Monday, May 23, 2016

what I've learned from being an enforced 'digital nomad'

As some of you may recall, along with thousands of others over the last Christmas period my family and I were hit by flooding. We had to move out of our home while it (and my 'home office') were restored.

5 months on and we're now back in, the furniture's out of storage, and we've nearly unpacked all the boxes, so it feels like a good time to pause and look back on what I'm taking from the experience of having been an enforced 'digital nomad':

- its easier to set up than you might realise
given the bulk of the work I do, I don't need much by way of specialist equipment or stock. I 'upgraded' my laptop and invested in a few extra toys, so can pretty much work anywhere now. I was initially worried about printing but realise that we print a lot more stuff than we need to out of habit and using cloud storage and such like, haven't been hampered by not having a printer to hand 24/7.
Now we're all back in the house, I realise just how many distractions there can be here, so am intending to remain as mobile with my 'office' as possible going forward.

- clients and other people can be very generous and patient
there seems to be an expectation that we're not allowed to hold up our hands in the business world and say we're struggling. But when I have (framing it in the context of recovering from having flooded), clients, collaborators, and suppliers, have all gone out of their way to try and lend a hand. That's even more true of fellow businesses who were also flooded.
The 'macho' image we present can sometimes get in the way of relationships in our business. I've found that taking the risk to show some vulnerability actually only strengthens links between us all.
I should also name check Gareth Nash of CMS here - at an event we both found ourselves at during this period, he took it upon himself to make sure that I got well fed and watered from the catering that had been laid on at it, in light of my not always knowing where my next meal was going to be...

- libraries can be great places (with the emphasis on 'can be'...)
there are countless hotdesking and coworking facilities out there, (and some offered me discounted rates on the basis of being flooded and wanting to show support). And while they can be fun places, I found libraries to be overlooked great places to work: big tables to spread all your notes and files out across, comfy chairs, good heating (and toilets!), and free wifi too. On the down side, heaven help you if you need to take or make a phone call, and the wifi usually blocks any file sharing or social media sites (unless its a private library like the Portico in Manchester).
On the issue of overlooked places I should also put in a mention for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce members' lounge, as in addition to the tables, chairs, heating, free unrestricted wifi, and toilets, they also have sofas and free coffee! 

- hotel chains usually aren't worth it
I've found myself staying in a lot of hotels as I've bounced around the country over the last few months. I wish I could say that I picked them on the basis of their being independent local guest houses as part of my commitment to supporting local economies, but I'm afraid it was more pragmatic on the basis of relative location to train stations and client premises. And my experiences of having stayed in big brand chains to local cheap B&B's is that usually paying the extra for a posher stay isn't worth it. On the whole you seem to get better local knowledge, services, and value from the small local hotels that don't look as highly polished, but do at least seem genuinely interested in getting your feedback (and acting on it!)

- you get a lot fitter
I didn't have access to a car while the house was being restored (my family needed it to help with getting kids to school each day, shopping, etc) so I walked a lot more. And being a 'digitial nomal' meant carrying my office with me as well as my wardrobe for the week (up to 4 bags in total!). 
It meant I took up a lot more space on trains, but also made me realise how much stuff we usually carry around with us that we never use... But walking from train stations to clients premises and other venues isn't that arduous so as long as it's no more than about a mile and a half, so I intend to try and continue this habit.

- its more lonely and stressful than people let on
While my house was being restored, my family stayed with relatives, and my travelling around to meet clients and such like meant that it was only usually at the weekends when we got to properly spend time together as a family.
Being self-employed is stressful enough at the best of times for all sorts of reasons, but add to this being technically homeless, not knowing when your house will be ready for you to move back in, not being able to be around emotionally for your partner and kids... 

- you're always looking for the next plug socket...
There's an old saying amongst travellers that you should always eat well because  you never know when your next meal will be. As great as mobile devices and laptops are, they can't last as long without being topped us as we can go without food. And just as with hotels, it seems the coffee shop chains aren't as good as local independents when it comes to being able to offer us opportunities to 'plug in'.

- you can get away with a lot more...
and finally, using the rider "I've been flooded" means you seem to be able to get away with a lot more than you might otherwise feel able to. That's ranged from suggesting to clients that we meet in a pub, to getting suppliers to offer extended credit terms at no extra cost.
I've always been aware that I've pushed the norms of accepted business etiquette, but this will only encourage me to do so even more in the future!

