Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap…

Hello

It’s been a good while since I last put my thoughts into a newsletter… sorry, I’ve been incredibly busy.

And do you know why that is?

… I’ve been taking some new technologies by the scruff of the neck and integrating them into my business – and it is that, rather than a glut of insolvencies (I wish!), which has been taking up my time.

The title of this newsletter is the start of a quotation by Robert Louis Stephenson, it ends with …. ‘but by the seeds you plant’.

I’ve been planting a lot of seeds.

You see so much is happening out there on the new technology front, great stuff that could be integrated into my business, that I’m going to be making it the subject of several of my next few newsletters – you see there’s a chance that you, or the people you know, could benefit from my triumphs and my pain (some of my seeds fell on barren ground).  My newsletters will be in the nature of both observations and tips.

So why, when there are a lot of other important things that I could be doing, did I decide to focus on new technologies and for so long?  These are the first of the observations – my why.  Because you might just share some of them.

The first reason is

… the pace of change in technology – and thus in me maintaining my competitive edge (just how important is that for a small businesses?) – has accelerated massively in recent years.  And it’s only going to get faster.  I simply had to invest my money and time here if I wanted to maintain my lifestyle and retain the control I, and not others, have over my life.

The second reason is

… by bringing me into regular contact with people outside of my profession and normal sphere of operations who are great at technology, some of what they know and do rubs off on me such that by doing different things and the same differently I get to create my own opportunities to win some fantastic new ‘quality’ business that would otherwise be invisible to me.  Unless I do this unpaid r&d type work exploring the new technologies there would be no high margin work – I’d be scrabbling around doing the low margin work my competitors do.

The third reason is

… in the past if a business were not to embrace new ways of working or new markets, most of the time it would only hurt them slowly, over time.  Nowadays, I don’t think that it is always the case, the pain caused by ignoring new technologies and ways of working is acute, sharper and quicker to come on, it’s not chronic.

The fourth reason is…

… Having low overheads means I have both the time and resources to make it my focus.  This is the first instance of being in the right place at the right time, it’s luck, and most others do not have this luxury.  It would be negligent of me if I didn’t take advantage of this massive commercial advantage.

The fifth reason…

… my nature and a lack of accountability.  This is where I’m lucky again.  As a member of Generation X, I didn’t grow up with a mobile phone in one hand and a rattle in the other so technology isn’t something that comes easy to me.  But unlike most others in my peer group who have targets to meet, are accountable to someone else, or need to maintain an aura of invincibility, I am prepared to make mistakes, Lots of them!

Here are a few questions for you…

  • How important to you is getting a good grasp of new and emerging technologies either in your business maintaining or gaining a competitive edge or in you maintaining your lifestyle?
  • Do you share any of my 5 own personal reasons for this focus? Or do you have your own compelling reasons?
  • Are you and your business where you need to be in order to attract in the sort of opportunities you really want?
  • Should you be spending your time with a different set of people/organisations to gain a different mindset?
  • What new, high margin, products or services could you create by adopting technologies borrowed from outside of your sector?
  • What’s your attitude to spending, even potentially wasting, money or time on this sort of thing?

I have a request… quite an important one…

It’s partly to do with GDPR, it’s partly to do with me measuring how effective my newsletters really are.  I’m having a massive clear out of my circulation list.  I shall be deleting all the contacts my system is telling me aren’t regularly reading my stuff.  So if this is you, or if you read from mobile (my systems don’t always recognise you’re opening things), but you still want to receive stuff from me, please email me separately asking to remain.  If you’re a new reader and aren’t yet receiving my newsletters direct, but would like to, click on the following link to subscribe.  Click here

Finally, because sometimes life is just too serious, do you remember this classic comedy sketch about new technology? Ronnie Corbett and Harry Enfield in the greengrocers.

Fantastic!

Hope you continue reading, and if you have any insolvency business, I’m still here!

All the best

Paul Brindley
Midlands Business Recovery
T 01902 672323
M 07813 102014
paul@midlandsbusinessrecovery.co.uk

The importance of luck in all of our lives

 

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The picture above is of me and three friends and a guide at the top of Kilimanjaro about ten days ago.

