I do most of my blogging on LinkedIn these days, at least anything that needs more than 250 words. Here’s the LinkedIn stuff. I also write a bit about fitness on Medium and the freelance life at 100 Days, 100 Grand.
Every so often, I write a jokey letter to a company whose products made an impression. Here’s one to Eve Mattresses – finally, a sleep solution that doesn’t involve all those horrendous cloth pockets and springs.
Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?
I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.
Why? I’m guessing three things matter:
– To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.
– To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.
– To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.
If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!
I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.
But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.
I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.
And I’m sorry.
From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.
But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?
Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.
But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.
- I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
- I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
- And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.
Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.
That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?
Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.
Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.
Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.
Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?
Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.
“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.
See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.
Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.
The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.
UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.
Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.
It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)
One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.
As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.
Opening para: making friends
Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.
Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.
But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.
Body copy: setting the scene
I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.
This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)
«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.
Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...
Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.
The support act…
Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.
Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.
… with backing dancers
While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...
Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.
And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.
...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.
It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.
You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.
Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.
In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.
...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE
Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)
Closing para and call-to-action
But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or email@example.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.
It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.
Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.
PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)
Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.
How could it be improved?
First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.
Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.
Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.
In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…
… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.
Human behaviour isn’t that hard to understand if you do the work. And my favourite theory of it involves Cognitive Biases: the core emotionally-led behaviours that drive the decisions we actually make, rather than the decisions that might be more rational.
Cognitive Biases are rooted in Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which was crucial to my MBA thesis some years back. (Nice of him to summarise his life’s work AFTER I’d ploughed through the academic literature.) Basically, it’s an add-on to Expected Utility Theory (where we take risks based on the outcome we expect) that draws in Cognitive Biases (the emotional factors that govern what we actually do.)
While the concepts aren’t hard, there are around a hundred Cognitive Biases recognised in human psychology, making it hard to summarise with any rigour. But there’s a great diagram in Thinking, Fast and Slow that brings its three key points together.
First, note the y-axis, “Psychological value”. That takes account of the human factor Expected Utility doesn’t: £500 has different perceived value to a pauper and a millionaire, so setting this axis for your audience – the “base rate” on which they make decisions – is key.
Second, note it’s S-shaped. If you’re winning, it takes a lot more wins to get the same flush of excitement you did on your first win. (Diminishing returns are what keep sensible adults at slot machines for hours at a time.) The perceived utility depends on how much utility you’ve got already.
Third, note it’s not symmetrical. This illustrates the biggest Cognitive Bias of all: Loss Aversion. (We tend to resist losing a lot more than we accept winning; it’s why investors ride their losing stocks down, while selling their winners while they’re still rising.) Loss Aversion is at the core of much human behaviour.
And that’s it. In tune with my theory that you only need one good book to understand 90% of any field, that’s all any marketer needs to know about Cognitive Biases and how useful they can be in understanding customers. If you’d like some of these principles applied to your own marketing, contact me.
By creating a video of herself dancing around her office at 4am, this girl found a creative and innovative outlet for delivering her resignation letter.
The video is overlong, moves too slow, and says nothing of significant importance worth the viewer’s time. But worst of all, it’s yet another example of the laziest trend in advertising: If in doubt, put some dancing in.
Dancing. From big-budget broadcast to web virals, it’s all many of today’s young creatives seem capable of. “Yeah, let’s put some dancing in this one too! We haven’t done dancing for about, oh, one, maybe even two campaigns!” Dear me, kids today. A true race to the bottom, without concern for the most important person of all – your audience.
I would estimate the standard of creativity required to get a job in a decent ad agency these days is no more than a third of that required twenty years ago. Evidenced by the cooing of her video viewers about how “creative” this girl is.
Look, SHE JUST PLUGGED IN HER FUCKING IPOD AND JIGGED ABOUT FOR A FEW MINUTES. There is precisely ZERO creativity in this work. THIS. IS. NOT. CREATIVITY.
It’s not entirely their fault – agencies these days want content producers and graphics designers. People who execute with craft, but never develop the “ideas gene”. That set of skills that lets them examine a marketing strategy and crash concepts together until they snap into the perfect line and visual that deliver the perfect impression to your audience, rewarding consumers for their time.
The market for copywriters and art directors – people who combine their skills to deliver epic and original concepts – seems smaller these days. But this fucking asskissing cocksucking catch-all of JUST PUT SOME FUCKING DANCING IN AND CALL YOURSELF CREATIVE has got to stop. Kids, STOP. THE. MOTHERFUCKING. DANCING.
The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.
Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.
(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)
The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.
That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.
Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11. Big win for the honest citizen.
The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.
This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)
That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.
We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.
You’ve heard of Method Acting, where an actor “lives” his character even off set. (Daniel Day-Lewis spent months in a wheelchair for “My Left Foot”, although I hope Anthony Hopkins didn’t take it too far during “Silence of the Lambs”.) I’m a Method Writer.
Method writing is where, as an author, you do your R&D by doing the same things your characters do. In thriller fiction, that means you climb vertical walls, jump out of planes, explore dark alleys late at night and treat the London landscape as as free-runner’s playground. (That’s me in the skydiving pic – in the middle of the FC*, yellow striped jumpsuit.)
Several prepress proofers have commented my protagonist is an amped-up version of me. Not an ex-cop, not ex-military, just a normal business consultant with an unusually self-actualised approach to … reading stuff on the Internet and putting it into practice.
Perhaps it’s why my first novel’s a thriller, rather than my natural preference for sci-fi: I can’t exactly take a One-Day starship piloting experience as research material. (Ouch, just realised how limiting that sounds. Of course I can; there’s a dozen great space-trading MMORPGs out there.) But if this book’s to be any good, I believe the second-most important thing (after telling a good story) is to get out there and do what you’re writing about for real.
* FC = Funky Chicken. A “random” skydiving formation usually done as a celebration. (In this case my 50th jump some time back.)
Things happen in threes. Not for a reason – reasons are just narratives we impose on the world to make sense of it – but when three connected things happen in the same month that all push you in the same direction, it’s worth thinking about the big decisions of life and what you really want out of it.
