From meeting start-ups on the rise to discovering how to find your brand, be an effective boss and what to invest in next, we round up sage advice, thoughts and tips from entrepreneurs with years of experience under their belts.
The world’s largest chess piece (garlanded as such by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2018) stands on a pavement in the leafy Central West End neighbourhood of St Louis, Missouri. At six metres tall and weighing nearly 5,000kg, the towering king, built from mahogany, is a totem to one of the city’s most notable cottage industries: the game of chess, which has become a pillar of life in St Louis.
“This has become a pretty colossal endeavour,” says Rex Sinquefield, cheerfully. The 76-year-old serial entrepreneur and former investment manager made his fortune in the 1970s by pioneering index funds, the stock-market device that groups diverse stock portfolios and tracks them on the markets. Upon retirement, his attention returned to chess, a pastime he first picked up as a teenager playing “postal chess”, where players mark their move on a checkerboard postcard before mailing it back to their opponent.
“It’s been incredibly successful,” Sinquefield says, of the St Louis Chess Club, which he c0-founded 12 years ago, and the satellite endeavours it has spawned since. The club has almost single-handedly made this midwestern city the hub of US chess and one of the world’s best-regarded centres for the game. Hundreds of tournaments take place here every year, including the US Championships, and Sinquefield estimates that chess events have brought millions of dollars into the city over the years.
The club has woven itself into city life. Its 1,000 members – old hands and newcomers alike – represent most strata of St Louis society. As well as offering chess scholarships to local universities, the club operates in 60 schools, hosting chess classes for schoolchildren. “Chess teaches you a bunch of stuff that is critical to success, not just in education but afterwards,” says Tony Rich, the club’s executive director. “It’s basic things like critical thinking, problem-solving, planning ahead or realising that your actions have consequences down the road.”
For former industrial powerhouses such as St Louis, the chess club offers a lesson: there is opportunity for smaller, more targeted industries to help reinvigorate cities. “What chess has done for the city is to become another cultural touchstone for St Louis,” says Rich. “One of the questions I love getting asked is, ‘What is chess? Is it a sport? Is it an art? Is it a game?’ Well, it’s all of those things. It brings together all these facets from our everyday lives. And it’s fun.”
- Batawa, Canada: Czech shoe magnate Thomas Bata built Batawa – a factory town – in 1939. The factory shut in 2000, though efforts are underway to revive the town.
- Billund, Denmark: Home to the Lego Group’s HQ and theme park. Even the airport – the country’s second largest – was founded by Lego; thankfully it’s built of more traditional materials.
- Noda, Japan: Noda’s claim to being Soy Sauce City dates back to 1917 when eight soy sauce-making families banded together to create the brand Kikkoman, choosing to basethemselves in Noda.
- Hershey, Pennsylvania: The Hershey Company has funded a boarding school, a tram and even a cemetery with a notable occupant: HB Reese, inventor of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
- Kohler, Wisconsin: One third of Kohler’s residents are employed by the bath and kitchen-fixture maker that lent the village its name. In the early 1900s, the company hired famed landscape designer Frederick Olmsted to draft Kohler’s masterplan.
Stephen King once wrote that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Despite this, it’s a road that lots of companies have decided to follow. It’s a trend that’s been with us for more than a decade, so it’s high time we look at how it came about – and the pitfalls of following the herd.
Today, with our abundance of domain extensions, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago the holy grail of business naming was to allow you to secure the same dot-com. Yet getting your hands on a dot-com wasn’t easy and for those without millions to spend, new approaches were needed – approaches such as the portmanteau (Pinterest, Codecademy), the compound (Foursquare, Birchbox) and the misspell (Tumblr, Etsy).
Another way was to use a suffix to create a new word (Spotify, Bitly). And many turned to other countries to give themselves an online edge: the .ly URL code of Libya became popular following the success of bit.ly. But as Libya entered a decade of war and instability in the early 2010s, brands no longer felt comfortable associating with the code of such a volatile nation.
