Friday, March 30, 2012

Belfast's Titanic Year

The latest trip to Belfast saw the city in a sunny splendour. I do hope the sun shines on the city for the opening of the new Titanic Belfast. We were lucky enough to get a tour around the new shiny visitor attraction and see the ballroom, the splendid entrance as well as the view from the very top. It's a very well appointed facility and has already sold thousands of tickets.

The timing for the opening is perfect, but what happens when the hype dies down, by it's very definition the centenary of the launch of the ship from Harland & Wolff is a singularly significant time and place. Once the hype for the ship dies down, in a year or so, I reckon, the centre will need a new focus, more varied arts and culture, but for now, Belfast is positively basking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mayor for Manchester - the wrong question

There are whispers in the shadows that if Manchester doesn't vote to have a Mayor then the city may miss out on things - link here to a weak unsourced BBC story.

An unamed source claims the city would be at a competitive disadvantage.

Pull the other one! When has that ever happened? Surely this City of Manchester Mayor idea is dead in the water? No-one is actively campaigning for it, are they? It is an ill-thought through and wholly unecessary piece of political showboating as far as I can see. Liverpool opted to embrace a city Mayor and got a City Deal out of it. Manchester got a deal on being able to raise finance and have some control over skills development. To threaten the public with weasly scare stories doesn't become a government that seems to genuinely embrace localism.

I mentioned here that I think the TEN boroughs of Greater Manchester ought to have a centrally elected Mayor. The unique governance arrangements where the boroughs have sensibly co-ordinated a strategy led by Association of Greater Manchester Authorities is the City Deal - it is genuinely a breakthrough moment in how the resources in the city region are distributed.

As Sir Richard Leese, leader of the city council said on his blog: "The deal greatly enhances our ability to support the Manchester economy, consists entirely of proposals generated in Manchester, but is only possible because of the willingness of the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester to work together in a way that you will not see anywhere else in the UK."

I signed this letter that appeared in the Manchester Evening News, even though I won't be voting on the issue as I live in the Borough of Stockport. But even the story that covered it managed to peddle the myth that the mayor of Manchester would be "like Boris Johnson in London". No it won't. If it was, then that would be a different argument and one that would definitely be worth supporting.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Marple Conservatives swing into action

I noticed that the Marple Conservatives have named a candidate in the forthcoming election - let me introduce Carl Rydings, who will be standing in Marple South, our ward.

Here is his website. He's also on Twitter @carlryds.

He's put a leaflet out, which has slightly different versions for Strines and High Lane. He's concerned about road surfaces, Lib Dem dominance and high council taxes.

I'll keep up to date as best I can, but as I mentioned in the previous postings, the chances of an independent candidate standing have passed. I would love to step up to the plate and represent this community, but I just can't spare the time, I'm planning a new business, which is going to be an enormous undertaking, and I have a large family. On top of all that, I am juggling all my domestic responsibilities with being a school governor, football club committee member and wishing to do all I can to stop Asda.

I've made my feelings clear on Shan Alexander, she must go. So I await a strong showing from Carl Rydings, the candidate best placed to beat her.

Meeting the Queen

I was delighted to be asked to attend an indoor Mancunian garden party to mark the Queen's visit to Manchester on Friday. There was a fair amount of waiting around, but luckily I ran into Scott Fletcher, (below) who is always good company. We managed to position our selves in a decent spot close to where we reckoned she'd be walking past on her way out. 

It must have been a great day for the kids performing dances and martial arts displays. It was a big deal for the city and for Salford to get a visit from the head of state in her Diamond Jubilee year. I have to say that both the Queen and Prince Phillip looked well - they also managed to look like they really enjoyed themselves on such an exhausting schedule. I know we enjoyed the occasion and the Taekwondo was particularly impressive. 

Anyway, we sidled up to the red rope as she was due to pass and lined up dutiful subjects should. Sir Richard Leese was doing the duties and had in his hand the details of all the people he wanted to introduce the Queen to, including all the people who'd worked so hard on putting the show on. We certainly weren't on his list, though he nodded at us both with a knowing smile. We took that as a cue to back off a touch and just said hello and smiled at Her Majesty even as she passed right by us. It was a big moment for the team who put the event together and we would have been wrong to muscle in.
But we can say we sort of met the Queen, we said hello at close quarters and she smiled back. And let's face it, I've met Prince Charles, spoken to him, shaken his hand had a conversation about windmills and he'd have as much memory of that as his Mother did of two nodding chancers at Manchester Central. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The North West Economy Debate on BBC1