I’ve been a copywriter a loooooong time. Thanks to knowing tech just when marketing it got big – and maybe, just maybe, being a decent ideas-into-words guy – I’ve been on the top tier of my market for twelve years plus. Among the hordes of freelancers who infest London’s marketing services agencies and departments, I’ve always had an edge: maybe nothing more than a head for numbers and an understanding of organisational behaviour, but it means clients hire me for “the hard stuff“. And the hard stuff’s always paid better.
But like all small businesses, I have rough years: yesterday, my bank pulled a credit line I use as breathing room in the two slow summer months. That’s the kind of thing you can huff and whine about. Or see as a sign. I’ve felt bad about my £50-a-day extraneous expenses for a while; nobody needs to eat breakfast out, everybody’s capable of prepping their own lunch, and few need to spend £90 a month on a gym with free towels. Tyler Durden taught us to let go of that which does not matter, and my life was becoming simpler already. That’s Sign One: the financial driver. Living a great life comes cheap if you don’t live it by others’ standards.
Sign Two was a change in behaviour: in the last year I’ve unaccountably started reading fiction again. The good stuff: Dozois’s anthologies, Chandler and Child, Elmore Leonard right back to his pulp cowboy yarns in the 50s. Plus a lot of texts on narrative structure and character dev. To amuse myself I’ve been scratching together a novella the last two months that’s nearly ready for prime time. (Sci-fi is my first love, and I run a fiction site with 2,500 fans: that’s what’s known as “an audience”. But what sells in the mainstream male market is thrillers.) That’s Sign Two: fresh skills.
Sign Three conects the two: for no reason I foresaw, I’ve just converted my garage into a home gym/office/studio space, adding a wodge of value to the house and opening up opportunities to rent a room out. With the place paying for itself I can survive working for “real” clients just a couple of days a month, if I feel like it. As a home gym the new space works great; as a writer’s garret it’s awesome. Sign Three: the infrastructure.
So: an incentive to reduce my outgoings… an infusion of new skills… and a ready-made place to put them to work. Together, that’s more than signs: it’s Life swinging a sledgehammer against my skull and saying DO THIS.
That’s the stretch goal, summer to summer. From 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 I conceive, write, and improve my first full-length novel, publishing an initial novella end of July 2013 as a taster and tester. A month to plan and structure, eight to write 500-1000 words a day for a target of 160,000, and three to shave and scrub before it hits Kindle. Well, why the hell not?
If I can’t do this, I’m just soft and lazy. (People wrote great novels by candlelight in freezing attics.) And if I can’t do this after two decades being paid to write stuff, I’m just not cut out for it.
Either way, the next 365 days will tell me.
Life is amazing. And I’ve a feeling it’s about to become even more so. Sign One gives me a reason to cook with aplomb, to work out using two meanings of “free weights”, to carve up the calendar with even greater discipline. Sign Two shows the way to take something I found easy to the next level, in a way that lets you gather criticism and feedback constantly. And Sign Three gives me a lifespace precisely the right shape and size. What’s not to like here? The adrenalin’s pumping already.
Today, a life that was already pretty satisfying becomes even better. A story of how extreme self-actualisation leads to things that improve yourself… and adds something to the world as a whole. And the best thing in life is that there’s no top floor in what we humans are capable of.
Which, by the way, is the theme of the novel.
Watch this space.
Here’s an idea I’m developing: a plan for living a healthy lifespan of 100 years.
Here’s my reasoning. I don’t want to die – ever. But attaining immortality is like any other human endeavour; it’s a project of many parts. So the first part is to work out what it’ll take to be independent, healthy, and productive at 100.
Which is hardly a ridiculous goal. Take Sir Norman Foster, in his 80s but with the body shape of a far younger man. Compay Segundo from Bueno Vista Social Club, active at 90 when the documentary was made (and who lived another five years.) Designer Robin Day, star of British design in the 1950s, worked into his 90s. What’s more, I’m from long-lived genetic stock on both sides: no heart disease, no cancer, no addictive tendencies.
In short, I’m in with a good chance.
It’s even possible the major problems aren’t medical. Albert Camus’s notion that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. In other words, is there enough in life to make it worth living? Can you stay relevant to the world as you age? Can you continue succeeding on terms true to yourself? Will you want to? A positive mental attitude is as important to hundred-year-clubbers as broccoli and bicycles.
And there’s a longer-term goal: anyone under 50 today who manages to live to a hundred may never need to die at all.
A full understanding of the human genotype and phenotype, complete control over cancer, custom cell repair, personalised telomere editing, in-body diagnostic nanotechnology, and other medical advances that aren’t even concepts yet may eliminate death as a medical condition altogether. Life-threatening cancers can be spotted in childhood, kept in check until they’re worth dealing with, and whacked with a designer drug keyed to your genome alone. Badly dividing cells can be snipped out with molecular shears, ejected from your body, and a fresh pair cloned without you ever needing to do anything about it. You’ll still need to take care of your body, but unlike today, it won’t eventually wear out with use.
Yes, it sounds farfetched. About as farfetched as transplanting major organs did in the mid 20th century. I’m in the Hundred Year Club.
There’s a new chain of coffee shops in town, which I’d normally regard as a major event: I like coffee but limit myself to one cup a day, so it’s got to be a good one.
I recently tried Harris & Hoole‘s London Bridge outpost and it’s exactly what a hip independent coffee shop should be: chalkboard menus, boho chic decor, unbrushed wood and sunny smiles. Even the server was an ideal representation of a Seattle/San Francisco hipster chick, all short hair, snakehips and big geek-glasses. (I thought she was hot, although to complete the vibe she was presumably gay, or at least bi-curious.) Perfect.
And then you taste the coffee.
It’s so bad you can taste the Tesco in it.
Yes, Harris & Hoole isn’t independent. It’s a venture by the supermarket giant, and it shows everything that’s gone wrong with Tesco in the last 3-5 years. There’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop owned by a supermarket; I shop at Tesco all the time. But I used to be a fanatical Tesco fan, and now I only go there because it’s nearby. It fell so far, so fast, so obviously that the brand just hollowed itself out.
I stopped loving Tesco about three years ago, when its boardroom cost-cutting showed up too much in the food. Today I buy the basics there, wine, maybe the odd bit of deli, but most of my £70+ weekly spend now goes to Waitrose. (Which I need to get in the car for.) Harris & Hoole illustrates why.
