What do you do for a living?

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 36 Boyfriend being really sweet to be to avoid being slated in blog No ideas as yet about how to make use of the month of downtime. Contemplating cultivating vegetable patch

When I met my Swedish sister in law (or out-of-law since we are not married), she turned many of my ideas upside down. I was pregnant with an-as-yet-unknown girl when she asked,

“So are you going to find out the sex of the baby?”

Luckily my boyfriend and I think alike on this issue – neither of us see any point in waiting to find out. But – let’s call her, Anthea, feels differently. Radically differently as it turned out.

“When K was born, I asked everyone not to tell me the gender, I wanted to hold my baby for five minutes and relate to it without classifying it as he or she. It was the only time in my life I could do it because no matter how we try and treat our children neutrally as individuals, they always end up with gender stereotyping.”

Just so you know, Anthea is a judge and highly respected lawyer. Not a tree-hugging, Abba-fan from 1972. Oh sorry, that middle bit is untrue. She IS an Abba fan. (Swedish, ergo Abba fan sum).

I was even more flabbergasted when she told me about another couple who had decided not to tell anyone the sex of their baby for the first six months. Unsurprisingly enough, she said that few of their friends were able to relate to the baby as a person because we are so brainwashed in pink and blue.

It got me thinking about labels. Most of us need labels in life to be able to categorize people. Gender, Ethnicity (ironically only if different from our own) name, nationality and last but not least profession.

After – How do you do, what do you do?

My boyfriend’s cousin visited us today and told me that she had read my blog – this blog – in a vain attempt to find out what I do. And for that matter what Investment Impact does. She is none the wiser from what I have written and to be honest, I am not surprised.

In any case, here are some of the hats I wear on a daily basis.  Annie – this is for you!

1. Financial Analysis Consultant (used to be in Technology & Telecom, but now several industries) – mainly to help companies forecast the success (in money terms) of their project investment. Some people call it decision support.

2. Excel Modeler – In order to do the above, I build/program financial models in MS Excel which help predict customer demand and revenues for new products, or cost savings driven by technology replacement and in general the possible outcomes of different scenarios.

3. Mother & Expectant Mother  (self-explanatory)

4. Business Owner – To win contracts to perform numbers 1 & 2, without sacrificing the time for 3 I have developed a web-based consultancy called “Investment Impact” where I sell products and services about 1 & 2 – both online and offline – which gives me more flexibility to manage my work. .

5. Contract Referrer – The platform I have built, is developed to be by definition a marketplace for consultants and clients across industry and discipline. It sources more contracts for services 1 & 2 than I can manage or indeed have the ability to do, so the website funnels the project details that come through the website to consultants who have signed up to get them. I don’t take commission (because I don’t believe in the evil pyramid), but consultants have to pay a small amount (£20) to get the contact details, if they are interested. It’s like a ‘call’ option on a potential project.

6. Business Model Designer – To cover 1, 2, 4 & 5 I have spent the past year designing a business model that is profitable but not cost prohibitive for the consultants who want to sign up. I have also made sure there are no bottlenecks to prevent the model being completely scalable. This means we can handle as many projects that come in, without adding on huge overheads. Consultants remain their own boss and mainly define their own pricing. But first they have to prove that they are good by creating products demonstrating their expertise and selling them online. These products are ranked and reviewed by users. So it is the users themselves who determine who gets the most projects from this system.

7. Blogger – In an effort to prevent myself from going even madder than I already am, I blog about my life and business as an outlet to my frustrations but also because it helps to chat the progress of the business and additionally serves as a marketing tool for it.

8. Game designer – In order to help the really good consultants get the best contracts, both rewarding hard work and commitment as well as protecting Investment Impact image, the ‘level up’ process via which consultants get the juiciest contracts is done by a gamification of the business, making Investment Impact fun for users and also forming  solid community which is often lacking in virtual businesses.

9. Woman suffering from severely bitten fingernails – due to trying to achieve all the above and be a mother.

Being Authentic

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This blog was retweeted.
Brother arrived for week long visit. He slid down banister and fractured ankle. Have to go with him to the hospital tomorrow.
Work for myself. Therefore theoretically able to take time off. If you work for yourself, life gets in the way a lot of actually working.

