Category: Entrepreneurship

The falls after the highs

A few days ago, my business partners and I had our official launch event for our startup. It’s a business that runs hackathons bringing together students, corporates, and other organisations to solve social issues. The attendees work on a business, project, app, or campaign for 24–36 hours, and then pitch their idea to a panel of judges at the end. It went very well, and the three of us are over the moon with how it went.

This is not a blog about that.

I’ll probably write one, but for now there’s something that’s been bothering me for a few days.

You see, while I am incredibly proud of what the three of us have achieved (to say nothing of the work our event attendees achieved over the two days), almost the second that I announced the winning team — in other words, the ‘official’ end of the event — I felt empty.

I should be over the moon. Why am I not?

The above quote is actually something I wrote in a personal blog around 10 years ago. In that week, I had been awarded a black belt in a martial art I’d been practising for years, and had also completed a 55 mile challenge trek across Dartmoor in under 32 hours — something for which I’d been training for months. Each was incredibly important to me, and to have achieved them both in the space of a few days was incredible. Yet I distinctly remember waking up the next morning feeling decidedly less euphoric than I assumed I would.

I’m not sure why that line sticks out in my head, verbatim, after so long. But I was forcibly reminded of it over the last few days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled – I really really am. The event went well and – more importantly – the feedback we got from everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive. I’m proud of that weekend as a result of the hard work than went into it, and neither am I saying that I’ve constantly felt empty since the event ended — not at all.

But thinking about the event and the work we did isn’t providing me with the gut-bursting pride that I expected, and the feeling of deflation I felt wasn’t simply a decompression after an intense few days (and the preceding weeks). It was much deeper than that.

Pressure to succeed vs. Work-life balance

There’s a deeper problem though. In that deflating moment, I realised something. Up until that point, I had no idea how much I had invested into this startup. While I’ve said to people that I’ve put my soul into this business, I didn’t actually realise what that meant until a few days ago. That gut-bursting pride? I didn’t expect it; I needed it.

It worries me. It worries me because I know that my low moods are already on a hair trigger. I’m putting far to much pressure on a startup idea, and I’m struggling with the idea that my mental state is tied so closely to it. I felt deflated after my last event because that was my life up until that point. Once it had ended, how could I not feel empty? It’s why people have hobbies, other pursuits, friends, relationships, whatever. It’s things to make sure that when your situation changes in one part of your life, you still have other things that are stable and grounding. In my case, how I felt a few days ago was so much worse than how I felt 10 years ago, because I had other things going on at the time.

Catch-22

But I have a finite amount of time and energy, and putting my all into something that I believe in, in a perverse sort of way, makes sense. I know that it’s a stupid position to hold; I know that I’m custom-building my own environment for a monumental burnout-breakdown.

Yet at the same time, I don’t know how else to function. The irony is that there’s a part of me that’s scared about taking my eye off the ball — even if only for a little bit, for the longer term benefit of my health (and by proxy the business). Success and that feeling of a job well done is a drug — one that I need larger and larger doses of to maintain my normal function.

The same logical analysis that convinces my that my depression is an inextricable part of me, is the same thought process that goes into deciding that I probably should be working harder than I do. I exist in a sort of Schrodinger’s cat-style situation where at all times I know that I need to work harder, and I also know that I need to take my foot off the accelerator a little. The two are mutually exclusive, and both can’t be true. I know that.

It’s just that I also know they both are.

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Some thoughts on The Apprentice

This year is the first in the 12 years of the BBC’s The Apprentice that I haven’t been watching. I’m not boycotting it or anything, but I have to say that I’m not missing it at all.

It’s weird because, on paper, it’s exactly my kind of show – a business competition; reality TV with an intellectual element. The Apprentice is also a show that I’m arrogant enough to think I would do well in, so there’s that element of yelling obnoxiously at the TV that you get with basically every TV Quiz show that isn’t University Challenge. I love that element of TV.

