How connected is your community?

I recently met someone running a daily newsletter focusing on news and trends in his industry.

It’s been going for a few months. He was understandably excited as he could see it starting to get some traction after a considerable time investment.

I asked him how he knew this. Was it sign ups, open rate, clicks, or something else?

He replied it was because people were opted in.

Here’s the thing – he wasn’t stating the obvious.

He didn’t mean what we normally think of as being opted in. Not just meeting GDPR requirements, or striving towards what Seth Godin refers to as ‘permission marketing’.

What he meant was going the next level beyond that.

Being opted in to the degree you’re invested.

Where you have a say in what’s delivered.

Where you’re a patron.

Being truly opted in.

People were replying to the newsletter unprompted to suggest improvements, new areas of the industry to explore, and making connections to other people he should speak with to get more feedback and ideas.

They were helping him craft the vision and roadmap of what he was doing.

It made his path clearer and his responsibility to his audience stronger. It made him more accountable.

You’ll see this trait in many strong communities and networks.

A good example is the successful Dutch newspaper De Correspondent.

After taking only 8 days to raise over 1 million euros in a crowdfunding campaign, last year they started a collaboration with NYU to better understand how communities and media companies can work more closely, with the public being at the heart of the publication’s work.

More broadly, the level of this deeper opt-in is a good heuristic for how powerful and connected a community is.

It could be a newsletter, a Slack group, or even a professional sports team.

 

What can you create where people are truly opted-in?

The freezer or the morgue: a quick primer on innovation

As part of on-boarding for a new project I was asked to put together a quick 10 minute introductory talk on a business-related topic of my choice.

I chose innovation. It’s no doubt a buzzword right now but do we really understand what innovation means and how, when, and why we should apply it? Like a lot of concepts it can be over-complicated and mystified, often by people who want to look smarter than everyone else (and get you to pay them accordingly to explain).

After I took the group through what I’d prepared (slides included below), there was a brief Q&A. Questions ranged from how corporates could innovate when the pervading culture goes the opposite way, to how ideas can be tested quickly and easily.

The one question that jumped out was around knowing when to kill ideas. Killing your darlings is hard to do. Startup and innovation culture tends to lean towards killing ideas quickly. I believe it’s often important to do so, but my thinking has now moved towards the freezer rather than the morgue.

Putting our ideas in the freezer (perhaps a cryogenic freezer of sorts) means they’re still alive and visible rather than being buried or cremated.

We can choose to bring them back later in their current state, or use parts of them to enhance our future endeavours.

Perhaps having them around also just lets us remember their best features and also their failings – both good fuel as we explore the adjacent possible.

On a number of occasions I’ve thought about parts of old ideas I wanted to reference or repurpose and kicked myself that I’d buried them – they’d decomposed or just completely turned to dust.

So rather than kill your darlings, place them in the freezer – you never know where you may need them next.

 

Why do we ignore our middle chapter?

Like a lot of people I’ve got much more in podcasts recently, and my go-to is without doubt Shane Parrish’s Knowledge Project.

I think I’m pretty safe in assuming his most popular interview (and also longest – something of an oxymoron today…) is with Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist.

Just one of the gems of wisdom in this conversation concerns the subject of happiness.

To help understand what makes you happy and what you may want to change, Naval suggests asking yourself two simple questions about each of your past 10 years, or perhaps 5 if you’re under 30.

  • What was I doing?

  • How was I feeling?

I gave this a try thinking it would be pretty easy.

It really wasn’t. I had to think hard.

Going back 3-7 years felt particularly difficult – in my case (from a career point of view) to the middle years.

I made a mental note to go back to this another time. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling very lucid that day.

 

And then this morning I went to my first Creative Mornings event in New York. CM is something of a phenomenon – running in 183 cities globally, always free entry, always sold out in seconds. They’re without doubt one of the leaders in the new school of curators (another post coming shortly on those and why they’re going to matter so much in the future).

This edition’s guest speaker was Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and highly respected investor and author.