I've always argued that it's important to allow ourselves opportunity to reflect on our experiences to see what we can take from them to our (and others') benefit in the future. And while everyone always agrees with the sentiment, its very rarely done.
Part of the reason that I committed to starting this blog 7 years ago was to allow me such opportunities for reflection - and to do so in way that is open in inviting your comments and contributions to them.

Given the severity and impact of the flooding that's had a massive impact on this valley, I hope that many of my fellow freelancers, self-employed, and other enterprises will find ways to similarly reflect on the experience of recovering their businesses as they start to get back to 'normal'. That's not just to help them think about how they build their resilience for any future knocks, but also as a wider encouragement to the rest of us too.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why I'm publishing my tax return (despite not being a politician or big tech firm...)

There’s been a lot of apparent media interest around how much tax big firms pay, and then, in the wake of the ‘Panama Papers’, how much tax our politicians pay. And I don’t think it’s because as a nation we’re obsessed with accounts and tax schedules, but rather, we want to be assured that we feel we can that the people and firms we’re reliant upon are acting responsibly.

Now, I’ve always been open that I’m very happy to pay tax for all sorts of reasons (and most small business also recognise the importance that our tax makes to supporting local communities and public services), and over the last 3 years have increasing started to wonder aloud if I should be more open and transparent in my own tax affairs as part of my annual social impact report on myself.
Since then, I’ve also ‘taken the pledge’ with Fairtax to always act with integrity and honesty in my tax affairs. 
So in light of all of this have decided to tell the world how much tax I pay as part of my impact reporting framework!

Now, some of you may be slightly disappointed when you read the report to see that rather than cite a cash amount, I have instead presented it as a percentage of my turnover. This is because after thinking it through and chatting with others for a few months, I felt this was a better way to be able to benchmark myself against others, and also offer a more consistent measure over time which wouldn’t appear to fluctuate wildly subject to how well I’m able to secure fee-earning work over the year.

But what do people think? Is it a good thing that I’m now sharing my tax affairs with you all; is how I’m measuring/reporting it the right way; does anyone really care? (other than me)…

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

why I don't bother with social media analytics

WARNING: if you're a social media manager or consultant, you should probably stop reading now.

For the rest of you (and those brave enough to remain!), here's why I personally think that the industry around analytics of our on-line activity (page views, number of likes, followers, and such like) is potentially damaging to our respective enterprises. But as with all my ideas, I also recognise that this won't be true for everyone, and that it's a biased/prejudiced view that I hold which is based on my experiences to date (but which hasn't stopped from being nominated as the lead advisor in several funded local and national enterprise support programmes on using social media...)

1) a few years back I was identified as one of the top500 most influential people on twitter, but at the time had less than 1,000 followers (out of over 300 million users) and also (horror of horrors), didn't even have a smartphone to tweet from on the move! (I've also become a hashtag on twitter on several occasions!)
Conclusion: the engagement and relationships I try and nurture through twitter via conversations, etc, is what's important. Not the number of people who follow me (although it's always nice to have more to reassure my ego ;-)

2) I have a lovely website supported by Smart Bear, with google analytics running in the back of it. However the site's there not as a sales tool, but as part of my personal brand, and also as part of meeting clients and markets expectations of me. I know from conversations with clients and others that most people don't look at it (although that have are always complementary)

3) I've an active profile across 13 different social media channels (far too many to list here - but just got started on Vine!), because I recognise that not everyone likes twitter (but 300 million do!), not everyone gets on with facebook, some people are into slideshares, and others into hipster photos - as the work I do and support I offer sees in a wide variety of communities and sectors, I think it's important to show some respect where possible by engaging with clients through their preferred on-line channel (see point 2).

4) But ultimately, all the analytic reports I see always leave me asking "so what?". 
What's the point of thousands of sign ups if none of them want to actually talk with you or buy your product. What's the point of having more followers on twitter if you never get to meet them in person to find out what they like and how you can support each others endeavours in the future?