36 hours after this photo was taken we were in a sports bar in Arusha, the nearby city.  Kilimanjaro and Arusha are in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries on the planet.  After our 8 day trek we were desperate for a few beers.  Standing there in a decrepit bar that hadn’t seen a lick of paint in 40 years in a mud street way off the beaten track, underneath a house of ill repute, next to a butcher’s shop where every order came with ten free flies, we were far away from ‘our normal’.

Being the only mzungus (while guys) the bar had seen for years, we were ill at ease, at least at first.  The first game on the tv was between 2 local professional football teams, Yaf v Azam, it seemed to them to be an important game, the bar was buzzing.  Then the Watford v Arsenal and Everton v Man United games came on. A few more beers later, the international language of sport broke through the language barrier leading to some great interaction with the locals, and their English was a hell of a lot better than our Swahili (in fact English is the Tanzanian second language).  The boundaries disappeared – there really isn’t that much of a difference between us mzungus and the local Chagga tribe after all.  Not that that should have surprised us, a week being supported by such hard working, ever smiling Chagga porters and guides should have told us that would be the case.   Normally on our trips we enjoy the challenge of self guiding and we go light, carrying our own kit – but to go up Kili you are obliged to use local labour – to maximise the money put into the local economy – and we are glad we did, the 4 of us provided work for 22 people for a week.   And we were now doing our level best to keep the local brewery and bar solvent!
You may recall from my last newsletter that I’ve been dipping into and out of a book by Nicholas Taleb called the Black Swan – he talks about the massive impact, beneficial or not, of the highly improbable unforeseen event.  There we were in a bar where our presence was highly improbable getting on great with the regulars.  It certainly had a major effect on our and we hope the locals’ minds.  Outside of ‘our normal’ was good, it was expansive.
In his book Taleb also talks about the ‘Matthew Effect’ – about how those with a slightly higher skillset than the norm (for example footballers slightly better than Sunday league status), better resources or education enjoy ‘consistent cumulative advantages’ – they experience massively higher income.  The reason he cites for this is our living in a ‘winner takes all’ society.  Taleb claims this applies equally to countries, companies and individuals, for example those starting off with strong infrastructure, a good education, a good level of level of resources/cash do far better than those less lucky.  Taleb makes the point that the richer seem to get richer, the big get bigger, the poorer stay poor, the small tend to stay small, and the difference between the extremes gets bigger over time, largely because the bigger, stronger attract more opportunities and are better able to capitalise on them.  And people will pay more to the bigger/stronger/more successful.

 

That is what we were seeing right before our own eyes, every day, in Tanzania… you see the people took education very seriously – and English was a high priority – and they were trying to improve their infrastructure, for example by upgrading the local A road – yet 99% of the people we saw remained incredibly poor.  This is possibly best demonstrated by the daily rate for a porter – and by golly they work incredibly hard – the daily rate is just 5 US Dollars.  Another example is the various bars we went into, where we spent just $1 a pint (a decent pint at that) with the owner treating us like kings for having bought a round each and throwing in a few dollars in tips!  The problem for most businesses was a combination of low prices and the low frequency of transactions because they started off ‘poor’ because of the Matthew effect.
And yet when we looked at them, the people in Tanzania weren’t really that much different from here in the UK.  They just happen to be poorer than we were by an accident of birth.
It was surreal standing there watching professional footballers paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, when the locals barely make $50 a week.  Yet they didn’t complain nor draw any adverse comparisons.
This got me thinking about this winner taking all thing.  It applies in all sports, it also applied in real life there, and it applies here at home.   Here, right now I’m seeing some big companies benefit massively from the Matthew effect…  they have more resources, they seem to be better able to control their destiny, they negotiate from a position of strength, they leverage the goodwill of others, …  and even where they make bad decisions – and they do – they just seem to be better able to get away with them.  They seem to make a lot of money very easily.  Meanwhile, smaller UK businesses, like our porters, eke out a living even if they provide an exemplary service and work incredibly long hours.

