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Harness your curiosity. Beware the Magpie.

I spent my youngest years growing up in a very small village in the Cornish countryside. For a long time we had a local milkman who would deliver glass bottles of milk to our front door each morning. You’ve probably seen the sort – the ones with the coloured foil lids.

Inevitably, lots of the bottles got attacked by the local wildlife. The crows and sparrows would puncture the lids and try and guzzle down the milk, but I was more interested in seeing if the early morning magpies would come out to steal the foil lids.

After all, legend has it the magpie is a bird that just loves shiny things.

Figuratively speaking, we all have our own personal magpies. Sometimes they’re relatively docile. On other occasions they are champing at the bit with an insatiable hunger.

And our magpies aren’t only loitering for the chance to grab some shiny yet low value items like milk bottle tops or Instagram likes.

The modern magpie wants to make impact. It wants to make positive change. It wants to achieve and excel. It wants to build a nest filled with valuable things.

I don’t know about you, but my magpie is ravenous.

tyler-quiring-21351

A Raven, rather than a ravenous Magpie. by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

Accordingly to the Myers-Briggs test, my personality type is INFJ.

When it comes to careers, one of the INFJ traits is to dislike choosing one path, mainly because it means making the heartbreaking decision to abandon several other equally fulfilling and intriguing options.

Being naturally curious about different things and how they work exacerbates this.

Living in today’s always-on world, particularly in busy cities, amplifies it even more.

This combination creates particularly fertile ground for the magpie.

The magpie can find nourishment almost everywhere:

  • an article going behind the scenes at an interesting company
  • a new charitable enterprise to get involved in
  • a successful person with whom we can (subconsciously) compare ourselves
  • a request for advice from someone getting started or changing lanes
  • a new trend or idea in an adjacent industry

The magpie desires them all.

And like the fabled Scorpion, it’s not its fault – it is just its nature.

If we indulge the magpie it can harm us.

However, to avoid harm we don’t have to banish the magpie completely.

What we must do is tame it, even if we feel we are passing up golden opportunities by doing so.

Derek Sivers suggests a good heuristic when looking at a decision or opportunity is to respond with either ‘Hell Yes’ or ‘No’. If it’s not ‘Hell Yes’ then the answer should be ‘No’.

The magpie makes us say Yes when we should say No.

But only we know when it’s ‘Hell Yes’. That feeling comes from somewhere else the magpie can’t reach; it doesn’t know us well enough for that. And that is how we tame it.

When making decisions, ask yourself: is this me, or the magpie?

Three way traffic

A couple of weeks ago I went to a networking event here in NYC.

As with many such events, a company were hosting it – running events is expensive and time-consuming after all.

The hosts of this event were a company in the entertainment industry. The event was advertised as an evening of networking alongside industry thought leaders discussing sponsorships, key insights, strategies and opportunities.

The venue was a very well-known spot in the centre of Manhattan. There was a free bar and some snacks. They’d partnered with a startup to help facilitate introductions on arrival (their algorithm seemed a bit erratic but it still served as a nice icebreaker).

All was going swimmingly. After 30 mins or so of mingling and eating croquettes, we were informed a presentation would be starting shortly.

I assumed this was a minor US/UK translation issue. A ‘presentation’ felt like a peculiar term to use.

What followed was effectively a revolving sales pitch by the host company to persuade brands and advertising agencies to spend money with them. It lasted for well over an hour, and even halfway through many of the attendees looked to be flagging.

I understood the company’s eagerness to position themselves in a new light. They’d been through a tough time over the past couple of years and had relaunched with a new management team and partners. Turnarounds are often really tough and relaunches are an exciting time.

But not opening up a genuine conversation didn’t ring true to what this new dawn was supposedly all about, and a little ironic considering they’re in the business of connecting people.

I didn’t feel negativity or animosity, more a sense of disappointment at a missed opportunity.

Whether by luck or design, there weren’t just two lines of dialogue available, there were three. The host, their brand & agency guests, and the rest of us. We all had something to say; something on our minds; a viewpoint.

Perhaps the event led to more sales and new relationships, but an overt sales pitch with a third party also in the room didn’t feel good.

