Back to School

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” Sherlock Holmes, The Red Headed League.

This week I was invited by the charming Jim Hawker of Threepipe to go back to school, and to spend the morning with the Master (Helen Pike), former pupils and parents of Magdalen College Oxford. Sitting alongside Debbie Wosskow (Love Home Swap and AllBright), William Reeve (Love Film and Zoopla) and Robert Hamilton (Instant Offices), our exam question was “Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?”.

Rather than copy from the homework of these three successful entrepreneurs, I wanted to take a moment here to share my own perspective on a couple of the questions which Jim, in his invigilator’s chair, asked.

Q1. What do you think are the biggest challenges that schools face in encouraging a more entrepreneurial mindset?

The first challenge, I think, is the fear of getting things wrong. My maths teacher used to adorn my homework with kisses – which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. At school, the name of the game is to get the right answer. We need to create environments where it’s OK to make mistakes, to make up the answer using our imagination, and to find our way to what works.

The second challenge is that we tend to design tests and exams which reward the individual. There was once a teacher who, with a big spelling test on Friday, put his class into pairs. They were told to revise together, and that on the morning of the test, a coin would be flipped, and that only one of the pair would do the test. But they would share the result. With this new method, the pupils worked carefully together, and the results went through the roof. Just imagine what school would look like if we had more scenarios which rewarded teams, classes, perhaps even whole schools for learning better together.

Related to this test conundrum is of course the challenge that too often we test for knowledge, when we need to invent more creative ways to identify all of the traits which really matter. Creativity, problem solving, team-work. How to design a system which tests for those? That is indeed a three pipe problem.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially – we educate children to be afraid of strangers. For good reason, we tell them that they are dangerous. And then we forget to tell them that they are not. So perhaps we need to design a big reveal into the school curriculum which comes clean about the secret – that strangers are not dangerous. This Stranger Safety campaign would ensure that generations of pupils don’t leave school, as they too often do at the moment, without the crucial skills of engaging with people they don’t know. These ideas, depending on your perspective, are either heresy, or blinding common sense. Visit a school today and ask yourself to what extent the sixth form have truly practiced connecting with people they don’t know, from the outside world, in a thoughtfully designed way. I’d love to see the evidence.

Q2. Business enterprise is not part of any official school curriculum and it’s up to schools themselves whether to teach about how to start a business. Do you think this needs to change?

Firstly, I think that every child in Britain should leave school with the experience of having helped to start something. It could be a business, a club, a team or a social venture. Those experiences, of bringing people and ideas together, of problem solving and using their imagination, of getting something off the ground, could be life changing. That’s why I’m such a fan of the work that Young Enterprise (home of Tenner and Fiver) does around Britain.

Secondly, much as I think it’s important to connect business people with schools (see the brilliant work of Founders 4 Schools and Speakers for Schools), I think it’s equally important that the entrepreneurial minds of students are filled with problems worth solving. That is the fuel for the enterprising brain. A well-known college told me recently of the roll-call of famous founders who had paid their Entrepreneur’s Society a visit. I encouraged them to also invite the doctors, the experts in climate change, the teachers, to explain what needs fixing in the world.

Finally, I often ask people to guess roughly how many companies are formed in Britain each month. Sometimes they guess a few hundred, or a few thousand. Most are surprised to hear that the correct number is over 50,000. That’s a full Etihad Stadium, every month. Of course not all will launch, let alone succeed, however I think it helps to begin to reframe for people just how much more popular self employment is than you might imagine. Over 15% of the labour force are self employed. That’s up from 12% in 2001. Add to that the fact that 99% of companies in Britain are NOT large, and you begin to realise just what a strange picture some students are shown. At every careers fair, and during every careers initiative, I think it’s important that alongside all of the other options, entrepreneurship and self-employment are in the mix.

So what of our overall question: Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

My hunch is that they are born. At school.

Imagine a country in which students aren’t afraid of getting things wrong. One where they are incentivised and encouraged to work in teams. They leave school confident and capable of engaging with people they haven’t met before – on email, over the phone and in person. They understand and are moved by the problems worth solving in our world and they realise that there are many paths to success. Of course this is already the case in many schools, state and private, across the UK – and perhaps our biggest challenge is to connect the best with the rest. Imagine if this really was the rule, and not the exception. Then, perhaps, these priorities would no longer be secondary.

Imagine if we could sew these seeds at as early as primary school. Too soon? Too difficult? For me, it’s elementary.

Something in the Water

I think we’re onto something, with TOTS.

TOTS. Turn on the Subtitles. Our mission to inspire and encourage broadcasters and tech companies in Britain and around the world to “turn on the subtitles”, by default, for children’s programmes.

Why? Because by turning on the subtitles, you can DOUBLE the literacy of the child.

