Month: April 2011

Growing old can still be a lot of fun


The photo above is one of our neighbours here at the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs, Ed Rooney.  Yep – Ed’s part of our Irish diaspora & when he isn’t sunning himself over the winter in Palm Springs he lives up in Portland, Oregon – which as everyone knows is more like Ireland than Ireland itself – even the weather is the same.  Ed visited Ireland a year or two ago with his son, Ted Rooney.  Ted’s an actor (isn’t everyone in southern California?) who’s been hampered throughout his acting career by simply being too tall – all the romantic leads are automatically snapped up by short men because all of the Hollywood starlets are tiny.

Ed is exactly how I hope I’ll be when I’m in my mid 80s and he’s a shining example of how a person can still have a lot of fun, even when they’re getting a bit older.  He’s independent, keeps himself active, he’s out & about every day, has loads of friends and he’s always got plenty of stories to tell which I love to listen to.  I snapped the pic yesterday just before Ed was going for a swim.  He’d just been telling me about how his brother Art used to try & pass himself off as THE Art Rooney when they were young, growing up in Pittsburgh.  I’d been telling him about how I was next to Art’s famous son, Dan Rooney, in the White House last month on St Patrick’s night – Ed wasn’t too impressed by the whole White House thing but he was impressed that I’d met Dan Rooney.

I wonder to myself why it is that Ed’s the way he is – so positive and so cheerful.  Is the answer as straightforward as having been born with a sunny disposition or is there something more that we can do to as we get older to make sure we maintain a positive outlook.  Ed has a computer & keeps up to date with what’s happening in the world.  He uses skype to keep in touch with his family & many grandchildren.  He was a schoolteacher & reads more than most people I seem to meet these days.  So is that his secret?  Remaining plugged in & up to date with current affairs?  Look forward to your thoughts on this subject.

There’s a big outcry in the US at the moment re the price of petrol – it’s $4.50 a gallon in Palm Springs (it must surely be 3 x as much as that in the UK).  Everyone’s baying for blood on this – especially as the oil companies’ (massive & obscene) profits were announced this morning.  Ed’s talking about trading in his big saloon car for a Mini Cooper – someone’s told him they’re perfectly comfortable for guys 6’3” & taller – I’m only sorry to be leaving Tuesday & missing out on going out for a spin in it.  I hear someone in the desert is selling Mini Coopers that have been “Kiss” customised – gonna see if I can persuade Ed to get one of those before I leave…


Top 10 things I love most about Palm Springs


I’m on holiday in Beautiful Palm Springs in the southern California desert this week so it’s only right that I should tell everyone how lovely it is here.  This is my top ten not anyone else’s – I’m just getting that in now before people start giving out about the fact that golf or celeb spotting aren’t mentioned anywhere on this list!

1.       It has to be the weather.  OK – so it gets a bit hot in the middle of summer but the rest of the year you can’t fault it.  It makes outdoor living a reality.  Even Palm Springs airport is outdoors (it calls itself a resort-port instead of an airport – how cool is that!)

2.       Our wildlife – especially the glorious variety of colourful garden birds & hummingbirds that you see everywhere.  I also have a soft spot for the bats that appear at twilight and the roadrunners I see running across the lawn when I’m swimming early in the morning.  You can also visit the Living Desert if you want to see the stuff that lives here but isn’t readily visible – owls, tortoises, big horn sheep – check it out at this link

3.       Healthy, tasty, cheap vegetarian food – it’s everywhere.  Without doubt the worst thing about living in Northern Ireland for me is the poor choice of restaurants to visit for people that don’t just want to eat steak or chicken (I know – market forces – small population – I accept it’s my fault…)

4.       The people – most people who live here are blow-ins so there’s a rich tapestry of stories from pretty much everyone you meet

5.       The ubiquitous palm trees – who would have thought there’d be so many different types – don’t knock em until you’ve tasted a date shake

6.       Location, location, location – easy driving distance to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix & San Diego – just in case you ever get bored

7.       The flowers – especially the spectacular cactus flowers that are blooming right now and this year’s flame red ocotillo flowers – absolutely spectacular

8.       The mountains – changing colour all day long & allowing you to walk in snow at the top of the tram ride – even when it’s roasting hot down in the valley

9.       Mid century architecture everywhere & giving Palm Springs it’s unique retro look – it’s what we’re famous for & you can’t see it anywhere else

10.   The Ocotillo Lodge where we live – built in the mid 50s by the Alexander company & still exactly as it was the day it was built – just beautiful & with the best pool in town – that’s it pictured in the photo.

