How to snowball an enterprising culture (Part 2)

AsfawDelight can quickly turn to frustration when an excellent new recruit, who is just settling into the post, decides to accept a job offer elsewhere. But occasionally, you know they’ve made the right decision.

And so it was for Asfaw Yemiru, a young Ethiopian teacher who arrived for his first day of work at the British Council’s General Wingate School in Addis Ababa. He presented himself in the Head’s office – shoeless, covered in dust and only wearing a pair of shorts and a blanket. With a quiet voice Asfaw recited the English he had learnt in preparation for his first day. “My name is Asfaw Yemiru. I am here to learn.”

The Headteacher, Frank Dawson, liked Asfaw instinctively. In little time Frank became a mentor to the humble Ethiopian and drew immense satisfaction as the young man’s command of English flourished. But whilst Asfaw’s talents with a second language developed quickly his desire to leave his new post grew faster.

For outside the gates of the General Wingate School were orphaned street children who asked each day for food and help. Asfaw found it impossible to ignore their pleas and in little time had set up a makeshift class under a fig tree in the adjoining churchyard.
Asfaw cajoled and encouraged other teachers, including Frank and his wife Fev, to help provide support. But as the teaching supply increased so word about the free churchyard lessons spread amongst the orphan community.

Direct action

Recognising his available resources were no match for the scale and magnitude of the challenge, Asfaw sought Government support to help create a dedicated orphan school. But instead of making calls and writing letters, Asfaw believed his only chance of success was to lead by doing the difficult. So he took direct action by throwing himself in front of the president’s car. Despite being kicked and dragged away by guards, the Emperor of the time, Haile Selassie, wanted to listen to Asfaw. And as a consequence, land was made available for his school project.

Years later Asfaw’s Headteacher Frank Dawson wrote these words about him. “He must be a Planner’s nightmare. He sees the need for something he believes to be vital and important, takes action at a grass roots level, draws people in around him, the project gains momentum and things happen.”

Emperor Haile Selassie with a young Asfaw Yemiru

Emperor Haile Selassie with a young Asfaw Yemiru

In a famous commercial aired in 1997, Steve Jobs also paid tribute to game-changing people who make full use of their entrepreneurial talents and enterprising initiative.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward.” Asfaw is all these things.

Nobel Prize

A child of poverty, Asfaw chose to focus his entire life supporting and improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. He remains driven by a deep-rooted conviction that “All problems can solved providing one has tremendous courage, interest and belief in what one thinks.”

But the most extraordinary point of this story is the fact that Asfaw’s first transformative actions occurred over 50 years ago in 1959. Since then his consistent work and commitment to a single cause has helped rescue and save the lives of over a hundred thousand children.

Under Asfaw’s leadership the Asra Hawariat School welcomed 280 pupils when it first opened in 1961. Numbers quickly swelled to 650 and by the mid nineties the school provided for well over 1,200 people each year. Before the end of the century Asfaw was offered a Nobel Prize for his work in Ethiopia (he declined) but in 2002 he won the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (a few years later this award was bestowed on Nelson Mandela).

Unsurprisingly perhaps, after so much time giving, Asfaw found it difficult and embarrassing accepting any award. He has dedicated his teaching life to giving and when asked what his message would be to trainee teachers he said this:

“I say the same thing to the kids in the school. You have come from nothing and somebody has helped you to come this far. You owe for this and must repay. There is somebody now who needs your help and you must give it without expecting anything for your trouble.”

Key Learning Points: Money is not the prime energy source to create change. Selfless passion, focus & bravery are key drivers which draw others in and create momentum. Consistency & commitment are critical behaviours that will see a project through.



Does the US lead the entrepreneurial way?

USA Finger VictoryAs storms brewed over southern England this October I boarded a Virgin Airbus & headed to the US. My destination was Kansas City and the GCEC Conference.

Crossing the Atlantic I was keen to test out Mr Branson’s latest in-seat multi-media technology. The hours passed quickly as I laughed at The Internship and cried with the Guilt Trip. As alcohol and altitude fuelled the emotions I got into the US spirit.


But when you touchdown…

Unable to fly direct to Kansas I had opted to transfer through Washington. Now, previous ventures out west have taught me that breaking into the ‘land of the free’ requires steely resilience and titanic reserves of patience. And as one of 330+ people in that border queue, the art of standing, shuffling and fretting got plenty of practice. Ultimately, you wonder if a face-off with one of the few heartless officials (whose absent-minded superiority & scrutinising skill is unsurpassed) will ever happen. Washington’s ‘Dulles Customs Cowboys’ didn’t disappoint. It took 90+ agonising minutes to make the required 80 yard gain.

But breaking the line and luggage located I charged through the airport, desperate to make my connecting flight. Sadly it was to no avail. The United check-in desk had closed 5 minutes before my leaden legs and breathless, overheating excuse for a body arrived.