In fact, a few years ago there was a change to the format of The Apprentice that should have made it even more appealing. Instead of competing to win some obscure job deep in the unknown depths of an Amstrad subsidiary, contestants were gunning for the chance to win money and backing for their own start-up ventures.

It was great news, and entrepreneurs nationwide rejoiced. While there was a lot of speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for the shifting goalposts (most prominent perhaps, the lawsuit by a former Apprentice winner against Lord Sugar), Sugar’s outward reasoning was a strong one. He declared that he wanted to prove to everyone up and down the country that anyone can start a very successful business with a relatively small amount of money. It was, in his own way, a show of force for the enterprising community.

And herein lies my major gripe with the show. Its not that it has become a petty ratings driven hour of drivel. Its not that the show does a shocking job of portraying women in the workplace. And its not that the whole thing is now so formulaic you can predict the outcome from about 20 mins into the first episode.

The show inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs

No. While these are all damning indictments of the show, the issue I wanted to talk about is that the sum of money that people are competing for – the Holy Grail of proof that anyone can start a successful business regardless of circumstance – is £250,000.

Now I know that this, in the grand scheme of business – and certainly to someone like Lord Sugar – is in fact a relatively small sum of money. Its just that if the ‘new’ aim and direction of The Apprentice really was to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to follow their passions, this seems a big number to jump for right out of the gate.

A counter argument I’ve heard to this train of thought is that the changing focus of the show isn’t to inspire more people to become entrepreneurs, but rather to encourage more people to see The Apprentice as an avenue to explore to that end. I’ll ignore the fact that, if true, this is a ridiculous aim, and instead focus on something else. Roughly the same number of people apply every year for a spot on The Apprentice as do for an undergraduate course at the University of Cambridge. Through the magic of statistics, you are therefore 600 times more likely to gain a place studying at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, than you are to become a contestant in any given year. 

The show acts as an education into the world of entrepreneurship

How about the fact that, just by watching it, you are getting to grips with business saavy that might otherwise escape you? 

On the face of it, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable claim. The show does place a focus on profit and loss, on the interactions and sales pitches of the contestants, and on the the ideas that they generate in relatively short spaces of time.

Again though, if this were the aim, The Apprentice falls laughably short. The show holds up these challenges as if they are the Gold Standard of business acumen. Every week they run a different challenge to see which team makes the most ‘profit’ from a task. Yet they utterly fail to take into consideration basic business such as fixed costs, staff time, etc.

Here, I know, I’m being incredibly pedantic. The point is to pit the two teams against each other, so if you assume all their fixed costs are the same it makes for easier viewing to just taking into account how the teams differ. I just think that in so doing you are missing a large chuck of the business mindset. 

Winning the challenges demonstrates the right skills

The biggest respect I ever had for Lord Sugar whilst watching The Apprentice was in one episode a few seasons back. I forget what the task was, but both teams did shockingly poor – it was the kind of thing that I was embarrassed to watch, and I had zero affiliation to anyone close to the programme. The norm is that the winning team every week gets a reward – a track day at Silverstone, a night making cocktails at some high end London club, etc. In this particular case, there was a winner for the task – or rather, one team did less poorly than the other. However, Sugar was so incensed with how badly everyone had done that no team got a reward.

I’ll skip over the fact that the entitled bunch reacted as if someone had shot their cat, and instead ask: why isn’t this the norm? Shouldn’t they have to fight for the prize? If the aim of The Apprentice really was to make better business people (let’s not forget that the show is aired by the BBC, whose mission statement is to “…inform, educate and entertain.” – so it isn’t totally out of the question), wouldn’t that make more sense?

Instead the show seems to reward arrogance and deceit, just as much as good business sense. I don’t mean to get all high-and-mighty, but all of the negative connotations we have about entrepreneurship and business, The Apprentice glorifies. And that’s totally fine – I love watching people have it out in the boardroom as much as the next person. But let’s not pretend we’re watching anything other than that. And let’s certainly not pretend that The Apprentice is doing anything good for the UK’s future and existing entrepreneurs.

