Start-up business

London Calling

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I’m getting ready to move to London in the New Year.  There, I’ve said it.  Learning Pool started life in London in a rented loft in Crawford’s Passage in Farringdon before shifting our HQ back to Derry.  We used to call our London base Crawford’s Pass amongst ourselves because it made it sound more Irish.  In our early days we were paranoid about customers knowing we were a Northern Ireland company in case it was a barrier to us doing business.  As the last 5 years have progressed, we became less coy about our origins as we cemented our customer relationships although we hung onto our London phone number.  These days, our customers love the fact that we’re an Irish company and some of them have even been to visit us at our office in Derry.  Others have even been brave enough to join our team.

Our fabulous Head of Content, Deborah Limb, joined us from another more famous e-learning company.  Deborah had never been to Northern Ireland before her first day at Learning Pool.  She arrived at our office on a cold, wet, Monday morning in November 2007, clutching the remnants of a sopping wet map in her hand.  She still claims she never saw daylight during that first winter.

Now it’s my turn to go back the other way and it’s a bittersweet feeling that I have.  I lived in London for 17 years before moving home to County Tyrone at the start of the new millennium.  I left the pushiness of the city behind & moved right into the middle of rural Ulster.  I’ll never forget waking up that first morning & hearing no sounds.  Nothing at all.  I remember the relief I felt & ever since that day, I’ve half felt as though I’m on holiday – a sort of working holiday where you work harder than you’ve ever worked before but your colleagues & neighbours are so friendly that it somehow compensates you.

I quickly learned to be less brusque & more chatty in my interactions.  More talk about the weather & people you know & less focus on the agenda is the Northern Irish way.  Gradually the sharp edges from all those years spent living in the city were worn down a little.  Of course I’ve been back in London pretty much every week since 2000 – sometimes twice a week – but always as a visitor, staying in a hotel room, running for a plane home as soon as the meetings are finished.  I’m wondering how I’ll slot back into the hurly-burly of London life after the deep, deep peace of country living (quoted with a nod to Mrs Patrick Campbell).

So why am I as a person and why are we as a business doing this?  I guess we’re fed up with fighting for what’s right (that it should be just as easy to do business from Northern Ireland as it is from any part of the UK or indeed Europe) & accepting what’s reality.  Like it or not, London is indeed where UK government’s beating heart lies.  It’s also where a large number of our customers, a huge number of potential customers and some of the people we’d like to work more closely with are based.  On top of that, our Northern Ireland location is stifling Learning Pool’s growth as there just aren’t the skills here that we need to recruit in to grow our business.  We’ve raised this point many times with Invest Northern Ireland.  We’re further hampered by having an ornament of an airport 5 miles from us in Derry that we never use as the flight times aren’t conducive to being anywhere on time to do business – and the government agencies and politicians seem more interested in in-fighting & scoring points off each other than looking outwards & making Northern Ireland an easier place from which to operate internationally.  In summary, we’ve concluded we’re missing out on opportunities and holding ourselves back by not having a London presence.  And I think that’s a very sad state of affairs.  Learning Pool was recently confirmed by Deloitte to be Northern Ireland’s fastest growing tech company & the 6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland, but we have to look to London in order to continue our expansion.

Of course there’s plenty of upside.  I’m looking forward to being back in the heart of the capital for a six month period and I’m intending throwing myself into the whole London work/social scene and spending plenty of time with friends & colleagues, old & new.  I’m looking for somewhere to base Learning Pool London right now so watch this space & all will be revealed.

I know this is an emotive topic, especially for other Northern Ireland businesses – so I’m looking forward to your views & a lively discussion in the comments below.  Keep ‘em coming!

 

Forget Fight Club, what are the rules of Start-Up Club?

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We all know the first rule of Fight Club – (shhh – don’t mention it) – but what are the rules of Start-Up Club?  These are the 10 Rules I’d suggest to someone starting out with a new business:

Rule 1 – Just Do It – the time will never be right & there’s no point in procrastinating, obsessing over the fine detail (you’ll find out soon enough you can’t control things anyway) or delaying.  Grasp the nettle & get going.  Entrepreneurs have many sayings but one that I like a lot is “Leap and a net will form”.  Well – it either does or it doesn’t but there’s only one way to find out.

Rule 2 – seek out a great name and then get a great strapline.  It might not be the one you start out with but keep looking.  All our companies (so far) have had great names including my very first company which was called Kicking Assets.  Keep thinking – it doesn’t cost you anything to think but this is stuff that makes a high impact.

Rule 3 – network like mad both online & in real life.  Not to the exclusion of all else of course but do work at it.  I’ve written a previous blog about networking which you can read here https://kickingassets.co.uk/so-you-want-to-network

Rule 4 – be well informed, there’s no excuse these days not to be – we have the internet!  Join the appropriate groups (online & real life, like Northern Ireland’s Digital Circle) & talk/listen to other entrepreneurs.  You have to work at this too.

Rule 5 – ask for help if you need it.  Most people are generous with their time & advice and everyone wants you to be a success.  When people help you out, be gracious & don’t abuse their good nature.