The adverb trend continued unabated, however, leaving us with Feedly, Cloudly, Feastly, Leafly, Yabbly, Guesterly, Zaarly and hundreds of other names ending in “ly”. This is naming for sheep – unimaginative, uninspired and charmless. How are customers supposed to build a relationship with a name that they are embarrassed to say out loud?
There are so many elements that can serve as naming stimuli. By linking the name to your firm’s products, provenance or purpose, you can build a story that sticks. It will give your business a more cohesive, confident aura and it will mean that your team will have less of a hellish time trying to explain a name that people can’t spell.
Communication expert Thomas Erikson is the author of Surrounded by Idiots, one of Sweden’s best-selling non-fiction books. Since its publication in 2014, the book has sold two million copies; it is now available in 40 languages.
What’s the premise?
My thesis is that there aren’t many idiots out there. [Problems arise from] not understanding each other so I want people to talk more about how they communicate. I outline four types of human behaviour. A common question is: should a workplace mix them all together? The best dynamic you can get is a combination of different people – you’ll have more ideas and points of view – but the trick is that you need a team leader who can cope with all the different characters.
Why should entrepreneurs read your book?
If you want to succeed in any business, you have to rely on other people. I mean, you haven’t heard about any successful hermits, have you? Understanding people and getting the most out of partnerships is crucial.
How can your book help people through and beyond the pandemic?
Under stress people’s behaviour can shift quite a lot. If we can predict how a person will respond to pressure, we can show a greater understanding of how people are acting out their worries and concerns.
“I started my first design company when I was 22 years old in Boston. I had no money so I worked out of the bedroom that I grew up in. I set up a drafting table, I put my art supplies underneath my bed and I ran a telephone line from my bedroom down the hallway and into the kitchen. My mom would answer the phone and say, ‘The Brian Collins Design Group’. That was a conscious branding decision: I wanted to be seen as having a group of people or a company. It gave me a greater chance of landing bigger, better projects. Incredibly, it worked.
Today, I’m chief creative officer of Collins. We’re an independent strategy and brand-experience design company in San Francisco and New York. We work with some of the most remarkable brands in the world [such as Spotify, Nike and The San Francisco Symphony].
From the moment that you start talking about your company, launch a website or have someone answer your phone, there’s a brand there. So my argument is simple: be conscious of it. Protect it. Manage it like you would any valuable asset. Today the big challenge is no longer finding new business ideas but instead building attention [for those ideas]. For entrepreneurs the heavy work is in finding the right story and helping people emotionally relate to what you make.
You build a brand by asking two key questions. First, what do you believe? That’s an internal question that is about authenticity: what’s the world seeking that only you can provide? Second, how do you behave? How are you relevant for your customers? At the intersection of your belief and behaviour sits your brand. A good brand seamlessly connects what it says with what it does. And the brands that are thriving right now recognise that people no longer buy only what you make. They buy who, what, where, when, why and how you make it.
Don’t do it yourself
New entrepreneurs are focused on making ends meet so when they first come to meet us we get them to examine what they really want to create. What’s their biggest, most brazen ambition? Entrepreneurs are so busy running the day-to-day puzzles of their companies that these kinds of conversations can be hard to conduct but they’re necessary. These are some of the things we always want to know:
- Why did you start this? What motivates you to get out of bed?
- What problem do you solve? Why is that important?
- What are your product’s functional benefits?
- What are your product’s emotional benefits?
- Why should someone trust any of this? What proof is there?
- Which employee represents the best of your company? Why?
- If you vanished tomorrow, would anyone care? If so, who? Why?
- Who’s your most respected adversary? How are they better?
- Write the headline five years from now from a glowing feature story on your company. How did you make that future happen?
- Why will you not give up?
The top challenge facing any entrepreneur will be not knowing exactly what next step to take or figure out how everything fits together. A good brand will keep an entrepreneur and their team focused, motivated and aligned. Best of all, it will help them answer the question at the heart of every entrepreneur’s story: what happens next?”
Brian Collins is the founder and chief creative officer of Collins.
