Asking the wrong question

Today’s Sunday Times has a perfect example of “asking the wrong question”. The headline on the home page says . . .

“Firms beg Sunak: what’s the growth plan, PM?”

. . . and clicking through to the article gives you that exact same title. That’s not always the case with The Sunday Times, the article’s title can often differ from the headline on the home page.

Anyway, exactly who asked exactly what question?

screen shot of the news article

On closer inspection, business leaders are not actually asking about a plan. They already have a plan! Their plan includes “lobbying government for favourable treatment”. It’s the journalist that is playing the “click bait” game, providing a misleading heading, and spinning the facts to suit their own agenda.

Journalists like Sam Chambers are paid to incite clicks, which leads to you and me seeing adverts, which leads to advertisers placing business with news organisations, which leads to news organisations making money from advertisers. As a result, Sam Chambers gets paid, and theoretically, the news organisations make profits. There’s a whole separate debate about using “click bait” and another about the merits of placing adverts behind paywalls!

Disingenuously, Sam has started the article with a 15 month old story about Bill Gates (who has not asked Rishi Sunak “what’s the growth plan”). That story has a tenuous relationship to the thrust of today’s article. What the article says is that major blue chip companies are lobbying government for favourable treatment via legislation on tax and on immigration.

By and far the largest tool at the disposal of government is legislation. No matter what the agenda of the party in power, their only hope of implementing anything is to adjust legislation to incentivise (or to compel) individuals and businesses to behave in a certain way. Everything else is just window dressing.

Sam states that “start-ups are also being harmed by the legislative logjam” and cites the example of driverless trucks. The reason driverless cars (and trucks) are going nowhere is that they are dangerous. They still cannot handle weather patterns trickier than “partly cloudy”. There’s a thought provoking article about this on Bloomberg.

If the objective is to move goods, then moving goods in bulk using road trains consisting of a series of linked driverless trucks is a pretty inefficient and costly way to do what freight trains have been able to do since the early 1800s. More tellingly, the big tech firms like Waymo (Google) and Titan (Apple) have scaled back their self driving car ambitions. Anthony Levandowski, who pioneered the driverless car industry is now one of it’s most ardent detractors.

Change the statement “start-ups are also being harmed by the legislative logjam” to “entity A is being harmed by the absence of entity B” and you see how ridiculous that is. It’s like saying “population harmed by lack of Covid cure” when the more accurate statement is “population harmed by Coronavirus”.

Start-ups are not being harmed by anything other than their own conduct, and often that’s their own blinkered view of whatever product they want to foist onto an unsuspecting public. If their product fails to spark joy then they deserve to fail, and that’s typically what happens to about 95% of start-ups.

Sam’s article is little more than an exercise in bemoaning the ineffectiveness of the UK government. That’s not news! We all know that! What I wanted to know is which firms asked Sunak what questions?

“Urging” is not the same thing as “asking”.

Anyway, where is the growth plan? It’s a part of your business plan, a very large part, and you don’t need to ask the government about it (because they are incompetent), you need to read your own business plan and then you need to implement it. And if your business does not have a business plan then you need to ask yourself whether you should be trying to run a business in the first place.

infinite loop repeating plan do review

It all comes back to Peter Drucker’s advice “plan, do, review” and his quote “implementation is everything”. Here are a couple of questions to help your business succeed:

1. If there’s one thing you should be doing, but you’re not doing, what is that one thing?
2. What’s stopping you?

By addressing “what’s stopping you” you might decide to engage lobbyists to bring about changes to government legislation. And as part of that lobbying agenda, you might also slip a few quid to The Sunday Times to publicise your campaign. That’s all a part of a BigCo business plan. It’s most likely that The Sunday Times’ business plan has a part which says solicit income from lobbying groups!

If you’re not in that league, then instead, you might decide to engage a business coach to help you with writing and implementing your own business plan.

Do not ask the wrong question “Mr Sunak, what’s the growth plan?”

You should ask yourself “what does my business plan say about growth?”

A business plan is the single thing that will make the biggest difference to your chances of success.

RSI Repetitive Strain Injury

Gomukhasana Pose I have a log of my running. A lot of 10K races, a few half marathons, two marathons and hundreds of training runs, across five countries. Even when I’m on holiday! As a runner, I do a bunch of stretching exercises before I run. One of them involves arm and shoulder muscles, reaching as high as I can and then trying to get my hands to meet behind my back (variously known as cow pose or Gomukhasana).

Naturally, over the years, I have had the occasional injury, particularly muscle strain. And oddly, one of my 5km training runs into Battersea Park and back, led to an weird pain in my left shoulder. I put it down to excessive enthusiasm in that morning’s “stretch” routine and I resolved to take a little more care with my pre run stretches.

