How a normal guy reviews tyres…

Marketing carries endless choices. Where to go. How to get there. And who to share the wheel with. That's where I come in. 07876 635340.Today , I took a deep breath and stumped up for four new Michelin Cross-Climates.

While I clock up a few miles and have driven everywhere from the USA’s Route 66 to dirt tracks in the Indonesian jungle, I’m mostly a weekend driver. I’ve never been on a test track and can’t test under controlled conditions. (Not without attracting attention from SE8’s finest, anyway.) And like most ordinary motorists in the UK, I’ve got other things to do than worry about those black bits of rubber at the corners.

MICHELIN Cross-Climate 225/45 XLs on Audi A3So in contrast to the petrolheads of EVO and the flash of Michelin’s own marketing, my opinion’s that of a normal guy driving an almost-normal car. “Almost normal” because my Audi is a small car that feels like a big one. A 3.2L V6 up front and permanent  4wd with all the gubbins makes it heavier than a hatch but ultra-stable, while the horsepower keeps it fun. (I rarely use the flappy-paddle shifters, but love having them there.)

I’ve kept it years longer than I should, simply because it feels indestructible. But punctures are a hazard in my part of town, and I hate maintenance. So my rims wear something solid and reinforced.

The newly-launched Cross-Climates (purchased using the usual great service from Blackcircles) look exceptionally tough – even the garage guy said they looked “really grippy” – and however they perform, they look just great.

But do they work?

Yes. Brilliantly. And not in the way you’d think.

First off, these tyres are QUIET. None of the road roar you’d normally get from fattish 225/45s, certainly not what you’d expect from a tyre designed to play well on snow and ice. (Across much of Europe you need to change your tyres every October and March. These “Cross-Climates” are marketed as a year-round tyre, without the compromises you’d normally expect from using a Winter tyre in the hot and dry.)

Besides the hush, they feel more surefooted than any of the ContiSports I’ve had on over the years. They stick to the road like velcro. Not so much gliding over the tarmac as feeling their way along it, with barely a whisper. A bit of “fun” away from some traffic lights showed the grip starts from standstill; there was no sense the power wasn’t getting to the wheels fast enough. Did I say they’re quiet?

It’s a warm, dry day here in southeast London: not the conditions a Winter tyre is designed for. But driving around for an hour-plus, I didn’t notice any performance hit at all from the Winter capability… in fact, they felt better than any “normal” Summer tyre I’ve ever driven. Ultimately, don’t consider this model in terms of Winter or Summer; look at it as a great tyre, forget the time of year. I like this rubber.

 

(Disclaimer: I write the odd marketing brochure for Michelin (among other players in the automotive sector) but they’re not my contract client, did not ask for this review, and offered no payment or other benefit. I chose and paid for the tyres myself.)

Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.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.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

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?

Barrowford letter

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.

 

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

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.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

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.

Callout 1

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.

Callout 2

...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 chris@chrisworth.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.

Footer block

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?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

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.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

Kahnemann’s Prospect Theory: a summary in one graphic

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.

prospect-theory

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.

Enough of the dancing, already!

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.

NOT.

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.

 

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

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.

 

 

Method Writing

944620_10151825472503200_1656221356_nYou’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.)

Taking a year off: a 365-day stretch goal

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.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

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.

The Hundred Year Club

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.

All you need

Big sky and a broad outlook. That's your marketing strategy. Visit chrisdoescontent.com.The ultra-minimalist lifestyle is neither easy nor painless. It requires focus, resolve, a constant attention to detail, and most importantly the skill of letting go. It’s about asking yourself a question – Do I Need That? If So, Why? – many times a day. But once you’ve got it, the freedom and agility your life gains is awesome.

Here what I think I could live with. Not quite Jack Reacher, with only a toothbrush and a billfold in his pocket, but it’ll fit into a midsize backpack.

– Hot laptop (currently a MacBook Retina) with a lot of movies, music, games, and TV shows you might get around to watching someday 

– Kindle with large library of classics

– Phone

– Camera with a big zoom

– Pocket-sized backup disk

– Cables and connectors, global adapter 

– Leatherman Wave multitool

 

– 6 black T shirts

– 3 pairs of Levis: 1 x black, 1 x blue; 1 x lightweight summer pants

– Berghaus non-hoodie

– Levi’s short coat – smart enough for day, warm enough for cold

– 9 sets of socks and underwear to include 1 x cycling shorts, 1 x running shorts, sports socks

– 1 pair of smart black leather walking shoes, Church’s or Cheaney

– 1 pair of casual shoes, velcro and canvas

– 1 pair of lightweight running shoes

– Towel

– Sheet sleeping bag

– Drawstring bag for laundry/2nd bag backup

– Knife. Fork. Spoon.

