Monday, 22 November 2010

A Brush with Suicide

Last week I read in The Evening Standard that there were no less than three suicides on the London transport train and tube networks on a single day. That is so tragic and so sad.

It always makes my heart skip a beat when I hear about suicides under tubes because it reminds me of an experience I had on a tube platform about 20 years ago. It was probably the closest that I have come to a suicide incident since the one time that I seriously contemplated suicide myself years before (but that will have to be the subject of another post, perhaps).

On that particular day I wandered down to the platform as normal and flopped down on a bench next to a middle aged man. I noticed that he looked a bit sweaty and agitated, albeit normally dressed in a suit and tie as I was. He was muttering to himself and I remember thinking "oh no, trust me to sit next to the nutter. Must get in a different carriage when the train comes."

I tried to ignore him but then I heard that what he was muttering was "Do it, do it, do it" and he was wringing his hands. I started to get worried. Do what? Could he be planning to....? Do I ignore him in true British fashion or do I say "excuse me, strange muttering person, are you alright?" If I do, does he tell me to mind my own bloody business?

I sat, pretending to ignore him. He kept muttering, geting louder "Come on, do it, do it". I could hear the tube now coming, getting louder. He was getting louder "DO it, DO IT". I was really worried now. We were both still sitting down on the bench. The tube thundered in to the station. He is shouting "DO IT, DO IT". I am staring straight at him now, shouting "DO WHAT? DON't DO IT ! NO! SIT DOWN!" He is white as a sheet. I am terrified. We are both still sitting on the bench.

Train slows to a halt. He leans back. Bursts in to tears. I get up, shaken. Board the train. We don't make eye contact. We don't acknowledge each others presence. I have no idea what he was going to do. Resign from work? Leave his wife? Jump under the train? Book tickets for a footie match? I genuinely have no idea. I have no idea what he did next. I have no idea whether I was supposed to have done something different. Something more. No idea.

But everytime I hear the phrase "person under a train at station xzy" that 30 second incident from 20 years ago pops into my mind and my heart skips a beat.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

When is the best time to kick a man?

I had never been chased by debt collectors before, until last week. It is not a nice experience.

It was all the more annoying because the bank that chased me made the mistake that caused them to chase me in the first place!

In my case it was all cleared up within a day or so with a phone call and an apology from the bank but it gave me a small sense of what it must be like if you are being hunted for real. And "hunted" is definitely what it feels like.

A couple of weeks ago I got a letter from my bank saying that one of my credit cards had been compromised in some unspecified way so they would be sending me a replacement card with a new number. So far, so good. A bit scary that they didn't say what had happeneed to my old card but at least they were being proactive about it.

The new card duly arrives. I cut up the old one and activate the new one. All good.

However around that same time my regular monthly direct debit is taken by the bank to pay the card balance. This is when the fun begins. The payment goes to the old card number but the bank has moved the outstanding balance to the new card that it has issued to me. So, on their systems there is one card with a healthy positive balance and another card with a missed payment. The result is chaos!

An alarm bell must go off inside the bank. "MISSED PAYMENT ALERT, MISSED PAYMENT ALERT". I have images of debt collection types in black ski masks swinging down on ropes and crashing through windows.

My mobile phone suddenly lit up with calls from a mysterious number. I ignored it a couple of times as I don't answer calls from numbers that I don't recognise but when it kept going off I answered and it was completely silent. How spooky is that. Now I'm worried. Who is this and how did they get my number?

Then it occurs to me to google the number. Up come loads of discussions asking "who owns this number?" and replies saying "it's such and such bank's debt collection department". Light dawns, but I am irritated that I'm being houned. As I'm busy at work, I make a note to call them later when I have a chance.

When I get home the first thing my wife says is that my bank has been calling and apparently needs to speak to me urgently. She is concerend. Is there a problem? One of my children mentioned that she answered a call from my bank. "What's that about, dad?" Those who know me will know that at this stage I am getting, how shall we say, erm, "focussed".