“A Nielsen study of 13,000 children showed that 24% became good readers with schooling alone. But when exposed to 30 minutes a week of subtitled film songs, that proportion more than doubled to 56%.”

Inspired by the work of Brij Kothari and his colleagues at Planet Read, we think that the power of Same Language Subtitling is too good an insight to be kept in the coffee shops and pub conversations of a few of those “in the know.”

We’re partnering with the National Literacy Trust and we’re keen to speak to the decision makers at the world’s leading broadcasters and tech companies. One introduction, one share from you, reading this, could make all the difference.

Three of my favourite books are The Tipping PointFreakonomics, and Nudge. And TOTS makes me think of all three. The idea that “connectors” matter, that “small things” can make a big difference and that “default settings” can change lives.

I’m reminded of the fact that fluoride affects dental health. That by putting it into drinking water, you can improve the health of millions. The point is this – that just knowing about this connection isn’t enough. Somebody, somewhere, needs to join the dots. By 2012, about 378 million people worldwide were receiving artificially fluoridated water. By 2020, in theory, hundreds of millions of children could be having their literacy improved. Just by Turning on the Subtitles.

So why do I think we’re onto something? Because in a world of complexity, this is simplicity. By turning on the subtitles, by default, the magic can happen. A small group of people saying “let’s do this”. The flick of a switch. The push of a button. In a world where silver bullets are like unicorns, here’s a billion dollar idea which can fly.

Just imagine if, like a breath of fresh air, the BBC said “yes”. YouTube, “yes”. Sky, “yes”, Nickelodeon, “yes”. Facebook, “yes”. Millions of lives could be changed. And TOTS would be a tiny footnote in history.

Inspirations

sushi

In the year 2000, the great British entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe wrote The Book of Yo! One of the many people who read it was a student at Leeds University. Yes, you’ve guessed it – me. In that little book were packed dozens of inspiring quotations which seasoned the story of how Simon, inspired by Japanese conveyor belt bars, went on to found the UK chain, Yo! Sushi. To me, he was the antithesis of the boring business leader. Colourful, maverick and outspoken. A budding entrepreneur at the time, I simply had to meet him. Rather cheekily, I called his head office, asked for his mobile number, left a message, and wondered if I’d ever hear back. The next morning, I was staying with my parents when the phone rang. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pressed the phone to my ear. It was the fruity baritone of Simon Woodroffe. My breathless pitch followed, and he told me, to my surprise, that he wanted to help. True to his word, he spoke at one of my company’s first events, at nearby Sheffield University, for no fee. Several weeks later, as a thank you, I asked to take him for a beer, in London. At the last minute he asked to bring a friend – “someone closer to your age”, who he thought I’d get on with. He was right, and that beer proved to be fairly important to me. His friend was Ben Way, who became my next business partner.

Fifteen years later, I am at an awards gala dinner. All eyes are on the stage as a row of entrepreneurs share their stories. Is there a collective noun for entrepreneurs? Perhaps this year we should find one. For zebras it’s a dazzle and for starlings a murmuration. For entrepreneurs, maybe a cacophony? Anyway, on this particular stage sits the King of Shaves, Will King. Next to him sits Toni Mascolo of Tony and Guy, and next to him sits Simon Woodroffe. Interviewed by Shalini Khemka, they reflect on their journeys. The evening’s master of ceremonies, a former Leeds student, looks on.

I share these sushi stories because they remind me that, alongside building a business, some of the best entrepreneurs take time to help others. They do this in so many ways, and Simon’s story reminds me of just three of them. Firstly, by inspiring others. Taking the time to share what they have learned and what they have found. By curating the nuggets of wisdom which they have discovered, they can help the next generation. Secondly, by giving their time. For me, it was the gift of a speech. For others it may a phone call, or a coffee. For some it is the time, over email, to answer a few well-chosen questions. Finally, the power of thoughtful introductions. Thinking of that person who an entrepreneur should know. Perhaps a client, a customer, a journalist or an investor. In my case it was a business partner who changed my life, became a friend and, along the way, became the first ever secret millionaire.

These gifts, of inspiration, time and introductions need not take hours. With platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, a favourite book or article can be shared in seconds – an introduction can be made in minutes. Over the years I’ve noticed that there is a genuine desire amongst those who have built a company, to help others. Cast your eye down the judges of this year’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards and you’ll see dozens of examples of this kind of helpfulness. My encouragement to the next generation is to make it even easier to be helped. Seek out your role models. Write thoughtful, highly personalised notes. Of course, there is a fine line between hustle and hassle, however sometimes a cheeky approach can pay dividends. It has for me, more than once. Eighteen years ago, I was inspired by a book about sushi. A phone call, a meeting and a beer later, and I was on a roll.

To Autumn

autumn falls...