If you launch a coffee shop, it should really be about the coffee. That should be the single thing you concentrate on first, the one thing you don’t subject to salami-slicing on costs; there are lots of coffee shops out there, so the bean’s got to be special. Yet it’s the most characterless, bargain-basement discount filter drip I’ve ever tasted. And – sharing this with Starbuck’s – it wasn’t bloody hot. I know the marketing rationale: keep it cool and they’ll gulp it and get out, faster table-turn. Well, they succeeded: I gulped and got out. Trouble is I won’t be going back.
Oh, Tesco, you came so close. If only you’d put the resources that went into studying the Seattle scene… into the one thing that mattered.
Given my modest life goals, I’ve been thinking about how achievable a rich but not ultra-rich level of wealth really is for the average middle-class taxpayer over the course of his working life. So I’m exploring a challenge-to-self: can one individual, operating alone with a job and a bit of capital, build a £10m wealth portfolio in ten years?
It doesn’t involve following some get-rich-quick scheme. (Nobody who gets rich quick ever does.) It’s about doing the right things: developing solid client relationships, doing the right kind of work, understanding your market. Most of all, it’s about the numbers: credit leverage, asset allocation, yields and margins and revenue streams. It sounds like complex financial stuff, but it’s not. Remember there are only two questions in finance, the cost of capital and the return on it. The assumptions below are reasonable: around 5% capital appreciation, 4% cost of capital, reinvested profits and average rental yields.
I’m not the type who employs people (people suck) so owning a big business is out of the question; startups come with such a high risk factor it’s not reasonable to build this strategy on a business anyway. So this is more about what’s possible for a lone wolf. Someone intelligent and self-actuated, but without infrastructure beyond the benefits of living in a stable nation like the UK. I can’t remember a time when I lived without risk (there’s a factor of seven between my worst and best-earning years); the novelty of this strategy is that it takes risk out, aiming for a positive outcome without requiring assumptions multiple SDs from the mean.
Here’s what to do. (As if I needed to say it, this isn’t financial advice; it’s a hypothetical plan I want to follow myself and you should ignore it totally. I don’t really want you competing with me for hot properties.)
Year One: the setup year.
You need a solid income, whatever it’s from: regular salary, sales commissions, client retainers, whatever. It doesn’t need to be a six-figure monster: my plan needs £60-80k. A high-but-not-skyscraping salary for the UK, not even in the top 1% of earners. If you can only hit £40k or so, it’s still possible but it requires a change in mindset. Cancel the Sky subscription, rent your spare room, sell the car and take the bus. Act like the low-income person you now are. People live healthy lives in the world’s priciest cities for under £20k.
Intertwined with this is your credit rating. All the big ratings agencies allow consumer access: Experian, Equifax, CallCredit. Check your score. If it’s low, take active steps to raise it; not much less than a top-decile credit score allows the balance of credit and yield in this plan. Your goal for this year is to have £100k in investable assets in two years, most of which you’ve got already in less investable forms.
Year Two: the savings year.
With discipline a careful worker can save £20-30k/yr. By Year 2 you’re looking to make first use of it. The only longterm asset capable of paying for itself is property; most great fortunes are built on it. My preference is for small freehold houses in secure locations; land has been a well-regarded asset for 5,000 years, and things like management fees in flats can eat away huge amounts of cashflow. Furthermore, with no-one living above or below to worry about, risk is minimised.
Britain’s property websites allow awesome depth of research; leverage them. My plan involves two shabby but structurally sound 1/2-bedroom homes, on a good street in an up-and-coming area, in a sweet spot like London’s Zone 2 near a Tube. Too fiddly to attract commercial investors, most private buyers get turned off by stale decor, and the market is spotty enough there are bargains at the edges. Find them with a ruthlessly critical eye. It’s not your house to live in, it’s your asset to sweat.
Let’s say costs are around £200k each. Allow a £40k deposit for each plus £20k for stamp duty and solid kitchen and bathroom refurbs, then approach mortgage vendors with your credit rating, income statements, and deposit. Spend two months refurbishing both. Use all the tricks – constant flooring throughout, lots of brilliant white paint, and little touches like making sure all lightswitches and sockets are the same type and free of paint flecks. (I’ve just done this to my own house and it raised the rentable value by £200 a month.)
Two mortgages of £160k carry repayments around £2200/mth. Renting the houses to young professionals brings in around £2600/mth, and capital appreciation another £20k on paper over the first year. Two primary goals are answered: you want capital growth that outpaces inflation (as London’s market is likely to do longterm) and loan repayments covered about 120%. You control a £420k portfolio that pays for itself and your £100k of initial capital has earned a 25% return on paper: you’re on your way.
Year Three: we’re in business.
You’re still saving. And it’s getting easier since you’re pulling in an extra £5k or so from rentals. By December there’s £40k to buy a third Buy-to-Let. (Let’s say it costs £210k.) Your first two properties add £20k to your equity during the year; your portfolio’s past £600k. And we’re just getting started. The biggest risk is to lose sight of the ten-year goal, sell up and splurge: Rule One is that these are long-term assets that grow over time, even while you’re driving a hatchback and watching basic satellite. If you have a surplus, use it to pay down mortage sums to increase your equity.
Year Four: do it again.
The prices are higher, but so are the rents you can extract. (One reason property works as an investment is that it builds in inflation: rents and capital appreciation tend to track.) At the end of the year the portfolio spans four properties and over £1m on paper; it’s producing a solid surplus of over £1000/mth in rent and in the next 12 months will rise £50k in value. The plan is starting to show concrete results. You need to look at tax planning here: your surplus of rental income over interest costs is now significant and the authorities look at this very, very closely. Be open, be honest, but explore all options for carried interest and remortgaging with your financial advisor.
Year Five: that sustainable vibe.
After another year, we’ve reached the halfway milestone: not portfolio size, but a self-sustaining buying strategy. The 40-50k to purchase each additional property is now mostly covered by rent yield: your portfolio is now pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. You’re using money to make money. Portfolio size: around £1.5m, with a third of it equity.
Year Six: the Long 15.
