Wednesday, January 13, 2021

start-up ecosystems need cold frames as well as green houses

Anyone involved in anyway in the world of start-ups and business growth will be familiar with the range of support models there are out there that make up the 'eco systems' of incubators, accelerators, investor networks, and such like.

And there are good arguments that we need a mix of different supports and types of models because no two start-ups are exactly alike, and different founders and entrepreneurs will respond better to different interventions at different times.

But it struck me recently when I was speaking with a programme manager for a foundation that is seeking to do more to encourage disruptive start-ups (yes Sam, that is you I'm talking about!), that there may be a missing link in all these ecosystems that entrepreneurs and founders can apply to - to use a gardening analogy: there's a lot of 'hot housing' going on out there already (things that help the seeds of a start-up sprout and start to grow more quickly than they would if we'd dropped the seed packet into a flower bed next to the lawn and hoped for the best); but any gardener will attest to this hot housing only being half of what's needed to ensure new plants thrive in the future. 

That's because hot houses are not the norm of the world - our gardens aren't covered and heated to higher temperatures than the British weather usually offers us all year round, so when we move these exciting new plants from their 'bubble' of an ideal world into the real world, it can be something of a shock... Which is why good gardeners will always have a cold frame lurking somewhere - a place that these specially nurtured new plants can best acclimatise, transition, and ultimately get used to the suddenly harder and harsher world that exists outside the hot house that they grew up in and came to rely on.

For our wider start-up ecosystems, where are these cold frames? 

The closest I can think of would be the peer networks amongst founders that they create informally by virtue of having shared the same hot house, but what else might be able to be offered by way of regular check-in, a phased 'moving on' from the hot house facility, and such like? 

Because if we don't have a way to move start-ups out of the hot house in ways that help best assure them on their future survival and success, then they'll get too comfortable, and take up space that other start-ups need if they're to have their opportunity to make it themselves as well? 

Monday, December 7, 2020

sitting in the bath; jaffa cakes; and b0llock sticks - what it takes to get on my (not so) secret Santa list this year

Last month I committed to being a (not so) secret Santa for some of you out there.

The good news is that I've now dispatched 4 lots of surprise random gifts - the bad news is that I'm a little concerned as to what some of you are now expecting of me...


To recap - the criteria for getting onto my 'nice' list, and have something come through the post to you, was that you interact in some way with any of my activity across social media between then and the last week before Christmas.

And to date, the replies and comments that have meant their contributors have had early festive gifts have been:


- someone revealing my secret ability to eat a whole packet of jaffa cakes within seconds;

- people wanting to see me do youtube clips while in the bath (I already do some whilst sat on the toilet);

- celebrating the historical roots of caffeine fuelled networking (aka theRSA); 

- and sharing images of their seasonal b0llock stick tree. 


Thankfully it also seems that what I'm able to send out is being well received - and there's still time for you to share in my festive efforts: my last 'draw' will be on Friday the 18th December, so go start scrolling through my posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Medium, this blog, and anywhere else I may be loitering with seasonal intent... 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

why the lifeline of SEISS may bankrupt us next year...

At the start of the pandemic, roughly 5 million of us were self-employed.

At the start of the pandemic, government made financial support available to business owners (in the form of grants linked to business rates) and employees (in the form of the furlough scheme).

Only after what seemed an eternity of panic and doubt, did government make an equivalent scheme for us in the form of the SEISS (except about half of us aren't actually eligible to apply for it!).

At the time, may argued that this was further evidence that despite their rhetoric about entrepreneurship, the current administration don't actually understand or care about us unless we're employing lots of people (despite the fact that we pay more tax than our employed counterparts, and other types of business owners). And this led to lobbies, campaigns, and the formation of #ExcludedUK to try and challenge this discrimination.


For those of us who are eligible, the SEISS grant was a lifeline (because even if we can land paying work, we all know it can sometimes take months to get paid which means weeks of little, if any, income to keep the lights on with).

But for those of us who began breathing sighs of relief, having gone through the small print and talked with others who haven't, we may actually be worse off next year for having received it, than if we'd not been eligible for it in the first place...