His very eloquent and (of course) beautifully designed talk opened with a graph outlining the journey a company or project takes from start to end. I found myself thinking this talk may be another spin on the startup hero’s journey; we’ve probably all had our fill of those.

But Scott wasn’t there to talk about the buzz of the Start or the against-all-odds Finish. He was here to explore The Middle; the times between the Start and the Finish that oscillate from mundane to meltdown, vexed to victorious.

We don’t often talk about The Middle.

In fact we often forget it even happened – either publicly when we’re selling ourselves and our ideas to others, or privately when we’re telling ourselves the story we’d rather hear.

Scott suggested how to endure the lows and optimise the highs that The Middle brings, as well as the benefits of maintaining your curiosity throughout the journey.

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In fact there’s easily enough not yet said about The Middle for a book or three – perhaps he’s working on it.

I left feeling a little better about struggling to remember my Middle, but also realising the importance of recognising, remembering and respecting it much more frequently – no matter whether it’s veering from mundane or meltdown, vexed or victorious.

 

What can you learn from your Middle?

 

> Scott Belsky at Creative Mornings

And on a similar note, The Dip

Building creative businesses: The Power of 3

This is part of a series of articles on building creative businesses. Sign up here for access to the full set.

 

The concept of ‘Hipster, Hacker, Hustler’ (aka designer, engineer, marketeer) has become pretty well known in the world of tech startups since the term was coined in 2012.

Since then quite a few riffs on this idea have appeared, again mainly mapped to tech companies.

For those working in less technology-focused fields the set up of Entrepreneur, Technician, Operator is worth a look. [1]

An example of this is the story of Hollywood agency CAA, which I wrote about here.

A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.

They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.

In CAA’s case it appears the Entrepreneur was Lourd, the Operator was Lovett and the Technician was Huvane. This may look to be the wrong way round, particularly in the case of an agent being a technician rather than an entrepreneur. However, a technician doesn’t necessarily deal with technology – they’re about craft, and there’s a craft to being a great agent, just as there is for a graphic designer or a web developer.

 


 

The power of 3 was also present in my first job in the advertising industry.

The agency’s three partners ran the company and their names were above the door. They ran the business from inception via a sustained period of growth, through the turbulent times of the financial crash, and eventually into acquisition by a larger holding company.

(Side note: this agency taxonomy infographic is brilliant, and applies to a bunch of other industries too).

The entrepreneur was a somewhat enigmatic and mercurial figure; rarely seen in the middle of the day, the office was rife with tales of his marathon nights out in the apparent name of client entertainment. More likely was catching him at 9am, arriving for a meeting with a new client after one of his 4am finishes, with the latest of his revolving door or PAs furnishing him with bagels and shots of coffee.

No one knew exactly what he did – he didn’t seem to actively service accounts, run the mechanics of the business or produce deliverable work – but he was without doubt the figurehead. He delivered vision, storytelling and charisma, and he certainly knew about supply and demand: his scarcity made people want him even more.

As with the example of CAA, the technician didn’t fit the definition in a traditional sense as he was trained as an artist rather than an engineer. However there was no doubting his technical craft skills and flair for solving problems with innovative ideas. He was able to provide very specific technical insights into the creation and delivery of great work. He was also an accomplished storyteller but did it through his work and quietly inspiring the members of his team rather than standing on stage (or on the bar).

At the time it was difficult to figure out the operator’s role – again he was a couple of steps back from key client relationships and seemed more introverted than the others. On the surface he was a technician as he sat with technical teams (digital, finance and IT), but his skills weren’t deep and focused as a technician’s tend to be; they were broader, like an expert-generalist, a common trait of modern COOs.

In this company’s case the operator wasn’t especially visible to low and middle tier employees as there was a line management system already put in place. His role was to harness the power of the entrepreneur and enable the technician, whilst quietly maintaining the engine of the company and fitting together various new pieces of the puzzle that may have appeared from time to time. A key example of this was the initiation of a digital department, which for an integrated agency in the early 2000s was not at all easy to get right.