From locker room to boardroom, author Daniel Coyle’s best-selling The Culture Code explores the very real but hard-to-identify traits that underpin the world’s most successful organisations.
What’s the premise of your book?
It feels like magic where you’re around a group that has an extraordinary connection or sense of purpose but it’s not. It’s a real thing. So I spent time with some of the world’s top-performing groups and, while they’re wildly different organisations, there are patterns connecting all of them.
How important is ‘work culture’?
A Harvard study looked at 200 businesses where the only difference was that some had a strong culture and others didn’t. Over 11 years it turned out that culture was worth 756 per cent more net revenue. Culture isn’t some add-on. The soft stuff gets you the hard stuff.
How can your book help people through and beyond the pandemic?
This recent crisis has revealed that a strong culture isn’t a frivolous accessory. It’s the engine that helps a group stick together in challenging times. The more energy groups funnel toward building and strengthening that engine – learning to be vulnerable together and creating a sense of purpose in an ever-changing, hazard-filled landscape – the more prepared they can be for any future.
A low moon is visible in the morning sky above Manchester but Steve Bennett – entrepreneur, self-taught rocket engineer, budding astronaut – is focused on more earthly pursuits, for now at least. Climbing down a tower of scaffolding, the 55-year-old stops to admire his work: a 12-metre-high rocket parked on the back of a converted flatbed truck in an industrial lot near the M67.
But this is no garage project. Nova 2 is the latest in Starchaser’s human spaceflight programme, a one-tonne craft capable of manned, suborbital (ie entering space but not high enough to orbit) flight at 5,400km/h. With an unmanned test launch scheduled for the near future, it’s a symbol of the UK’s aspiration to be put firmly on the map of Solar System-faring nations. “Space is becoming the everyday,” says Bennett, who founded Starchaser in 1992. “And there’s no doubt we’re closer to it than ever before.”
Bennett has reason to feel optimistic. Recently the UK’s race for the stars has gone into hyperdrive. Following the ratification of the Space Industry Bill, which allows UK businesses competing in the commercial space race to use domestic spaceports, several Nasa-lite operators are pushing forward with various ventures. Among the developments, the bill has ushered in £31.5m (€37m)of funding for Space Hub Sutherland, the UK’s first vertical launchpad complex, with construction teams set to break ground next year. Revenue from the industry has grown steadily from £14.8bn (€16.8bn) in 2017 to an estimated £15.5bn (€17.6bn) in 2018, and the government intends to increase its share in the global space economy from 6.5 to 10 per cent by 2030. The next frontier, though running a few years later than planned, is extraterrestrial tourism.
Starchaser – with two dozen employees and volunteers – is a contrast to glossier private ventures such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin but the aim is the same: enabling paying passengers to become astronauts. While revenue is generated from sponsors, school visits and one well-heeled local investor who has put in £2m (€2.3m), Bennett also has a number of customers (he won’t divulge exactly how many) who have paid £250,000 (€293,000) for front-row seats. Driving it all is the appeal of experiencing the strange beauty of the universe’s blackness first hand. “Space has a huge potential to be profitable,” he says.
Bennett is not alone. There are now nearly 1,000 organisations working on related projects in the UK. One of the biggest is Airbus Defence and Space’s ExoMars rover, designed to search for signs of life on the Red Planet. Part of an international programme led by the European Space Agency, the rover was prototyped and tested at Stevenage’s Mars Yard, a tennis court-sized sandpit. “It has all sorts of rocks and slopes to test the vehicle on,” says Paul Meacham, ExoMars’s lead systems engineer. “The UK government sees the benefit in investing and funding this. There’s real belief in the future of a space industry here.”
The UK Space Agency (UKSA), the bureau responsible for the civil space programme, has similarly green-lit projects from Cornwall to Glasgow. And the technologies being developed aren’t reserved solely for space. Following a £60m (€70.3m) investment from the UKSA, for instance, Abingdon-based aerospace manufacturer Reaction Engines Limited saw its Sabre engine pass the hypersonic Mach 5 milestone; potential spin-off markets include everything from motorsports to power stations.
