What can robotic deliveries and checkout-less shops teach entrepreneurs?

I’m fascinated by the way technology is continually transforming the way we live and do business. A couple of developments in particular have caught my attention recently, so I decided to a look at these advances and what they can teach entrepreneurs.

Takeaway droids and retail automation

Pizza delivery man with pizza boxes
Could the pizza delivery guy soon be replaced by droids?

Ordering a takeaway is nothing new, but what if your meal was delivered not by a person but by a robot?

This is precisely what happened to a customer in Greenwich recently. Working in partnership with Starship Technologies, food delivery company Just Eat became the first in the world to successfully deliver a meal using a droid – and the business announced it intends to expand the use of these sci-fi style deliveries across London. The six-wheeled droids, which have a range of 10 miles, unlock when customers enter a code sent to their phones. How incredible is that?!

If you get fed up waiting in checkout queues, you might be as intrigued as I am by Amazon’s plans to roll out checkout-free stores in the UK. Recently, the online retailer opened its first Amazon Go food shop in Seattle for its employees to use.

It contains sensors that automatically record the products that people pick up. The total bills are then charged to customers’ Amazon Prime accounts, doing away with the need for checkouts and meaning that people can simply grab and go.

The company has now registered a UK trademark for the Amazon Go concept, so watch this space.

Entrepreneurs need to adapt

Clearly, if technological developments like these are rolled out more widely, they will have a major impact on consumers. But what can they teach business leaders?

I think one of the big lessons that companies can take from these advances is the importance of being prepared to adapt and move with the times. The sheer pace of change in areas like retail means that businesses which refuse to embrace new ideas and ways of working risk being left behind.

For many companies, standing still is simply not an option. Unless they innovate and find increasingly sophisticated solutions on an ongoing basis, there is a real danger that they will be outsmarted and outflanked by their more adventurous competitors.

Great entrepreneurs embrace new technologies

A big part of moving with the times is embracing new technologies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all businesses will be rushing to make use of customer-facing robots or other similarly attention-grabbing solutions, but there are a host of more subtle ways in which companies can take advantage of sophisticated technologies.

From using the latest cloud-based communication tools that make it easier for colleagues to share and access information to monitoring the efficiency of vehicle fleets with GPS systems, businesses can harness the power of technology in many different ways.

Entrepreneurs clearly understand the importance of this issue too. According to a poll conducted by Real Business, 60 per cent of owners of small to medium-sized businesses in the UK believe that companies must stay up to date with the latest technological trends if they are to survive.

I couldn’t agree more and will be endeavouring to ‘move with the times’ as much as possible in my own businesses.

What do top sportspeople and entrepreneurs have in common?

Sport and business might be two separate realms, but in fact it takes many of the same characteristics to rise to the top in both of these arenas. I’ve been thinking about this lately and, from the late, great boxer Muhammad Ali to high-profile entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, there are a few things these people tend to have in common.

An insatiable hunger for success

What separates a decent sportsperson from a true icon? There are, of course, a lot of factors that feed into this, but one of the things that propels the big sporting names to the very top and keeps them there is an insatiable hunger for success.

When these people win a trophy or break a record, they don’t sit back and think their work is done. Instead, their triumphs fuel their desire to enjoy future successes. From Serena Williams’ staggering seven Wimbledon championship wins to Sir Chris Hoy’s 11 world championship victories and six Olympic golds, the brightest stars in the sporting world strive to continually improve themselves and achieve their next goal.

The same can be said for leading business stars. Take Virgin founder Richard Branson. There are now over 100 Virgin companies globally and the group employs around 60,000 people. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg grew the social network from a small directory for his fellow Harvard students into a global phenomenon that has helped him amass a fortune. People like this aren’t content to sit back in the knowledge they have achieved ‘enough’. Their drive and passion always keeps them reaching higher.

A tough work ethic

A tough work ethic is a must in both the sporting and the business worlds. While lots of people would love to cross the finish line in first position or land lucrative contracts, it takes a certain kind of individual to actually put in the hard graft required to turn these dreams into reality.

