Taking a month away from my business

Last year I had a child, a boy to be precise. His name is Eli and he has changed my life.  “No shit”, was the response of most people I told this fact to. Well quite, but what was really interesting, is that he actually changed my entire outlook on running my businesses in a way that I hadn’t managed in the seven years prior to his arrival.

This particular insight came about as a result of being forced to take time off from work. Not the kind of time off where you still check your e-mails at least one a day when your partner isn’t looking. This was actual proper time off, and I was terrified. The problem was that I had been managing the business up until this point the hard way…I was attempting to micro-manage at a large scale. I was involved in pretty much every client project our software house was undertaking, I was product manager for both of our products Fundipedia and Staff Squared and that’s before I got to the work involved in managing and developing staff and driving the company forward. The arrangement was unsustainable, but old habits die hard and Satan himself would be handing out ice cream in hell before I released my deathly grip on the business.

So back to the time off…

Here in the UK when your kiddy is born it is customary (and a legal right, no less) that Dad gets Paternity leave. This is two weeks to allow a poor unsuspecting souls to reacclimatise to their new lives. For me, it was the first time I genuinely felt like I could ask my team to cover my back, and run the business as they saw fit.  I would be un-contactable, and so they were to make decisions as they saw fit and that was the end of it. So the boy was born, and I was off, properly off.  I played out my fatherly duties over those two weeks, and fully expected to return to an actual war zone. But no, I came back and the business was running almost better than I had left it. My managers felt empowered, and had taken the business by horns and ran it beautifully. Our clients were happy, and there had been no major disasters in my absence. If I’m completely honest, I was disappointed – the realisation that your business is all grown up and can handle itself is just as difficult as letting go in the first place.

Since my return to work being armed with the knowledge that I’m not actually required on a day to day basis to keep my company afloat I’ve done what any normal person would do and decided to go away again, but this time for a month and I’ll be residing in another country altogether.  I’m spending all of March in Barcelona, and the bonus is that not only does this force my team to get on with it, there are a number of additional positive side effects:

  • Physical distance from my business gives me the space I need to focus on our products which are my priority
  • I suffer from incredibly bad hayfever to the point where it’s debilitating. I’m hoping a month out of the UK when pollen is starting to rear its ugly head again will help keep the worst of the symptoms at bay
  • I get to spend a month of quality time with my kiddy when he’s starting to get really interesting (he’ll be 8 months old by then). I’ll be speaking to him mainly in Spanish (thanks DuoLingo!) the entire time we’re out there, I’ve no idea if he’ll hold on to any of the words I use but my aim is to raise him to be bilingual so this is a good place to start
  • My ultimate aim is to leave the UK and live out the rest of my life with my family abroad, so this is a test in a controlled environment to give this a try

I’ll be keeping a log of how I get on using this blog, plotting the highs and lows and any problems I encounter trying to manage a software house from afar. I’ll probably tweet more often too, so feel free to follow me if you’re interested in this little experiment.

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Stop press: we raised zero pounds

It’s been over a year since I’ve had the chance to update this blog.  I’ve been too busy writing HR Software related blog posts over here for our new start up Staff Squared – which is taking on new customers at a comfortable pace. So much so it now affords me the time to take a few days out.

Today’s post is about being anti-investment, which in the tech startup world isn’t something you’ll read about very often.  The guys over at 37 Signals are big fans of bootstrapping a business, but their incredible success over the years (not to mention the fact that they now have Jeff Bezos on their board) unfortunately does them the injustice of making everything they do look way too easy, and thus their “screw investment just bootstrap it” philosophy has been somewhat watered down.  That’s not to say that I don’t watch them like a hawk, it’s just that it’s hard to marry such huge success from humble beginnings if you haven’t followed them since day one.

Anywho, I’ve flirted with the idea of taking outside investment for Staff Squared on a couple of occasions.  Usually the thought of taking an investment hits me when:

  1. I read about company X, usually on Hacker News, who have taken on hundreds of new employees thanks to their Series F funding, and as a result their customer acquisitions are off the scale and they’re going to smash this quarter’s targets.  They are, as the kids would say, “killing it”.  Ugh.
  2. I don’t feel like I’m making fast enough progress in the day to day development of my business. If I just had a few extra pair of hands to take care of  <insert job role here> we’d also be “killing it”.
  3. I’m somewhat insecure about my ability to execute and meet our targets, whether that be customer acquisition, deciding on new features, or much more importantly, implementing new features.

During various low points in my self-employed career I’ve skirted dangerously close to actually landing investment.  One particular time, when I was at an all time low, I put together an incredibly detailed forecast for Staff Squared and touted them around the various people I’m fortunate enough to know who would consider investing in one of my hair brained schemes.  This potential investor asked his accountant to come over to my office and grill me, which he did, thoroughly.  I felt like I’d been examined, re-examined, and then cross-examined…I was asked about my:

  • marketing strategy
  • my ability to execute on the marketing strategy based on the investment amount I’d requested
  • likely customer attrition
  • my competition
  • my key hires (for the record I wanted a dedicated product manager, sales person, and a head of marketing.  A QA would also have been nice, but I like to make sure i’s are dotted and t’s crossed so would have been happy to keep that position)
  • profit margins
  • when the investor can expect to see a return on his investment
  • and much more
So you know, all the usual stuff.