 

Today, yelling our messaging so loudly everyone can hear it rarely works. Attention is scarce but that doesn’t mean shouting louder is more effective. It’s often the opposite. A street full of hot rods and monster trucks aggressively jockeying for position doesn’t encourage other road users.

Focused, relevant, inclusive and thoughtful conversations are what set us apart. Listening, gauging, using empathy, trying to see all sides.

Of course, too much moving traffic becomes noisy, but if we can channel that traffic, guide it, and keep all routes open to everyone in the room, we’ll be all the better for it.

No one likes one-way traffic.

 

Could you take a bite out of your own business?

Becoming the cannibal

Sketch 3. Image: Cult of Mac

Earlier this week an article by Marc Hemeon of Design Inc. popped up on my feed.

It’s a quick guide to putting together a logo in 5 minutes, without hiring a designer.

Design Inc. is a marketplace for hiring high quality designers.

Does this sound a little counter-intuitive?

The comments below the line range from gratitude and excitement to bemusement to admonishment.

As you may guess, the latter mainly comes from people in the design community.

https://journal.designinc.com/how-to-make-a-logo-for-free-in-about-5-minutes-a4f409176a8e#.u10qcce4h

This very handy piece of content marketing is great for entrepreneurs wanting to get add some design credibility to an early-stage idea, but when it comes to creating and developing a true brand identity it takes much more than 5 minutes and a blog post. Hemeon makes this clear in the first two paragraphs but it appears it didn’t land with some of the outraged.

I don’t believe that guides like this are damaging to the design industry, but the article did get me thinking about the concept of cannibalising parts of your own business.

I take the view that this does two things;
– Empowers others to do something they couldn’t before, and better understand the expertise of the professional practitioner
– Pushes the professional practitioners to develop their offering and expertise

Cannibalisation is connected to disruptive innovation, described by Clay Christensen as follows:

As companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve, most organizations eventually end up producing products or services that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market.

Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market, companies will achieve the greatest profitability.

However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations” at the bottom of the market. An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.

Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include: lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics. Because these lower tiers of the market offer lower gross margins, they are unattractive to other firms moving upward in the market, creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge.

An example of this is Sketch disrupting Photoshop in the design software market. Marc Hemeon’s article adds a taste of cannibalisation — he’s inviting disruption to come and eat a bit of his own business.


Cannibalising your own business often means you should find ways you can be better.

Design as a practice is very unlikely to be eaten whole by technology and open source methodologies. However, quick-step guides like Hemeon’s indicate that designers should continue to take the harder route to avoid commoditisation.

They should be considered a true partner and advisor as well as a maker, being in the position to deliver holistic and creative solutions to their clients’ business challenges.

Sometimes we have to cannibalise parts of our own business to become better and be more valuable to our clients and customers.

Could you cannibalise a part of your own business to become better in the long term?

Depression in the music industry: Here’s one thing no one is talking about

Image: Ted Ed

In the last couple of years many of us have started to become more aware of our mental wellbeing. Meditation apps have millions of users; travel providers offer relaxation holiday retreats; schools, workplaces and even prisons are introducing programs to help develop mindfulness.

Awareness has led to talking about mental health more openly, particularly in the workplace. An increasingly open dialogue should be welcomed in the music industry as much as anywhere.

Over the past year a number of new initiatives and media pieces have helped increase awareness of mental health issues for musicians.

Most recently, in late July The Guardian newspaper interviewed several big-name dance acts about the challenges of their touring lifestyle.

A mainstream media platform giving space to this is certainly a positive thing, but strangely and somewhat sadly the majority of the 300+ comments below the line ignored the main issue being highlighted and instead focused on arguing the merits of electronic musicians as real artists.

There are two omissions from the article that would make for a more balanced and compelling argument, and by extension lessen audience focus on whether decks or drums are more legit.

The first is to feature viewpoints from a more diverse range of artists, and the second is to broaden the conversation to those working across all areas of the industry.


As with music, media is becoming a headliners’ market and the big names are what get media platforms the clicks they crave, but The Guardian not featuring the opinions of those in other areas of the scene feels like a sorely missed opportunity.