– Radius toothbrush

– Mach 3 razor and blades

– Factor 50 sunscreen, abrasive skin rub, good moisturiser

– Resistance bands for workouts

– Roll of kitchen paper towels (you never know how useful they are until you do it)

 

– Small Wenger backpack with many, many pockets

– Passport

– Pencil and paper

– Debit card

– If they were legal: brass knuckles and a switchblade

In total it weighs around a dozen kilos and fits into a small travel pack. And it’s all you need.

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

According to The Economist, Britain now spends £175bn on welfare, mostly housing benefit and income support. In a country of 30m taxpayers. C’mon guys; every taxpayer paying £6000 a year of someone else’s rent isn’t sustainable.

So here’s another of my simple solutions to complex problems: if you rely principally on government assistance – say two-thirds or more of your household inflow – you don’t get to vote.

My simple solutions are all about making one change, then getting out of the way and letting second-order effects work. (Note they’re simple ideas, not simple to implement.) Let’s take a look at the effect this change would have.

First, the vast bloc of voters whose votes are essentially purchased rather than won are instantly out of the equation. (It wouldn’t be party political, either. Older voters tend Tory; younger claimants towards Labour.) Politicians can form policy with a much longer-term view.

For example, the great pensions problem affecting much of the developed world would disappear in 10-20 years. With upping state pensions no longer a vote-winner, it’d probably be replaced by something contributory and defined-benefit… perhaps not individual accounts, but “notional” accounts that show you how much you’ll get in retirement based on what you pay in. Everyone becomes responsible for their own retirement; these people don’t count as receiving government support, and retain their vote. Simple.

Then there’s welfare. If you want to vote for a party that puts money in your pocket… well, you’ve got to work. It’s the ultimate incentive, to a genuinely concerned citizen, to get a job and make sure their government assistance, if needed, comprises less than two-thirds of their household income. (It’d also make corporations behave better; wage structures are often cynically set to take advantage of availability of housing benefit rather than get workers off it.)

This works because it’s not a black or white policy. Plenty of people are genuine workers, but by circumstance or accident have to rely on a certain amount of help. They’ll continue to get that help. But if they want to affect policy in the most basic way, they have to do some level of meaningful economic activity. The two-thirds level doesn’t even affect that many people; probably less than two million.

And over a decade or two, policy will become less knee-jerk. Without a couple of million of society’s less useful to skew the ballot, the country’s financials will improve sustainably. Policy can be constructed from proper data rather than tabloid lobbying. And the UK will get back to work, driving economic activity from the right source: people’s hard work, not state spending.

It’s so simple. But like all my simple solutions to complex problems… somewhat harder to implement.

The 99kg challenge

Ready for a fast journey using the contents of a backpack? Call Chris does Content.Having just got rid of 80% of my library, I’ve set myself a new challenge: by the end of the year, everything I own will weigh less than 99 kilograms in total.

Why? Because it’s refreshing. I’ve always been a minimalist, but home ownership and relative affluence lead to surprising volumes of clutter in your life, and I’m no exception – most people would be happy all their possessions fitted into a 25 sq ft cupboard, but for me that’s a crushing gravitational pull that anchors me in one place and puts a brake on opportunities. Never have anything in your life you couldn’t walk away from in ten minutes.

Even with that attitude, it’s not going to be easy. I own a couple of big items: bikes, a heavy punchbag. So the challenge is going to include big decisions: one of the bikes is a classic XTR’d Orange Clockwork from 1991, a 10kg chunk right there, and I’d be loath to part with it despite riding it perhaps once a year. But that’s the point. When your possessions own you, it’s time to get rid of them. Simplify, simplify.

IMG_2156Of course, technology makes it easier. CDs, DVDs, books, magazines are now all weightless, spread across hard disks and Kindles. And my laptop itself weighs in at barely a kilo. So all the lumpy stuff that grows on bookshelves is easy to part with; just rip and organise. While clothes are easy, too: a couple of suits and shirts for smart, a dozen identical black T shirts and half as many 501s for everyday. The shoe rack needs culling, but at 15 pairs I’m hardly Imelda Marcos. Not quite the Jack Reacher lifestyle, buying $20 of clothes every few days and discarding them rather than laundering, but they’ll fit in a single bag.

