It’s OK


I am currently here, but I’m about to move back to San Francisco whilst wanting to settle here, where I’m trying to to buy a house.

Well done Simpletom… you’re managing, quite dedicatedly, to ignore all of your own advice.

Over the next few months I will immerse myself and my business in 500 Startups, a prestigious ‘accelerator’ programme for tech startups. So, I’m about to embark upon an extremely intense few months whilst also trying to remember this and this. It’s going to be a whirlwind where a certain amount of schizophrenia will inevitably occur. But as my wise sister often says, with perhaps one the simplest adages for repelling self-doubt:

“It’s OK”.

Edward De Bono in his book Simplicity suggests 10 rules for simplicity. The first is ‘you need to put a very high value on simplicity’. The second, ‘you must be determined to seek simplicity’. This is valuable advice for the simplicity-seeker. Simplicity is not easy, nor does life unfurl the way you want it to.

I could chastise myself for putting myself in this, another situation where the simplicity I seek will be harder to maintain. I could wind myself up with concern, or frustration. But, actually, it’s OK.

Last time I was in San Francisco, I had dinner with an old friend who’s now raised close to $20m for his tech venture. He was philosophical (unsurprisingly, given he has an All Souls Fellowship in Philosophy – the ‘hardest exam in the world’) about running a tech venture and whether it will succeed or fail, reminding me what a privilege it is to be in this position. In fact, a couple of the most dogged, determined entrepreneurs I know seemed to have softened slightly and become more at one with the idea that, whatever the outcome, it’s OK. I don’t want to get too ‘Cynical Valley’, before I’ve even started.

So, here I come. It’ll be OK.

Though regular readers will be pleased to know that I’m not going completely native. There’s still a bit of a tree hugger/determined-simple-seeker/adventurer at heart, given I’ve just rented one of these, which will be my home until Christmas. Car parks of Silicon Valley watch out.

I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress as a technological entrepreneur vagabond.

Let’s hope, for the sake of my new colleagues, I can find somewhere to shower each morning… or I’ll have to rebrand myself SimplePong.  But I scents that it’s going to be OK too (sorry).

Looking To The Future (Then Trying To Ignore It)

All good things must end. So with a month left on the clock here in Kenya, I am reminded that the ‘next stage’ of life looms.

At the end of 2009 I took a break from the day-in day-out drive of running a business – partly because I was burnt out, and partly because the market had also burnt itself out. Running a recruitment business in the largest recession in living history is just not that simple, or fun.

The year 2010, however, was a revelation. Despite a slow market, I managed to win some first-rate executive searches that kept me financially alive.

However, the true discovery was that when free of the ‘timetable’ of working life, the pressure of managing people, and the expectation that comes with running a business, I could do a much better job for my clients and I started enjoying myself again.

I love running these searches and I am extremely good at it, if I might be so bold. Last year, I helped a large foundation find a key campaigner, who achieved one of the biggest environmental success stories of the last decade. That feels good. That makes all the naysayers fade into the background.

It is not about the fees, or beating the competition to win these searches, but about meeting fascinating people, finding the right person for the right job, and the results of that elusive combination. For me, there is a joy when a candidate I have placed in a role comes back two or three years later and tells me their life changed because of our interaction. In the case of the search above – if only Mother Nature could talk, I think she would’ve sent me a Christmas card.

But recruitment can be a disheartening and cruel business, hence my reticence to leap back in. Other recruiters have dragged the sector into a money-centric realm with a poor reputation. Tell someone on the board of a company that you are a recruiter and they often make their excuses and leave, desperate to avoid the hard sell. People look down their noses at you and lump you into category. ‘Why would you, Tom, want to do that?’. You’re bright, they state – surely you can find better things to do?

Don’t worry. My rebellious nature would have me running off to do something else if it didn’t feel right.