Of course, all of this is a very biased view drawn from my own experience and business model - I'm not an on-line retailer for whom I recognise such analytics are crucial in understanding where effort is being wasted in reaching customers and where to invest more time and resource.

So I'm writing this as a cautionary note, as I see too many entrepreneurs and enterprises getting caught up in the hype of analytics, when at best it's only a distraction to their business model.

I also like the way the vooza summed it all up in one of their typically excellent short vids debunking hype around trends and fashions in enterprise: 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

does anyone really care how far we're open and transparent in how we do business?

In recent news, there's been a furore of activity over leaked papers about tax havens and money laundering by an international finance firm on behalf of the rich and famous, (allegedly). 
This comes on the back of various campaigns and calls for big business to be more responsible in paying tax and treating employees and people in their supply chain with dignity and respect.
And all of this comes on the back of previous movements around fairtrade, environmental impact, sustainability, and such like.

You would think that all of the media coverage of these themes means that as consumers we've a keen interest in how responsible the businesses we spend our money with are acting, and calling them to ever greater account through demanding that they're more open in how they work.
And yet, anecdotally despite petitions and campaigns, most people I know still shop with the likes of Amazon, buy coffee from Starbucks, and similar... so my question is that while we're outraged when we hear of such unethical corporate behaviour, if it doesn't change our own personal behaviours, actions, and shopping choices, do we really care that much?

Because if we don't, then why should firms strive to be more open and transparent in how they do business?

Many of the businesses I support are social and charitable enterprises, and there's been various encouragements to them over the years to show such openness through reporting on their social impact. And yet researches and surveys show that increasingly, when they do, it's making less of a difference to their customers in influencing their purchasing from them.
For myself - as the only freelance consultant globally (to my knowledge) to openly publish an impact report on myself with openness about my supply chain and other business activities, I know that doing so has never made any difference to my clients and customers final decisions about engaging and commissioning me (I know this, because I ask them!).

So with all the calls for more openness and transparency, I'd like to start another call - this time to start a conversation about what we as consumers really would like those businesses and firms to be open and transparent about, and if they start to, if we'll actually read and act on them...

Monday, March 14, 2016

why spin the bottle beats psychometrics in getting Boards to perform better

I often find myself working with the Boards of various social enterprises, charities, and other types of businesses as part of wider packages of support - my time with them is usually spent helping them reflect on how well they're collectively performing in supporting their respective ventures to further pursue their mission, and that can take all sorts of forms...

Case in point: I recently completed several months of working with the Board of an up and coming social enterprise as part of supporting the venture explore and pursue social investment - any venture seeking investment will find it's Board coming under scrutiny sooner or later as part of the due diligence process of any financing body, so I was concerned to make sure that it was fully 'fit for purpose': not just for now, but also for future scenarios it may face.

I agreed with them how we'd approach this and over the space of 4 months developed codes of governance, terms of reference, formalised a range of procedures and practices, and also did some psychometrics (group and individual) with them to help Directors reflect on their individual role and how well they supported each other's performance. And at the end of this process, the only outstanding decision to be taken was who should take on the role of the Board's Chair. 

And that's when everyone suddenly found they needed to check their phones, shoelaces, and bottoms of mugs... formal and professional governance development practices and psychometrics could only take them so far, so I resolved to break this sudden impasse by taking a relatively unconventional process which everyone was surprisingly excited about and wholeheartedly agreed to abide by the outcome of: spin the bottle! (they don't call me #notyourtypicalconsultant for nothing!).

Moral of the story?
It's your venture, not your consultants - if you don't like the approaches being used and suggested, use your own, however 'unprofessional' they may appear as it'll mean you can continue to enjoy working on what you're creating rather than having to compromise yourself into fitting into someone else's expectations of you.

Friday, February 12, 2016

just because you didn't get wet, doesn't mean your business won't be killed by floods...

We're fast approaching 2 months since Todmorden and the rest of the Calder Valley got hard hit by the floods that washed out last year's Christmas.

It's a good time to pause and reflect on not just how far we've come in our recovery, but also how far we've still to go - some businesses are now admitting that they were perhaps a little optimistic in initial estimates of how long it would take to re-open, and many are also starting to feel the wider knock-on impacts, realising that the damage the floods have wrought continue long after the waters have subsided, houses dried out, and stock replaced...