Steve Aoki. Photograph: Ross Gilmore

The touring schedules of the likes of Above & Beyond and Steve Aoki are no doubt heavy and intense, but the majority of artists travel in a less salubrious manner. For every DJ with a tour manager, private jet and a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, there are hundreds more flying solo on Easyjet or Ryanair every weekend and making do with a hotel room club sandwich.

Viewing things through the eyes of these artists may improve getting the message across because their situation is far more relatable. Most of us have probably felt some pang of desperation while fighting fatigue waiting for a delayed flight home from a barren airport.


More broadly, it’s to be applauded that as well as artist support there are now mental wellbeing initiatives for fans with the likes of Calm Zones being rolled out.

However, no one seems to be talking about depression amongst those working in the industry away from the artist side. It’s a growing issue and one that should have a public platform; not just for the dance music scene but the music industry as a whole.

The issues surrounding those working as executives and service providers in the music industry differ from those affecting artists, but I would argue they are no less dangerous.

The risk of depression can loom largest for the service providers operating at the front line, representing the creative and mercurial; their roles can include strategist, hustler, debt collector, confidant, investor, therapist and a whole lot more. Sometimes they are part of a larger organisation, but often these are individuals or collectives trying to operate and grow a company as well as deliver for their clients.

All this in an industry that is highly competitive, mainly unregulated, rarely measured on meritocracy, often insular, and struggling to find solutions against wave after wave of disruption.

The perceived wisdom for moments of uncertainty and anxiety seems to be to either front up aggressively or hunker down and ignore.

Neither of these positions are effective in the long-term, and many in the industry suffer from status anxiety, if not something more serious.

‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton.

There are such a range of evolving skills, strengths and sensitivities needed by the modern music industry executive that even the very best are going to stumble from time to time, let alone the rest of us.


I wrote about the need for music industry mentors in this piece.

Alongside mentors, I suggest three more actions to help combat depression in the music business:

  • Professional coaching: How do you deal with a client who has depression? An artist having a manager is one thing; having a manager who is trained to deal with these issues is quite another. Knowing how a publishing contract works isn’t going to help when your client is threatening to self-harm in a hotel room on the other side of the world. There’s a great opportunity for quality executive coaches to help those in the music business.
  • Round tables and music mindfulness: A few conference panels have talked about depression, but they don’t feel like the best forum for such personal matters. Smaller, private groups where mindfulness and open discussion are encouraged would be a good step.
  • Artist awareness: A lot of the pressure for those working in the business comes from their clients. They may not mean it or even be aware of it, but why not find ways to increase artist awareness of the pressures their teams have to deal with on a day to day basis, in a way that builds genuine collaboration and empathy?

Depression is a real issue.

It’s positive that the importance of mental health for artists is being recognised.

It’s also crucially important not to forget all the tour managers, agents, managers, promoters, PRs and others who are taking care of business away from the spotlight.


thanks to Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for reading drafts of this article.

Observations from the airport

4 simple innovation ideas for Europe’s emerging airports

Luton Airport train station (image via Wikipedia)

A good entry point for exploring startup ideas is to look at what people are complaining about. Social networks are often a good place to begin.

Whilst it’s worth bearing in mind that social media can amplify opinions to such a degree that distortion kicks in, platforms such as Twitter are particularly fertile grounds for discovering gripes.

At the time of writing it’s the busiest time of the year for European travel, and despite post-Brexit currency woes the UK’s airports are still full with sun-seeking families, exuberant stag & hen parties, stoic business travelers and black t-shirted DJs.

The summer season opens up a new world of possibility and opportunity, with open air venues across the continent limbering up in June before a few months of intense activity until they wind down in late September.

Destinations that were until very recently almost completely unknown have become summer hotspots, their airports funnelling thousands of expectant revellers from across Europe and beyond. For UK citizens, many of these emerging destinations are served by budget airlines operating from airports in cities’ outer orbits.

Browsing Facebook last week, a number of status updates from various DJs appeared in my feed. What grabbed my attention above the usual photo mix of festival crowds, gratuitous selfies and late-night phone footage was the ire directed at one particular UK airport; Luton.

