Thursday, 30 July 2009

Bojangles Birthday

Somedays you must focus. Focus on the business, the fund raising, the revenue, the cost base, getting the PR right, wrestling with the technology.

Other days you focus on one thing and one thing only - yourself. Nothing else matters. Wake up selfish, be selfish all day and as midnight creepes towards you, let your selfish head rest on your selfish pillow, breath out and relax.

That day is called your birthday and today was Bojangles Birthday.

I woke up late and slowly opened my pile of presents. I love opening presents. It doesn't matter what they are, I just love opening them. I take my time. Prod them, rattle them, sniff them and then slowly unwrap them.

I wander off for a mid-morning breakfast with my wife. Full English and a steaming hot mug of tea.

I arrive at work just a few minutes before lunchtime and disrupt everyone by telling useless jokes and generally behave like a naughty schoolboy. Then I wander vaguely off to lunch with a couple of my favourite Professors and my Chairman. Sitting in a French cafe overlooking the River Thames in leafy Richmond, I laugh and joke with my mates until its time to drag ourselves back to the office.

I arrive back in the office in time for my two - yep, two - birthday cakes to be lit and then I settle down to an afternoon cuppa and a couple of slices of cake. A big piece of chocolate and an slice of the jam sponge one. By the time I had finished that it was nearly time to go home.

Got home in time to prepare to go to dinner with the family. A great turn out - it was going to be just the four of us but over twenty turned up. My mum, brothers and sisters and the kids turned out in force and we had a jolly time, taking over a restaurant that usually only gets about four diners on a typical evening.

Finally, I get home, make myself a jasmine tea, take a look at facebook, smile at the "happy birthdays" people have sent me and then settle down one last time for the day to listen to my old friend, Sammy Davis Jr, singing my tune - Mr Bojangles.

"He said his name was Bojangles, then he danced a lick
Right across the cell
He grabbed his pants, took a better stance, jumped up high
That's when he clicked his heels
Then he let go a laugh, Lord, he let go a laugh
Shook back his clothes all around

That was Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, Lord, he could dance

Today was my birthday and it was all about me :)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Play up! Play up! And play the game

Strategic planning for start ups is just a game. Literally, in our case. We don't do long term, 3 or 5 year strategic plans. We create a "Game" and then we play it full on. Play up! Play up! And play the game.

A lot of companies produce sophisticated 3 year plans, full of precise detail and copious spreadsheets. Business schools churn out battalions of MBAs capable of producing a 3 year plan at the drop of a hat.

But our approach is different. We define two things. One is the "Enduring Purpose" and the other is "The Game".

The Enduring Purpose gets defined once and never changes. It is a statement of why the company itself exists, what its ultimate purpose is. It is a single, clear, carefully thought through sentence and it is aspirational. You may never achieve it but that doesn't matter, it serves as a guiding light that you are constantly working towards.

The Game gets defined frequently. It typically has a 12 month timeframe, but it can be shorter (Garlik's current Game is a 6 month game) or longer. However its best to think in terms of 12 months.

The Game starts with a sentence, usually along the lines of "By the end of 2010, we will have...." and it needs to be a clear step towards achieving the Enduring Purpose.

Underneath the sentence or two that defines The Game you will write some Conditions of Satisfaction. There may be 3 to 5 conditions of satisfaction and these are the statements that make it clear how you will know whether you have "won" the game.

For example, if you are running an environmental company, GreenCo, then...

Enduring purpose..."GreenCo will change the world by giving families real power over their impact on the environment around them and inspiring them to reduce the harm they cause."

The Game..."By December 2009, GreenCo will launch its GreenHome online platform to consumers across three continents and establish itself as the leading player in consumer green issues".

Conditions of satisfaction....

a) GreenHome will be launched in USA, UK and India by December 2009
b) GreenCo will acquire a critical mass of users by December 2009
c) GreenCo will be recognised in the environmental industry as a thought leader in the USA

This whole structure should fit onto a single side of A4. If it's much longer than that then it probably isn't clear or focused enough to be useful. Underneath each condition of satisfaction, you will list 1 to 3 "measures" that make it absolutely clear what you mean by "critical mass" for example or "recognised in the ... industry".

The final step is to allocate accountabilities to each condition of satisfaction. Whilst there may be several people involved in each item, you need to give someone (including yourself) the primary accountability to hit that CoS.

The process of putting this together should take you 2 to 3 days of debate and discussion and plenty of flipcharts and if you can you should tackle it off-site so that you can clear everyones mind of the hassles of the day to day. In fact you might want to start off by having some discussions that help people to get their immediate angst out of the way.

As you get into the debate, you and your leadership team should test each word to make sure it says what you mean it to say. Words are important here because you need to get clear on what matters to you. There may be some debate amongst the team about the wording so remember that ultimately the Chief Executive gets to decide and the rest of the team aligns behind the CEOs decision.

But what about years 2 and 3 I hear the MBA's chant. Don't worry about them. Play your Game full on for the short period you have defined and as you get to the end of that period, define the next Game, consistent with the Enduring Purpose, for the following period. Nothing matters except The Game.

