Doga Yoga and the Old Street Scenius

“When I first met Robbie, I don’t think he even realised he would become this famous,” she said. And from her handbag a dog barked. Hello Robbie.

I’d been getting on with business and staying out of trouble in my favourite Old Street coffee shop when I meet the Maltese Terrier.

Robbie’s business partner is Mahny Djahanguiri and she is the world’s leading authority on “Doga Yoga”. Mahny and Robbie have been featured in newspapers, magazines and TV shows around the world. So they’re a bit famous. And definitely more famous than Robbie first imagined when he was a young pup.

As I’ve described previously, such Silicon Roundabout coffee shops as these are like the London Underground. You operate in your own bubble, fight for your elbow space, mind your own business and get on with it.

This suits me fine. I’m taking a mini sabbatical from working in, with, for or even near boot-strapped startups. As much as it’s exciting and meaningful it’s also all-consuming and exhausting and I’ve only recently exited one in a process unlike anything else except that scene from Interstellar where Cooper rides the cosmic wormhole to the fifth dimension and realises he’s back where he started.

But here’s the flaw in such sabbaticals if you live and work in this neighbourhood: Once you’ve been through a few accelerator programs as a co-founder, mentor or elite-scavenger-of pizza-and-beer you see an awful lot of familiar faces. It’s hard not to bump into people you know from one startup or another and you get talking and before you know it the dormant virus of startup excitement re-awakens. If you don’t stomp on the buzz right there, you’re making introductions, then you’re pitching in, and suddenly you’re in another team. At midnight you stagger home with the milk lamenting like David Byrne: “Well, how did I get here?”

I welcome the winter. Turned up collars, pulled down hats, near permanent darkness; It’s easier to walk the streets without inhaling a startup conversation that catalyses the bug. I mean, Summer is hell. Startup ideas float in the light breeze of enthusiasm like a thick pollen cloud. Winter, you’ve got a chance. You just have to be disciplined; Don’t give the startup contagion a chink of light. This is why I’m fiercely protective of the isolationist tendency of what I call working-coffee-shops and remain determinedly plugged in to my own space once the steaming bowl of psycho-coffee arrives.

But damn, when your neighbour’s handbag starts barking and the conversation turns to doga yoga then all of a sudden the game’s up and there goes your iron willpower. Curiosity takes over. You let your guard down.

And we get to talking about books we’re writing and this, it seems, is our shared interest which is just dandy because it’s safe. Dumbass. I should have known better. Because of course it turns out that Mahny and Robbie have come to East London to seize the digital potential of Doga Yoga. Sure, Doga Yoga might have its spiritual home in West London but disruptive digital business-models come from this side of town and so here they are.

And like everything in this startup scene the idea swiftly does the dance of the seven veils and reveals that it’s fascinating.  It’s one thing to consider Robbie doing a show-and-bark in a yoga studio. But Robbie on Youtube, the App Store and LinkedIn is, well, it could be big business. The familiar pattern starts. Business models unfurl in the imagination and then they unravel but only to be replaced by two or three more.

Brian Eno, he of Roxy Music, coined the word “scenius”. His point was that creativity springs not only from folklore’s lone genius but also from the social sharing of ideas, passion and interest. And here Silicon Roundabout shows its hand. It’s got the critical mass of entrepreneurs, experience and enthusiasm to provoke the serendipitous clash of ideas that spits out a better idea. And increasingly our “scenius” has the money, mentors, and know-how to turn these new ideas into businesses. This is a tipping point.

The next trick is to perpetuate the growth and success. To do this the roundabout must remain open to outsiders rather as well as stereotypical startup founders. It’s precisely those outsiders who come with yoga mats or arrive on four legs or who in any other way do not fit the model who are most catalytic. They keep driving innovation and create new businesses.

That’s why it’s great to see Mahny and Robbie here. But as more people flock to the area there’s one downside and it’s very personal; You really can’t help bumping into people with ideas and passion and ambition. I try very hard not to and it still happens. So if you ever find yourself subscribed to a video channel of Robbie the Maltese Terrier performing trance dances then it just may be the product of the Old Street scenius.