Unlike the business rate grants and employee furlough schemes, the SEISS grant carries a clause that says we may have to pay it back if HMRC deem that we managed to end this current financial year in a better place than we feared we would (perhaps because in the last few weeks of it, we suddenly land a large contract or finally get paid those back-invoices we never thought would be honoured). But we don't know exactly what the threshold for that looks like, or might be, beyond terms and phrases that are as equally vague as "substantial meal" is for pub landlords.



We'll only know if this is the case after we've done our tax returns, and as the SEISS grants are taxable, we'll have already paid about 20% of them back as tax. 

So if HMRC deem that we shouldn't have received the grant after all, the SEISS amount will magically transform from a grant into a very short-term loan that carries at least 20% interest - 20% being the amount we've already paid in tax on it, and then there's additional interest on the full amount again unless we repay it straight away. It's cheaper to take a bounce-back loan, or arrange  (and you have more time to repay it).

But there's more...

Lets say that you also pay child maintenance through the Child Maintenance Agency. They calculate what you should pay annually, based on your last tax return. Which means that for next year, the SEISS grant(s) you received will be counted as part of your income/earnings (because it's taxable income), pushing you into paying a higher amount of child maintenance. But if you've had to pay the grant (plus at least 20% interest) back, then they've fixed your amount too high. You're already facing the threat of legal action from HMRC to repay money that you no longer have, and now are also being forced to pay levels of child maintenance that haven't been worked out properly that will stretch you even further than you are now.


The pandemic and lack of government support for the self-employed has already seen nearly half a million of us giving up our enterprises, with many more seriously considering doing the same by the end of this year.

My concern is that the SEISS grant that initially seemed like a lifeline to some, actually shows that the government who've designed them have a contempt for people who are self-employed based on larger business owners and salaried workers not facing any such fears, because of the grant support they've received has no such risks attached.


All we've ever asked for as the self-employed is parity with our employed counterparts (who already enjoy far greater privileges than us in terms of lower taxes, pension contributions, better pay, and such like). Initially this parity was about making sure we can all have access to some form of support, but maybe we should also be asking for this support to be equally non-discriminatory in the risks it forces us to take when/if accepting it?



sources and references

https://www.statista.com/statistics/318234/united-kingdom-self-employed/ 

https://thirdsectorexpert.blogspot.com/2018/02/who-in-their-right-mind-would-be-self.html

https://www.accountancyage.com/2020/08/07/self-employment-income-support-is-it-payback-time/

https://www.excludeduk.org/excluded-uk-an-inclusive-alliance-for-the-excluded 

https://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2020/K-November/Hours-and-incomes-of-self-employed-workers-stayed-low-over-summer 

https://www.altfi.com/article/5997_uk-smes-now-wait-an-average-of-23-days-for-late-payments

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55129828 


Friday, November 13, 2020

can I be your (not so) secret Santa this year?


The Christmas season usually entails a lot of traditions and conventions, that this year are thrown into confusion by Covid - and the uncertainty about restrictions we'll be under as a country, region, town, college, business, and even household, on any given day.


I therefore want to try and do my bit in trying to bring some cheer and fun to people over the next few weeks, as we try and build some happiness around a time of year that most of us usually look forward to.



Now - to try and manage some expectations here: 

I'm a sole trader, so don't have access to a warehouse full of gin; 
despite what some people may think when we see our greyhound on her walks, we don't have any reindeer; 
and although feedback from clients and learners may indicate otherwise, I don't have any magic dust that means I can get to all of your homes and deliver that toy you've secretly wanted ever since you were 5 years old...



But what I can do, is make use of some of the toys and gifts that I usually throw at people as part of training courses I deliver, (but haven't able to this year, as all my sessions have been on zoom), by sending some of you an early Christmas treat in the post.


If you fancy being in with a chance of receiving one of my (not so) secret Santa gifts in this way:

- Each week starting Monday 23rd Nov, until Friday 18th Dec, I'll be watching my various social media channels (you can get find all of them from this page that links them all here: - https://about.me/adrianashton)

- All you have to do is re-share or do some kind of interaction with anything I post during that week (liking alone doesn't count).

