Are you still the best person?

There’s no better story of the new, disruptive economy than Uber. What could be more set in stone than your local taxi company? But along comes Uber, along comes an iPhone app and everything is different.

Equally there could be no more archetypal disruptive entrepreneur than Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Travis Cordell Kalanick is 40. He dropped out of UCLA (obviously: dropping out is mandatory for the disruptive entrepreneur).

His first business venture – with partners – was a multimedia search engine and file sharing company called Scour, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

Next came Red Swoosh, another peer-to-peer file sharing company. Red Swoosh struggled: Kalanick went three years without a salary, had to move back into his parents’ home and at one point owed the IRS $110,000. All the company’s engineers left and our hero was forced to move to Thailand as a cost saving measure. But in 2007 Akamai Technologies bought the company for $19m.

In 2009 Kalanick joined forces with Garrett Camp, co-founder of Stumble Upon, to develop a ride sharing app called Uber. And the rest as they say…

Uber now operates in 66 countries and more than 500 cities around the world. Wiki lists Kalanick’s net worth at $6.3bn. Presumably he’s not living at home any more.

But neither is Kalanick still at Uber. On June 20th he resigned as CEO after multiple shareholders demanded his resignation. We’ve all read the stories: let’s just file them under ‘abrasive personality.’

Looking at Kalanick’s early struggles he ticks every box for an entrepreneur. Dropped out of college, saw the future, first venture failed, money problems, do whatever it takes, absolute persistence, never lost faith in himself and – eventually – jackpot!

We can all imagine some of the scenes: we may not have ticked all the same boxes in our own entrepreneurial careers, but we’ve ticked enough to imagine Kalanick’s journey. And to empathise with it…

But now he’s gone. And his departure from Uber prompts an interesting question.

Are you still the best person to run your company?

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When I pushed my breakfast round my plate in Newport Pagnell services and decided to work for myself there were two main motivations. They were frustration: “There has to be something better than this,” and family: “Someone else is dictating how much time I spend with my wife and children.”

In some ways I was luckier than most embryonic entrepreneurs: my experience told me I could manage and motivate a team. But I wasn’t thinking about that in Newport Pagnell: what – after proposing to my wife – has turned out to be the best decision of my life was motivated purely by frustration at what I was then going through, and a determination to be there as my boys were growing up.

I suspect the vast, overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are the same. We all started by saying, ‘I want to create something, I want to be in control of my own life, I want to build a future for my family.’ We didn’t say, ‘Oh yes, I have the skills necessary to lead a team of 30.’ Famously, even Mark Zuckerberg had to learn how to manage Facebook.

So the skills you had then – vision, a willingness to take risks (with both your career and your family), persistence and that sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed – may not be the skills you need now. In fact, there’s no ‘may’ about it. Maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make great managers: you may have been the only person who could have started your business, but are you the best person to keep it going? Is it time for the visionary to make way for the general manager?

I’m not going to answer the question: I’m simply going to state that it is one of the most interesting and fundamental questions we’ll all face as our businesses grow, and one we’ll all need to ask ourselves. As I talk to the other TAB franchisees and to more and more business owners who are nearing the end of their entrepreneurial careers, it’s a question which increasingly fascinates me. We can never stand still: we’re always growing, developing and learning. Whether it is internal change or external change, the challenges we face this year are never the same as the challenges we faced last year.

That’s why you need friends. Whether it is your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table, your other franchisees or my team here at head office, they’ll always be there with advice, insight – and the occasional reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously…

 

Dear Prime Minister

Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

 

Sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

Best regards

Ed