And there are caveats: I’m not going to include furniture, or kitchen appliances, or my car, or the house itself. (After all, those things can be sold or rented out with ease, providing assets and cashflow without the burden of occupancy.) So 99 kaygees looks like a doable, if slightly stretched, goal.

But ultimately, this isn’t about weight or possessions or lifestyle; it’s about simplicity. When you own less, you worry less about what could happen to it. The stuff you do keep gets used and worn out without getting precious about it. Living in a house without valuables means you need less insurance. Worry less about crime. Spend less time cleaning. Enjoy small spaces more, because the clutter’s gone. Not to mention the savings you make when you move house, or refresh your wardrobe. You’re automatically spending less, because you’re using the few things you own to their theoretical limit.

The 99kg challenge is the essence of Zen: a few good things, central to life and appreciated fully.

And after that? Maybe a 9kg challenge…

Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Bowie back in business

Ha ha, it had to happen: Bowie’s back, taking the music business by surprise. No announcement, no tour dates, not even a Tweet: it’s just what he’d do, isn’t it?

That’s why some reviewers saying the new song doesn’t break new ground the way so many Bowie albums did (the plaintive vocals of “Heathen” come to mind). They’re missing the point. The art here is in the way it fits with music’s environmental context. In a world where the most minor talents are turned into celebrities on TV shows, and success in music is about how many Tweets you send and sex tapes you release, the ultimate act of rebellion against the system is …. releasing a new song without any fanfare whatsoever.

Who else could do it? Pink Floyd, yup. Kate Bush, certainly. But in the end it took Bowie to make the leap. I rarely listen to music and buy perhaps 20-30 iTunes a year, but I’ll be buying this one.

Bowie’s return is a look at how music happens, not what it sounds like. In that respect, it’s all Bowie. And I wouldn’t mind guessing there’ll be a big surprise on the album, too: what if this mournful ballad is the only slow song, and the rest of The Next Day is a throwback to Scary Monsters or Tin Machine?

2012: moments to remember

2012 wasn’t a bumper year for the UK – hitting the third trough of a triple-dipper, socialism and its henchman the Public Sector on the rise  (again), and business and consumer confidence beating their foreheads against the wall sobbing.  But it was an OK year for me.

(Of course, my definition of “ok” is any day I don’t get pushed under a Tube by a maniac or clusterfucked by hordes of slavering zombies. Deep down, I’m a happy person.)

The year went too quickly, of course: something hits the fast-forward button on your life once you pass 25 . I didn’t jump, didn’t do a tri, didn’t go to Krav, yet it seems mere minutes since I did all three regularly. Getting back into them (and a few new sports) is a goal for 2013.

But as for the things that stood out for me in 2012:

  1. e1499e106I fought zombies in an abandoned shopping mall.Thank you, ZED Events, for making it the most atmospheric experience of the year.
  2. IMG_2156I went Mac, after two decades in the PC paradigm. Two things stood out: how painless it was – the only things I had to learn were Illustrator and a few keyboard shortcuts – and how much smoother life is now.A solid-state hard drive, that beautiful Retina screen, and simpler backups all made it a decision that’s added 20% to my productivity.
  3. snapcityIt was a year of spread bet trading. Bringing together my knowledge of business fundamentals, technical analysis, and cognitive biases started to work and I’m now consistently profitable at around 1% a month, albeit from a small pot: that’s => the averaged returns from even the best hedge funds.How? Because I’m doing it on small scales, trading derivatives I know well. I now believe any garage investor can beat any top City manager in percentage terms, if you don’t have outsiders to satisfy.
  4. IMG_2558I had another great odyssey across the southwest USA, driving the “Grand Circle” out from Vegas. And realised that for all my years travelling Asia and Europe, the Mojave and its hinterlands are my favourite part of the world.Perhaps I’ll go there for ever… someday.
  5. My KindleIt was my Year of the Kindle. I can’t remember when I last picked up a paperback, but it wasn’t in 2012. I’m gradually putting my entire library onto that little grey slate, including some big textbooks and anthologies (tip: read them on Retina instead) and don’t expect to ever buy anything between hard covers again.Three large bookshelves of old-world print, soon to disappear from my already uncluttered life.
  6. IMG_3152I learned to climb. And found it as satisfying as skydiving: the way when you’re hanging off a wall leaning towards you, grasping odd-shaped protuberances and distributing your weight for least energy, you have to live entirely in the moment.No matter how bad your week, an hour on something vertical wipes it away. 2013 will be a year of bouldering.
  7. gJQAFbeOEX_galleryAnd of course, the London Olympics happened all around me. I didn’t expect it to matter, but it did. The way strangers smiled; the dreamy playfulness of each day in those two brief weeks in summer; the satisfaction of being a citizen of the host nation and knowing that, yes, we got it right.

