Steve Livingston

Author Archives: Steve Livingston

Why being a middle of the road business is a BIG mistake

It seems reasonable to assume that targeting your business at the middle is a safe bet.  After all, the middle comprises the majority of customers. Right?

Perhaps – but there is a nasty sting in the tail for the unwary…

The middle is big.  Very BIG. The middle provides the most choice for customers. The middle is the most competitive. The middle is the noisiest. The middle makes it harder for you to appear bespoke – you are trying to serve too many in the middle.  The middle is where the high street and big internet brands hunt (and they have deeper pockets than you).  The middle ignores the genius of the 80/20 rule.

Those in the middle normally struggle. The middle is tough. The middle is the hardest work. The middle needs a lot of marketing (and therefore cash).  Those in the middle have to struggle in good times and bad.

Many business owners spot this and set off on the right path i.e top or bottom but a little farther down the line they can’t seem to help themselves from gravitating towards the middle. They lose their nerve. Particularly in especially good or bad economic times (like now).  But why?

Despite the recent recession, many prestige businesses continue to do well. This is because the world is still full of very wealthy individuals who can ride this dip out quite comfortably – and want somewhere to shop or service their needs in the meantime.  My local Selfridges in Manchester still looked pretty packed over the recent Christmas rush, particularly around the new Tiffany concession store.

Meanwhile, businesses that had raised their sights during the recent good times will be wishing they had stayed as bargain-basement £1 shops. But it may be too late. Those that held their nerve have first-mover-advantage and will deservedly reap the rewards – our local 50p shop is busier than ever (for obvious reasons) but it didn’t start being a 50p shop in the last 12 months.  It stayed as a 50p shop when there was plenty of cash credit swishing around over the past 10 years.  It never lost its focus.  It never lost its nerve.  It never became middle.  It deserves to win.

Being middle is a mistake.  Aim high or aim low.  Either way, hold your nerve and never ever be middle.

Picture credit: Paul Watson

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
3

Future of Work – No jobs by 2030?

Thomas Power makes the assertion that there will be no jobs by 2030 in the excellent Smarta ebook Smartest Brains 2010 and beyond!

Meanwhile Seth Godin pleads with us to become indispensable in his latest book Linchpin arguing that the Industrial Age model of work is over – therefore if your current job involves tasks that can be broken down into process-driven bits then you can kiss this job goodbye in the not too distant future due to a combination of globalisation and automation.

Are they right? Dan Pink argued along similar lines a few years back in A Whole New Mind and there’s little doubt that our concept of work has to change in today’s Knowledge Economy.  We are now paid to think rather than do.

I suspect that by 2030 manual jobs will still exist at the lower end but perhaps the real risk lies in store for middle-managers and professionals with process driven roles. We have already seen this emerging in the latest recession with the introduction of the 4 day work week and mass redundancies. Highly educated professionals, particularly those in their late 40s-50s who have followed the accepted path, have been left feeling disillusioned – and unsure where to turn next…

Has the Industrial Age managed to turn us all, including educated professionals, into dependants? If so, we now need to rediscover our latent entrepreneurial talents and tolerance for change and instability (not something that most of us are naturally predisposed towards).

I believe we will see 2 primary worker-types emerge over the next 10-20 years:

  1. Highly networked freelance workers
  2. Portfolio workers

The highly networked worker represents an entrepreneurial type.  Someone who runs one or more businesses, probably mostly outsourced.  This would also encompass certain professionals who are deep specialists in their area of expertise and are called into teams to work on specific assignments on a project-by-project basis. These people are the more entrepreneurial types and may well have left the corporate world to do their own thing at some stage in the future anyway.

The biggest change would be for the newly labelled portfolio worker. These are the people who would have quite happily worked for the same company for life – or at least for many years, perhaps choosing only to move on to another steady job if things changed for the worse or there was an opportunity for promotion and progression elsewhere. Rather than have one job – they might end up with 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 day-jobs per week? A day here and a day there.

The latter model may initially sound unappealing, however, as I discussed with Ian Sanders, adopting a portfolio or plurality approach to work opens up new and exciting opportunities. Imagine if your average week went from working 9-5 for the same company to say:

  • Monday – fulfilling orders, marketing and general running of online home business.
  • Tuesday – work for Company A as a part-time financial director (FD)
  • Wednesday – charitiable activities e.g. tending to trustee responsibilities and planning events
  • Thursday – mixed day. Update books for online home business am. Complete freelance financial consulting work pm.
  • Friday – back to Company A for the day as FD

Think how much Company A would benefit from a fresh, revitalised worker plus the insights gained from the plurality of work. Likewise, from the portfolio worker’s perspective, think about the variety enjoyed in a working week by adopting a portfolio or freeformer approach.

