James Greaves

Choose Where to Have Impact

James GreavesComment

You want to grow your brand, you want more opportunities, you want to be in the inner circle where the action is, and you want to call the shots. Fine. But first you must learn where to have impact, and to do that you must produce results.

Are You Getting The Right Stuff Done?

In the early 60s Mr Herzberg posited Motivation-Hygiene theory, or Two-Factor theory, to explain how you can motivate staff, and despite not being perfect, it's a useful way to look at where you should focus your impact. Herzberg suggested there wasn't just one lever to make employees happy (i.e. pay), but two: the hygiene lever and the motivator lever. It looked a bit like this:

Hygeine Factors Motivation Factors
If you don't do these things your employees will not be happy. But doing more doesn't really inspire them further. This stuff is just expected. This is how you get your employees excited. If you don't do these things your employees won't be disheartened, but if you do they will be stoked.
i.e. A clean working environment free of distractions i.e. Yearly team offsites in Cancun

Because these are separate scales, Herzberg said it's possible for employees to be both disgruntled and happy at the same time. But note that it's really hard to focus on being super motivated when the hygiene factors aren't even in place. As in, I love the trips to Cancun, but I'm really worried about the spreading mould in the corner of my office and I don't really want to come into work anymore. (Herzberg used different examples, probably.)

We can use this same model to review your impact in your current role. Because there's not just one lever to have impact, but two and they should be treated very differently.

Hygeine Factors Motivation Factors
If you don't do these things your boss and peers will not be happy. But doing more doesn't really inspire them. This stuff is just expected. This is how you get your boss and peers excited. If you don't do these things no one will notice, but if you do they will be stoked.
i.e. deliver 100% of the project on time and on budget i.e. deliver 100% of the project ahead of time and under budget

Before you focus on anything else, you have to take care of the list of things in your job description, the hygiene factors. No one is going to be excited that your project came in early and under budget if you only delivered 50% and annoyed everyone in the process. But importantly, no one will celebrate with you when you do what you were hired to do, so don't draw any attention to the fact you are doing your job, or people will question how high a bar you have really set yourself. But start here and don't move on until you have achieved 100%, because NOT doing anything here will get you fired.

Once you have the hygeine factors covered, you can start to work on the motivator factors. This is what you want your network raving about, so feel free to draw attention to this. This is where you go above and beyond the call of duty. It's also where you get to play, where you get to build a brand over and above the safe pair of hands that you are. Don't take on extra projects unless you have the basics down cold, or you will be overextended and overexposed.

Putting It Into Practice:

So, with this in mind, when was the last time you evaluated what you are working on? When did you last ask your stakeholders what is expected (either formally or informally)? Being clear on this can teach you where you need to focus your time this week, and where you should be building your brand.

Focus on the core, take on everything that is expected of you and don't drop anything, ever. When you have that solid chose carefully where you want to have additional impact. Because you get to chose the extra credit, so chose wisely.

The Best Leaders Have Moral Character

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Think about the leaders you have followed. Who were the best, and what made you follow them?

There is a LOT of literature out there about what makes a great leader. I would like to suggest the most important ingredient, the thing that must come before all else, is moral character. (When I say this, I am speaking as someone being led, not a shareholder: that's a scary thought).

What's my reasoning? It hurts to follow an incompetent leader, but it hurts more to follow an amoral one. If someone is making the wrong decisions for the right reasons, I can help them with their decision-making and execution. If someone is making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, there's not so much I can do.

The Costa Concordia. When the captain is the first to leave the sinking ship, something is afoot. Where's the stewardship?

The Costa Concordia. When the captain is the first to leave the sinking ship, something is afoot. Where's the stewardship?

The best companies tell you why they do what they do, and often link it to a higher cause (Apple, break the status quo, make beautiful things). So do the best leaders. Moral leaders have a cause and make a stand. They are a pleasure to follow: inspirational, transparent, passionate. Amoral leaders are confusing, changeable, and make you question why you are there and what you are achieving. It's difficult for them to make a stand. (But not impossible, think Hitler.)

Unfortunately, in the current climate we don't always reward moral character in our leaders. Organizations are full of people willing to go the furthest to get rank and position, and the upper echelons of power are sprinkled with moral chameleons.