I started this post by saying that I wasn’t intentionally boycotting The Apprentice, and then proceeded to take 800 words to argue how bad it is. I’m not actively taking a stand against the show, and I do recognise that it does represent some of the better television entertainment that exists (there’s a separate discussion to be had as to what that says about TV today…). And, of course, if you watch it I hope this series is a good one.

I guess my problem, ultimately, is that if the show needs to justify itself (and it does – every single show on the BBC does) it falls very far short.

All of that said, I might well tune in for the penultimate episode. While I stand by everything I’ve just said, the interviews do make for great television.

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On staying humble amidst success

Humility is one of those characteristics that seems to divide people. In some ways, traditional business seems to train us to be boisterous and proud. At the risk of conforming to stereotypes, the image of a successful business person tends to be a city-dwelling male with a flash car, the latest gadgets, and – lets face it – a bit of an abrasive personality.

We’re all grown up enough to realise that this, as with all stereotypes, is misleading. And yet the image prevails. Even the heroes of literature can on occasion scorn humility as a trait. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to take one example, famously held a distaste for modesty, saying: “to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers”.

Humility is seen as a character flaw, not a trait, and so being humble doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even the word ‘humility’ sounds like a bad thing. It sounds weak, and who wants to be seen as weak in business?

So before I offer suggestions as to how to stay humble, I suppose it might first be prudent to explain why humility is even a good thing.

Firstly, it is important to define humility, or being humble, in the right way. Much of the negative connotation of the word comes from is near-homophone ‘humiliation’. But despite the similarity of the words, humility and humiliation are not the same thing. True, they do both share the same root – the Latin ‘humilis’ which roughly translates as ‘from the earth’ or, as we might say now, ‘grounded’. But while the root word is the same, ‘humiliation’ as we use it is a verb – to put someone down – compared with the noun ‘humble’, which is to be down to earth. The latter is a character trait, whilst the former is a derogative action.

So with that mini lesson out of the way, what is so good about being humble?

Well while Sherlock Holmes is one example of a fiction character scorning humility, literature also has its fair share of humble heroes and accounts of humility as an aspiration. Even the ancient Greeks, who are seen by many experts as pretty clever, recognised its importance. The Iliad – Homer’s epic poem, widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving works of Western literature, recounts the final weeks of the Trojan War. The entire account is a warning against Pride – the antithesis of Humility. And that was a message strong enough to warrant a film starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

So humility is a good thing. But how do you stay humble? It’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to want to share your success with others – and you should be proud! But there are a few things to bear in mind. Here are just a few:

Don’t take criticism personally.

As far as being humble goes, this is pretty early on in the rulebook – and it doesn’t just apply when you’re working your way up to success. Once you’re at the top, you’ll still receive your fair share of criticism. Whether its people who are genuinely trying to help, or if its people who are bitter and just trying to knock you down, you need to be mindful of how you react.

Don’t constantly name drop, or otherwise show off.

Of course, if the reference is relevant, or you are bringing the name up for a legitimate reason, then that’s fine. But doing it for the sake of it is definitely not in the spirit of humility.

You’ll have noticed that in this article, I’ve referenced a famous author, a classic Greek poem, and given a micro-lesson in Latin. Now on the surface this could just be to give as full an account of the idea of humility as possible. But the cynical amongst you will question whether all of that was necessary – why not just give a simple dictionary definition and move on? Was I perhaps just trying to show off how clever I am? It’s a fine line – and if you tread the wrong side of it you’ll go from being that helpful guy with good connections and knowledge, to that smarmy guy who is just trying to show up everyone who hasn’t read The Iliad.

Know that your success is rarely down to you alone.

However successful you are, in whatever field you’re in, nobody can make it to the top alone. And when you get there, you’d do well to thank the people whose shoulders you’re stood on. From the massive cash injection your business received from a sponsor, right down to those little words of encouragement from a friend at 3am from when it looked like it was all going to fall apart, so many people have an impact on what you do. Make sure you thank as many of them as possible – they will appreciate that you’ve remembered them in your time of glory.

Talk about your route to success, not the success itself.