 


 

There are various ways of configuring the trio of roles of course, particularly for smaller businesses where all members have to wear a number of different hats, but I’ve seen this core setup of Entrepreneur, Technician and Operator work really well for a bunch of companies over the past few years – from design agencies and production companies through to music festivals and even consulting outfits.

If you’re running a creative business, maybe ETO is your HHH.

 


 

[1] Sometimes ‘Manager’ is substituted in for ’Operator’ – while this still works, I see the dynamic being quite different. A Manager will tend to manage the Technician, whilst in the leadership team the Technician is often a creative and the Operator and Entrepreneur will weave in and out of each other until the company grows sufficiently for the two roles to be more distinct.

The Intrapreneur in action

You may have noticed a growing number of companies offering innovation and business transformation services. Some of them are deeply involved in these burgeoning disciplines, others are bolting on these offerings to their existing consulting services, and a few are frantically pivoting from spluttering business models.

There’s no doubting the need exists. The majority of behemoth businesses of the past are unprepared for the future, and with hardened legacy practices and a wide turning circle they naturally need help in being ready for tomorrow.

One of the concepts often floated as part of an innovation or transformation program is that of the ‘Intrapreneur’. Just like the entrepreneur, they seek to solve problems, take risks, instigate initiatives, unlock value and (eventually) bring in revenue. The only difference is they do this from within the business, not out on their own with only a co-work’s coffee machine for company.

I’ve trained a number of people who are either looking to inspire a new cohort of intapreneurs or are seeking to become one themselves, but I’ve never seen one out in the wild.

Until last weekend.

 

Mattress Wars

Upon moving to NYC, a mattress was straight to the top of the shopping list for our new apartment. After some consideration (although relative to the cost probably not enough – I’ve spent more time deciding on what to have for lunch), I ordered one from Leesa, one of the plucky startups aiming to entice urban dwelling millennials like me. (I passed on Casper as I like to back an underdog – it happens when your football team is Crystal Palace).

The Leesa did a good job for the first month, then towards Christmas it seemed to have a kind of mattress rigor mortis; early morning bad backs became a regular fixture. With my wife’s busy schedule at work, good sleep was particularly paramount – it was time to wave goodbye to Leesa and bring in a new contender. The mattress wars are real – sleep is a competitive business (see the image at the top of this post)>

 

Enter D.D

The new contender ended up being the old incumbent – on a mild Saturday afternoon we went over to our local Mattress Firm a few blocks from our place. It was close to home, it had product in-house, and a slightly confusing front window display. But hey.

After taking personal pride that I kept myself from throwing my 6’6 frame spreadeagled onto the first bed in the store like an over-sugared 6 year old (I did this on a circular sofa at a designer handbag store the week before and was chastised accordingly), we were approached by a rather charming Haitian lady named D.D.

I’ll spare you the finer details of our mattress decision making matrix, but an hour later we were ready to pay up the dosh and take delivery of our new mattress & pillows (next day delivery too). As we waited for the payment to process I mentioned her very fetching company t-shirt. I liked it, but it seemed a little off-brand.

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D.D. responded that she’d designed and paid for it herself as she thought it could be a good way to make the store more memorable and built some wider brand awareness, as well as being an opportunity to improve her design and marketing skills. She’d even set up fresh Twitter and Instagram accounts using the hashtag.

This store was until recently a branch of Sleepy’s until Mattress Firm recently acquired the company. They’d started the rebrand in February last year and 12 months on it still looked like a work in progress – next to me the Sleepy name poked out sheepishly underneath some Mattress Firm branded bed legs, and the store itself looked a little sleepy by nature as well as name.

D.D. didn’t think the rebrand had quite hit the spot, hence her taking matters into her own hands. She’d lobbied a couple of execs with her idea but hadn’t had any response.

I loved her zeal and passion – she was really knowledgeable about the products in the store, clearly loved to help customers, and had a wonderful demeanour and sense of humour. She even paid for her own custom work uniform! Who wouldn’t want her as part of their team?

