stick it to the man

Technology Entrepreneurs were mavericks, outside the system, changing the world, disrupting society and most importantly … not part of the Establishment. Well that was the way it was or certainly seemed to be. Now, I am concerned, given the increasing numbers today crossing the line. Taking government sponsored roles, moving to the other side of the table with venture capital firms (some supported by government funds), fronting accelerators, entrepreneurs in residence, angel investing and even some being included on the UK Honours lists. All this far to early for most rather than concentrating on and taking the pain and joy of building out a second and third time.
For any that were wondering, yes the system or establishment has always existed ,the top two percent, whatever term you want to use for it. It has always been self-perpetuating, my goodness if you were taking off the table of its bounty why would you want it to stop. But at certain points in the cycle it has been less impregnable, chinks had appeared, a few ladders had been left over the side to climb up or was that just an illusion. Certainly in the last decade it would appear that the ladders have been drawn up behind people who made it over the parapet in more opportune times. Some of you will know that feeling of confronting it head on, even for some people without actually knowing what system it is they had come up against. For those outsiders it tends to hurt.

The system is glue

Well, if it has always been the case, what’s the problem? Focussing on the emerging technology space, if we want to continue to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it needs to be a virtuous cycle of successful or experienced entrepreneurs starting again and building their next disruptive companies. What we must not have is them being seduced, distracted or diverted into other peripheral softer network roles that blunt their entrepreneurial ambition. Which in turn has less impact in growing the knowledge base of how to build start-ups. They need to take the bones of what has been successful and use that to do it better the next time, and teach others internally and externally by example. This is what Silicon Valley (sorry to mention it) has been doing for decades, they don’t even hesitate to start another company and at a speed that we are yet to match in Europe.

It really does not matter that we will always be playing catchup with the Valley, what matters is that we do our own thing, play to our strengths and continue to build out an experienced entrepreneurial network. Over twenty years ago unless you were in the inner circle or were introduced by someone who was, you could not understand how it worked or even get a chance to be funded and play your hand. Now it is more transparent with more market coverage, networks and of course the internet itself has helped with that ability to access knowledge. surferBut there is nothing to beat working for or alongside a founding team that have been through the process before with battle scars that have toughened them. The more successful serial entrepreneurs we have in the network who really love what they do, the more chance we have of inspiring greater numbers to join them in the challenge, changing the system from the outside and in the end sustaining the growth of our technology markets.

Damon Oldcorn berates the entrenched ageism of the IT industry.
empowerment

The word ’empower’ is used a lot these days to describe a company’s ability to meet change by giving authority to the people at the sharp end. Words like this always seem to be touted around by public relations people, nothing too detailed of course, just some well concocted statements to mark some occasion or other. So the poor workers on the shop floor (as it used to be known) are going to be empowered. I do hope someone has told them about this new era of decision-making and accountability.

As you know, global organisations and our own high technology firms have thinned down their company structures, partly because of economic pressures, partly with the introduction of newer technology. Companies emerge with a streamlined look, not much middle, a flat top and a flat bottom. The idea behind the structure is that the strategic decisions made at the flat top can be whizzed to the troops at the flat bottom for them to implement tactically, making ever more accountable decisions as they go. Great in theory, but not so great in practice if you’re the 45-year-old who had to be removed to make way for this new wave.

Most of the companies I come into contact with, many in the computer and communications industry, have not trained the executives at the flat top in the new-age skills needed to compensate for this rapid change in business strategy. So as you can imagine it is extremely unlikely that they have got round to the training needs of the flat bottom to help them adapt to the new demands of this empowerment process. The question is, can the executives at the flat top grasp the new-age skills for this tremendously taxing change? I mean this change is major league, so not to be treated lightly.

sensitivityTo achieve corporate excellence today, the executive will have to have many facets in their management kit-bag: creative insight, sensitivity, vision, versatility, focus and patience (to mention just a few). Let’s focus on sensitivity for a moment ( a word not often heard in this rough, tough, high technology market). If, in the final analysis, people are an organisation’s greatest asset, then the new type manager must understand how to bind them together in a culture, wherein they feel truly motivated in the pursuit of higher goals. Face to face communication, ongoing training and development, creative incentive programmes and job security all display the sort of sensitivity that nurtures strong cultures.