I was chuffed to bits to be invited to a debate on the state of the North West economy which will be broadcast on BBC1 tomorrow night. Ranvir Singh hosted it, there were two MPs there - Hazel Blears for Labour and David Rutley, the Tory member for Macclesfield - and a mixture of business people from a chip shop owner from Woodley to a manufacturer of aircraft  bits. There were unions, the unemployed, an academic and a few good eggs like Max Steinberg and Andy Leach. It was a real whirlwind of a debate, much punchier than the usual polite business events I'm involved in. It was also quite broad. See for yourself tomorrow night at 11. And let me know what you thought. I know which bits I enjoyed the most.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Learning Journey at Bridge Bank

There are a few videos from the places we visited in Silicon Valley. This is one I did at Bridge Bank in Palo Alto. You can view the others if you click through to my video page.

Contextual intelligence - how it works in Silicon Valley

So, there we were on the 25th floor of a corporate law firm's offices on Market Street in the heart of San Francisco's Financial District, listening and taking notes in a meeting with Judith Iglehart from the Keiretsu Forum when the door flung open and in burst Randy Williams, the founder and CEO of the angel investing network.

He'd just dropped in to see us after taking a quick break from a screening committee on the floor above, where he'd been chairing a group of 12 heavy hitters and investors from some of Silicon Valley's brightest and best known businesses. He invited us into the room to watch him work. We lined the wall and stood transfixed as they first passed verdict on an entrepreneurial business that had just been in to present a pitch for funding – not clear, said one. Poor presentation said another. They all scribbled down their points on a slip, which would have decided whether the guy had a chance to come back and present.

Next up was a very confident and polished business owner punting his pitch for a modest amount of funding to get his business to the next level. To cut to the chase he had a slick and fast paced presentation but he rambled. He ran way over his time and you could sense the frustration around the table. He performed even worse in the Q&A, he couldn't explain what he needed the money for, or what his exit strategy was, nor could he articulate the differentiating factor in his business.

The discussion, after the pitchee left the room, reflected the obvious frustration they all felt. There was a business idea there, they agreed, but the presentation and failure to answer questions concerned them all. Get him back for some advice – sharpen the idea, said one of the investors. And here's the thing, Randy Williams reckons they'll get the funding from somewhere else. No idea is perfect, no pitch a sure fire winner – do you stick, or twist? That's the risk, this is what angels have to do.

And so this is how business angel financing in the Valley works. This is quickfire, brutal and unforgiving - you can't waste time. You get to the point, you get it across. And if you can't do that in front of a panel of people who want to give you money, what chance would you have with customers. But it's not the structured reality of Dragon's Den, there was a theatricality about it, an energy, a sense of urgency. Another incredible insight.

The last visit of the trip was to Plantronic, a 50 year old company that started making the telephonist head sets the receptionists may wear in Mad Men. What was fascinating about this tour de force was the thought that has gone into how voice technology will change – and how work patterns have changed too. The chief executive Ken Kannappan described it as contextual intelligence – understanding the waves of innovation and social change and being there.

It's been amazing how many themes keeping cropping up again and again with these successful companies – creating an emotional connection between product and consumer, often through design.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What's the story? Silicon Valley glory

It's difficult to know where to start with summing up our visit to Google's funky downtown San Francisco offices – so I'll follow the money. The business makes 95 per cent of its profits and revenues from advertising. They also give a large number of their 25,000 global workforce tough and aggressive targets – they hire the best people with a gruelling interview process. That's a hard and commercial facet of this powerful expanding business that is disrupting and dismantling the traditional media channels and processes. And they measure absolutely everything, most notably their people through Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

I bet you weren't expecting to hear that. Certainly the Google presentation and discussion was mainly about the development of their fun creative culture and the strategy in all of their markets ranging from YouTube to Gmail and back through to Adwords and Adsense. Yes, the company give everyone 20 per cent time to work on their own projects. In reality that though is 120 per cent time. Yes, they innovate through accessibility. And yes, genuinely Google stays true to its mantra of making the world's information accessible and organised for everyone. They are tactics that ultimately serve the strategy – all the time, relentlessly. They provide relevance, they innovate to take advertisers ever closer to real opportunities. None of it is an accident.

It is an awesome organisation.

So Jerry Engel starts telling us all a story about the conversation at his book club the night before. There were a few VCs, some entrepreneurs, and him of course a guru of innovation and entrepreneurship and an adjunct Professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. You know, he says, your typical crew. Wow.

This man is a powerhouse of ideas, a real thinker. He pushed and prodded us all, tied his thoughts into what he knows about Manchester and the potential to create a Graphene Valley in our home city region.