Before I called them, I logged on to the bank website to see if I could see what was going on. I tried to send the bank a message asking a question but a box popped up saying that I am blocked from sending messages and I must call debt collection immediately. Those who know me will know that at this stage I have grown horns, my eyes have gone all big and starey and I am speaking very slowly, quietly and deliberately. Yes, I. Would. Like. A. Cup. Of. Tea. Thank. You.

I call the bank. It is a short and quite focussed conversation. They start from the assumption that you are obviously in debt and that you've probably got some story to try to fob them off with. They've heard it all before. I speak in One. Word. Sentences. With a little help, they realise their mistake, apologise and call the dogs off. That didn't stop me getting three more silent, menacing automatic calls over the follow 12 hours though!

I think I must have got about ten called to my mobile and home in a 24 hour period due to their mistake, despite the fact that I had a big positive balance sitting on the old card plus quite large sums of money sitting in savings accounts at the same bank. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience and that was just for me who (a) hadn't actually missed a payment and (b) has been a senior executive in a bank so is quite capable of dealing with such things.

It made me wonder what it must be like if in these difficult times of job losses and so on, you really do find yourself in trouble and miss a payment. All hell must break loose. Imagine that you've lost your job. You have three or four cards. You are trying to keep the plates in your life spinning in the hopes of finding another job soon. You are under pressure at home. YOu are trying to be the breadwinner but you are feeling battered. YOu miss a payment. Can you imagine getting 30 or 40 calls to your home and mobile as the pack descend, just when you are at your most vunerable? The thought makes me shiver.

Talk about kicking someone when they are down. But, hey ho, this is life I guess, and as the old saying goes "if you can't kick a man when he's down, when can you kick him?"

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A view from the top: Don't look down!

A colleague of mine mentioned casually that in his spare time he jumps out of aeroplanes, about 20 times a year. I am hugely impressed. That's real action man stuff. I feel even more whimpish now that I have to admt that I am scared of heights.

What's puzzling me is that I didn't used to be scare of heights. I seem to have developed vertigo as I've got older. I didn't know that the ageing process had anything to do with fear of heights but I was surprised when my older brother revealed that he too has developed a fear of heights in the last few years. How odd.

In my case it has become quite acute. It doesn't help that my holidays keep taking me to places with amazing views. The cable car climb up Table Mountain, Cape Town, had me clinging to the middle of the car for dear life like a paralysed pole dancer. As people gasped at the glorious sunrise on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, I sat shivering and slightly dizzy looking resolutely in the opposite direction. The Stratosphere at the end of the Las Vegas strip where you can see straight down, the stairs to the middle section of the Eiffel Tower, driving through Rift Valley, Kenya, overlooking Niagra Falls and even the view from an old look-out tower atop the hills in the Peak District - all left me scared, sweaty and shaking.

So, how do I confront this? Some people insist that you face your demons. Kill or cure. It's time to "Man Up". Feel the fear and do it anyway. Me? I'm past all that macho stuff. I think I'll just change the places I go on holiday. Holland is looking pretty attractive all of a sudden.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Ties that bind

What exactly is the point of a tie?

That long strip of material that we men are obliged to wrap tightly around our neck and squeeze to the point of nearly, but not quite, cutting off all blood supply to the brain.

I have two offices in my current role. One requires me to wear a tie and the other doesn't. At the tie-office it doesn't matter what job you do - finance, marketing, customer service - you are not complete until you attempt to hang yourself with a dangerous piece of cloth which, if it got caught on a hook as you rush from one meeting to the next, would cause your legs to go flying and you'd land flat on your back like a cartoon character. By wearing a tie you will be able to do you job better. And when men from outside come to the office wearing their own ties you will be able to look at each other in a spirit of brotherhood and say "yes, we are men of ties. Respect, my tie-wearing brethren."

At the non-tie-office it doesn't matter what job you do - finance, marketing, customer service - you are not complete until you strip down to your neck, brazenly flaunting your adams apple for all to see, causing young ladies to faint at the sight of it bobbing up and down as you talk. By not wearing a tie you will be able to do your job better. And when men from outside come to visit, naked from the neck up, you will be able to hug each other with cries of "hey, you hip, young, non-tie-wearing dude. Rock on, buddy!"