This wasn’t surprising — I traveled to Lisbon from Luton recently and the experience was less than pleasant. There were the slow and laborious transfers from train station to terminal; a lack of signposting for everything from taxis and buses to car rental and check-in; and the brutalist, unwelcoming main terminal building with very little character and few places to sit.

In fairness, building works were underway when I visited. Here’s hoping improvements will be made, but there are nonetheless many areas for improvement, and thus opportunity.

Here are a few simple airport innovation ideas for incumbent operators, audacious startups or even frustrated DJs.

Pre-pay restaurants

After a couple hours of travel to the airport following an early start, sustenance is a priority. It’s also a serious revenue stream for airports and its concession restaurants.

The service at the restaurant we visited was passable — it was Saturday morning and brunch business was booming, so naturally the staff were going to be a little stretched. The main frustration came from a short-notice gate call combined with delays on being brought the bill, paying, and departing. The upshot was a rushed meal, leftover food, a rush to the gate, and a poor experience.

Why not select and pay for your pre-flight meal on the way to the airport? A simple app with payment gateway, the day’s menu, and option to eat-in or takeaway would remove a lot of friction for customers and staff alike.

Independent, healthy food options

Green juice and vegan food is no longer the preserve of hippies and hipsters. People are more discerning than ever about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it affects their health.

Most airports still offer a restaurant range that veers from junk food to gastropub, with the healthier options tending to be provided by international chains who are often part-owned by said junk food purveyors.


Grain Store have recently opened at Gatwick — this felt like a breath of fresh air but it’s not enough. Could airports tap into the pop-up trend run so successfully by the likes of Street Feast — enabling independent traders to sell good quality, healthy food?

End to end rental car bookings

BMW’s DriveNow initiative is a good innovation in this field in larger cities, and there are of course the likes of Uber, Lyft and Hailo operating in the private driver market. However, for a lot of more remote summer destinations a self-drive hire car is a must. The big players do a reasonable job but the process still seems to be unnecessarily manual, frustrating and slow.

An end to end mobile solution to book a hire car at the airport would remove a lot of headaches, especially for a tired young family arriving off a delayed evening flight to be greeted by a huge queue for car pickup at the understaffed Hertz, Europecar or Avis stand.

Silvercar are doing this well in the US with their fleet of Audi A4’s— a European equivalent could make a big impact.

Recyclables

Let’s be honest, air travel isn’t the most environmentally-friendly way of getting around. It’s therefore bordering on the ridiculous that many airports and their partners are still providing cups that are not recyclable, nor anywhere near enough recycling bins. It may not offset the damage done from the runways, but there’s no excuse for allowing this much unnecessary waste.

Airports should be embracing green initiatives more than anyone — there are plenty of cost-effective solutions to serve drinks to customers in a sustainable way. FrugalPac is one.

Air travel is one of the true phenomenons of the modern age. It feels strange that many airports may be getting left behind in the service stakes, with the destination becoming increasingly more enjoyable than the journey.


Do you know about startups already covering these areas? Or airports doing a great job of customer service? Let me know in the comments below.

Overwhelmed by startups? There’s a spreadsheet for that

Clippy in the house with Jeff and Bill. He probably didn’t help Excel’s net promoter score. Image via The Atlantic.

In 2011, The prominent Silicon Valley investor and inventor of the Netscape internet browser Marc Andreessen said that ‘software is eating the world’.

Over the past five years, this quote has appeared with increased frequency across the technology media landscape and beyond. From nervous CEOs at startup-threatened incumbent businesses, to the founders of disruptive SaaS ventures and intrigued industry observers, the exponential growth in software to solve all sorts of consumer and business problems does not look likely to slow any time in the near future.

Andreessen’s assertion is one I would certainly agree with.

On a personal level, the number of software solutions I have on my mini super-computer (aka my iPhone) is in the dozens. Within our business, we regularly receive requests for product management expertise to help develop and release bespoke specialist software for our client’s businesses, and are just about to kick-off a substantial project in this realm.

Additionally, we have been approached by clients and prospects both within our sectors of interest and also from further afield for advice, introductions and installations relating to the seemingly endless ocean of software options that are now available for businesses.

In fact, what was initially a tertiary service offering has become central to many of our engagements. Clients are looking for guidance on procurement, installation, user on-boarding, and also the longer term sustainability of technology solutions across almost every aspect of their operations.

