The Lucky Dip – a New Year tip for the self-employed

One of the most common challenges for the ever-increasing ranks of the self-employed is staying motivated – especially for those who work from home.

Having earned my crust as a successful independent consultant,  working from my home office for over ten years, I’m often asked how I stick at it and avoid distractions.

The answer is that often I do get distracted, and I’ve learnt over time that when this happens it’s best to go with the flow and let it happen, as usually it means that my brain in is in “processing and cogitating” mode – even if subconsciously – so I just let it get on with it while I do whatever diversionary activity comes my way!

The real challenge is not the times when I skive off to do a spot of gardening or nip to the hairdressers – I see these diversions as the balancing benefit of all the other times when I’m sat at my desk at midnight or on a Sunday afternoon – it’s the times when I have nothing  pressing and instead of capitalising on that, the guilt kicks in and I do all sorts of pointless stuff while sat firmly at my desk. How much better to grab the opportunity and get out and do something else, like go to an exhibition or meet a friend.

As a result I must waste large amounts of time “quasi-working” when I could get far more benefit from giving myself permission to go play. “Quasi working” is where I make myself  stay at the desk but go off on a completely pointless round of trivial displacement activity. Far better to stop agonising over what still needs to be done on the long to do list and either do something mindless and easy but nonetheless essential  – like pulling together papers for the accountant or alternatively get out and play!

But the issue for me is justifying to myself what to do –  in the desperate attempt to prioritise I end up doing nothing.

So I’m trying a new approach. It’s called The Lucky Dip. I’ve cut up a couple of sheets of paper into small pieces and written a task on each. These now sit in a bowl ready for the next time when (like today) I have an hour to spare due to a postponed meeting  The tasks are a mixture of stuff I’d otherwise avoid or put off (such as tidying the office, updating my expenses), stuff I never have time to do (such as telephoning a client or colleague that I haven’t spoken to in a while, writing a piece for this blog) and stuff that’s a treat (curling up for an hour with a good book and a cup of tea, going out to buy myself some flowers, going for a walk, listening to a TED Talk ). So the plan is that when I get a window of time without a pressing call on it I take a lucky dip and then follow the instructions – no cheating!

I’ll do an update to this piece in a month or so to let you know how it’s going! If you have a go too I’d love to hear how you get on.


Harnessing the power of social media

When I was sent this book to review, my first thought was “not another book on how to make a fortune from Facebook and Twitter”. Social Nation : How to harness the power of social media to attract customers, motivate employess and grow your business by  Barry Libert is instead a serious book which issues a clarion call to businesses to re-focus on people rather than products and services.

In this 21st century connected world, the old doctrine that, like children, customers are to be seen but not heard, is not only no longer valid – it’s positively dangerous. This is becoming even clearer as I write this – with Wikileaks stealing the headlines, flash-mobbing exploits against corporate  tax evasion by Top Shop and ActionAid’s online campaign against SAB Miller. No, the days of corporations happily ignoring their consumers and constituents are definitely numbered.

But Libert’s book is not a warning, so much as an enticement and encouragement to companies to get out and actively engage with their customers (and employees) and create communities for them. From open innovation and collaborative working to providing information and a forum for customers to air their views and share information and advice with each other, there’s a wide spectrum of ways to tap into the “social nation”. Libert illustrates his points with well-chosen examples from Pepsico to the Jewish grandmother  who offers online daily recipes and a Yiddish word of the day on her website “FeedmeBubbe”. His style is engaging and very quick and easy to read.

The book sets out 7 Guiding Principles to develop a social nation strategy in your company and dedicates a chapter to each, bringing them to life with examples and stories. The first principle is to develop your own social skills in order to become a social leader yourself and the author has an online tool for you to measure your personal Social Quotient. He cites examples and role models – including Andrea Jung of Avon and Meg Whitman when at eBay.

Successful Social Nationhood involves a big cultural shift and the creation of a corporate culture that is people-centric. Again there are well-illustrated examples, notably Zappos and Google.

One of the key principles is surprisingly – but wisely – etiquette (or netiquette) and I liked the simple suggestions of Peter Post (great grandson of Emily Post, the original 1920s arbiter of good manners) for corporate social skills – Be on time and Say please and thank you.

Business is built on trust and trust is built on strong relationships and strong relationships are built on etiquette.

The book contains  an interesting case study on Ducati motorbikes in the USA and how the company was re-engineered around a social community – driving a 60% increase in sales and involving re-deployment of most of the marketing budget into the community rather than traditional media.

Libert has a useful model to differentiate friends and followers  from fans and fanatics and posits the need to develop a strategy to address each nation with the priority that is appropriate for your business. Right now 80% of businesses operate mostly in the bottom left quartile – Apple would be top left. Operating in the top right quartile means benefiting from both the active participation of fans and fanatics as well as the significantly larger more passive community members who will happily follow where the fans and fanatics lead.