It didn’t get better. At work each day, I would find that by mid afternoon my left shoulder was aching. It got worse. I couldn’t sleep well, rolling to my left caused such pain that it would wake me up. I saw my GP, explained, and he said relent on that stretch exercise and rest the muscles completely for 7 to 14 days.

It got worse, I kept waking up in the night, now groaning with pain. My wife wasn’t happy. I learnt to take my pillow to the dining table, sit upright, head on pillow, pillow on table, and that way I could sleep. We bought a new mattress. It made no difference. I went to the GP again. It made no difference. I was give a prescription for a muscle relaxant which eases the pain and has the side effect of constipation. Diclofenac made no difference to the pain level, but I can tell you that it does cause constipation.

Some days at work, I would give up at about 3pm and go home, because I could not endure the pain.

After about one month of this, something worse happened. The pain moved around. Variously, I identified 7 pain points in my left shoulder, upper arm, and shoulder blade at the back. Then it moved, to the front, towards my left nipple, and then towards my heart. A thrombosis I thought! I later learnt that a blood clot that moves about is called an embolism, not a thrombosis. Aged 50 something I went straight to A&E. The triage nurse got me in almost immediately and I was hooked up to an ECG to investigate. There was no embolism, there was no risk of an impending heart attack! The Doctor explained that I was one of the healthiest 50 somethings he had ever seen, my heart and circulatory system was in top condition, and I was sent back to the GP to discuss soft tissue injury (again).

A third visit to the GP achieved no more than the first two. I was still clocking off work mid afternoon. I was still sleeping sitting up, head bent forward, with a pillow on the dining table. And I was regularly trawling everything I could find on the web.

My pain “did not move around”, it just felt that way. I had 7 pain points, and the one that ached the most masked the sensation from the others, tricking my brain into thinking that there was movement.

I found the problem, and in my excitement and hurry I failed to note the exact URL of the Indian doctor, with a clinic in India, who explained that I had RSI, and explained what I should do about it! It had taken me about 6 weeks to self diagnose my RSI.

RSI was a wrist condition I thought, mainly brought about by relentless typing. It affected me (and according to the Indian blog, others as well) in the upper left arm and shoulder. Hence the Indian doctor who had seen this a number of times had written a really informative blogpost. The whole problem was nothing to do with running, nor stretching, and it had  everything to do with my desk at work. I needed a low keyboard tray and I needed to learn to touch type. An upright seating arrangement should also mean a raised monitor so that (a) my back is straight, and (b) the top of the monitor is level with my eyes.

I run my own business, I’m the boss, it’s my desk and I can do what the hell I like with it. Saturday, within 10 minutes of that self diagnosis, I was on a Tube train to work. I took a saw to my desk, cut a big gap in the surface, found some gash wood, and mocked up a sloping keyboard tray like the one the Indian web site had recommended.

This photo from 2012 shows that instant remedy brutally inflicted on my cheap Ikea desk. The keyboard tray slopes away from me, and mimics the natural angle of my legs, resting just a couple of centimetres above them. This is the place where your hands would naturally lie if we hadn’t adopted traditional flat topped desks. And I learned to touch type.

Into the bargain, I had a new mattress, I had learned how to sleep at a dining table, and I had the knowledge that my heart was in perfect health! Incidentally, I also bought an ergonomic kneeling chair although I gave up with that after a few weeks. In place of the old cheap Viking leatherette executive chair at about £45 (bought years and years earlier) I now have a newer decent quality mesh executive chair that cost about £250.

Within a week of cutting the desk, the RSI abated, the sleeping improved, and by week 3 I was back to normal. I can touch type, it’s a bit ropey, but it is authentic.

Thank you Dr Indian Fella! I wish I had that URL, and in spite of trying, I have not been able to find it since. My GP does not know this. I have not been in the surgery since 2012, there has been no need, and I am now a very fit and healthy 60 something.

However, I have subsequently learnt from more than one source that the NHS is good at illness, disease, and bone injuries, but it’s not good with soft tissue injury. I tell you this in the hope that others with RSI like mine can now self diagnose too!


Chuck Close was an American artist with an unusual way of portraying the human face!

More importantly, he was also the inspiration to many people within and beyond his field, on account of this thought provoking quote:

“The advice I’d like to give to young artists, or anybody really who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration.

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you.

If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.

Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You may feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Selling your business – a five step guide

I like conferences and unconferences. And, for a while I’ve had a conference idea germinating, a 5 step guide to growing and selling your business.

opening slide saying a 5 step guide to growing and selling your business

Download the slides

The combination of TechMids and UKhealthcamp, spanning two consecutive days in October 2022, gave me the chance not only to commit the idea to paper, but also to present it to an audience. The material was half written on the train journey from London to Birmingham, en route to the TechMids conference (where I was a delegate, not a speaker). The other half was written on the return journey that evening.