For sportspeople, this could involve spending long hours in the gym or on the training field pushing their bodies to the limit. For entrepreneurs, it could mean working around the clock to set up and keep their companies on track.

As well as the mental and physical strain, this often means making sacrifices like cutting down on holidays and time with friends at the pub, but I have always tried to set aside family time, no matter how hectic work gets.

A passion for what they do

Because of the level of commitment needed to get to the top, passion is an essential part of the mix in both sport and business. The best athletes and entrepreneurs have a zeal for what they do and this helps to sustain them when things get tough. Having a genuine enthusiasm for their sport or business keeps them motivated to keep doing what they’re doing day after day.

The fact is, in both of these spheres, high-profile successes are only a small part of the story. The ongoing reality is hard work, much of which goes unnoticed. In many cases, it’s unwavering passion that enables people to keep this up.

Founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, Chris Niarchos knows what it takes to achieve success as an entrepreneur. He set up his first direct sales company at the age of 22 with the goal of building it into an international sales and marketing company. Appco Group, which is the sales and marketing subsidiary of the Cobra Group, now operates in 25 countries around the world.

 

Learning how to fail

In business, we spend a lot of time talking about success and not enough time talking about failure. It’s a shame. The world of business is full of spectacular failures that we could learn a lot from.

I’ve often wondered whether we don’t talk about failure because it stigmatises the people associated with it. This is ridiculous. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history have experienced enormous failures: Steve Jobs, for one, was fired from his own company, and even after returning a decade later and turning Apple into the huge success it is today he still made enormous mistakes.

The Hockey Puck — success from failure

After being unceremoniously dismissed from his own company, Steve Jobs was invited back to Apple in the late 1990s to try and turn it around. Although he was responsible for many huge successes, his approval of Apple’s ‘hockey puck’ mouse, which was so round it was almost impossible to hold, was derided as an over-designed failure. It cost the company deeply and embarrassed Jobs as leader.

Returning to his old company and stumbling at the first hurdle must have been hard, but Jobs immediately learned from his mistake. Never again would he put his passion for design above the need for practicality. A few years later, Apple released the iPod, which perfectly married form and function, Jobs having clearly learned from his mistake.

New Coke — succeeding by knowing your brand

One of the more interesting business failures was Coca-Cola’s decision to completely change its signature recipe. In the 1980s, Coke had been steadily losing market share to diet soft drinks and competitors like Pepsi. The company conducted blind taste tests of Coke against other drinks and found that most consumers hated the taste of Coke.

Their solution was to make the drink sweeter — more like Pepsi. When the recipe was changed, in April 1985 the so-called ‘new taste of Coca-Cola’ was a complete failure. Consumers reacted hostilely to a company tampering with a brand they had come to enjoy.

The new recipe was discontinued and Coke’s market dominance gradually returned. Coke learned never to tamper with a well-loved and respected brand.

The Lesson

Stepping out into the world of business is hard. It’s estimated that only one out of every ten start-ups survives, and even then, very few go on to be the next Facebook. I’m never deterred by this. I know that for every start up that fails, several entrepreneurs from it will get up, dust themselves off, and apply what they’ve learned to their next idea. It’s this mindset that I try to apply in The Cobra Group of Companies, which includes a number of small start-ups as well as the global marketing Agency, Appco Group.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true, there’s so much to learn from failing. Everyone does it. The walls of Facebook’s offices are plastered with the motto ‘fail harder’ — I think that’s a motto to live by.

 

How do businesspeople make the hard choices?

Anyone who has been in business for any length of time will have made some difficult decisions. It’s no secret that running a business requires you to make hard choices, but the best way to meet and make those decisions doesn’t receive enough attention.

Looking back over some companies’ decision-making illuminates both the difficulties of making decisions in business and the best way to avoid making the same mistake is to adhere to the right process. (And yes, hindsight is always 20-20!)