There’s a way to go, and on paper you’re less than 20% of the way there, but there’s a story behind the numbers. Your sixth purchase, taking price rises into account, puts your portfolio in the £2m range with free cashflow of over three grand a month. You’ve been working and earning a long time with few luxuries, but – hey – what are luxuries? The luxury to do what you want each day beholden to no-one: that’s luxury. And you’re better than halfway there.
Year Seven: getting lucky.
By the end of this year you’re at the point where the equity in your portfolio balances your remaining debt, at about a million each way. (If this sounds a lot, remember you’ve funded it to the tune of £350k or so out of your own pocket plus another £350k in reinvested rents: if you neglect capital appreciation for a moment, your return is less than 50% spread over seven years, not much better than a good savings bond.) Of course you DON’T neglect capital growth, which has been around £350k too, and 14% per annum taking it all into account is a far juicier average.
Year Eight: rolling in it.
With your mortgage repayments starting to bite into the capital sums you borrowed, the yield curve is looking good: you’re bringing in twice as much each month in rent payments as cost of capital, with your equity to debt ratio seeing two-to-one on the horizon and you’re comfortably a millionaire after liabilities.
Only one million? Yes – don’t forget tax. Britain has been good to you: it’s the UK’s strong institutions and stable government that gives investors and residents the confidence to come here, supporting your rental market and your capital appreciation. In most places in the world this can’t happen. Look at tax not as a cost, but as your contribution to civil society.
Year Nine: the end in sight.
Portfolio size: over £3.5m. Gross income over costs of over £10,000 every month, with over half your loans paid. With nine properties under your belt by year end, about as many as you’d want to handle working alone, it’s time to start planning the endgame: what you’re going to do in another year or so.
But it’s also time to start congratulating yourself: you may have deprived yourself of Lamborghinis and Breitlings, but let’s face it – they’re just stuff. You’ve probably discovered you don’t need them anyway. It’s time to give up work and concentrate on your portfolio.
Year Ten: the finish line.
No purchase this year, but your portfolio’s valued over £4m and the income allows you to pay down all remaining mortgage amounts. The tax implications here are sizeable: make sure you make provision for all the tax… your contribution to the social stability that’s enabled your plan to work over the decade.
Outcome: you own £4m of net assets outright, plus a revenue stream of over a quarter of a million pounds a year: another £4m of Net Present Value right there. Over the next year, £250k of revenue plus a further £200k of capital appreciation give you a track record a larger scale investor will look at: an asset delivering stable returns close to £500,000/yr is the sort of thing pension funds get interested in.
All options are open now, from a straightfoward sale to exotic derivatives that securitise your assets and income streams. Remortgaging the lot gives you very high returns over costs (at least six percentage points) due to competitive loan rates now available to you. For the rest of your life, you can enjoy the returns associated with a £10m fortune while steadily accumulating an actual £10m in capital value. The work is done: your portfolio will climb to £10m over the next few years without further work. You’ve made it.
Of course, this plan assumes you find the right properties, capture the right lending deals, keep it rolling and disciplined over multi-year periods. But that’s the point. Not everyone can do it. And for people prepared to put in the work, research the market and sweat the small stuff… there are rewards.
If we’re really headed for a nuclear apocalypse, would you want to survive? I would. And if you’re not zonked into your component molecules by the blast itself, so would you. Survival is a natural human instinct.
But today’s civilised city-dweller, with his supermarkets and indoor plumbing, isn’t naturally equipped for life in the postnuclear wasteland … much less thriving, building a new life and business adapted to the radioactive desert. What if we changed our perspective? What if we treated life in the radioactive aftermath not as decades of torment, but as a decades-long Burning Man festival? Here’s my guide to the skills you’ll need; you’ve got 3-5 years to develop them.
1. Understand radiation.
The postapocalyptic landscape will be populated by slavering hordes of two-headed mutants, right? Nope. This one’s first because of all the aftereffects of a nuke, radiation is the most misunderstood.
It’s not the eternal bogeyman, blighting the world and its chances of recovery forever. Nor, if caught in the eye of the firestorm, will you acquire superpowers as many expect. It’s time-limited, unevenly spread (the road may be safe, the bushes alongside it deadly) and follows predictable patterns guided by relatively few factors like the weather. Knowing where the safe areas are ups your survivability quotient hugely: one woman in Hiroshima survived to old age despite being just 300m from the epicentre.
Alpha radiation can basically be stopped by a wet paper towel; Beta by a sheet of tinfoil. Both fall to survivable levels in just a few days, even near your local Ground Zero. The one to watch is Gamma (the only one of the big three that’s actually radiation to start with) and fallout, the dust and smog of the fireball’s afterbelch. The basic rule: put mass between you and the source, and cover your skin including your nose and mouth. (Lead isn’t necessary: it’s the mass in lead that makes it useful, not any property of lead itself.)
The most dangerous radioactive material is the stuff you ingest, so keep facemasks and wet towels to hand when you go out. Of course you’ve stocked up on Geiger counters: learn the units (rems or sieverts) and the difference between a count and a dose, which will tell you where you can go and for how long you can stay.
Fallout doesn’t stay dangerous forever – it falls to about a thousandth of its potency within two weeks and a ten-thousandth within three months – so the length of time you need to hole up isn’t beyond the pale; the main risk longer-term is how much of it gets into your body. Just never let your dosimeter leave your side.
2. Learn to build and fix.
2a. Build. Even if your house was outside the detonation radius, a timber-framed econobox isn’t much protection against desperate radiation-ravaged maniacs – so you need four walls and a roof that can withstand the inevitable nightly firebombings. (This one’s high on the list, because you die more quickly from lack of sleep than lack of food. Getting somewhere secure to spend the night is a priority.)
Carpentry and smithing smarts are great, but remember to learn some heavy-lifting skills like how to assemble a pulley or cantilever a platform. Mechanical advantage will help you do great things. But first, if you’re approaching a big project – let’s say a steel-walled compound with floodlighting and barbed wire – you need a sense of the bigger picture. Read a book on architecture, and learn the principles of how masses enclose spaces for human habitation. It lets you start with a plan. Then read a couple of engineering texts on statics (basically, how forces and loads act on each other) and dynamics (moving parts) and you’re ready to experiment.