So the question now, about the return, is how to balance my discovered simplicity with my working world? How can I retain the joy of interacting with outstanding people and helping companies find exciting and rewarding people without it dragging me into complexity? Can I retain the lightness that a lack of concern with materialism brings, while working in a cut-throat industry, where the hungriest fight hard and dirty?

I think I can.

But I need to be mindful of all I have learned and how happy I feel.

I must set myself some guidelines – some mnemonics – to prevent materialism, competition and ego dominating my drive. Instead, I want drive that is propelled by flow, simplicity and a desire to do good.

This plays out to a bigger question. How does the desire for simplicity interplay with the competitive capitalist world? How do we find the ideal balance?

1)            One of the key points is remembering that when people are in ‘flow’ and happy, they often work more diligently and efficiently.

Therefore, there must be a trust. Trust that with passion will follow reward, rather than the other way around.

By retaining and focusing on the areas that feel right, things often come right.

2)            In my case, recruitment often involves networking and getting one’s name out there. This means hard work and a degree of pushiness. How to ensure that this remains healthy?

The key, I believe, is to remember the power of people. By helping the right organisation find the right people, I can help make a small difference. Driven by this force – the force of good – I can stomach a few rejections by people who do not have the time to realise that I am a different type of recruiter.

3)            In the pursuit of money, or success, people often abandon their integrity and their authenticity. When a salesperson sells something he would not buy, or an investment banker sells toxic assets, or a lawyer suggests a complicated solution to a simple problem (which in my eyes seems the norm) – each is compromising their values.

Instead, I must remain true to myself. This means choosing the right pieces of business, for the right type of client. It is hard when someone wafts a large cheque in front of you, but in fact, it is often less rewarding in the end when all the other factors are combined.

4)            Take breaks. Work in a way that is right.

One of the reasons that I burned out was that I worked in the way I was expected to. Anyone who has read about starting a business can feel that the only way to succeed is through working like a slave to get things started. Tales of people sleeping beneath their desks and years of struggle are all too common. As such, I found myself working sixty- or seventy-hour weeks believing that it was the only way to succeed.

Yet this just was not effective for me. Perhaps it works for some to have this discipline but I found myself enslaved. That meant I did not enjoy it so my work suffered, as well as my life.

Instead, I will try to work efficiently, rather than ‘putting in the hours’. I also need a change of scene now and again, out of the office. That makes employing people more difficult.

Instead, I will try to work alone, with support from Odesk or Elance to help lighten the burden, rather than rushing to employ people and scale up.

I will also set up alone, rather than with partners, as I mentioned in my previous post. It sounds lonely, but it enables freedom, simplicity and focus – it also prevents someone else compromising your direction.

Although the politicians of the world will lament my poor contribution to their employment figures – I want to build an organisation that is efficient and simple, rather than large and complex.

For me, a company that has a turnover of £250 thousand per year with one employee and the freedom that brings would be preferable to a £25 million business with a hundred people. Especially as the manager at the top might end up with a similar pay packet, if that is his / her motivation.

I may miss the fellowship of ‘company’ (is that why they’re called companies?), but for now I can offset this with the freedom this brings.

5)            Maintaining routines and not getting swept away with work is critical.

My current routine and desire to write could easily be compromised with the cut and thrust of business.

Instead, I promise to continue to wake without an alarm clock, wherever and whenever possible (I am a few years away from having children, at best, so this isn’t just a cunning claim in the knowledge that I have exterior forces that will awaken me). I promise to spend the first thirty minutes reading in bed, before getting up. Not a book on management techniques, but a novel, or a book of personal interest. Then, I will start by writing in the morning, until I have written a few pages, before I start to think about work.

When I do get ‘back to business’ I will make sure that my first action is not checking my emails, but going over my list of things to do and working on the important first, preferably offline.

During the day, I will take several breaks to wander in the garden or even, as I did when I was working last summer, to spend an hour or two going to the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath in the mid-afternoon.

