Posts Tagged ‘business’

My chat with Baby Box Co

Friday, May 6th, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing

baby-sleeping

Last month, I wrote an article calling out companies that had started using the Finnish baby box tradition to sell their wares.

Specifically, my criticism was that the Finnish system lowers infant mortality by acting as a bribe to get people to neuvola, the centres that provide all the antenatal and postnatal care. That is where the evidence-based benefit is. On top of that, giving good quality stuff to poorer parents may also help.

However, the there is no evidence the cardboard boxes themselves do anything (obviously, because it is just a cardboard box) and so selling them from webpages that show infant mortality graphs feels like taking advantage of scared parents to me. In fact, the box matters so little that the Finnish government will just give you cash instead, if you wish. The box is worth more, so most people choose that, but the key to the Finnish success is the adoption of the medical care.

Anyway, recap over.

After the post went up, Jennifer Clary, CEO of US-based Baby Box Co offered to have a chat to fill me on what they are doing. I took her up on the offer.

She said she fully accepted the boxes were not magic, but that they were trying to use them as an engagement tool to get more of the good stuff done. So while they love selling direct to consumers, the real opportunities are selling to healthcare providers and governments so that the boxes can be used in a way that is more Finnish.

In addition to their actual box products, they’re developing what they call “Baby Box University”. The idea is that they can partner with authorities, who get people to complete online courses and come out of the end with a certificate and a free baby box.

This sounds super because it fills in the missing gap in replicating Finland’s success. Infant mortality is lowered by developing educated parents who engage with healthcare programmes, and it sounds like what Baby Box Co are doing supports that.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Monday, February 8th, 2016 | Books

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers is a 2014 book by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz worked at Netscape before founding Opsware/Loudcloud and later the venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz.

It is mostly a book for people who are running tech companies. This is mostlu obviously from the title. However, it’s appeal outside that setting is quite limited. If you’re not in that situation I would probably say that it is not a particularly useful read.

He covers a wide variety of topics. Primarily these are hard topics with no obvious answers. His conclusion is that some things are really hard and you can only learn to be a CEO by being a CEO. Nevertheless, there is good advice dispensed along the way.

It’s important to draw a line between facts and perceptions for example. It sounds obvious, but is difficult to do in the moment. He also says that if you want to do a successful start-up, you need to be doing things 10 times better than the competition if you want to succeed. It’s a high bar, though perhaps lower than Peter Thiel sets in Zero to One, who makes the case for only entering markets you can have a monopoly on.

What should you do about titles? Mark Andreessen suggests giving them out because they are the cheapest benefit you can provide for employees. In constrast Mark Zuckerberg gives deliberately deflated titles to ensure everyone is re-levelled when they enter Facebook.

He also mention’s the Facebook slogan “move fast and break things”. I have always liked this mindset. I am doing a lot of this at Sky at the moment, usually with a bug fix right behind it, and everyone seems to be happy with my delivery so far. If you want to change the world, you have to be bold.

Horowitz also recommends the film Freaky Friday as a great management resource. When sales and customer support went to war with each other at Opsware, he simply switched the heads of department with each other. They soon understood the other side and began working together to solve problems.

The-Hard-Thing-About-Hard-Things

Zero to One

Saturday, January 30th, 2016 | Books

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a book by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In it he talks about the challenges of producing real innovation to drive a start-up business.

He emphasises doing something new. You have to get a monopoly, with a broad scope. I could start a Finnish restaurant in Leeds for example but I wouldn’t have a monopoly. I would be the only Finnish restaurant in Leeds, but I would actually be competition with all the other restaurants in Leeds nonetheless.

In comparison the biggest tech start-ups typically have achieved near monopoly. Google handles more search traffic than all other search providers put together. The key is to start with a niche market that you can dominate and grow from there. Facebook started by only accepting students from Harvard for example. University by university it opened its doors one at a time and achieved domination. Similarly eBay started with only collectables, and PayPal started by online targeting eBay power sellers.