Innovation happens he says when it collides with waves of change – what waves of change are you part of, he asked? Position yourself at the crossroads of innovation and exploration. He went a long way again, to describing how Silicon Valley works.

From the hallowed halls of Berkeley it was then a drive to the Valley past the prime premises of Facebook and Google and into the home of LinkedIn to meet one of the founder Allen Blue.

We signed non-disclosure agreements and so can't say too much about what we talked about. Suffice to say just this – what you see in LinkedIn now is just the beginning and there is so much more to come.

Allen told us the story and we debated the various ways we use the current LinkedIn, there were reasons for why it looks how it does – and if we had anything to say, then here was the guy who was ultimately responsible – so we were saying it to his face! Incredible – just another day on the Learning Journey.

The last stop of the day was at the post-industrial creative factory of ideas that is Obscura Digital, officially the coolest office in the world. where the strikingly handsome Shawn Biega, their VP of sales treated us to a demonstration of innovation and technology in action – how these awesome interactive video wall installation transform a retail experience, but also how they work in hotels, businesses and even as projected light shows on buildings. Yes, these guys have lit up the Coca Cola HQ in Atlanta, a mosque in the United Arab Emirates.

Their mission statement is 'If you can imagine it, we can create it.' They've even lit up the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with an interactive display of music artefacts, we particularly liked playing with the Beatles and Oasis pieces.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Yes we know the way to San Jose

The team answered in the affirmative the question posed by Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick as we found our way to San Jose to meet Dan Harden of Whipsaw.

It was a damp and rainy day in the Valley, but our spirits were good and we all enjoyed another amazing day.

Whipsaw is a product design company that though small and perfectly formed – just 35 employees – it works on making a wide range of products that users will find lovableand tactile. “There can be glory in anything you can design,” is Dan's philosophy. It was this passion, his love of design that shone through everything he told the group in an illuminating and inspiringsession, but it was also what led him out of Frog Design in 1999 which had got too big, he felt.

Whipsaw is a funky name, he says that's essential in the Valley – a real dynamic intellectual environment – but it also embodies the team ethic –you need two people to pull a whipsaw from side to side.

He was remarkably candid about some of the ways he's worked with clients – even the ones he's been in dispute with – but he was tight lipped on what he's been doing for Google – that G is shaped like a noose for a reason.

But that Valley commitment to excellence has also driven him to embrace the social craft of what they can bring to a business. The world needs to improve so many everyday experiences – the flights we took to get here, driving, even hospital visits. Whipsaw even admitted an intern into hospital to observe the patient experience.

But the group were mesmerised by his retelling of his four experiences with the late great Steve Jobs. He sparked with energy and passion, it's not a surprise that he remains so hand's on in the business, clients want him involved in their projects.

Next stop for nourishment - both mental and gastronomic - was DPR Construction in Redwood City.

You don't get to the exalted heights of 13th in the Fortune magazine ranking of the Best Companies to Work For by accident. You have to embed excellence into your organisation and be prepared to fire high performers who are jerks. That's what we learned at DPR Construction, a company that takes seriously the wider message of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Rights and the true value of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is all vital to understand how the company was formed and the ethics of the founders.

We were here to learn about the company from founder Pete Nosler and of this commitment to teamwork and how they are set up, but this is no hippy colony – DPR work on huge schemes for major customers and work with renowned architects.

But the business also operates at the industry profit margin of a wretched 2 per cent. They manage it, but it's through a large volume of work and through being in control of their projects – they don't do competitive tendering, for example.

But integrity lies at the centre of their world – on time, in full, no second chances. It's folksy, but tough, and a shining beacon deserving of all their glory.

Bridge Bank, our next visit was another stimulating charge. A fair few of the group have bad experiences with their banks – some have kinder words to say about theirs. But for better or for worse none of us have encountered a banker quite like Ed Lambert of Bridge Bank, a key figure in the technology sector in Silicon Valley, who we spent sometime with at his office in Palo Alto.

A tactile and warm hearted individual he embodies the values of the Valley and places a high importance on networks, gut feel, helping others and theValley's secret sauce.

I've never met a banker who manages to quote Roger Daltrey, Voltaire and the Chinese philosophy which decrees that a wise man knows almost everything, but a brilliant man knows everyone. He uses his network to understand the business processes and models of the changing world. He understands the challenges to the banking sector and its diversions into private equity and derivative trading by stressing the importance of a bank's true mission – old world banking in a new world order.