Rule 6 – look for innovation in your product or service, your product delivery channel and also your business model.  Innovation in your business model can be a real differentiator.  Again – this doesn’t cost you anything, you just need to think about it.

Rule 7 – don’t go it alone.  Find a business partner or a couple of non execs or perhaps seek out a mentor or join a collaborative network.  Starting a business is too hard for a person to do by themselves and a problem shared is a problem halved.  I have another blog about this specifically which you can read here if you want to know more https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

Rule 8 – get good advice.  Shop around for an understanding bank (we quickly moved away from our first bank when they wouldn’t support our growth strategy & these days bank with the fabulous Northern Bank) and once you find them, have an open and honest relationship with your bank manager.  Talk to other entrepreneurs and start-ups about the accountants and legal firms they use.  Look for modern professional advisers that understand online businesses and who use technology and social networking themselves.  Cut a good deal by promising them they’ll get a decent payback when you exit.  Agree all your fees up front.  Never get any of these guys out of the Yellow Pages or equivalent.

Rule 9 – work hard and always be open and alert to opportunity.  Usually it doesn’t come up & slap you in the face – you need to be watching out for it.  I’m afraid working hard has to be a given.  Without doing it you will fail and anyone that tells you anything different than that is a liar.

Rule 10 – have some fun.  Running your own business or working in a start-up is the most fun you will ever have at work.  Sure it’s hard work & the lows can be pretty awful – but the highs are AMAZING & you get to hang out with some great people in your own team.

Send me your own tips in the comments below – I can’t wait to read them.

What does the startup founder director want from team members?

Eddie

Working in a small business is not for everyone.  The working environment is transparent to a degree that many people find uncomfortable (your colleagues and manager, maybe even your directors are likely to be aware of your every move – which is great if you’re performing).  New business is rarely turned away so the only way quality can be maintained and delivery deadlines met is by team members working longer hours; this happens a lot when your small business is growing.  Your founder directors, although appreciative of everyone’s efforts, are always looking for “more”.  Performance issues are likely to be addressed sooner rather than later and perhaps more bluntly than many people are used to or prepared for.  The runway between joining as a newbie and being deemed to “fit in” may be viewed as too short by most.  Also, the swift exit if your colleagues decide you aren’t going to work out is brutal.

Of course – there’s a lot of upside too.  If there wasn’t, no-one would bother putting themselves through startup discomfort & pain.  But that’s not the topic of today’s blog.  Today is about what I as a founder director expect from team members as a minimum.  Here’s my top 10:

1.       Commitment to our customers, to the business and to our common goals.  This covers everything from being on time for meetings, doing your prep, being reliable and a host of other stuff.  Real life recent commitment examples from our own small business are being in the office on a bank holiday because a project review must take place, giving up a Sunday to travel to a company event – even though family plans had already been made, changing plans and flying to see a customer the next day because they needed you to.

2.       Passion about our company, customers, products and mission – this has to be real, it can’t be fake or people can tell.  See my accompanying blog photo of Eddie Ryce from Learning Pool’s sales team if you don’t believe me (photo credits to Paul Clarke & Ruth Cassidy).

3.       Honesty – about where you are, what you’re doing, why something failed, what you think about something.

4.       Hard work and an eye on the prize – yeah – long hours sometimes but an outcomes focused approach where you can easily prioritise what’s important and make sure that’s done first.  Linked to this I expect you to travel in your own time and to make sure all your follow ups and admin are done without anyone having to check or nag you.

5.       Self-sufficiency.  Not everyone has this on Day 1 but everyone needs to strive towards this.  Spending time managing team members’ performance is an overhead I’d rather do without.  You should make it easy for your line manager to manage you.

6.       Self confidence but with it the ability to know when you need help and the confidence to ask for it.

7.       Self-awareness – required to be a good team player.  It should be obvious to you before it is to anyone else when you’re verging on asshole behaviour.

8.       Enjoyment of the here and now.  Everyone wants to and will move up – but try and enjoy what you’re doing to the full when you’re doing it.

9.       Responsiveness – if I’m trying to get hold of you out of hours it’ll be for a good reason.  If I can’t reach you despite having provided you with every device known to mankind (at your request usually) that’s annoying.  Please note – being available in this way isn’t for everyone.

10.   A desire to improve.  Everyone should have this although in truth, some need it more than others.  That’s life!

They’re my top 10.  I’m sure there are loads more.  Keep your comments coming.  I love to receive and read them and so does everyone else.

10 ways to punch well above your weight as a small business…

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We all agree it’s great to be a small business but sometimes, especially if you’re just starting out, you might want people to think you’re bigger than you are.

Below are 10 ways you can do that.  I’m sure there are many more – so I’ll be glad to see your comments.  Also interested to hear if people think some of this is “wrong” to do as a small business…as in do you think it’s deceitful or just resourceful?

1.       Be professional from Day 1 of trading.  By that I mean have a logo & a brand, get business cards, have a decent website (not one of those dreadful one page affairs that tells you there’s more coming later), get collateral printed if that’s part of your sell…and always behave in a professional manner.