Then revisit your DIY skills. The basic ones aren’t hard. How to measure and saw and drill, how to nail and screw and bolt. Plus some extra bits: working with bearings and gaskets and washers, all the simple helpful elements developed by engineers that make things work better. (After all, you’re building, not bodging – with the bonus of no planning regulations to comply with except the laws of physics.)
A basic toolset is worth listing.
For small jobs, I swear by my Leatherman Wave: a pocket-sized toolbox that should always be with you, as should a Zippo or matches. And you can’t beat a Stanley knife, the snappable-blade one, for basic scratching and scoring. Larger, but still backpackable if you’re out and about, are a folding spade, saw, axe, pick, wrecking bar and machete: those from Gerber are excellent. And of course a flashlight.
A decent adjustable workbench – sadly, Black & Decker’s once-great Workmate is now a cardboard-and-plastic parody – makes a base, with a vice and measuring tools. Plus a measuring tape and spirit level of course.
In your lockable tool trunk back home (guard it well) should be a (solar) charger and its reasons for being: electric drill, nailgun, circular saw, and angle grinder, with all the bits. Among the manually-powered stuff, include some heavy-duty wrecking bars, saws in multiple sizes, a pick, shovel, hoe, and sledgehammer, a set of screwdrivers, a set of spanners, pliers, some claw hammers and big scissors. If you like working with metal, an oxyacetylene torch lets you cut and weld, about as useful a skill as you can have in the wastes – if not, a heatgun for melting plastics together and cleaning surfaces helps. Add lots of consumables – nails, screws, duct tape, glue, sealant, paracord – and a big book of DIY tricks. You’re set.
Practice with brackets, hinges, clamps and clips to join different masses together; experiment with rubber strips and sealant to see what works best in the gaps. Think modular. Countless modern building supplies are designed to go in fast and do one job well, from No More Nails to that old favourite duct tape. Learn how different materials work together, and find a set of a dozen things you can get results with, whether it’s breezeblocks, planks of wood, or concrete sections. (That list is then your action plan every time you go scavenging in the wasteland.)
When planning your postwar home base, remember it doesn’t need to be underground or have fancy airlocks and filters; it just needs insulating mass, all its cracks and gaps blocked with sealant, and all the openings sealed against dust. The carbon paper you find in oven hoods is great.
Getting ambitious, if you’re able to move them shipping containers are brilliant. Weatherproof, room-sized, stackable and lockable with nonporous walls, you can build substantial dwellings with them; many have ductwork inside you can run cables and hoses through. (The downsides to container living are heat, noise and condensation due to single-skin walls, but that’s something you’ll fix early). Also, a container on each side of your living space stuffed with rubble makes an excellent radiation shield. What you really want is a half-dozen TEUs buried beneath a mountain of concrete in a defensible position, but that’s not something you can establish before Zero Hour itself, so knowing how to improvise is the next-best thing.
2b. Fix. Buildings are largely static structures; in the wasteland you’ll need dynamics too. How to gain mechanical advantage through pulleys, gears, levers and cantilevers; how to rebuild engines so you can generate power and get around the blighted landscape. The human body’s an incredible machine, but other machines can leverage it.
Consider learning about simple vehicles. Bicycles, motorbikes, jetskis, Jeeps, Land Rovers, old VW Beetles, the Lotus 7, microlights, light aircraft, paragliders : they’ll all be good choices in the wastes because they’re beautifully simple. (A large percentage of all Bugs and Rovers ever built are still on the roads.)
These vehicles are simple enough to be comprehended and repaired by a single skilled person with the right knowledge, and robust enough to give service for decades. Something with wheels will make you a force to be reckoned with in the wastes; something with wings gives you range far beyond your home base. (There’ll be plenty of blacktop to land on.)
3. Establish your health.
Avoiding death and disease in the first place is a lot easier than curing them. Keeping your body in balance – with exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements – is your greatest defence against death in the wasteland: in a world where a small cut results in life-threatening infection, knowing how to use medicine and its trappings is a vital skill.
So learn the natural products with medicinal value and where to find them, starting with honey and lemons (natural antibacterial and disinfectant). Because you can grow your own First Aid.
But at the core of your post-nuclear health plan should be keeping yourself and your environment clean. Squeaky-clean body and breath make life in the wastes feel a lot less toxic, while scrubbed floors and walls dispel fallout and bacterial risk. Sodium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride are your three basics to work with; they may sound like complex chemicals, but caustic soda, baking soda, and salt aren’t actually that hard to find in any blast-torn supermarket. (For speed, use the “Looting 8 Items or Less” lane.)
There are dozens of recipes for cold-mixing soap, toothpaste, and cleaning agents; find a few and learn them. (Of course, all this assumes your skin is not sloughing off in great papery sheafs in the aftermath of the blast.)
Health isn’t just of the body: a disciplined and calm mind is an equal or greater tool to a strong and fast body. Yoga soothes both body and mind and builds old-age flexibility you’ll need for your long years in the wasteland: no retirement homes or health insurance now. (Just don’t mistake a radioactive crater for a Hot Bikram class.) Meditation might help shut out the desperate wails of a thousand feral children hammering on your steel-clad door. Of course, after the blast you may be in a trance-like state already.
4. Learn how to purify water.
There’s always water around, whether it’s a tarpaulin harvest at dawn or a filthy puddle. Making it drinkable takes surprisingly little gear: filter papers, a big steam kettle, some plastic piping. All can be improvised out of the spoils from any burned-out DIY store. (A repurposed immersion heater is ideal.) It won’t be Perrier (unless your wasteland scavenging turned up a few carbon dioxide cylinders) but it’ll be clean and drinkable, and with a steady supply you can make yourself the most popular guy in the wasteland. However, there’s one thing about distilled water: it tastes disgusting. (More correctly, there’s an absence of taste most humans dislike.)
One idea is to do what people did in the Middle Ages: drink beer instead. You can get a hundred pints from a few kilos of malt and it’ll store at room temperature for months; face one end of a shipping container onto the street, and you’ve opened a wasteland bar, where you can trade information and food with fellow survivors. Making yourself indispensable to the postapocalyptic community is a sound survival strategy.