Oh, no. I've just realised that wearing a non-tie is as much a uniform as wearing a tie. Is there no escape?

Perhaps I can find a third way. Wearing nothing but a tie.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Establishment

Those amongst you who are keen readers of the Court and Social announcements section of the Daily Telegraph will have been excited to read about a dinner at Haberdashers Hall last week to mark the installation of the new Master of the Information Technologist's Company, a City Livery Company.

You will have been even more excited to note that at that very event, one Tom Ilube was installed as Panels Warden of said Livery Company. My mum reckons that I am now part of "The Establishment", but if I am it is only because I have climbed in to "The Establishment" through a broken downstairs window and am currently hiding in "The Establishment's" basement hoping that they don't spot me and toss me back out on to the street.

City Livery companies are ancient (and some not so ancient) guilds that represent trades that are or were practised in the City of London. In the old days you had to belong to the relevant guild to be able to practise the trade - if you wanted to be a goldsmith, join the Goldsmiths. They date back hundreds of years, some even claim a thousand years. The "Premier" Company is The Mercers, grand old fellows who I believe used to trade silk and such like around the world. Others include the Goldsmiths, Tallow Chandlers, Glovers, Skinners and many others, including the Information Technologists.

The Information Technologists' are the 100th Livery company. I am told that we could have been higher up the list but we deliberately held out for this binary number and we are very pleased with ourselves (although no-one else seems to care!). We have over 700 members, mostly CEOs, Chairmen, Directors from across the IT industry and a few honorary luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners Lee, Vint Cerf and Bill Gates.

Everyday phrases such as "Hallmark", being "at sixes and sevens" and (possibly) "keep it under your hat" derive from Livery traditions. And tradition is what Livery companies do best. The world around us changes but Livery companies keep to their traditions generation after generation. I think that's what I like about being involved. It fits well with my Tai Chi/Yin Yang mindset. In the innovative, fast moving, constantly changing world that I live my life and thrive in, I enjoy the periods of calm and constancy that come with the Livery movement. The same dinners, the same speeches, the same long meetings discussing the same agenda points, the same little jokes that I have heard for the last ten or more years make me relax and say inside "ahhhhh, thank goodness, some things don't change".

The main thing that Livery companies do, apart from upholding City traditions, is charity work. We collect and distribute tens of millions of pounds and this is were I get busy. Spending it, that is! My company, the Information Technologists', and the Mercers are sponsoring the Hammersmith Academy, our new school that will open in September 2011. This new school, specialising in ICT and Creative and Digital Media, is an exemplar of combining the old traditions of excellent education with the new creative and digital industries. We are raising over a million pounds for the school and all of that is coming straight out of the pockets of the members of the Livery company.

So, if you are wondering what a modern, high tech entrepreneur like me is doing hanging out with old Livery companies, that's the reason. Leveraging the deep roots and traditions of the City of London over the past thousand years to get exciting, innovative, charitable things done today is why I do it.

And I'm very proud if it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

PIPhobia: Alert the BBC !

Am I alone in the land in being terrorised daily by the BBC? As the nation's public broadcaster I feel it is incumbent on Auntie to be more responsible to minorities such as myself who suffer from PIPhobia rather than leaving me with sweaty palms and a pumping heart-rate practically EVERY MORNING!

I refer of course to the PIPs.

Whenever I listen to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 I dread the clock ticking towards 9am. I enjoy "Thought for the day" especially if we are treated to the great Lionel Blue. I relish the ritual skewering of slippery politicians as the loincloth-clad, spear wielding John Humphries creeps up on his prey.

But I feel the tension rise as we approach the dreaded hour. At 08:55 I debate whether to switch off the radio or tough it out. At 08:57 sweat breaks out on my brow as some waffling interviewee meanders around their answer with the clock ticking down. At 08:59 when Evan Davies decides to squeeze in one final question I have been known to scream at the radio in horror. What is he doing? And please God don't let it be Robert Peston who gets the final word.