But then a spell of heavenly fortune rescued me. A stewardess, with a kindly heart and eyes full of magic, fixed on her monitor. Her nimble fingers played the keyboard and in a flash I had a confirmed reservation on the last available flight which would zigzag me on my way via Cleveland, Ohio. Hours later I fell into my Kansas bed. Drained by events I was too tired to worry that my bags had failed to make the final leg with me.

Entrepreneurial leadership

Fortunately, my luggage was delivered the next day ahead of the conference evening opening at the prestigious Kauffman Foundation headquarters. As a newcomer I was made to feel most welcome and the audience of 250+ were treated to several slick and informative presentations where speakers claimed with confidence that Kansas was the most entrepreneurial city in the US.

Being British I naturally received such assertions with scepticism but events that followed that evening and over the next 2 days challenged my views. Read on and find out what I discovered since your opinion and feedback on the subject of who leads the entrepreneurial way is important and much appreciated.

A culture with entrepreneurial philanthropic roots 

Ewing Marion Kauffman built a highly successful pharmaceutical company out of the basement of his home. After selling his billion dollar empire in 1989 he poured millions into a Foundation to help young people, particularly those who were disadvantaged, get a quality education. In his view ‘enterprise’ was a key to developing individual potential as well the economy.

Importantly, Kauffman’s philanthropic vision is not an isolated case in the US. The Gates Foundation for example is globally renowned. And as you will read later, Ewing Kauffman isn’t the only individual in Kansas who is ploughing money back into the economy in order to help young people.

Focus for social enterprise development

Within the US, the Kauffman Foundation has grown to become the generative hub for developing not-for-profit companies. Stakeholders from individual enterprises to national government are involved and I sensed from listening to speakers that collective efforts are producing pragmatic shared learning as well as edgy research. All of this work is feeding a deeper understanding of new ways of working.

By way of example, Nate Olson shared how he was growing entrepreneurial communities throughout the US using coffee as a catalyst to bring people together. After he spoke I joined a long line to get a few minutes of his time. Bright, witty and highly engaging (he’s not destined for border control) Nate’s ’1 Million Cups’ weekly program is educating, and accelerating startup communities. Nate now works with Kauffman and together they are growing this simple yet highly innovative coffee-centred enterprise into a national and international program.

Standing ovation for 91 year old presenter

For the next 2 days the GCEC event was held at the Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Recently opened, this dedicated centre within the University of Missouri and Kansas City proved a perfect conference venue. It was also a multi-million dollar gift from Mr Bloch, a 91-year-old entrepreneur and local philanthropist.

As part of proceedings the youthful Mr Bloch co-hosted a Q&A session where he said his only regret was not starting his philanthropic Foundation sooner. Having learned more about Mr Kauffman the night before I started to wonder whether educational philanthropy within the entrepreneurship sector was dominated by the US?

That question should be answered when a £500k research project led by the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship into ‘global entrepreneurial education philanthropy’ is complete. Of course, Sir Tom Hunter (reportedly Scotland’s first home-grown billionaire) created the Foundation that funded the original Hunter Centre.

Innovative research

But it wasn’t just the scale of philanthropy that led me to write this piece. Prior to the Kansas venture I had pored over recent thinking and research into why new businesses fail and what helps them to survive. It was only when I stood back from the evidence that I realised all of the prominent shared sources I had accessed were US-based.

Sources included: Harvard Professor Tom Eisenmann and his research on ‘Ego and Startup Failure’; Steve Hogan and his work on business failure in Silicon Valley; David Skok on ‘Why Startups Fail’; and most prominently perhaps, Paul Graham’s analysis of ‘Why Startup Hubs work’.

For me, each author presented consistent and accurate messages and lessons. However, Paul Graham’s notion that ‘death is the default for start-ups and most towns don’t save them’ stood out as a new way of thinking. Paul contends that “In most places if you are a startup, people treat you as if you’re unemployed. Having people around you who care about what you are doing is an extraordinarily powerful force.”

To what extent do you think Paul Graham’s beliefs are true where you live?

Don’t get institutionalised

Finally, on my last day in Kansas I was fortunate to hear Michael Morris (Professor of Entrepreneurship – University of Florida) address the conference. Quoting George Bernard Shaw he made a powerful case for his colleagues to be transformative in their work, rather than succumb to the processes and powers of their institution.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

Professor Morris’ challenging and some may have thought ‘unreasonable behaviour’ chimed with me. To fully reach and support budding entrepreneurs teachers must be entrepreneurial too, he claimed. And he added, “This means we must discover opportunities, develop innovations, implement a constant stream of innovations, take calculated risks, leverage resources and act as guerrillas – all within our own academic settings.” Powerful and inspiring stuff; and in my opinion exactly what is needed to lead and equip people with the necessary mindset.