 

But it’s worthwhile remembering that nothing is forever, ‘everything will pass’.  Look at any stock market in any capitalist country and track its members over say a thirty year period… you’ll find that only one fifth of those companies in the market at the beginning are still there at the end, the four fifths will either have reduced in size and thus dropped out or gone bust, to be replaced by new and upcoming businesses.  The same applies with countries, cities and regions – what makes you think the UK, Birmingham or the Black Country are immune from the catastrophic falls from grace suffered by any of the historical giants to have fallen from grace such as the Egyptian Empire, Rome etc?   It’s foolish to think that we’re somehow cleverer than our forefathers, that somehow we’re ‘special’ or immune and such a decline will never happen to us.
There’s a phrase that’s oft quoted in trading circles – ‘the trend is your friend…. until the end’- and that’s the point, you are only safe to assume the trend will continue until it’s no longer safe to do so… you just don’t know when that may be.  It probably won’t be today, it might not be tomorrow, but you can be sure that the trend will break at some time.  And from what I suggested in my last writing, that event is unpredictable as to timing or impact.  Let me ask you readers in the Black Country a question – did you see Caparo’s administration coming?  The firm seemed to be part of the local fixtures and fittings, with an experienced management team.  I didn’t see it coming.  In fact after its failure I looked up its credit rating using the expensive business information system I subscribe to and they didn’t see it coming!  I guess like the credit rating agencies vis a vis the banks in 2008.
In my game I see a lot of people who have gone through either personal bankruptcy or company failure.  Taleb argues in his book that good fortune follows those who started off in a privileged position, and bad fortune follows those who don’t start off in a privileged position or for whatever reason experience significant misfortune – it’s almost as if good luck breeds more good luck, bad breeds bad.  I often see people who are hit hard by three things at the same time, but to me, it’s not as simple as Taleb suggests, people often do bounce back from misfortune, some very well indeed.  What I find is regaining that successful streak after any formal insolvency depends on a combination of variable factors including support from family, friends, and others; health; the availability of resources; the willingness of others to offer up opportunities at times of need; and getting your head right.  Taleb says that most people tend to overestimate the impact on them of bad things happening like bankruptcy or business failure – perhaps people at a low ebb struggle to anticipate help being offered – and I find that women tend to be more adaptable than women.  Where I do think Taleb could be right is people are happier where they experience a consistently good  level in their income, rather than large swings with large profits one year offset by slightly smaller losses the next year.  Perhaps the people of Tanzania are happy with what little they have because at least there’s some degree of consistency?

Here are a few questions for you:

How much of your own personal success do you attribute to the Matthew Principle?  Who do you thank for that?  Do you thank them enough?
How much of your success you do attribute to luck and how much to hard work? (Taleb argues there’s far more luck in business and life in general than people give credit for)
Now ask yourself the same questions about the people around you.  What does that do to your views about them?
Could you do anything to make your income more consistent, year on year, even if it isn’t spectacular and doing so means dropping some other more exciting opportunities, clients or customers?  Is it worth considering?
Are you treating a local supplier unfairly – say by screwing them to the floor in terms of price?  Remembering that nothing is forever, how’s that going to help you long term when they fail or walk way from supplying you? (I’ve heard numerous stories straight from the horse’s mouth of the worm turning!).  Is it time for a change of heart?
If you work for a large business, can you better use your buying power to do more for the local economy, either in terms of allowing sustainable price increases or increasing the frequency of local purchasing?  Are you using a large firm outside of the area simply because you find it comfortable sticking to the beaten track?  Would giving a small local business an opportunity to show what they can do stretch your mind?
Who do you know would appreciate a leg up because they’ve suffered some misfortune?  What’s stopping you from helping them out?  How would you feel if you gave them that leg up?  How would they repay that support?
Who’s next to fail as a result of the factors that led to Caparo’s demise?

By the way, I’m asking people to donate  to Katherine House Hospice in Stafford for the Kili climb – it was tough – if you would like to donate, here’s my Justgiving page – Here

Paul Brindley
Midlands Business Recovery
T 01902 672323

It was always going to happen at some point…

Did you see the programme on television the other day about the first ascent of Everest?

It was in 1953, less than a lifetime ago, just 6 years before I was born, but a world away in terms of the technology.

You see I’ve got the climb leader, John Hunt’s book ‘The Ascent of Everest’, of 1954… and in it he proudly talks about the equipment that helped them get to the top…all pretty basic by today’s standards.

Some of you will know this, most won’t, but I travel the world going up pointy things. My kit is far, far better, far more technically advanced than theirs was in 1953. There’s no comparison. But does that eliminate risk or just provide false comfort?

A few weeks ago there was a massive upheaval in the forex markets. The events surrounding the removal of the Swiss Franc/Euro peg, and indeed the more recent Greek election, might just tell us a lot about risk management techniques and the human psyche, if we allow them to.