D.D was the Intrapreneur personified. I felt disappointed the company execs hadn’t acknowledged her initiative, so I told her I’d write to them and publish an article about our experience at the store, along with a photo. She laughed. I guess she thought I was just that nice English guy being polite and a bit quirky.

But I wasn’t joking. Here it is – D.D with our new mattress and pillow.

Fingers crossed I’ll get a response from Sicily Dickenson, CMO at Mattress Firm, and maybe we’ll see ‘Got Sleep?’ on the billboards of Union Square some day soon…

 

 

 

Introducing the Operator’s Handbook

TL;DR: The Operator’s Handbook is a collection of resources for operators and business builders.

Over the past few months I’ve been learning more about operations management and various associated aspects of running companies. Instead of taking one course or program I’ve been ingesting content and ideas from a bunch of different sources and set up a simple Google Sheet to store the various nuggets I found.

This got unwieldy pretty quickly, especially when trying to places different pieces of content into themes. I could build a pivot table or similar to handle it but it didn’t feel quite right and rapidly became more hassle than it was worth.

I could also sense there was some value in sharing these resources will fellow venture builders. There are plenty of resources for digital marketing, coding and other aspects of building a startup or small business but not much around broader operations. But the Google Sheet didn’t seem to cut it,

Enter Airtable, something I’ve been playing around with quite a while but just couldn’t find the right use for. Half an hour later and the sheet was imported, open-sourced and categorised for use by all and sundry.

Hopefully you’ll find this a handy resource – at the time of writing I’ve added 40 or so resources, with more to come. And if you’ve got something to add, please feel free to submit it to the directory.

www.operatorshandbook.com

https://airtable.com/embed/shrfceSeFM3spzKyq?backgroundColor=red&viewControls=on

Introducing Zorro: projects for hybrid talent

TL;DR: Zorro is a new solution for connecting companies to multi-disciplinary talent. We work with proud generalists – the operators, producers, builders and can-doers who don’t fit into standard job titles or descriptions. Whether you’re on the hunt for projects or people, check out www.findzorro.com

A few months ago I moved from London to New York. One of the restrictions of my visa was that I had to apply for an Employment Authorisation Document (‘EAD’, i.e. a work permit) before I could undertake any work for US companies. This process took several months, usually 3 but sometimes as long as 7 months depending on the specific application and the processing times at USCIS.

During the wait for my work permit I met up with as many interesting, smart and creative people as I could, as well as taking some time to sharpen up a few of the tools in my career toolbox.

Occasionally I also took a look at job boards to see what was out there and what companies were looking for.

Most of what I found had very specific job titles with role descriptions which were either extremely specific or very broad.

This made me consider three things:

  1. There’s very little demand for people with diverse and eclectic skills and backgrounds, as all companies wants to hire specialists
  2. As headlines are (apparently) 80% of the work when writing, some of the generalist jobs would get missed by potential applicants as the titles looked far too narrow and specialised
  3. The job boards focused on consulting work are full of roles that are either very specific and/or require an MBA/’top tier’ consulting firm background

I was willing to bet that (1) was incorrect, if not now then in the near future, and particularly within smaller businesses as everyone on the team needs to be able to do almost anything. Job titles become fuzzy at best.

(2) could be overcome by a bit of deeper pruning by those in the job market, but it’s a hassle, and using the right combination of search terms is pretty difficult on most platforms.

(3) ruled me (and most of my peers) out as I don’t have an MBA nor am sure on the value of one. This is evidenced by MBA schools having severe pain right now.

There appeared to be a gap. Not a huge gap, but that was ok. It was a small gap, the kind of one that a cat or maybe a fox could fit through…

With that in mind, I’m pleased to introduce Zorro – a job board for the generalists, the hybrids, even the misfits. That’s not to say Zorro is for anyone – it’s aimed at connecting companies who want Swiss Army Knife-style talent who have solid track records as well as diverse eclecticism.