The presentation ended as it started. “Don’t get institutionalised.” Mike’s words were soft but the message was strong. The packed lecture theatre responded immediately with long and deserving applause.

And as I sat there in the auditorium I reflected on the trip and how the insular, suspicious behaviour I had first experienced at Dulles airport had been replaced completely by a pervading positive attitude of openness, sharing and a desire to look forward and get stuff done. My travels expose me to many different cultures, but few I have seen match the entrepreneurial spirit I witnessed during my stay in Kansas.

So does the US lead the entrepreneurial way? Whatever your standpoint please let me know your thoughts. I don’t want this to be the end of a Blog post, rather the start of a wider debate.



Defending the bad name of business

Mann böse mit VisitenkarteA few months back I attended an entrepreneurship conference that attracted people from all sectors.

The organisers chose to kick things off with a ‘motivational speaker’ and the billing stated our man of purpose was a ‘leading entrepreneur and businessman’.

Now, in my experience these things can go one of two ways. I won’t mess you about. He had a shocker.

Born-again businessman

The excruciating pain of listening to arrogant and superficial babble from a self-proclaimed squillionaire (who’s risen from apparent destitution) is as much fun as a dodgy take-away force-feeding you poodle.

Shelling the audience with multiple barrels of patronising and shallow b******t, we were told we too could reach Nirvana. However, getting ourselves anywhere close to his financial status required us to ‘dream’, ‘focus’, ‘work’ and ultimately ‘expect’. “I’m expecting him to finish” whispered my neighbour and friend Colin, who up to that point had sat in silence.

Colin’s mastery of the dry, pissed-off tone brilliantly illustrated the incongruous nature of the speaker’s tactless use of language and pitch. Lacing every sentence with ‘I’ and ‘Me’ he delivered his heavily masculine sermon with spellbinding omnipotence that must have left some thinking their time on earth had been little more than oxygen theft.

Our suffering lasted 15 minutes – or 900 seconds depending on one’s endurance strategy. As the presentation ended, Colin and I agreed we were highly motivated to get on with the rest of the event; which thankfully proved to be very worthwhile. So maybe there was method in the speaker’s madness.

The thorny issue of making money

But there is one point where I would side with Mr D. Motivation: business is first and foremost about making money. Whilst business owners possess many deeper reasons for running companies they also know that bringing in cold, hard cash has to be a priority – otherwise their business would cease trading. The survival instinct is extremely powerful.

But for some people the issue of making money in business is perceived as somehow grubby or dirty. We’ve all read about rich bankers, city ‘fat-cats’ and the like.

But to help demonstrate the point, my work with SimVenture means I’m continuously in touch with schools, colleges and universities and regularly present to and discuss a wide range of issues with lecturers, students and teachers.

And occasionally I will hear someone use the ‘business’ word and then immediately apologise for what they’ve just said – as if they’ve sworn. Such an ‘outburst’ may be followed up with the justification that some students or colleagues don’t like the notion of commercial business and/or the idea of profiting from others; this is then sometimes linked to a comment about the burgeoning popularity of social enterprises.

Let’s not apologise

Whilst the fine differences between a social enterprise and the ‘B’ word are for another blog post, I believe that given the opportunity we all have a responsibility to explain the absolute value and merit of seeking to make money through risk-taking and commercial trade. Surely we should never link the word ‘business’ with an ashamed and embarrassed apology?

I accept that some aspects of business are embarrassing. For example, pressure telephone selling, which does the name of business no favours at all is outrageous, but only a microscopic proportion of all firms are involved with this type of marketing. But having said that, how many educational courses help people to develop their sales skills?

By way of contrast, take a look at where you work. I’m grateful to Dell, Apple and o2 for making and providing brilliant IT equipment; the local builders and joiner that built my office; and to all the other commercial suppliers that provide a variety of goods at a competitive price and at a time that suits me. Without them I couldn’t do my job.

In all my experience of working in the private sector, I’ve learnt that most small businesses only ever have enough cash in the kitty to fund the next 1 to 3 months of existence. And as the last recession showed, many organisations are even more fragile. Such uncertainty highlights why ‘selling’ has to take a high priority and loss rather than profit is an easy position for any business to find itself in.

As traditional ‘career’ opportunities fragment and die, people entering the world of work need to be much better equipped to manage opportunity and uncertainty. Regardless of perspective or motivation, the benefits and truths of working in every sector should be shared and understood by all.

So we are right to celebrate business rather than apologise for it – although not in the mindless way of my squillionaire speaker. At the same time we need to recognise that sectors outside our own have different perspectives and motivations.

Key Learning Points: The public face of ‘business’ can sometimes give it a bad name; this is in part driven by the relentless pressure on commercial companies to make money to survive. It is easy to misunderstand this dynamic and thus misjudge ‘business’.