Its easy to be caught up in the hype of being awesome – and at first people will be happy for you and may even allow to you brag a little. But if you keep talking just about the present – how rich you are, how well respected you are in your circle, whatever it might be – your listeners will quickly get bored and may even start to resent you.

Instead, talk about how you got there. People love a success story – so make sure its the whole story, not just the last chapter, that you talk about. You may even act as an inspiration to others, as you prove success is achievable. (Really, that’s a win-win – you still get to talk about yourself, and you get to inspire others!)

Don’t forget why you went into business in the first place.

Every business has the aim of making money – and there is no shame in that. But simply making money isn’t the be all and end all of what you’re company should be about (unless you work for the Royal Mint…).

Even Apple – a company famously richer than the United States of America – admit that money isn’t everything. Jonathan Ive, has said that: “[Apple’s] goal isn’t to make money… Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.” He goes on to say that if they make great products, they will be a success. Because business success is so often measured by its bottom line, its easy to become obsessed by the money. Remembering why your business exists in the first place can help keep you grounded.

And as we learned from our little Latin lesson earlier, being grounded is what being humble is all about.

See – I wasn’t just showing off.

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On recessions, and why they aren’t all bad

It was recently reported that the UK is in a period of deflation. This isn’t anything to be overly concerned with yet, but in light of the various issues that might befall our economy in the wake of instability, I thought it worth revisiting the notion that recessions don’t always mean you have to abandon your ideas.  (I have not, it seems, revisited the idea that my run-on sentences get a little excessive…) While its easy to see media showcasing doom and gloom and decide you aren’t going to pursue your business venture until the economy picks up, studies by organisations like and Social Enterprise UK show that SMEs usually have the flexibility and resilience to withstand the knocks of recession better than some larger companies.

But what does that mean for you? What can you, hypothetical budding entrepreneur, do to help your business weather the storm? Of course recessions are scary, and there are those who suffer majorly because of them. But what better way to ease your worries than with – yup you guessed it – a listicle!

1. You can make use of freed spaces

A few years ago – still very much in the economic turmoils of the recession – group of artists in Chester took over a boarded up shop in their town centre and used it as a showroom.

Even though the worst seems to be behind us – or rather the media seems less concerned with it – boarded up shops are still a common sight on many high streets. But here’s a little secret for you – the councils don’t actually want to see the shops close. Anything that they can do to generate footfall in a precinct they should jump at. If you need a space to display your ideas, or you need some publicity, have a talk with whoever runs your centre. You might be able to get a ‘pop-up’ shop for relatively cheap (or even, depending on the nature of your endeavour, for free!).

In addition to doing it yourself, there are a number of organisations – such as 3Space – who repurpose old retail spaces into co-working areas for charities and small social enterprises.

2. Remember that the Economy can be seen as a closed system…

…which means that someone has to gain when people lose. Why shouldn’t that be you? Pop quiz: What do Disney, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft have in common? Answer: They were all founded during recessions. You don’t need to check the FTSE100 to know that these are three companies that don’t seem overly fazed by anything.

Sometimes when the chips are down, it’s worth remembering that even huge corporations all had to start somewhere. Recessions can bring out the best innovators and, as the cliche goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

One of the reasons for this is that during a recession prices for certain things tend to go down. This means that the money you have can go further, so take advantage of that. Now of course, being a recession, it might mean that you actually don’t have that much money. But that leads me nicely onto my final point.

3. Austerity shows you the things you really need

When I graduated from University I didn’t really have much in the way of a plan. With no grad scheme lined up I was somewhat unceremoniously ejected into the real world with nothing in the way of a career path laid out in front of me. In the grand scheme of things though, this wasn’t overly concerning. I still had a roof over my head, and I could still eat, drink, and most importantly, check Twitter. But one thing that my situation helped me to do was reassess a lot of my expenditures, which I firstly did by checking my bank account to see where my money was disappearing. I ended up saving nearly £40 a month by cancelling a number of direct debits – everything from gadget insurance that I didn’t need, to magazines I’d subscribed to as a student to “broaden my knowledge” but that really I’d rarely read. I didn’t even need to outright cancel everything; at a time where companies are desperate for customers in any way, in some instances I’ve managed to still have a lot of the same services, just a discounted rate.