Where previously there may have been a single or low double digit number of enterprise software packages available to solve a particular problem (or many problems at once), there are now tens or even hundreds or options on the market — from the narrowest niche to the fullest of stacks.


This presents a number of challenges for a consultancy advising clients on software procurement. We have to be on top of everything to compatibility, pricing and feature sets, through to the provider’s track record, chances of sustainability and product roadmap.

Additionally, the breadth of business areas that software can help automate means our role has broadened from the obvious areas of accounting, productivity and sales pipelines through to insurance, employee happiness, office supplies and hiring of partners, to name just a few.

This is a particular challenge for consultancies working primarily with SMEs, as we do. When working with a larger corporation, the remit for assistance and advice on software procurement is likely to be narrowed to a department or business function by either the client, the consultancy or both, thus focusing the requirement into a more discrete area. However, for the consultancy advising smaller independent clients, a wider lens is needed.

Curation platforms like Product Hunt are very useful tools in our armoury, but understandably they have often have limitations on the depth of information they provide about each service.


One tool we revisit again and again reminds us of, somewhat ironically, a guidance point from Paul Graham and others around coming up with ideas for startups.

One of the first things to find out when looking to launch a new startup is what prospective customers’ existing solutions are.

More than one founder in history has come a cropper because they didn’t realise their customers’ existing solution was good enough, and that the new offering was not better enough to make users switch.

Examples of existing solutions range from a SaaS tool with a few miles on the clock, to a pen and paper, a bricks and mortar shop, and, of course, a spreadsheet.

Visicalc, released in 1979

The computer spreadsheet has been around since 1979, and for many decades before that in non-digital forms. The package that launched the spreadsheet into the homes of millions was Microsoft’s Excel, first released in 1985.

(NB: Interestingly, despite the rise of various alternatives in recent years, alongside machinations that Microsoft is somewhat old hat, ‘Excel’ is still ubiqituous both as a software package and as an interchangeable term with ‘spreadsheet’. The question is whether it will go the way of the Walkman, and to a lesser extent Hoover.)

Fast-forward 30+ years and the spreadsheet is still a first port of call for us when ascertaining how to best solve our clients’ challenges. We’re as passionate as anyone about novel and nimble new software startups but often find that a spreadsheet can at least help model and point us towards the right solution, if not be the solution itself.

Although several of our more creatively-led clients can have a fairly strong aversion to spreadsheets, we work hard on developing and customising options that can be genuinely impactful to their business without unnecessarily dulling their creativity or increasing the time they spend on data-led tasks.

Our weapon of choice is Google Sheets, and the range of increasingly powerful add-ons that are being released on a daily basis (and yes, these add-ons are almost mini startups in their own right). These add-ons combined with the powerful built-in functionality of spreadsheet packages, portability, ease of sharing, and the ongoing overlap with technology resources such as StackOverflow make the spreadsheet a key part of the modern consultant’s toolkit.

Zapier’s Add-Ons directory is full of useful new functionality for Google Sheets

Often we will first test a hypothesis or a feature within a spreadsheet — this can be thought of as a very rough MVP to ensure we’re building something the clients wants.

The final solution may well end up being a software solution from a 3rd party vendor, but the spreadsheet has often proved invaluable and we have several of robust grid-driven solutions currently running live to make our clients more productive, efficient, and profitable. Some of these are deliberately built for the short-term, some are mid-term and some have been effectively solving problems for much longer — it all depends on the client’s needs.

So the next time you hear that ‘there’s a startup for that’, there’s may just be a spreadsheet solution too.

If you want to discuss a challenge you have around software procurement, operations, commercial strategy, growth or talent development, head over to www.hbureau.com

The rise of the remixer


Why remixing is going to become more and more important in the future of content and creativity.

Remixing has been around for a while now, but it’s still somewhat under-appreciated both as an art form and commercial tool.

Music remixing started with the musique concrete era in 1930s France merging sounds from different sources to create new pieces of music.

The dancehall culture of Jamaica in the early 1970s was where the likes of King Tubby created stripped-down instrumental versions of reggae songs, later layering effects and vocal hooks over the top of the raw elements of the tracks.