5. Learn how to generate electricity.
Nothing will lift your jaded spirits like the sputtering into life of an LED bulb with no bills to pay at the end of the month. Arguably this comes before growing food, because with electricity you can extend the day and the season, make ice, cook from cans, keep food cold and yourself warm. All the things that make life worth living. Just 5kW can power your well-insulated shipping container home.
If space allows, ambient solar and large-capacity batteries are the way to go, silent and low-maintenance with ways to get hot water, too. (There’ll be tons of solar panels around and no planning regulations to stop you using them.) Today’s panels can generate around a hundred watts per sq m peak, meaning you’ll average about a third of that… needing rather a lot of panels to fill all your needs. But ultimately your first step is some first-year physics on AC, DC, volts and amps and how batteries work. A single day of learning now can result in decades of comfortable life during those dark nuclear winter evenings.
6. Learn to grow vegetables.
Anyone with a kitchen garden knows it doesn’t take much land to produce crateloads of beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, squashes – and it’s even easier to grow the things that make eating them worthwhile, such as herbs. Vertical growing and greenhousing (you need glass to keep the fallout off anyway) make it possible to feed a family of four from a tenth of an acre: that’s a square just twenty metres along a side, an area you can wall off and cover with glass in a week.
If you have a chance, grab a few open-bed shipping containers, pile pallets inside in steps, cover the top pallets with a ton or two of soil, and lid them with salvaged windows. (The pallets create space underneath from which you can irrigate and nourish the soil; with lighting you can even have three “floors” of mini-fields per container.) Instant secure food factories, built from a template you can repeat and scale.
(Pay special attention to soybeans. Tofu is the perfect nufood: compact, portable, protein-packed, and goes well with almost anything. You can live on the stuff if needs be, with nothing more than a crate of seasonings and some oil.)
That’s why you learned to generate electricity first; a greenhouse can be lit and heated to moderate your growing cycle year-round. In postapocalyptic times, organic growing will come into its own: learn about it. How placing certain plants next to each other fends off bugs; how crop rotation can replenish the soil for the next round; the proportions in which you can grow different plants together for maximum yield. Fresh organic produce every day will be a principal reason you’ll not only survive, but be happy as a wasteland survivor.
7. Learn guns and self-defence.
How to handle weapons, and how to handle yourself. There’s going to be some bad people out there… and if you’ve trained yourself to get stuff, plenty of others will want to take it away from you. Krav Maga is a skill that lets you fight off attackers quickly even in groups; you can learn it at home with a punchbag and dummy, although it’s best put into practice in class. Perhaps its biggest benefit, though, is simply the physical confidence Practitioners acquire: fewer people will mess with you in the first place.
In close quarters at a time when the law’s become history, there are some tools to magnify your fighting smarts. Brass knuckles, blackjacks and switchblades are small and deadly. A larger blade is as much a tool as a weapon; even swords may make a comeback. But where the best defence may be a good offense, you’ll need muscle that works at a distance, too, and that means being able to use things that go bang. (And ideally knowing your way around an ammo recycling bench.) Before law and society break down, you may want to acquire a crossbow or longbow; they’re legal today and you can reuse the ammo. Expect archery skills to be prized post-nuke.
In guns, everyone has their preferred loadout, but five guns should answer most situations. (All illegal or hard to obtain this side of the Atlantic, but hey, we’re planning for lawlessness.) First up is a handgun, something tried and tested like a Glock or Beretta, with plenty of spare magazines and 9mm ammo. (You carry this one all the time; it’s for unplanned situations.)
Your second workaday weapon is a shotgun. Leave sawn-offs to the movies; go for something 24″+-barrelled in 12-bore, ideally a semi-auto with tube magazine. (A decent-length barrel allows a decent-size tube – some hold up to a dozen shells – and the more shells up your sleeve the better; box and drum mags are harder to carry.) There’s a big choice of rock-solid ones: the Spas-12, the Mossberg 500, the Remington 870 are all provably awesome.
A shotgun is basic because unlike rifles or handguns, it lets a beginner aim at targets more than a few metres away and actually hit them. The spread pattern at 50m can reach several metres, enough to make a glare-crazed pack of feral dogs think twice. A shotgun is also the ultimate modular weapon: slugs and beanbag rounds turn it into a short-range rifle or a nonlethal deterrent, while more exotic ammo takes you into sci-fi territory (there’s even a Taser shell out there.) Ammo is valuable in the wasteland and a weapon that lets you scatter a gang of scoundrels with one shot should never be far from your shoulder. (Take this one everywhere beyond your barricaded front door.)
Third and fourth, some sort of assault rifle – even a spray ‘n pray AK-47 will do – for when you can afford to plan your To-Do list in advance, and a long-barrelled sniper rifle – the Barrett .50 is top dog here – for when acting at a distance is an option. (Keep both these back at your base; they’re mission-specific.)
Lastly, a submachine gun like an H&K MP5 makes a solid companion for when you need to shock and awe the slavering feral gangs that roam your territory into submission. If you never learned to shoot before the bombs dropped, start by remembering the basics: aim without anticipating recoil, squeeze don’t pull, and train yourself to lift your finger immediately. Short bursts are where it’s at. (This last one’s also mission-specific: basically, whenever you need to go room-by-room.)
8. Learn how to capture and cook animals.
This is lower down the list, because understand your days of enjoying animal protein three times a day are over. Even if you’re a farmer by trade, the concentrations in which fallout will accumulate in mammalian tissues preclude raising cows and sheep even if you have the grazing space. It takes a hundred kilos of vegetable matter to make one kilo of beef; it’s just not feasible to farm large mammals post-apocalypse. (Especially if you want to maintain your green principles: remember “free-range” now means “Someone else’s dinner.”)
So the only animal protein available in the wasteland will be wild. Don’t expect to see many rats, cats, or dogs the month after the apocalypse, while chickens in barns are the low-hanging meat: so overbred they can’t even walk. (Bernard Matthews will go down in wasteland history as a god.) Bambi will be a memory, since deer are relatively easy to bring down in the assymetrical confrontation with an armed human.