All this might sound too pleasurable and easy to achieve. Not waking with an alarm clock, I hear you say, ‘I’d bloody well do that if I could’. Well, believe you me – maintaining the kind of calm morning routine I have mentioned is surprisingly difficult when faced with an onslaught of ‘things to do’. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to maintain this kind of routine when you’re barraged by emails.

Within one’s working day, I believe (to paraphrase Antoine de Saint Exupéry) perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away.

6)            Finally… although there are many more pieces to the puzzle that I am sure will rear themselves, I must remember not to attach too much importance to all that I do.

By reminding ourselves of our insignificance, and impermanence, the desperate desire to achieve, succeed and win fade away. When we remember these things, business fails to retain its lustre and the pleasures of simplicity, wonders of balance and desire to retain one’s life appear, as if they’d been there all along.

Here's me, last night, next to my new house, trying to prevent the days from ending so quickly...

Building a Simple House… or Not

When I set off for this magical land, Kenya, 7 months ago to build a house many, my friends and family included, thought I was a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

The jury is still out.

The house is going smashingly, but there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way about simplicity, being green, expectations and keeping the ego in check.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the desire to design and build a house had sat on my list of things I wanted to do for some time. Last year, I seized the opportunity. With global slowdown in recruitment, I had some wiggle room. Recession can be an opportunity, it’s all down to perspective!

On New Years Eve 2009 a drunken chat with one of my best mates, a newly-fledged architect, resulted in a pact; to head out to Kenya to use his talents and my over enthusiasm to see what we could get done.

It’s been a fascinating process. Herein lie some lessons:

1)    Conflicting aims

I realise that from the start my aims have been somewhat entangled.

When I set out, I was looking to build something minimalist, cheap and simple. A few hundred bags of cement and a number of lorries worth of materials later, I wonder whether this building (or ‘jenga’ – Swahili for building), is any of those things.

I also wanted a building that was a home away from home but also, ideally, an investment – so that I wouldn’t loose money. I’m not quite at the stage of retiring just yet, so even though it was never my plan to try to make money, I didn’t want to pour money down the drain, if it could be avoided. Plus, if I’m going to keep the house, I want it to be able to pay for itself. This means I will have to be able to rent it out to folks with different requirements.

As such, during the design process I found myself not being brave enough to go out on a limb and build things according to mad specifications – instead in some cases I went with ‘the norm’. Plus, having never run a building project here before, we had enough on our plates building normally, rather than breaking the mould.

Often functionality, rentability and pleasure win over simplicity and greenness. If I’d built a cabin – it may well have been cheaper, greener and simpler, but perhaps no one would have stayed in it and it would have been too hot, or only lasted 10 years before needing to be re-built?

The lesson is that simplicity or environmental leadership isn’t always easy, or even possible when coupled with a desire for comfort or an investment. A balance is needed. I have dreams of simplicity that often cannot be met by the demands of practicality. I am always learning. Simplicity is a journey, of which this has been another big step.

2)    What is an eco-building?

I wanted my house to be as green as possible within realistic aesthetic and price boundaries.

A green building should be desirable and comfortable, rather than super-green and no fun to live in. If no one wants to stay in a house, is it fulfilling its purpose?

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A shameless, energy-efficient convenient plug

I’ve often said that the environmental movement needs convenient actions, not inconvenient truths. Said differently, many of us have a sincere ‘will’ to change our planet, but are not not sure of the most effective ‘way’ to do so. When you couple this with the environmental preachers out there, who are quick to chastise us – it’s not surprising that there is a sense of apathy. The more ardent campaigners find it hard to understand why the majority of us are not more environmentally contentious – yet for most of us, environmental conscientiousness competes against a plethora of other forces within our daily lives.