And it was premiered in London the next morning, at the UKhealthcamp unconference (where I was both a speaker and a delegate). Moreover, because HealthCamp heard it first, it was also written with a deliberate HealthTech flavour. Psychology is a personal interest of mine, and I’ve been going to HealthCamp events since 2008.

I could probably talk non stop for about 4 or 5 days on the subject of growing and selling your business, although I had a mere 45 minutes in which to convey the key points. The audience was lovely, the Accurx venue was faultless, and  the presentation ran perfectly to time, even with a good deal of two way dialogue, and I was able to cover all of my material. The talk could also amount to a 30 page academic paper, so this blogpost is limited to the primary message, augmented by my slides, and I would be happy to present the full detail again to your audience.

Documentation is key! In healthcare you need to document everything anyway. Healthcare professionals need the case notes in order to deliver calibre services without going over the same ground twice. In tech circles, software developers need to document what they do in two different ways, once as reference material for the team that will have to maintain the software, and once as a guide for the end user.

Star Wars meme with Junior Dev: Where’s the documentation? Senior Dev: I am the documentation.

Growing a business, and selling a business, requires a substantial amount of documentation too. You can cut corners and get a lesser value, though the better the documentation, the better the price that your buyer might pay.

Let’s assume that you already have a business with substantial value and a valuable substance. Your documentation falls into two broad categories:

Operational docs cover Processes and Policies whereas Strategic docs include Business Plan and Opportunity Map

Percolating through everything there will be constant references and details about the omnipresent Research & Development work that is done.

Operational docs reside in what is variously called an “Operations Manual” or a “Knowledge Base”. In the old days they were kept on paper in ring binders and to give you some idea of the volume, think of McDonalds in the pre internet era. How many processes and policies does a typical McDonalds outlet have? Each outlet had a set of ring binders containing the full “Operations Manual”, and when they were stacked on top of each other they would stand about one metre high. I have never worked there, but have seen the docs, everything from how to cook a burger, how fries should be served, and how to clean a syrup tank!

Back in 1997, my first business initially prepared an “Operations Manual” in a single 300 page Word doc, with an index and dozens and dozens of hyperlinks. As the business grew (and as the web matured), that morphed into a 900 page “Knowledge Base” on a wiki. Some of those pages are so long that they equate to about 15 pages of paper. The first wiki then morphed into two wikis, one for the senior management team, and one for the operations team. The staff wiki contains all the processes and policies, and this information enables the team to deliver services in a persistent and consistent way. The “Knowledge Base” focusses on the core competencies of any business:

  • How do you get an order?
  • How do you fulfil an order?
  • How do you know when to bill for an order?

The “fulfil” bit is massive, because it covers 23 different products, and some of them have as many as 30 steps in a complex process! There are only 4 core products, but there are many extra ones that clients will legitimately ask for (sometimes), and expect us to be able to deliver.

The Strategic docs are a different animal altogether, and are in the domain of the board, not the full workforce. You need a Business Plan. A Business Plan is the one thing that will make the single biggest difference to your business growth. In the UK, 95% of businesses have no written plan. Hence you can elevate your business into the top 5% simply by writing down your plan!

And for a business that really wants to go somewhere you need an Opportunity Map. Where are the growth opportunities, what do they mean in financial terms, where are you going to find a buyer, how do you satisfy the buyer’s expectations, and what figure can you reasonably expect to secure? An Opportunity Map is in effect a “Forward Price Instrument”, it sets out what your business will be worth two years from now, or three years from now, if everything goes to plan. The Opportunity Map is not the starting point in any negotiation, it might not even be put on the table, although it is a key document in the array of meticulous documentation that will help you get to where you want to be.

three lever arch files packed full of paperwork

What the buyer really wants is scalability, your as yet unrealised scalability, and that should be clearly defined in your Opportunity Map. A buyer does not want to baby sit your half a million pound profit making business, and continue to bring in half a million every year. The buyer wants to leverage your operation and scale it significantly.

The scalability may come from diversification in . . .

  • Markets
  • Products
  • Teams

. . . or any combination of those. For each area I have a case study which I can elaborate on. The slides have screen shots of the relevant web sites.

Getting to this stage is a challenge!

Once the foundations are built you’ll discover that you have to move from “selling your product” to “selling your business” and that requires a different sort of mindset. You will need to build credibility and visibility, and you’ll need to explore the various “exit” routes open to you.

Preparing a business for sale is a multi disciplinary endeavour. It requires a combination of skills rarely found in management scientists and accountants. It requires a bit of creativity in order to pull together all of the facets outlined above.

Steve Jobs sums this up nicely:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something . . .

Unfortunately, creativity is too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.

So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

I said to my audience, if you remember nothing else about my presentation, please just remember these words:

  • Documentation
  • Business Plan
  •  and most importantly, Opportunity Map

Who else do you know who needs to hear this?