Monday, 19 August 2019


Recently I was passed in the street by someone uttering some rather depressing words.

“It’s so hard. I have to spend my time keeping tabs on my people making sure they do things properly.”

It must be fun working for him. But he, the joyless administrator,  is one reason the Start-Up revolution is gaining so much momentum.

The other is we live in a world of increasing uncertainty where economists and leading opinion makers  say with equally great conviction “we’re on the edge of a cliff” or “things will settle down quite quickly in reality”.

Few of us comprehend the macro-economy but we understand our own small world quite well. We know that big companies are not to be entirely trusted when it comes to “downsizing”. We are tired of being a number not a face. Better to strike out on our own in a rowing boat than stick with Titanic Limited.

Today I’m focusing on the middle aged entrepreneur.

George Clooney is 58. He recently sold his Tequila brand Cosamigos for $1billion. 

In a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research middle aged start-ups are shown to grow faster and survive longer. The FT says over-50s now account for 43% of those who start their own business.

So what’s going on?

What I call the Start -Up Revolution is being fuelled from three sources – Millennials, who don’t want to work for the people like that lugubrious joker on whom I eavesdropped, women – many post maternity-leave to whom the thought of returning to office politics is too awful and the disenchanted, redundant over 50s loaded with experience, skill and enough surplus cash to fund a start-up.

David Rowan has written a book “Non-Bullshit Innovation” in which he explores the mindsets of global tech start-ups and their disruptive, white-sheet-of-paper thinking. He rightly criticises the British government’s constant postponement of decisions about strategic priorities.

It’s ironic we have so many assets to play with. Here are just a few:
- English is the world’s lingua franca
- We are huge in gaming technology
- We are big in film production
- Our creative industries are booming

- We are still dominant in financial services
- Climate change is giving us the agro-friendly climate of France in the 1980s
- We have become accomplished at customer service (about time)
- Our recent record in innovation from luxury goods to food to technology is impressive.

We don’t blow our own trumpets but as the middle aged increasingly flex their innovative muscles a fanfare is becoming more noticeable. Take gin where a generation of middle aged entrepreneurs have introduced the most exotic, interesting variety of new gins imaginable. Sales of gin have doubled in the past five years.

We hear a lot about Silicon Valley. It’s time we started to think regardless of Brexit of ourselves as “Innovation Island”. Driven by the ambitions, skill and independence of spirit of the experienced, as well as the young and hungry, we are in good shape.

Government won’t help us (they seldom do)  but they can at least get out of the way.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published in October by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.

Monday, 12 August 2019


A friend said recently “I wonder how history will judge 2019”. The answer, of course, is in much the same way history judged 1919, 1819 or 1719. A year in which reason was cast aside and – as usual - folly prevailed. A hundred years ago there was a devastating flu pandemic, a disastrous Paris Peace Conference, and spontaneous outbreaks of violence in the Midlands and elsewhere. In 1819 there was the Peterloo Massacre (so you think Brexit is divisive?) whilst in 1719 France invaded Spain and Russia devastated the Swedish coast.

Human beings are, and always were, aggressive and irrational. As Teresa May once said “nothing has changed, nothing has changed”.  Perhaps it’s because of disruption that we  often hear a cry of despair that there’s so little common sense around nowadays. “Common sense” was most famously used by Thomas Paine in the 18th century when arguing for the Independence of America meaning that it was “self-evident” that this should happen.

Before that “common sense” described the 6th sense unifying the five other human senses. So its origins define it as a really big deal. Nowadays its use seems to mean what is obvious to anyone of average intelligence and as such, in a democracy, is irrefutable. This would mean Brexit is common sense. But this surely won’t do, will it?

Similarly that most dangerous remark “it stands to reason” is usually made when reason and facts have been discarded. When opinion has taken over from analysis and thought. It’s a phrase like “let’s be fair” which is most commonly used meaning just the opposite.

I spent much of my life in advertising and obviously appreciate and applaud the power of slogans. Thus “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” ; “Persil washes whiter”; “British Airways. The World’s Favourite Airline”.  But maybe the most potent in my life has been “Take back control” because it changed the political and cultural landscape for good (or, as many think, for bad).

In America Donald Trump and in the UK Dominic Cummings  have proved the rousing slogan works. ”Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” are both action-focused unlike more passive slogans like “Labour isn’t Working”. They assume we’ve had something taken away we owned and must restore.