So, Play up! Play up! And play the game, and everything else will look after itself.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Leo Sayer made me do it

Over the past 3 years we at Garlik have put a lot of effort into building a state of the art semantic technology platform. We raised millions of pounds from hard nosed VCs, hired brilliant software engineers, bought bucket loads of servers and developed some pretty impressive software.

And then last week, we took the core bit of technology (something called an RDF store for the geeks amongst you) and GAVE IT AWAY!

Yes, we released that software, 4store is it's name, as open source software, free for anyone, anywhere to download and use for whatever they want.

Why one earth did we do that? I hear you ask (not dissimilar to my investors reaction). Simple. Because Leo Sayer told me to. You see, I'm just a boy, giving it all away.

Actually, the real reason is that we want to help the semantic web grow by encouraging as many businesses and other organisations as possible to publish their data in the right way, so that it all links together into one huge web of linked data - the next generation of the web. They need tools to do this, we have those tools, so why not give them away and see what happens? That's how the web itself grew after all.

Within the first 48 hours, thousand people from all over the world have visited and projects are springing up using the software. It's exciting. It makes me feel like dancing.

Sometimes when you do stuff like this, you can feel like a one man band. Nobody knows or understands. Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand?

p.s. for those of you old enough to remember Leo Sayer, here's a bit of trivia for you. When he was a huge British pop star in the 70's he lived in Richmond...and my grandad, Maurice Christian, used to tune his piano! There, feel free to use that. It may come up in a pub quiz one day.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Who the hell are you, my friend?

Facebook and other social networks have highlighted a troubling social phenomenon that is causing people like me a real problem – “Asymmetric Memory Retention” or AMR.

AMR is the situation where you interact with someone who has a shared experience with you, but whereas one of you has a clear recall of what happened, the other has no memory of the event or even the other person at all. I’m not talking about a vague and distant recollection. I mean no trace at all.

Whilst AMR has existed forever, in the past the likelihood of you meeting someone who you had completely and utterly forgotten was very remote. But with the advent of Facebook, twitter and all the rest it is becoming increasingly common. We’ve all had that friend-request out of the blue from someone saying “Hey, Tom, you old rogue, remember that day with the red bowtie and the halibut?” But how are you supposed to handle that situation? What are the social norms of interaction when you are a victim of AMR?

To gain some insight into this, I turned to the academic literature on AMR. This turned out not to be very fruitful because I have only just this second invented and named the concept of AMR so no-one has actually studied it yet. However, I am confident that before I finish typing this blogpost, a Professor of AMR will emerge to challenge outdated notions of AMR treatment and present their own theory, along with a best-selling book entitled “Who the hell are you, my friend?”, on how to embrace the joys of AMR for fun and profit.

The issue popped up for me recently because I came across an ancient photo album containing scenes from my distant past – nearly 40 years ago. The picture above is me back then with my great friend, Raymond (who I do remember very well of course), aged about 9 or 10 I think. Some of these pictures I look at and remember exactly, in a very deep way. I couldn’t tell you the date, perhaps, but I remember not only the event but exactly how I felt. In fact when I look at them I am not observing them from the outside, I actually feel as if I am experiencing the events again. I looked at one and tears immediately welled up in my eyes, as the painful emotions I felt at the time reappeared.

However, there were some photos that I looked at as if I was a stranger. I could see my younger self standing there looking back at me, but I had no recollection at all of being there. That’s a very odd feeling.

It is even odder when you are contacted by someone who was in the photo, who knows you really, really well but you remember nothing at all of them. The face draws a blank however hard you stare. The name doesn’t ring the tiniest bell, the events are a complete mystery. You have no idea whether they are just lying or whether your memory has been wiped clear. We call this Deep AMR. I say “we” but I mean “me” as no-one else has heard of AMR, yet.

I am wrestling with just such a Deep AMR problem. I have a message and a friend request from someone that I have absolutely no recollection of, but they clearly know me very well so we must have hung out together at some point. Mind you I was a bit distinctive in my youth – I think I was the only “dark glasses with 5 inch afro, poncho and clog wearing physicist” hippie in West Africa at the time, so perhaps more people remember me than vice versa. But what is the correct social etiquette in this Deep AMR situation?

Do I come clean and say “sorry, old bean, I appreciate that you know me well but I have zero recollection of you, so we will have to start again as if we are complete strangers” Or do I bluff saying “hey, you old dog, how’s it hanging homie? Remind me about the good old days again” and hope that some glimmer of a memory of him returns.

It’s quite unsettling really and no doubt someone will tell me it’s the beginning of the onset of altissimo (I say “altissimo” because I tried to spell that word beginning with A that means you lose your memory but I mangled it so badly that the spell checker offered me altissimo instead and I liked the sound of it). But I don’t mind it. I find it fascinating and I’m wondering if I am the only silent AMR sufferer out there or whether Facebook is inflicting this previously hidden problem on loads of us.