The struggle to find oneself, the pushing against boundaries and questioning of the status quo is everywhere – I see it in my daughter every day – only 16 months and she fights like hell to get her own way.

“No Freya, you can’t chew the remote/pull that book to pieces/slap Mummy across the face.”

Fågel Blå was the name of my boyfriend’s punk band back in the days when he rebelled against his mild-mannered, middle-class parents and lived in a squat. It developed quite a groupie following in Gothenburg back in the late 80’s. My boyfriend is now a very successful IT programmer, Forex trader and pop songwriter. He has (or had until we recently let her go) a nanny, a cleaner and divided his time between Richmond and Gothenburg. It’s a far cry from his left leanings.

Over the years I have had several inspirational mentors. Some who barely know  they have left a deep impression on me and one in particular – Ralf Lauterbach, a man of quiet genius – who said to me

“You will know when you have reached your limits; all human beings have a comfort zone beyond which they only stray for a time. It’s a natural inclination.”

We are like balls that settle into the holes of a puzzle. It takes some longer than others to find themselves – 37 years for me to be exact – because it’s only now that I adore what I do (I admit, having a child has something to do with it).  Although the frenzy of madness over the last few months has driven me insane, I truly believe in what I have created. A solution for professionals to work around their families; a challenge to those big name consultancies to stop charging the earth for advice and knowledge that should be shared more freely. A move towards perfect competition to topple the oligarchs and a carbon friendly way of working. Hurray!

Why is believing in what you do important for business? Because the internet has opened up the possibilities of fraud like never before. It is faceless. And people are trying to grasp an anything that will give them that much needed trust. The buzz word for it is “Authenticity”…and you can’t bottle or fake it.

In 2002 when my stepsister had sent round the link to her myspace profile page so that my aged grandmother, and all my uncles and aunts could see that her favorite article of clothing was crotchless panties, we all gasped in shock. But somewhere amid the mutterings of “dirty laundry in public” I felt a tinge of pride that she did not compromise who she was. For anyone.

You have to be authentic on the internet to create trust, get followers and bond with your clients. On twitter they call it finding your voice. Be yourself. Be consistent. It’s the law. Of course, no-one’s saying you will have to share as much as my sister did.

Seriously Consider: Is corporate life worth it?

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 41 Starting up after 2 weeks holiday. Feels good. Feel like I haven’t had a holiday Difficult to take time off when you know every day costs you. Makes for very expensive holiday

Once upon a time, I had a corporate job and a corporate life. Barely got home in the week, traveled with my colleagues abroad, dined in hotel rooms with BBC World or fancy restaurants after a conference. I’ve lived in Paris, Dusseldorf, Milan, Dublin, Nicosia and spent considerable amounts of time in Budapest and London. And loved it.

“The mark of of VP” said one Boss “is that you can party and drink everyone under the table until 4am and then be in at your desk at 8am the next morning.” He was 6’4″ and was good at that game. He also had an enormous amount of charisma and I, like many people, hung on every word he said. I would give you his name – because he was awesome – but he sacrificed an awful lot for that job, time with his four children and fidelity to his wife.

I don’t judge him. Not one little bit. When you spend that amount of time away from your family doing VP stuff and get wrapped up in the egocentric world that is top management, many people betray their own values and forget why they are doing what they are doing. That’s corporate life. Or can be. The crazy thing is that I aspired to it. For years, the goal was to climb the ladder and be the best.

“They’ve asked me to lead the center of excellence for decision support.” I said. “The exact title is Head of Decision Support Excellence.”

“Putain” said my french husband (confused? you might well be) “A job with head and excellence in the title, it sounds good. What would you do exactly? Accrue things?” He giggled at his own joke. As far as he was concerned the perfect balance of accountancy was a mystery.

“Well, I would lead a team to design investment appraisal methodologies and models in excel, but the only thing is….that the job is in Milan. It’s an international assignment. We would both have to move,” I said. He stopped giggling and drew breath. He realized at once the enormity of the decision at hand even if he hadn’t understood the first half of the sentence. Stopping me from doing a job involving my passion – the creation of excel models – might have meant the end of our marriage then, instead of 2.5 years later.