In the midst of this people have been losing their faith in all the institutions, Police, Judiciary, Doctors, Schools and Clergy. Yet whilst Sunday attendance in churches has declined by 15% since 2007,  attendance in Cathedrals has grown by nearly 20%. So it’s odd Rochester and Norwich  Cathedrals have put  in their aisles, respectively,  a crazy golf course  and a helter-skelter.

As tribalism grows so too does faith. Rationality has taken a kicking but faith in areas from sport to fitness gurus to community groups has grown. Maybe the church should tap into that rather than indulge in low grade gimmickry.

People need to believe in something – in the midst of the current confusion something solid, reliable and unchanging.

Monday, 5 August 2019


I’ve had a lot of depressing e-mails from friends living abroad telling me how miserable I should be and how much more miserable I’m going to be; that a no-deal Brexit will be an economic catastrophe; that we’re all shitting ourselves, or should be.

And those who aren’t are deluding themselves, fiddling as Rome burns.
Although I was an ardent ‘remainer’, as a democrat, I recognise we lost the argument.
- I believe in international co-operation.
- I love Europe and feel very happy there.
- But I prize human spirit, enterprise and resilience above political ideology.

In the end I believe we’ll make the best of the script which, nonetheless, had it been in my power I shouldn’t have written. We need to retain our sense of humour and especially our sense of irony. The “we’re all doomed” school of thinking has no useful role to play.

We need to work on creating a new different and, possibly in the long run, better world. Here are a few things that may be different:

The Union may not survive. A pity. A blow to our vanity but if Scotland wants to leave so be it.
The farming industry may thrive, focusing on the home market. In Sussex we already have a fruit and veg entrepreneur selling delicious fresh vegetables from his range of antique horseboxes, all grown in Sussex farms. The exchange rate will make a lot of European food unaffordable.

We’ll miss trips to Europe, for the time being, particularly, in our case, Italy. But we’ll get to see more of England, Scotland and Wales, instead.

Last week we went to Rathfinny a wine estate outside Alfriston, ½ hour east of Brighton. They have 350,000 vines and are planning to have over 800,000. It’s the biggest solus-owned vineyard in Europe and, certainly, the most modern in equipment and technology. Their restaurant, overlooking their vineyards in Cradle Valley, was sensational in both value and Michelin-quality. With phenomena like this things look up.

Our sport may cheer us up too. Some brilliant footballers, golfers, cricketers, netball, rugby and hockey players. And perhaps great Bayreuth singers like Catherine Foster, the English mezzo soprano who can’t get a role in Britain, might be more welcome now.

Big institutions like banks, global corporates and supermarkets may struggle – their lives are likely to become much more complicated. My heart bleeds for them.

How bad will it be? It seems quite a lot of people are hoping it will be terrible and get even worse, much worse on the basis that this will demonstrate, in a kind of ideological masochism, the folly of leaving the EU.

Brexit may be regrettable, it may even be tricky but I refuse to believe it’s the end of our world. Enterprising entrepreneurs will do well. They always do.  We’ve got to believe not grieve, be happy and stop listening to politicians and macro-economists showing us the potential downsides. Let’s enjoy the sunshine and keep out of the rain.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published in October by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom

Monday, 29 July 2019


Normally (like Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’) I’d want to bury Boris Johnston not to praise him but his recent anthems of optimism reach that part of my soul that other politicians seldom reach. 

Saatchi and Saatchi built their advertising empire around the hope-tingling maxim “anything is possible.” The American management writer Jim Collins coined the term “big hairy audacious goals”.

That’s what Boris is talking about.

This kind of talk is sacrilege to big, global corporations with complicated cross-border supply chains to whom “just in time” is a life-defining credo. I  know executives who think their “just-in-timeness” in catching a plane is imperfect unless occasionally they actually miss one.  Otherwise they’re wasting valuable time waiting around. 

To behemoth businesses, big, hairy and audacious is an anathema and should be replaced by incremental, prudent and focused. Jack Welch, the star CEO of GE in its glory days, insisted on setting stretch targets for his executives but in GE “hitting the targeted number” was what always mattered when it came to the crunch. Big corporations prefer low hanging fruit to aiming for the stars.