Romance your audience

John Keats

John Keats

John Keats, the famous 19th century poet, became part of the Italian family holiday this summer.

Dragging hefty luggage up to our 3rd floor apartment in central Rome’s searing heat, we eventually recovered to learn ’26 Piazza di Spagna’ (next to the Spanish Steps) was also Keats’ place of rest. In-fact, the floor below us was a museum dedicated to the great man.

Curiosity sparked (be assured, my literary knowledge wouldn’t fill a postcard) I selected one of the many biographies made available in our apartment. His life fascinated me.

Born in 1795, Keats discovered his poetic ability as a teenager and then worked tirelessly to fulfil his talent. He gave up his studies (to be a surgeon) so he could focus solely on writing; his first work was published in the Examiner when he was 20 (1816). Even though the death of his parents led to a life of poverty, he never wavered from his passion. His poetry is now world-renowned but it was decades after his death before his work was really recognised. Tuberculosis cut his life tragically short and he died in Rome aged 25.

Entrepreneurial traits

Absorbed in 200 year-old history I instinctively sensed a strong weave of entrepreneurial fabric in Keats’ character. Even though his life was difficult, his poetry is centred around creative imagination as well as beauty and typically possesses an optimistic view of the world. Living at a time of the industrial revolution his ‘romantic‘ writing helped forge a new brand of poetry that veered from the status quo. And Keats found that just like today, if you’re going to be different, you have to be thick skinned.

The critics of the time were often savage with their reviews of his work. For example, when the now famous Endymion was published in the Examiner in 1818, Keats’ poetry was condemned. But in a letter to a friend, he demonstrates real resilience in his philosophical outlook as well as deep strength of character:

“In Endymion I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe and took tea and comfortable advice – I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest…”

Seeking an audience

By choosing to earn his living as a poet Keats had to publish his work to make money. And just like the start-up who must develop and sell a new service or product, he had to connect with an audience.

As entrepreneurs know only too well, the journey to the point where a relationship with an audience is sustainable can be fraught with difficulty and setback. Fear of rejection and failure as well as criticism from others (the journey’s ‘rocks’ and ‘quicksands’) unfortunately prevent many ideas from leaving the ‘harbour’. Having faith and being prepared to ‘leap headlong into the sea’ requires bravery and a measure of self-belief.

It seems to me that the poet and entrepreneur share a similar space. Creating something completely new requires skill, imagination and a certain talent. Being prepared and able to share the new creation publicly opens up a world of new experience and invokes a common suite of positive and negative feelings that all need to be understood and harnessed.

So how can you use poetry to connect with and reach your audience?

Inspirational poetry

There’s a ‘library’ of poems out there which have all been written to inspire people to make the most of their lives. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem entitled ‘If’ (which Andy Murray will have read part of on his walk out to win Wimbledon in 2013) is a famous example. Less well known is the beautifully written ‘How do you tackle your work’ by Edgar Guest and I’m grateful to Acme Printing for helping me find the wonderfully apt second verse:

“You can do as much as you think you can,
But you’ll never accomplish more;
If you’re afraid of yourself, young man,
There’s little for you in store.
For failure comes from the inside first,
It’s there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you’re going to do it.”

You’ll also find several suitable references to Dead Poets Society on the web; but if you’re serious about including or embedding the use of poems more widely within your own work, I thoroughly recommend the Poetry Foundation as an excellent source of great material.

Professorial approval

And of course, if you are seeking someone who is a seasoned user of poetry in teaching and training circles, I suggest you make contact with the highly engaging Alistair Fee – a well renowned thought leader and Professor of Innovation at Queens University Belfast. Professor Fee is convinced that poetry adds real value in class.

“The joy of poetry” says Alistair “is enjoying clever use of language in which meaning is squeezed into a few words and where the reader has to use imagination to ferret out the deep significance. And innovators and entrepreneurs must work like poets because they require patience, tenacity, determination, vision and commitment in order to succeed.”

Professor Fee also says that poems such as ‘Rough Country’ (Dana Gioia) really work with students because the words encourage a sense of risk and ‘true grit’.

“Students want to be released,” says Alistair. “They want to be told that one is allowed to be bold and daring, that we need explorers and tough guys who dare to think differently and do things that many will not attempt…”

Whether an Italian holiday counts as exploration I’m not sure. But homeward bound and gazing from my window seat aboard the plane, I considered how best to reference poetry and hitchhiking. With the Italian Dolomites beneath me and only the occasional wisp of cloud between us the answer appeared quite naturally and I felt compelled to write.


Life that meanders on even keel
Suffers usual mists n’ wasteful feel
So seize it now, head up, alone
Step out to failure, and test unknown

Be brave, accept rejection’s wrath
In patience, sense the strength you have
For fortune’s arrows will be drawn
Rejoice the time of distance worn

Engage the giving, discover new
Beliefs, perspectives and what’s true
And as each odyssey finds its end
Stand proud once more and go again.