No one reason can be blamed for the breakdown of a marriage, but I would say that the strain of my corporate life certainly didn’t help it. My husband didn’t have any qualifications, or indeed knowledge of Italian but fancied living in a hot country, with the help of his wife’s salary. Our plan was that he would use that time to study – distance learning. That way it would be for him but also for our future.

It’s a sad but true fact that even now, it is expected that the husband will be the one who gets the high flying job and the wife will follow. Going to Italy, my husband was not only in the minority of men who were supported by their wives, but also totally isolated as a foreign man having followed his wife on international assignment. There was no social support system and worse, total unspoken disrespect for us both. To the outside world, I was the ball-breaker and he was the wimp. Pretty soon we stopped telling anyone what we were doing, and that put paid to our social life with Italians in general. As his resentment smoldered, so did my shame…with surprising consequences. But that’s another story.

So was my promotion worth it? No one can regret what happens in life. But you can learn. And my lesson was that corporate life won’t be the cause of the downfall of your relationship (that’s up to you), but it may be a big catalyst for cracks that are already there.

Hold onto your dreams

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 16 Active Users on the up
Total Users down
Decided that I could only legitimately tell whether someone was a spambot or not by detecting whether they logged in a second time. Spambots, you suck. The end.

Dreaming is an essential part of running a start-up. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the present. How could I not, when only yesterday my little girl learned how to count to three in Swedish. But dreaming – especially WITH someone – is very pleasurable. Dreams turn into ideas and goals. Ideas and goals are an inspiration for your reality.

“So if Hollywood pick up your blog, who would play me?” asked my boyfriend. “Matt Damon?”

Matt Damon had the permanent number one spot on my top five list. And for three years, had been the only person on my list…until I had watched True Blood several months before.

“Alexander Skarsgård would be more suitable since he’s Swedish.” I said lightheartedly, not betraying that – still in the new celebrity crush stage – just the thought of him made me breathe a little faster.

“Now, we would need a suitable English girl to play you. Cheryl Cole. Done.”

I visualized them in the Scarlett-Rhett pose.

“Rhett, Rhett – wherever shall us go, whatever shall us do.”

“Yah, yah frankly my dear I don’t give a hwit.”

So Alexander and Cheryl are now destined to get it on on the big screen. You read it here first.

But seriously, dreaming is what made it possible for us to spend three months this summer on this remote island. Perhaps I mentioned once before – we divide our time between Richmond and Sweden. Most of my friends are astounded that we are able to do so (and I would quote back to THEM the words of that prodigy Marty McFly “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”)

Achieving geographical freedom is one of the greatest pleasures one can know. We have worked damn hard to be able to get here. It has been 12 months in the making – and it has been a common dream. My boyfriend is an employee for a great firm who have given him the leeway to be able to work remotely for three months, so that his personal ambition of allowing his daughter to get to know her Swedish family and roots can be fulfilled. A carefully planned strategy of proving his dedication to the company, ability to work from home and perhaps above all, gall to actually ask them, means that we are here. Living our dream.

It’s useless to rehash the wheel, so if you want to know how we did it I wrote about it here. Lesson for today. Dream your direction and then do it.

The Power of a Smile

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Active Users climbing; feedback on products good so far
All users from direct pushing with offer of free credits Pushing very tiring…will I have to give out free stuff forever?

As our daughter struts merrily around the house @ 8am having kept us up all night,  blithely unaware of everyone’s baleful stares, I wonder how Margaret Thatcher ran a country on 4 hours of sleep a night. I read somewhere that it was only on becoming a parent and regularly understanding how little sleep this is, that you finally realized MT was indeed as mad as a can of beans. (Am supposed to cite reference, but one hit in Google and I can’t find it. Am too tired to do anything further).