It also needs to be a business that can stick around. How sustainable is it in the long term? Decades from now? Zynga is a good example. The games company was worth a huge amount of money thanks to the success it had with FarmVille and Zynga Poker. At its peak, its shares were worth $10 a pop. Now they’re worth only a quarter of that because continuing to predict what social games will continue to captivate the world is an unreliable business model.

Thiel argues that you should have a small a board as possible. Ideally three people; a maximum of five. Everyone at the company should be full time: no consultants, no part time workers, no remote working. A start-up is a family and people need to be together every day to bond. Founders and CEOs should pay themselves a little as possible. This sets an example to the company, but also helps keep themselves motivated.

If you are thinking about doing a tech startup, or actually starting one, this is probably a worthwhile book to read. It is not very hands-on, but contains a lot of theory that seems useful. Given it is quite short, it seems like a sensible investment.

zero-to-one

The Virgin Way

Saturday, September 5th, 2015 | Books

The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead is a 2014 book by Richard Branson in which he dispenses advice.

Some of it reads like a Toastmasters manual. He encourages readers to make notes constantly, and develop their listening skills. Cndense your message down to be short and to the point. Twitter is a great format for this. Keep emails short. Make a pitch document one A4 sheet at the most. Do the same thing with presentations.

Avoid “that said” as it destroys any argument you have just built up. Avoid “no comment” either as it just annoys people.

Be your own customer. He often goes around the Virgin businesses both to talk to his staff but also to play at being a customer and often to make phoney complaints to see how they are handled.

I disagree with him on some things. He is not a big fan of mission statements. I like them because they keep you on purpose. Also, I think the mission statement they came up with for Virgin Mega Stores was nonsense. He said keep it real but theirs was actually full of jargon.

He also cited Kodak as a case of when they were not forward thinking enough because they did not embrace digital. This is probably true. As Steve Jobs pointed out if you do not cannibalise your own market, someone else will. However, Kodak was really killed by the rise of camera phones, something it was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to predict in advance.

Luck is also a tricky subject. I agree with the phrase “the harder I practice the luckier I get”. However, as Branson himself admitted it is difficult to know where the luck ends and the skill begins. Capital breeds capital so once you have been lucky one, it is a lot easier to be lucky again. That is not to say it doesn’t involve hard work as well though – it is probably both.

He discusses Netflix’s policy of not tracking holiday. I am not sure I would like this as an employee as it kind of admits there is no work life balance outside of the office and forces you to strike an awkward balance between getting your fair share and not taking too much. However, I could definitely be sold on the idea.

The core of The Virgin Way is people-centred. Put your staff first, be fun and develop a great culture in which people are empowered to take a lead. Have lots of staff parties.

Stay nimble and small. Collaboration tails off after you get more than 20 people in a team, so try nd keep projects down to that. Whatever you do, do it with passion.

The Virgin Way

Screw It, Let’s Do It

Saturday, August 1st, 2015 | Books

“Screw It, Let’s Do It” is one of Richard Branson’s autobiographies. Slash advice books. He says it is about lessons in life. Which is really what most of his books are about. Anecdotes about how to be a winner. Many of which genuinely are useful.

He is a man who makes snap decisions. In general, that is a bad idea. Or at least no better than a well thought out idea. However, it does fit with the Virgin brand of doing random things because they sound fun.

It also does a lot of crazy things. Balloon flights, weather hurricanes and Atlantic yacht crossings for example. He has had to be rescued on a regular basis. This is fine except that the flip side of that luck is that somewhere in the third world a child is being a particularly horrible terminal disease so that the universe can balance it all out.

He has built himself up from nothing, and that is very impressive. Though he did have a privileged upbringing having a wealth family and going to public school. He also has dyslexia and has not let that get in the way.

I really liked his quote on climate change. Something like “we’re a group of people who agree the building is on fire, but none of us will reach for the extinguisher”. He also advocates innovating our way out of the situation while still having fun. All good stuff.

In the end, I was inspired to go out there and do something. That will almost certainly wear off before I actually get round to doing anything, but it was a good feeling for a brief few hours.

Screw It Lets Do It

The Establishment

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 | Books

Ah Owen Jones, hero of the left. In his book “The Establishment: And how they get away with it” he rails against the man. The man it turns out is politicians, big business and the media. Of course Jones is an Oxford graduate who writes for a national newspaper. It received mixed reviews from the critics (who are also part of The Establishment) but wider support from the proletariat including being Waterstones’ book of the month.