In addition, there is often disagreement about how one should act. If we try to be green, yet we’re still criticized, it can lead to people giving up trying, rather than trying harder. If we hear rumours that hybrid vehicles are actually less efficient, because of the dangerous chemicals in their batteries, or the increased energy consumed to build them – whether this is true or not – it can lead to a sense of hopelessness. If we’re told that we shouldn’t fly, yet we have family or work abroad, it often merely serves to make people give up trying, rather than flying.

Rather than making us feel guilty about what we’re not doing, it’s important to make going green easy, even easier. We need to uncover and promote actions and activities that are convenient. We need to find out which airlines are the greenest, and try to fly with them, or put pressure on those that aren’t to change. We need to make flying green, rather than telling people they can’t. We need to determine which cars are the best to drive, the cheapest to run AND the best for the environment. Only when it works for consumers, will we see real change.

Ignorance often stands in the way of people’s desire to do ‘the right thing’, or prevents people from realising how simple it is to make small beneficial changes to one’s life.

With this in mind, I want to draw your attention to Tip the Planet. Started a few years back, I wanted to create a user-generated central place where people could put tips and more information about environmental issues and actions. Since then, I’ve hardly touched the site and yet more and more people have started to edit the site. For example, someone who wanted to share their knowledge, went wild on the ‘air-dry washing‘ page, and suddenly we’re number one in google. Although the pages don’t look pretty, every time I go back to an edited page, I discover that someone else has added a link to a new site, or a piece of information. In time, and through the power of wiki technology, the information will get better and better. If one person shares a tip they’ve uncovered which proves convenient and a thousand people implement it, suddenly we’ll start to see change occur on a bigger and bigger scale.

So, if you’re looking for solutions rather than problems, or want to share your experiences, take a look and help spread those conveniences, rather than lament the inconveniences.

The greeneration gap

Picture 1You don’t necessarily need an expensive MBA or a degree in environmental sciences to learn about social and environmental responsibility. In fact, many could learn from school children armed with about $17.

One of my favorite quotes I was lucky enough to hear in person. It was imparted by one of my favorite people — David Attenborough, the famous naturalist and owner of a voice that sends women over 60 weak at the knees (at least true in my mother’s case). Asked when he first became interested in the natural world, he boldly replied, “I prefer to ask most adults when they stopped being interested … after all, you won’t find many children that aren’t fascinated by nature, it’s just that my adolescent curiosity just never went away.” Perhaps not the most perfectly crafted of sound bites, but one that captures Attenborough’s magic and the boundless curiosity of youth.

A little while back I teamed up with a friend, Oli Barrett, to help create a scheme called “Make Your Mark with a Tenner.” The aim is to challenge youngsters to see what they can achieve with just £10 (slightly less than $17 in the U.S.) in one month. In the last couple of years, close to 30,000 school kids have participated in the program, aiming to make a profit and assessing the difference their schemes made, if any. (The photo to the right and the one below show the problem tackled by the Torquay Boys Grammar School and “The Chillow,” the product the students created to solve it.) The largest profit was £736 and the average £42, compared with a return a savings account would have provided in the same month — a heady 2p! That’s 4,200 penny sweets, versus a mere two. In a world of economic crises, these enterprising teens are proof that measures to support young entrepreneurs and startups are of vital import.oli-barrett-michelle-dewberry-launch-mym-with-a-tenner_photocredit-james-darling-199x300

I’ve also been lucky enough to participate in a BBC2 series called “Beat the Boss,” in which our team of “bosses” was trounced by a team of enterprising children. Plus, I was a trustee of Young Enterprise, an organization that encourages young people to start businesses, with a bit of expert guidance, while at school.

It comes as no surprise to discover that the youth of today are resourceful, entrepreneurial and enthusiastic. What continues to surprise me is the passion that children have for making a positive impact. Although social awareness seemed somewhat of a misfit for a profit-focused enterprise, we asked “Make Your Mark with a Tenner” participants to report on the difference that their £10 schemes had. An overwhelming number wrote passionate and insightful pieces, demonstrating a deep thoughtfulness and understanding of the interconnectedness of their actions within their local environment. A large number of students donated all of their profits to charity, despite there being no compulsion to do so. In fact, money seemed to be one of the least important of their motivators.