I felt like I’d answered most of the questions really well, and just a few days later I received an e-mail from the investor’s accountant.  Good news – they’d agreed the investment was viable.  Bad news.  They wanted 35% of the business to make it worth their while.  My immediate reaction was one of relief, and it was then that I knew that I would never take outside investment.

You see, it’s all very well talking about raising £x investment, but it’s not a free buffet, it’s a business transaction.  And in return for the investment you have to be prepared to give away a sizeable chunk of your business, and I’m not. Sure I could pull down a million pounds and delegate the crazy number of jobs I’m doing to a handful of new staff…but the moment I do that, I’m no longer my own boss, and Staff Squared is no longer mine to do with as I please.  From the day those funds clear in to my business bank account I have to report to somebody, and having been the master and commander of my destiny for over seven years now I simply can’t give up that control.  It would be equally true to re-write that last sentence as  “and given that I’m a complete fucking control freak, I simply can’t give up that control”.

Despite the fact that I’m starting to see competitors to Staff Squared arrive late to the party (if that’s you…Hi! Welcome, you’re late) I’m incredibly confident that there’s enough of a market for me to dominate that I can take a sizeable monthly recurring revenue from my product almost ad infinitum.  Our overheads are very well managed, we don’t squeak when we walk but we do review our cash flow every week.  We don’t need (or want) big Facebook style offices, and we have a small yet ridiculously focused and efficient group of people working here, so we get an awful lot done.  Our freedom can’t have a price tag put on it.

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10 Best Startup Books

Having read 100’s of business books over the years I’ve compiled a list of my favourite 10, along with a short review for each.  Hopefully some of these will help others looking to get stuck in and start their own businesses.  If you have any books you’d like to add drop me a comment below.

1) How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. The book itself primarily deals with how to build good relationships between people, how to sell people without selling to them, and how to get people to do things. The primary focus of this book is not necessarily business, but it would facilitate any business person to increasing their performance.

2) The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss. This highly acclaimed book is less about starting a business than it is about not getting trapped inside of it.

3) The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The Lean Startup approach fosters companies that are both more capital efficient and that leverage human creativity more effectively. Inspired by lessons from lean manufacturing, it relies on “validated learning,” rapid scientific experimentation, as well as a number of counter-intuitive practices that shorten product development cycles, measure actual progress without resorting to vanity metrics, and learn what customers really want. Rather than wasting time creating elaborate business plans, The Lean Startup offers entrepreneurs – in companies of all sizes – a way to test their vision continuously, to adapt and adjust before it’s too late. Ries provides a scientific approach to creating and managing successful startups.

4) The Art of the Start, by Guy Kawasaki. It’s a quick read, and gives a no-nonsense set of recommendations for how and why to start a company.

5) The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, by Mike Michalowicz. This book is incredibly applicable to any small business, it’s motivating and it’s very easy to read. The author does a great job hammering out details for you so you can implement them quickly. Business books are often too full of “strategies” and not enough practical advice on how to actually do things. This book breaks that down.

6) The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber. The author dispels the myths surrounding starting your own business and shows how commonplace assumptions can get in the way of running a business. He walks you through the steps in the life of a business from entrepreneurial infancy, through adolescent growing pains, to the mature entrepreneurial perspective, the guiding light of all businesses that succeed. He then shows how to apply the lessons of franchising to any business whether or not it is a franchise. Finally, Gerber draws the vital, often overlooked distinction between working on your business and working in your business. After you have read this book, you will truly be able to grow your business in a predictable and productive way.

7) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant-in the blink of an eye-that actually aren’t as simple as they seem. Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work-in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? Blink reveals that great decision makers aren’t those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing”-filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.

8) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. This is an older book (published in 2001), but it should be required reading for any business owner, regardless of the size of their company. The author studied what qualities could turn a good company into a great company, and his book has become a manual in how to run your business the right way. Even if you’re running a one-man (or woman) operation, there’s a lot you can learn from Jim Collin’s research and advice.

9) Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath. How do you make an idea unforgettable? Become a storyteller with a creative narrative. The authors highlight six principles (simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories) that can help you to create an idea with staying power, or to revolutionize your current idea into something unforgettable. This book is full of examples and quick lessons from teachers, scientists and more, and is one of most popular and widely recommended business and marketing books, four years after its original release.

10) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centered approach for solving personal and professional problems. With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, service, and human dignity–principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.

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Must see movies for business owners

As fashionable as it is for entrepreneurs to fail and learn from their mistakes, it’s much easier (and less expensive) to learn from somebody else’s mistakes.  To that end here’s a list of films all entrepreneurs can learn from.  Have a I missed any?  What was your favourite?

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