It is easy to paint a gloomy picture of the future of work. We need to remind ourselves that the Industrial Age has only been in existence for 100+ years and we were self-sufficient for 1000’s of years before this Age of Dependency.

By preparing ourselves now both mentally and practically, the future of work looks exciting and I suspect that in years to come people will look back and think that the concept of a Job for Life was a missed opportunity rather than the panacea that we all grasp after today.

Look forward to your comments and thoughts.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Design Thinking for Business – Lessons from Apple’s ipad

We are tentatively emerging from a painful recession yet the masses (myself included!) are salivating over Apple‘s latest creation – the Apple ipad.

It’s a snip at just $499 but we seem to forget that most people already have perfectly decent laptops or PCs at home. Yet you can bet your bottom dollar that millions of these things will fly off the shelf once released later this year – but why? What is it that Apple have become so masterful at that they can create a roaring demand for something that people don’t (truly) need?

For me, there are 3 key traits of the ipod – iphone -ipad:

  1. Design
  2. Experience
  3. Simplicity

Underpinning all 3 is the willingness to strip commonly accepted everyday items down to their bare bones and to start again – true innovation thinking.  They did this with the mp3 player, the mobile phone and now the laptop / netbook.

So what lessons can we learn from Apple’s approach to business?

  1. Design thinking = fantastic user experience = Salivating customers / owners = Mad raving fans. How cool is the stuff you make or the experiences your services provide? Are your prospects salivating…?
  2. Build the fire and the heat will come People will always pay for or reinvest in beautifully designed stuff and experiences (we’re not rational beings! we even purchase or change service providers when we already have something that functionally achieves the same objectives). In a crowded and fast moving market, Apple just shifted the goal-posts…again
  3. KISSKeep It Simple Stupid. Apple constantly re-engineers products to reduce complexity and get back to basics
  4. Mix old with new to help transition customers from what they’re used to – see how the ibooks are made to look like normal paged books as you thumb through the pages to help transition traditional book reading purists. Experience is everything (for everyone)
  5. Keep adapting and driving forward. It would have been easy for Apple to sit back and keep tweaking their iphone. Instead they took the riskier option. Today it’s more risky to play safe.

What’s your take on the launch of the ipad and ensuing media frenzy? Why has it captured everyone’s attention? As entrepreneurs, business owners and ambitious employees, what lessons can we learn from this?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Show #001 – Juggle! ReThink Work, Reclaim your Life

I’m delighted to kick off our podcast series with a fascinating chat with Ian Sanders of The Ian Sanders Company on his latest book Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim your Life

Ian Sanders is an entrepreneur, ideas guy, marketing bloke, business potentialiser, unplan evangelist, specialist in creative industries and author!

You can either listen to the podcast from your computer now or you can subscribe to listen to this and future episodes on your ipod, smart phone or mp3 player at your convenience – all for free.

In our 20 minute chat, topics covered with Ian include:

  • Ian’s life as a Juggler
  • introducing ‘plurality’ into our work and lives
  • avoiding being defined by our job title
  • how employees can also embrace the Juggle lifestyle to be more entrepreneurial
  • how the introduction of a reduced (often 4 day) work week during the recession could benefit both employers and employees over the longer term
  • rethinking the notion of retirement by reframing work
  • challenge of ‘switching off’ given the ‘always on’ 24 hr nature of technology tools
  • key lessons from Kevin Roberts (global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi) on balancing work and life
  • importance of being passionate about what you do – “play where you play best”
  • effectively managing your 24 hours per day

You can find this book at Amazon and you can find more from Ian Sanders at his website, plus regular updates on Ian’s latest thinking on his blog and on Twitter.

How you can listen to BusinessN2K:

  1. Subscribe by clicking on the Subscribe to Podcast icon in the side bar or subscribe via iTunes. This is the best way to listen as it will ensure that all future episodes are delivered directly to you as new episodes are released, or
  2. Click on the Blubrry player below to listen now:

Blubrry player!

Please leave your comments, feedback and suggestions for future shows in the comments section below.

Credits: Thanks to Ian Sanders for this week’s show + music used in the BusinessN2K podcast is by Viba – In the Orchard lies a Secret – available as a free download and is released under a Creative Commons Licence

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Who’s in charge of your business?

UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 10:  In this photo illus...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

You may think that you are in charge of your business, however, in the digital age of social media where anyone has the power to comment on your business and influence both local and global opinion (either via blogs, Twitter, forums, Facebook etc), is this still the case?

There have been many recent high-profile incidents where global brands have been forced to change direction commercially or, at the very least, acknowledge the comments and feedback of disgruntled customers whether they wanted to or not e.g. Dell, Apple are a amongst a distinguished line-up of apologetic global brands.