That’s my top 10 – would love to hear from you what I’ve missed.




Entrepreneur tips from the uber Rich Felix Dennis Part 2

This is the second part of a two part blog reviewing extracts of Felix Dennis’s book “How to Get Rich”.  In Part 1 we went over Felix’s view on the 5 most common start up errors.  Now the bad news is out of the way we can move onto the Cardinal Virtues of the Entrepreneur.  Anyone who is a long time reader of my blog will recognise many of these “virtues” as themes I’ve touched on before – let’s face it there can only be so many virtues.  First up is:

·         Persistence.  Felix has a different view on this from most writers of business books.  Basically his view is that you need to be terrier-like in persistence when it matters but with an ability to stop being stubborn when all the evidence shows that you’re on a mission to nothing.  So – you should try harder than you think you can for something that’s worthwhile but you should also remember that quitting is not dishonourable.  The skill comes in recognising when you’ve crossed the line from being persistent to flogging a dead horse – and that’s the difficult bit.

·         Self-belief.  This is the big one.  Without it you probably won’t start on the journey to become an entrepreneur anyway.  As Felix says, “self-belief is a priceless asset” and he’s right.  One of my very earliest blogs was about a lecture I’d attended given by Dr Dennis Kimbro.  Dr Kimbro researched 150 very successful African Americans as to why they were successful & self-belief was one of his 4 pillars.  The example Felix uses in his book is a wartime Winston Churchill but every successful entrepreneur has self-belief.  If you don’t believe in yourself it’s unlikely that you’ll convince anyone else to believe in you so get used to trampling on doubt (after you’ve confronted it in a sensible way – not at 3am in the morning!).  Dr Kimbro also talks about this at length – especially the doubt caused by your family and other friends and well wishers who seek to “advise” you.

·         Trust your instinct.  This one is necessary but tricky as it’s about knowing which horses to back in terms of all the opportunities that you encounter.  There is no easy way to get into a place where you’re able to trust your instincts.  You have to put in the long yards, kiss a lot of frogs and make a lot of mistakes along the way.  Eventually you find it becomes easier and your hit rate has improved.  Entrepreneurs aren’t managers – they go with their gut feelings and often make decisions on the spur of the moment with inadequate information.  It’s impossible to trust your instinct in a deliberate, considered manner.

·         Diversify.  It’s worked for Dennis & other legendary entrepreneurs like Richard Branson.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Launch products that compete with each other so that you own the whole market – think about it for a minute – strangling your baby in order to grow your business is more common than you might at first realise.  This virtue is tricky.  Other business gurus tell you that laser like focus is key to success.  Which of them is right?  What I can tell you is that things change (terrifyingly quickly) all the time and in business you need to be ahead of that curve and ready to adapt.  When your business is in start up phase you need to focus with all your heart and soul but when things start to get easier and money is flowing in, start a few new baskets.  Felix claims it was his 20th basket that made him super rich…see number 1 above – persistence!

·         Listen and Learn.  The last of our virtues.  Felix says that listening comes in at number 3 after self-belief and persistence for the entrepreneur.  If you’re not listening you’re not learning and if you’re not learning it’s time to get out of the kitchen & let someone else do the cooking.  I’m fortunate enough in my position to meet a lot of people.  Not as many as Felix Dennis of course but as many as I can keep up with.  I love to meet people and listen to their stories and help them kick around opportunities they may be considering.  I enjoy it and I also get business benefit as sometimes it keeps me in touch with what’s going on in obscure corners of my industry.  Time is a precious resource but spend some of it listening to others who present themselves to you – you’ll be amazed at the things you find out.