While many businesses were fortunate not to be directly flooded, those that were have had mixed fortunes in their recovery - the local Council has recently extended its criteria for business recovery grants to now recognise home-based businesses, and there have been a number of successful crowd-funding campaigns, but others have found the cost of recovery just too great a burden to manage and have sadly shut up shop for good leaving us poorer as a valley in terms of our diversity of employment, industry, and character.

And it's that knock-on effect that people are now starting to feel able to talk about - although their premises weren't flooded, they've still lost trade and income from losing their suppliers to floods, or there being far less trade along the valley as consumers start to shop elsewhere, believing that nowhere will be open after seeing the widespread images of devastation broadcast by the media of the area.
And it's only now that they're starting to talking about it, because of feeling guilty that they weren't flooded so they don't have the same right to complain as those of us who did - yet their livelihoods (and those of their employees) are suffering nonetheless.

Although there are support packages being made available for businesses affected by floods, (and they all have different criteria), one thing they share universally is that your business has to have had water enter your premises. But as we're starting to see as people increasingly come forward and start to speak out, flooding can destroy any business without having to come anywhere near your building...

But as before, when I profiled what local businesses responses have been in the initial aftermath, the community is once again rallying to support its employment and livelihoods - Hebden Bridge is becoming the 'North Pole' of the Valley at the end of June when we're re-staging the Christmas we lost: festive lights are being put up, a big tree in the square, snow machines, carol singing,... a great opportunity to remind the rest of the world (and its consumers!) that the Calder Valley is rising to greatness again! So please feel free to come and share some of your spending power in supporting those businesses for whom you're the only source of support..

Monday, January 18, 2016

on being 'washed out' by floods and becoming a homeless entrepreneur...

Along with thousands of others across the North of England at Christmas last year, my home was 'washed out' by the worst floods on record - and I suspect that a significant proportion of my fellow flood victims will, like me, also be self-employed and based from home as well, so hit with the 'double-whammy' of the floods not only having displaced us (and our families) from our homes, but also impacting on our livelihoods too (as if running your own business wasn't already stressful enough at the best of times...)

And while the initial rallying of community spirit has been fantastic in dealing with the immediate aftermath of the waters, there are growing concerns amongst local business communities as to how well people will be able to restore their livelihoods - an initial survey of businesses in my local area found nearly half believe it may be up to 6 months before they can recommence trading. And as great as public donations are, these can only go to affected households, to replace lost clothes, furniture, and such like, and not to businesses to help maintain the lives of the same local people and their communities;

The local Council, Calderdale, has made a great initial response to support local businesses, but it too is limited by criteria and eligibility checks which means that hundreds of micro-businesses, freelancers, and sole traders who are otherwise 'below the radar' in not having dedicated business premises, paying rates, or being VAT-registered, will have to find their own sources of recovery support.

So just as we did as householders, we therefore turn to ourselves again as businesses to offer each other a helping hand: I've been working with the relatively new Todmorden Business Network to try and map and collate what support there might be for local business to make sure people don't miss out; a number of businesses have come together to form the world's first crowdfunding campaign for a collection of businesses; and I've also been trying to encourage the development of other forms of support - such as the Hit The Rocks fund from Enterprise Rockers.

But all of these things take time - time that we would normally be spending running our businesses and with our families.

The nature of works our home needs to be restored means that we can't live in it for potentially up to 6 months - as a family we're physically displaced until then.
Thankfully we have relatives along the valley who have been able to not only offer us spare beds, but also temporarily rearrange their rooms and own lives to offer us space and support over this period. As for working, I'm having to develop a new mindset of being more of a digital nomad and needing to factor in having less time that I'm used to owing to having to plan more carefully about where I can work from, travel arrangements, and such like. 

But life continues - it's a new lifestyle that we'll get used to eventually, and I know others are suffering far more than I.
But that doesn't stop it hurting when I'm with others who are talking about how to best support businesses and entrepreneurs affected by the flooding and I realise I'm sometimes the only one around the table that's living it...

So - this has been rather different to my usual posts here, but it isn't meant as a sob story or plea for alms, but rather a polite request to give anyone you meet over the next 6 months who's been affected by floods a little more patience and time while we resume 'normal service'.
Thank you.