Zorro is curated on both sides, and right now we’re in private beta while we iron out all the gremlins (I told you I was still sharpening skills – coding is definitely one of the slightly blunter ones).

If you think you fit the bill, or you’re looking to bring people into your company who are really good at getting things done then please join us.

Zorro can be found at www.findzorro.com

And why ‘Zorro’? The title is inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the Hedgehog and The Fox, which in turn got its title from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who said a hedgehog knows one important thing, and a fox knows many things.

Sometimes we need the hedgehog, but I believe more than ever we need the fox.

 

 

 

 

 

Your customer list is worth nothing

A few years ago I heard a prominent figure was leaving one of my company’s big competitors.

He wasn’t leaving amicably. There had been tension for a while. Furthermore, he wasn’t leaving the industry for something new – he would become a competitor to his now former employer.

If you were the boss, what would you do in this situation?

Put them on enforced leave?

Shut down their access to all company IP and communication tools?

 

In this case, the boss openly suggested he take the entire customer list with him.

 

Why would he do this?

Surely this is one of the prized assets of a professional services business?

The boss knew the list itself was worth practically nothing. The relationships behind it were where all the value was. The cost of allowing the customer list to leave the building was, in reality, tiny.

Sure, to build the list again from scratch would take a while, but did it really matter?

In that business (like many others) you were really only as good as the service you were selling, and whether customers wanted to buy at a mutually agreeable price.

 

I wish I learnt this lesson earlier.

When I was starting out I would spend hours trying to find contact details for potential buyers of my company’s services. My analytical brain loved the quest and the sifting of the data. I’d leave no stone unturned – I’d know the name of every relevant person from Slovenia to Sydney. My mind was playing a trick on me that volume would generate returns.

This shotgun-style approach did work to a point, but became drastically less effective over time, especially as the industry consolidated, the value of the services being offered were more measurable, and I realised the importance of segmentation and buying power.

One other piece of advice I received around this time was to only focus on the top 3 relevant buyers in one location, and if none of them were interested, to ignore that territory and move on.

This is effectively the Pareto principle at work. 80% of the peas in the garden come from 20% of the plants. 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. 80% of the problems come from 20% of the clients.

 

I still see many early stage companies using the shotgun strategy – amass email addresses of prospective buyers even if they’re outside the key target audience, perhaps slightly customise a sales pitch and then pull the trigger.

When you’re starting out it seems logical – you just want, need, to get out in front of people.

But if you’re in a relationships business, and the vast majority of us are (if you don’t think you are then ask yourself again), forget about frantically building about the customer list.

Focus on building relationships, and if in doubt ask what Pareto would do.

Startup scoping: Swimming back to shore

One of my favourite places — Tulum, Mexico. Image via Spencer Watson at Unsplash

Preamble: This is the first in a series of posts on exploring and validating startups and side projects. They’re not intended to be exhaustive or ‘how to’ guides, but open meditations and provocations on topics that can’t be easily answered with a 5-point listicle or a pot of cash.

Recently I’ve been validating a couple of new project ideas, doing my best to follow the core principles of Design Thinking and Lean Startup as well as elements of other well-established frameworks.

One of these core principles is customer development, and specifically customer discovery and validation, i.e. speaking with prospective customers to ensure a problem exists and then getting feedback from them that the resulting initial solution is on the right path.

I’ve been through this process quite a few times now, either developing my own projects, working with clients, or training groups of people in workshops.

There’s a question that seems to sit just under the surface both in my direct experience and from observing the startup / side project community more broadly. However, it doesn’t seem many people are openly considering this question or the possible answers.

What happens when the customer development process takes you somewhere you don’t want to go?

I don’t mean where you didn’t expect to go, but somewhere you’re really unsure about going to. Where your interest in the space starts to stretch and strain as the problem and/or the solution appear to be in a place where you question if your passion is as strong and bright.