I’d like to add another quick virtue of my own – be as generous as you can be with your time and with your advice to others – make sure you put something back – karma is important too.  That’s the end of the book review.  As I said at the start of blog No 1 – it’s not your usual business book & indeed it annoyed me immensely the first time I read it a couple of years ago.  It’s worth a read if you’re interested in becoming rich as there are a few nuggets of advice in there.  Having said that – I predict that most people will find Felix’s advice distinctly unpalatable and they will decide their comfortable existence rules ok for now!

As always – interested in your comments and thoughts.  I’m in southern California on holiday this week so expect a few blogs in the next week or so on far more frivolous subjects…


Entrepreneur tips from the uber Rich Felix Dennis


For today’s blog I’m straying from my usual format & embarking on a 2 part partial book review of Felix Dennis’s “How to Get Rich” which I’ve recently been reading again – more for the entertainment of Felix’s unique way of writing and his mad bits of homespun advice that really do make a lot of sense.  Also for his poems & the quotations from others he sprinkles throughout his writing which always make me smile.  Whatever you might think of Felix Dennis, you can’t argue with the fact that he’s made a helluva lot of money through his own hard graft & through doing things his own way.  Many of his enterprises he owns outright so he hasn’t had to accommodate the views of investors or VCs – he’s made a lot of his own calls.

I’ve enjoyed the book more second time round 2 years later – it annoyed me a bit the first time I read it.  I think the main reason I’ve enjoyed it more is because it’s written in a much more refreshing style than the hundreds of other “business” books I’ve read in the interim.

Before I start let me tell you about my own rather tenuous connection to Felix.  One of my friends, Catherine Bishop, used to be my partner’s accountant when he was just starting out & when she was just starting out – about 20 years ago.  She (wisely) moved from Alan to Felix & in that way she has been personal accountant to one of the richest British entrepreneurs and also one of the poorest! 

The chapter I’m reviewing today is Felix’s opinion of the 5 most common start-up errors – Blog no 2 will be on the Cardinal Virtues of the entrepreneur – both themes I’ve touched on in previous blogs.  I’m going to give you what Felix says & augment that with a few real life stories of my own.  So – let’s get on with the errors – bad news before good:

1.       Mistaking Desire for Compulsion – we’ve talked about this before folks.  To be a start up entrepreneur you’ve got to be driven to succeed in a way that most people just aren’t.  Most people just aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices needed, have no social life, neglect their families, risk everything they own and work every waking hour – not just for a month or two but for years.  If anyone had told me 5 years ago how much work & personal sacrifice was going to be needed to get Learning Pool up & operating like the beautiful machine you see before you today I’d have run a mile – or cried a lot.  It creeps up on you incrementally – each week you just do a bit more and a bit more until you seriously do start considering if you can manage on less sleep.  Other people will tell you about successful entrepreneurs who don’t work very hard – they’re either lying or they’ve set the bar very low.  If you know in your heart of hearts that you lack this compulsion walk away now – don’t put yourself through it.  Felix talks about how an invisible sliver of ice exists in everyone’s heart but people keep it small & hidden away.  Being a successful entrepreneur requires that sliver to grow over the years – I’ve seen it in myself – we need it to slay demons, beat off competition, harden ourselves against loss and disappointment.  If you don’t want to become like that – walk away.

2.       Over optimism Concerning Cash Flow – something else we’ve talked about before.  Competent cash flow management seems to me to be such a vital requirement in any enterprise that it always horrifies me when other entrepreneurs seem to disregard it.  There’s at least one person in the Learning Pool team who’s experienced over optimism in a start up’s cash flow before & more importantly had to deal with the consequences of poor cash management.  I’m sure you’ve all witnessed it.  As an entrepreneur you can leave balance sheets to your accountant but you must grasp the concept and importance of cash flow – it’s your organisation’s life blood.  This is one of Felix’s pet topics and his views on how companies waste money is well worth reading in full.  With cash flow forecasts, plan for the worst and hope for the best but don’t bury your head in the sand.