Whether it’s because I am pregnant or just selfish, I lay there at 3.45 hearing my boyfriend sing (and I use that term in the loosest sense of the word) lullabies, having kicked him out of bed to “deal with her” even though night duty is officially mine. A hangover from breast feeding days. She finally got to sleep at 5.30 and then woke again at 7.30 chirruping with the birds. The thing is, that even though she has kept us awake, one toothy grin of delight and my heart melts. It is impossible to be angry at her.

Like my accountant. No matter how many times she doesn’t deliver a payslip on time (and it has been often), or has an error in her reporting, when I see her – to tell her what’s what – she immediately gushes in superlatives…

“Oh yes, I am SO sorry – I COMPLETELY understand how you must be furious. The technician is coming round to fix the synching on my computer TODAY. There’s a time stamp issue on my dropbox.” Then she dazzles me with a smile which takes all the wind out of my sails. Consequently, I have apologized to her twice for being so crabby, when I am the client not getting the good service. I am still with her because actually it is quite nice to be able to complain to someone and get a smile back. She’s ok as an accountant and the smile more than makes up for it.

You would do well to remember this. The same goes for email/text. Compare the following two sentences.

  1. YOU ARE A LOUDMOUTHED TWAT.
  2. You are a loudmouthed twat 😉 >-) :-p

If I received the latter, sure I would think that the joke was inappropriate and the sender was an idiot…. but if I received the first, it would definitely be taken as an insult.

So my lesson today is: learn how to use smilies. They take the sting out of your online sarcasm (if, like me, you can’t resist it) or downright insults. Whilst in posh, proper, corporate emailing, smilies are still a no-no (god knows why smiling in emails is not considered professional), the habit of using them will earn you secret points – and smiles – with many recipients.

Too tired to write anymore. Going back to bed |-O

Blog about Sinning & you’ll be in there

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 Getting Investment Impact Blog published by The Urban Times!!!! Sent out the link to my women facebook friends yesterday, only 3 (out of approx 300) replied. V. bad response rate. Feel unloved.

Bounce Rate. I had to look it up. it sounds fairly friendly – bouncy if you will. But actually it means the opposite. It means how many people  leave your site without exploring further – which is tricky since if I send out a link to a blog post, I only expect them to read THAT blog post.

This is my primary activity today by the way, analyzing which pages are a success and where my visitors come from…it is the first time I do it. I also find interesting the time spent on the pages (55 seconds on average on the Copy & Paste is a brilliant idea post). At this point I whip out my stopwatch (aka my iPhone, 21st century equivalent to a Swiss army knife) – to time myself reading it. Surely 55 seconds is too short to read it? Ok. All good. It takes me 45 seconds.

“But what if you have 4 visitors who left before 20 seconds and one visitor who answered a phone call midway?” said my boyfriend. “Then you would have no visitors who read your blog, but Google Analytics would show 5 positive visits. How customizable are the KPIs?”

Logic trumps me once more.

“Dunno” I said scurrying back to my laptop after this miserable news. People! Pay attention at the back there. Don’t answer your phone when you are on my site, otherwise you’ll screw with my stats.

The bald truth is that you will never be able to tell whether people are actually reading your pages, or whether they simply use the moment they land there for some quiet nose-picking time.

However, there are some statistics for a blog at least which are interesting. Returning visitors is one.  Number of visits (especially if you tweeted the direct link to the page) is another. The page that people have visited the most is the one recounts my divorce. Most bizarrely it ranks not only the highest in terms of number of unique visits and pages views (highly correlated I assume) but also time spent on it. I press start on my stopwatch again and read it through – 55 seconds. And yet the average time spent on it is almost 3 minutes. Possible reasons:

1. Re-reading it

2. Picking nose

3. Answering phone

I tested the number of page views by retweeting it yesterday. It doubled the readership – I mentioned the word ‘divorce’ in the tweet. Second highest ranked is the Cheese Doodle Blog. I’ll retweet that today….

My brother said. ” Eat, Pray, Love. Two out of three. Just write your next blog about religion and you’ll be sorted.”

“Or another deadly sin,” I replied. Watch this space. I have done plenty of those. Numerous times.

Beating Dad in the search rankings

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Got my first customer!
Had thought about every little detail apart from what happens after point of sale. Luckily he’s a friend.