I'm almost tempted to write a 2x2 grid here with competence and moral character as the two axis. You'd get competent and incompetent villains, and competent and incompetent heroes, and everything in between. But I won't. So, let's end this in traditional blog style... What do you think is more important, moral character or competence?

 

Nine Ways Work-Life Balance Will Ruin Your Soul

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The very first time I heard someone use the term "work-life balance" I felt an immediate revulsion. That reaction has not lessened over the years. Work-life balance is a subtle and insidious trap designed to leach the energy out of your soul and stamp on your deflated corpse.

Here's nine reasons why such pathetic thinking will destroy your life, and what you should do about it:

  1. Life in not an equation. Life is not one big tradeoff. More of A means less of B. If you're thinking that way then you have sold your soul to the man: you are compartmentalizing your being, showing up differently on each side of the equation, hating mostly everything, and going crazy in the process. It's likely people don't like you because you are a disjointed, miserable soul who doesn't make much sense and rarely has joy.
  2. Life IS work. So you have your "work" where you do hard things. What about when you're not there. Do you also do hard things outside of your "job," where exertion and emotional investment really matter: are you raising a family, maintaining your property, keeping fit, expanding your mind, serving, creating social change, innovating? Or have you compartmentalized so thoroughly that when you're done with work you just want to have "fun," because you are so washed out you don't have energy to focus on the things that are really important.
  3. Work IS life. You spend half your waking life, if not more, at work. So if you don't enjoy what you do, then half your waking life sucks. Just think about that for a second. How's that work-life balance working out for you? Could it be possible that you might find something you love to do and actually enjoy your life? Could it also be possible that you could get by on less? Could it be possible that you WOULD get by on less if you stopped spending all your money on crap to mitigate for your currently miserable existence? 
  4. There's more than two things in the universe. Are you really thinking about the world in black and white: you have work  where you make money, and life where you get to spend it. Instead of asking about work-life balance, why don't you ask questions that have meaning, like, if I work here can I contribute to positive social change, will I grow as a person, will I be able to go home every night with a sense of self respect, will I be able to nurture meaningful relationships with people I respect?
  5. It's a rare beast. The only place you can even ask the question is the lower levels of Western corporates. Farmer's don't talk about work-life, they just do it. Entrepreneurs don't talk about work-life, they have too much to do and too much passion. Good doctors, teachers, firefighters, policemen etc. don't have the luxury. Bankers and consultants defer it. There is no work-life balance in the C-Suite, it doesn't exist. So stop talking crap that most of the world can't relate to.
  6. It's disjointed. Think back for a moment about why you work. We used to work to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our families, to exist. In today's world we can be so removed from the real value of work, doing jobs in tertiary or quatemary sectors that have no meaning to us, and our work has become soulless. Wouldn't it be better to have work as an integral part of your life, a part of you, rather than a chore?
  7. It cedes control. How much of your life do you really want to put in the hands of the corporate monster? Instead of asking how you can shoehorn your job around your real existence (i.e. asking your future boss how he or she will let you live), you should be telling your new employer how you want to live and how they can fit around you. Sound scary? Well it is if you haven't become the kind of person they MUST employ. Take back your life by being meaningful and dictating your own terms.
  8. It's an illusion. Life comes in peaks and troughs. Financial peons lose any semblance of "balance" (if it ever existed) at month end or year end. Marketers lose it at product launch. HR lose it during appraisal or bonus season. IT lose it anytime something goes wrong. Execs never had it. So, you're talking about something so transitory it's not really worth the energy to consider. Better to ask if you ever like your job, than if it has balance.
  9. Nobody worth knowing ever asked this question. What more can say? I'll say it again. Nobody worth knowing ever asked this question. Let that sink in. If it annoys you, you have a chance. If not, good luck at your 9-5.

 

Using Positive Thinking in the Real World

James Greaves3 Comments

Do you believe that you can become anything you want to?

I don't.

Don't get me wrong, there's levels of awesomeness I can achieve, but I'm not going to become the next president of China, an Elite catwalk supermodel, or a NASA astronaut anytime soon. Not this week at least.

But, I hear you say, if you don't dream, then you won't achieve anything. Yes, I agree. Undoubtedly there is a natural principle at work in the universe that your vision of yourself will cause you to act in certain ways, in turn transforming the world around you until your vision IS reality. But, as a rational individual, how do I tread the fine line between delusion and pessimism?

