Ouch, that was quite a night! They used to talk about making your own amusement, back in the day, and now we’re all experts in doing just that. Not in a singing-songs-around-the-campfire kind of way, but in a pedal-power-your-own-rave kind of way.  Actually I couldn’t say which made my legs more sore; the static cycling, taking my place in the long queue to wait my turn, or the dancing. Vinyl certainly made a bigger comeback than anyone anticipated.

It was a wonderful New Year’s Eve, one of the best I can remember. The fair on Peckham Rye, the stalls, the brew-tents, the home-made food (the only kind there is, if you think about it),the fire-pits (they’re going to have to rename One Tree Hill soon), music everywhere, families promenading, kids running amuck – a lovely vibe.

All that self-made entertainment got me thinking about how inventive we’ve become. Again. Not the old sort of inventiveness, figuring out how to sell people stuff they don’t need in every single spare second of their lives or working out how a teenager in Kyoto can kill pretend people on a screen while they’re battling another teen in Munich. Every time I crank the handle, I think – thankfully – about the guy who invented the Wind Up Web and managed, against all the odds, to keep the internet up-and-running. I suspect there were some things we just could not do without, whatever happened. So we found a way.

We’re all entrepreneurs now. Out of necessity rather than choice. Even the select few who have a job do it more for the satisfaction than the pay; even they need to run their micro-businesses on the side, brewing eau-de-vie, repairing spectacles or whatever. Everyone does their thing, it’s like we’ve democratised the economy. You run your one small, local specific enterprise and make enough for what you need to barter or buy and that’s it, that’s what you do. That is you, in a way. Like me and my pies. So glad I invested in a wood-burning oven before they all got snapped up. Slowly working my way through what’s left of Sydenham Hill Woods. Some things we never learn.

My goodness, we’ve become good at doing the right thing. We need no instructions or incentives to recycle, it’s the only way to hang onto the stuff we have; we all feed our energy surpluses back into the grid; grow our own veggies and dope; we all make do and mend. Everyone wears vintage now.

But I can’t help thinking, here at the start of another new year, that we could have used our undeniable capacity for innovation and creativity to solve the real problems we had, back before everything came tumbling down. Maybe we wouldn’t have prevented what happened, but we might have engineered what they used to call a ‘soft landing’, might have saved more of the things we valued in those days of outrageous plenty.

Still, if there’s one thing us humans are good at, it’s starting over, rebooting ourselves. And if I take one crumb of solace from our current predicament (because, let’s face it, we’ll always be in one predicament or another) it’s that we’re all fundamentally,  undeniably dependent on one another now, inextricably yoked together in that daily effort of entrepreneurism and invention, the one that keeps us all alive.

Happy New Year, everyone!


You’d be surprised at how many of the people running early-stage businesses have no idea why they are doing it.  No, really. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe they had one of those sly after-hours drinks with a fair-sized client and picked up the vibe that they might support a breakaway from the big-ass agency that’s currently rinsing them out of a gazillion Euros a month. Or a couple of you had an epiphany in Le Pain Quotidien, sitting with all the other wannabe entrepreneurs in the back corner where the free Wi-Fi is strong and there are wall sockets within reach.

When you’re trying to dig a promising small business out of a hole, or steering another through a problematic growth-spurt, the first question to ask – always, without exception – is: why are you doing this? What is your personal motivation? You can have as many grand business visions and BHAGs as you like, but if they’re not aligned with what you want and where you want to get to in your life…then it’s unlikely to end well.

And of course, in so many entrepreneurial businesses, that ‘you’ is plural. At the heart of the enterprise sits that most unnatural phenomenon: Partners.

Which is where it really gets interesting; because now you’re dealing with two or more people who may well not know why, fundamentally, they’re in this business. Or one person who does and one or more others who don’t. The mentoring task – whether you are a CEO, non-exec or external advisor – is then twofold; first you need to get each owner to produce a statement of their personal goals, what they want from running and, in particular growing, the business. Secondly, you need to engineer and facilitate a ‘truth session’ where everyone puts their cards on the table. Again, you’d be surprised at how many sets of founders have never done this. Perhaps there’s a fear – sometimes justified – that what gets revealed might be explosive.

Two examples from the past twelve months; two small successful niche agencies, two founders apiece. Each had one partner with a family, committed to staying in the city where the business was based; each had another who wanted to make a major geographical move in the next couple of years and radically shift the way they worked. One was based in a regional British city; the other in a European capital; geography offers nowhere to hide from life-stage dilemmas.

