Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

Brand leadership has to change

A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 crash, American Express in the United States paid many of its less profitable customers to close their accounts and go away. The move garnered much attention and analysis then. It was seen as a de-leveraging move. Whatever hubbub surrounded the brand then has since died down and in an unscientific survey of my business-savvy friends, few remember that this happened at all.

It was a story of a brand choosing its customers, rather than the dominant narrative that conventionally goes the other way round. The latter powers the nascent GrabYourWallet movement.  Another campaign, Sleeping Giants, is similarly holding brands and companies to account if they continue to advertise on extremist websites.

These are interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

As consumers, we profess to love brands that are “authentic“, never mind that in many cases, contrived authenticity, not rooted in values embedded into the business’s value chain, is all we are getting excited about.

What happens when “authentic brands” meet programmatic advertising? Unfortunate, inadvertent outcomes, that is what. Brands are left scrambling to do damage control.

What happens when “authentic brands” take a stand that is vastly unpopular? What happens when the brand’s CEO tells a customer she is free to leave if she does not like their philosophy? Isn’t that just the brand being authentic?

What when all signs point to the emergent challenges being bigger than the more popular political bugbear of the time?

Is authenticity malleable? Should it be?

What if a brand never had cause to reveal some of its stances before and is now choosing to do it in a way that consumers find abhorrent?

And when that comes to pass, should consumers force the brand to comply with their idea of authenticity, or choose to walk away with their wallets?* After all, wisdom says, when facts change, changing our minds is no bad thing.

These growing disagreements and schisms are why, more than ever before, brands need values at their foundation, in their DNA, embedded in their value chain.

Real, defensible, explicit values that the brand is willing to stand up for.

Not convenient values that change with the times or fads du jour.

It is then that brand managers will truly be able to use programmatic advertising as a tool to help them rather be helplessly enslaved by it, while they operate in a haze, whether it be about their brand values or technology.

It is then that “customer choice” will come to mean both that the customer chooses, or rejects, the brand and that the brand chooses, or rejects, the customer.

[* Switching costs for small businesses on a shopping cart platform are not negligible but then that is an economic argument, not one about values.]

 

On fancy job titles

This article is the fourth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 19th, 2016.

In one of my corporate venturing roles with a large Indian conglomerate, I served as the country manager of a European country. That was also the job title on my card and in my email signature file. The important sounding title was not just about sitting in a fancy office overlooking Zurich lake. I made a lot of calls and set up my meetings with prospective clients for business development purposes. I also went daily to the post office to collect our mail, printed and sent and filed my own faxes, made coffee and washed my own coffee cup, took out our recycling, and did a whole bunch of administrative work that people in large companies do not even think about or farm out to secretaries and assistants.

It was, after all, a new and small operation albeit with a BigCo parent company.

Startups are no different. In the early days of a startup, founders do everything from washing cups to taking and making calls to filing papers to paying bills. They do VAT returns, meet account filing deadlines, minute board meetings, keep an eye on the cash in the bank and so on. They pack products and take those packages to the post office for mailing. They also go out and represent the company to customers, partners, vendors, media and financiers. There is nobody else to talk about the brand, the company, the product but the founders who created the business. In other words, early days are when the startup founders are always selling, trying to sell or fulfilling orders.

Is there a need for startup founders have important sounding titles? Some even argue over them!

Titles serve a purpose.

Titles are useful in signalling to customers, partners, vendors and other third parties about the roles of the individuals they are dealing with. Giving such comfort and confidence is an outward facing utility of titles. Yo can go the ego-boosting heavy title route, or take a leaf from Craig Newmark’s book. He is the founder of Craigslist and calls himself “customer service rep”.

Inside the startup, roles and titles can help start a useful and essential conversation about allocation of responsibilities as the early rapid growth forces functional specialisation within the founding team. The CEO should ensure there is enough cash, that the company is heading in the right direction, and that there are enough people on the team — or from vendors and partners — to do what is necessary. The COO’s role may be defined by the context often spanning revenue ownership, supply chain, operations and other processes. The CMO takes charge of all marketing and communications with an aim to establish the brand as well as drive inbound inquiries and sales.

Then there are the future employees. As founders, you sell the vision to future employees so they consider working with you. Some of these employees then actually want big corporate-sounding titles e.g. VP. In an early stage and relatively flat organisation, a title such as VP may mean little. But what it can do is catalyse the thought process required to develop an organisational structure that will support future growth including growing numbers of employees, their roles and their career trajectories.

I am no fan of hierarchical organisations but equally the evidence from holacracy as implemented by Zappos and others following their lead, and from self management structures as implemented by Buffer is mixed. So, for now, even for startups, organisation design for growth remains an active challenge on the table. Titles are not essential but they could bring much needed clarity as jobs evolve away from the traditional functional bases of design to other philosophies including customer at the centre of the organisation.

During my country manager stint, I had several meetings with big-cheese type persons in prospective client organisations. It was not uncommon, when I turned up, to be asked by the gatekeeper to the said big-cheese, “Wo ist der Geschaeftsfuehrer?” (Where is the boss?).

I was, after all, a petite and young Indian woman, turning up to meet an important man in their company!

Handing over my card with a smile, I would reply, “Ich bin die Geschaeftsfuehrerin, bitte.” (I am the boss, please!).

The big title? It always worked.