The key to the riddle is hidden in the middle of the previous paragraph: positive action. The stronger you believe, the more you will act. Belief is vital, but only belief that prompts tangible, feasible action. And anyway, belief without action is not belief at all.

The best place to demonstrate this is, of course, the X-Factor (why not). But first a 2x2 diagram:

If we were to graph actual ability versus self belief we get four broad types of people: Average Joes, Delusionals, Self-Saboteurs, and Superstars. The blue band dictates congruence—where perception = ability. Quadrants 2 and 3, the Self-Saboteurs and the Delusional are off reality and will be forced back on (by fulfilment or a reality check) or will stay out of touch for ever and be branded as crazy or lazy by people who see the mismatch.

Let's look at each of these in the context of the X Factor. Look for these four types next time you watch.

1. Average Joes

These individuals are not particularly good at the task at hand and know it. In a singing competition this is, really, most of us. Generally this group do not try out for the X Factor. Still, some say "what the heck, I've got nothing to lose" and go for it anyway. Those that don't really try, or are not interested, will not improve. Perhaps this is an area of their life they have decided to be mediocre in, or it's just not possible (see the intro for more details). Those that just go for it misunderstand completely. They are hoping for a miracle: that someone with power or talent (or both) will see intrinsic worth in them, take pity, and make them into something. Like a nerdy girl with glasses in a teen makeover movie, they are hoping someone else will do the emotional heavy lifting for them by believing in their potential on their behalf, presenting them at the end as the bombshell no one knew existed, and all with no real effort.

2. Delusional

Those that are bad, but are convinced they are good. Reality shows get a lot of traction from these, especially as generally only quadrants 4 and 2 self-select and audition (both sets believe they are good). This is where the issue of positive thinking becomes dangerous. The real difference between this group and the Superstars (other than genetic predisposition) is the length of that belief; People who truly believe they are great singers sing everywhere all the time. People who are momentarily delusional convince themselves and hype themselves up for the moment. They haven't had the practice or the internal or external reaffirmation from friends, family, and strangers. They haven't tested it out, but think, "I could be wonderful at that" and convince themselves that positive thinking alone will carry them. They are lying to themselves and deep down they know it. They bypass all the action, all the hard work, and rely solely on thinking really hard for a small period of time.

3. Self Saboteurs

Good, but don't believe it. They have real talent, developed genetically or over time, but for whatever reason now lack the mentality to capitalize. Whatever the reason they got here, there is a strong psychological urge to validate oneself, or make people see you how you see yourself to prove yourself right. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People in this mindset break your heart. They feel like hard work because you know what they can achieve but they don't believe. They suck energy out of you because you're always telling them, but they never hear. In the X Factor they pop up in the early rounds from time to time. Sometimes they are hidden gems, but for every hidden gem that goes on to be a Superstar, there are three that blow themselves up along the way through poor action and mentality. They seem to implode for some unknown reason.

4. Superstars

These people are good and know it. They haven't just arrived at this state, but have followed a long path of improvement based on reaffirmation (from themselves and others) and lots of practice. They are already performing at the level they need to perform for success, but may need a break—in this case a record deal or big stage. This group show up to auditions knowing they deserve to be there and just getting the job done. They have mastered the skill and the mentality and they are always a pleasure to watch. They understand that you have to dream to achieve anything, but you have to back that dream up with relentless, daily work that moves you in the right direction. They listen to themselves and those around them in the right proportion.

Correcting Back to Reality

There trick is to believe, but to not get too far ahead of yourself. There are two ways to correct back to reality: 1. Reality Check, where you align your vision of yourself with your present skills, (you admit your true ability) and 2. Fulfilment, where your present skills catch up with your vision of yourself, (you get better). Notice that Saboteurs need to reality check, while the Delusional need to fulfill. (Which one are you?) The hard part is that in reality the opposite tends to happen. People don't like it when others believe they are better than they are and as a group we force people back to our reality, often thinking we are doing them some kind of favor. On the other hand, as a collective we're not so kind to the Saboteurs because they are hard work emotionally: it's easier for us to recognize they haven't made the grade, than to build them up.

In the real world, 99% of forces pull people back to the black hole of Quadrant 1: Average, with everyone else. Which is why positive thinking is so important.