Disco and hip hop DJs in late 70s New York took the concept of the remix to a broader audience, before the electronic pop bands of the 80s created the “extended mix” for nightclub dancefloors.

Early house music producers then began lifting out the vocals from pop and r&b songs and layering them back over their own instrumental tracks. Before long, entire pieces of music were being created purely from samples and snippets of other works.

Fast forward to the modern era and the remix has become an accepted, although at times controversial, part of popular culture — not just in music but a variety of mediums. Art, media, design and even technologies have all been remixed, re-edited and re-contextualised. If you look around, you’ll see remixes in all sorts of places.

The remix is also a proven way for creatives to launch and propel their careers, spring-boarding from a platform provided by more recognised content and creators. Profile and exposure through remixing is now a key tool in the armoury of the modern talent manager, record label exec and development studio.


In today’s rapidly evolving content business, the remix appears to be more powerful and prevalent than ever.

Kevin Kelly’s piece in the July 2016 edition of Wired magazine illustrates this through the lens of Hollywood in particular.

Cheap and universal creation tools are making it easier to create content of all kinds. The conventions around barriers to entry are fast falling away, i.e. it’s easier to watch a movie than to produce one, or to read a book than write one.

The total number of hours of content outputted from Hollywood is about 1200 each year. Over 24,000 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every hour.

Of course, the quality of all this deep-lying content online is variable, but a common theme is remixing. Lyric videos for your favourite music artist; comedic dubbing of a classic movie scene; or subtle takes on advertising that are twisted and turned by politics, medium, and cultures.

Mike Diva’s Donald Trump video is an interesting example of the latter. This was sent to me via What’s App by a friend, and with two motions of my index finger I was watching a unique piece of art, entertainment and subversive political commentary that would never have come from a traditional content creation studio. And it was without doubt a remix.

Kelly references the economist Paul Romer who says that real sustainable economic growth doesn’t stem from new resources, but from existing ones that are rearranged to make them more valuable.

The opposite may be the case if these existing resources are not re-arranged in improved, evolved or transformative ways. There are clear legal and ethical issues here — what constitutes a version of something that adds additional value, what is just a copy, and who claims ownership (and revenues) on what? There’s no hard and fast answer, but there’s little doubt that valuable creations of today will evolve into something different tomorrow.

A service that is already proving pretty valuable is Musical.ly. For those who don’t know, Musica.ly is a social network with a powerful tool to make music-infused videos to share on the platform, save or share between friends. Users are effectively creating their own remixes on the fly. And it’s big; the app has gone from around 500 downloads a day in April 2015 to 80m registered users today.

We’ll see the remixer continue to rise in importance in the coming years; hackers, writers, visual artists, musicians and others are going to be behind some of the most compelling and valuable creations we’ll engage with. And to be a renowned ‘remixee’, one of the creators whose works have been remixed the most, will be of greater prestige than ever

Three of the main challenges I see for those in the business of content (and entertainment particularly) are:

  • Sourcing new remixer talent from divergent fields
  • Finding the right ways to distribute remixed creations to audiences
  • Ensuring these new creations deliver real value

And as for this article? It’s a remix too…

Note-taking, creativity and 80s action movies

I have a fondness for mid-late 1980s action movies.

Nothing particularly unusual there for a person of my vintage, except I seem to have a strange ability to recall relatively trivial and obscure details.

The character names of the first 3 marines who get killed in Aliens; the career path of the actor who plays crazy computer hacker Theo in the first Die Hard; the location of the parking lot where Doc and Marty test the DeLorean in Back to the Future…and much, much more.

Yep, I’m the life and soul of the party.

One of my favourite characters from the period features in the (rightfully) much-maligned Crocodile Dundee 2.

He is, of course, Leroy Brown.

Leroy Brown and Mick Dundee.

Leroy is trying to live up to his name of being a bad guy on the streets of late 1980s New York, despite being a humble stationery salesman who happens to have a better than average Rolodex.

He’s Mick Dundee’s connector, facilitator and enabler — hooking him up with the right gang leaders to know, creating distractions to get him out of sticky situations and generally being a man about town, all whilst rocking a leather flat cap, wraparound sunglasses and a purchase order for office supplies.