3.       Reinforcing Failure – this is about making a call to cancel a project which isn’t going to work.  It’s one of the hardest things anyone involved in a project ever has to do because they have personal buy in and also because they fool themselves into believing that things are better than they really are and in this way justify continuance.  Felix talks about the millions of dollars he’s lost carrying on publishing magazines that no-one was buying; we’ve done it with pet projects that seem like a great idea – but which at the end of the day no one will pay for – even though they may want it.  Remember that you are running a business and without sales it’s not a business but a hobby.

4.       Thinking Small and Acting Big – oh dear!  I love this one because I’m 100% positive that neither myself or my business partner does this.  I used to work for a start up CEO who wasted money on stupid things whilst the rest of us scrabbled around trying to get enough cash together to meet payroll and pay our creditors.  He travelled business class but even worse used to pretend to the people that worked for him that he was lucky and got upgraded a lot – he said that a number of times to colleagues that met him by accident at the airport and wondered why he wasn’t also flying economy to the West Coast.  He rented an apartment instead of staying in hotels, even though he was hardly ever there.  He insisted that Hertz had his hire car ready & running with the keys in the ignition when his plane landed & he didn’t care how much extra that cost.  Not for him the modest lifestyle of IKEA’s (very wealthy) CEO, taking the bus or using a 20 year old car to run around.  He was the BIG ME.  At least once a day we would hear him shout “How dare you – I’m the CEO” – that used to really make us chuckle.  It’s not nice to strut around like some obnoxious mini-mogul – that’s what Felix says and he’s right.  We need to think big & always act small.  Be a nice person & set a good example to everyone else.

5.       Skimping on Talent.  This is so easy to do and for so many reasons.  Hire great people that are more talented than you are.  Seek them out & offer them whatever you need to in order to bring them into your organisation – it isn’t always money – it might be something else.  Don’t hire people that you believe to be lesser people than you.  It’s easy to do because it stops you from feeling threatened – but remember in all likelihood they will do the same and in this way your start up will become a den of mediocrity.  Look for great people.  For a long time at Learning Pool we used to struggle to attract great people but in the last little while we’ve been living with the motto – Better a Hole than an Asshole – and it seems to be working because our team is stronger than ever before.  Remember this when you’re recruiting.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this chapter review & I’d love to hear your views on common Start Up errors – so please share.


Entrepreneurs and Criminals…maybe it is quite a fine line…

Sheena Leaf

I was delighted to meet the very interesting Sheena Leaf in Exeter on Friday.  That’s Sheena in the photo.  Sheena was originally a psychiatric nurse and these days is working on a project in Devon called “The Entrepreneur Inside”.  It’s a project that aims to deliver entrepreneurial education to prisoners and Sheena’s part way through a prison pilot that will connect offenders with business professionals and a regional university business school to uncover legitimate entrepreneurial potential.

This is something that’s never occurred to me before – although a cursory Google search identifies a couple of serious academic research studies comparing especially drug barons & gang lords with entrepreneurs.

I find this a fascinating idea – as it’s all to do with circumstance and life chances as well as morals.  On the flight back to Belfast on Friday evening I jotted down a few thoughts of my own about what some of the similarities are.  This is what I came up with:

·         We all like ducking & dealing – although perhaps we call that negotiation

·         We all like to make money – sometimes even just for thrills

·         Both sets lean towards being manipulative and control freaks – again we probably call that negotiation

·         We all resent being told what to do & like to be our own boss and make our own independent decisions

·         Everyone has a healthy disdain for the competition (there’s a famous story from a non-Disney theme park who used the objective “Kill Mickey” internally)

·         We all work hard to make ourselves indispensable to our customer base and we all want “addictive” products to sell

·         Both of us like spotting opportunity & backing “horses”

·         We all monitor and respond quickly to market trends

·         We both have a strikingly different risk profile than other groups of people

·         We all like to break the rules although we tend to do that by using armies of professional advisers to look for legal loopholes.

Interesting eh?  I’d welcome your thoughts on this & I wish Sheena every success with her ground breaking pilot. 