Like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur travels a different path and thus gains new perspectives. Self-reliance and the ability to deal with uncertainty are important traits; the ongoing pursuit of goals requires strength of character, resilience and the acceptance that failure and rejection are constant companions. Every journey offers up fresh opportunities to meet new people, learn and discover personal ‘highs’ (and lows) that were otherwise untouchable. Ultimately, each journey must end – and the process starts again.

Key Learning Points: Poetry is a powerful vehicle with which to engage people who seek enterprise and entrepreneurship skills. Poems may not be in vogue, but leaders of an audience must be brave, different and able to rise above failure as well as the critics.



Flavour of the Umph!

UmphTrophyBeing 25 years’ self-employed I feel I’ve developed a ‘nose’ for judging whether a business or project might work.

The personal journey over the last quarter century has had its mix of success and failure; critical experience informing the senses as to whether something new can progress sufficiently so it bears fruit in the longer-term.

Sustainability is critical

For me, the issue of sustainability is a key ingredient. Moving from recession to real economic recovery is going to take time and short-term thinking doesn’t really help.

People and organisations that over-spice their work with ill-thought through ideas and quick gains play a dangerous game; just look at banks and the bad taste they’ve left.

That said, enterprising people who create new projects or businesses must draw on huge levels of energy and resilience from the outset. They must also possess the ability to adapt quickly because economic uncertainty mixed with market fragility/volatility means even the best made plans and forecasts quickly become round-file fodder.

So turning the ‘new’ into something ‘sustainable’ is a fine balancing act fraught with challenge and risk.

Now, this is the juncture where I typically tender a hitchhiking analogy; but my mind’s blank. But what springs to mind is a rocket using vast fuel reserves to counter earth’s gravitational pull, and then accessing a separate energy source and sophisticated engineering to fulfil its space journey. A galaxy hitchhiking guide. Now that’s a thought…

Umph! leading by example

One new and innovative project that made it ‘off the ground’ in 2010 (and is now attracting increasing amounts of regional and national attention) is Umph!; an innovative event held annually at Huddersfield Town Football Club.

Brainchild of Grant Thornton’s ‘Educate to Innovate‘ programme, Umph! gives students aged 16-19 an opportunity to develop enterprise, employability and entrepreneurial skills as well as participate in a SimVenture business simulation competition.

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

And this month a record number of schools & colleges from throughout Yorkshire gathered again to participate in the third event of its kind. In addition, 10 speakers including renowned polar explorer, Mark Wood, X Factor’s Executive Producer Siobhan Greene and football club Chairman and entrepreneur Dean Hoyle each gave of their time to share their wisdom and experience with participants.

But how and why has Umph! become such a success and what can be learnt from the process?

Secrets of success

From the very outset the organising team focused tightly on providing for schools, colleges and their students. Everyone involved gave of their time and/or resources which meant many traditional event costs were waived. The collective unselfish attitude and reduced financial risk created a powerful trust-based partnership which lasts to this day.

One of the biggest early hurdles was securing participant interest in the first Umph! event. Academic institutions receive numerous off-site invitations, so competition for time was always going to be tough. And in 2010/11 cuts to education budgets were widespread and increased government legislation made it more difficult for students to travel off-site.

The 16 month lead-in time for the first event in 2011 proved crucial and ultimately attracted 14 schools and colleges (in 2013, 29+ signed up). Even though event entry was free and each of the 4 members within the winning team were promised the latest iPad (thank you sponsors), huge effort was needed to attract the early ‘pioneers’.

Common purpose unites

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Two years on and everyone who attends Umph! talks about how much they have enjoyed and benefited from the event. Lead teachers are keen to sign up immediately for the following year and organisers, speakers and sponsors are visibly moved by the impact the day has had on 100+ young people.

Umph! is sustainable because the organisers never sought short-term rewards and prioritised giving over what could be gained. This philosophy united stakeholders who have then collectively offered time, energy and absolute commitment to a clear and common purpose.

The richness and diversity of all the people involved with Umph! means every participant that takes part benefits in their own unique way. Creating such a dynamic is crucial because the individual as well as collective sense of involvement, achievement and success generates the necessary momentum for future years.

And since people want to be involved again, positive word of mouth promotion spreads quickly; meaning far less energy is required to persuade others to participate.

Grant Thornton deserve huge praise for making Umph! a reality. Sandra O’Neill and her highly professional team based in Leeds are already looking to organise an even bigger and better day in Huddersfield in 2014.

And such is the flavour of Umph! there is now a hunger for the event to be replicated in other parts of the country. If it whets your appetite, get in touch with Sandra.

Key Learning Points: Developing the momentum to make a new project or business work over the long-term needs to involve people who buy into a common purpose. Hard work, patience, giving first and ongoing collaboration are other key ingredients. 