Few anticipated at the right time the Swiss central bank breaking the peg and as a consequence a good many – from small currency speculators to big banks – lost a shed load of money in a matter of minutes. Over a billion dollars was lost – yet everyone thought their risk management procedures were robust.

The reality is the technology didn’t work, people expected it to, but when it was needed, it failed. My view is the Swiss forex losses happened as a result of sloppiness – people chose not to spend any of their time going back to the basics – they were fixated on the profits they’d continue making as long as it didn’t happen and placed far too much reliance on the technology to protect them. They relied on the stuff the computers and mathematicians churned out. Others thought a process, of placing stop-losses, made their trades risk free.

You see people don’t change, people are inherently idle if given the choice – for example the 1920s/30s recession happened for similar reasons – the pursuit of get rich quick schemes – people get complacent, they get used to the status quo, they fail to identify and test their key assumptions because it involve doing some work. People also chose to rely on, or at least hope for, someone helping them out – in this case the Swiss central bank as it’s almost become custom for central banks to help prepare the markets in order to eliminate shocks.

There are two points… Firstly people assume – even though Assume makes an Ass out of U and Me – and because of that they ramped up their leverage, massively and ignorantly increasing their exposure. Secondly – and this is confirmed in the book ‘Manias, Panics and Crashes’ – a book I know is being read by several government ministers – people overestimate just how clever they and their systems are: that somehow this time around they won’t suffer the same disasters their predecessors did: that somehow thus time they’ve cracked it. Technology creep is a dangerous thing.

Shall I tell you what I do in the hills?

I use a combination of the old and the new. I use simple manual techniques like a map and compass, pacing, I make sure I know exactly where I am and anticipate what’s likely next, I keep a GPS close at hand to check things out if I’m uncertain, I have a full safety kit that can cope with almost any eventuality should things go horribly wrong, I keep things simple if I can – I avoid complicated systems. And I’ve practised a lot. The point is it takes hard work to stay in control and for me technology is a tool, not a crutch.

Here are a few questions for you…

What are you or your client assuming which, if it gets turned upside down, could have a major impact on the business? Is that really a Black Swan event or is it common sense that it’s got to happen at some time?

Which of your clients are thinking they’re too clever to be caught out, that their systems and procedures are bombproof?

Turning now to the Greeks…

The thing that has amazed me in the Greek crisis is just how far problems can be pushed down the road before people say enough is enough and do something about it.

To me, voting in a party that is against austerity when the country is in a neverending downward spiral was always going to happen, it was just a question of when. So what’s been going on in the minds of the Greeks that delayed the inevitable?

Fear? Pride? Denial? Uncertainty? Idleness? Lack of drive? Que sera, sera? Absence of commitment? No resilience? Unwillingness to rock the boat? Desire for an easy, uncomplicated life? Uncertainty of getting any outside support? Clinical depression? No animal spirits? Habit over change? – These are the typical things that get in the way of all major actions.

I find that many of these things are going on in the businesses I meet in an insolvency situation. But there is always a tipping point that prompts action – and that is typically when the situation has become so desperate there’s nothing else left to do. In fact it’s not unusual for a major crisis point to have been hit 12, 18 months previously, the person has been living somewhere pretty uncomfortable for a good while until that last straw broke the camel’s back.

The reality is most people will put up with a pretty uncomfortable present rather than choose an uncertain future. They need to be standing on a burning bridge with fire all around them before they’ll jump.

Let me ask you a question …

Is it our job as trusted advisers to create a burning bridge for a client if we believe it’s in their long term interest to do so, even if they don’t quite recognise it at time?

Or should we just hang on in there, support them through each minor crisis, until the client builds the bridge themselves and then support them?

And then another…

With Europe on the brink, debt at unprecedented levels, interest rates only able to go one way, many of the tools in the armoury of the central banks played out, and international tensions high, should you and your client be doing more now to plan for that Black Swan event?

Anyway that’s me for this month…
Paul Brindley
T: 01902 672323

What else have I been getting up to?…

… Some interesting, large, members voluntary liquidations… I really appreciate advisers and their clients putting their trust in me for such assignments! They are certainly not run of the mill!
… Some interesting advisory work – not everyone is doing well right now – and it’s perhaps surprising what options small business owners have that my competitors habitually miss!

Oh… and booking up to climb the biggest mountains in Poland and Africa in coming months!