Foxes and rabbits will be numerous, suddenly freed from human population control measures, but you’ll earn your meal: they’re wily. Longer term, when farming returns, the best fleshy crops aren’t the conventional ones: ostrich will be the rich man’s staple meat, rabbits will be mass-produced, and pigeons will be battery-farmed. (The birds get big on scraps, the leporines reproduce without encouragement.) The one large mammal with a future may go Oink: pigs are such useful creatures for waste disposal the economics may just work. If you acquire a few, remember the closer animals are to us genetically the more diseases you can catch from them. Pigs are very close, so sear that pork to a crisp.
The key skills here – slitting and slicing – transfer well from species to species, so learn how to seperate skin, flesh, bone and organs and how to use the various bits profitably. (There’s a lot of meat on just one rabbit if you know how to get at it.) Learn to slay and love offal, and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh meat when you see the opportunity.
9. Develop a cash crop.
This is where you stop surviving and start thinking about thriving again. An economy of sorts will arise even if 99% of the world’s population is wiped out; buying and selling stuff is a basic human driver. So you need something you can sell, with a large target audience (starving humans), and that ideally doesn’t cost anything but labour to produce. With a cash crop you can keep yourself supplied with other of life’s essentials: meat, wine, 9mm Parabellum, anything.
You might try wheat, rice, or potatoes, but in the lawless wastes an excellent saleable crop could be hemp. (Cotton takes a lot out of the soil, and it’s not as if you can afford to let land lie fallow for a year.) You can sell marijuana to take the edge off life under a burning sky; you can weave the stalks into textiles people can use for clothing and bedding; you can turn the remnants into burnable biomass.
Whatever cash crop you decide on, do it well. You’re not subsistence farming here; you’re bringing to market an exciting new product and want to max-out your profit margins and consumer surplus. Develop sound operational processes with a Continuous Improvement ethic, thinking constantly about how you can reduce your resource costs while upping quality.
Nurture an audience of repeat customers and incentivise the best with discounts and dealership opportunities. Get hold of some dyes, seals and stamps, and brand your product in a non-easily-copied way: your packages then become a trusted name, enabling you to start wholesaling to a network of retailers. Whole communities may become economically dependent on you, with a stake in keeping your brand valuable. (At worst this gives you a few rings of fleshy cannon fodder to use up when rivals try to “chip away at your competitive advantage”.)
Build as much brand equity into your crop as you can, to prevent it becoming a commodity: it’ll help maximise your ROI while everyone else is hardscrabbling. In the wasteland, you can survive… or you can thrive. Other options: tea, grapevines, tobacco and their higher-margin finished goods further up the value chain.
10. Have a wealth strategy.
In the first months, “wealthy” will mean anyone who drinks clean water and has all his skin intact … but before long, systems of barter will give way to conventional economics, simply because portable, fungible stores of value are more convenient. Once your income stream is working, think about how you can leverage it towards actual wealth. Gold coins, silver ingots, single-carat diamonds, even antique books or bottles of wine in a pinch: things that are small and have broadly recognised value in today’s society.
Find out where such things are (a list of safe-deposit offices is a start) and how you can acquire them in the event of a nuclear catastrophe (hint: demolition bar). Even better, start building your stash beforehand. Society will arise anew, and when it does, there will be wealth and poverty once again. As you progress from survivor to citizen again, you’ll find wealthy is better.
11. Get connected.
What they (erroneously) said about DARPA’s “Internetwork” in the ’60s will eventually prove true: the Internet will survive a nuclear war. Enough people will escape the big firestorm that there’ll still be thousands of people in Britain capable of setting up a radio station, or booting a server, or understanding IP. Those first post-apocalyptic IP nodes won’t stream video and there’ll be no Google, but they will form the beginnings of the next Web, and every node that gets added rebuilds it faster.
Perhaps it won’t even take a year before a few thousand people with laptops are stringing social networks together with wifi and retrofitted satellite dishes. Perhaps the key drivers of search, trade, jobs, news, and human interaction lead to new global websites and the next wave of fortunes, before it’s even safe to return to the cities. Civilisations come and go, but the Internet won’t die until the second-to-last node is destroyed. Find out who’s starting the revolution, connect to them early, and keep yourself at the forefront as the world rebuilds.
12. Keep your mind alive.
Last – but not least. Survival and thriving are of the mind, not just the body. You need to stay self-actuated, remember what life’s all about. Even if Britain turns into a toxic wasteland, it doesn’t have to be a cultural one.
Under your flickering LED lightbulb, enjoying a rare rabbit stew and a joint from your personal crop of an evening, devote an hour or two to reading. And watching, and listening, experiencing the shows and songs of the Old World. But it’s one thing you have to plan for in advance. The main threat to electronics isn’t the blast but the EMP, which will silently deep-six every phone and computer for kilometres around. (Believe me, nobody will be calling from the blast radius to say they’re on the train.)
A few well-stuffed laptops, Kindles, iPods, USB hard disks wrapped in thick layers of heavy foil under corrugated iron in a locked basement will still work after the blast: your cellar may become your generation’s Library of Alexandria. So if you unwittingly find yourself custodian of ancient knowledge, remember to pay it forward.
If you’re part of a community, teach the children, train the adults. Try to ensure the learnings of society get passed on to the next generation, so we can salvage as much as possible of what we lost. In doing so, your survival becomes part of a larger idea: that a ragtag bunch of survivors can be a civilisation again.
As a final word, the most important survival skill you’ll ever acquire is a positive mental attitude. The ability to live in the moment while looking forward to each new day; to enjoy small tasks while building towards larger results. That’s what’ll sort out the men from the boys in the wasteland. And I plan to be one of them.
POSTSCRIPT: The images on this post are from My Fallout New Vegas Tour, trips I took in 2011 exploring the real-life locations parodied in the game “Fallout: New Vegas”. If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at that one too! – Chris
Google’s AdWords is an amazing business: an intrinsic part of the pricing model is that prices automatically rise to the maximum level the market can support. As a marketer, that means Google isn’t leaving much on the table – what economists call “minimal consumer surplus”.
But there’s a flipside: the maximum the market can pay also means AdWords delivers the lowest utility the market can bear. Unless you stick to the shadows of ultra-rare keywords in undiscovered market space, the service is always priced just below the level where it’s not worth it.
So what does that mean for small marketers like us?