- At the start and end of each week, I'll pick a comment or interaction that's brought a smile to my face in some way, and will send you direct message for a postal address where I'll send your gift to.

Hopefully you'll enjoy getting something through the post that isn't just another bland leaflet, bill, or circular, (and may even feel you can take a pic of yourself playing with it to share back out as a way to further spread some cheer and encouragement to others?).


So what are you waiting for? Go start stalking me on social media!



Thursday, October 15, 2020

celebrating #WorldValuesDay - by exposing that most values are bull!

Today is World Values Day - and typically I'd be using it as an excuse to (re)share the annual impact reports I publish on myself to encourage people to think about how their values affect how they approach their work.

But today, I've decided to be a bit different.

Today I want to call out the bullsh!t that most organisations espouse when they list their values on their websites and paint them into inspiration posters in hallways and meeting rooms.

And it's because of this widespread tokenism that we're not seeing values have their full transformative potential to help us start to all live and share in the sort of world that we'd all secretly quite like to see come about...


   

Monday, October 5, 2020

When video calls make you feel like a failure before you've even begun

2020 has brought in a new age where video calls have become the default norm for meetings.

But even before the pandemic and the first full national lock-down in the spring of this year, I had committed to seek to do more meetings remotely through this marvel of technology back in 2018, (and been annually reporting on how far I'd been able to achieve this within my impact reports on myself). So in some ways, I've had a head start, but the move to video over in-person seemed to be a trend that was already growing - Covid-19 has simply accelerated it to force us all to start doing it sooner than we might have done otherwise.

However, it strikes me that (as with many things), it's very easy to undermine ourselves in this new format - not just in front of our colleagues, but also damaging our own self-beliefs and sense of worth, in having not fully worked out and adopted what the 'unspoken rules' of this way of meeting are:


1) "you're still on mute" (the tag-line of 2020)

I don't know what the exact figure is, but most video calls would probably be about 10 minutes shorter if we weren't all muting and un-muting ourselves when we want to speak, and forgetting which setting we'd last toggled the mic to. 

I get that in some instances, there's good technical reason for having mics off (some people's laptop's have the mics next to the speakers, and so inspire ear-splitting feedback). But in the main, telling people to turn their microphones off if they're not speaking is akin to being back in school and told you have to raise your hand, and hope that the teacher decides you have something relevant to say. Hopefully we're all a little more adult now than we were in school, and can be trusted to act accordingly - after all, how many physical team meetings have you sat in, where the rule was you couldn't speak without raising your hand, and the chair granting you permission to open your mouth? It doesn't really instil a culture of openness, trust, and respect; and, if our hand waving doesn't get spotted by the person running the video call, we feel invisible and not important.


2) "where have you all gone?"

For people not used to there being options whereby the arrangement of how people's faces are laid out on your screen changes, it's easy to accidently minimise or change the whole view so that while the rest of us can still see and hear the person, they're desperately panicking that they've lost us all and can't find how to 'get us back'.


Once we've done a few calls, and had this mishap ourselves, its easy to avoid, but for the un-initiated, making what feels like a novice mistake can be a serious dent to our confidence in ourselves: after all, if we can't manage to keep a window open on our laptops, how can we be trusted with anything more involved?

 

3) "please ignore my laundry"

Working from home is a mixed bag - I video blogged about this recently, whilst laid under my duvet... not everyone has the luxury of a space in their homes where they can easily set up an office, or have a wall that isn't covered in their kids drawings, or has an airing rack in front of it.



As part of instilling confidence in others, we strive to create a professional image for ourselves (after all, we wouldn't have normally turned up to work in our dressing gowns, would we?). Having to apologise for what people are seeing of our lives, before we can even start to address the topic of conversation for the call puts us on a back foot in questioning our own value and importance (especially when we see how beautiful some other's people's kitchens appear to be...).