Future investment has already been ring-fenced: at the recent European Space Agency’s Council of Ministers in November, the UK committed to increase funding by 15 per cent, or £374m (€438m) per year, to deliver international space programmes until 2025. Extraterrestrial businesses: coming soon to a launchpad near you.
UK firms shooting for the moon:
- Glasgow’s Clyde Space, which is developing and deploying products for the nano-satellite market, recently won a component supply contract from the US Air Force.
- The University of Edinburgh, whose scientists have helped Nasa to test the Valkyrie Robot, an advanced humanoid that will one day be sent to the moon and Mars.
- Newport’s B2Space is developing a high-altitude launch system for rockets in the form of a stratospheric balloon, which significantly cuts down costs.
“Early in my career I was an entrepreneur. I founded a couple of sales start-ups before joining Google where I realised that what got me up in the morning was the act of building a great team. Steve Jobs had decided that Apple was going to throw out its management training and start over so I went to Apple and developed a course called Managing at Apple. I realised that managing there was similar to managing anywhere. So I started writing my book, Radical Candor, because the advice I was giving to technology CEOs was the same advice that I gave to young people just starting out.
As a manager you need to care personally about your employees while also challenging them. That’s ‘radical candour’. If you challenge someone but don’t show that you care about them, that’s ‘obnoxious aggression’. Having a senior leader who behaves this way creates a culture of fear.
But it’s also one of the mistakes we most fear making. Often when we realise we’ve been a jerk, we move in the wrong direction. We say we ‘didn’t really mean it’ or ‘it’s no big deal’ when, in fact, we did mean it and it is a big deal – and we end up in the worst place of all. The majority of mistakes are made when somebody is so worried about not hurting someone’s feelings that they don’t tell them something they would be better off knowing. This happens all the time at work: mistakes that don’t get corrected get repeated.
There is a path that companies often go down. A successful small company is often very candid. People know each other well and part of the reason that they’re successful is that they deal with things as they arise. But as they have success, they grow and want to maintain that nice culture – that sense of almost being a family – but now they don’t know people as well so they tend to pull their punches. They no longer point out problems like they did before so you get this culture of what I call ‘ruinous empathy’, which can lead to failure.
It’s easy for me to say, ‘Be radically candid’, but how do you do it? Here is how.
- Solicit feedback. This is true no matter where you are in the hierarchy but it’s especially important if you’re the boss. You need to understand what is going on from other perspectives.
- Focus on the good stuff. If you’re a leader, especially an entrepreneur, your job is to show your team what’s possible. Praise is a much better tool for doing this than criticism. Remember that praise has to be sincere and specific. One of the mistakes people make is thinking that praise is only used to show that you care about someone when it should also challenge other people directly: it shows the whole team what success looks like.
- Now you’re in a better place to offer criticism. Make sure that while you praise in public, you criticise in private. The best criticism I’ve ever received has come in impromptu two-minute conversations. It can be a gift in one of two ways: either because you’re giving the person an opportunity to fix the problem or because you’re wrong and only by telling that person what you think do you give them the opportunity to correct your thinking. But remember to state that you’re giving criticism to help them improve. Make sure you do it right away. The longer you wait, the harder it is to remember the context.
- Focus on things people can change. Describe the situation, the behaviour and the impact that the behaviour had. Then you’re explaining to the person how to change their behaviour, not their personality.
About 15 years ago a lawyer friend said that in Silicon Valley, management is neither taught nor rewarded. The good news is that that has started to change. There is an increasing understanding that getting management right is the only way you can build the product or service you’re passionate about. For entrepreneurs it’s really easy to get caught up in the stress – there’s no more stressful job out there – but if you can get the management side right then the stress goes down and the product gets better. And most importantly, the relationships will be fun.”
Kim Scott is co-founder of Candor Inc and the author of best-selling book ‘Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity’.
