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Clean slate

A Clean Slate

A clean slate: the expression comes, of course, from the days when people wrote on slate chalk boards – whether that was your work in school, or (an alien concept to many TAB UK members…) your bill in the tavern.

A clean slate meant that you wiped the board clean and started again.

As many of us begin to make plans for 2022, maybe it’s time to do that. Wipe the slate clean and start again. Not with our businesses, but with the way we think about them.

There have been some interesting stories around this week. Having done so much to damage the traditional British high street, Amazon is now thinking of moving into… department stores.

As the article says, Amazon enjoys some significant advantages: speed, convenience, service and – most crucially – a welter of data on its customers.

‘Amazon also has the advantage of its pre-existing storage facilities and delivery, meaning people could feasibly try on six dresses, buy them, and have them arrive the next day, without having to [be] laden with bags for the rest of the day.’

Could I see people finding that way of shopping attractive? Yes. And then some…

So is this Amazon stepping in to save the high street? Far from it. That approach would almost certainly put a lot of small, local shops out of business. To quote the article again, it is Amazon ‘taking what is left after the pandemic.’

I’ll leave you to judge the rights and wrongs of that, and move on to the city of the future. Internet billionaire Marc Lore wants to acquire some land in the American west and build Telosa – from the Greek word meaning ‘highest purpose’ – a city featuring indoor farming, energy-efficient buildings, autonomous electric cars and high-speed transportation. And with anyone able to build homes and sell them, but with the city retaining ownership of the land underneath.

A good idea? Again, I leave you to judge. But what Amazon’s plans for department stores and Lore’s plans for Utopia clearly show is a new way of looking at things: a willingness to re-imagine how things might be.

I think that’s what we need to do with our businesses – which brings me to the week’s third story.

On Wednesday morning there was a fascinating article in City AM – and one with a very simple headline. ‘SMEs with young business owners saw stronger performance in the pandemic.’

Could that be right? Anecdotally I thought it probably was. The analytics – according to a report on SMEs published by AXA – were even more compelling.

In 2020 companies run by decision makers aged between 55 and 64 saw turnover reduce by 29%. Companies run by 45 to 54 year olds didn’t fare much better. SMEs run by people between 25 and 34 saw turnover fall by just 12%. But for companies run by 18 to 24 year olds the drop in turnover was just 7%.

‘Ah,’ you will say. ‘Chances are that a lot of those businesses run by 18 to 24 year olds were start-ups. They’re probably not comparing apples with apples.’

That’s a fair point. But it doesn’t explain the steadily worsening performance for older business owners. For Claudio Gienal, CEO of AXA, the conclusion is obvious. “The report finds that younger entrepreneurs have brought out new services and products, listened to the needs of local clients and been faster to deploy digital solutions.”

The report also made an interesting – and worrying – point about how entrepreneurs adapted and innovated during the pandemic. 46% of SMEs run by under-35s introduced new products and services: only 40% of business owners over 35 did the same.

It’s all too easy to draw the obvious conclusion. Faced with the biggest business upheaval any of us have seen in our working lifetimes, the older you were the more likely you were to carry on doing what you’d always done and simply hope that it would all blow over.

It made me wonder about the differences between TAB UK members and business owners who didn’t have the support of their peers. Were the latter more likely to see a drop in turnover? Without someone round the virtual boardroom table saying, ‘this pandemic isn’t going away’ were they less likely to innovate and/or introduce new products?

I can’t – right now – answer the question analytically. Anecdotally? Yes, my strong  impression is that TAB members did innovate, did introduce new products – and didn’t see the falls in turnover the article describes.

This doesn’t, though, take away the validity of the article. The last 12 months have been a time of unprecedented change: we have a new normal, both in what many entrepreneurs want from their business and in what the people that work for them want from their jobs.

Whatever happens over the next 12 months, things are not going back to how they were. We can embrace the change – be pro-active, not reactive – or we can fail to innovate, fail to adapt to change and, ultimately, pay the price. As we all sit down to make plans for next year we’ll need to wipe the old slate clean. To be bold: to not be afraid to ‘re-imagine’ our businesses.

Robert Kennedy’s famous quote applies as much to business as it did to politics. ‘Some people see things as they are and ask why? Some see them as they could be and ask, why not?’

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