4) "I'm sorry about my kids"

Even physical meetings were never completely immune from occasional interruptions (people confusing room numbers, lunch or drinks being delivered, and such like). And most of us also had our phones on in case our kids' schools needed to contact us in an emergency. So why do we feel we have to apologise for our kids now, when they're not doing anything they wouldn't normally do, and neither are we? 

If I'm leading any call where someone's kids wander by, or try and get their parents attention, I'll either invite them into the call, or use it as a prompt for a short break for the rest of us. Treat kids like human beings, and they'll have a better chance of growing up like ones we can respect and be proud of.

Parents shouldn't be made to feel guilty for having their children in their lives.

 

5) "try turning your camera off"

Just because everyone is now doing video calls, doesn't mean that everyone lives in an area where there's sufficient internet bandwidth to handle it smoothly (only 12% of the UK has access to fibre broadband). Similarly, not all video conferencing software is the same - there can be notable differences between things like Zoom and MS Teams as to how much internet speed you need to be able to hold a call.

And there's also other factors, like what sort of magic computer chips live inside your computer, if your home Wi-Fi router shares its signal between how many people are on-line at once, and such like - all of which means that in any given group call, there's usually always at least one person who can't be visible because to turn their camera on would mean that everything freezes for them. And to be the only person in a meeting that's essentially 'hidden' in this way, when everyone else has managed to remain visible, means that they can be easily forgotten and overlooked. And they'll usually feel it's their fault for having chosen to live in a poorly digitally-connected community, or not having been able to buy a laptop that's able to handle streaming video calls.



All of which point to video calls being potentially very damaging to our belief in ourselves as being able to be taken seriously as a 'working professional', before we've even opened our mouths to say hello and introduce ourselves. And this only further damages our belief in our own competence, and undermines how we build (or maintain) working relationships with other people.  

So perhaps the next time you're on a call and someone's background looks a little cluttered, they're struggling to be able to share their video, or they need to find how to re-size the window on their screen, you can remember how it was for you when you started doing video calls. And you can offer them some encouragement and validation that they're not the failure they think they are, just because no-one thought to explain to them where all the buttons are?

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

an awkward question about how we're making sense of the pandemic...

As some people may know, I was quite active during the national lock-down earlier this year - supporting a range of colleges, businesses, social enterprise support bodies, and others to consider, plan, and then enact their respective responses to the first wave of the pandemic.

And as part of my own practice of 'professional reflection', rather than another 'pithy blog' or twitter snippets about what I'd done and thought about during this time, I thought I'd do something a little more in-depth, and draft a white paper. This paper is still available on-line (just share and confirm your email and it should automatically get sent to you). And I was surprised at not just how many people downloaded it within the first week of it going out but also the sheer variety of roles and sectors they represented.

Many who read it also kindly offered some thoughts as to how the paper had prompted them to think further on their own respective responses and current thinking about the coming 6 months. And in the spirit of trying to openly keep encouraging conversation and discussion, I elected to share the themes of these comments in a Facebook Live.


The Facebook live also served another purpose - to act as an addendum to the white paper: after all, a lot can happen in a few weeks during a pandemic, and more data is coming out all the time about how different communities and ways of working are being affected.

And just as the original white paper has attracted more interest than a dared to hope, the Facebook Live had more people watching the broadcast as it happened than I thought might have , and continues to be shared by others and the watch count keeps going up...! (If you missed it, here's the link to catch it again).

Now don't worry - there is a point to my regurgitating this precis of my new life as a one-man policy think-tank.

And it's this - based on how people engaged with the white paper, and the comments and ongoing interest to my Facebook Live, it seems to suggest that we're not satisfied in seeking answers from within our own usual circles. We're starting to realise the benefit of going 'outside' our own marketplaces, industries, and sectors in seeking perspectives and understandings. And when we do, what we find seems to generally help assure and better inform us about the ways in which we're now making decisions about the future.

So my closing challenge to you, dear reader, is this - who can you talk with, or what can you read, that is outside of your usual daily work or life in offering you a fresh perspective in helping you make your own sense of the ever-changing world we now find ourselves (trying to) live and work in?