And on the subject ofconnectivity and human understanding he got each of us to tell him who they were – the classic Silicon Valley 2 minute pitch. I don't know whether it was better or worse going next to last; it gave me a lot of time to gather my thoughts, but this incredible group of people are a tough act to follow.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Learning Journey in San Francisco

I'm in San Francisco on a Learning Journey, an organised tour around businesses and institutions in California with a group of entrepreneurs from around the UK. It is an incredible life changing experience.

We headed south first thing in the morning to Mountain View in Silicon Valley for the first appointment with Symantec with company evangelist Dale Zabriskie. The security software company is best known for consumer security software product Norton Utilities. The presentation was an expansive overview of the threats to data security and the constantly changing nature of those such perils – from hackers, activists, organised crime and even hostile states. They do this specifically through their three Security Operations Centres (SOC) – one is in Reading – which track what the bad guys do. But we learned too about how Symantec has embedded a culture of innovation into the business to make them able to provide the thought leadership that can maintain their business and on top of their sector and even acquire businesses that give them a strategic edge. And to innovate the key is to fail quickly, take heed, move on. This was evident in how business has started analysing the weight of data now being produced – had you ever heard of a Zeddobyte or a Yottabyte? Big numbers with 24 zeroes. We are a generation that is data rich but information poor, so much we have, but so much is also irrelevant, 75 per cent, Dale suggested. What matters is being able to understand which bits of data require a layer of information that make them intelligent and worth backing up and securing.

Then we headed back to the city to meet  It takes balls of steel to cull a chunk of your business at a time of maximum growth. Especially so when you grow by 40 per cent a year, every year, for 13 years. That was just one of the hundreds of anecdotes, insights, facts and spellbinding insights from a trio of presentations and discussions we were part of at the most innovative company in the world. At the centre was the transformation of the business – essentially an internet based sales CRM management system - into a social enterprise – one that embraces and enhances the social networking revolution and places it at the centre of everything the company does. Woodson Martin kicked us off with his analysis of how the explosion in mobile devices is changing everything – his you can even read this here – 50 ways to become a social enterprise. Part of this is embedded in the ways in which Salesforce have implemented Chatter – essentially a bespoke secure internal communications network that edits out the noise we all suffer from with Facebook and Twitter. It's improved productivity, communication and the flow of ideas – indeed CEO Marc Benioff has tagged these the Chatterati – and radically flattened the whole organisation. Innovation is at the heart of Salesforce and Cloud computing and keeping that edge is what gives the business a premium. Clarence So, senior VP of strategy, spoke to us about how the business fought off various challenges over the years with a characteristic cheeky humour and attitude. One way they do this: how tactics dictate strategy that recognises how many of the best laid plans end up going wrong anyway – tactics and what we learn from them inform our strategy.

To understand the entrepreneurial mindset of Silicon Valley it's important to get your head around the contribution of the universties – in particular Stanford and Berkeley, our next stop off. We were hosted at Stanford by Tom Byers, the head of the technology ventures program. Though the university has a proud legacy of creating businesses in the technology field, the purpose of Tom had worked Symantec beforehand and so had some rubber on the entrepreneurial road. His talk included video presentations from a bunch of his friends – Jack Dorsey, one of the creators of Twitter, venture capital investor Marc Andressen, entrepreneur Steve Blank, evangelist Guy Kawsaki, and Randy Komiser author of Getting to Plan B. He capped it off with a clip of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and a hot tip to be the first female President of the United States. The themes included business models and planning, as well as some of the the resources are here.

More tomorrow.

Shining a (City) light on a brave new world

Gareth, Nick, Jamie, Will and Jeff
Travelling around San Francisco and taking in the delights of this energetic diverse city has been a journey of discovery and rediscovery. I first walked the steep streets of San Francisco in 1986. One of the reasons I was drawn here as a 19 year old was the spirit of the Beat Poets like Alan Ginsberg and cult author Jack Kerouac. Both have an important cultural legacy here, held up at City Lights bookstore in North Beach.

I support independent retailers and love the curiosity and magic of a bookstore, but I was a little deflated by this visit to City Lights. Amongst the shelves of Anarchist poetry and rows of Noam Chomsky there was no place for two contempary and important books I would like to buy while I'm here - books by Richard Florida and Michael Lewis, both authors with something relevant to say about the world and modern America.

Anyway, ten minutes of browsing and I was off. Back over the road to have a chat to the rest of my party about other things that fascinate us - the new Raspberry Pi, University spin outs, satellite technology and IBM's re-invention. And City Lights wouldn't have any books that had anything to say about any of that. More's the pity.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The toilet politics of the Marple LibDems

The latest pre-election leaflet from our local Liberal Democrat candidate and sitting Councillor is further evidence of her unfitness to hold public office any longer.