Kim’s tips for managing remotely:
- Maintain frequent interactions with those you work with. This allows you to pick up on subtle emotional cues.
- A video call is the next-best thing to in-person communication. While email or text might feel faster, they can create misunderstandings that require hours to clean up.
- Don’t assume that what works for one person will work for everyone. While some might want to hop on the phone several times a day, others might find that disruptive. Ask every member of your team what works for them.
- Be kind. Social distancing can leave people feeling lonely.
- Be a partner not an absentee manager or micromanager. This is even more important when your team is working remotely.
“If you can make it from cardboard then we can do it,” says Jakob Kristoffersen, one of the new co-owners of Elvo, manufacturer of bespoke cardboard products since 1923. Its output currently includes notepads, waste-paper bins, restaurant menus and packaging for brands but Elvo’s mainstay has always been boxes. These are no ordinary boxes; these are super-durable boxes, featuring embossing, waterproof finishes or leather straps and buckles. The Copenhagen-based company can make them to any specification, whether for vinyl records or socks.
“The Danish Royal family uses them and the Danish Royal Ballet has used Elvo boxes to store ballet shoes for more than 70 years,” says Kristoffersen, who bought the company with three partners from its family owners in 2019. No commission is too small: you can order a single box, made-to-measure, from 130kr (€17). Kristoffersen’s day job is as a senior manager at Bang & Olufsen but Elvo represented a chance to revive a classic Copenhagen brand, in decline since the advent of digitalisation, and take it in a new direction.
“There are so many industrial products in our lives but this is something that is handmade in Copenhagen; the craftsmanship is amazing and it’s sustainable,” he says. “The cardboard is all recycled here in Denmark.”
Another new co-owner is Kim Dolva, founder of Københavns Møbelsnedkeri (Copenhagen Furniture Carpenters), whose high-end cupboards and wardrobes have long featured Elvo’s storage boxes. “I’ve used them for more than 10 years so when I heard that the family didn’t want to continue running the company, I had to help save it,” she says.
Among the treasures that the new owners discovered in storage was a stack of vintage cardboard, almost half a century old. “It has some really special properties,” says Kristoffersen. “Because it has dried out, it is incredibly tough, like heavy-duty plastic.” The cardboard was used in a clothing repair kit handed out at a fashion show by designer Mark Kenly Domino Tan. “Mark wanted to make a statement about sustainability in fashion and this was the perfect way to do it,” says Kristoffersen. “Instead of the usual goody bag, he gave the audience something they could use to repair their old clothes.”
Elvo’s new owners are having fun with the company and business is on the up. “We have started spring/summer and autumn/winter colour ranges,” says Kristoffersen. “Right now, the mustard is very popular.”
When food company Al Rifai launched in Beirut in the 1940s, it competed for a foothold in Lebanon’s snack-food market. It quickly grew. When Monocle spoke to managing director Moussa Al Rifai Jr in 2008, the company had nearly 90 per cent market penetration in the country and had just launched a European product line, Nutisal.
Today, Al Rifai Jr is manager of the whole group and in 2015 he oversaw the sale of Nutisal for €10.3m. “It meant that we could focus on our core business, which is retail,” he says. “It also allowed us to develop a new premium line of nuts for the travel industry.” The result? Al Rifai has grown from 160 shops in 2008 to nearly 420. Last year it premiered a high-end snacks shop in Frankfurt Airport. Like many, it hopes that airports are running normally again soon.
When monocle spoke to developer Igloo in 2009, it had just been named the world’s first responsible real-estate fund by the UN. It’s a reputation the team has upheld: in 2017 it became the sector’s first European B Corp, a label reserved for profit-driven businesses that meet high environmental, social and governance standards. The company now has 5,000 completed and in-the-pipeline homes under its belt. This has also allowed the team to double in size from 16 staff in 2009 to 32.
“Investment has moved in our direction,” says founder David Roberts. It’s also pushed them to think outisde the box. “Every project has to perform better than the current standards. These standards will have changed by the time it’s finished so we need to be ahead of the curve.”