Every strong culture and in this case the empowered culture derives from management sensitivity. Without it employees feel unmotivated, under-utilised,even exploited. It only takes a flick through the online job bulletin boards to see how we treat our employees. The turnover of staff, both junior and senior, is as fast and furious as ever, and there is a common pattern to people moving on. A majority when asked why they changed companies, would reply that they were not managed or spoken to in a professional manner. What a waste of time and money for all concerned. Let’s see some action to design companies so that empowerment is a balanced reality between decision-making, accountability, training and management support.

jin-tt-vs-nospringchicken-flatTo return to a point I touched on earlier, ageism, there seems to be an unwritten law in this industry that says because we keep inventing shiny, new products and services, that we must always have shiny, new younger staff as well. The number of over-45s who seem to get sidelined is amazing. What happens? Is it self-perpetuating because we have younger senior executives or younger recruitment staff? Are they unsure of their industry skills or even political ground to keep on older and more experienced staff than themselves. The older executive does not lose his or her ability to make decisions, to contribute creatively and energetically. Let’s not keep falling into the trap of discarding experience, if the industry is to mature it needs that stability.

The number of young executives I see looking for answers to basic business questions (on any online industry forum) that got answered  a long time ago concerns me. It’s not their fault, who have they got to learn from if the older mentor figures keep disappearing? There has to be a process of regeneration, a cycle where experienced professionals, grounded in business skills, impart their knowledge to the next set of executives. Who else will do it? The major company training schools seem to have diminished, or if not, focus too often on technology orientated product courses. You can only learn so much from self-help business books or company sponsored MBA courses.

Day to-day business sense has to be learned on the job, from people you respect and want to emulate. You can’t just hand out senior management positions to young executives before they are able to cope with the pressures that surround these demanding roles. So let’s match the investment that is made in the technology with investment in the long-term skills and care of our people at what ever stage of their careers, young or older.

Stress kills both people and productivity

half-term-holiday

As a number of you, particularly parents, will be on half-term breaks, two areas of thoughts come to mind. One is work-related stress. The other is holidays, which are supposed to be our way of winding down, enjoying ourselves and of course relieving pressure that results in stress. This entrepreneurial technology world we live in because of the speed of change, instability and pressure to succeed, often breeds stress.

It’s bizarre that many senior people in start-ups and global vendors still boast the fact that they haven’t had a holiday in years. They believe it is a statement of commitment and success. It strikes me as sad that talented people with the drive to succeed don’t have the time, both to gain a different perspective on what they are doing and also to have balance in their lives, to share that success with loved ones.

Stress shows itself at many levels in an organisation, a perfect example being in the holiday periods for the poor sales staff. How many of them are sweating to produce over target performances in a period when increasingly , the corporate decision makers have decided to leave the office? Some deal with it better than others, but all of us can learn to recognise the warning signs. The incidence of stress related illnesses is on the increase. Indeed it probably costs more to companies than industrial disputes these days.

So how do we recognise it? Well tell tale signs include headaches, tension in the neck, back pain, poor circulation, sleeplessness, lethargy, tiredness, extreme working, mistrust of others, fear of death, imagined illnesses. The classic symptoms of course are increased drinking, smoking, drug taking, irritability with colleagues or family, and lack of concentration.

There are a large number of environmental sources of work stress, the characteristics of the job itself, the role of the person in the organisation, interpersonal relationships at work, career development pressures, the climate and culture of an organisation and problems associated with the interface between the organisation and the outside world. Stress can be caused by too much or too little work, time pressures and deadlines, having to make too many decisions, fatigue from the physical strains of the work environment, excessive travel, long hours, having to cope with changes at work and the potential expense (monetary and career) of making mistakes.

a-fine-line

Both qualitative and quantitative overload may produce at least eight different symptoms of psychological and physical strain. Job dissatisfaction, job tension, lower self esteem, threat, embarassment, high cholesterol, increased heart rate and more smoking. An aspect that is particularly pertinent in this decade is career development pressure, lack of job security, fear of redundancy, obsolescence or early retirement and status incongruity (under or over promotion), frustration at having reached one’s career ceiling. Career progression is of overriding importance, especially to managers and professional staff. By promotion they not only earn money but also enhanced status and the new job challenges for which they strive.

Unless individuals adapt their expectations to suit new circumstances, particularly the changing needs of globalisation, career development stress is likely to be prevalent on a massive scale. We all need a modicum of stress to drive the bodily systems (for example it eliminates over toxicity in our body’s chemical systems). However, we also need to be able to cope with the negative effects of stress. Some of the suggested strategies are to increase your exercise levels, to use meditation, mindfulness or relaxation techniques, talk to someone outside your immediate circle, reassess your lifestyle or aspirations, protect your space, set boundaries at home or in the workplace, take a holiday or weekend away, remember the positive pleasant times and allow yourself praise for minor successes.

