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.

Less is More: Breadth Vs Focus

This week, Global Entrepreneur Week, has got me thinking: why is it that entrepreneurs – small businesses – have the reputation of being able to be nimble and steal a march on the big boys?

I think it comes down to one key reason, but that it also comes with a catch!

The reason is focus – we all work best when we have a clear task in front of us.  When we have the one thing that we’re really good at and we can focus on doing that as well as possible and sharing that value with the greatest number of people, then we’ve the best chance possible of making a substantial impact in terms of value and thereby growing a business.

So what about the catch?  Well, it’s not what you might expect, but it’s a biggie.  In order to really live up to “less is more” and really focus on the thing that makes us really different, as entrepreneurs, we have to stop doing stuff – consciously decide that we’re not going to do all the things that we did last week, but deliberately bring some to a stop.

It’s this ability to stop doing stuff which differentiates a small business, an entrepreneur, from a larger established business (and let’s face it, they have enough advantages as it is!).  Big businesses tend to add things rather than take them away – your computer (if you run windows) still does all the things it did five years ago, plus a few more – your next car will probably have more gadgets than your last car.  It’s easy to think that big businesses get trapped into the search for ever greater revenue and therefore become reluctant to stop doing anything even if it’s bringing in less cash before, but I don’t think it’s that simple.  Once you build a thing, you build up the systems to carry on doing it again, supporting it, upgrading it, and removing that activity from your business demands that you change a whole lot more than just a product page on your website – you have to change systems and you have to change people – yourself included.

It’s easier for you – the entrepreneur –  to change your business than it is for the big companies you compete with though, so whilst it’s still tough and takes a lot of work – it’s worthwhile because it’s what makes you a successful entrepreneur.

Next week I’ll be joining out team at The Business Show, and I had to boot something out of my diary to make that happen.  It would be easy to think that those other weekly tasks were more important, but for me, getting to meet entrepreneurs and professionals working in small business and seeing how our product can make their jobs easier is pretty much the most important thing I can be focussing on right now, so it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

I hope you can make it and that we’ll see you at the CreditHQ stand on the day (we’ll make it worth your while), and maybe the thing that you stop doing in order to free up the time to head to the show might be something you should stop doing for good.

Public / Private

I have been watching with interest the debate sparked a few days ago by the Samaritans’ “Radar” Twitter app.

In case you’ve been marooned without your mobile and haven’t seen what’s been discussed, it boils down to this:

  1. The Samaritans, a UK based charity dedicated to helping those suffering with depression, launched an app allowing friends to keep an eye on their friends’ Twitter postings, and have the Samaritans app notify them if it picked up a pattern which corresponded with symptoms of depression.
  2. Others, however, object to the Samaritans app “listening in” on their tweets without their knowledge, and want the app to be blocked.

This is a really good illustration of the way in which our society hasn’t yet caught up in social terms with the technology that is widely available to all – and also highlights the difference in the approach to social media taken by the different generations.

First let’s remind ourselves that anything that we post on Twitter is publicly visible.  We can take steps to restrict access to only “approved” people, but can’t then stop these people repeating our tweets to their public following.  Even with Facebook, which claims to limit the sharing of information to friends only, many have come to share my personal approach which is to assume that come

The problem comes because even if we accept at a certain point that we’re posting in a public forum and that our comments (and spelling mistakes) are visible to all, we are not yet well equipped to understand the consequences of three key facets of social media:

  1. Our posts are permanent, they stay visible and searchable for years.
  2. Our posts are not held in isolation, but can be cross-referenced so that Twitter and Linkedin profile information can be combined.
  3. Our posts are readily accessible and readable by machines.

Ironically, whilst the more white-haired amongst us are used to a deep suspicion of technology, and the assumption that sooner or later someone will accidentally manage to create the matrix, skynet or some other movie-themed-evil, it’s the young who seem to be more readily caught out.

As our digital reliance increases, we’re being presented with simple transactions: “share this information and I’ll give you that piece of value”.  What we need to be aware of, though, is that once shared, new uses can be found for our information which we hadn’t thought of.