In science there were some big discoveries too. With the Higgs Boson, another building block in our understanding of physics clicked into place. At the other end of the scale, the number of extrasolar planets we know about is heading towards 1,000 – with 7 now confirmed as being in their stars’ Goldilocks zones. These planets have ground to stand on, perhaps atmospheres to breathe, liquid water on their surfaces. Perhaps there’s life on them. Perhaps there’s life on all of them. One day, we’ll know.

But the moment that mattered most in 2012?

Rewind to the Olympics. As Mo Farah won the 5,000m, I made to turn down an overloud TV. Clicking the remote did nothing to quell the ecstatic cheering, And then, I realised it wasn’t the TV.

It was a city on its feet outside my window, joy in its heart and fire in its blood, the whole of London cheering as one.

Happy 2013!

Still an insult, no longer an offence

Finally! The word “insulting” has been removed from the UK Public Order Act’s offence of “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”. It’s about time: like all laws written with the best of intentions, it’s been abused time and again to bring people who merely disagreed with a litigious person into a cowed defensive posture.

It’s not far enough – British law still favours people with “beliefs”, constantly letting them off societal and legal obligations simply because they made a big noise about their imaginary friend in the sky. (Witness the way “faith schools” are allowed to discriminate based on what ancient text pupils’ parents prefer, or the way an organisation sending 26 people to the House of Lords is allowed to deny people a certain job rank simply because they’re female.) But it’s a step in the right direction.

Introduced in the 80s, the law’s been abused by countless thin-skinned people who think anyone criticising their beliefs should be jailed. (Interestingly, some of the biggest numbers of both plaintiffs AND defendants in such case have been Muslims. Proving once again that religion is principally a divisive force, something for playing up our differences, not bringing us closer together.)

So at last, UK citizens are once again free to voice nonviolent opinions and concerns as they please. Can I just mention that you are stupid and ugly and your mother dresses you funny?

Circle: healthcare through a glass darkly

Sometimes, investing is really simple. You just look at the numbers, then look at the people.

My former client Circle‘s CEO resigned yesterday, and his statement – full of qualifiers about how “the board had agreed” – delivers a clear message that he was pushed. A few big numbers confirm why. I decided two years back Circle had no longterm future, but my concern now’s with the broader effect on private providers.

We’ve got to have more private provision of public services. But if Circle fails, the fat cats of Britain’s bloated public sector will think they’ve won.

Ali Parsa was actually a decent guy (for an investment banker) with a heroic personal story, and many of the people I worked with there were highly intelligent and qualified. People with a vision of private providers edging out inefficient public sector organisations, saving the NHS from itself. It was a good vision.

When Circle was my client, I poured in far more time and resources than they ever paid for. (Until I was pushed out by a rather odd newcomer, who herself lasted about a year I think.) I believed in the vision and enjoyed working on it. But what clinched Circle’s fate for me was the Hinchingbrooke contract: a £1bn poisoned chalice.

My opinion: Circle needed a big number on its balance sheet to keep investors hot. And £1bn is a big number. But Hinchingbrooke is a big hospital – far too big – and spread over ten years, £100m a year to keep it going with the capacities and commitments agreed didn’t look likely. As that’s become clear, the share price has been falling, hitting a nadir around a quarter of its launch price.

There’s nothing wrong with the vision. The issue for me was Circle’s culture. What it never had – in my opinion – was enough of “the boring stuff”.

What’s the boring stuff? Effective management structures and chains of responsibility, roles and resource planning and basic management accounting. Taking its traits from Parsa himself (as all companies do) it preferred a seat-of-the-pants, on-the-fly approach, resulting in vast energy going into minor decisions and an office culture that was more battlezone than bureau, clever people often taking decisions outside their expertise and projects withering on the vine whenever a Next Big Thing came along. Just like an investment bank. (I’ve had investment banks as clients, too, and what happened in them wasn’t so much people management as crowd control.)