My Dad congratulated me on my pregnancy last night, only 2 weeks after I pinged his wife to tell her. It’s no coincidence that I find myself listening to Cats in the Cradle this morning. We have a strange relationship, my Dad and I. We barely see each other, never talk and our emails are mainly one liners. Luckily I now have this blog to communicate with him (better still, he can’t answer me back).

Typically my response to his congratulatory email yesterday was short and sweet.

Dad,

Due date march 30th – day after Freya’s bday. Guess June is a frisky time of year. Maybe you’ll find my blog interesting www.thediaryofayoungstartup.com – its geared towards women readers so I won’t feel too badly if you don’t like it!

L

His email to me was the same.

Hi Lou,

I’m sweating it out here – some cool Swedish weather would not go amiss. Your blog is a bit quirky – but I sort of liked it (after you get used to it).

Love xxxD

If you didn’t realize – firstly, you’re forgiven – that secondly, this email above is great approbation for both my impending child AND my blog.

And yet there is affection between us; even if it is only intellectually that I know this, because of the absence of total passion and well, love. Contact is very difficult to maintain when you have none of those. He is 80 years old – a revered (and clearly, dispassionate) economist. Not like Keynes or Stiglitz, but nevertheless respected in his circles. Thus it was to my surprise that I found out I had knocked him off the top spot of a Google search for “Leontiades”  – I regularly check this in my bid to keep us up in the rankings.

(Dad, if you’re reading this you’re on page number 3 with this reference to your articles and a rather dashing photo of you, after me (top spot from our family) and your brother 😉

Such is the power of social media. I have written no books – he has written 3 (somehow this has grown from the 2 I knew about and I only found out on looking at the web page above), and his brother Milton has written 9. But I, on the other hand, have filled in my Google profile with the following literary prose:

“Undying love affair with the internet, excel and Super Mario. Hugely interested in technology adoption and usage. Geek. But v. importantly also woman :-)”

That’s it. 22 words (and a smiley) is all it took to knock my Dad off the charts. And I happen to know (‘cos I was there) that his first book took him 11 years.

FACT: Google is the biggest search engine on the web and looks likely to hold the top spot for a long, long time. (Read our blog about their world domination here)

OUTCOME: In order to get high in Google rankings, play according to their rules. Which basically means, use their stuff. (For those of you holding off on joining Google +, I hope you have a good reason). So follow this three step guide:

1. Fill out your Google profile & join G+ – use your gmail account (which I assume you have already) as a login to everything; Hook up FB , amazon etc. with this account as well.

2. Add content to your site/profile and update your status on G+ on a regular basis. Get on the G+ bandwagon and add followers. It’s in the new technology adoption phase where people are just adding each other with no real knowledge of where it will fall. Hurry – that wont last long.

3. Link a network of pages to each other to create and drive traffic. Keep post links in different user forums. More activity = higher rankings.

The End.

 

The Mark of a Man

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Someone liked this blog so much they asked me to write a column for their site. Was so flattered that immediately agreed. Can’t think of a way to link it back to my business since it concerns what to do in UK at Xmas.
Lesson today. Flattery will get you anywhere.

The objective of this blog was never to be a daily diary, but somehow once I started, I couldn’t stop. I thought that I would blog on and off for the first year after launch, but it seems that nature has determined the length of time I can blog for. At some point in oh – say 8 months time – I think I might have to take a little break. So that’s how long I have to make a success of my online business. And how long this blog will last. Sad but true.

A little longer than I put in the business plan but a more finite (and painful) goal than my financial forecasts.

“Are you going to blog every day?” asked my boyfriend

“Only if I have something to say” I said. “But by definition I have to chronicle the shitty downtime as well as the success, when it happens, And it will happen. Will blog for a year.” This was before I knew I was pregnant.

“I know it will, I believe in you. But that means 365 blogs. How many have you written so far?”

“4” I said.

“Only 361 to go then.” He said wryly.