So if you’re wondering whether social media could play a bigger part in your business and want to understand it as a long term strategic tool to help make your business more customer-centric, this book is a good place to start.

>> My review of Delivering Happiness (the Zappos story)

>> Do the Social Quotient test


Open IDEO – crowd sourced innovation for social good

Applause to IDEO for their new initiative, Open IDEO, which is crowd sourcing innovation for social good.

I’ve long been a fan of Open Innovation and this particular effort looks like an exciting way to get some creative brains thinking about some of the world’s challenges. The way it works is you sign up then you can participate in all or any of the four stages of all or any of their current challenges. Right now there are two – Jamie Oliver asking “How can we raise kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food so they can make better choices?” and “How might we increase the availability of affordable learning tools & services for students in the developing world?”

The  stages are :

  1. Inspiration – sharing stimulus – including videos, photos etc and build on other people’s. What exists already that could help with the challenge?
  2. Concepting – sharing your own ideas and building on others
  3. Evaluation – rating and commenting on other people’s ideas
  4. Winning idea

Each participant earns points for each stage and these add up to give you your personal DQ or Design Quotient.

This little video explains how it works.

Introduction to OpenIDEO / from IDEO on Vimeo.

I’m really looking forward to joining in and to seeing the outcomes. The only problem is I may find it so engaging that I never get any other work done!

Check it out >> Open IDEO

My yellow card to Apple

I need to declare an interest up front. I’m writing this on a Mac, I have an iPod, an iPhone and an iPad. My first ever computer was an old Macintosh and, after years of corporate life which forced me down the PC railroad, I was ecstatic to get back to the Church of Apple. Lately however, while still a believer, I’m beginning to experience some doubts and now I’m wondering  whether Apple’s got just a bit too big for its rebellious nonconformist boots. Here’s why.

To me the big appeal of the Apple brand has always been the way they made things so easy. They took care of the horrible technology and all I had to do was show up and be creatively inspired (or more often not!).

When I had to use a PC after enjoying my first 2 years on a Mac, I nearly cried in despair. I couldn’t understand the complexity of all the directories. Everything was just so difficult and apart from the stupid time-wasting Solitaire game that came as part of the Windows package, I found it all a bit too much for my tiny brain. But needs must. I learned and eventually Windows became second nature, albeit a frustrating a complicated experience.

In contrast Macs were so great because they are intuitive. They work in a very easy to grasp way – they’re almost human! Certainly the user experience is human. Dragging things into folders to tidy them away. Clear and obvious icons. Nothing to worry about but what you wanted to create. And everything so aesthetically pleasing. Little wonder they became such a huge hit with creative people. The badge of honour of the non-business person. My friend Douglas Atkin in his book The Culting of Brands devotes a whole chapter to why Apple is a religious experience for creative people.

But now things are changing. Firstly the wonders of Apple’s almost perfect technology have been dealt a heavy blow by the debacle of the iPhone4 and its wonky antenna. This has come on top of some initial problems with early iPads around wireless capability. The iPad itself is arguably a contradiction of Apple’s own successful Mac vs PC advertising – unlike the fully loaded Mac ready to run when you take it out of the box, the iPad won’t run Flash, has no camera and no USB slot. I’ve never been a Flash fan and I don’t really care about the camera but I really do want that USB slot.

I don’t have an iPhone4 but iPhone 3GS is actually a pretty lousy phone. I can forgive that as I love the apps and the compatibility with everything else Apple I own. But why do I hardly ever get a decent signal? why does it keep dropping texts?  why will it only re-try to send them manually? – and why does that battery last less than a day?

All these points could be temporary blips to be sorted with the next generation hardware and none of them counter the fact that Apple keeps on coming up with game-changing developments in every category it plays in. From iTunes and the iPod which opened up the digital music market, to the Genius Bar which transformed the retail experience, to the way Apple encouraged developers to populate its mobile devices with a plethora of applications that make the user experience so special.

But – and it’s a big but – there is a real risk that the wonderfully human experience of the Apple brand is also being trashed by a customer service experience that is anything but perfect. A Mac RAM and drive disaster caused me to have to go to not one but three Apple stores in quick succession. First of all I have nothing but praise for all the staff I met there – fantastic friendly people who went out of their way to help me and who have restored my Mac to working order – and a special thanks to Alfred at Westfield who convinced me to invest in an external hard drive just before my system crashed – he must have been hired for his psychic powers – he certainly saved my bacon!