No – it’s to start-ups and new businesses that are only just beginning to grow hair that big hairy and audacious applies. We live in a world where regeneration is becoming  the key theme and imperative and where new is the zeitgeist; where we, the promoters of start-up businesses, are the apostles of the next, new versions of Silicon Valley.
If the huge, old and established businesses cannot be easily re-engineered or saved (and chances are, given the way the world looks right now, they can’t) then we have to create new and hairy, audacious start-up businesses that take us all into a new world. And they don’t have to be only tech businesses. They be can “new, improved” businesses in any sector. The acid test is that they appeal to people and excite them to take notice and satisfy unfulfilled, new or unthought-of needs. 

The essence of whether they’ll succeed or not depends on specific things like their having a great idea, the planning that goes into it, their access to finance, their ability to promote, market and sell their product or service, their ability to operate a virtually error free operation – in short to run a brilliant, professionally run business. But  it also depends on three other more touchy-feely things. Ambition, optimism and resilience.

Unless, as a start-up entrepreneur, you wake up each day saying “I can do/solve/survive/win this”, then you probably shouldn’t be in business at all. If you don’t joy in running your own business then remain an employee/wage slave…you may hate it but at least you can afford to go on holiday and buy nice wine.

Ultimately  it’s vigorous, irredeemable hope that makes being human worthwhile and exciting. I may not agree with politicians like Boris but I shall always applaud optimism and the encouragement of enterprise. I shall vote for big, hairy and ambitious goals. 

Monday, 22 July 2019


I heard this on the Sunday Service on Radio 4:

“In this troubled world…” 

Trouble underpins almost everything we hear now. Brexit, racism, anti-semitism, climate change, inequality. We relish “troubled” in the way we relish a seriously hot curry.

Well, I need irony and laughter not troubled. I don’t find Trump, Boris or Jezza funny. I need quirky stuff like the protesters outside the Brighton and Hove Greyhound Stadium – “Stop killing Greyhounds”,  “Racing is cruel” . To my surprise they were big, sturdy and rather menacing. I might have expected  thin, earnest spinsters and tearful poodle owners but these were heavies “hit him Tony while I give Charlie over there a smacking”.

I discovered subsequently that over 5,000 racing greyhounds are killed every year because they perform poorly. I wondered if we should do the same to executives in business…”we’ve had reports that the board of Carillion were killed yesterday for performance failures and now for the sport, Gary Richardson…

We have more protests currently than I can recall. As a teenager goofing off school – “Climate-change march sir” – is perfectly acceptable now - “OK Perkins, well cut along then”. But there are so many that their noise has become self-cancelling.

What we had instead last week was an orgy of excitement – Wimbledon…how could Federer lose? But he did after in a little under 5 hours. Can you imagine a five hour film?  The British Grand Prix…collisions, confusion and Hamilton strolls in first…strolls? Final lap was a Silverstone lap record.

How does sedate cricket compete? By becoming football. At full time, after 600 balls had been bowled both sides had scored the same number of runs. So they had a “Super Over” to decide who wins – each team represented by two players batting. Both score 15 so England win. Why… I thought  they tied?  No. They win, obviously, because they scored more boundaries. Men are weeping with joy, families dance in delight. Back stop, long stop, full stop. Rule Britannia. But it appears subsequently under rule 19.8 because the batsman had not crossed at a critical point the umpires awarded England one run too many. So New Zealand win then.

Well no. Because the celebrations had already started for an English victory and no one wanted to irritate Ben Stokes.

It was chaos. It was awful. And everyone loved it.

It was also (as it turns out) a lie. Which brings me I’m afraid to Boris and that kipper. He concocted a stupid story about an Isle of Man fishmonger (IOM is not in the EU or UK) being forced by EU regulations (wrong - UK regulations not EU) to post these kippers to the UK with pillows of ice. What cost. What bureaucracy. What bollocks.

The trouble is I can still remember this lie and kippers have stuck in my sceptical brain.
Prince Charles laughed when I described this over lunch. “Lying”  he said “is the strategy de jour…have some more sprouts”.

Fake news.  Lie. Bet you remember though.

Monday, 15 July 2019


The British are masters of the stiff upper lip… proud of our manners. Here’s what it says on ‘Study Links', a website addressing foreign students in the UK:- “Knowing a little bit about British etiquette will help you ensure that your behaviour is polite and appropriate whilst you are studying in the UK.”

