Columnist of the Year

There’s no way to say this without being a show off. Other than not to say it, of course. But no, that’s not happening because… I just won columnist of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors annual shindig.

This just goes to show there’s life after startups. It’s called writing about life after startups.

Tim Hulse (editor at Business Life and the team at Cedar) must take some of the blame for this since I had a chat with Tim just after I returned to London from a Texas startup ( and promised him, like Yosser did: “I can do that”.

Yosser, was a legendary character in the 1980s TV show, The Boys from the Blackstuff. Desperate for work he’d say  “Giss a job” he’d say to anyone that would listen. “I can do that”.

And you never know til you try.



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“Giss a job. I can do that”


We are Galapagos Tortoises riding on the backs of Mayflies

We are the Galapagos Tortoises of lifespan. Our businesses, on the other hand, are mayflies. Nowhere is the contrast more apparent than in the start-up-birthing farm of Old Street Roundabout.

The thing about actual Galapagos tortoises is that they pace themselves. With 170 odd years or more to live you almost never see them in a hurry. Actual real Mayflies on the other hand, they are in a permanent rush. They have to cram an entire life into 24 hours. It’s a pretty exciting day but you wouldn’t want to rush around like that every day for 100 years.

We may conclude that the pace of life that these creatures adopt is appropriate to their time on the planet. Which brings me to the matter of a recent afternoon at Old Street during which I came across 9 startups, 2 gyms, 2 cemeteries and 1 accelerator-program-demo-day.
First, bear in mind that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born according to professors of senescence (which of course is the science of ageing). You may scoff at this, but the claim that with every year that passes scientists discover how to add another year to our lifespan seems less far-fetched. In any event the predictions are in our favour – we will go on almost forever. Like the Galapagos tortoises and beyond.

In the meantime our businesses are trending in the other direction. Big businesses crumble at the edges as technology-driven startups take away large chunks of their market and margins. Airbnb is worth more than Sheraton. Uber is worth more than Boeing. Auto giants bite their nails as Apple, Google and Tesla plot their demise.

The mid-tier suffers even more. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has fallen from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today.

But what about the Old Street birthing pool? Most startups barely learn to walk before they go bust. This isn’t new. Starting a business was always a risky way to invest your time and money. But now there’s more of them. Lots more. The company CB Insights finds that most startups meet their maker 20 months after raising finance.

According to Thomas Bayes’ famous statistical theorem it ought to be possible to mitigate the probability of startup death by filtering for quality of ideas, management, product-market fit and so on. This is one of the reasons that the Demo Days of Accelerator programs are so well attended by investors.

Which brings us to the demo day of a program called “Entrepreneur First” which was held not one minute’s walk from Old Street roundabout. One after another, nine companies that had not even existed six months previously presented their jaw-dropping innovations in lightning three minute pitches. Every decent accelerator claims a USP. For Entrepreneur First it is that they select not companies but stupidly bright candidates (I went through a different program – so I may write oxymorons). Over six months the bright people met other bright people, formed teams, had an idea, started a business, created prototypes, tested them in the market, and now yelled their world-takeover dreams at startled investors and press in a firehose of adrenalin.

How many of these will succeed? No matter how great the founders, the ideas and the knowhow, the odds are against them. Thus the well-worn adage recommends that if at first you don’t succeed then try, try and try again. But I wonder, how many times can a startup founder hurl themselves at entrepreneurship with the necessary intensity. The longer they live, the faster businesses fail, the more often they will have to do this. A tortoise cannot live like a mayfly.

What I wondered will happen to the thousands of serial entrepreneurs who never reach financial escape velocity? The roundabout at the epicentre of the European startup vortex is full of them. How will they adjust to a different pace of life? They can’t all become columnists for business magazines.

I went for a slow walk to ruminate. It took me past the two large Gyms near the roundabout. Five minutes westward along Old Street you’ll find the recently revamped Ironmonger’s Baths. This, I learned, is built on a site that used to be one of the largest cemeteries in East London. That was when lives were short and businesses were so long they were inherited. \_
The other gym is a few minutes minutes south of the roundabout. Curiously, this is also next to a graveyard. It’s called Bunhill Fields, a name that has been squeamishly softened from the original, Bone Hill. Some 123,000 bodies are interred there.

Among the famous bodies to lie there is that of the statistician Thomas Bayes. He died aged 59 which was a long lifetime in 1761. Both his gravestone and his theorem tell us one thing: Everything ends. The number of human years may be rising but the number of business years is falling.

In the meantime go to the gym and if you’re a startup go to an accelerator program and improve your odds.


This is my November column for British Airways Business Life


Interview in full – the perils and pearls of automation

Here’s the full video of my interview with Sky News on the perils and opportunities of living with robots:





Being braggadocious

No. You are not wasting your time here on my blog. It is a good place to pass a moment. Look, I have proof. See? The writer is on the shortlist for columnist of the year. So you done good. Read another piece. Buy a book. Share a like.

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Walking the drone



Some observations from a sunlit pub bench, while being buzzed by a drone:

“…This is London x 10. Londoners suspect anyone who is acting overtly different of trying too hard. It’s a city of bewildering individuality and yet if something about your bearing even whispers “Look at me” then no-one will. The harder you try to get attention the more invisible you become.

Silicon Roundabout amplifies this trend because it lies in the heart of so much creativity. Fashion, media, advertising, TV, films and the start up epicentre of Europe are clustered around an ugly little gyratory. No startups can afford rent – at least no startups that are actually _starting up_- so everyone is forced to clash and rub along together in co-working spaces and among the coffee shops that proliferate and multiply like bugs.”

This, of course, is my BA Business Life column for October:
BA Business Life October 2015


The people who send chocolates to algorithms

Forget about the day-to-day grind of your job – that’ll soon be a robot’s concern. Well, one day soon anyway.

There’s a clue to the future of work in the relief you feel when your phone call to a big corporation is answered by, of all things, a human.

It makes sense. People are replete with empathy and compassion, like to solve problems and enjoy communicating through stories. And these profoundly human traits are the areas where artificial intelligence trails humans. Because they are our strengths they point to the future of the office and to our workplace relationships with robots and AI.

And this could lead to some strange relationships between man and machine…

Read the rest of my Guardian piece on AI in the  workplace here

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