An Englishman in Austin – Part 2

SXSW2

South by southwest, as it turns out, is “an institution”, here in Austin, but so it seems is everything else. My morning coffee comes from a coffee shop that’s an institution, my barbecue lunch likewise and my evening drinks, well I think you’re probably ahead of me.

Given our British tendency to grab onto language trends from the US, I suspect this is coming our way soon:

in·sti·tu·tion

noun

A brand promoted as being established and belonging to a particular local area:

“Fix coffee is a Shoreditch institution”

So as usual, on returning to the US, I find myself able to understand the words in isolation, but not the meaning, and here in Austin, the official home of the weird, that’s perhaps more true than every.

The overall feeling of south by southwest is one of marketing bling, of trying to achieve a social spark (or perhaps a twitter moment) by being the biggest, loudest and weirdest. Of course it doesn’t always work and whilst some of the big brands engage with visitors in an interesting and genuinely personal way – I had a great chat with a developer at IBM about all sorts of real world stuff that he’s doing – other brands are just wheeling in the marketing folks and seeing how many “likes” they can get.

I think it’s fair to say that the Austinites (those who remain – most have fled!) and visitors are pretty wise to this, and seem to go down the route of either swag collecting or seeking out the genuinely interesting. And of that there is plenty, from robot footballers to thought controlled prosthetics and VR systems by the truckload.

The lessons I’ll be bringing back home? Well too early to tell yet as we still have days of the show to go, but “think big, move fast” certainly seems to be the mantra that these guys are sticking to, so we’ll be bearing that in mind for sure.

An Englishman in Austin – Part 1

SXSW1

Hey y’all. Just getting warmed up there. Yes, it’s been a year or two since I came home from my first trip to Austin, Texas having met wonderful people and great businesses in one of America’s fastest growing cities.

This year I’m very excited to be heading back there again, this time to catch the famous South by Southwest (SXSW) festival of all things music, film and interactive. When Ormsby Street was selected by our friends at the DTI to represent the UK Fintech sector at the festival, I didn’t take much persuading to dust off my cowboy boots and pack my bags. SXSW has become a great place to meet new people and talk about exciting new developments across many fields of business and the creative industries so what better place to forge the relationships that will take our business on its next trip around the world, and hopefully to catch up with some old friends as well.

Of course as an Englishman, I will be keeping my stiff upper lip well under control and will be viewing any weirdness (one of Austin’s major exports) with the appropriate degree of scepticism and eyebrow raising, but do expect updates as and when I can find a moment and some working wifi as to whats new and cool in the USA.

Now where’s that apple store…

Cause and Effect

Wealthy HabitsA very interesting article posted on the SME insider this morning, which over-simplifies to the point of being misleading.

In our world of simplified short form reading : 3 ways to change your life, 5 steps to success and happiness etc, there’s so much published that looks at people who have succeeded and asks – what are they doing that’s different from me.

Unfortunately, without a bit of critical thinking on your behalf, dear reader, it’s easy to fall into the same trap as you can see in the infographic reposted here from SME Insider.

Take a look at the stats – and determine whether each one is something that would cause wealth or be caused by wealth?

I’ll get you started – affording an audible.co.uk subscription which enables you to improve yourself whilst you commute (which 63% of wealthy versus 5% of poor people do) could certainly contribute to your success, but also requires that you can afford the subscription, and the device to listen from in the first place. And waking up 3 hours before work is a lot easier if you are in a (typically well paid) office job than if you are a (typically lower paid) shift worker.

Next time you spot one of these articles (and let’s face it, we can’t resist them can we), you might play spot the difference, those “things” which are causes versus those which are effects.

Of course the real gems are those which you can get started, AND which become easier the more successful you become at whatever you’re setting out to achieve…

SME Insider Article

Addicted to change – 3 ways entrepreneurs are weird

My name is Martin and I am an Entrepreneur. It’s been one year since I last started a company.

The anniversary of a new job is always something to celebrate, but for the entrepreneur, the focus is usually on the company rather than the individual anniversary. After all, with 20 % of UK businesses failing before their first anniversary (and a further 50% within the first three years), it’s something of a battle scar to chalk up that tricky first year and get ready to tackle the second.