It was chaotic… but everyone felt that if they’re working this hard, they must be achieving something.

And they did: Circle single-handedly shifted the debate on private provision of public services. (Like any organisation, the NHS has bloated over time. Far beyond Bevan’s remit, into a monster that thinks it can do everything, without the market mechanisms that tell you what’s useful.) With this news, I’m concerned it’s going to shift the debate again – back in the dastardly public sector’s favour. The union bosses are already crowing.

(An aside: have you seen UNISON’s office building? This supposedly public-service-inspired organisation has the most luxuriously appointed headquarters outside an African dictator’s gin palace. Nobody loves the trappings of wealth quite like a socialist.)

If Circle fails at Hinchingbrooke (the first NHS hospital to be taken over by a private provider) it means the public sector workers who hate private business will consider the case closed. Politicians will listen to them. And the debate will remain poisonous for decades. No private provider will be allowed to run public healthcare services again, and the NHS will keep sucking taxpayer funds into its gaping maw until it destroys us all. 

I’ve been mentally short Circle since Day One; knowing the company’s personality and finances, I thought – and still think – Hinchingbrooke will be the death of it. But I hope against hope it can succeed – because if Circle fails, the public sector will think they’ve won.

In praise of White Van Man

220px-White_vans_OxfordHe gets a lot of stick for his black-and-white politics. His attitude to the taxman is somewhat less than servile. And the way he drives earns a lot of ire. But I’m a big fan of White Van Man.

White Van Man is the working-class (stress working) male who spends much of his day in and around his vehicle. He’s the builder with your new front door in the back, the handyman hooking up your plumbing, the removals guy lugging your mattress across town for a quick fifty. He’s usually white, left school in his teens, and gets a bit lost on the finer points of Keynesian economics, yet he’s more cheerful (and more resourceful) than a senior manager at any FTSE-100 member. And that’s why I like him.

White Van Man is that freak of nature in today’s society: someone who doesn’t demand anything more than the most basic of safety nets from the government. He’s not a parasite, not even a socialist (although he may vote Labour.) He works hard, often for himself; his days start at dawn and his kids are often asleep by the time he gets home. But he doesn’t complain.

White Van Man pays his taxes. (Although perhaps a smaller percentage than the tax code strictly specifies.) But his needs aren’t high; he doesn’t march on Whitehall when his pay hasn’t risen in a year like Britain’s ultra-mollycoddled Public Sector drones. He wants a hospital for his parents, a school for his kids, maybe a house where the rent leaves a fiver left over for chips, and… that’s about it.

He doesn’t expect anything he hasn’t paid for – and he often pays more tax, more consistently than any other group. His earnings of £25-50k deliver around £5k a year to the Treasury and much more to the broader economy. Think about it: a self-employed builder putting up a conservatory a week increases the nation’s housing stock by a million pounds a year. A gift that keeps on giving for decades on our overcrowded island, even if you abhor those forests of uPVC wrapping Britain’s suburban brickwork.

And he keeps on doing it, in all weathers, in conditions most salaried workers would consider appalling.

Yet White Van Man doesn’t ask for much. He likes to watch the football, enjoy a beer, do his job with a minimum of hassle. And all he needs to do it is to be left alone. He wants the freedom to make the odd off-colour joke; to hold views offensive to some groups without being prosecuted for them; for the traffic cop to show a bit of understanding if it was an empty motorway in good weather.

He wants a bit of give and take, a bit of common sense to apply, without having to worry about a twenty-point Code of Conduct or densely worded contract. These opinionated, chain-smoking, sarcastic men are the backbone of Britain, if you treat them well.

I always let White Van Man out at busy junctions; after all, I’m on my way to a comfortable office, he’s got to make a one-hour delivery slot or his family goes hungry. I’ll add extra for a job well done and make sure they’ve got all the tea and biscuits they need. I won’t load extra tasks into the brief or be late for him, because all he wants out of life is to get home by 7 to watch Arsenal.

And beyond that, the resourcefulness of White Van Man means makes him a valuable friend. He’ll know someone who’s selling a fridge, or can tile your outside wall, or can get rid of that overhanging tree your neighbours complain about. (Or the neighbours themselves, depending on which part of town he’s from.)

That’s why I always try to make life a bit easier for White Van Man…. and why you should, too.