At 08:59 for goodness sake! Can't they see the PIPs standing silently, menacingly, black cloaked just outside the studio. Can't they feel the terrifying presence of the Five plus The Great One, their chill breadth permeating the glass surrounds? You can't fight the PIPs. You can't.

And then. And then. In a desperate dash for the line Sarah Montague realising their dreadful mistake and in a cry for mercy and forgiveness screams "THAT'SALLWEHAVETIMEFOROUREDITORSWERE..." and with a smash of glass and the howling of banshees the Five plus The Great One burst into the studio, seizing control. Leaving silence. It is over. It is done. Fade to black.

I collapse back into my chair, spilling tea over myself. Dazed. Stressed. Heart pounding.

Today Programme, I beg of you. Glide us in gently. Reassure us. Don't fight the PIPs day in day out. They will win. Submit to their greater will and stop giving me a near heart attack every morning.

Friday, 1 October 2010


We all had heroes growing up. Football starts, freedom fighters, rock stars. Mine were physicists.

So I was very excited the other day when I tuned in to a BBC Radio 4 programme about the wonderful life of the physicists equivalent of a rock god, Richard Feynman.

It was guys like Feynman, Paul Dirac and Murray Gell-Mann who inspired me to rebel in my teens and read physics at university instead of a sensible subject like engineering or accountancy. I tricked my Dad by claiming that it was just my strategy to get into University and I would swap to Engineering my second year, but as soon as I got in amongst the electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and wave particle duality I was smitten.

Unfortunately as the maths got harder I came to realise that my dream of the beautiful life of a physics professor was not to be. How sad. As Feynman said, maths is the language of physics, and I'm afraid my halting, pidgeon maths was just not strong enough to take me to the higher levels.

I did meet one of my boyhood heroes in real life though. I bumped into the Nobel-prize winner Murray Gell-Mann himself.

I had to go quite a long way to bump into him to be honest. Nearly 20 years ago I got married and for our honeymoon we (okay "I") decided to go to the States, hire a car and cruise along the legendary Route 66 through Texas and all the way to New Mexaco. Little did my wife know that the journey would end in a little town called Santa Fe, the home of a world famous scientific institute for the study of complexity. Fortunately Santa Fe happens to be a lovely, artistic, creative town so it wasn't a complete disaster.

After a week of driving around together, I was given permission to go and roam around on my own, so off I went to the Institute.

And so it came to pass that, while I was photocopying papers on the behaviour of ant colonies or genetic algorithms or something, I came face to face with the Great Man Himself.

He looked at me. I looked at him. Paused. A moment, frozen in time. Then in that unmistakable, gravelly voice he said "excuse me young man, I want to use the photocopier."

Wonderful. Wonderful. My hero. I will treasure those words for ever.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

We were more popular than they were

I was in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Kampala, Uganda working on the launch of the African Gifted Foundation when the British elections were on recently. So I missed being in the thick of the UK elections. But I did pick up a uniquely African perspective on its conduct and outcome.

Firstly there was amused puzzlement. Why, I was asked, did Britain decide to use Nigeria's electoral commission to conduct the elections? It was obvious that the outcome would be allegations of fraudulant (postal) voting, demands for recounts, queues of angry voters putside polling booths with electoral officials shouting "go home, ballot paper don finish" and party leaders squabbling over who actually won.

Secondly, there was general acceptance that after many years of rule by religious "Northerners" (in this case Scottish Calvinists rather than the usual Muslim North much beloved of Western news media) it is time for the leadership to be zoned to the Christian South (in this case, Notting Hill), this being the natural way of things.

Thirdly, it was deemed right and proper that "moneybag political godfathers"should seize office in their hometowns. Afterall, if you can't use your wealth to purchase an election of your choice now and again, what is the point of democracy?

Finally, the rise of extremist groups is well understood. Such groups, having been frustrated at the ballot box by perfidious and penicious corrupt and undemocratic forces may, like their African counterparts, resort to kidnapping foreigners to actualise their agenda of resource control. Africans visiting the UK are advised to be on the alert and avoid visiting particularly dangerous areas without escort. However to be fair, some Africans feel sympathy for these marginalised groups and oppressed minorites and there is talk of a major concert designed to bring their plight to worldwide attention.

