Doing far too much not well enough


"Spaghetti alla chitarra" and Bologn...

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Riding for a fall

My wife and I have been away recently, which has meant eating in restaurants rather more than we usually do. I love restaurant watching. So often one can see in a very short time the very best business practices and some of the worst.

We ate in a hotel several times. The first time the food and service was really quite good. The second and third times were really less than successful. After the second, maybe we shouldn’t have dined there a third time, but circumstances rather meant that we had to.

What’s cooking?

The third time of dining the menu was fairly unappealing but we tried to pick our way through. My wife’s starter was good but then it was plainly Waitrose’s finest lemon sole goujons so I would expect it to be. My starter was spaghetti bolognese. At least it was supposed to be. It was really only beef mince in a not very nice gravy on a bit of spaghetti. If either my wife or I had produced such a poor “spag bol” for the other, words would certainly have been said. Maybe we should have volunteered to take over in the kitchen.

Two of our party ordered trout. It was dried out and burned round the edges. Whether it had come out of the pan like that or just sat on very hot dinner plates for too long before being delivered I have no idea, but the dishes were not fit for purpose. When we complained about the fish and the menu we were told that we could have ordered from an “a la carte” menu which we had no idea existed because the waiters never mentioned it. It was nowhere to be seen in the restaurant.

Run too fast, fly too high

However, the main problem was the kitchen. The chef might be quite capable but is trying to do everything on his own. He cheats with the goujons. He can’t watch the trout, which should have had his total attention while it was cooked, plated and out of the kitchen. There is simply too much to do and he fails. He probably couldn’t have coped with the “a la carte” menu anyway.

This is all too often the way many small businesses fail. They try to do too much without the resources to do anything properly.

I subcontract quite a lot. I decline to do quite a lot of work I am asked to do because it is not valuable or cost-effective and because someone else would do it better than I. In my business we do what we are good at and so that we can provide the best service. That is what most of us in business do, don’t we?

Do you see businesses who are under-resourced and overstretched? If you can’t stand the heat…

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Conversations make team work

As you may remember, I believe that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening is the bit where we actually take in what someone is saying rather than just appearing to be polite by giving them time.

Listening involves thinking about what we are hearing. It involves being aware of our surroundings. At work it involves knowing what is happening around us. It involves actual communication – a two-way process – rather than just hearing instructions. Listening is about joined-up teamwork, about getting things done.

Not listening and not communicating is when things go wrong. Not listening amounts to poor management. I see it in large companies who fail their customers. I see it in the public sector to do with planning, and in the UK National Health Service. If people don’t listen, or if workers don’t expect to be heard so they stay silent, things go wrong. Customers suffer. Patients in hospital and outside quite literally suffer. Yet the workers who are supposed to serve them have collectively all the knowledge they need to deliver the right service. They don’t talk, they don’t ask, and they DON’T LISTEN.

You and I know that we need to listen to each other. We need to listen to the people who work for us. Mostly we need to listen to our customers. I am sure you are listening, aren’t you?

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Rare weekend off

Not so rare weekend off

Someone in my line of business tweeted the other day “I am having a rare weekend off. I hope the weather stays fine”. Well, I think the weather probably held up and delivered, but what a statement, or should I say admission?

Of course the world has changed. Because of technology, many people like me work partly or wholly from home, but we can work almost anywhere we can get on-line, which is actually really literally almost anywhere. Whether or not our work is that mobile, it doesn’t mean that we should work all the time. We need down-time with our families, and to pursue interests which put no pressure on us otherwise we are bound to get stale and perform less well. There are studies that support this and even that not taking a lunch break makes us less productive during the day.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and the same would apply to make Jill dull too.

Then again, consider the treadmill of having to work most weekends. What is likely to be wrong here? Probably the Tweeter likes to do everything himself. I guess that makes him truly self-employed in that he works like an employee rather than someone who runs a business. Anyway, he can’t be good at everything. He can’t enjoy all the work he does. Why can’t he subcontract the work he doesn’t like or isn’t good at and still make money on it?

Running a small independent business I can choose to work when I like, though I try to be accessible to clients at reasonable times, which do not include evenings and weekends except by prior arrangement. I can take time off when family members need to be taken for medical appointments. I can go on a midweek picnic, though not in mid-December. I have people to answer my telephone.

I have most weekends off. I take time off during the week. I work when it suits me, often early in the morning. I spend time with my wife. I go for walks. My business doesn’t run me. I run it and I have help. I don’t have all the answers, but I have some of them.

Do you have help, or are you a slave to yourself 24/7?

Loneliness is such a sad affair

It is a lonely affair being in business on your own or just in a small business of a few people. There is also the question of fear of other businesses in the same line, seeing them as competitors. I don’t think that is the right attitude.

Since I have been in business I have got to know many business owners who work in the same areas as I do, especially through networking, but also because I have sought them out at conferences and seminars. Of these people nine out of ten are friendly and we try to help each other with ideas. There is always the odd one who is afraid to give anything away. That is their loss.