In one the agendas were out in the open; in the other they simmered. One set of founders had a grown-up dialogue about their divergent life-plans, the others niggled and nagged at each other without quite knowing why. The Brits transferred responsibilities ahead of the shift and effected a managed transition; their European counterparts split fractiously and, in the process, shattered the business.

The learning is; it’s hard to say what you want from growing your business if you don’t know what you want from your life. And if there are more than one of ‘you’, you need to start sharing those highly personal agendas  – now.

All three of you thought it would be a terrific idea to start your own studio, or agency or analytics firm or app builder or…whatever. So you just did it, jacking in the jobs, each of you wrangling enough work out of a couple of clients to pay your way for a few months, knocking up a couple of IKEA trestle tables in a spare bedroom and, boom, here you are with this thing, this business, for goodness sake, with employees and offices and business rates and management accounts and insurances and so much stuff that is nothing to do with the thing it is you do, that you sell to clients and from which you make your living.

And somewhere along the way someone became responsible for all that stuff. That’d be you.

I’m not the first to recognise this syndrome. I’ve heard it referred to as the Accidental Leader. I call it The Reluctant MD. This is the person that failed to take a metaphorical step backwards in that board meeting in the brewpub way back when your little enterprise was clearly getting a little ahead of itself and the question got asked; ‘who’s the best person to lead this business, now that it clearly needs a leader?’.

It made sense, back then. You were the best organised, the most numerate, of the founders. You could make some sense of a spreadsheet, when the others just glazed over or developed a deep interest in their cup of cold coffee. At least you tentatively queried the constant demands for another five creatives or half-dozen developers, just because ‘everyone is really busy’. And, no, I don’t think we can justify the investment in a high-end Italian-made espresso machine in the kitchen, however much is contributes to employee (read: director) satisfaction.

And now? The job is about as appetising as that cold latte. The hypothetical seductions of leadership have resolved themselves into the petty daily realities of reviewing staff utilisation reports and renegotiating bank loans. Which was getting to be a grind, even before the current massive market opportunity/management crisis/client resignation/untrammelled growth spurt. The one that’s pushed you over the edge, close to actual doctor’s-certificate level exhaustion, stress-induced anxiety and emotional meltdown. You’ve run out of road.

It happens. Most Reluctant MDs remain just that. In practice, their running out of road, out of management bandwidth, coincides with a burning desire to get back to the thing they started out doing, the craft or professional practice that got them into this business in the first place. It would be a mistake to see this as simple escapism, just a desperate desire to smash the manacles of management.

It’s a clear sign that the next stage of the business is imminent. The Reluctant MD, bless ’em, is just not the one to take it there.

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard the founder of a creative or digital business imply that all their problems would vanish if only someone would see fit to throw a few hundred grand or the odd million their way…well, I’d probably have enough money to invest in one.

I used to take this stuff seriously and wonder if the problem was me; maybe if I had an MBA, if I hung out with investment bankers more, if I’d followed up with that guy from Schroeder’s I met in 1989.

Then, after I’d heard this broken-record lament enough times, I realised a couple of fundamental truths. Firstly, the vast majority of creative and digital businesses are inherently un-investable. They just don’t meet even the most basic criteria that would satisfy a VC or investment bank/fund. They would struggle to convince an angel investor or angel network. Which pretty much brings it down to a rich aunt with a passion for cutting-edge animation or online media analytics – and there aren’t too many of those around.

Not every early-stage company is a ‘start-up’.

The second thing that gradually dawned on me was that these wishful entrepreneurs were talking a kind of code. When they talked about ‘investment’ or ‘funding’ what they actually meant was ‘growth’. They passionately desired to grow their businesses, but they had made an a priori assumption that growth was only possible on receipt of a large ingestion of cash. So the conversation instantly became all about ‘Where do we find the money?’.

Given that inherent un-investability, this was always going to be – for the vast majority – a hiding to nothing. Worse that that, it constitutes a massive distraction from the real business of growth, a heavy drain on senior management time and strategic thinking capacity.

For first-time entrepreneurs, especially those who find their business stuck in a stage of development that is exhausting and unrewarding, it’s a seductive thought that you’re swimming with the sharks, hunting down that elusive half-a-mill that would make it all better. As a legion of business-lite authors know only too well, this is lucrative territory, the promise of overnight transformation.

The truth is far more prosaic, and it’s not out there. It’s right here, in the guts of your business, in the commercial and operational workings of the stuff you do to make a living. Paradoxically, most of these businesses already contain the means to grow into the next stage; the very inefficiencies that hold them back are themselves the key to breaking out and moving on.

It’s not about the money – or at least not in the way you thought it was.