Or to use an analogy; when the customer development tide sweeps you away into a different current, what do you do? To my mind there are 3 main options:

  • Keep paddling, go with the current and see where you end up
  • Try and break out of the current and carve your own path
  • Swim back to shore so you can try the next beach (or just head home for a cup of tea and a quieter life)

Most people in startup world rally around Paul Graham’s call to ‘build something people want’. I agree with this, but what if people want something that you don’t want to build?

Do you build it for them, feeling confident you can validate the problem and your solution?

Do you keep with your vision and build something you want regardless?

Do cut your losses and move on to a different place?

Unless you have a passion for building the thing people want it’s going to be hard to succeed.

You may be able to persuade them to want the same thing you do, but you’ll be going against a lot of the principles successful businesses are built on.

If you cut your losses it’ll be frustrating with a sense of ‘what if?’.

None of these are particularly enticing options.

In the end it boils down to doing what you want vs doing what they want.

We assume most projects and startups naturally find themselves at the utopian balance or intersection of these two points, but in reality there’s often a trade off.

How willing are you to build what they want, even if you’re not sure you want it? I’d love to know — feel free to share or add a comment below.

https://upscri.be/975e1b/

How one club night became the turning point for my business

In February 2009 I left a promising career in advertising to build a music company.

My vision, albeit partially formed, was to offer a new way of serving exciting independent artists by simultaneously growing their prowess and profile across touring, promotion and publishing.

We’d do business in unconventional ways, use technology wherever we could, and be guided by our moral compass in an industry that has a reputation for its cut-throat nature. A sense of opportunity collided with youthful exuberance, naivety and a dash of idealism.

And so I swapped sleek studio space in the front end of Clerkenwell for a cold cluttered cupboard in the back end of Shoreditch. Reality hit pretty quickly.

  • The office was dank and uninspiring.
  • The toilets had the aura of a B-list horror movie set.
  • Our kettle was the very cheapest that Argos had in stock and needed a piece of cutlery levered under the switch in order to function.
  • The entertainment budget for a prospective client stretched to a couple of pints of average quality lager and possibly a Turkish takeaway.
  • We had no senior staff with their black book of contacts and tricks of the trade.
  • None of our team had operated in their role before and were all learning on the fly.
  • Hardly any of the main festival promoters would return our calls or emails.
  • Investors wouldn’t touch us (“you mean none of your clients have signed contracts?”).
  • The heating didn’t work, except in summer.

I was running the place, frantically trying to lay down enough track ahead of us to stop the train crashing into the side of the mountain.

Along the way we lost pitches, clients, staff, focus and VAT returns.

To quote Ben Horowitz, I was deep in the struggle.

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

But despite the pain the company was alive, and despite all the setbacks were we still just about winning more than we were losing.

One Friday night in early 2011, something changed.

On face value it wasn’t much, just another date in the diary for some of the acts we represented. For me, however, it represented something far more.

One of the venues we’d worked most closely with since the very beginning of our burgeoning business had booked 17 of our artists to play across the venue on the same night.

We represented almost the entire lineup.

We’d never had anything like it happen before.

This venue had built a long-standing reputation for quality — whether it was the booming sound system, striking graphic design or talent programming that seamlessly blended big names with newcomers. It was great to have any client booked there, let alone 17 of them.

But that night it wasn’t about which of our agents had booked the acts. It wasn’t about the revenue it generated for our clients or us either (as much as we needed it at that point).

It was about the team who ran this venue recognising there was something about us and the talent we’d aimed to represent, nurture and develop, often from the very ground floor of their careers.

In my mind, this seemingly trivial milestone validated everything we’d been doing up to that point and helped pushed me on to keep going when we were deep in the struggle.

A few years later and I’d managed to make a successful exit, with our alumni moving on to hold key roles at some of the industry’s leading companies. I now think often of that tough period — what I did wrong, how I would deal with it now, and what helped me get through it at the time.


This Friday night, fabric opens its doors again after what must be the biggest struggle in its 18 year history.

Just like many others I’m very pleased to see its return.

Without it a whole cohort of creators, entrepreneurs, collectives and organisations may not have kept persevering through the struggle, or even have got started at all.