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July 2012

My 3 Top Business Tips

I have been in business now for over 17 years and I think I have learnt something. The usual statistics are that somewhere between 60-80% of all businesses go out of businesses within the first five years; and over the next five years a similar number drop out. What then are the three top tips I could give to anybody who wanted to start a business, be that with small resources (like myself as a sole trader), or even with huge resources and backing? What is really critical?

What I am about to share with you was not, of course, obvious to me at the start back in 1995 when I gave up my job. But this is what I have learnt – and happy is the person who can actually learn from others’ mistakes!

First, and probably foremost, it is vital not to fall into the trap that so many businesses, large and small, but especially small, fall into. I mean the trap of specialism; you need specialism, but it can be a deadly trap.

I started business life as a trainer and I wanted to be the best. In fact I specifically wanted to be in the top 20% a la Pareto Principle. And beyond that in the top 20% of the top 20% - in other words, I set myself a goal to be in the top 4% of trainers. But based on what? Revenue? Size of Company? Number of employees? No. Typically, on training excellence and prowess – the ability to get those shifts in people who attend your training. I wanted, therefore, to be a superb trainer in a technical sense. If you check my Linkedin profile you will find some 75 public Recommendations – which is just the start of what all my delegates have said – so, yes, I think I achieved what I wanted.

But this is the danger – whether you are trainer, a plumber, an accountant, a tree surgeon, a lawyer, a web designer or whatever - a service supplier has a tendency to focus on the technical quality and execution of what they do. What they are good at, and their self-esteem in locked into that activity. And this is the opposite of being able to run an effective business.

For a sort of proof, ask yourself this question: if Richard Branson were interested in setting up a plumbing business, what would he be most concerned about establishing first – the technical capability of staff? No, that would be a given that followed afterwards. The key question would be: what is the market for this type of service and how can we effectively access it?

So, my first business tip is get the strategy and marketing right to begin with. Remember that strategy and marketing go hand in glove: they need each other. A great person to use if your business needs some strategy/marketing savvy is my friend the great Dr Dave Richards:

Back in 1995 I have to confess my strategy was extremely weak, and my grasp of marketing was also defective. But sometimes you can succeed despite that if you can sell anyway. That I certainly could do and still can. And I am reminded of Brian Tracy’s wonderful dictum about selling: namely, ‘at least 50% of any sale is a transfer of enthusiasm’. How true! Enthusiasm and motivation are pretty
synonymous – it’s about the energy you bring to work, you bring to your business, you bring to your clients and the world. And this energy is infectious and people want to be near it.

Thus lacking a strategy and even a half decent marketing plan, you can still go a long way if you are enthusiastic and motivated. And if you run a company with staff then this is crucial: your motivation impacts them, and this leads to ever higher levels of productivity and success.

Some great people I know who are massively enthused and motivated (and who have strategies
and marketing plans too I hasten to add!) are: Barbara Cox of Nutrichef ( ), Steve Cook of Seeker News ( ), Frances Miles of Jobshop UK ( ) and within my own business we have colleagues like Steve Jones ( ), Roy Duffy ( ), and Julie Holden ( ). These people enthuse and inspire others and the net result is that they attract business because they attract people.

Becoming motivated, then, is really essential and in any case has become the basis of my whole work. When I started I had the quality of high energy but I did not consciously rate it as highly as technical excellence – now I know better.

Finally, my third top tip is one I have also learnt the hard way. I have learnt it particularly since I abandoned self-employment in 2006 and set up the Motivational  Maps Ltd business. Those who know Motivational Maps will also know that ‘Friend’ is one of the nine motivators. For some people it is a vital component of gaining satisfaction at work; for others it is no big deal. I am in that latter camp: ‘Friend’, or the need to belong, is low on my motivational map, although I would describe myself
as a friendly person.

What has emerged for me as core since setting up the Maps business is the importance of
relationships: deep, consistent, sincere, powerful and compelling relationships. In fact when relationships get to the ‘compelling’ level we can use another word or words: allies and alliances – all based on true relationships.

This gets us away from what I would call commodity or transactional business and into transformational and value added business. Further, it becomes a filter. I now actively look to have deep relationships with every supplier, client and ‘friend’ involved in my work; put another way, I don’t want to waste time with people I really don’t like and who at the end of the day are likely to cause me problems.

Ask yourself three simple questions about your suppliers, staff, and clients. One, do you know them? I mean, know them? Two, do you like them? And finally, do you trust them? If the answer is yes, then
you want them, in whatever capacity, in your business.

To sum up: work on that strategy and marketing plan, be motivated at all times, and surround yourself with people you know, like and trust. There’s a good chance if you do these three things, then you will have a superb business – and a lot of fun along the way!

Outside In or Inside Out Poetry?

I read a poem recently that was written by a well known - famous even - English poet. The poem had been specially commissioned for a leading charitable organisation that was dealing with poverty and homelessness. To be fair, the poem was interesting - on its own terms. What he had done was artfully construct it around 'found' conversations that he had taped from the very people the charity sought to help. A certain pathos emerged as well as a strength too. But I have to say, for all its 'goodness', to me it was not a poem. Rather, it was symptomatic all those poems we keep reading which are about 'things'; as words about 'things', then, it was perfectly acceptable, but a poem?