Autonomous cars and luxury marques

Aston Martin, James Bond’s car of choice (except when he went through a BMW phase), showcased a powerboat at Monaco Yacht Show this year. Writing in the Financial Times, Philip Delves Broughton laments that Bond’s legacy is being junked by this luxury marque and outlines the dangers of brands diversifying into unrelated categories, especially those far away from the brand’s core, while also acknowledging the financial pressures that may have brought about the powerboat.

Those are great arguments; indeed they are in line with the “we have heritage” argument that keeps many a luxury brand in that strange place where they are simultaneously desirable and at the risk of going out of business very fast. Those are also arguments that arise from a steady state style of thinking applied to the stark challenges faced by luxury businesses.

The challenge is altogether different. Existential, in fact.

As autonomous vehicles get on roads outside the Bay Area, indeed here in the UK not far from the Aston Martin Headquarters, the existential crisis facing luxury marques in cars is too urgent to ignore. They overwhelmingly pitch their cars as being about the pleasure of owning and driving a car as beautiful such as the Vanquish (I have my preferences but please feel free to imagine the marque that makes you go weak at the knees here!). There is a primal connection between the man and the (stunning) machine that is at the heart of the purchases of such cars.

With autonomous cars around the corner, the makers of such luxury cars may go out of business altogether.

What will be their offering, their raison d’être?

What deepest desires in our hearts will they be appealing to, with their beautiful — but self driving — cars?

Yes, I hear you cycling through Kübler-Ross. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

Meanwhile, let’s not pretend that the Aston Martin AM37 powerboat is only about the financial bottomline. There are existential choppy waters ahead. Aston Martin has found one way to navigate them. Unlike Bond, makers and purveyors of such luxury vehicles may not live to die another day. They have to think fast to remain relevant and in business at all. More previously unthinkable business models may be forthcoming from luxury car makers.

Mr Broughton meanwhile can perhaps take solace in the possibility of the next boat chase on the Thames featuring an Aston Martin! Bond’s heritage may be alive and well. For the time being.

Starting something new?

This article is the first in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Sept the 5th, 2016.

“I want to be a founder.”

Alarm bells start ringing, when I hear these words from the mouth of a person with no more definitive an idea than being a founder. It is now a word with social currency, with swagger. It is a job title that winks and says “I will raise a lot of VC money, sell to Facebook, and be so rich, you will want to be my slaves, bitches!”. In practice, however, it is the one word explanation of why a person can no longer make it to your regular Friday bacchanalia, or organise your pre-wedding do, or even be on time for her own parents’ milestone anniversary party. It is the word that can strike fear in the hearts of middle-class parents, who scraped and saved to send their progeny to the best schools in the country, even the world, and who now do not know how to answer when their friends ask, “So what does your daughter do?” because heck, damned if they know what with the world buzzing with apps, SaaS, AI, ML, drones, robotics and such words as they never heard in the Bible.

With all the gentleness I can muster, I ask, “A founder of what?” Then, sometimes, magic unfolds.

I hear the person describe a dream, where she tells a moving story of a childhood memory or an experience as a young adult newly launched into the world. The story sometimes describes a challenge that may or may not have affected them personally in a material sense, but did affect them at a deep, emotional level and strengthened the resolve that soon as they can, they will work on solving it. She goes further into details of how, over the years, she has thought about the issue, read up a lot of things that helped her understand the source of the problem and why nobody had tried to resolve it effectively, and formulated some possible ideas of how she would go about it. And that all those years, and that pain has brought her to the point where she says: “I want to be a founder.”

I must confess though, that this rarely happens.

What does happen is some version of “I want to be the Uber of this, the Air BnB of that, the Facebook of something.” In other words, the wannabe founder wants to copy an existing and visibly successful business model and apply it to some obscure problem.

Deeper questioning reveals some to have thought deeply about it, but most have not. The rumoured ease of raising VC money seems to have created a monster of an ambition but nary a dream. With a firm idea of the exact business model, albeit untested in their target market, some are very certain, impervious to advice and often resistant to questions. Yet others have even — sometimes irresponsibly — been advised by others to create a business that a specific large operator in their industry will be certain to buy for a lot of money.

Greed as a business model has not created many successes in the start-up world as we know it.

Some however have a dream, a vision. Many have an open mind but may or may not understand what a business model is. Some even realise the difficulties of copying a blazingly successful business model and the many ways it could fail in India. A few have a rough idea of what they want to do, and have tested whether anyone will pay for their planned product or service. A smaller number have spoken with a lot of people including successful entrepreneurs from the pre-VC world when losing the shirt off your back and the soles off your shoes were two essential ingredients of success. And a small number have done all of that, identified that they need a lot of help and advice, and have started to identify seed money, whether from parents or friends, or even their own saved-up rainy day fund.

These are exhilarating conversations. There is emotion, but there is also the acceptance that a dream is only as big as the work you put into realising it. There is confidence in the self, but also the humility to know the gaps in one’s knowledge and experience. There is belief in the idea but also finite understanding of the fact that it may need to be tweaked, adopted, changed wholesale — pivoted as start-up speak goes — for success.

This is where the engagement begins for an advisor. It promises to be a tough but fun ride for both the founder and the advisor.

Absent all this though, “founder”, the verb, is exactly what a wannabe founder will do.

Which description of a wannabe founder describes you?