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.”



Mind-blowing passion in the back bedroom

Reading anything by Bill Bryson makes me smile and laugh out loud.

As a young man, Mr Bryson discovered the joys of hitchhiking. Driven by a thirst for adventure he spent two summers travelling around Europe with the aid of his thumb. He didn’t know it at the time, but the accumulated experience when combined with his journalistic skills (acquired later) would make him a best-selling author (and a mint).

Whilst Bill Bryson has made a real success of his working life, he probably doesn’t see himself as an ‘entrepreneur’. Yet, his desire to explore and discover, his preparedness to learn and ultimately his ability to apply his talents, are the exact qualities needed to succeed in your own business. So what stops us matching Mr Bryson’s achievements?

Poor use of talents

Sir Ken Robinson who I referenced in ‘Present Yourself: Principles and Pitfalls‘ talks eloquently and brilliantly on the TED website about the world facing a crisis of human resources because we ‘make poor use of our natural talents’. What he means is that as human beings we are all gifted but many of us fail to make use of what we have.

Sir Ken adds that he meets all kinds of people who don’t think they are any good at anything and ‘endure their lives’ and ‘wait for the weekend’. In contrast he also meets people who ‘love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else’.

The latter group he contends includes people who have worked hard to discover their talents and have then been able to put them to good use. Robinson says that just like natural resources (gas, oil etc.) talents are not not just lying around; as individuals we have to ‘create the circumstances where they show themselves’.

Bill Bryson loves what he does and began creating the circumstances for himself by hitchhiking through Europe and seeing things from a new angle. I doubt he had any kind of long-term plan back then but by doing something different he created a reservoir of insightful knowledge that when mixed with an ability and desire to write, provided a literary edge. And he’s managed to fully exploit his talents and in doing so has had a ball.

Emotional discoveries create desire for change

It took several years of setting up and running businesses for my collective business and personal experience to lead me to discover my real passion in life. At 34 I had been running companies for 11 years but in doing so had discovered something about myself that was nothing to do with the focus of the work with which I was involved on a daily basis.

Being self-employed and in constant contact with like-minded people, I was seeing increasing amounts of evidence that traditional approaches to teaching and training budding entrepreneurs were not working; yet no one with the power to create change was doing anything about it. Even though many people were failing within the first 12 months of running a business (or making the same mistakes as all that had gone before) education and enterprise training courses were not learning from those failures and/or adapting their pedagogy. Delivery methods centred largely on one person telling many what he/she believed they needed to know; and often I found people were being taught untruths because the teacher/trainer didn’t have the appropriate experience.

Despite suggestions, proposals and pleas for change, no one in local, regional (remember the RDAs?) or central government wanted to support what I saw. Looking back, I think the moment I finally decided to have the courage of my own conviction (or put up with the status quo) was the day I was asked to be a judge at a business planning competition at a local university. Listening to uninspired student groups (with a keen eye on the cash prizes) talk unconvincingly about their idea for a business (and how successful it would be) made me realise I was becoming part of the status quo. This was perhaps the first-time I realised how the entrepreneurship education industry can be clothed like an Emperor.

Creating a business simulation

In my view resources were needed that allowed people to practice creating and running a small business in an authentic way. It was critical to provide people with the opportunity to make decisions, deal with consequences and then be able to talk about them and reflect with skilled people and others who could question and offer sound advice. An authentic business simulation seemed like an obvious answer.

Since I didn’t possess the skills I persuaded my brother Paul (software designer), to work with me. To cut a long story short we spent 4 years (2002 – 2006) building ‘SimVenture’. He was based in Guildford and I was near York and in that time thousands of hours and thousands of pounds were spent. Ultimately we would create a resource allowing budding entrepreneurs to practice creating and growing a virtual business, and thus be able to learn in a highly personal, authentic and hands-on way.

Fuelled by a common desire to challenge the norm as well as a burning passion to make a real difference, we worked tirelessly in two back bedrooms. The stakes were high but we always believed in ourselves and through those 4 years we learnt so much. On more than one occasion we nearly gave up.

But SimVenture launched in October 2006, went onto win several awards and has been a joy to work with ever since. The team is a bit larger now but we all love what we do, learn new stuff everyday and are making the best use of our talents.

Key Learning Points: Look around, look to yourself and dig to discover your talents. When you combine skills with a real passion to do something, you are much better placed to make a difference and have fun with all aspects of your life. 


Present yourself: Principles and pitfalls

Stood by the roadside thumbing lifts was an empowering experience. Drivers who stopped validated what I was doing and thus hitchhiking became meaningful, worthwhile and rewarding.

Whilst it wasn’t rocket science, I always thought carefully in advance about my appearance as well as how and where I stood. And I looked at the driver as the vehicle approached. Simply put, by thinking what would influence the driver I was doing my best to sell the idea of being offered a lift.

As the pace of life speeds up, so we have to make more decisions and judgements than ever before. Consequently, our frontal brain lobes develop automatic short-cuts and become wired to rely more heavily on first impressions. We just can’t cope with the amount of information and data streaming into our heads. Hitchhikers today probably have a maximum of two seconds to influence a driver’s decision. So to get the desired result, a simple and audience-focused presentation style is critical.

Presentation Principles

Influencing a whole audience as part of a professional presentation is typically a more complicated process because there are far more people with whom to communicate and greater amounts of information to convey. However, the fundamental principles learnt from hitchhiking hold.

A sound presentation needs to inspire confidence in an audience and the message must be conveyed in a clear and easy to digest format. Presenters must also prepare and look the part. To see someone executing these principles brilliantly, watch this video of a leading voice of education  ‘Sir Ken Robinson’.

Presentation Failure

Unfortunately, far too many presentations fail to get close to the quality of Sir Ken’s work because keeping things simple (i.e. one man talking without a script to an audience on stage) typically requires a combination of: lots of practice; experience; confidence; and passion for the subject. Yet you can do it if you are prepared to put in the effort.

However, there’s another fundamental reason why presentations are not as good as they should be. And this one’s much easier to remedy. According to advertising guru Jon Steel, presentations are poorer because of the way ‘PowerPoint’ is used.

Jon’s excellent and highly recommendable book ‘Perfect Pitch’ highlights how and why we use PowerPoint as a crutch. Not only does this make us lazy but it also takes the focus of the presentation away from our ability to communicate directly and passionately with the audience. How many times have you sat and been bored by someone going through endless PowerPoint slides, each one packed with mind-numbing information? For top ‘tips’ on this subject, read the blog post: ‘If you’re going to screw up a pitch, here’s how’.

For over 25 years Jon Steel has experienced remarkable success at the top of the global advertising industry. His book outlines precisely how to present ideas convincingly (like hitchhiking; simple, personal and audience focus are key messages). Reading through the pages you will also discover how people like Sir Ken Robinson are able to stand on stage, talk for 20 minutes without barely moving and then receive a standing ovation.

Entrepreneurs must constantly pitch ideas. And employers are always looking for people who know how to deliver sound presentations and influence the thinking of others. If you can communicate with an audience in a confident, clear and meaningful manner you will have a special talent that will last you a lifetime.

Key Learning Points: Convey clear messages in presentations by thinking about your audience & keeping things clear. Watch presenters like Sir Ken Robinson to hone skills and avoid using PowerPoint if it detracts from and dilutes the quality of what you say.