Of course, every poem needs to be about some 'thing', but the problem is poems - real poems - are not written in that way: constructed as if by Lego. It's what I call the Outside-In method. The world presses in on us - a social problem, our love problems, somebody dies, global warming - and the pressure of these truths forces us to write something about it.

The worst thing is the kind of drivelly lines that some many 'poets' think is poetry: ideas with lineation and voila, there is a poem. Better than this is when some real poetic form is attempted and the subtleties of rhythm and sound are employed; yet still, the poem is Outside In.

Martin Heidegger made the distinction between good and bad art. Bad art, he said, simply tries to represent things or obviously attempts to express truths. There is presumed to be a linear relationship between reality and the words. This of course produces superficiality and shallowness. We only have to consider a poem like Kubla Khan by Coleridge to realise there is no linearity - and that is a truly great poem!

Good art, Heidegger said, does not tell the facts but reveals truth or truths, and is aware that words themselves are not that truth. It re-inteprets reality and in so doing becomes genuinely creative. That is why true poetry is always Inside-Out. And that is also why the Greeks were right when they talked about the Muse or the nine Muses: the sources of inspiration without which the poetry - or any other form of creativity - is stillborn. One has to wait on the Muse - and then allow her to take over.

As a poetic practitioner myself, I nearly always wait on the Muse and most of my poems are written in one sitting, one take, sometimes without even a correction subsequently. This does not prove that I am a poet - let the reader be the judge - but it does tell me I am on the right track. And strangely in comparing my own work with itself, I frequently find that what I consider my best work is often written in that instant way.

Clearly, there are fine poets who don't write like this, and who labour more assiduously than I do - yes, not one size fits everybody. But I would still contend that if they true poets then they will still be Inside-Out poets, for only Inside-Out poetry has poetic value and will last.

The great Socrates put it this way:  ‘I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say . . .’ This isn't popular in the modern, technological world where we like to imagine that we are in control, even of the imaginative processes; but popular or not, it's true. And we need to be encouraging poets who are inspired by the Muse of poetry - and who are not just simply 'messaging' us with words about some linear ideology.


Motivation, teams and Woolworths

Back in December 2008 I remember walking down from Glastonbury Tor into the main town with my wife. We had taken a short break in Glastonbury and were enjoying ourselves.

As we came into the main town I spotted a Woolworths store on the right side of the road and crossed to have a look; it was closing down, as they all were after a 99 year history on the British High Street. I hadn’t been into a Woolworths for perhaps 25 years, and why would I? What did they have that I
wanted? But there in the window was a copy of the newly released Iron Man DVD, starring Robert Downey Jnr.

My family had been to see it at the cinema some months previously and I thought what an excellent gift to bring back to my son. (Of course, I wanted to re-see it myself!). Woolworth sold stuff cheap, didn’t they? That was their model – so there it was, £15, in the window. Immediately I realised this wasn’t cheap; that if I went back to Asda or Tesco in Bournemouth they would be selling it at £10 a copy … but here I was, at – to use BBC vernacular applying to almost anything these days – this ‘historic moment’ when I could savour Woolworths for the last time. So I went in.

It took me 30 seconds to pick up the DVD and join the queue of 5 people in front of me – and soon several behind me. Then it began – the reasons why Woolworths was going out of business!

There are two major reasons given why businesses fail; the first is really a consequence of the second: namely, lack of sales which result invariably from poor leadership. And leaders need to master five things: two of which, or their absence, were in full view in front of me.

There were two tills, only one of which was manned, despite their being three members of staff initially congregating around the tills. One person was being served as the first till member was turned away engaging in two far more important conversations with her colleagues. The second colleague insisted they were due a tea break, and after due insistence went out the front and in full view of us lit up a fag. The third colleague stood by a door leading into a stock room – presumably, waiting to service any customer at the one till operating in case they needed anything from the stock room. Meanwhile, leaving the second till unattended as the queue grew.

A man was at the front now who wanted to buy 3 mobile phones, but this – it turned out – was impossible according to the Woolworths rule book. He could only buy one! But more amazing, the till woman suggested he buy the one, go back and queue again to buy the second, and then again for the third. I know! I know! It sounds crazy, and that’s how the guy took it: ‘you must be kidding me!’ What rule? Why? There was no answer to this, but this was the rule.  

What was I seeing? No teamwork at all – more important to have a tea/fag break than support a colleague, or more important to lean against the wall. No commitment and no motivation in the staff to serve the customers. And on top of this bureaucratic regulations that even if they were valid had not even been explained to the staff so that they could communicate the logic of them. It was a total mess.  

Leaders need to be able to build strong teams and motivate staff: they had clearly failed, and this situation was endemic. Further, they hadn’t even managed to create fluent operating and sales procedures; no wonder they were going bust. 

I was patient – I finally got my DVD after 20 minutes queuing. My son was delighted with the gift. But as I left the shop I thought, ‘Thank God I soon won’t be able to go back there again – stuff historic moments!’