It could all go horribly wrong…

HorriblyWrongSetting out for Loughborough University (to guest speak at their entrepreneur’s ‘ThinkBig’ awards) I was reminded of the insight and wisdom of Patrick Awuah. Earlier in June I had listened to him talk at a GBSN conference in Tunisia.

To give you some context, Patrick left Ghana as a teenager to attend a US college. Qualifications gained, he then spent nearly a decade with Microsoft before exiting the commercial world to return to his home nation and establish Ashesi University. This institution’s bold mission is to ‘educate African leaders of exceptional integrity and professional ability’ and as this TED talk testifies, his work is gaining global renown.

What struck me about Patrick’s words in Tunis was the eloquence and clarity of his thinking as well as vision for education in Ghana. When discussing the need for entrepreneurial leadership he talked about the importance of creating a ‘framework of uncertainty’ within which students could learn. His words resonated with me completely and I was inspired by the purpose and scale of his challenge.

A framework of uncertainty

The world of work is a very unsure and unclear place. The traditional certainties and careers enjoyed by previous generations no longer exist. In this global economic malaise, preparing people for such uncertainty is vital but it is as much about how we teach as what we teach.

Writing for the Guardian (also in June 2013) about teaching methodology, Professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Sugata Mitra, argues that we must seek “Questions that engage learners in a world of unknowns. Questions that will occupy their minds through their waking hours and sometimes their dreams.

“The ability to find things out quickly and accurately [will] become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems [will] be critical. That’s a skill that future employers [will] admire immensely.”

Maverick to mainstream

Both Patrick and Sugata are educational entrepreneurs. In their view, empowering the curious mind so that it is ready to take on the challenges posed by work and societies today is absolutely critical; as opposed to rewarding people for their memory skills or ability to gain a top grade because they complied with the exact rigours of a particular course.

It’s well documented (by people such as Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson) that our education systems are rooted in the age of industrial revolution. Successive governments the world over have failed to modernise matters and it’s little wonder that young people are not being properly prepared for work. But economist Tim Harford would probably argue that it’s the maverick teachers who must be the catalyst for fundamental change. The challenge (if things are to really change) is to make today’s ‘maverick’ tomorrow’s ‘mainstream’.

Entrepreneurship empathy

The Loughborough students I met at the awards evening were all experiencing different levels of risk and uncertainty at the start of their entrepreneurial journey. However, with all whom I spoke I detected a zeal for fresh thinking and a hungry desire to seize new opportunities and create change.

My guest speaking ‘brief’ was to share some of my experience of starting and growing businesses. However, I felt that in order to empathise and hopefully connect with the audience I had to do more than simply offer a few stories. It was important for me to feel the uncertainty of their experience, speak from the heart and recall that ‘sensory cocktail’  of being excited and scared in the very same moment.

Whilst I thought through what I wanted to say, more time was spent considering a wider plan for the presentation in order to enhance the opportunity of identifying with the audience.  To show my appreciation for their chosen route in life (but aware it could all go horribly wrong) I decided to hitchhike the 100+ miles to the event.

HitchhikingOne mad-keen fisherman, a Welsh wagon driver and a woman who rescued me from a long wait on the M18 and I was at Junction 23 of the M1. With sufficient time to spare I even walked the remaining 2.5 miles into town. The hitch back to Yorkshire the following day was more straightforward.

Critically, the sense of achievement, overcoming of odds, meeting new people, being self reliant and operating within a framework of uncertainty will stay in my memory for decades. By contrast and example, the train journey from Aberdeen to York the previous week will soon be forgotten.

Firing the emotional neurons

For me, entrepreneurship is best considered not so much a subject but a suite of feelings surrounding a particular issue; and these feelings are typically generated when we are able to operate within Patrick Awuah’s framework of uncertainty. Critically, when this paradigm is allowed to thrive in an educational environment our emotions fire up (hope, wonder, surprise, confidence, frustration and disappointment etc.) and as a result we become far more stimulated and alert both as students and teachers.

So thank you to everyone at Loughborough University for organising and participating in a great celebration of entrepreneurial achievement. Offers for me to hitchhike to other events have already been received and I am eager to take up the challenges. However, please be aware that it could all go horribly wrong…

Key Learning Points: I need to follow the theme of this article and break away from the traditional, expected three-line ‘KLP’ structure that has been offered in all previous posts.

To help people learn about their entrepreneurial talent and enable them to contribute solutions to local, national and international problems we need to empathise with them and facilitate thinking. To do this we need to create the circumstances that allow enterprising minds to thrive. As Sir Ken Robinson says when quoting Abraham Lincoln’s speech from December 1862:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew.”



Death of a telephone salesman*

TelephoneMost people who try to sell to me over the phone are crap at their job. What’s worse is the fact you can tell in seconds that they’ve received some god-awful training which might as well be called ‘How to shaft the customer’.

