Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many – just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

A foray into fiction

00_2birds_100pxMy first bit of fiction, Two Birds, is now up at Amazon. It’s Kindle-only, but you don’t need a Kindle to read it – there are free reader apps for your phone, iThing, Mac or PC.

It’s a short novel featuring Gabe Rayner – the first business consultant action hero! If you’re minded to give Gabe a go, I’d be grateful for all comments, criticism, and (especially) reviews on my author’s page (I write under my pen name, Mark Charteris). Download the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. Thanks!

 

The coming apocalypse: seven billion reasons

705px-Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001Some say I’m cynical. Actually I’m not: all I do is try harder than anyone else to see the world as it really is. Here’s the truth of it: I’m a happy person. I think the UK is the greatest place in the world to sleep soundly, build a business, or be a citizen in.

Which is why if I’m negative on tomorrow, it’s worth a shake.

And I am negative. Not for my personal situation, but for the world as a whole. Because I can’t stop thinking of where the megatrends are going. All the social and economic factors that collectively decide what’s going to happen seem to be pointing one way, and when the streams cross, there’s only one outcome.

We’re heading for another world war, on a 3-5yr timescale.

I’m not talking a regional conflict, or even the assymetries of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m talking the Hundred Suns scenario, global thermonuclear war, toxic wastelands from Los Angeles to Leningrad and tribal affiliations co-opting civilisation. Consider the evidence… then consider how they interact when they all happen together.

nuclear-explosion1. Our unrepayable debt. The “rich” world owes approximately thirty-two trillion US dollars. And it’s expanding 1.7 percentage points faster than its economies are growing. Britain alone pays nearly a billion pounds a week in interest on its borrowings. You can’t pay back amounts like that in a New Normal of low growth. You can’t inflate it away, either. Not with households throttling back spending, companies hoarding cash, and central banks around the OECD keeping interest rates low. Our trillions of dollars, Euros, pounds and yen in debt are crushing us.

2. The attitudes preventing progress. Despite our debt, the West’s citizenry is clapping its hands over its ears – whole populations with a rising sense of entitlement on both sides of the Atlantic that everyone’s needs must be catered for, without limit, forever, paid from government coffers. (Who fills those coffers? Er, nobody much.) And they won’t vote for anyone who can solve it. Nobody wants to do the right thing, and a billion Westerners do nothing but stand around with their hands out and their mouths open.

3. China is peaking, not rising. It might seem unstoppable; in fact, the big red blot is already on a downward trend. All the IP-stealing, all the Fake Banks, all the new money – nothing there is sustainable or backed by real assets. The Communist Party took a gamble a couple of decades ago, betting they could keep the illusion going for enough years to bootstrap the country to real prosperity: it almost worked, but the West is getting wise to it, and its companies are starting to be recognised for the straw men they are. The tensions this is creating within China – mass unemployment, wealth inequalities, political impotence – will only have one result: a strike outwards by an uncontrolled military. All it’ll take is one sea captain to make an ill-advised landing on an island inside the fantastical nine-dash-line, and NATO gets dragged in. China is the flashpoint, and a billion Chinese will want someone to blame.

4. The Islamic assymetry. The Muslim Brotherhood – a more cohesive and on-message global organisation than Karl Rove’s Republicans in the Bush years – has quietly stepped into the chaos of the Arab Spring, and is putting its people into positions of power across the Arab world. But a day is coming when the West no longer needs the oil that finances our “real” enemies like Saudi Arabia. (The ultimate source of most terrorist financing and investment in mosques and madrassas staffed by imported imams who pour hate into frustrated youth all day, every day.) Meaning this quiet consolidation across the Ummah is happening without schools, without jobs, without prosperity to take the edge off their frustration and rage.  And the Muslim world will start to see extremists as the way out. Terrorism won’t be a few million fanatics, tacitly supported by a few hundred million sympathisers and opposed by the rest. We’re heading for one billion extremists, today’s assymetric war on terror multiplied a thousandfold, pushing political resources beyond reason. A billion Muslims will turn on us, and on each other.

mid-Greenhouse_George_Early_Fireball.ogv5. This angry Earth. Whether or not global warming is inevitable, cyclical, or chaotic, you can’t be pumping a billion tons of noxious gases into our atmosphere each year and expect any good to come of it. 80% of the world’s population lives near coasts; the majority of their homes are beneath the waves with just a few extra metres of sea level. (The amusing thing here is that it’s happened before; we conventionally think civilisation is just a few thousand years old, but there are coherent societal structures – cities – on the ocean floor over eighty thousand years old that used to be on the shores. The only reason this isn’t widely known is that historians aren’t generally scuba trained.) Pressure on the West to do the right thing, while the developing world has a license to keep doing wrong, creates no incentive for anyone to do anything, and a billion Africans who never caused it are already feeling the heat.