March 2015 column for British Airways Business Life magazine


The Davos of Digital

It has been described as the “Davos of Digital”. On Friday the SXSW Interactive (South by Southwest) festival in Austin, Texas, commences and the digital world will wait to see if it produces the next big thing in social media as it has done before.

More than 30,000 people will attend, which reveals many things. People love a great Texas barbecue, for example. Significantly, it shows that even the world’s abstracted social media elite loves to get together in person.

Last year I attended as a quasi resident. The tech start-up I co-founded in London was one of the thousands of companies that had relocated to Austin. The festival was part of the City’s attraction. And then I heard the bad news.

“Y’all should know,” I was told, “South By is done. It’s over”. I heard this again and again. (“South By”, incidentally, is how you refer to SXSW if you don’t want to be snorted at).

From my column about SXSW in the Financial Times.

FT_SXSW copy


What speed eating teaches us about our true potential

The business of eating hot dogs fast, and I mean really fast, wants to be taken seriously. In fact the elite contenders in Competitive Eating consider themselves to be professional athletes …and they’re not alone.

Nowdays the very best get asked to throw the opening pitch at baseball games, they do product endorsements, appear on Nike advertising and talk shows and to cap it all make guest appearances in The Simpsons game.

And the person who led this transformation was the slight figure of Takeru Kobayahsi of Japan. He isn’t what you’d expect. After all, competitive eating was famously an American affair which always got a little bit of coverage during the news-starved Summer months when an annual hot dog eating competition was held in Coney Island.

The winners were usually pretty big guys for obvious reasons; they ate a lot of hot dogs very fast. The standing record was 25 and 1/8 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kobayashi, who weighs just over 9 stone was laughed at by fellow competitors for being so puny.

Then he ate 50.

So comprehensive was his demolition of the previous record that the ‘urban dictionary’ says that to be a Kobayashi of something is to be the dominant player. Tiger Woods was once the Kobayashi of golf, for example.

How did he turn the formbook upside down? Kobayashi thought that the standing record shouldn’t be the limit for his ambition because it would fence in his imagination of the possible. The other contestants were carrying too much mental baggage: the existing record defined the limits of their goals.

In fact they had created an imaginary barrier not a physical barrier because they failed to think big about how to smash the record. Speaking to Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast, Kobayashi said: ‘I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is and they decide that, “well, I have been told this or this is what society tells me”.’

So Kobayashi approached the competition with fresh thinking. He worked out that it was more efficient to separate the frankfurters from the bread rolls. This is called the Solomon method.

While he started eating the frankfurters two at a time he dunked the buns in a tumbler of water and then smushed them into his mouth. This makes them less dry – faster to chew and digest, and saves water-drinking time.

He also developed the ‘Kobayashi Shake’ which involves jumping up and down and twisting your torso to speed food down the oesophagus and create more stomach space.

So the question this leaves us with is this – did Kobayashi change the sport for everyone or was he a blip? To put it a other way – is he a one-off physical marvel (after all he can nowadays eat 69 hot dogs in 12 minutes or 97 hamburgers in 8 minutes) or did he simply identify the self-limiting mental baggage that everyone else was carrying?

Well, you know the answer to this. Following Kobayashi’s amazing triumph other competitors realized they had set limits on their own ambition. Joey Chestnut ate 69 hot dogs in 2013.

These limits are everywhere. This is the mental baggage that holds back our ambition.

‘… So if every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings I think is really great, it’s huge compared to what they think of themselves.’ Kobayashi said to Dubner.


This was first published on the blog

Doga yoga and the Old Street Scenius

March 2015 column for British Airways Business Life magazineMarch MagicRoundabout

Make better ideas by being fickle

Be fickle.

It’s a quality that you might not associate with great ideas or entrepreneurial triumph. But this might be a good time to review that. The best thing you can do with your ideas is to always be ready to abandon them.