Other areas readily available today are massage, manipulation, reflexology and aromatherapy. A number of more far sighted companies are now employing freelance therapists to come into the workplace to give what is known as seated, fully clothed massage, which only takes 20-25 minutes of an employee’s time, but gives a great return on the employee’s wellbeing and in company performance. The strategy adopted will vary. For example, if stress comes primarily from poor physical working conditions, we might consider ergonomic solutions. If on the other hand, problems originate from conflicting roles, we might want to utilise techniques such as role playing. If individuals are dissatisfied with the rate of career advancement, relaxation techniques would be of no help, far more useful to do some career planning or train managers in the methods of career development.

ai

I can think of many people over the years who have been destroyed mentally and physically by the pressures of the modern working environment, at the end of the day some are just not able to cope with it. The increasing pace of technology change over the next ten years will only add to this. The fact that we are constantly bombarded with more data than it is possible to cope with may only be alleviated by AI, machine learning and robots taking over some of our roles.

To return to an earlier point, some of you will be on half-term holiday when you read this, the time thoughts turn to aspects of your life other than work. It’s interesting how difficult it is, though, to wash thoughts of work away from your mind in the first few days of a break, that too may be a sign of stress. Holidays can sometimes even add to the emotional stress. Some believe that a lot of short breaks throughout the year, rather than one long holiday, might be more beneficial. The bottom line is, you’ve only got one life, make the most of it, for your sake and the company’s.

Equally applicable to Business, Brexit or POTUS.

orange

Roger Fisher and William Ury (Harvard 1981) tell the story of two sisters arguing over an orange. After some discussion they agree to divide the orange in half, an apparently wise and fair solution. One sister then peels her half and eats the fruit, while the other peels her half, throws away the fruit and uses the peel to make a cake. What appeared to be a wise solution – namely a 50-50 division of the orange was certainly fair, but not very wise. If only the sisters had paid less attention to their positions (how much of the orange each was asking for) and more to their interests (why each wanted the orange) they could have reached an agreement which allowed both to obtain everything they wanted.

Instead of analysing negotiation as a confrontation between two adversaries (each of whom is determined to get as much as possible, while surrendering little or nothing on the way), the ‘Principles of Problem solving’ approach calls for greater collaboration. Each side seeks to do as well as possible for itself, but views the other party not as an adversary but as a potential collaborator. The objective is to find ways to advance one’s self-interest while also leaving room for the other side to do the same. This calls for negotiators to move from statements of position to an analysis of underlying interests.

Exponents of this approach to negotiations argue that opportunities for joint gain result when negotiators are able to metaphorically swing their chairs round so that, instead of facing each other, they are side by side, instead of confronting each other, they jointly confront the problem that challenges both. People negotiate with each other all the time – wives with husbands, managers with workers, nations with other nations. Yet despite the fact that it is a path of everyday life, it is only in recent decades that we have begun to study negotiation systematically. To be sure, not all conflicts are amenable to this joint problem solving approach, many are, however.

Others remain better suited to the more traditional concession-making process, alluded to earlier, in which negotiations begin at extreme opening demands, then slowly shift from these in order to reach some sort of mutually acceptable agreement. Although these two methods of thinking about negotiations would appear to rest on different assumptions about the nature of the process, they are actually very much alike in one key aspect. Both points of view are best suited to the kind of negotiation that takes place between parties of equal power. Whether it is two sisters, or two super-powers, as long as neither party has the power to impose agreement on the other, and parties acknowledge their interdependence, there is room and opportunity for negotiation.

But what happens when power is not equally divided between the parties, when one side has far more power than the other, when one side is far less dependent on reaching a negotiated settlement than the other? As Jeff Rubin and Jeswald Salacuse (Harvard 1990) point out, if two nations are engaged in a water rights dispute concerning a river, and one nation sits upstream of the other, why should the upstream party agree to negotiate, rather than simply decide unilaterally to do exactly as it pleases? In turn, what does the party with low relative power do to persuade its upstream counterpart to come to the negotiating table?

vietnam

It is usually assumed that success in negotiations is merely a matter of power and that the company with less power is always at the mercy of the company with more power. Yet the history of international relations is filled with examples of large states which failed to force small states to do their bidding (eg the US and Vietnam, the USSR and Afghanistan). These examples raise the question of whether results in such negotiations are not just a matter of power, but also of strategies and tactics.

It is said that everyone loves an underdog, that the skilled negotiator should be able to turn this phenomenon to his or her advantage, that often the seemingly weak are far more powerful than they realise, and that the powerful may be far weaker than is commonly supposed. Well no method can guarantee success if all the leverage lies on the other side. The most any method of negotiation can do is to meet the two objectives: to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and to help you to make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement satisfies your interests as well as possible.

So is there a measure for agreements that will help you to achieve these aims? Yes there is – develop your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). The relative negotiating power of parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement. Generating BATNAs requires three distinct operations.