Grace Winery, in the hilly Yamanashi village of Akeno, is one of Japan’s most respected wine-makers. Started in 1923, it is now run by fourth-generation president Shigekazu Misawa and his daughter Ayana, who is head wine-maker. When Monocle spoke to Ayana five years ago, the winery was already making waves internationally and exporting to eight countries. Today that number is 20, with nations including Switzerland and Indonesia stocking its vintages.
The firm has been on a winning streak: Grace’s Koshu white wines, made with Japan’s light indigenous grapes, have won gold medals at the Decanter World Wine awards for six consecutive years since 2014. “We’re improving the quality and raising the profile of Japanese wine in the world,” says Ayana.
“One habit that I’ve noticed about entrepreneurs and other successful people I’ve studied is that they’re always reading,” says psychological scientist Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which explores the psychology of achievement.
What’s the premise?
I started out asking: what differentiates those who are successful from those who are less so? Grit is about high achievers in business, medicine, literature, athletics and music. In addition to talent or IQ, I found that they had a combination of passion and perseverance – “grit” – that they sustained for years or decades.
Why should entrepreneurs read your book?
If you want to be more successful, why not look at the psychological science of achievement? Everything we study has some inheritable DNA component but we also know that there’s nothing that’s completely nature. Our experiences, mentors and the culture that we grow up in influence who we become.
How can your book help people through and beyond the pandemic?
Whatever your grit has enabled you to master, now is the time to put that skill to use. Plus, every crisis is a learning opportunity. We will all learn something new for the simple reason that we have no other choice.
- Stephan Gerhard, co-founder of the 25hours hotel group:
“People will travel once coronavirus is under control so I would recommend investing in tourism. But people won’t be looking for adventures and unexpected experiences. They will travel in their own backyards, looking for health, ecology and security. Invest in back-to-earth projects nearby.”
- Nicola Kilner, co-founder of skincare company Deciem:
“People have realised the value of their health. I would invest in something that allows for easy home [medical] testing. The earlier we identify issues, the better our chances of solving them.”
- Jean-Martin Fortier, co-founder of small-scale farming enterprise The Market Gardener:
“I believe that people will put more value on having a direct relationship with their food. Investing in anything that supports a transition towards local food systems – farms, distribution solutions or companies focused on artisanal production – is a sure bet. Or just start a garden.”
- Alain Sylvain, founder of design consultancy Sylvain Labs:
“Businesses’ promises to care for employee wellbeing is being tested. As we spend more time working remotely, feelings of isolation can become overwhelming. Companies should invest in personal wellbeing and tools for healthy digital collaboration to maintain a productive mindset.”
- Carl-Magnus Norden, co-founder of electric truck-maker Volta:
“Covid-19 has forced the world to realise the shortcomings of our distribution systems. For the time being, our economies will depend on local trade. Investing in local farmers, factories and hospitality businesses will be crucial for recovery. This will inspire more sustainable trade, reduce polluting transport and make our society more resilient to future disruptions.”
- Max Rofagha, founder of finance app Finimize:
“I would like to invest in a remote Swiss mountain cabin where I could do a week-long retreat to read books and extend my knowledge.”
- Corinne Vigreux, co-founder of navigation company TomTom:
“I’d recommend investing in digital literacy and social mobility to help empower the next generation of technology talent. I’m a firm believer that digital literacy is key to economic growth. That’s why in 2018 I founded Codam, a nonprofit coding college in Amsterdam. It’s free and I would like to keep it that way.”
- Nani Marquina, founder of rug brand Nanimarquina
“We should all invest in the most sustainable practices and in new work processes that allow us to trace what we are doing.”
- Rich Pierson, co-founder of meditation app Headspace:
“This year will be about the integration of mental and physical health. As people are living longer, I think we’ll see a growing dependence on new technological developments combining wellness with healthcare. This trend should be at the top of investors’ minds.”
- Ariel Kaye, founder of bedding brand Parachute
“I recommend that people continue to invest in small businesses that focus on service and craftsmanship.”