I love this newly imported British politics! It reminds me of a diehard African politician I was chatting to. he recounted a recent election struggle that had concluded in his partys favour. "Tom" he said, "it was tough. We rigged but they counter-rigged. We bribed, but they neutralised our bribes with even bigger bribes. At the end of the day, the only luck we had was that we were more popular than they were."

Democracy. Its not perfect anywhere. But it kind of works.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Shortest Job Ever

Last week a new member of staff joined the Garlik team. For 27 minutes. Then he left. Does this take the prize as the shortest job ever?

At the time we were quite surprised, but we had to laugh afterwards. It turned out that he had been in the running for another job whilst he was talking to us. He had accepted our offer but a few days later got offered the other job and decided he was going to take that one instead. However, instead of ringing up to tell us, he turned up on the appointed morning, presumably intending to tell us in person first thing (quite brave actually).

But before he had a chance to speak, we welcomed him with open arms, introduced him to the team, sat him at his desk, gave him a laptop, pass and all that good stuff. I thought he was looking a bit nervous as he smiled at people and said hello. It took hm 27 minutes to build up the courage to say "errr, errrr, excuse me, could I have a word please?" We didn't even have time to organise a leaving card before he left and we are still waiting for the leaving drinks!

This episode highlights a few lessons that it's worth remembering if you are a small
company recruiting in a market that is gradually getting more active and competing
against the big corporates with plush offices and deep pockets.

Firstly, I always take the view that when you think you have found someone who is right for your company, you swoop and make the offer. Sometimes people worry too much and keep waiting for "Mr Right" to come along. What if the very best candidate is the next CV that you haven't received yet? What if "Miss Perfect" is just around the corner?

My advice is don't worry. Go with your instinct and hire the person in front of you who feels right and has the skills you need today. In any case however careful you are the best possible outcome is that you will be "right" 75% of the time. One in four of your hires will turn out not to be right for your company and you will have to deal with that, so make decisions, move on and deal with the issue if and when it arises. By the way, if you are hiring sales people and you get a positive hit rate of better than 33% you are doing really well!

Secondly, if the person you are interviewing is any good then you can be certain that
they are having several other conversations as well as yours, even if they swear blind that they only have eyes for you. The market for good people is always competitive. Just accept it. There is nothing wrong with that. The candidate hasn't tricked you. That's just life. And, in fact it's a good thing because if they do come and work for you it means they really wanted to, not that you were the only available option.

Thirdly, candidates will say "I really want to work for a small, entrepreneurial company, I'm done with stuffy, big corporates" and then when a big corporate offers then a job, don't be surprised if they change their mind rapidly. Not everyone is cut out for early stage companies and people are easily seduced by a big brand and a big office. Don't worry about it. It's not a reflection on your company.

Finally, its worth bearing in mind that the market for recruiting good people is
changing. We have seen a definite change at the start of this year. When you put a job advert out there, you get a lot of candidates, so there are clearly a lot of people still looking to get back into jobs, but you have to sift through a lot of CVs to get to the quality and at the moment the best candidates have a number of choices. More companies are hiring, more projects are kicking off. That's good for the economy as a whole, but means that its harder for you and me.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Icarus Principle

This morning I delivered a three hour, intense presentation to a group of executives. The feedback I got was that it was an excellent session and I am relieved as I put a lot of effort into preparing for it and I never take these things for granted. The question, though, is how much effort should you put into a presentation like this? Well, in my case it was about three days. yes, three days of going back over a subject area I know inside out, of structuring my thoughts, preparing my slides, running through them to see if they hang together and packaging it all up!

Now this was an exceptional case but the reality is that preparation is everything and as a rule of thumb you should be putting at least three times the presentation time in to the preparation time. You should spend three hours in advance on your one hour presentation. And you should practice, practice, practice.