Jones jumps around to various topics, gradually weaving them together. He begins by talking about the links between politicians and big business. Most big businesses have MPs on their boards for example, and cabinet ministers regularly earn £70,000 a year for non-executive directorships. Money that most people can only dream of earning for working full time, let alone for a handful of days year. Being an MP can be incredibly profitable in this manner and yet how can they possibly claim to be objective in such regards?

Thus big business took control of our society after being invited in by Thatcher. This was the end of the drive towards income equality in the UK. They settled down and began to fuse economic liberalism with an authoritarian state.

Jones discusses Hillsborough, though his discussion of the Battle of Orgreave is much more relevant. The police attacked, beat and falsely arrested protestors and then tried to cover it up. After a 7 year battle, they were eventually forced to pay out half a million pounds in compensation. Sadly, things haven’t got much better, as the killing of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who got caught in the G8 protests shows.

No wonder so many people are too scared to attend protests with the fear of violence, kettling for hours and hours, and false arrest ever present when the police are around.

According to Jones, the police have have become an instrument of the state, going round murdering and raping people without consequence. Their actions rob of us our right to free assembly and protest, and their stop and search powers rob us of our presumption of innocence, even though only 9% of such searches end in arrest, let alone charges being pressed.

So much for the working class being the benefit scroungers too. Jones claims it is the rich that are the beneficiaries of the system. They enjoy the educated workforce, infrastructure and regulated society that the state provides while benefiting from huge government handouts.

The bailout of the banks is an amount of money the rest of us can only dream of. The low pay companies offer the working class is subsides by working tax credits and housing benefit. Companies like ATOS enjoy £100 million a year contracts to turf people off sorely needed benefits while the owners send their children to heavily subsidised public schools that are given £88 million a year in tax-breaks.

Yet the government continues to sell off and privatise our public services. Why? Not because the electorate demand it. Polls show that even most Conservative voters support public ownership of the utilities and railways. More likely, it is the £70,000 a year politicians are receiving for their non-executive board positions.

Jones concludes that we should take back our public services, which could be done at no cost as franchises expire, and increase income tax on the rich to bring in extra money. And it would bring in extra money. Rich people do not leave when you increase the tax rate, because they want to live in a safe and secure society with good utilities, infrastructure and a well-educated workforce. Societies that enjoy heavy state spending.

The Establishment

Just a footnote regarding the book cover above: my copy had a quote from Irvine Welsh on the front, not Russell Brand.

Grinding It Out

Saturday, April 5th, 2014 | Books

Ray Kroc is founder of McDonald’s Corporation. I found out he had written an autobiography, entitled Grinding it out: the making of McDonald’s, when I was listening to one of Mark Knopfler’s songs. “Boom, Like That” was obviously about McDonald’s, so I did a little reading up on it and sure enough, it was inspired by Kroc’s story, this book being cited.

The book itself is short and simple. At under 200 pages it only took me a week to get through it without much perseverance. In some ways this was a little disappointing as the book never really goes into much detail. You do not feel like you are gleaming so many secrets to success as you might feel you were if you were reading Duncan Bannatyne’s or James Khan’s autobiographies. But there is valuable content in there and given the length, comes at an easy price. Kroc did always place an emphasis on value as well as quality after all.

It has somewhat dated. It was written in 1977, Kroc having died in 1984, and the ages shows. He finishes up by talking about how he now has 4,000 restaurants and is dreaming of 5,000, maybe even 10,000. McDonald’s now has over 34,000 restaurants worldwide. Similarly, at the time it only had 21 restaurants outside of the United States, now I would be very surprised if the majority are not elsewhere in the world. Not that this detracts from the reading much.