So 8 months, give or take, 8 x 30 days x 500 words per blog = 120,000 words. Holy crap. I don’t think I have that many words actually IN me. Maybe I’ll take weekends off. Starting from NOW (if my calculations are correct, this is Monday’s blog, he he he) …90,000 seems more manageable.

But apart from my dubious ability to actually blog that many words, there are other issues. For sharing my life is not just about me.

“I never found you less attractive when you were recovering from pregnancy” said my boyfriend (after having read – and thankfully smirked at – the now infamous in our household at least – cheese doodle blog)

“But you felt less attractive. And that had a detrimental effect on our relationship for a while.”

Actually he doesn’t use words like ‘detrimental’, that one is mine. His exact words probably included “less” and “sex”.

Privacy is an issue, I would imagine, in most author’s writing. They take from their own lives – incidents, conversational snippets even whole characters. I can only tell you that whatever impression you get of my boyfriend from his words, good or bad, it’s not the whole picture. It doesn’t tell you how he uncomplainingly gets up every morning @ 6am when our baby wakes to give me a lie in, nor how even when he thinks I am in the wrong, he brings home flowers to try and make up an argument with me, nor even his hugely rare quality of talking out a problem, as soon as it’s occurred. Yes ladies, he also talks….;-)

It also doesn’t tell you how he sniffles at the very thought of having to give a speech at his daughter’s wedding. The mark of a real man. The image above is called ASCII art and this one is taken from Joan Stark’s Valentine’s site – you didn’t think I did it myself now did you? If you hadn’t realized before now, we are surrounded by experts who give out stuff for free. That’s today’s second lesson. Bizarrely unrelated to the rest of the text. And here’s one that is. Don’t ever settle for a man less than you deserve. If possible try and get a better one than you deserve 😉

It’s like being in The Matrix

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Visitors to the site highest ever yesterday Can’t for the life of me after 3 hours of studying the analytics, figure out why.
If I can’t figure out what I do right, how am I supposed to know what I am doing wrong?

Copy writing. I’ve mentioned it before. It’s the bane of my life. And that front page text has been changed more than a pair of whore’s knickers.

During this cycle of beta testing, I have asked many, many, many people to click onto the website and give me their feedback on what they see. Some have actually done it. Forget Myers Briggs. I have a better test of personality.

Some people get it straight off. They get excited. Passionate even. Those are the analytical geeky guys/gals.

Some get confused.

“What are you? Like a one stop shop for independent consultants?” (Thanks btw to the adviser who gave me that, I liked it and put it on there. It’s cheesy, but am partial to cheese). These are the old-school in-the-box thinkers. Good solid professionals but wary of change…

“There are too many messages.” That’s from the people that are sales & marketing focused. And then they quote business school theory at me.

“As the client, you should tell me what is in it for me.” Yes thank you, I read that book too.

“You should have something that my granny could understand in 15 seconds.”

What the hell is your granny doing there on the first place?

“Change your company name, Investment Impact makes me think of banks.”

Price Waterhouse Coopers is not a self-explanatory name (is it a department store? a Law firm? a consultancy that Prices Without Conscience? Who knows…) and certainly not more self-explanatory than Investment Impact. But it’s already famous (or infamous). It has leeway that I don’t yet have.

The difficulty is that I have two distinct segments that I have to attract. Consultants and Clients. But for me they’re all USERS. Most consultants will download some files, even if it’s just the free ones. And any user can be an expert and in fact all of them will be in something.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

The way I have designed the model is to attract a type of User. Experts. People seeking experts. Not the so-called ‘clients’…..

But hold up! They won’t earn you any money! (See, I can hear you from here). My goal is to create a community first. If the community is excellent and thriving, then the clients will come.

My favorite haunt in Paris is Le Violon Dingue. I loved it so much that once they had to carry me out. Ahem. And most bars’ policies are to employ empty-headed young girls dressing them in tight promotional lucky strike t-shirts and short skirts.

To the US – think Hooters.

Now Hooters is all very well, but it doesn’t attract many women. Le Violon Dingue has a different policy. They employ 5-7 20-something, handsome Irish lads.