So you’re staring at redundancy…what happens next


This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about the people I know or have heard about, especially in the wider public sector, who were made redundant from their jobs on 31 March.  To some folk this may have come as a surprise, to others they’ll have had a sinking feeling this was going to happen for some time – perhaps since the change of government last May.  For everyone it’s a shock and sometimes a relief.  A shock because your pride is dented and in your heart you wonder why you were picked and not someone else.  A relief because perhaps you’ve know for a long time that you weren’t getting enough from your job or the organisation you were working for – you had become a “prisoner” – reliant on your regular salary to pay the bills & taking the easier option of leaving things as they are instead of grasping the nettle & making a change in your life.  It’s ok – we all do this and not just with our careers!

I thought I’d drop a few thoughts down in my blog in case it helps a couple of people out there, especially those that are going to use what’s happened to them as an opportunity to take stock and think about a complete change in career or change in direction.

First thing to do is not to rush into any decisions but think about what you’d like to do next and avail of any help your former employer has provided – especially the services of a career coach if you’ve been offered one.  On this, do take whatever you’ve been offered – you never know what you might learn or who else you might meet.  Seek advice or read up about coping with change and how to go about starting an active thinking programme.  Consider all your previous experience and what else it might enable or equip you to do – many people will have passively thought about changing their career so you may have already planned what else you could do.

Next make a plan.  Type it up or write it all out longhand but do physically do this.  It’s cathartic and research has shown that if you write a plan in this way it’s much more likely to happen.  Get your family on board and keep your partner in the loop – especially in terms of any significant changes you are considering (perhaps moving to another place) or any changes you need to make to your immediate financial plans and household budget.

Once you’ve narrowed down the jobs and sectors you’re interested in, do some research on the companies & players and keep in mind that 70% of jobs never get as far as being advertised.  Target your chosen companies or organisations carefully and beware when using job agencies – sometimes they flood the market with your cv or worse still employers see your cv coming in from several agencies in a most random way and this makes you appear desperate.  Remember that there are always opportunities and there are always opportunities for good people. 

Take a long hard look at your cv and show it to someone else (not your mum) once you’ve reviewed and updated it.  Do the same with your LinkedIn profile and any other online presence you have such as a blog – prospective employers will always check you out online.  As a small, growing business, Learning Pool has spent the last 5 years in recruitment and on the lookout for new people – it’s the most important activity that Paul & I undertake as our team is everything.  Many of the cvs we see are awful – they’re too long, the good stuff is hidden away & too hard to see, the cv is generic for any job, there’s nothing in the covering letter that sells the person for this specific opening, the person hasn’t thought about how they would bring value to our company & enrich our existing team, the person hasn’t thought about anything and so on.  I wrote a New Year’s blog related to job seeking which you can read at this link

Think about your network and don’t be afraid to use it. 

In summary:

1.       Don’t panic, stay calm & take stock

2.       Use any “free” resources you’ve been offered

3.       Make a plan

4.       Research the market – approach this like a full time job

5.       Use your network

6.       Carefully target organisations you are interested in; I would do this before signing up with an agency

7.       Brush up on your interview techniques, take a good look at yourself in the mirror & buy a new suit or interview outfit and get a haircut (remember all that stuff about first impressions being based on how you look – regrettable but true)

8.       Don’t give up, keep looking; opportunities do exist out there

9.       Keep an open mind about anything you come across & don’t rule opportunities out too quickly

10.   Keep busy, take up volunteering, catch up on things you’ve been too busy to do, exercise.

Just to finish, some of you might be interested to know that I elected to take voluntary redundancy in 2003.  I was glad to do it but at the time it was uncomfortable as I had always taken the easy career options.  For the following 2 years I worked as a freelance consultant and this moved me out of my previous comfort zone.  It also opened a lot of doors and I met a lot of new people.  The eventual outcome for me was that I completely changed the direction of my career and I have no regrets.  Not a single one.  Remember that you make your own luck and you’re unlikely to find it sitting in the house.

As always interested in your comments and stories – please keep them coming as I love to read them.