I still shudder when I hear about people who have sweated to prise open the door to an important business prospect and then turn up on the day saying "I haven't really prepared but, ah well, let's wing it." Wing it? Wing it! Are you some sort of bird? The audience know, you know. They are not stupid. You can easily see someone who is busking their way through a presentation and someone who has taken the effort to master their subject and their pitch.

Even the basics get overlooked. Listen people - the rule is 4 minutes per slide. This is not optional. Okay, I'll let you slip in one or two extra slides if I'm in a good mood, but if you are given 20 minutes to present, make sure you can tell your story in FIVE slides. If you can't then get out the way and let someone who can take over. You think its clever to flash through 15 slides in a 20 minute presentation? It's not. It's amateur. Five slides, people, take it or leave it.

And let me tell you straight, even though I have never heard you speak. You talk too fast. SLOW DOWN. At my son's primary school, they had a great way of teaching them to present. When you get to a comma, count to one. When you get to a full stop, count to three. It's amusing to watch the kids say a sentence, pause and silently but obviously say "one, two, three" then start again. But it force you to slow, down and as it becomes natural and your confidence grows it means you present at a measured pace that is right for the audience. Try it. If it seems too slow and unnatural, you have probably got the pace about right.

But if you are one of these fast-talking, gum chewing, all guns blazing guys who wanders along, grins a cheeky grin and says "let's just wing it" just remember what happen to that other over-confident guy who winged it - Icarus.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Do Business Bullies Win?

The debate about alleged bullying at Number 10 has got me thinking about bullying bosses in the business world and I am in danger of drawing the conclusion that bullying bosses often win the battle! What do you think?

Business bullying takes many forms. I've seen managers who shout and swear at their staff and suppliers. I've worked with the subtle psycological bully that wears you down and leaves you in tears. Jovial bullies who steamroller right over the top of you whilst smiling and laughing. Nasty pieces of work who get a kick out of making your life hell in the office. They are all out there in the business world and if you are going to hunt in the business jungle you are going to encounter these hateful beasts, so steel youself and figure out how you are going to deal with them.

The sad truth is that over and over again I've seen these people rise to the top. I know an entrepreneur who literally screams out loud at his staff, kicks over the flipchart if the meeting isn't going well and f's and blind's at suppliers just because he can. What happened to him? Sold his company for tens of millions, that's what. I know City traders who hurl keyboards across the room at support staff. What happens? They collect multi-million pound bonuses. I've worked with smooth snake-like operators who slither to the top leaving wrecked careers in their wake. Sure, stupid bullies get their come-uppance. But the smart bully bosses often barge their way to the front. It's a shame.

But what can we do about it? Become a business bully yourself? An eye for an eye? No, that's not the right route. If we go down that path, the whole world ends up blind. Confront the bully head on? Yes, definitely. We must drive this awful behaviour out of the world of business. But pick your fights carefully. You have to be smart in this business game and this isn't Tom Brown's Schooldays. If you stand up to the bully and punch him on the nose, he might not run away crying. He might wait for you in an alley with a baseball bat.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Making the Grade

This week was half-term. The roads are quieter, the schools are closed and the kids are at home. Well most of them are.

Some of the more ambitious young people are out and about doing work experience. So it was that I came to be shadowed by a couple of exceptional young people during this week. I enjoy sharing what knowledge and experience I have gained over the years. I feel that I missed out by not having these opportunities earlier in my career, or perhaps I just didn’t look for them hard enough.

The only downside is that young people today are so focused and driven they make us (well, me, at least!) look like right slackers. My hotchpotch of school qualifications pale into insignificance in the face of today’s determined young people driving firmly towards huge numbers of A*’s.

But perhaps us older folk can pass on some tips and tricks about navigating life. In fact as entrepreneurs wrestling with the day to day struggles of building your business it is so important to do more than just watch the balance sheet and count the numbers. Giving something back gives meaning to what we do.

On Wednesday I gave a speech to 180 Masters students at Cass Business School, London (which is where I did my MBA, although I was horrified to discover that most of the current students were not born when I was there!). The questions they ask you as an entrepreneur make you think about what you do and why you do it and that’s very healthy. As an entrepreneur I encourage you to volunteer to speak to students at your local school, college and university. You will get a lot back.

