Writing stuff down

So this happened to me today.

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Usually, when I read Dilbert, I give a wry smile and thank God that I don’t have to work in corporate America.

Today, though, corporate America caught up with me.  In fact, it’s a disease that’s been slowly infecting all walks of life – you’ll have seen it too.  Not the lack of accountability, that’s something that has been with us for a while.  But the idea that accountability is something that other people have to get a grip on so that we don’t have to.

You see, if I’m responsible for getting something done and I ask someone else to help me out, it doesn’t mean that I’m off the hook, that I can just sit there and wait for them to do it.  They may be massively well organised, and I never have to ask for a thing twice, but no-one’s like that all the time, so if I want to get something done, I have to keep track of it and check in with them.

It’s that simple, I write it down on a list of things that that person is handling, and then when I next see them, I can simply check that list and ask “how’s it going”.

A simple cure for a paralysing disease, plus it keeps me accountable for everything that I have decided is important.

“Writing things down”.  Try it, it’s the new “handing things off to someone.”

How to avoid problem customers

We’ve all had them.  The customer that promises to deliver a significant boost to business; to lead to better things; to open doors.  But sometimes it doesn’t turn out like that.  Sometimes our customers throw their weight around, fail to keep their promises and do much more harm than good.

As a small business, though, getting a big customer is always good news – or is it?  Not if that customer changes the rules on you, ignores your contract and messes you around.  So how can you tell how your customers are going to behave BEFORE you invest your own business’ reputation in dealing with them?

Well, the good news is that there is a way.  We hear a lot about company “culture” – it’s something that runs right through a company and impacts everything that they do and everyone that works there.  So if there’s something consistently wrong in one part of the business, then it is a fair assumption that there’s either a culture where that’s OK or that the company itself doesn’t know that there’s something wrong.  Either of these is a HUGE warning sign.

unilever

Unilever was in the news this week when Tesco pulled all of its products from the shelves in response to a price rise caused by the falling pound.  Was Tesco’s reaction very aggressive?  Absolutely.  Was it a surprise?  Absolutely not.  A quick look at Tesco PLC (company number 00445790) on credithq.co.uk will tell you two things.  Firstly they aren’t particularly good at paying their bills on time (according to Dun and Bradstreet and Experian).  Second, they have been taken to court a lot and lost.

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And if Tesco behaves this way towards a major multinational, what do you think it will do when it engages with your small business?

So it doesn’t matter if you’re deciding who to have as a customer, a supplier, or an employer, check out who they are and what their culture is before you make the jump.  And avoid those nasty surprises.

PS, if you’re thinking Unilever comes out of this looking like the innocent victim, better check them too!

Storytelling for startups

As you might have spotted from the gap between posts – or from the content of my last post, recent weeks have taken me on the road much more than at any time in previous weeks.

I often find that there’s useful downtime to be had when travelling away from home, and when perhaps unexpected delays open up some time with nothing obvious to fill it.

It was in one of these gaps that I got to thinking about storytelling and how important it becomes to businesses very quickly.  Over recent months, my own small startup has come out from behind closed doors and launched new features and new sites into three different countries.  The upshot of all this is that our team have been on the road a lot more and so good communication is key to keeping everyone pointed in the right direction.

With this in mind, as a team we’ve scheduled a couple of days this week to get together away from the office and take a look at where we are at the mid-year point and make sure that we’re all clear on where our overall strategy is heading and the course corrections that we’ve made so far this year.  I’ve struggled to work out how to convey complexity and depth of what we’re doing in a way that’s easy to share across out team, but found some help by looking at how brands use storytelling to weave together a compelling narrative out of a complex topic in a way that helps us to make sense of it.  I’m really pleased with how this has turned out so wanted to share it here now that my team have taken a look – the idea here was to recap with the team on the key highlights of the last few months and at the same time to convey the feeling of what it’s been like.

On the road

Today I’ve arrived in Amsterdam for the first day of The Next Web.

Today was the first time that I’ve really taken the business that I’ve been working on for more than a year now out in public to show what it can do and start to get some feedback.  Launching something is always an exhilarating experience, so whatever knocks come along the way, it’s great to celebrate getting something shipped – out the door – and in the hands of customers.

Today’s a big day for me, so I put together a video.  I hope you enjoy it!

What happens when an AI runs your finance function?

HalAs a small business – in fact as any kind of business – we get used to more computerisation and more automation.  But computers are now starting to interact directly with our customers and suppliers on our behalf, and whether we like it or not this forces us to think hard about how we embed the brand and the values of our business into the rules that drive the systems that run parts of the business day to day.

