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.

DIY Employees

In recruiting, it’s often tempting to paint a glorious picture of what your small business has to offer to the potential employee, indeed as the employment market hots up – it’s likely you’ll be competing with companies with deeper pockets and swishy benefits.  But in putting together this “gold plated” experience for new members of the team, are you really going to find the right employees to make a real contribution to building your small business.

I advocate an alternative route, and it’s one which doesn’t meet with universal approval.  As a small business, we don’t have a corporate IT department, or facilities department, or a tea trolley for that matter, and so we need to recruit team members who are on the lookout for what needs to be done and who are prepared to get in and do it.  When interviewing candidates, I think it’s important to make it clear that the relaxed environment and informality of a successful small business are only possible if everyone’s willing to muck in and pick up the jobs that need doing.  This isn’t to everyone’s taste of course, and it’s a useful thought process for a “big company” employee to go through before deciding whether they really want to leave the cosy world of the well defined corporate job and venture into the exciting world of small business.

To bring this into the very sharpest focus, and help employees understand that we’re serious when we talk about self starters, our new starters are presented with a checklist on joining the team, and not too far down after the mandatory health and safety briefing comes the line: “Assemble furniture”

Observing what happens next will both tell your team a lot about your ethos as a company and also tell you a lot about your employees.  Whilst your interview process will have tried to screen candidates for how proactive they are, how they respond to new challenges, how able they are to follow unfamiliar instructions, how willing they are to ask for help, how they collaborate etc, the interview process is a notoriously difficult environment in which to assess these characteristics.

After a couple of hours with an Ikea desk, chair and pedestal drawer unit, however, you’ll have an excellent idea which new starters are going to get on well with life in a changing, growing small business.

Add to that the added sense of achievement when the team members walk up to their newly installed workstations, all made by their own hands, and you’ll see why I’ve been an enthusiastic advocate of DIY employees.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the desk at which I’m writing this was put together by yours truly.

Character

So much of the time in business we feel the need to try and be the perfect team-mate, the perfect employee, the perfect boss.  But of course that’s not very achievable.  Is it better to be a character – to be remarkable and inspiring to others even with (because of) our flaws?

Yesterday I had the great honour of sharing some thoughts at hubbub’s third birthday party and I realised that the key characters in that team were indeed inspiring and remarkable and bore a striking resemblance to their alter-egos (even moreso than the physical resemblance which is shown below).

How much fun, and how rewarding is it to identify with remarkable characters as a way to help us lead others to great things?