One way to approach this is with a sense of rising alarm, asking for things that we’ve shared publicly to be hidden again after the event.

Another approach however, might stand the test of time better, and that’s to maintain a line between the public and the private and ensure that the public side of that line is always addressed with propriety.

I’m reading Dickens at the moment, and spending some time in an era when one’s letters, once out of one’s possession, become a risk to one’s reputation which might lead to disgrace and ruin; makes me realise that we used to know that once shared – we have no control over what we have said or meant – maybe it’s time to remember that.

Downtime

Downtime is a bit of a dirty word in my business, and in the context of our web product: CreditHQ being “down” is inconvenient to our customers and a major cause of concern to us.

But there’s another type of downtime which we have deliberately built into our business, and which we find is incredibly helpful.  As a software company, we run a process called Scrum, which means that every two weeks, we take a day to deliver back everything we’ve been working on for the previous fortnight, review it all together with our chairman and key stakeholders and then plan what we’re going to do over the following couple of weeks.

What we’ve found, is that even the parts of our business that don’t really follow this two week cycle (operating our our marketing campaigns for example, which don’t take a day off ever!) do benefit from the opportunity for a bit of downtime.

So why is this helpful?  Well we can all understand that a small and rapidly growing company is a pretty “full on” environment – there’s always a long list of things to do.  Building in a two week cycle though, delivers three real benefits to us:

1: We are human!  That means that as well as a daily cycle where we work, rest and play, we also really benefit from a longer cycle to vary the level of stress we operate under.  Sure we work hard and have to deliver on deadlines, but if we tried to do that all day every day, we’d burn out our team members pretty fast, and that’s not good for anyone.

2: We need perspective.  When your nose is right up close to the detail, it’s easy to lose perspective – to lose sight of the big picture – and that means that people miss stuff, which is bad for business.

3: Stuff changes.  The key advantage that any small business has is its ability to respond quickly to changes in the world around it.  A small business can take advantage of a change in the commercial environment, a new technology, or a new business model far more quickly than a larger business can, but only if the people in that small business take a moment to stop and look around.  We have found that the deliberate practice of stepping back periodically gives everyone in the business a chance to take on board changes – sometimes just a small nudge in the right direction, but sometimes a more significant course change.

So can your business benefit from downtime?  Give it a try: schedule a couple of hours to take a look at the big picture with your colleagues – and don’t forget the tea and biscuits!

At amazon, it's about cash flow. And what you can get away with…

Amazon is well known for rapid growth but relatively low profit – its founder Jeff Bezos famously asking shareholders to sacrifice this year’s profits in order to invest in long-term customer loyalty and product opportunities that will create bigger profits next year and for years to come.

But the real story behind Amazon’s ongoing growth is shown not so much by its profits, which dipped in 2012 after a few years of growth and have yet to return to 2010 levels, but by its cash flow.

Every small business knows that “cash is king” but it’s somewhat of a surprise to see larger companies paying quite so much attention to it as amazon clearly do.

Amazon’s Cash Flow vs Profit – (C) HBR Blog

Amazon’s strategy hasn’t been about profit, it’s been about growth, and the reason that amazon has been able to grow so dramatically into many different areas in recent years is that they have the operating cash flow to do it.  I’d recommend the HBR article for the details, but long story short?  Amazon, just like a small business, have held profits low by reinvesting much of their free cash in growth – and have boosted the availability of that free cash.

With such a strong position in the minds of customers, Amazon are using their ability to shift a high volume of product to negotiate very long payment terms with their suppliers.  As a growing profitable company, their credit is good of course, so in return for access to volume (and many other benefits) suppliers are putting up with very long payment terms – quite simply it’s worth it.

Can your business start the virtuous circle that Amazon have found?  Good cash flow fuelling growth, fuelling good credit, fuelling good cash flow? Or are you extending credit where credit’s not really due?

It might be time to take a leaf out of Amazon’s book.

Or at least some reading from the excellent hbr.blog