Steve Jobs and Apple

After founding Apple in 1976, Steve Jobs and cofounder Steve Wozniak led the company to several successes. In the early 1980s, Jobs’ knack for decision-making led Apple to develop some of the most advanced personal computers on the market.

While Jobs directed Apple to create expensive but polished closed-architecture computers, competitors Microsoft and IBM, set about designing far cheaper, open-architecture computers. The low price point of these computers ate into Apple’s market share.

John Scully, Apple’s CEO wanted the company to follow the open-architecture model, while Jobs feared this would reduce the quality of the computers and refused. Apple’s board sided with Scully and Jobs was fired. What seemed like a good the right decision at the time, aggressively pursuing market share, turned out to be disastrous, leading Apple to near collapse before Jobs was brought back on in 1997 to turn the company around.

What can we learn from this difficult decision? First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge how prudent the decision to ditch Jobs must have seemed at the time. He was holding Apple back from contesting the market share of IBM and Microsoft. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the board made the wrong decision — Jobs was the key ingredient to Apple’s success.

What do we think about when making a hard decision? 

So, with the benefit of hindsight, what does this teach us about decision-making?

The first thing it highlights is the importance of taking a wide-ranging and holistic view. Apple’s board was too focused on short-term market share; it didn’t see the value in Jobs’ relentless pursuit of engineering perfection and standards. That short-termism ultimately left Apple worse off; it suffered a long decade of heavy losses.

Standards are important to me in running The Cobra Group of Companies and the individual businesses within it, including Appco Group. Recently, I listened to a talk given by Simon Murphy, a leading entrepreneur in the Appco network, about the importance of standards in business. He urged business owners to make upholding high standards central to everything they do.

I couldn’t agree more. Taking non-quantifiable things like standards into account in business decision-making is, in my opinion, one of the keys to making the right, long-term choices.

Had Apple, in 1985, considered standards in their decision over Jobs, they might not have suffered the decade of heavy losses that they did. As a businessperson, my life is full of hard choices like this one — thinking about them in a holistic and lateral way is the best advice I can give for achieving the right decision-making process, even if it can’t always guarantee the ‘right’ decision.

How do we overcome problems in business?

Look at problems.

What do you see when you look at a problem? What if you were a dentist, and tomorrow someone invented something that gave everyone perfect teeth? What if you were a pilot and someone invented teleportation?

I realise these are slightly facetious examples, but we’re faced with problems and obstacles every day of our lives and how we respond to them says a lot about who we are as people and as business leaders.

Recognising a problem

All over the world, businesses are struggling to adapt to the challenges wrought by digital technology. Some industries have been hit particularly hard by the digital revolution. In 1999, for example, traditional record companies made US$14.6 billion, but only ten years later, that figure stood at just $6.3 billion. Music industry insiders call it the lost decade.

That isn’t to say that the music industry as a whole has suffered. Bands focus more on touring now and tech companies like Apple are reaping the rewards investing in innovative ways of music delivery. What the story does show, however, is the importance of meeting challenges. The successful companies innovated; the unsuccessful ones dithered.

So many industries have been hit hard by the digital revolution. How each has responded to it says a lot about how they operate.

There are exceptions to this story as well. Sometimes is pays to be conservative. When putting content online for free started eating into The Times newspaper’s subscriber base, they put up a paywall and increased both subscribers and revenue. Some papers that didn’t, like The Guardian, which has embraced free online content, are struggling and losing money. 

Overcoming a problem

Technological innovation has always been both a challenge and an opportunity. I think the stories above reveal an important way for businesses to embrace problems.

Look at the music industry example. The companies that survived in that environment were the ones that innovated, that changed their practices and realised that the old regime was over. By innovating, they not only staved off failure, but they also created new, successful products.

The second important thing to learn is to play to your strengths. When you come across a problem, pause and think what unique capabilities you and your team have to solve it. This is what successful newspapers have done. They’ve created models that protect and monetise the unique parts of their business: their content, while harnessing the Internet’s ability to share it.