First, it’s that AdWords will be expensive. Eyeball for eyeball, for instance, it’s pricier than a superbowl ad, and much more expensive than local radio. (Radio is always one of the best deals in media, incidentally.) If your market’s restricted by geography, as most consulting-type businesses are, take a look at traditional media: a 5,000-envelope snail mailing may well deliver better results than AdWords. The rule in this space is that “something happens” – a client turns up, a big new booking arrives – about once every thousand customer touches; expect 4-6 projects from your 5,000. Such a mailing will cost north of £3k, so you need each project to be over a grand to make it worthwhile.
(Of course, most consulting work comes from repeat business; find guys you get along really well with and they’ll still be paying you a decade later. That’s where the value is; a £3k mailing that brings in £3k of billable hours isn’t a breakeven, it’s an investment. Because one of those guys will like you enough to use you again.)
But AdWords still has value for a small marketer. Namely that it’s easy to control. You can create, change, and test ad executions in two shakes; dial your budget up or down; experiment with different times of day or sets of keywords. But because you can get started on a budget of a few pennies a day, many marketers make the Big Mistake of thinking it’s a cheap option.
The trick to making it function is to work backwards. Let’s take some figures.
Let’s say you’re in my business: a jobbing copywriter. I’ve got some built-in advantages – a decade in the world’s top agencies gives me some heft, while parallel skills with buzzwords like predictive analytics and information architecture position me a few rungs up from the average ex-agency type. But by contrast, being a lone wolf by nature means I’m hopeless at the schmoozing and networking that leads to new client contacts. While working at a higher pay grade, I’m fishing in a smaller social pond.
So key is to know what you’re looking for. A “good client”, for me, is a midsized company (up to 250 people or £50m in turnover) doing something interesting but complex. (Often you find these in the technology or financial sectors.) These tend to be companies where internal marketing resources are stretched, or who can’t afford the £80K+ cost of a senior marketing director… giving them an incentive to make good use of outside resources. (With the absolute minimum cost of employing a junior professional being £30k+, they can afford a much more senior person on a part-time basis, especially one who doesn’t need a desk.)
So what does it take to win a £30k client with Google Adwords? Answer: at least £5,000. That’s a budget that puts you in the top few percent of all AdWords spenders.
Of course, you might get lucky. But I’ve done it half a dozen times over the years, and on average, a big new client – the sort who pays a retainer for an agreed set of services month after month for a year plus, a client you can learn and grow with and give ever more value to as the journey progresses – will cost you £5,000 to acquire and another £5,000 in resources to retain. (The second £5k: we’re talking pitch projects, meet-and-greets, learning curves and outright freebies. I shortcut part of that with my free £1000 offer.) That’s £10,000 you need to invest for every new client win.
That’s why most freelancers don’t make any money. They just can’t make the investment.
Let’s look at the figures. My ideal client profile describes perhaps 15,000 companies in the UK, perhaps 50,000 across Europe. That’s surprisingly few in a zone that contains tens of millions of businesses, even given that my capacity is about 4. With half the world’s population using Google, you’re going to waste a lot of clicks and pageviews before any of them stumble across your value proposition. Count on a campaign running for three months before you get a solid sniff.
In that time you’ll have a few thousand clicks and your ads will be shown several million times across Google’s Search and Display networks. It’s all worth it, but you have to make a lot of upfront investment before it pays off.
Because that’s Google’s value: once you get a real lead, it’ll really be a real lead. The gap between someone idly clicking your ad, and actually dialling your number for a chat, is a huge mental commitment. By the time someone’s heard your voice, the odds of them becoming your client are a lot better than 1-in-10. (Once I went a whole year with every single first contact leading to a paid project.)
But on average, count on every new longterm client costing a third of that client’s first-year gross to acquire.
AdWords. It isn’t cheap. But it has coverage. And if you make the investment, it pays off forever.
How much money would make you happy? I’ve got an exact figure: £3-5m. But why?
First, it’s realistically achievable. A salary beyond two but within three SDs from the mean, some investment and tax planning savvy, and long-term property and equity markets that regress over time to a steady 3-5% or so make it do-able for any intelligent individual. Hitting your mid-30s – and the midrange of the upper tax bracket – means that with discipline you can save £10-20k a year into tax-free pension plans and newbuild rental properties. With property especially, a yield-financed mortgage gives you capital growth with the cost of capital covered, leaving you ready to make the next investment two years later. A few such ratchetings over a decade or so, and you’ve got a portfolio the right size, albeit at 3:1 debt-to-equity. Some years later, as rents repay capital, the job is done.
Second, it doesn’t make you play the wrong game. Quite deliberately. The “game” – in which everyone with real money, the £20m-and-up folk, is a participant – is nothing more than one-upmanship, and as an ultra-minimalist I have no interest in yachts or Lears or mansions. That’s good, because £5m isn’t enough to buy them. (An ex-private banker once told me what really unites the ultra-rich is that they never have enough cash; it’s all leveraged into keeping up with the Joneses.) Keeping to single-digit millions lets you live your life in the world that matters, not the one that ends at a certain postcode boundary.
Third, you can still stay anonymous. Once you get above £5m in assets you start popping up on various radars: the likelihood of being sued, for example, goes up exponentially. I like to stay in the shadows, just another face in the crowd. Because that’s a freedom no ultra-high-net-worth individual has: your anonymity, once lost, can never be recovered.
Fourth, it’s a proper capital sum. It’ll keep you going forever without ever having to eat into the capital. Just 4% growth a year covers longterm average inflation plus a six-figure annual income; your total wealth keeps pace with price increases while giving you an incentive not to munch the seed corn. And if anyone in the world says they can’t live on a hundred grand, I pity them for the tremendous complexity they must have in their lives. (How many alimony cheques was that sir?)
Fifth, it’s small enough to manage yourself. It’s a property portfolio of a dozen decent London flats that deliver a six-figure income in addition to capital growth. It’s a book of equities that grow at 3% in the long term. Or, if you like risk, it’s a spread-betting account where a disciplined set of strategies can hedge each other and never result in a margin call. Big enough to take advantage of any opportunity.
Note the theme here? It treats wealth not as a figure, but an attitude. It’s about knowing how much is enough, and when it’s ok to stop.
Perhaps that’s the secret to life.
Some 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.
1. 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.
5. 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.
Some 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.