Have Courage: Think, Act, Be

This is why positive thinking becomes a real tool that will elevate you to where you want to be, but only when treated as a verb, not a noun. To improve you have to believe then act, then believe some more and act again; You can only truly believe in something that is real, then you have to have the courage to step out into the darkness; you have to inch out along an invisible bridge one step at a time. In a chicken-and-egg scenario of what comes first, believing almost always precedes achieving.

You don't have unlimited potential in every area, but all of us have more potential than we are able to fully realize in one lifetime, so in that sense, it may as well be limitless. The key is finding where your strengths are and courageously going after them. We can all be a Superstar, but not all of us can sing.

From the archives. Based on an article written by me in 2009

Does Change have a Terminal Velocity?

James Greaves1 Comment

This week I have a question. Is the world developing at a pace faster than we are able to bear? If so, where will the break points be? In other words, just as a skydiver can't accelerate forever but is halted at terminal velocity by air resistance, is there a terminal velocity for change, capped by human ability to adapt?

This comes after some observations of stress in our society caused by the rapid change in practically every field of human thought and ability. For example, when my father gave me advice about what to do with my life, he had very little conception of the world I would be living in; I am sure that my children have more than a 50% chance of doing jobs that haven't been invented yet. This is not completely new to the human experience, but the disconnect between generations can only widen as we accelerate faster into the distance, and we are seeing the problem on a magnitude and scale we have never seen before.

Family structures, ethics, human interaction, and other such trappings of humanity, passed down over millennia, do not quickly change. The difficult part is that experimentation with such things takes a generation or two to bear fruit. We are only now beginning to understand the effects of the Free Love revolution brought to us by the hippes, for example, and we are decades way from understanding the true consequences of today's social change, be it positive or negative. In the meantime whole generations are lost or won.

Some of the issues that are straining our generation include:

  • We are living longer and longer, but have no idea what to expect and limited ability to plan. Should I assume I will live until I'm 60? 80? 150? In this issue alone lie enormous consequences for retirement, wealth distribution, healthcare, and population control.
  • Marriage meant something very different in 1964 compared to today. Speaking broadly, a generation ago individuals married for security as much as love. Is it any surprise that a majority of the boomer generation changed their minds when the rules of marriage changed? What will marriage mean in another 50 years? What will that mean for my children? Are family norms improving along with technology, or are they devolving?
  • Generations continue to experience completely different worlds. Grandparents have a hard time today understanding their progeny. As we continue to accelerate change, will I be able to relate to my grandchildren, or my great-great-grandchildren I could well live to see?
  • Countries are balkanizing, splitting into smaller and smaller fragments. States have less and less power and individuals have more. As technology empowers us individually it breaks us of the bonds we have for each other, increases the consequences of rogue crazies, and changes how we relate and collaborate.
  • Technology is becoming more and more a part of our daily experience. We had phones, then cell phones, now smart phones. With increased AI, wearables, and other advances, technology will be much more tightly integrated into our lives. This is already changing how we communicate with each other, increasing the rate at which we share information, but decreasing it's immediacy, leaving many isolated amidst a sea of friends. With full bellies, are we starting to starve from undernourishment; are we full of relational junk food but devoid of inter-personal sustinance?

With all this change and more, how can we cope?

I believe the answer lies in an oft-overlooked place: in morality. As we increase in personal power and responsibility, it's our characters that become the deciding factor. As we tend to infinity, everything else tends to zero, to insignificance, save for our characters.

It is morality that enables change and it's morality that determines our ability to adequately absorb change. We gain freedom in honesty, love, care, truth, connection, understanding, gratitude and compassion. On the other hand it's immorality that bogs us down in self interest, war, corruption, abuse, persecution, and hatred, all of which limit our ability to change and in fact drag us the other way, backwards in time.

Some may say that our newfound freedom enables us to ignore many of our inherited, outdated inter-human conceptions. That they are nothing more than sentimentality, vestigial byproducts of evolution, like an appendix that few understand the need for. I say they are wrong.

If you want to cope with the challenges of the next 100 years, which you may well see all of, you need to focus on your ethics, your religion, your moral code.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for us in the next 50 or 100 years, and how do you think we can cope?