For me, sales shouldn’t have such a bad name. But when you are repeatedly treated like a moron by people who seemingly don’t care about the customer, then the profession perhaps deserves its woeful status.

However, from my experience of working in the industry, some quality training and appreciation of the customer can transform the performance of any salesperson. But before highlighting my thoughts, here are three examples of recent bad experiences I’ve had of people selling to me over the phone.

Bad selling in practice

A car dealership (think German and 5 linked rings) rang in response to a car inquiry I made. When I took the call, the handset at the other end rattled noisily in my ear as it was picked up; Surprised by his apparent laziness I was then subjected to a barrage of warp-speed waffle. The opening was a disaster and it went quickly downhill as a further onslaught of non-requested technical jargon was hurled my way. No sale.

A claims company rang about an ‘accident’ I had apparently experienced. “And when was this?” I enquired, simultaneously counting my body parts just in case I had inadvertently suffered a health mishap as well as a dose of amnesia. “We don’t know, but we can help you claim,” he replied, lying through his teeth. I told him he was talking bollocks and the call ended. No one wants to deal with liars. No sale.

And finally, an investment company salesman called and used a fast-paced, arrogant tone and a script which screamed ‘control the customer’.

“Hello Mr Harrington, my name’s ‘BlahBlah Posh’ calling from ‘Flipperty’ Investments. How are you today? There’s nothing nice about this approach and certainly no question as to whether the timing of the call was convenient. So I ignored the inquiry after my welfare and asked why he was calling. Apparently he wanted to post a brochure about exciting new investment opportunities with nanotechnology. I suggested the information be emailed but I was told he had no email access. Really!?? So being busy and disinterested I said it wasn’t for me. But instead of listening he simply changed tack because that’s what the script said. Suffice to say that any kind of trust vanished up the phone wire; I wasn’t about to consider giving this complete stranger my hard-earned wonga. No sale.

Top 10 tips for telephone selling

In my opinion, the application of good sales practice can help any business flourish. Here are my thoughts on what you should do:

1                    Train and practice

Whilst the goal for all salespeople is to make sales, no one will ever buy from you if they don’t like you or don’t trust you. Since people only ever hear the words you use and your tone of voice, it’s vital you develop communication skills through good training and repeatedly practising the questions you want to ask and the statements you want to make (alongside someone who can offer objective feedback).

2                    Become a problem solver

People typically enjoy buying but they don’t like being sold to. As an effective salesperson you need to develop the ability to solve problems which necessarily means asking good questions first and listening before presenting solutions. Don’t be tempted into lengthy product descriptions just because it’s easier than asking questions of the customer. When you do solve a problem and thus meet or exceed expectations, people will be more inclined to like you and repeat purchase.

3                    Take your time

Slow down -don’t rush the sales process. Speaking quickly makes you sound nervous and unnerves the other person. Another point, pressuring people to make a decision when they really don’t want to either results in tension or people back off completely.

4                    Build relationships and trust over time

Relationships take time to build and so don’t seek big decisions too quickly. If you’re calling a potential customer for the first time, keep the call and any requests simple. To build trust make sure you are honest, fulfil any promises and then get back in touch at the agreed time. Always expect sales to take multiple calls – if they don’t, it’s a bonus.

5                    Take responsibility

Don’t expect the customer to work for you. If the person with whom you want to speak is not available then take responsibility for calling back and update your written records accordingly. Don’t leave messages asking to be called back.

6                    Be a great listener

Listening is perhaps the most important skill for a salesperson to master. Take notes when listening, never interrupt and let the other person finish their sentence before talking; these are all small skills that once combined, demonstrate that you value the customer. You can also ask ‘Confirm’ and ‘Clarify’ questions to check what you’ve heard. All of this helps to build rapport between the buyer and seller.

7                    Expect rejection

Expect to be rejected. No one sells every time even if your product is fantastic.  Rejection is not personal so keep it in context; if you’ve done your job professionally there should be an opportunity to ask to call back at a future date to see if circumstances have changed.

8                    Be positive

Use a positive tone of voice but also be you. People don’t enjoy monotonic sludge but at the same time salespeople who are overly cheery can come across as insincere and thus untrustworthy.

9                    Deliver on promises

Always deal in the truth, do what you say you are going to do and when an order results ensure you thank the customer. This behaviour builds rapport, sustains the relationship and enhances your chances of future sales and referrals.

10                Reward and review

Schedule time for sales and when the target number of calls you want to make are done on any given day, reward yourself (chocolate is good) and reflect on your work. Don’t hide mistakes by pretending what went wrong didn’t happen. To improve, discuss all learning with someone who can offer an objective constructive viewpoint.

Key Learning Points: Telephone sales work is not easy. However, if you treat people as you would want to be treated, then here’s an inexpensive opportunity to build long-term sustainable relationships that will help your business grow. 