Being a start up guy is more than about keeping score, be it your sales, your business’s size or even your personal wealth. There must be more to life than that. As one of the young people said to me, with wisdom beyond her young years “at the end of my life, I want to be able to say ‘I had a good life’ not ‘I got good grades’”.

What will you be able to say?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Moving Office

Garlik is in the process of moving office. After an extensive review of the options, we are planning to move from one part of Richmond (10 minutes from where the Chief Exec i.e. me, lives) to another part of Richmond (also 10 minutes….).

Property, leases and sorting out offices for your start-up are things that they don’t teach you at business school. You learn on the job but if you make mistakes it can be very costly indeed. I have seen businesses fold because they have ended up lumbered with a bad lease.

The key is flexibility. That’s why it is best to spend the first few years of your life as a start up in serviced offices. You will pay a premium, but you can scale up and down at the drop of a hat.

There was a time that companies in serviced offices were not taken seriously but those days are long gone. No-one, clients or staff, with any sense cares anymore.

Then when you feel ready, you move to your first office on a longer term lease. The most important things are (a) get a lawyer who really understands commercial leases to advise you (it will cost you £5k and you probably think you can sort it out yourself with your wife’s brother-in-law’s cousin who did a bit of law once, more fool you) and (b) get a 2 or 3 year break-clause. Make sure you have the flexibilty of that early break-clause and don’t trade off a tempting rent-free period for an early break-clause.

Also think through what happens if your team suddenly expands by 50%. Can you still fit in the office? You don’t want to have to move that quickly. Or if you shrink by 50% – can you sublet to help cover costs?

If it all looks good then go for it. Get yourself a real office, a home for your start-up that you can call your own. But make sure its still 10 minutes from where the Chief Executive lives!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

African Gifted Foundation takes shape

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a dinner for the Trustees and friends of the African Gifted Foundation. The charity is really beginning to take shape now and I am excited about the coming year.

The dinner was held in honour of our guest from Uganda, Professor Paul Mugambi, President of the Uganda National Academy of Science and Vice-Chancellor of Nkumba University, Uganda. Prof Mugambi from Uganda will be joining our Board of Trustees as will Andrew Alli, CEO of the Nigeria-based $Bn fund Africa Finance Corporation and Lord Avebury, the renowned human rights peer and a respected member of the House of Lords.

We are also delighted that the eminent South African campaigner, academic and businesswoman, Dr Ramphele has agreed to be Patron of the Foundation. Amongst many other achievements, Dr Ramphele was a Managing Director of the World Bank and Vice-Chancellor of University of Cape Town.

So, the Foundation, which will be pan-African from the start, has senior support from South, East and West Africa as well as strong UK and international connections.

Over the past couple of months we have worked through the process of setting up and registering the charity in the UK, appointing bankers, auditors and lawyers and we heard last week that the Charities Commision has just issued us with our charity number, so we are now formally established as a UK registered charity.

In 12 months time the African Gifted Foundation will hold its first 2-week Academy residential session for children gifted in maths and IT from across Africa and we are now working towards bring together the young people at a leading University in Africa, with experts from Africa and the UK. We are working out the programme and raising the funds right now. If you can think of anyone I should be talking to about becoming a donor please let me know.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that happened last week though was an unexpected package that arrived in the post via a very talented author that I met recently. Apparently a number of schools in Botswana have heard about the Foundation spontaneously assembled a dossier containing a list of their most academically gifted young people, complete with school reports, identity documents, achievement certificates and letters of recommendation. This is before we have even gone out there to tell people what we are doing! The achievments of these young African gifted children are very impressive, despite the odds some of them face, and I am certain that there will be no shortage of extremely bright young people for the Foundation to work with.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Meeting Royalty

Watching Prince William tour New Zealand and Australia last week reminds me of the my first meeting with a major Royal. In my case it was the Princess Royal, Princess Anne. But I have to confess that I made slightly less of an impact than the young lady in Australia who managed to plant a cheeky kiss on William!