For me, the anniversary note in my calendar was a prompt to review the year just past and think on the year ahead, and whilst I won’t bore you with all of those details here, it also did cause me to reflect on what makes Entrepreneurs – people like me – do what we do? I first founded a company nearly twenty years ago, and after growing that to a successful acquisition and a very interesting journey into larger companies and various opportunities, I opted – a year ago – to come back and start again in a different industry, with a different business model.

Many of my friends, when I started out first time, asked: “Why do you do it?” with comments like: “it must be great to be your own boss” rather outweighed by comments like “what’s it like being responsible for the livelihood of an entire team?”. This time around, I think going back to startup land has raised even more questions: “really? leaving the security of a big company to start up again from scratch”, just about sums it up!

It’s made me realise that for many of us Entrepreneurs, and certainly for me – being an Entrepreneur isn’t something that I do, it’s something that I am, and as I reflect on the last year, it really comes down to three ways that Entrepreneurs see the world differently from other folks.

Change is the norm.

Let’s take change to start with. A few years back when I had only very limited experience working within large companies, I was very surprised when people said “oh it must be great working in a small team, it’s so easy to change things to adapt the business and make it better” I never had an answer for that because whilst I could see that instinctively change should be easier, for small business – I never felt that I was able to make the small business I worked in respond particularly quickly. Having spent a few years on the other side of the corporate fence, I can now see this from both perspectives, and whilst it is indeed easier to deliver change within a small team, it’s not much easier to change a small business because whilst we think of organisations as being resistant to change, it’s actually people who are resistant to change – we’re comfortable doing the thing we did yesterday – having the same breakfast cereal and sitting in the same chair – and every business has to address that no matter its scale. The difference between large and small businesses, however, is that small businesses must change, and do so more quickly in order to survive and thrive. I started a business because I could see a better way that organisations could use the web to communicate and I wanted to change things, and that same drive is still here today – entrepreneurs not only see the world and need to change it, but successful entrepreneurs drive change all day, every day within their own organisations.

Risk is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of risk. I mentioned above that people had asked why I’d left the “security” of a bigger company. As an entrepreneur I’m not a thrill-seeking risk taker, I just don’t see the size of the company that I work for as the determining factor in whether it’s a secure position. I’d rather be in a small business that I know is going in the right direction and changing in the right ways, than a big one that’s doing what it did last year or the year before but could leave my career stagnating with an outdated skill set and a struggle to find a great new role when a “restructuring” leaves me a casualty. Entrepreneurs see risk differently from other folks and are comfortable doing the right thing even when it seems risky to others. Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who get it right!

Opportunities to be taken.

Sometimes as an entrepreneur it comes down to whether you’re prepared to make a gut decision – one that’s not easily traceable from a logical sequence – that doesn’t fit the usual way things are done. For me, the move out of my previous life and back into the world of a small business wasn’t about 10 point career plan, it was about an opportunity to move to a new industry, gain a new skill set, work with interesting people across the world, and build something really remarkable. Opportunities like that are never “given” to you, they occur. Entrepreneurs recognise opportunities for what they are. Successful Entrepreneurs take opportunities with both hands, and apart for perhaps a brief review of the year, don’t look back.

Key Performance Metrics for Facial Hair

Having spent some time over the last couple of days at Finovate, I’ve been thinking a lot about metrics and what they tell us. In particular, every product demoed this week came with a lovely looking dashboard with colourful graphs and lines traveling up and to the right. Whilst the majority of the Finovate conference was focussed on assets under management and compound growth rates, however, there was another set of indicators which really caught my eye.

Working as we do in Shoreditch, Ormsby Street is in the heart of London’s start-up tech-city, just a hundred meters or so from Silicon roundabout. Around our office, a quick study of the faces of male pedestrians can be expected to achieve a facial hair index (FHI) of around 80-85%. Particularly noticeable is the presences of really quite striking hipster beards which cause the hipster facial hair index (HFHI) of 25-30% on some streets. I think it’s fair to say that many consider the chin curl factor within a team to be a leading indicator of success. 