No, my problem is the way you have to fit Apple’s idea of customer communication. You can’t use the Genius Bar without an appointment – no matter how willing you are to wait hours for a cancellation or a gap in the schedule – at least that’s the story in the London stores especially Westfield. You can book your appointment online but you can’t cancel it. This means the stores don’t know if they’ll get any no-shows and hence can accommodate the poor suckers who do turn up on spec.

The store phone numbers are a joke. I called the Westfield store 8 times across 2 successive days and each time got a recorded message that I was Number 9 in the queue, a ranking that didn’t improve no matter how long I hung on the line. I called Brent Cross four times and each time I navigated the call system I was greeted with the words “The other person has hung up”. Sorry Apple not good enough! I’d rather talk to someone in a Bangalore call centre  than be unceremoniously dumped after navigating my way at my expense through your multiple choices. When I raised this with the lovely store staff they said “Well we’re really busy and there’s only one person upstairs answering the phone”. Excuse me Apple this is the 21st Century! Maybe call answering technology is not to your taste but a non-Apple experience that results in an answered call is better than the blind anger and frustration that results from your abject failure to answer the bloody phone!

Look this is a bit of a rant. I do love Apple. My Mac is now fixed and I’m so happy to have it back after a week on my HP laptop with its constant downloads of updates and interruptions and muddled directories and my inability to find anything I’m looking for. But as someone who believes in brands and has long rated Apple as one of the best of them, this is your yellow card Steve! A brand is not just about the physical product, breakthrough ideas and fabulous styling: it’s also about every touchpoint with the consumer. Most Apple fanatics have huge reserves of goodwill towards this most iconic and cultish of brands, so please don’t abuse that Apple – that way lies the graveyard of once great brands.

Funny that Apple always stood for creating (Think different!) and now with iPhones, iPads et al is this a move to consuming? And maybe the consequent flood of mass market consumers is what’s causing the human customer experience to look  as though it’s in need of some creativity.

New tools for organising information

I’ve been using two new tools in my ongoing battle to simplify and organise all the information in my life.

The first, Flipboard, was only launched this week, so I haven’t given it an extended test drive yest – but so far I’m loving it. It’s for i-pad and, like the Twitter Daily I recently posted about, it’s a way to sort your social media into a more visually friendly format. In other words a look just like a quality print magazine but on your i-pad. Unlike Twitter Daily, Flipboard also turns your Facebook information into a magazine format too, along with any other sources you want to consult. I’m loving it BUT it’s early days and apparently they’ve been massively oversubscribed so new users may experience some delays in setting it up.

What I’m absolutely LOVING is Evernote. I now have this on Mac, PC, i-phone and i-Pad and it syncs across all these using cloud technology. If I’m on a webpage and I want to save it, I just clip a little icon in my Browser and it grabs the URL as a bookmark AND scoops in the whole content including pictures. If I want to jot down an address,  make a  few notes or take a picture I can drop them into  Evernote on my phone and then there they are waiting for me on the computer when I get back to the office.So no matter where I am, I can access things that matter to me and everything syncs immediately. It’s magic!

Within Evernote I now have a series of notebooks, one with work-related material: articles and stimulus, one with background material for a book I am writing, another related to my online business, Make it and Mend it, where I gather stuff I want to follow up on later, and the rest sits in a general notebook – everything from holiday ideas to quickly scribbled notes to remind myself to do things.

Evernote is absolutely free – although there’s a premium version for a small monthly fee. So far the free app is proving perfectly adequate for my needs. Give it a go!


Flipboard for i-Pad

How to digest Twitter

I’ve written before about Twitter and how to use it, but despite being a fan, my usage recently has dropped off. My problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff and trawling through a large stream of dreadful tweets, trying to find the ones worth reading and the links worth clicking.

I’ve found some real gems on Twitter – but oh boy is it time consuming and as I’m already drowning under a  sea of information I just can’t spare the time to trawl through every day.

‘But lo! what light through yonder window breaks?’ I’ve found a solution!

A way to make Twitter’s torrent of trivia and treasure digestible. A way to make it more like reading a newspaper. A way to classify all this ‘stuff’ into an orderly pattern. A way to classify topics by subject matter. A way to visualise and pull out the stories behind those 140 characters. In other words it’s a way to digest the tweets that carry links – by giving prominence to the content in the link, rather than the often poor 140 character summary of it.

The solution is found here is a means of turning Twitter into a daily newspaper, delived to your inbox  ready for you to click.

What this doesn’t do though is in any way substitute for the pleasure of the well-crafted non-linked 140 character  ‘story’. The people who make you laugh with their short, sharp, acerbic takes on life. The people who comment in the moment – when you’re watching the World Cup, the Eurovision Song Concert or a national election – and they perfectly capture the moment. But you soon discover who they are and can keep them safely captured in a Twitter list.