The Seven Deadly Sins of Entrepreneurship

James Greaves2 Comments

Why YOU Are the Reason Your Startup Will Fail

Being an entrepreneur is, in my humble view, among the toughest things to do in the world. It stretches you in every possible way: your emotions, your belief in yourself and your self identity, your mental health, your relationships with your family and friends, your intellectual capacity, and your finances. It can consume you.

If that's not enough, as an entrepreneur you also have to face up to the reality that if your startup fails, it will fail because of you.

Let me say that again in case you missed it. The only reason your startup will not be successful is YOU.

"But," I hear you ask, "how can that be true, when entrepreneurship is such a risky business, with so many unknowns. Can you really be held responsible for your funding runway (or lack thereof), market conditions, consumer appetite, timing, team strength, natural disasters, acts of God, war, new entrants into the market and government intervention?"

Yes. That's your job. Deal with it.

The problem is that we fill our lives with excuses, like "I need capital to scale this," and "the market isn't ready." Platitudes that mask our own poor behavior and put the blame on others. When you can move away from excuses you can be completely honest with yourself. When you are honest with yourself, you can make proper decisions and free yourself to act in a way that will ensure success.

You heard that right too, there are ways you can act to ENSURE success in your startup. After all, a startup, at it's core is not that complicated:

  1. Create a service or product
  2. Sell your service or product to customers (your market)
  3. Sustain competitive advantage (continue to drive your market by competing on cost, quality, or time)

The only questions you really need to ask yourself are: Is this a product that I can actually make, and make better/faster/cheaper than someone else? And, does this product meet actual customer needs; will they pay me for it?

If you can't get started, then you are trying to sell something you can't build, or something the market doesn't want. If you can't scale then you failed to manage properly, including hiring the people or engaging the partners you need to mitigate your weaknesses and plan accordingly.

If you do any of the above wrong, you likely fall into at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Entrepreneurship, self-defeating behaviors that directly affect your ability to do business. If you are the perpetrator of any of these mindsets you will almost certainly fail. I have seen all of these sins (individually or in groups) take down countless promising startups full of bright, hardworking people. They are those who let their inner selves derail their dreams.

The Seven Sins

  1. Arrogance: You don't listen to your customers and you build something nobody wants, or you become disconnected with your customers and you piss them off. You think you are so smart have all the answers you need inside your own head.
  2. Lust: You get so caught up building something you want, you don't build what you need to. You have dream to revolutionize something, and you want to do it your way on your terms. You miss the opportunities before you because you are only interested in building what's in your brain.
  3. Pride: You celebrate too early and lose focus on your business. You get distracted or fritter away your capital on nice offices, non-core products, or similar nonsense well before your nascent empire is formed.
  4. Misdirection: You focus all your attention on the wrong things or miss the key areas you should be focusing on. There's so many resources available to make decisions properly, but you don't take the time to research the scientific patterns of behavior that have made other entrepreneurs successful. You're too caught up in the myth that the best startups are risky enterprises run by mavericks, and you run off helter-skelter like a madman.
  5. Impatience: Fueled by tales of trail-blazing heroes, you force the issue by painting yourself into a corner. You spend money where it's not needed or quit your job before your startup can support you. You believe that increased pain in the short term will somehow increase your chances of success.
  6. Blindness: You allow external circumstances to catch up with you and make excuses that aren't true. You say your market isn't ready when really you are selling a ridiculous product. You say you don't have the funds to scale when you haven't taken the effort to prove the concept to the market, investors or potential partners. Your external scapegoating is only masking the truth from yourself.
  7. Lack of Confidence: You are scared of failure, which is ironic because you act in ways that make you fail. You don't engage your personal networks, you don't reach out for help, you don't fully commit to building the product you need to, or you are too timid to reach out to your customers. You fail act, or you act partially, leading to disaster.

The truth is, if you want to run a startup you can, and you can be wildly successful. But it may not be the startup you have in mind. You have to listen to your market. You have to build something you can do better than anyone else. To do either of these you have to overcome yourself, learn to listen, be patient, focus on the right things, be measured in your appetites, and be confident in the right things.

Startups are hard, but these Seven Sins are not an excuse not to try. They a challenge to try harder. But we must all try better, smarter, with more honesty and a more open mind. Once we do that, we can always find a way to succeed.