A few harsh and frank words typed into a blog, Facebook, Twitter or a video review posted to YouTube has the power:

  • at worst to bring about a viral movement resulting in an army of disappointed individuals congregating online who collectively could cause serious harm to your business, or
  • at the very least rank some negative feedback within Google ready to leap out the next time your dream prospect does a search on your business in Google (and they will).

There is nothing you can do to stop this – and why should you?

Feedback is a gift after all whether positive or negative. It is how you deal with negative feedback that is key when the eyes of the world are watching…

A recent study showed that potential customers warmed more to businesses who had negative feedback but took proactive steps to remedy the complaints compared to those that bathed solely in positive feedback. However, for this strategy to be effective it is vital that you are listening for comments made online about your business – and act on it (quickly).

A good example is my local hostelry, The Swan Hotel in Tarporley. A thoroughly nice country pub and hotel with largely 4-5 stars on Trip Advisor. However, scroll down through the recent reviews (as most people do) and you can’t help but be drawn to a review that gives 1 star and says “Child unfriendly”. Read on and the reviewer goes on to berate the hotel and service for a whole host of cock-ups. Left unattended this review leaves a huge black mark against the rest of the positive reviews and, on personal a note as a father, I’m sure I would be scouring through for alternative child friendly options.

The good news is that the owners of the Swan Hotel were listening and promptly posted the following apology under the review:

Problem (not only) solved but turned into a positive.

Be under no illusion, you are no longer in charge of how your business is perceived. Your business will be held accountable for every action it takes and it will receive continual feedback. Your job as business owner, manager or employee is to listen, respond, engage and use the feedback to continually improve and adapt your products and services.

In this way, your millions of managers can help keep your business on track far better than you could alone.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Professionals serving clients via The Cloud

As a practising chartered accountant and tax advisor, I am finding that the ability to reach out and service clients via The Cloud is getting easier (and even more fun). 

Two recent examples from the past week:

  1. Sat at my Mac when I was pinged via Skype by one of my contacts “Steve, do you have a moment to help?”.  Within seconds he had sent me a link via Yuuguu for me to view his screen.  He was busy trying to file his company CT600 tax return online but was encountering some problems.  There is a further option on the screen that allowed me to take control of his screen so that I could quickly rifle through the online pages to determine if anything was wrong.  Meanwhile we could discuss via online chat.  A v slick experience and a glimpse into the way we will work in the future (now)!
  2. Leaving the gym, a client wanted me to check some recent accounting entries to his online business books.  With no time to get back to the office, I stopped by a local Pret-A-Manger and sat down with my laptop to hook up to the free wifi.  I tried to connect to Skype via my ipod Touch (as Skype is not installed on my work laptop) but unfortunately the connection was patchy.  A quick log-in to Twitter to apologise for the delay and my client sent an access link to his online accounting package, Xero, via a direct message in Twitter.  Within seconds I was logged into his Xero account reviewing the accounting entries.  The review was limited as I wanted to discuss some points with him (and a public place like Pret is not ideal), however, to get a heads up on the fly, this was great. 

Who would have thought this way of working would be possible only a couple of years ago? 

Example 1 could not have happened as I was not in the office at the time.  Example 2 would have meant a significant delay and frustration for my client awaiting my return to the office etc.   In both cases, these tools enabled me to be more responsive and allowed me to work without being chained to my desk. 

Professionals need to be out of the office supporting the business community and these tech tools are allowing this to become a reality. 

On a personal note, many of my clients are technology companies and they (quite rightly) expect their advisers to operate and work utilising similar tools – great news for me!

What might this mean for the way professionals work in the (near) future?

Manchester – Next Generation Digital City

A packed auditorium at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Friday 15 January 2010 was greeted by an enthusiastic launch by Insider of Manchester – Next Generation Digital City.

An initiative that aims to put Manchester at the forefront of UK business competitiveness by laying the foundations for exciting, innovative digital and technology-based businesses to flourish.  This will be achieved by leading the pack (well, a close second behind North Wales) in laying state-of-the-art fibre networks to deliver blistering broadband speed for businesses (and residential users).  To put things in perspective, the example was given by Geo, Chief Executive, Chris Smedley (the company that will lay the cables) of a residential user seeking to download a typical 4GB movie  – today this would practically take all day to download whereas this could be downloaded in just 46 seconds once the new networks are laid!