Taking this at face value, I attended Finovate with the full expectation that given that is was full of highly successful startups who have achieved significant growth and success, the face fungus quotient would be pushing well over 90% – I was fully prepared for my clean shaven chin to stick out like a sore thumb.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw a striking contrast with Shoreditch, barely two miles south, the FHI was less than 10% and the HFHI was approaching zero. How could this be? I was confused – could it be that being so successful meant that these chaps didn’t have time to attend to their shave anymore? Keen to know more I spoke to a few delegates. After a few conversations, it became clear that there were at least two factors at work reducing the beardiness of the room. First a lot of the delegates were from the banking, rather than the startup community where clean chins (not to mention ties) are the norm. Also, many of the startups involved had specifically targeted the financial sector and so in order to project the image they were looking for, had gone fresh-faced in order to fit in. However, according to my completely unscientific study, even accounting for these there should have been at least a 30% FHI in the room. 

The answer came when I spoke to one of the few bristly bankers that I found. He pulled me to one side and said that he’d thought about going the whole hog, but on reflection had decided that “well, those beards look a bit silly don’t they”. So it seems that it’s not so much the city that’s unusual for the absence of beards, but the startup community that’s out of touch with the clean-shaven types in the rest of the finance industry!

Other interesting indexes and comparison: the Denim Index: Shoreditch 62%, Finovate 28%. And alas the proportion of ladies present hovering between 30-40% in the startup community but dropping below 10% in the FinTech event of the year.

In the spirit of Financial Technology, I could draw some conclusions from all of this, but I thought it’d be more fun to create an infographic.

Key performance metrics for Facial Hair
Key Performance Metric Infographic – Facial Hair

A bit on the side

Giant LUX Sign
Giant Signage welcoming our visitors to the event.

Lots of businesses talk about CSR, not a slightly misspelled crime drama but Corporate Social Responsibility – the work that a corporation does to help the society that it operates in. Well if many years of business and of working alongside the charity sector have taught me anything, it is that business don’t help people – people help people. For every business that has a CSR programme that employees happily contribute time and effort to supporting, there are a dozen more whose employees quietly go off in evenings and weekend to support local clubs, society, help the elderly, the unwell or those in need.

It’s you guys that I want to raise a glass to this evening. (I should probably tell you that it’ll be a glass on something non alcoholic on this particular occasion because I’m volunteering this weekend at a Methodist-run venue in Northampton so it’s grape juice all round until we head to the pub after the event’s all over) Your work to support your friends, your family, your community and those in need around the world makes a real difference and makes the world a better place.

I’m particularly proud this weekend to be celebrating the 20th event in a series that began back in 2004 and which aims to give young people from all backgrounds a chance to spend some time learning about and understanding themselves, their faith and the world around them. Over the years, many many people have contributed their time and effort to making a difference to young peoples lives, we’ve run educational sessions, apprentice programmes, interactive workshops and all sorts of activities which wouldn’t have taken place without ordinary folks getting up one day and giving their time that day over to someone else.

So why am I sharing this with you? Well, I hope that I might just encourage you – even though, like me, you might have had a busy week and want nothing better than to head for home and put your feet up – to instead find an opportunity to help someone else. There are few things more rewarding, and I promise when you do head back to work on Monday, you’ll walk with your head held a little higher.

And if you run a business? What can you do to encourage and support your team to use their skills in support of your community. Your business will benefit directly because your staff will have done something great – or perhaps just share with others what they’re already doing that’s great – and you’ll have made the world a better place.

And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Art

How are the new year’s resolutions going?

Any still in play?

Anything that you want to share?

Of all the ideas and aspirations that I have heard from friends and colleagues this year, there’s been something of a common theme.  When it gets to the things that we really want to achieve in our professional and personal lives, the things which get us up and out of the door in the morning and make us feel like it’s been a good day in the evening, they do seem to involve giving a little of ourselves to something.

I don’t mean that the only worthwhile resolutions are those about charitable giving and service, but rather that the resolutions which stick with us, which work and help us drive forward, are those where we’re doing something that has our name on it, where we’re taking a risk and getting out there.

This could be a charitable gift, of money or service, or could be a sporting event where your success or failure is open for all to see.  It could be music, sport, building a business that focusses on something you really believe in, or actual art.

I can’t remember the last time I did a piece of art just because I wanted to and because I thought it looked good.  My friend Liz recently retrained from a successful career in marketing to become an artist, a very good one as it turns out.  What a change, from producing images and media to do a job, to creating something to bring joy and convey an emotion to your audience.

Whatever your new year resolutions are, or were.  Good luck with them – especially those that really express your art.