How Alignment Will Unlock Your Organization

James GreavesComment

A great post by Seth Godin outlined immutable the laws of entropy that growing organizations face. in summary, he says:

  1. As organizations succeed they get bigger
  2. As you get more people you trend towards average skill, as well as losing individual initiative and passion
  3. This requires more formal communication: "it gets more and more difficult to say, 'use your best judgment'"
  4. Bureaucracy increases, and more people push for conformity
  5. All decisions tend toward risk-proofing and safety
  6. Internal transcription errors increase, leading to breakage
  7. Put all this together and "even really good people end up in organizations that plod toward mediocre, interrupted by random errors and dropped balls."

I would also add two more items to the list:

  1. Executive politics greatly adds to the noise, putting whole divisions in conflict and derailing the organization's strategy for individual personal agendas
  2. New hires must be selected and indoctrinated into the culture by a formal process, meaning not just behaviors, but the people themselves tend toward the mean because they are hired for risk aversion, rather than for unconventional brilliance

So how do you fight this trend toward mediocrity? What's the solution?

The solution is alignment. Organizations are a balance between people and the structure. Or, in other words, between the formal (processes and procedures), and the informal (how people really behave). Business schools focus on the formal. There are very few that can teach you how to do the informal with any real consistency. (By the way, management tips and interpersonal communications are NOT managing the informal, they are basic skills, like talking and breathing.)

In the informal is where everything important happens.

If you have ever found yourself wondering why management made a call you didn't understand, or why you got left out of important decision-making processes, these are clear signs that you're missing what's really going on in your organization. And no, it's not politics. It's much more fundamental than that, much more powerful. It's alignment.

If you could read and navigate the informal channels of power in an organization, you could achieve just about anything. No matter the scale of the organization you control.

Why Culture is a Free Market

James GreavesComment

From the Archives. Originally posted 26th September, 2009. Updated.

Culture, briefly defined, is "the way things get done around here." It's the unwritten norms of human interaction in an organization. In other words,culture is a market of emotional transactions. It's intangible, but vital in gaining that elusive "competitive advantage."

Comparing culture to a capital market can help us understand how to manage it and influence it: the short answer is you don't do it directly, and it's more complicated than you think. Here's why.

In a free market goods and services are valued based on countless interactions between suppliers and consumers, but most markets are not completely free: taxes, laws, and other government intervention like subsidies put pressure on certain parts of the market and bend it slightly out of shape. What results is a complex, dynamic and efficient market that is driven almost completely informally. (i.e. no central control or process).

In a similar fashion, organizational culture is composed of countless emotional interactions between co-workers (suppliers and consumers of each other's services). These interactions are what people are prepared to do and how they go about their work. The market is constrained by formal processes and systems, but is not caused by them. In this way culture is almost entirely informal, and formal levers will be able to modify, but not directly control it.

A brief comparison between a free market and organizational culture could be as follows:

Free Market Organizational Culture
Composed by Countless small financial transactions Countless small human transactions
Driven by Personal gain Personal gain
Internal Levers Supply and demand of goods and services Supply and demand of human capital
Formal Levers Laws, regulation, property rights Business model, job functions, formal processes and systems
Distorted By Taxes, subsidies, etc. Organizational bureaucracy

What This Tells Us about Culture

  1. The first people in the organization set precedents for how work is conducted. They set up the initial market. Those who don't do it the "way it's done" are forced or self select out.
  2. Organizational processes, systems and other bureaucracy constrain the culture, but do not create it. Like taxes and tariffs, they dictate how some things need to be done, but people will devise ingenious work-arounds to meet their personal needs. The market runs independently of the bureaucracy, and formal intervention may have unintended consequences.
  3. Culture is not homogeneous. Areas of a business will have slightly different cultures based on the kind of people working there, what kind of work is being produced, and the cultural history of that department. Obviously an engineering department in Germany will have a slightly different culture to the sales department in Miami, though both may have degrees of a common organizational culture.
  4. The culture is dynamic, always changing. Like a true market it may follow cycles, and will be influenced in countless ways by everything interacting with it. The culture will always be on the move.
  5. Formal culture programs, such as the rollout of official values, are only as effective as their ability to influence and change countless human interactions.

How have you influenced culture effectively, and how have you seen culture as a free market?

My First Startup: Greaves Surveying and Engineering

James Greaves1 Comment

My first real entrepreneurial job was 1998. I dropped out of my A-Levels (Senior year) to work for the family business as employee number three at Greaves Surveying and Engineering. It what the worst mistake I'd chose to make again. To quote Dickens, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and it taught me how to be a real entrepreneur.