Nearly 20 years ago I organised some charity work that resulted in money being presented to one of Princess Anne's charities. Along with a number of other people who had done some very impressive fund raising things, making my efforts pale into insignificance, I attending a reception to be presented to Princess Anne.

We were coached on how to stand, how to smile, how to bow, what to call her. My head was getting dizzy with all the instructions.

Then came the moment.

Standing in the line. Flunkies floating in front of her, I found myself looking down at my feet, chanting "yes, ma'am, no ma'am, yes ma'am, no ma'am".

Then I looked up and to my surprise there She was, right in front of me.

Princess Anne (posh voice) "And who are you?"

Tom Ilube "Errrrr, ermmmm, errrr, nobody really"

Princess Anne (posh voice, slight pause) "You must be somebody?"

Tom Ilube "Errrrr, mmmm, not...I mean...not really"

Princess Anne (quizzical look, pause, posh voice) "Ok, well, well done and keep it up"

Tom Ilube "hahaha.....yes...quite...thank you...errr Ma'am"

And with that a hole in the floor opened up and I disappeared forever, banished to dark places to wallow alone for eternity in my shame.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Board meeting or Bored Meeting?

This week we had Garlik’s monthly Board meeting. We gathered in the hallowed office of our venture capital investor and updated The Money on how the business is performing. The Many Headed Money hangs on to your every word. They miss nothing. Woe betide you if your numbers don’t add up!

In my experience you can think of your monthly Board meeting as a right pain in the behind or you can use it in a positive way. As a busy entrepreneur, you work flat out on ten things at the same time, wrestling with the day to day challenges. But once a month you are forced to press the pause button, take a step back and look at your business. To me that’s a good thing.

A good Board meeting is down to two things. Firstly a Chairman who knows how to chair, keeps to time and to the agenda and makes sure that the key decisions get made. It is very useful to have someone other than the CEO chairing the meeting. I am not a fan of being both CEO and Chairman – they are two very different roles and this really shows up in the Board meeting.

Secondly, preparation, preparation, preparation. I spent a half a day preparing for our two hour Board meeting The week before the Board meeting I produce a 3 or 4 page written Board note, including a half page Executive Summary and a section on each major area of the business. We add to this a “dashboard” with the key business metrics, the monthly management accounts and the minutes of last months Board meeting. That Board pack goes out to all attendees a few days in advance.

Preparing the Board pack is a great way of forcing me to take stock of the business as a whole and think about what direction things are moving in. Even though I have to put aside at least a half day (generally a Saturday afternoon, groan!) it is actually a very useful discipline to get into.

So, if you tend to avoid having a proper Board meeting or you leave them to once a quarter, I would strongly recommend that you put a bit of rigour into you free-wheeling business and subject yourself to the discipline of the monthly Board meeting. Or perhaps I’m just a masochist !

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A picture of me, Naked

As a result of the latest terrorist attempt to bring down a plane with exploding underwear, it appears that we are all going to be subjected to x-ray airport scanners that can apparently see through clothes.

I am torn between a strong desire not to be sitting next to a guy with combustable pants on the one hand when I board a plane and a strong desire to hold on to the last vestiges of privacy. But the momentum towards installing these scanners and the frequency with which I fly means that my naked image is going to be stored on Government databases all over the world within a few years.

And Governments have been known to lose personal data. So I have to assume that at some stage pictures of me, naked are going to appear on the internet for all to see.

It is possible that due to the poor quality of these so called x-ray scanners, the body images may not be as clear cut as they could be. One may get the impression of flab around the midrift when in reality no such flab exists. This would be most unfortunate for one's reputation. Afterall I am not known as "Iron Body Ilube" for nothing. Apparently there is even an emerging market in "enhancers" that can be appended to ensure that the image presented to the diligent airport security operatives will be appropriately impressive.

Therefore, in order to retain some degree of control over my own sense of privacy and identity I have taken the unprecedented step of pre-empting this situation by publishing my own, 100% authoritative picture of me, Naked.