I’m pretty sure that such fickleness is the secret super power of entrepreneurial winners. In fact I’d go further than mere fickleness. I’d describe it as brutal fickleness. When it comes to your ideas only a savage disregard for their continuance will serve you well.

So why should you practice and nurture your fickleness? Let’s first consider what entrepreneurship is. Undeniably it’s about leadership, shared vision and making a persuasive argument.

But at its heart, entrepreneurship is about creativity. It’s the business of making ideas manifest and if you’ve got a rubbish idea then the thing that you will make real will, I’m afraid, be crap too.

The starting point is to have the best idea for your business. This is true whether it’s a global digital business like, say, Dropbox or a local bike repair shop.

Thereafter, it’s still about ideas. Unless you have a monopoly position, your business success is about continually improving that idea and its manifestation to ensure your product or service is the best.

It follows then that the quality of your ideas is paramount and that is dependent on an open mind and, in turn, an open mind is the product of fickleness.

It’s simple Darwinian survival of the fittest. If you get too attached to your ideas and opinions and cannot allow criticism you will actually have stopped thinking. And that’s not good for business. The only ideas you should invest your time and energy in are this that are still standing after every challenge.

Instead of building protective walls around your ideas you should hold them so lightly that you are always ready to throw them on the fire if and when you discover they are no longer sound. How else can you be their fiercest critic?

Such low regard for your own hard-thought ideas and opinions may seem counterintuitive. After all, you’re well used to associating intellectual muscle power and entrepreneurial success with conviction, certainty and single-minded vision.

By the same token, the daily discourse of news media presents changing your mind as the-thing-that-must-never-be-conceded: a sign of weakness, the price of losing an argument and an embarrassing admission that you had been wrong.

The underlying presumption is that if you change your mind then you have failed is absurd given the world you inhabit. And this is especially so for entrepreneurs. Never in history has the future been so fast changing and uncertain: technology, innovation, and geo-politics and economics moves so fast that the only way to adapt is to be ready to abandon your ideas.

Principles on the other hand, are fundamental truths that do not change like the wind. These are your values, your moral code, the things that matter. Your true north.

But for your ideas it’s a different story. It turns out that only the ideas and opinions held in low regard will be whittled and moulded, or cast aside and replaced to accurately fit the facts as they emerge, evolve and morph.

So why does it feel so hard to change your mind? The baggage of daily language is at the heart of this. The words we ascribe to people who change their mind is unhelpful: Flip-flop. Weak. Inconsistent. Unreliable.

But there’s a remedy and it comes from entrepreneurial startup culture. The little-remarked upon gift of the startup movement is the word “pivot”. It’s a small word but it changes everything.

Pivot is shorthand for changing your mind and changing direction but it has the advantage of not having negative values attached to it. On the contrary, it sounds decisive and positive.

Startup companies pivot frequently. It’s what happens when you recognize that the company is going the wrong way (maybe it always was or maybe the world has changed) and needs to shift direction.

The temptation is to argue that the facts are wrong rather than your idea is wrong. Admitting an idea is no longer valid may feel like a weakness but in reality it is how you grow.

In the midst of perpetual change what is needed most of all is an open mind ready to adjust to new realities.

Sure, you need a plan and a vision. But to survive and then thrive you need to accept the speed at which the world changes. And when the pertinent facts change so must your plans.

Because here’s the flip side: If your opinions are too important to your sense of self to dare change them, if you must resist and defend every argument no matter what the facts are or what the reasoning is then you will not learn much that is new. Insisting on always being right increases the chances of always being wrong. After all, defending your opinion may also mean denying new facts or clinging to old consistencies. This is a loser’s game.

Winners are those that are the fastest to realise their understanding is wrong or out of date. This liberates them to do something about it.

In our world of permanent accelerating change you might be right when you form your opinion but you will probably be wrong by the time you defend it to the death.


First published on

A Whole New Ball Game

Old Street’s spirited startup culture is proving more and more attractive to City high flyers, says Richard Newton

This is My February 2015 column about Silicon Roundabout for British Airways magazine, Business Life

When curious robot anthropologists of the 22nd Century dig through the sediment of London’s City Road they will remark that the clusters of human artefacts change dramatically in the space of a few hundred metres.