To the girls – think Ronan Keating or Cillian Murphy gazing at you with bright blue eyes, serving you a Pina Colada (in an Irish accent) and doing Tom Cruise style tricks behind the bar. Wet yet?

Where girls go, men follow. Le Violon Dingue gets many, many customers by knowing human nature.

Back to Investment Impact.”Why don’t you change the tag line so its more obvious? ‘We can see the future’ – what does that mean anyway?”

We can see the future. We have a superpower that other consultancies don’t have. We can help you make the right decisions at the right time and make sure your investment is the right one. The prophesy tagline is the bit I love. Makes me feel like I’m Neo in The Matrix.

My goal is to make the site attractive to consultants, experts and analysts, especially those who are new-wave and innovative, dedicated to excellence, those who are committed to co-creating their lives and changing the world. And clients will come, attracted to the excellence like flies to shit. Or the other less rude expression that escapes me right now.

 

Culture Clash

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Someone reshared a self-promotional post in Google + for the first time
The person’s name was in Japanese characters, so not sure how much publicity it actually got in the English speaking quarters.
Multilingual capabilities of site scheduled only for 2012. Person’s profile pic was a cat in a bottle. I will never understand the beauty of bonsai.

“Did you stir the custard with a vanilla pod?” asked my very English mother, giving Paula, my very Swedish mother-in-law the very highest of female compliments in assuming a degree of culinary expertise.

“Yes” said Paula,  only having heard or understood the first half of the sentence. “I stirred it very well with a spoon after I poured it out from the packet.”

My mother looked nonplussed. Unsure for a moment as to how to turn any response into a further compliment.

“Well” she said. ” If we had packets of custard as good as this in England, I wouldn’t make any either. I shall have to take some back with us.” Bingo, a compliment not only to Paula’s excellent taste but her country’s ability to make better custard than England where it was practically a national dish.

My mother is a past master at finding the way to stroke egos. For the last week she and my boyfriend’s family have been trying to get to know each other a little better. Paula’s idea was to take my family on walks around the island, out on the boat and serve them a gourmet fish soup. She’s an active doer of things. Compared with my family whose idea of a good time is to do no things.

One brother doesn’t like fish. AT ALL. This was the same brother that wrecked his ankle by sliding down the banisters on the first day and was consequently laid up for the week. My mother can’t walk very far because of her arthritis. The last time the other brother was on a boat he was violently ill. And he had very different expectations of the holiday to begin with.

“Is there a pool?” he asked, when my boyfriend picked them up from the airport.

“No.” Said my boyfriend. “but there’s the sea.”

“Not swimming in that.” said the second. “Too cold.”

“By the way we’ve put you in the guest house, that way you’ll have some privacy” said my boyfriend. “But the toilet is in the main house. If you need to go in the middle of the night, you can go outside to pee and indoors for anything else.”

Both brothers stared at him not sure if he was serious. A guesthouse without a toilet was not what they’d had in mind.

“Well” said one trying to make the best of a bad job. “I’m looking forward to relaxing in the bath.” He has his mother’s gift of finding the compliment in the situation.

“Sorry.” said my boyfriend. “We only have a shower.”

After a long pause my brother joked “You’ve got running water then?”

“Yes” said my boyfriend without a glimmer of a smile, “We got that 25 years ago. Although we had dry toilets when I was young.”

The mix of 8 people trying hard to see the best in each other despite their cultural differences and habitual preferences, was hilarious to watch. We did pretty well.

But so often because individuals believe their way is the only way or the best way, it can cause enormous conflict because it taps into psychological insecurities. It seems that often if one way of doing something is different to someone else’s way, it is taken as an implicit criticism, a personal affront.

And although it would be wonderful if everyone accepted each others’ idiosyncrasies that’s often not the way things are in life or business. One up-man-ship abounds and many individuals seem to focus on their own persona rather than trying to understand other points of view in order to work towards an end goal (to my ex-boss @ VF, yes I do mean you).

Stephen Covey wrote a great book called “The 7 habits of highly effective people” and I recommend it even if you buy it for just one habit.

Seek to understand before being understood.

PS. It’s very easy to give advice. Not so easy to follow.