The other beautiful opportunity that Twitter Daily offers is to set up a page that captures stories around a particular topic that you’re interested in. So as well as (or instead of) capturing your own Twitter stream, you can set up a daily digest around a hashtag – so if you’re wanting to know everything that’s current on #breeding rabbits, #underfloor heating or #openheartsurgery you can have a digest delivered to your inbox daily.

I was introduced to Twitter Daily by @clareob who told me she’s been using it for ages and was stunned by how slow people have been to take it up.  I was one – I don’t remember her email or tweet alerting me to it. But I’m remedying that now!

Can a company really expect to deliver happiness?

I’ve followed Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, on Twitter for some time now by one of those fortuitous accidents. I was lucky enough to get sent a couple of review copies of Tony’s book, ‘Delivering Happiness’ and read it right through in a sitting.

The book is subtitled ‘A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose’ and is in 3 sections, one for each of these Ps. The first, Profits, tells Tony’s personal story and demonstrates how he has entrepreneurship coded into his DNA. He recounts his childhood enterprises from worm farms (an early failure) to badge selling (a big success) and then his creation of his first company, Link Exchange, as a result of being bored one weekend and experimenting with some computer coding. He went on to sell the company to Microsoft a couple of years later for $265 million. Fascinating as this story is (and Tony tells it with humour and pace), the real meat of the book comes in the two following sections as he tells the story of Zappos, the online shoe and apparel retailer, from conception to its recent sale to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

The trials and tribulations of getting the company going, keeping it afloat when cash was short and dealing with several setbacks that could have sounded the death knell to the nascent business, make fascinating reading. However it’s the insights offered into the unique culture that is Zappos, that makes this book unmissable for anyone interested in corporate culture, employee engagement or the creation of a great place to work.

Whilst the Zappos culture is unique and not readily replicable, particularly in a large long-established organisation, it provides some fabulous stimulus to help you come up with your own ideas for creating a culture that is unique and special for your own business. Here are some examples:

The Ten Core Values

I thought ten was overdoing it a bit (I try to get companies to stick to no more than about 5 or 6) but there’s ample evidence in ‘Delivering Happiness’ that these are values that are lived and breathed and not just words on a mouse mat or printed in the front of the annual report. In fact they were whittled down from an original list of 37. Tony includes a write up on each value by a different member of the company to explain with a story how these are brought to life. Story-telling seems to be a strong part of the keeping this culture vibrant and alive.

The Library

This started with the boss lending out the odd book but evolved into 100 titles available in the lobby to be lent out to employees and visitors. In fact some of the books are required reading for employee development and have even developed into courses. I have a feeling one of them is Good to Great as there was a lot of evidence in Tony’s philosophy of the thinking that went into that book regarding leadership, vision, “getting people on the bus” etc

The Culture Book

Every year, each employee is asked to write a personal statement on what the Zappos culture means to them. These paragraphs are compiled into a hardback book which is distributed to all employees, new hires plus any customers, suppliers, or others who happen to want one. I put this to the test by emailing the company to ask for one. It was delivered to me here in the UK a couple of days later by UPS. This is really putting money where mouth is – as there is no censorship – everything submitted goes in the book. It’s lavishly produced and illustrated so must cost them a tidy sum but “It’s a short term expense, long term investment.”

New employee induction

Given the strength of the culture, it’s obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and like other culturally driven organisations, Zappos recognises the importance of not only getting the right people ‘on the bus’, but also getting the wrong ones off it. At the end of the induction process new employees are offered $2000 to quit, thereby ensuring a high level of commitment among those who last the course. Although as the recruitment process is very values-driven, they don’t get taken up on the offer that often.

The Pipeline

Rather than using that old chestnut favoured by company reports: “Our people are our greatest asset, Hsieh’s philosophy is to value the pipeline of people rather than the individuals. The long term intent is to hire only at entry level and promote and develop their own talent pipeline, hence the emphasis on learning and development. The company offers a wide range of courses and boot camps both specific to the internal culture and covering other topics from Tribal Leadership to Grammar and Writing!

So if you’re one of those people who loves the experiential approach to business, this is an autobiography that has a great and inspiring story to tell, from Hsieh climbing Kilimanjaro while the company was running out of cash, uprooting the entire company and moving to Las Vegas, and the trials and tribulations of managing stock availability  (yes he even makes that interesting!) I recently read another successful entrepreneur’s biography and despite me knowing the other CEO personally and admiring much of what he’s achieved, it wasn’t a patch on this book.

If you’re a student of business culture, responsible for  customer service, a struggling entrepreneur or someone fascinated by leadership, then this is a gold-mine of a source-book. And if you doubt that making people (customers and employees) happy is a profitable business strategy, then prepare to be convinced!

>> More information on the book

>> Buy the book on Amazon