Jetpacking through what they deduce were once the financial institutions of meat world they will find huge steel and glass trading floors. They will see tailored jackets on the backs of chairs, silk ties, spare pairs of polished shoes and opposite the chairs will be banks of fixed screens.

Chortling over their bitcoins, the robots will observe that one of these buildings has the parochial name “Bank of England” etched onto the wall. A few hundred metres north they will squawk, backfire and shudder. The ugliest roundabout in the world will be as ugly as it ever was. “OMG, Really?”, one will exclaim. “And they couldn’t do anything about that?”

They’ll shrug their shoulders : “GeoBot, are you sure this is where the dreamers flocked…?”  The GPS drone will vibrate: “…Computer says yes” .

They will press on and near the roundabout they will uncover the remnants of a different tribe; here they find smaller working spaces jammed with laptops,ping pong bats, strewn pizza boxes, towers of paper coffee cups and barely a bathroom to be found. On the walls are posters urging “Fail Harder”, “Move Fast and Break Things” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”.

Slightly baffled, the bots will scratch their radar dishes. Their history database confirms that during the 2010s the locus of exciting work is startups. The direction of the brain flow is from the cash-rich, well-appointed offices of multi-nationals to the bootstrapped, high risk, cramped co-working spaces of startups.]

Such robo-befuddlement is understandable. Robots love logic yet startup culture is all about deeply human values: Dreams, mission, meaning and common cause. T-shirts are a big deal and worn proudly. You work on a startup, either as the founder or one of the first employees, because you are on a mission in which you personally make a difference. So the company’s success is a direct reflection of you and your input. That makes it pretty easy to be wholehearted. You wear the Tshirt.

Of course this ambition and passion doesn’t equate to knowing what you’re doing. You’re building the ever-newer-new-thing which, by definition, hasn’t been done before so you’re working it out as you go. That’s scary and thrilling.

Failure is the anvil of success in startup world; You expose your idea as fast as possible to the cruel real world. You want to expose the flaws in order to learn fast and iterate. The faster you find what’s broken the quicker you can fix it. Because failure is such a valuable learning tool it’s lost its stigma. Failure, after all is not the end but the learning that begins the next stage: Maybe you “pivot”  towards a revised direction or perhaps you kill this dream and point the team in another direction.

These small groups of failure-hunting t-shirt-clad coffee-shop-warriors are building a culture.  Supporting them and feeding off them is an eco-system of accelerators (bootcamps for founders), co-working spaces, coffee shops, mentors, investors, meet ups, magazines, online noticeboards, events, tshirt printers, freelance market places, 3D fabrication labs and specialist producers of “explainer videos”. And in a cluster like Old Street you find that all these people are wholehearted in their mutually-reinforcing missions. A few hundred metres away you could lose a few million dollars in an afternoon. Your gut tells you it must be hard to be wholehearted in such an environment.

Which is one of the reasons that refugees from the professions and big business are curious about startup life. One former colleague now coordinates a three month training program that helps people make the transition. What’s normal to her is a revelation to her students. And this is just one of several international companies that help people drag their mindset from one default setting to another, that of the startup. That tells you there are lot of people wanting to make the move.

As the robot anthropologists pick through the rubble they’ll find that startups formed their own culture with their own terminology (pivot, disrupt, failfast, accelerator, minimum viable product),  a codified methodology of failure (read The Lean Startup), flags of allegiance (stickers and Tshirts), global indices of progress on the road to growth (Angelist, Crunchbase), common leisure activities (werewolf, ping pong) and journals (techcrunch, venturebeat, the next web).

Rifling through old pizza boxes, and scribbled-upon napkins GeoBot, Marvin and Hal 9000 try to locate the catnip, the prize, the elusive thing that lured people to this part of town.  But meaning and mission are intangible; Gut feel and wholeheartedness get scrambled in their algorithms and there’s nothing to be found. They shake their baffled aerials and jet on.



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