2.       Work hard to keep your website content fresh and changing; write newsy articles and blogs and aim to have new “stuff” on your home page every day or every other day at least – if your website isn’t refreshed, people will stop coming back & you’ll lose momentum from your launch.

3.       Use freelance resource if you don’t yet have a team in place, but present those people as part of your team & give them business cards, company email addresses etc.  Don’t lie about this if you’re asked outright…most people will be sympathetic to what you’re trying to achieve.

4.       Speak at conferences and events and be visible – a lot of people do this very well.  You have to hustle a bit to get onto the event organisers’ radar but it’s no doubt worth the effort it takes.

5.       Gather up a small advisory board & feature them on your website.  Most people will be prepared to help you get started & won’t demand 30% of your company or £1,000 a day in return.  A lot of luminaries like to dabble in interesting projects so make yours so & find an innovative way to reward them.

6.       Get yourself some testimonials.  Ideally from early adopters or your first customers.  If you don’t have any customers yet, offer some of your prospects a free trial or a discount in exchange for a written  or video testimonial.

7.       Use a proper landline number.  When Learning Pool was starting out, we obtained a London phone number to give the impression that we had a London office, even though we were based in Northern Ireland.  We never lied about this to anyone & always told the truth when asked – but the truth is that no-one asked.  They recognised it as a London number & assumed the rest.  Along the same lines have a co-working space or concierge service to use as your company address – don’t use your residential address.

8.       Register for VAT from Day 1 – even if you won’t get anywhere near the turnover registration hurdle in Year 1.  It makes your company appear bigger from the get-go and therefore more credible.

9.       Partner with a larger organisation if you want to pitch for a big contract or piggy-back onto a bigger company so that you can use their government framework if they’re on one – you will usually pay them a percentage of any contract you win in order to avail yourself of this but it might be well worth it.

10.   My last & favourite one – hold all your early days business meetings in the poshest hotel you can find.  We used to use The Goring Hotel as our “London office” in the early days of Learning Pool (it was the hotel the Middletons stayed in the night before this year’s Royal Wedding – that’s how posh it is).  We would stay in there for days on end ordering tea but never any food as we couldn’t afford that.  You’d be amazed at the number of people that have since told us they were convinced we used to stay there.  Ha – I won’t tell you where we did used to stay…but it will be in the book when we eventually get round to writing it!

That’s my top 10 folks – can’t wait to see your additions.  Keep ‘em coming.

Going for business awards – is it worth all the hassle?

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Over the 5 years Learning Pool has been trading we’ve entered a few – won some & lost some – but is it worth the time & effort that it takes?

Like most things in life, the answer is probably “it depends”…which I know isn’t a great deal of help to you if you’re reading this blog to find out.  The thing is that awards cover a huge spectrum.  At one end are the “straightforward” awards – for example, the Deloitte Fast 50 technology awards.  It costs nothing to enter, you don’t have to write an essay or deliver a presentation, you don’t have to be a Deloitte customer, it’s up to you if you want to buy a few more places at the Awards dinner but there’s no pressure.  All you have to do is make your published financial information available and a calculation is performed of your revenue growth over a defined period of time.  The 50 companies with the highest growth are then ranked with the winner being the company whose revenue has grown by the biggest percentage.  It’s black & white and the numbers don’t lie.  We like this one & have been the Rising Star winners in Ireland for the past two years.

At the other end of the spectrum are the much less clear & transparent “industry” awards such as those run by e-Learning Age magazine.  I don’t know this is the case but from our perspective winning appears to be all about who you know in the industry and how much money you’ve spent with the magazine in sponsorship and advertising – as I say – only my own opinion from Learning Pool’s experience.  We’ve entered twice and although shortlisted each time have won nothing.  The winners are judged behind closed doors by a panel of industry “experts” – most of whom have their own e-learning companies and are therefore in direct competition with many of the entrants.  A more cynical person may conclude that everyone who enters gets shortlisted so as they’ll fork out for a very expensive table at the Awards dinner.  I shouldn’t scoff so – at least our last experience of this farce served to remind us that Learning Pool’s industry is very much the public sector and not e-learning.

Somewhere in the mix lies the business “competitions” – usually for seedcorn monies aimed at new or fast growing start-ups.  These require a detailed business plan, a significant time commitment and a number of presentations over a period of time.  The one & only time Learning Pool entered the Intertrade Ireland seedcorn competition (in 2008) we did well and won the Northern Ireland heat (we’re very proud of our trophy and that’s it in the photograph).  We were pipped to the post by resellers of 3D printers…I’ll say no more but c’est la vie.  This competition is definitely worthwhile for new start-ups, we learned a lot in the process and I would recommend it for any Irish companies thinking about entering.

In the future Learning Pool will continue to enter the Deloitte Fast 50 but we’ll probably be a bit more discerning about other awards and only enter in partnership with our customers to showcase their projects and achievements.

In summary, I don’t know whether entering awards is worth it or not – and I’ll be interested to hear your views on this.  Awards dinners are a fun night out for your team, especially if you win, but weigh up how much time and energy entering will take up and think about whether or not you would be better off, certainly as a start-up business, investing that resource into making sales.

 

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…

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Entrepreneur tips from the uber Rich Felix Dennis

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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.