Whether its on a personal level, or for your business, having a ‘spring clean’ of your finances might leave you surprised as to how much you can save

And if none of that convinces you that recessions aren’t always the end of the world, here’s a little fact for you: Did you know that over the course of the 20th Century, the Stock Market gained on average 10% every year? This, in a century with 2 World Worlds, the Great Depression, and a great deal of political unrest across the world. In other words, despite all the knocks that the economy suffers, so far it’s still done pretty well. And that can be of some comfort to budding entrepreneurs.

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On the power of crowdsourcing

Sometimes it seems like there is no way that your business can take off in such an over-populated world, where we can only seem to focus on something for about 30 seconds at a time. Just as we use tools to distract us though, modern life has also provided us with the means to break into markets and resources that, 10 years ago, we could never have dreamed of. Crowdsourcing is just one of those ways.

Crowdsourcing – “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people” (Wikipedia) – is perhaps one of the most powerful tools young entrepreneurs have at there disposal. Whether you need ideas, information, market research, or even money, there are more and more tools out there to help you get a foothold in the market.

So what steps could you take to launch your idea? That’s right, get ready for another listicle…!

1. MARKET RESEARCH – is there a need for my business?

Before we move onto to the newer, shinier, more innovative ways of tapping into crowdsourcing, its worth remembering the basics. Even something as seemingly mundane as SurveyMonkey, coupled with the right attitude to its distribution, can be a powerful (and free!) market research tool.

Be aware of those short attention spans though – make sure that the questions you ask are concise and leave no room for interpretation. Also think about exactly what it is you need from the survey. Really put thought into every question, and if it won’t add value, take it out.

2. FINANCE – how do I get funding?

Crowd-funding is a growing, though still relatively new, concept. Kickstarter is perhaps the most famous example of a crowd-funding platform, particularly since its recent jump across the pond from its native US, and I’ve long been a great fan of the concept.

For those unfamiliar, its essentially a way for projects to be crowd-funded rather than backed by an individual. From the developer’s point of view, they get the money they need without the bureaucratic strings attached to a single backer. And from the consumer’s point of view, they donate a small amount of money and get an ‘untainted’ product – they give money because they trust the developer, and so they are (hopefully) happy with the result. The great thing from a consumer’s point of view is that there is no risk. If the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t reach a pre-determined target, no one pays any money.

If you get a crowd big enough, the scope is huge. There are countless extreme examples, such as the ‘Exploding Kittens’ card game which ultimately raised nearly $90k over the course of the giving, or the Pebble Time watch which hit its (not inconsiderable) $1 million in the first 49 minutes. Some of these have more of a cult following than others, and some have more marketing muscle than you might have access to. But the principle is the same – if you have a project and you can get people to believe in it, then the sky’s the limit.

3. ADVERTISING – how should I spread the word?

So you’ve done the research, you’ve got the funding, and you’re pretty much ready to go. But how do you announce your big launch to the world?

Well we’ve already been through how crowd-sourcing and social media can help with research and money. Advertising doesn’t seem too much of a stretch, surely? I was recently introduced to Thunderclap – a great way of sharing a message across social media. You set a deadline and ask people to support your cause. If enough people have supported it by that time, then everyone involved automatically posts on their Facebook and/or Twitter page at the exact same time, creating a ‘Thunderclap’ of whatever message you like.

Its a great little gimmick to get people talking – and the best part isn’t even the Thunderclap at the end. If you’re clever about the target you set – ambitious but not out of reach – then in recruiting people to join the campaign you’re also marketing at the same time. Its a win-win!

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you can get away with using the internet as your sole aide in starting a business. You will need to also do some work ‘offline’ – customer surveys face to face, talks with professional advertising companies. The degree to which you do this will depend on the type and scale of your business. But the internet, and crowdsourcing, is a pretty exciting way to get started!

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