In my work with my team at Ormsby Street, I’ve seen how analysis of data can lead to better decision-making about one-area – cash flow, and I’m very much hoping to have the chance to reveal the first iteration of how that looks at TheNextWeb conference in Amsterdam on 23rd April.  But in the meantime, whilst the programmers at Google figure out how to let cars make decisions about where to drive – and how safely to do it – let’s get used to thinking about that question as it applies to the jobs we do and the businesses we work in.

An Englishman in Austin – Part 4 – or – Why you MUST get out of your comfort zone.

SXSW4

As I sit here in the airport waiting for my trip back to London, I’m reflecting on these last few days at South by Southwest in Texas. I came here with a number of things to get done – playing our part in a DTI trade delegation, meeting future business partners and getting to know entrepreneurs and small business owners.

I must confess though, that I had another motive. I’d heard that the South by SouthWest festival was THE event to come to hear from amazing visionary people from across many fields and areas of expertise. I can certainly vouch for that, in one day this week I heard from the head of Google’s X programme, the superbly named Dr. Astro Teller, a former NSA technical director turned whistle blower and Sci-Fi visionary Bruce Sterling – along with a host of other people from politics, journalism, technology and the arts.

So was that a day to sit back and relax, to enjoy listening to polished presentations which gave an interesting take on stuff which I already knew? No, it’s been one of the most mentally hard-working days I’ve encountered for a long time: and here’s why.

Here at SXSW, it’s not about incremental learning – about professional development – here, I’ve been hearing from people and about ideas so far outside the sphere of my own experience, that I’ve been finding it difficult to get a mental handle to hang on to – in short it would be easy to sit back and file it all as “stuff that I just don’t get”

But here’s the thing, I came to SXSW so that I WOULD “get” some new ideas, and learn from amazing people, I came to deliberately get outside my comfort zone – something that I try to do in a significant way when I can – and here’s why I commend the idea to you as well:

1: Develop an Enquiring Mind.

When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you end up questioning everything around you. In the US I always find that out-of-place feeling is heightened – I can understand the words, but not quite understand the language, I’ve watched the culture on TV, but never been close enough to feel it. That sense of not knowing what’s going on, at least for me, gets my mind working in a different way – a lot harder for a start.

That switching off of expectations is very hard work, but a great reset to the brain – it’s good to think in a new way.

2: See through a New Perspective

As I head back home, I’m trying to bring with me that fresh perspective. Having gotten into an enquiring frame of mind, it’s great to carry that back home and observe things there afresh. Having spent some time in another culture seeing how they do things differently is a great prompt to re-evaluate those things that we take advantage of back home, and think about how they might be done differently.

3: See the Future

Good ideas travel around the world. In that interface between the local and the global, good ideas from one place or culture are adopted elsewhere. Getting out into other cultures – and particularly seeking those where new ideas might be expected to come from – gives a chance to see the future. For the highly evolved world of digital technology and commerce, south by southwest here in Austin has been an obvious source of those “next big thing ideas”, but with influences from around the world having so much impact on our own culture, any travel is sure to bring a new insight whether it’s to the developing world where disruptive technologies and influences are accelerating development, or in the east where new economic forces are shifting the balance of power.

4: Give your Brain a Workout

Of course seeing the future is one thing, but understanding it and how it relates to us is not at all easy – in fact its very hard work indeed for the brain. Let’s be honest though, our brain needs a good work out once in a while, and using that particular muscle does make it stronger for the future. Out of our own comfort zone we do give our thinking gear a thorough workout and that’s got to be good.

An Englishman in Austin – Part 3

SXSW 3

OK, if you haven’t already heard about it, a moment on google should bring you up to speed on Meerkat, the latest and greatest mobile social platform to become the “next big thing” here at SXSW. It’s been a few years since the last product made a big impact onto the global stage from a launch at SXSW, and since then the eagle-eyed have been on the lookout for the next “twitter moment”. This year they weren’t disappointed as the whole conference seemed to be abuzz with “what is this meerkat thing anyway” and various people waving phones about in new and more confusing ways.

The irony is of course that it was twitter that gave Meerkat its “twitter moment” by cutting off meerkat from its feed (its “graph”) a couple of days ago (surely nothing to do with twitter’s acquisition of a competing startup I’m sure), but more than irony, this demonstrates something that the big boys and girls here at SXSW have been quietly wrestling with in their own businesses:

There’s a gap – quite a big one – between flash in the pan social network fads, and real businesses. Sure Facebook and twitter have managed to get their business models to a point where advertising makes sense and thus to a sustainable revenue model, but the more recent crop of new entrants – snapchat, what’s-app and now meerkat are still sitting in many folk’s “social networks that I don’t understand” bucket.

When one social network is the catalyst for propelling another into the news it just highlights the self-referential bubble that these tools and organisations are sitting in. The real-world businesses which can crack the code and make these tools work as a way real tool for two way communication with customers are now the ones to watch.