Sunday, 20 January 2008

Standing in a field, legs apart, arms like a windmill

At 8am every monday morning without fail I can be found standing in a field in North London with my legs apart and my arms flailing like a windmill.

I do this whether rain is falling or sun is shining. The early morning dog walkers look at me curiously, as if they would like to come over and smell just what sort of animal I am. The fitness fanatics in their lycra leggings flex their biceps at me accusingly, wondering what the hell I think I'm doing. But I carry on regardless.

I am not mad. Or rather, I may be mad but it is not this behavour that marks me out as such. No, I am practicing the Chinese martial art Tai Chi. Wu style tai chi to be exact.

Practicing Tai Chi is how I keep fit. It's an "internal" marshall art that emphasises soft power. It is performed in very slow, deliberate, stretching movements, steady breathing and careful balance. Yin Yang. My instructor tells me that I am potentially quite deadly, but as far as I can tell I am only deadly if I am attacked by a very, very slow and ideally blind opponent.

Tai Chi and the philosophy behind it has also come to inform how I think about strategy at Garlik too. Some start-up folk rush around like lunatics, bouncing from one thing to the next like tigger , and some VC guys like to see you rushing about, whether you are doing anything useful or not, just because that's what start-up guys are supposed to do isn't it?

However, I prefer slow, deliberate steps and careful balance. I always look for balance, yin and yang, soft and hard, dark and light, water and fire. This is actually quite easy to see in action if you look at what Garlik is doing, how the team is organised, how it is funded and how I ALWAYS look for options.

I think being an entrepreneur has a lot to do with balance, options and managing risk. People think that stepping out of your safe, corporate job to start your own company shows that you are a natural risk taker, but amongst entrepreneurs I have met that's not generally the case. The type of entrepreneurs I know well are often quite risk adverse and one of the key tools to managing the risk is to create options. By all means go flat out to execute plan A but however committed you are, always have a plan B ready to kick in.

I sometimes get told to focus everything on one single, clear outcome, that it's time to close down the options and just go for it. I tend to smile sweetly and keep my balance anyway. I'm sure the "go for it" approach works well for some people, but for me it's like someone saying "Tom, stop shifting from leg to leg when you walk, for goodness sake, just choose which leg is more important and focus on that one".

That's not to say that this is the right or only approach. It's just my approach. In fact its deeper than that, it's my philosophy. It's what I do.

So, next time someone asks me what the hell I am doing spending early Monday morning waving my hands around in a field in North London I will tell them "business strategy". And if they don't like it I will attack them with my deadly Tai Chi skills. Very, very slowly.

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