Secret Weapon

old_cincinnati_library_smallThis is a little story about the secret weapon of a specialist independent bookshop in London. It was shared with me by an individual passionate about books and life in general, and that alone means it’s worth relaying – but beneath lies an important statement about our future.

Today where most things are instant and short-term, where we consume online and read on smart devices, what chance has a small book shop against the giant online stores and discounters? There is not a single book in the store that customers cannot buy cheaper elsewhere.

But the store has a secret weapon. Her name is Claire. She works there and she knows most of the books that pass through the front door – her product knowledge, her people skills and service means people go back and buy again, having decided their loyalty means something to the bookshop.

People continue to make a difference, whether an independent bookshop or an enterprise that spans the globe. With automation on the increase, great people stand out more than ever. It’s about people – it always is.

PS. The little photo is the old public library of Cincinnati, with cast-iron book alcoves, spiral staircases several stories high and marble floors. Sadly it was demolished and the stunning building is worth remembering.

Be the disruptor, not the disrupted

Here is a great story from one of pioneers of the IT industry, Andy Grove, former Chairman and CEO of Intel. It comes from his book Only the Paranoid Survive and is well worth retelling.

In a discussion with then Chief Executive Gordon Moore, he asked what would happen if the board kicked them out and started anew. They agreed that a new CEO would no doubt leave the past behind and detach them from their memories.

So Grove and Moore decided there and then to do that themselves. They left the business of chips behind, moving into microprocessors and thereby set the stage for the next generation of the Intel business.

It was, and remains, a lesson in management: leave the past behind, don’t let a single line of business define you and be the disruptor, not the disrupted.

The world’s new language

felix-baumgartner-standing-in-his-capsule-about-to-diveMore often than not, the most powerful messages are the shortest.

I think this is one of the statements of the year: the world’s language isn’t English or Chinese. It’s pictorial. It’s how the next gen engage, it’s how they communicate, it’s how they understand.

It’s time we learned to speak it.

How can you benefit from reducing your market share?

marketshareSo, how can you reduce the share of your core market and come out trumps? I have just returned from an excellent leadership meeting in Minneapolis where the Pearson VUE team talked strategy, explored ideas and visioned the future. The level of engagement was as good as I have seen for some time and when I volunteered this one thought to the group, I was met with silence…but only for seconds.

This was my thinking, via an analogy: if your company is in the business of making and selling office chairs, how feasible would it be for you to get into the business of making not just chairs but all office furniture? Can you expand the size of your overall marketplace (and thus reduce your share) and as a result give you more opportunity, more products and more customers to pursue?

What complementary products can you make, are there new or additional services you can offer and equally importantly, how can you utilise technology to get into these spaces? Are you maximising social media and the potential of ecommerce.

How to begin? Just listening to what the market is saying will stand you in good stead – remember only 1% of social is about posting information and 99% is about listening to what the market/your customers/the competition is saying.

Listening on its own should keep you busy enough.

Small is Beautiful

More than half of UK GDP comes from small businesses. In the US, it has been quoted as high as 70%. At a meeting in Brussels, one of the ministers told us that if every small business was helped and encouraged to hire one new member of staff, there would be no unemployment in Europe.

So why am I a big supporter of the small, the underdog and the start-up. Because it is the lifeblood of our economy and it means people will continue to be creative, use technology to collaborative and think and share in communities rather moving backwards to an era where we clocked in and worked 9-to-5.

While big brands such as General Mills, General Motors and General Electric will still have their place, this is the ‘long tail’ of business. A billion little entrepreneurial opportunities ready to be exploited by smart, creative people. The future will be about ‘more’. More innovation, from more places and more people – people focused on narrow niches, where collectively all these producers will reinvent the industrial economy.

I liken it to the old days of small specialist shops and boutiques on a high street, but this time online, trading via Etsy or some other platform or ‘storefront.’ I don’t think we are too far away. In the meantime, I am happy to attend, support and present at events that encourage businesses of all sizes to come together and talk, share, exchange. I will be at Business Expo 3.0 ( ) on March 8th – we have a lot to learn.

Shopping & Listening

I was following the news of people scrambling to shop for just about everything on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when America goes wild for bargains. Now I have witnessed this personally in Chicago a couple of years ago. It was crazy and I quite enjoyed it!

People choose not to buy an item because they don’t see value in it, then decide it is priceless once it has that little red and white discount label attached to it. 25%, 30% or 70%-off turns even the most sensible of shoppers into a possessed individual who has to have the item they turned their nose up at a week before.

I tracked back to the 1950s, when the US discovered the disposable society and set about telling consumers they had to replace and update almost everything they owned. Then it was all about dictating what people buy, the era of the advertising agencies – epitomised in the series ‘Mad Men.’

Today, it is all about asking customers what they want. The smartest companies are already engaged with their most influential networks (people we sometimes call ‘sneezers’ or ‘yawners’ who are very good at spreading news), already at the centre of all discussions around their sector and as a result the first name that comes up when searching for that product. You don’t have to be a technology company to make this work for you. Just look at how a crystal glass making company in Wales has become expert at making social media work for, and grow, the business. You can learn a lot by following them on Twitter @WelshRoyalCryst.

Forget the old, embrace the new.

The future is small

I first starting reading the Sunday Times in the early 1980s and I was fascinated by the big-company stories and headlines around the industrialists of the era. But one story that stuck with me was about shopkeepers. My father was a shopkeeper and my family own a wonderful vintage tea room today; Britain grew up as a nation of shopkeepers and although the front pages remain the same, I believe that our the future is once again small (nearly 70% of GDP in the US and 60% in the UK is made up of consumer spending).

Technology has spawned a new type of entrepreneur which allows people to work not 9-5, but 5-9 in the evening, having a side business that runs online and with an appearance that can compare with any giant out there. The little guy can compete. My point however, is that the great next idea will most likely not stem from the giant corporatioons, because these organisations are focused more on satisfying their shareholders, their green footprint and their internal systems. Most innovation, great ideas and next-gen creativity come from small groups, startups and the individual – a youngster in a corner of the south west of England or two best mates from college on the west coast of the US. We must give them a platform for dialogue and exchange – give them an opportunity to shine, because I firmly believe these youngsters, digital natives as they are, are full of ideas that may materialise into something great. The future for me is all about small countries, small organisations and individuals.

My view of the role of the big company matches something Rajesh Chandy of the Deloitte Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship referenced last week – that arguably the biggest responsibility of the CEO of these big firms is to assign time to think about the future. My personal view is that these CEOs will help all parties if they organise think-tanks, workshops and invitations to young people willing to talk ideas, and give them a chance.