One of the reasons I love meeting up with people is that we often discuss our plans and current activities. Without these face-to-face encounters, I find I’m one step behind, reading about what has been, rather then what will be. I’m conscious that even here, on LinkedIn, I do a fairly poor job of sharing what I’m up to. As the leaves turn from green to orange, here’s an update of the things keeping me out of trouble.

1. Developing a new platform for creators – connecting them with others and bringing together the best of technology, live entertainment and venture support. This will be my next main venture. Connections to investors and advisors appreciated.

2. Beginning the TOTS (Turn on the Subtitles) campaign. Because turning on the subtitles has a significant impact on the literacy of a child, so we’re encouraging broadcasters and tech companies to do this by default. Along the way, we want to share the good news with programme makers, policy makers, journalists and parents. Connections to broadcasters and funders interested in literacy appreciated.

3. Hosting The Lens – a podcast with Business in the Community, powered by Fujitsu and supported by McCann. We’ve released ten episodes and in each one, I interview a CEO (including Barclays, Lloyds of London, McKinsey and Cisco) and a future leader (typically in their 20s), exploring their careers and inviting them to ask each other questions. Feedback, connections to media partners and potential guests appreciated.

4.  Chairing a range of events including the recent Times and Sunday Times Tech Summit and Digital Agenda’s Power and Responsibility Summit at the British Library.

5.  Supporting business builder Zinc as a Fellow and Advisor for their second Mission. Over the next nine months, 50 entrepreneurial individuals will connect to form impact businesses. My job is to help them to think about who they need to connect with to grow their ideas and companies. Please read about Mission 2 and follow ZincM2 on Twitter.

6.  Hosting the Natwest Great British Entrepreneur Awards for the sixth year running, now in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester.

7.  Supporting Troubadour Theatres as an advisory board member and shareholder. We’re creating new live entertainment spaces in London and beyond. Our first announcement was for the old Fountain Studios in Wembley Park and there will be more news soon. This is the team that created the award-winning Kings Cross Theatre (home to The Railway Children and Lazarus). Connections to property developers, brands and producers appreciated.

8. Continuing to make valuable introductions through my growing team at The Connector Unit. We ask our clients what they are trying to achieve and from that decide who they need to meet. Through a series of workshops (the most popular being The Connected Company), retainers and special projects, we’re working with a range of people and organisations. Let me know if there’s anyone you think needs to unlock their network.

9.  Continuing my role on the advisory boards of Tech London AdvocatesOne Million MentorsThe New Entrepreneurs Foundation and The Centre for Entrepreneurs. Also on the Marketing Council of Founders 4 Schools.

Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help you with anything you’re doing. And if you see something here which resonates, I’d love to hear from you.

2018 (Personal Update)

In the blink of an eye, the first month of 2018 is behind us.

A quick update on what I’m up to this year. As ever, your ideas, connections, feedback and support are hugely appreciated.

1) The Lens is a podcast which I have created with Business in the Community (The Prince of Wales’s responsible business network). It is powered by Fujitsu in partnership with McCann and we’re six episodes into the first series of twelve. It’s all about the future of work, seen from different perspectives, and in each episode I interview a CEO and someone in their early twenties. So far my guests have included the heads of Barclays, Tech UK, Anglian Water and McKinsey. Have a listen here. I’d love your feedback and ideas.

2) The Great British Entrepreneur Awards have expanded to cover London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff, supported by Natwest. I’m looking forward to hosting for the sixth year running. Last year I met the most amazing people across those five cities and every event gives me a fresh sense of the positivity and energy of people who start things.

3) From the DigitalAgenda Impact Awards to the Tech London AdvocatesThe Mayor’s International Business Programme and HM Treasury’s International FinTech Conference, I am hosting a number of events over the coming months which give me the opportunity to work alongside some phenomenal people. Most of these are paid, however I’m always open to supporting pro-bono if there is a cause which I can help.

4) My main company is The Connector Unit and I continue to be fascinated by how to map and make valuable introductions between businesses and ideas. Every week I make what I hope are interesting, valuable and creative connections and I am always interested in the answer to the question “Who would you most like to meet?”.

5) Zinc is an impact business builder which brings together a cohort of founders to start businesses which make a difference. The theme of its first Mission is women’s and girls’ mental health, and I am enjoying being a Fellow, helping the founding team and emerging companies to fulfil the potential of this extraordinary venture.

6) The Marketing Academy is a brilliant organisation with global ambitions. Turning the marketing talent of today into the leaders of tomorrow, the team are already in London and Sydney, with an eye on New York and Dubai. I would welcome international connections, especially in the US, as we expand over the coming year.

7) Last, and by no means least, I’m returning to startup land with my latest new venture. More on this soon, however it will involve working with some of my favourite people across live entertainment, technology, brands and the creative industries. The next few months are all about exploring potential partnerships, so watch this space. If nothing else, it will be varietous.