6. The end of the rains. There is no Peak Oil, but there is Peak Water. We’re drinking the deserts dry and desalination is too energy-intensive to replace freshwater sources; few cities outside the northern temperate zone are genuinely viable, and those that are are at risk of drowning in brine. Water is a scarce commodity, and billions in the South are already thirsty.

7. The fall of democracy. The compact between citizen and State is broken; with professional politicians inhabiting our Houses and psephology now so advanced a pollster can predict an election with 100% accuracy in every US State, politics is turning ever more polarised – concentrating on the extreme edges, the swing votes, only the few thousand people who can affect the result. The US Capitol is partisan beyond belief; younger democracies in Asia and Africa are just family and tribal businesses working under a pretext. Government has been co-opted by the fringes, and we can’t do anything about it.

When you take all these trends together, there’s only one logical conclusion: it won’t be a crash, but a war.

War is how China’s leaders will deflect attention from their failings. War is how the West will forget its debt. War is how the angry young men of the deserts will fill their time.

There won’t be ground invasions: there’ll be a few days of skirmishing, then someone in China will miscalculate and take it nuclear.

Then there will be blood.

Hundreds of millions will die. Billions more will suffer. Nations will dissolve; tribe will build wall against tribe; family will fight family. Packs of feral children will run naked in the toxic streets, and we shall hunt them for food. Society will be deleted, and there will be no Undo button.

atomic-blast-imagesSome regions may escape. There’s no obvious reason South America will be dragged in, but that continent is at risk of becoming one big narcostate anyway. Australia’s leaders may take the hard decision not to support NATO, and escape the nuclear carnage: Mad Max will tread the fallout everywhere but his homeland. India may go on being India, in all its chaotic complexity, although I expect Pakistan to take its chance once the birds are in the air. But for Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, decimation is the only outcome.

And maybe – just maybe – it’s for the best. (And not just because a nuclear airburst is the most beautiful thing imaginable.)

We can’t inflate away our debt, stop China stealing, make Muslims respect us. We just can’t. As with every great crisis, the best solution may be to start over.

I’ll survive; probably even prosper, given the opportunities every great upheaval presents. (Chris Worth, Marketer to the Thames Valley Wasteland.) But I worry about the rest. Billions will suffer pain, all because we couldn’t make the few big decisions that really need taking.

Watch this space.

Adventures in spread betting, episode 2: Facebook

Sometimes the winning move is not to play.

Two bets were possible as Facebook hit the markets: the normal one when it started trading, and a pre-market punt on how many billions over $100bn the valuation would go on its first day. The latter attracted plenty of bets and at $137bn two-thirds of betters were long – hardly unanimous. I stayed out for two reasons. First, at a minimum bet of £10/pt and a stop no narrower than 100pts, my exposure was £1000 straight off the bat – well outside my risk taste at this stage. But second was simply instinct. While I’m familiar with technology valuations and Facebook’s finances, something didn’t feel right about the $38-per-share IPO, so I stayed on the sidelines.

This was the right decision: at the close, Facebook’s valuation was barely in twelve digits. (I.e a lot of people got burned.)

In the secondary market itself, the stock’s now trading around $33, way below its offer price. (It also seems Morgan Stanley has stepped in several times to prop it up.) If this surprises you – the hotttest technology IPO in years from a company that picks up around a third of all web pageviews in the Western world – here’s why.

(Learn the basics of spread betting by checking out this free trading guide. I still use it for reference even though I’ve probably read every page by now.)

Facebook and Google have roughly equal visitors and pageviews, but Google monetises each user around ten times better ($40bn revenues vs $3.8bn) at higher margins. The social network may be a great comms infastructure, but not perhaps a great investment. The site’s not going away – I believe (as a big user myself) it’ll continue to be the default social network for a billion people – but it’ll prove hard to monetise at a level that answers a high NASDAQ tick.

Facebook is a killer app… but a killer app the way email is a killer app. Not the way Office is a killer app.

And here’s the kicker. If I’d followed my instincts, I’d be £4480 richer. (Shorted when it started falling from $40 or so, sold when it hit $35ish.) Risking around £3k, sure, but my instincts tend to be right on such things. And that’s why I didn’t do it. Spread betting, for me, is not gambling; I treat it as I would any other investment. I don’t risk my pot on hunches.

If you don’t know why you’re making the bet, don’t make it. I may have “lost” £4k+, but I’m gaining the discipline I need to be among the third of spread betters who make money at it.

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.