The real take-away message from the book though is that Kroc only founded McDonald’s when he was 55! Too often we hear about the success of irritating people like Sebastian Vettel who is now a four-times Formula One world champion, despite being younger than me. I haven’t even won one yet. Kroc however, spent his whole life grinding out a living, and it was only after many would consider you are past your prime (especially in 1954) that he built a multi-billion dollar business empire in less than two decades. It is comforting to know that there is a possibility, however slim, that I could spend the next 30 years of my life messing around and still have the chance to make it big.

grinding-it-out

James Caan – The Real Deal

Friday, November 9th, 2012 | Books

I’ve just finished reading The Real Deal: My Story from Brick Lane to Dragons’ Den by James Caan. He is a dragon (now former dragon I assume, as he isn’t on the latest series) who started by building up several recruitment companies, and now runs a private equity firm that invests in SMEs.

Was it an interesting read? Certainly. Was it a useful read? Yes, I think it probably was.

The same themes come up across books by different entrepreneurs – invest in the right people and it will pay dividends, work hard and make sure you understand your business inside out.

I actually really like James’ way of doing things. For example, at the end of a meeting, he’ll take time to double check whether the other party has any concerns. So often, you’ll walk out of a meeting already resenting the deal you have just done, and so James’ final check allows him to resolve issues there and then.

He also argues that he is actually risk adverse, and only really pursues an opportunity once he has minimised the risks – investing isn’t about taking risks, it’s about taking smart risks when you know the odds are in your favour – think of it like poker pot odds, you might have some losses, but if you play the right game, you’ll eventually turn a profit.

Like a Virgin

Saturday, July 28th, 2012 | Books

I’ve recently finished reading Richard Branson’s new book, Like a Virgin, “They Won’t Teach You at Business School”.

My first question was, if Richard didn’t go to business school, how does he know they don’t teach this stuff? But, for the moment, lets take him on his word that they genuinely don’t. Once I got passed my own sarcastic comments, I settled down for an enjoyable read.

The book is structured in many short sections of only a few pages each, dealing with specific topics in no particular order, some related to a specific area of business and management, some on what Virgin has done and what lessons can be learnt, and some were Richard answering emails people have sent him asking for advice.

I really liked this format. Having sections that only lasted two or three pages meant that I could easily dip in and out of it. If I had five minutes to do some reading, I did’t need to worry about getting lost in the middle of a chapter. Though it also had the problem that when I was reading in bed, every end of a section was followed by a “oh, I’ll just read the next section, it’s only two more pages” until it was late into the night!

In many ways, Virgin really have turned business on it’s head. I once heard them described as a brand based capital house and where other companies have sought to dominate the one market they are best at, Virgin have built an empire out of going into many different, diverse markets, and staying small. This fits well with Richard’s personality, who clearly suits the cheeky personal marketing approach that they take, and there is a lot to be said for it.

Ultimately, there are no hidden secrets in the book, which is almost certainly a good thing (as any book promising you to uncover the “magic” is probably nonsense) but reinforces what we really should know already – be nice to your customers, invest in your staff, get your name out there and don’t take yourself too seriously. Definitely worth a read for budding entrepreneurs, if only as a gentle reminder.

Ikea

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 | Reviews, Thoughts

Ikea I ended up back at Ikea on Monday to pick up some more stuff.

I have to say I really don’t like the place though. Aside from the main reason which I will come on to, they charge £30 for home delivery which seems crazy, Tesco are delivering my bed – on a Saturday – for like £6 and a lot of the stuff they currently have in the show room isn’t even available to buy anymore.

The main reason I don’t like Ikea however is how smug they are about how awful their customer service is. As if it is something to be proud of. They have big boards up saying “we aim to serve you within 8 minutes.”

8 minutes? Are you having a laugh? Even if you hit those targets, that wouldn’t be something to be proud of. It’s not like they even really have a Total Experience Time, that 8 minutes is just the time you spend in the queue just to get your stuff scanned through a till.

I know McDonald’s is a world leader in such areas but do you know what the target time for a customer queuing before they get to the till is? 0 seconds. A lot of the time they hit it as well, and most of the time a customer will be served within the target Total Experience Time target of 3 minutes – and that is to provide a full meal, not just to take payment for a few boxes.

It’s not like they can’t cope with the demand either, they have had 3-4 tills open despite having over 20 tills they could potentially open, both of the times I have been there recently.

Not impressed.