So when exactly does the materialism kick in … when the pocket money ends? Perhaps.

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The Story of Stuff (part 2)

You’ll be relived to know that this is still the well-buttered/battered computer in action. In the last post, I didn’t even have to bang on about the environmental rationale behind keeping this old beast alive – it makes sense, even before I have to leap into the pulpit.

But for those of you that like an entertaining preacher, check this video – The Story of Stuff – on consumption.

My last post dealt with computers and, perhaps, electronics. Another of the most ridiculous habits of modern man is the need to continually upgrade ones car.

A few weekends back, on a trip to the old blighty, I went camping with some friends in Suffolk. Our chariot was a 15-year old Citroen which looks as if it’s been utilized to develop a new system of vehicular braille. It was that or borrowing a rather swishy, spotless, leather-seated affair.

The beauty of this old beast was that it was less likely to be stolen than a two-week old baguette, could be driven through a farm without concern for muck or scratches, and enabled us to fill it with firewood, tents, groceries, samphire and muddy shoes without concern for the interior. All-in-all this car, which would probably retail at 1/30th of the price of the other option, enabled us to have greater pleasure, with less stress. My friend, the proud owner, has driven it for the last 5 years without ever having to get it repaired other than taking it in for its MOT.

I’m all for safety, especially if you’re driving your loved-ones about the place. It would also be sad to let a perfectly good piece of machinery go to waste through neglect – but superficial damage to your interior or exterior doesn’t need to be worried about by anyone but the superficial. Let’s start using things properly and fully rather than worrying about what others might think. As the wise Leo Babatua states, let’s Live a Better Life with Less.

Here’s the car and owner, the great CEO Toby Sawday of my second favourite company after Bright Green Talent, Sawdays, caught mid bikini change shortly before diving into the Alde and starting one of the greater mud battles of recent history. It was a fantastic weekend that required only 10 friends, a few tents, a bonfire and some burned sausages. If only all weekends could be that simply magical.


The story of more stuff (part 1)


The computer I’m tapping away on has seen better days. As a result of a couple of butter-fingered moments, it’s sporting some curves that the designer never intended. As a result of a couple of more literal butter-fingered moment, pointing to no-doubt fascinating points, the screen is more colourful than it should be. Plus it’s a little slower than it used to be. I sometimes have to wait an extra 10 seconds (computer seconds are the opposite of dog years – this constitutes about two human decades) or so for a programme to spring to life.

And so my consumer-conditioned mind has suggested, as the advertisers have trained it, to think about buying another. The latest model is much shinier, has a bigger hard drive for more music (my current collection would only take 15 computer years to listen to) and is awash with new and ‘better’ features.

Then I remember that the book I am reading, the great Atlas Shrugged, was probably written on a typewriter. Then I remember that the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Eliot et al, were written by hand. Then I remember that the dynasties of the Carnegies, Rockefellers, Astors et al, were built without a computer in sight.

It is with that knowledge that I, perhaps we, are forced to remember that our minds, our knowledge, our thoughts, our time and our focused effort are the most valuable things we posses. Whether shiny or dented, a computer is merely a tool for its user. I have no doubt that Steve Jobs or Bill Gates could extract far more value from my computer than I could from the largest super-computer. I have no doubt that Bill Bryson or Eddie Izzard could make many more people laugh using a pencil than I could with an extensive library of comedy-filled servers.

A new computer would cost me a couple of thousand dollars, all in. Plus a few hours of time to buy it, another couple to set it up and another couple to find out which wonderful new features are worth using. That’s a lot of 10-second waits, or butter-cleaning wipes to make up. That’s a lot of time spent earning money to buy the thing, instead of learning some new jokes.