*With acknowledgement to the great American playwright, Arthur Miller.


Show off when the show’s on

Attention Bullhorn Megaphone Sends Warning MessageExhibiting at events and shows can be a highly effective way for small businesses to promote their products and services.

Just like the hitchhiker, you put yourself right in front of passing potential customers, waiting for someone to take interest and stop by.

Attending exhibitions is fun – and if you get it all right, it can also be highly profitable; over the past 25 years I’ve spent thousands of hours on stands around the world. But it’s not always a bag of laughs and just like all other promotional activities you have to accept you may not recoup your costs.

So if you want to exhibit what should you do to maximise the marketing opportunity, make best use of time and minimise the financial risk? Here are my top ten tips:

Top 10 Tips for exhibiting

1. Profile attendees

Before making the decision to exhibit anywhere find out about the audience being promised by the organiser. Ideally you need to know both the profile and volume of attendees, so request details. Then ask yourself what proportion of the delegates fit your target customer profile? In my experience, I’ve found small events (100 – 250 delegates) offering a high proportion of people who fit my market to be more effective than large events that offer a small proportion of the people I am targeting.

2. Cost the risk

As part of your preparation, work out the full event cost (include promotional materials, travel, accommodation, equipment hire and all stand costs). To calculate the ‘risk’, consider how many sales (at an average sales value) you need to make in order to breakeven. However, also bear in mind that there is typically a lead time for sales to be concluded so don’t plan for people to necessarily order at your stand. If your gut tells you the costs outweigh the benefits be cautious about committing.

3. One simple message works best

When creating stand promotional material, keep everything simple and easy for people passing the stand to understand. Whilst you should make your stand attractive, it’s a common mistake for exhibitors to overdress their space and fill every inch with information that conveys different messages. If people passing your stand are confused by what you offer, they will continue walking and no inquiries or sales will result.

4. Provide incentives for stand visitors

Give people an incentive to visit your stand. You can either provide an inexpensive ‘giveaway’ such as pens/sweets, a product trial or a free entry raffle draw and/or offer discount for orders placed during the show. By rewarding visitors with a special offer (exclusive to the event) you increase the goodwill between you and the customer and improve the chances of an order being placed there and then.

For reference, in my experience, the average order time can be several months after a show taking place yet all the costs have to be met in advance. Offers that lead to quick sales are great for cashflow.

5. Create movement and interaction

Stands that look dull and boring don’t attract visitors. But if you can create movement or include an activity that creates curiosity and interest, people are far more likely to stop by. And nothing pulls in people like a crowd. By way of example, the SimVenture team has exhibited at the annual IEEC event for a number of years and in 2012 the team felt an interactive element was needed to maintain interest levels.

Cards used for 'SimVenture Play your Cards Right'

Cards used for ‘SimVenture Play your Cards Right’

A game based on the theme of ‘Play Your Cards Right’ was created and throughout the event’s 3 days we were inundated with requests to participate. The show was a great success on all levels.

6. Build rapport with people

Treat people who pass or visit your stand as you would like to be treated. A common mistake (and a pet hate) is the exhibitor who asks one question of the innocent passer-by to get their attention and then spends the next 10 minutes telling them all about their wonderful gizmo. Give the poor souls who take interest in you a chance to talk about themselves by asking questions and listening to the answers. Building rapport with people through questioning and listening creates confidence and helps you understand how your product/service fits with the customer’s needs.

7. Gather contact information

Ensure you collect the contact details of everyone who takes an interest in your products and services at an event. Without the data you can’t follow the inquiry up at a later date or inform people of future offers. Record the information electronically or use a pad and pen – if you know your stand is going to be particularly busy create a simple system so stand visitors can record their contact details for you!

8. Wifi

Since event attendance means you are out of the office it’s almost inevitable that you will need to access your website or email whilst away. If you rely on email or website access then check with the event organisers that they offer free Wifi as part of the package. If the organisers want to charge an exorbitant fee (and some do) consider investing in a mobile phone with Personal Hotspot access.

9. Follow-up

When the event finishes and everyone goes home, it’s time for you to go to work and follow-up all inquiries. It’s important not to be too pushy and certainly don’t pressure people into anything; but a short personal email to thank people for their interest is a good place to start.

10. Evaluate

Finally, wait two or three months to fully evaluate the success of any event. Whatever you do, don’t sign up to exhibit again until you have completed the review. Waiting a couple of months allows you to be completely objective and means you can properly assess the overall financial position of the show. It’s quite possible that your costs outweigh sales at first-time events so be careful not to judge matters purely on financial performance.

Key Learning Points Use exhibitions to promote your business and reach new customers. Plan and prepare carefully and think through the whole experience from the customer’s viewpoint in order to maximise your chances of event success.