Dave Carter (Head of Manchester Digital Development Agency) in particular roused the audience with an impassioned plea for Manchester to lead the charge, citing frustration over push-backs and retorts such as:

  1. “There is no market for this otherwise the market would have invested in and built it themselves” – how about the importance of the Manchester Ship Canal to Manchester’s economic prominence in the early industrial age as a counter to this….?
  2. “This is too fast for most existing applications – why do we want this now?” – because businesses will find ways to utilise it to its full potential once it is there to be used – the burgeoning Manchester creative and film industry needs this now as explained by Dave Mousley of Red Vision
  3. “Let’s wait and see how other cities get on before we invest” – Dave Carter likened this to sitting out the next Olympics to see how other countries fared in the hope that we could steal a march next time – it just doesn’t work this way!

References to “iPhone to iManc” and the quest to follow the likes of Stockholm and Amsterdam to become Smart Cities were also crowd-pleasers.

I sensed that the excitement was mixed with a little frustration when the test-bed area was shown as a disappointingly small pocket of North Manchester – before being extended across Manchester in due course.  Equally, the innovative idea of using existing sewerage and tram line systems to lay the networks rather than causing the disruption of digging up roads etc was tinged with concern when a throw-away comment was made by Chris Smedley that they still needed to reach agreement with United Utilities plc who own the sewerage systems …. a point that was picked up by a member of the audience during the Q&A.

Brendan Dawes (Creative Director of Magnetic North) made the poigniant point that he looked forward to the day when he could move on from living in what sometimes appears to be a Victorian Age and enjoy the advancements of living in a digital 21st Century  e.g. he currently wakes up in a Victorian town to travel to work on a Victorian tramline to admire the Victorian Manchester architechture  – “if only the wireless 3G network would allow Spotify to work properly whilst sitting on the tram!”

Another discussion which sparked interest was the notion that truly opening up to the potential of the digital age could allow individuals (young and old) to make game-changing products and services.  Digital business is a leveller in providing a level playing field for both small and BIG corporate businesses.   Reference was made by Brendan to a young guy who he met at SXSW who said he was leaving Apple to set up a new business with Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter).  This business turns out to be the recently launched Square – a game-changing business that is set to blow credit card providers and potentially even cash into the dark ages:

“and this was created by a kid and NOT some corporate team in suits working for one of the major banking institutions.”

A great point well made.

If you’ve yet to see the potential of Square – here’s a taster:

I had to leave the event promptly for a client meeting so I was unable to hang around to chat, however, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the right sentiment and that things are going in the right direction but we need to see the test-bed site rolled out as soon as possible before a) there is the risk of loss of momentum and / or b) the nay-sayers sense weakness and put the brakes on.  There is also a potential change in government that could derail this ambitious project given public and fiscal tightening.

Let’s hope that the first fibre networks are laid as soon as possible as I believe that what might seem like a bold move now is likely to be viewed as one of the best things that Manchester ever did in years to come (like the Manchester Ship Canal).

Please share your views.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Forward thinking Engineering business supports future NW innovation

I enjoyed a great catch-up with the Managing Director (MD) of a (target) company of mine today.  This family owned business is a leading advanced engineering company in the North West and the MD’s insights into business and the way things are changing is always sharp and insightful.

We discussed the economic challenges of the past 12 months and, given the long life-cycle of procuring and then manufacturing their products he saw the next 6-12 months as a period of “consolidation”.  Many of their competitors had already been squeezed out, although he suspected there would be more to come – especially as businesses who survive then suffer from over-trading as the market (hopefully) returns “in around 2012” – the mantra Cash is King will remain as crucial as ever.

What was most interesting was the sense of cohesiveness mixed with a strong focus and direction that he was building within the organisation.  The tough times over the past 12-18 months have clearly made them much more focused on their core strengths and therefore more inclined to sub-contract the work that they do not believe they can do as well – this is brave but strategically right for the longer term. Likewise they are actively seeking opportunities to assist other engineering firms with their expertise and resource to help meet demands or short term resource needs.  A flexible approach that the MD could see being a key growth area in the business.

They have also continued along a path of identifying and nurturing new and emerging engineering talent within the North West – an area which is of strategic importance for them over the longer term but which is clearly already bringing success.  This commitment to supporting early stage engineering ideas and businesses is crucial to the future of the North West economy and is refreshing to see within a long established family company.

Picking up on the team cohesiveness, the MD explained how his choice of location for their new offices was largely dictated by where his team live (“we really wanted to keep them”) and how he would like to increase the commitment of the business to social responsibility by allowing staff to complete 4 week sabbaticals on hands-on roles such as building orphanages in Africa in the not too distant future – all on full-pay.  Notwithstanding such lofty goals, the MD was both surprised and warmed by the team’s response to his impromptu decision to give all staff an extra 2 days holiday over Christmas this year – “I’ve handed out pretty decent bonuses in the past and have been greeted with a “thanks (but I’ve earned it)” kind of response but was stunned by the response to this gesture!”

A great business with a great leader.  We need more like it.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]