Leroy is the kind of guy I want to be around; not just for his fashion sense and links into questionable groups of NYC punks, but for his passion for stationery.

Stationery is one of the best paths to improved memory and creativity. Here’s why.


The joy of stationery

Technology now enables us to compile and sort ideas and information on the fly in all sorts of ways (Evernote, Apple Notes, Instagram, Trello are just four — there are literally hundreds of applications out there to help with this).

I use a bunch of software apps to help make lists and scribble down thoughts, but recently I’ve been returning to pen and paper.

My handwriting is still terrible, but going back to basics has helped improve my creativity, memory and ability to connect ideas and concepts.

It also prevents tapping away on a phone or laptop during a meeting, which most people find rude, even if you are taking notes about what’s being discussed.

My method is to take notes on paper, then either write them up into Apple Notes, before re-distributing them where they may be best utilised (a to-do list, new client database, a subject to research via a web browser, etc.), or put them up on the wall.

This may seem like duplicating work but my memory for the notes I make has improved significantly and links between things seem to appear more easily and in new ways.

I try to re-read my notes as much as I can, dipping back into notes from 3, 6, 12, even 24 months previously to see in which directions new associations, thoughts and implications may take me.

Two of my recent and exciting projects have stemmed from a couple of scratchy notes and drawings I made over a year ago, that only now have I been able to turn into fully formed ideas.


Note-taking for idea discovery

Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ is a great read for understanding patterns of innovation and the ways in which we can develop better ideas and creativity.

In the chapter ‘The Slow Hunch’, Johnson explores the stories behind some of Charles Darwin’s greatest discoveries, and the benefits of note-taking to help with the process.

None of Darwin’s major discoveries came about as sudden epiphanies or breakthroughs. They were nearly all a number of smaller hunches that collided, conjoined, crept up in stealth mode, or faded into view slowly.

To keep these slow hunches alive, Darwin regularly re-read and referred back to his many pages of notes and drawings over long periods of time. This process saw new ideas and implications emerge, with Darwin’s famous finches only becoming a fully realised concept nearly 2 years after the pieces of the puzzle started to come together in his notes from the Galapagos.

Without making notes, re-reading them and making associations between seemingly disparate concepts and ideas, Darwin’s discovery of one of natural science’s most important concepts may have never come to be.

Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Darwin, 1845.

Stationery Selection

Ideas, concepts and hunches take many forms. It helps to have a mix of tools to write them down and develop them in different ways.

I recommend having 3 different sizes of notebook and a few different colours and types of pen.

If you want to take this a step further, you want to go down the route of legendary adman Paul Arden. A couple of his techniques include using watercolours or very soft pencils on occasions when the creativity process is more difficult than usual. That way you can’t focus on details, only on broad strokes and sketches.

Here’s my current stationery setup:

  • A4 lined ring binder style, with a few colours of Sharpie. This is for sitting in the park, hotel lobby or a coffee shop and I’m thinking about bigger ideas, letting the mind wander, or planning out longer periods of time.
  • A5 lined, with a biro and a fine line. Most business meetings where I may take 5–10 lines of notes that can be quickly written up and actioned
  • A6 graph paper, with a biro and a pencil. Great for sketching, diagrams, charts, and quick notes when on the move. Graph paper is especially useful when, like me, you can’t get close to drawing straight lines.

My current stationery selection (yes, I lifted a pencil from Ikea)

It’s also worth investing in a decent range of stationery if you’re involved in any kind of project or product development.

Masking tape, various colours of sticky notes, index cards and some colourful fine-liner pens will stand you in good stead to set up a really tactile and memorable agile board.

And for wireframes and even functioning product prototypes you can transform your sketches to digital using tools like the Prototyping on Paper app, before creating something more refined.

Technology continues to amaze me on a daily basis and has made so many tasks better, easier or simply redundant, but I recommend everyone gets themselves a nice line of stationery and take more notes.

It’ll also give you more clarity, help improve your memory, and maybe pull together some of those slow hunches that give the breakthrough you’ve been looking for.


Want more? A collection of productivity tools and resources can be found at my latest side project, Operator’s Handbook.