The glamorous life of an entrepreneur. A two-decades-ago me. Standing in the mud I vowed my next startup would be more scaleable and less filthy.

The glamorous life of an entrepreneur. A two-decades-ago me. Standing in the mud I vowed my next startup would be more scaleable and less filthy.

Most entrepreneurs will tell you they became aware they were that way when they were a gangly pre-teen with that first lemonade stand, paper route or car washing enterprise. Sure, I did all of those and more, but I always cringe when I hear this.

Fine, you learned to work early, and that's important. But I don't agree that knowing you like money and are willing to work for it is enough to really qualify. The seeds were sown for you to be a shop keeper as much as they were for you to be an entrepreneur (which, I'm sure would be borne out in the statistics, if any were kept on such things.)

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled
— Howard Stevenson, HBS Professor

Greaves Surveying and Engineering was a specialist support company for the piling industry in the UK, itself a subset of the civil engineering industry. You couldn't be more niche, and, like all my startups I have always struggled to explain to people exactly what we did. In a nutshell, we sold a service, then we moved into equipment rental, and then into bigger equipment rental and other services.

To be fair, 93% of all strategy was set by my father, Lee (maybe some other time I'll write about the joys of working for a family business). But we all have to start somewhere.

What we did well

  1. We talked to our market early and often and found out what they really needed. All of our services were driven by discussions with our customers about their frustrations.
  2. We focused on revenue above all else. There were times when I really wanted a new truck or a fetching new jumpsuit to work in. But none of that would have driven revenue. We avoided spending money on anything that didn't directly improve our service to our customers in a way that resulted in more cash in the bank.
  3. We started with a simple service with low overheads and immediate market need. (A man with a clipboard.)  This established base profitability, and allowed us to later go into plant and equipment that was expensive but more profitable.
  4. We focused on delivery and execution. We were the ones who could do things no one else was willing to do (or capable of doing). We developed loyal customers who stuck with us through thick and thin.

What we did not-so well

  1. As we became more profitable in later years, we didn't reinvest the money in ways that maintained the core business. Instead we opened a series of new ventures. The cash cow died as we focused on bigger things.
  2. We didn't hire the best talent, and poor talent sucked the creativity, culture, and ability dry. This meant the business' core strength (to understand our customers and sell them services that didn't yet exist) didn't ever expand beyond the first three employees, which put a chokehold on the business' growth.
  3. There was no strategy for a downturn in our particular service. All our products were symbiotic, so when there was a downturn in one, everything went down.
  4. We were not in a scaleable industry. The opportunity was too niche (small), and too reliant on manpower.

Conclusion

This was the foundation of most of what I do today. After this experience I vowed that all future startups would be in highly growing and profitable industries, with services or products that were themselves scaleable. I also vowed I would never work in wellington boots again. I went back to school, entering university in 2002.

Getting Finance is Votes: Three Keys to Getting Funded

James GreavesComment

How do you get money for your startup? It's a question everyone wants answered. The answer is not where you think it is. It's actually behind you: it lies in the concept of what money is, and why you need it.

Money is not real.

Money is confidence: Money is votes.

So, a better question to ask is, how do I get votes for my startup?

1. First, prove that you are fundable. If people are going to vote for you, they have to like you. (Yes, this leads to huge bias, which Nilofer Merchant explains best.) Traits that VCs are looking for include such terrible things as: do I want to work with this person, do we get along, are we from the same background, can we connect, do we like the same things. Secondly, they include, is this person hard working, are they committed, can they see it through, can they adapt, can they work in a team, do they have energy, can they be taught, and what proof do I have that they will.

2. Now you can talk about your idea. You have to prove this is something that is worth voting for: is it massively scaleable, is it realistic, will it pay off, will I benefit? (Most newbies are so focused on building their dream, they don't care that the investor is reaching their dream too. Get that right and you go a long way to pitching properly.)

3. Finally, you have to prove that now is the right time. If you have the first two you have the investor's attention. Now you have to close a deal. If you can answer "why now" and prove that the time is right, in fact, so right that if you blink you'll miss it, then you have something they will really be excited about.

What ways have you proved that you are the right person, your idea is the right idea, and that now is the right time? What works best?