It is incredibly useful to have others around us. I work with others in allied businesses such as bookkeepers and accountants, and this means I can provide services which I could not otherwise do, and also have more satisfied clients who get a more rounded service.

So, cooperation can lead to the big project. We always need to use our judgement as to financial risk if something goes wrong, but we do that anyway. If we are comfortable working with other business people we can manage much bigger and more profitable projects than we could on our own. It doesn’t mean we have to make long term commitments to joint ventures, though we might. It does mean we can enter into larger and more profitable projects.

Some people are afraid they will give too much away about their way of working, but that is a bit silly. Unless we have a unique piece of intellectual property, how can it matter? Do you remember those kids at your school who shielded what they were writing from supposedly prying eyes, and even from the teacher pacing around the room. I have no problem showing people what I do and how I do it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can get to do it as well as I can, but even if they do, there is plenty of business out there. Really there is.

Working efficiently

Working with others is satisfying. It can be very efficient too. My builder friend (he knows who he is, don’t you Trevor?) said that with many jobs it is better to send two people because one might take three days to do it whereas two might well do it in a day. Two heads are better than one as are four hands better than two, and it provides variety as well as profit.

If you get a project you think might be too big for your business, phone a friend before you turn it down. There may be a lot of satisfaction to be had as well as a lot of profit and a happy customer. Do you work that way sometimes?

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Ageism, realism and working life in the twenty-first century

My starting point

Lake District work opportunities

As many of you may know, when I lost my job nine years ago I came to realise that at the age I was, I was not allowed to have another employment. I was too old, by which I mean I was somewhat over forty. It took a while for me to understand that was the problem. For a while I laboured under the illusion that there were not many jobs about and that was why the recruitment agencies had trouble finding me interviews. Ageism is a bitter pill to swallow, as many people who have just come out of employment will be finding out.

My solution

Realistically, the only way I could earn a living was to start my own business. That is why I call myself an “accidental entrepreneur”. I have actually set up several businesses because I had to get money coming into the household. I had a specialist field from my employment days, but I also had to do whatever it took to try and achieve some inflow of money.

Over the years since and especially at the beginning I had various short term contracts and also took subcontracted work from another firm. Effectively the services I provided have helped businesses to avoid taking on an employee. I had no security in doing what I did.

Two of the firms I helped just told me they didn’t need me any more, one with no notice at all; I had no expectations of a continuing presence with them so I had to shrug my shoulders and move on to the next assignment, and of course I had been steadily building up my own business and individual clients. My business is both B2B and B2C, to use the jargon. It is a long while since I had to depend on just one or two clients for an income stream. Nowadays I subcontract quite a lot myself. It is an efficient way of doing things.

The ageist job market

Not much has changed since I left employment for the last time. If anything, the work market for older people is much worse. There is legal protection against age discrimination within an employment but once a reason for redundancy is identified or contrived there is little an employee can do.

Age discrimination in the job market is hard to prove. One can be annoyed by an ad such as the technical writing opportunity for a “newly qualified” person I saw yesterday. Newly qualified? We know what they mean.

Older people want to work. They are just not allowed to be employed, as Julian Knight reminded us the other day when writing in the Independent. Apparently there are those who think that older workers are just standing in the way of the young. I agree with the hypothesis that a younger manager would rarely think to take on a person twenty or thirty years older because

  • the person will be too slow
  • the person will be off sick a lot
  • the person will show up the manager by knowing more and being better than he or she is

We know that most “old-hands” would take fewer sickies, be as quick as anyone and know better than to embarrass the manager, but these prejudices remain.

The work market of the future

I don’t claim to have second sight, but since I started my businesses I have ploughed the furrow which many others have to do or will in the future. Realistically, the bureaucratic burdens on employers and their prejudices over age will need them to be more interested in taking people on short-term ad hoc contracts where there is no long term commitment on either side. The current employment laws both on the HR side and in relation to tax do not match up yet, but Seth Godin said recently “In the post-industrial revolution, the very nature of a job is outmoded.”  I agree with that.

I think that employment rights are going to have to be watered down to relieve the employment law red tape mess that businesses have to suffer. In the future, there will be no such thing as a job in the old sense, and there isn’t even now for many over-forties, which is why so many of us are already out there in the brave new twenty-first century. There will be more mobility, which surely is a good thing?

How do you feel about this?

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Giving our time to our loved ones and ourselves

Braun HF 1, Germany, 1959

Image via Wikipedia

The other day I talked about giving time, but it was not a lecture for anyone, but more of an observation as to how some do and some don’t. I work hard on my business mainly because I enjoy it and get real satisfaction from having satisfied clients. I enjoy nearly very aspect.

I do think it is important to have family time, though, and to have a bit of fun, even if it is watching favourite TV programmes with my wife. I wouldn’t criticise others who don’t believe in watching TV, and surprisingly in 2011 I still know several who think it is a waste of time. They are entitled to their opinion. I like to use television as another source of learning, and even some TV fiction can be quite educational in addition to being relaxing. I can’t stand soaps, though.