So I’ve been puzzled by what we’ll call ‘Ambassador-Gate’ because we seem to have become happy to be rude, although the Foreign Office has always seemed to have encouraged a Private Eye style of communiques from its ambassadors. One in past years, described the Swiss as “neither the wittiest or the prettiest of people”. There has been this tradition of satirical wit which may have pleased writers and recipient but belongs to a previous era.  When we actually had an Empire.

In 2019 we all know (don’t we?) that nothing we write down is safe from hackers. In 2019 we need to be circumspect. Poor Sir Kim Darrock was neither of those and all that talk of supporting him seemed rather absurd when it appeared, because of his tabloid comments about the current Presidency that got leaked, he couldn’t,  when denied access to the White House, do his job … that’s why he was there in the first place.  He was, anyway, just a few months away from retirement. Poor rude (even if crudely truthful) Kim.

The behaviour of the - blessedly to be short-lived - British MEPs turning their backs in Brussels as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is played – the EU anthem – was lamentable. This also happened when the NSDAP (Nazi party) 1926 turned its back on the Speaker of the Reichstag - so well followed Nigel Farage.

But even this performance was dwarfed by Ann Widdecombe’s abusive tirade. When did she decide being rude was a strategy?

Our diplomats and our political representatives are currently doing our country a disservice. So what about our probable next Prime Minister? His Andrew Neil interview this week was revelatory. Bluster, bombast and braggadocio. Some pundits thought he made some sort of fist of it but I was dismayed to think he could soon be our leader.  Optimism, which is his credo, is fine but not to the exclusion of thought and reason. I remember playing cricket with an irredeemable optimist who, as the rain lashed down, bellowed  “stop!  I shall not be defeated by this shower.” Boris is extraordinary. He’s not, for sure, a role model, albeit he could be called a shower.

Nor is Jeremy Corbyn better as we watch the agonising suicide that is the antisemitic Labour party. Shameful and shameless.

This is a British summer, Ascot, Wimbledon, Lords, Silverstone, strawberries and champagne. It’s a season of charm, courtesy,sunburnt mirth and friendship.  It is (usually) when we are at our best.  Keats described it so well – “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth.

We are not being true to ourselves and it’s such a shame.

Monday, 8 July 2019


I once worked with someone in advertising whose philosophy was that nothing ever changed much and, if it did, the pendulum would pretty quickly move back. A lot of clients found this conservatism reassuring. Meanwhile I preached apocalyptic visions, disruption and dystopia which some clients viewed somewhat warily.

My visions have mostly turned out to be in line with what’s actually happened but, of course, being right is only half the story. So when my son-in-law said he’d been at a conference where a famous economist with a name ending in “-inski “ had given a riveting presentation about the Armageddon we’d be facing by 2030, I was intrigued. I glanced at it – it was long and full of numbers and graphs. Principally it focused on our collapsing under debt and a remorselessly adverse demography of more older people. Like all economist his models were based on extrapolating trends.

It was clever stuff for sure and well-argued but something clicked in my mind. It was my disruption button.  I have this distaste for the belief that bigger is better or that you can persuade people to do things through financial incentives or that the numbers tell much of the story.

First of all the demography myth. We live in a world where the best medical minds are stymied. All antibiotics have lost their mojo. Ebola is sweeping the Congo and Uganda and a mystery illness in East Anglia is striking down old people. I suspect it’ll be the old who get whacked by all this hardest. I talked to a medical journalist about this who said grimly “don’t go anywhere near a hospital; that’s where these new bugs thrive.” 

So let’s reduce those population extrapolations. Chances are there’ll be some natural pruning.
Next politics. Not really politics so much as culture. The Green Movement, a bit like Me-Too or the anti-tobacco lobby, has acquired an unstoppable momentum, most obviously amongst the young but now older people are changing their minds too. This is not a one-off.  Everything that happens in Europe – currently the second biggest economy in the world -  will be determined by green thinking over the next decade.

Finally where does the future lie? Asia and Africa currently account for ¾ of the world’s population and they, not the USA or Europe, will drive the global agenda. We in the West are like the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Persians over 2,500 years ago. We’re running out of runway. We’ve had our day. Neither yearning for past glories or hoping radical change won’t continue, will be much use. Disruption? You bet, a big disruption but not necessarily a disaster.

Our next decade should be the most interesting for a very long time.

Meanwhile listening to our current politicians is increasingly irrelevant as they seem determined to build debt and revert to Victoriana.

But if we become greener, cleaner, less obsessed with money and more focused on building a kinder, better society we’ll be on the right track.