwater. We’d landed in what seemed like a quaint and quiet corner of little Britain, not unlike TV’s Royston Vasey made famous by The League of Gentlemen. The crime scene was more The Bill* than The Sweeney – the town’s mayor was being exposed on national TV for wrongdoing associated with his estate agent business, and the Royston Crow newspaper’s crime reports were about parked cars being ‘keyed’ – annoying, but hardly life-threatening. Then there were the quirky couples – two local councillors Deborah Duck and Ted Drake and, sometime after we’d settled in, two married couples swapped partners. This was life in the slow lane – in the unhurried-and-interesting, not traffic-jam-crawling – sense. Life in Royston was to serve us well.

*Some TV trivia – an actor from The Bill bought our house in Hackney, and Sun Hill police station in the TV series was named after Sun Hill in Royston where creator Geoff Mcqueen lived.

To be continued….

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