Shan Alexander claims credit for a scheme to save a toilet block in Memorial Park and open up other facilities. I thought it was wind up at first. Is this the best they can claim in after running Stockport Council?

Then there is her woolly stance on the planning application by Asda's agents as if it was anything to do with her. Oh, actually it was. She was a Governor of the college, but never said anything about the plan until it was clear where public opinion stood.

The dismissal of potential opponents as "faceless" is a low blow. She has the benefit of incumbency for her profile. An opponent does not, neither do they have the ability to maintain local visibility and be paid £40,000 into her household as her and her husband do.

And who is to say that opponent hasn't been active in local campaigns?

This is the kind of low politics a good mate of mine, a former Labour Councillor, described as "LibDem Dog Dirt politics."

You know where you are with Labour - looking out for the hard up - and the Tory Party in local politics - small business and small state governance. Lib Dems? What matters is what gets them elected. Well, I hope it backfires this time.

Why Pacer trains break down

There's a piece in Private Eye about how poor old Northern Rail are starved of subsidy and investment and that their vile 1980s Pacer trains are prone to breaking down a lot.

I spoke to a guard recently who explained that they often run out of fuel because the driver can't tell how much gas is in the tank. It's guesswork at the start of a shift and they hope for the best.

What a way to run a railway.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Hang the DJ in Cannes

It's been a long time since I was in a DJ booth, but this was too good a chance to miss. Ear to the Ground are an amazingly creative Manchester-based events business. They do ambient and experiental events for clients like Umbro and Manchester City Football Club, as well as pop festivals – I mean, they’re putting on Elbow and Paul Weller at Jodrell Bank this summer. How cool is that?

At the MIPIM property event in Cannes, the team from Groundbreaking who do events in property spaces and liven up public realms – hosted an end of show party. They invite the guests to choose three tracks and play a DJ set. It’s a great idea, and floats the boat of old rockers and young bucks alike – it makes everyone feel that little bit more involved. This was my 10 minutes of fame. I chose a trio of tunes that would have rocked the joint at 2am when everyone was loaded, but simply got a few approving nods from proper veterans of the golden age of late 80′s house music. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you – Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full, Joe Smooth’s Promised Land and the epic It’s Alright by Sterling Void. Plenty of memories rekindled, Limbo on a Saturday night in Perth for one.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

If you are going to San Francisco...

My favourite American city is San Francisco. I'm delighted to be heading there next weekend. If there are any tips and hints and places to see then I'd be delighted to hear them as I've not been for ten years. I'll be staying in Union Square in the centre of the city and therefore pretty handy. I've got a tour of Alcatraz booked in, which I'd not done before, and I'm not drinking at the moment. Anything else considered.

When I stayed in 2000 I saw an art deco poster from the 1920s. I have never been able to find it online or in any shop in the USA. I also tracked down the poster from an Oasis concert in 1996 I went to and it was rubbish - quite embarrassingly so - and therefore developed a bit of a mission to find some San Francisco art for our home that reminds me of this wonderful city. The fall back position is this poster, left from designers Anderson Design Group.

The new Michael Taylor Events blog

I've started a new blog that records the events I work on. It's now no longer a secret that I'm leaving Insider this year. The story about that is here. While the name of this new blog is not the identity of my new business or anything, it is intended to record what I've learned from each event, what worked and equally what didn't. If anyone wants to have a look, it's here. If anyone wants to talk to me about making their events better and sharper, email me here.

How to enjoy a diet

On the advice of Steve Hoyles, my personal trainer, I've been on a diet. I'm not fat or anything, but I carry a few lumps in the wrong places. I wanted to shift a few pounds and to reap better rewards from the fitness regime Steve's had me on over the last 18 months.

I'm about to enter a busy time of my life - setting up by own business and being available for my family to be a better husband and father. One of the the first things to go is booze, which is a Lent thing as well.

The diet involves cutting out pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. It was hard going in the first week - especially at lunchtimes where everything revolves round a sandwich. It's not the Atkins, by the way, and Steve outlines it on his own website here. The onus is on me to eat lots of vegetables and fruit and be sensible about the sugars and sauces. And to drink loads of water. Certainly our spice rack has never been better used.

It's working. I don't weigh myself, but my definition has improved and the belly has shrunk in two weeks. I'd say I'm probably down to 13 stone, but I'm not that bothered about the number, the more accurate indicator is that clothes fit me, which had got a bit snug. I also have a lot of energy and am sleeping much better. For what I've got to do in the next month, this is just the job.