Now and again it is important to relax the mind with a bit of recreation, so I read some fiction too. I think we need to step outside ourselves just a little, and into someone else’s shoes, to listen to their story. Anyway, I am not the only one who thinks we writers need to train with the best , many of whom write published fiction.

I think better and believe I write better when I remember to take time away from the computer. Surely I am not alone in that? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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Special offers to be taken with a pinch of salt

Obverse of the Series 2006 $20 bill
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Do you receive at least daily loads of emails offering you the secret of how to make vast amounts of money a day for working only four hours a week? Do you get telephone calls from overseas suggesting you invest in some penny stock that is about to make it big? Are you sometimes approached by quite good business friends with the offer of some wonderful moneymaking scheme they have heard about and are gullible enough to try to rope others into?

These are all penalties of being in business and having a web presence. We give the world opportunities to contact us, but we are in business and cannot filter out the chancers except the serial spammers.

Now, I don’t doubt that some of the tales that are woven have some basis in truth. An experienced day trader may make a lot of money in four hours though it won’t be without investing a lot of time in watching the markets even when not dealing. There is a risk of losing of course, but that is just glossed over in the sales patter.

The penny stock offers are known as “boiler-room scams”. I don’t know about boiler-room, but most of these people sound as though they are calling from the bottom of a well or a Chilean mine, no doubt due to roundabout routing of their calls to avoid being traced.

The other week I had occasion to examine an apparent way of saving large amounts of tax. In this case there was an outside chance it could work before the tax authorities leaped on it, but it would have required a very bullish taxpayer to try it and you could bet your bottom dollar that the offshore providers would have disappeared long before the angry taxpayer turned on them.

The truth is that all these “opportunities” pander to the greed of those drawn in. There will always be money and probably quite a lot of it to be paid up front. That is money which most likely will never be seen again.

Take care out there, and remember that if something sounds too good to be true…

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Management should not involve dictatorship

HM Revenue and Customs seen from Parliament Sq...
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I have had my difficulties recently dealing with a Government department, HMRC. A current trend in an era of cuts is to sweep away those employees who are regarded as expensive, which means the loss of many middle-management jobs. Now, I would not argue that there can be a problem in having lots of people overseeing rather than doing, but an efficient management structure requires communication; that is the cornerstone of an efficient business.

If there is just an elite of senior management that means that those at the coal face doing the work, whether it is in manufacturing or services, have to just follow instructions to the letter. There will be no conduit to report problems and to suggest better ways of doing things.

At one time it seemed we had moved away from the feudalist “them and us” environment which existed into the seventies, and even in very large businesses there did seem to be an era of listening to the grass roots in a business, feeding information up and making changes. Now many of the cuts we are seeing in the Civil Service and in the Banks for example are again sweeping away the middle management and the good communicators along with the dead wood. These changes are not just those coming in the era of a new Government; the process has been going on for several years. It seems to be the theory that the human communicators can be replaced by technology. However, unless the middle management can be entirely substituted with sentient androids it is a strategy which will lead to failure.

In small business we understand better that we should give ownership of their jobs to our employees because in that way our businesses will be more successful as well as encouraging loyalty of our employees in particular, all the staff to each other, and of course and most importantly, the loyalty of our clients and customers to our business and our brand. We are all in it together. To me, responsibility plus loyalty equals efficiency and success, and success equals prosperity. It is all rooted in our relationships within the business.

What do you think?


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Unemployment, qualifications and aptitude

On the local news on TV there was a feature from a seaside town about the high level of unemployment. One guy interviewed complained he couldn’t get a job despite being a qualified bricklayer, gym instructor and IT technician. Now I know there is something known as a benefits trap and there may not be that many full time jobs in those disciplines, but a few postcards in newsagents’ windows would surely bring some work in any of these areas of expertise. It would also show continuing experience for a prospective employer when the jobs market picks up. If the guy were lucky his bits of work from the three areas could add up to a full-time occupation. It certainly sounds like a waste of talent.

Am I being harsh? Is this another example of the dependency culture? Should he be on his bike?

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Alliances and team players

Photo by LordNikon


I am a great believer in getting out and talking to other people in business. I go to networking meetings, I go to seminars and I am a member of several business groups where we may have an outside speaker. I am always willing to learn.

I also like to cooperate with others in marketing, which may be through networking or it may be through a particular initiative. One of the biggest frustrations in getting cooperative projects off the ground may be a lack of commitment from the start and down the line from people who say they want to be part of an exciting new idea. Either these people think that paying their money is enough, and it is up to other team members to do or the work, or they have a problem with paying to commit and be there when it counts.

I don’t know the answer to this. Part of the pleasure of running a business for me is having the money flow in, not just because money is a handy thing to have, but because it is an indication of success and achievement. Success is good for our egos and well-being. Are the uncommitted crowd people who have a lot money and are playing at running their businesses? Are they lazy? Should they be in business at all? Would they be better off having a job and being told what to do?

I believe in putting my money where my mouth is and being committed, because it is rewarding being a sometime team player; running one’s own business can sometimes be lonely. Should we not all be doers rather than just talking the talk?

© Jon Stow 2010

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