  • Inventing a list of actions you might conceivably take if no agreement is reached;
  • Improving some of the more promising ideas and constructing them into practical alternatives;
  • Selecting tentatively the one option that seems best;

Having gone through this effort, you now have a BATNA. Judge every offer against it, having a good BATNA can help you negotiate on the merits. Apply knowledge, time, money, people, connections and wits into devising the best solution for you, independent of the other sides assent.

sumo-light

 

free-wifi

I talk to start-up entrepreneurs in the technology world on a weekly basis. They tell me about the day to day tribulations of their worlds, often top of the list is closing out their first proof of concepts in the enterprise field. The theme of the conversation is often all about the twists and turns they have to make as a company just to get in the door of a major brand company to prove their product or service can perform in a professional business environment. Never mind worrying about whether there is a business case in terms of ROI.

So let’s say nine months in they get the target company to agree to a limited trial of whatever they are selling, often cloud based services. Amongst many these range from mobile payments, traffic location beacons, battery charging stations, ticketing and hospitality applications.   Perhaps a limited number of offices, shops or arenas to start with, not all based in London as they had hoped for to get easy and economic access with their limited support resources . But spread out all across the UK the client wanting to test the robustness of the service in different regional settings, sometimes ranging from Glasgow to Plymouth.

But full of the entrepreneurial spirit and confidence in their world class engineers that have refined their products they set off to install their services. Most of the time they get away with it, they turn up and with a bit of fiddling with their platforms and network hardware they have bought in they are able to connect to whatever WiFi network that is already incumbent in the target company. Sometimes they use 4G routers if that is the only option if the internal networks are locked down. So the trial starts, perhaps over ten different sites and they are monitoring their services from dashboards built into their products for that purpose. Checking the traffic data which is so often a key feature of their offerings to justify the service is being used and the data is valuable to the client.

Then the inevitable review meeting with the client to discuss the data and how it is going, maybe 45 days in and that is when a few blips in the data begin to surface. You knew this before the review because you have been more keen than the  client to analyse the data. To cut a long story short it would seem two or maybe three of the sites are only performing intermittently and the potential client is using it as a block before they will discuss any further rollout or progress on the negotiation.

Now you have checked your systems and platform with the engineers back at base (not necessarily UK based) and they are convinced from their end that everything is functioning well. But you are the sales led Founder or VP business development faced with the client at the sharp end who does not want to hear anything but definitive proof as to where the issue is and the proposed solution. Sometimes even that won’t be necessary as often you have one shot at this. That twenty percent failure rate, which if they are talking about a rollout of even 250 sites equals a potential 50 sites not functioning properly, would already kill the opportunity stone dead for you.

So it is here that I must declare an interest, I advise Wireless Design Services International WDSi Group a vendor independent professional services team who are world experts in WiFi and other types of network services. It struck me some time back that their expertise in these network areas could be of immense value and support to growth start-ups. Particularly at that proof of concept stage but also if successful in terms of how to rollout professionally, economically and at speed across the whole estate.

So what are a few of the things we have learned from real live proof of concepts we have ended up supporting over the last year or so. The start-up  lands and the incumbent supplier of WiFi won’t even give them an SSID to link to their network, it is not in their interest to be helpful. Even if they do there is so many other critical services running on limited bandwidth it does not make your solution shine or even work. You try to bypass their network by installing your own hardware, perhaps bought in 4G routers which you have no experience of, which then prompts delays from minor details like where they are to be stored, positioned and powered from. Even if you get them in for some reason the signal seems not to stay constant throughout the day or the router goes down and needs replacing.

Inevitably you end up talking to the internal telecoms team of the client, who are nearly always remote from the marketing teams you are selling to. They generally are protective of their networks and won’t allow access particularly to start-ups with no network experience or credentials. They speak a different language, not from your world of expertise and become another barrier to entry. Even if these layers are breached it requires years of experience in design and consultative challenging environments to get WiFi/4G to function at an acceptable SLA level that will get you over the line with an enterprise client.

There are a myriad of reasons why WiFi/4G/Networks don’t function particularly well in challenging environments (the start-up world) and I would be so bold as to say you don’t really want to become an expert in any of them while trying to build out and scale a growth start-up. Rather you need to “stick to the knitting” as we experienced entrepreneurs say and not divert your attention from executing your business plan.

Sure there is a cost to outsourcing the installation, ongoing monitoring and field maintenance support to experts like WDSi, although they do recognise the need to be and are competitive in the start-up world. At the early stages of the POC point on the curve I would and have seen it myself previously as a start-up Founder allocated as a necessary marketing cost in the business plan. If those early trials do not go well, even if your services are one hundred percent and it is the networks that are at fault, you may never gain sales momentum again.