Every day you will come across small and large obstacles in life and in business. At The Cobra Group of Companies and at Appco Group, I have certainly come across my fair share of problems. However, thinking innovatively and marshaling all of your unique capabilities and strengths to overcome those problems will help you succeed.

‘The culture of a company is like music in a nightclub — the music you play affects the people who come in’

I started Cobra Group in 1988 and since that time I’ve worked with a huge variety of people from all over the world. Whether they were business owners, contractors or employees, the one thing that sticks out to me about everyone I’ve worked with is the importance of attracting people who believe in what you do and fit with the culture of the company.

This was the subject of a speech I gave to independent business owners in the Appco UK network recently, and I’d like to flesh out my ideas a bit more on this blog.

What is the culture of your company?

As businesspeople, we have to ask ourselves what our company culture is. I’ve written a lot about motorsport and about tech companies on this blog because I’m continually fascinated by how those companies define what their culture is. Look at a place like Google. Everyone knows that Google is a company focused on innovation; we know their company culture is innovative even if we don’t work for them.

This is true in motorsport as well. At the same skills-sharing event I spoke at, Mark Gallagher, a Formula 1 expert, told attendees about how Red Bull Racing created a company culture of teamwork and innovation from the bottom up so that everyone – from the company’s truck drivers, to independent contractors, to sponsors and media – knew what Red Bull racing stood for.

What music do you play?

My message to entrepreneurs is that running a business is like playing music in a nightclub. Some clubs will play techno music and techno fans go to those clubs and have a great time; other clubs play 70s pop and 70s pop fans go to those clubs and have a great time. That’s because when the music from a club filters out onto the street, it attracts the sort of people who enjoy that style.

In business, we have to think the same way. If your company’s culture is conservative and careful, you’re not going to attract innovators. If your culture is fast-paced and innovative, you’re not going to attract conservative and careful people.

You are the advertisement for your business

Thinking about the people you work with in this way is interesting. The conventional wisdom is that when businesses look for contractors or staff, applicants compete for the work because it’s perceived as an opportunity for them.

The way successful businesses think is by inverting this logic and looking at that person as an opportunity for them. Like the music in a nightclub, their culture is the product and they’ve got to work hard to attract the right people to it.

How do we make ourselves attractive to the kinds of people we want to work with us? Whatever your business model, whether you want innovative contractors, employees, or business partners, how do you create a culture so that those sorts of people choose your business?

My suggestion is to identify your company’s ‘music’ and make sure that you play it constantly and consistently.

 

How to deliver an Olympic performance in business

As the medal tallies climb, and the number of heart-warming stories of success grows by the day, the Olympics continues to be a constant source of inspiration, providing lessons for people well beyond the sporting world.

For those in business, I believe the Games exemplifies a range of qualities that we can use to improve how we work.

Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson
Business leaders can learn from Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson, who didn’t achieve this feat without setting a few goals and putting in some serious effort. (A.Ricardo/Shutterstock.com)

Set goals like an Olympic athlete

For many athletes, simply reaching the Olympics is the goal.

Hours, weeks, months and years of gruelling training have gone before the ultimate recognition of being able to walk behind their country’s flag in the opening ceremony and compete with the best of the best in their sport or event.

The hard work can not be underestimated and the determination it takes should be the aspiration of anyone with their sights set on business leadership and success.

Setting your sights high, and having a clear aim in mind is, without a doubt, one of the best motivational tools you can have.

It doesn’t have to be an immediate goal – as Olympians have shown us, the biggest rewards are rarely an overnight win – but simply knowing what you want to achieve can give you the stamina to fight for it.

In a recent blog, I reflected on the importance of retaining this level of focus: “One of the things that has helped me to remain motivated throughout my career is my desire to ‘Be Something More’. This phrase was printed on a poster that I put up on my bedroom wall as a youngster living a home and it has helped me to shape my approach to work and to life more generally.”

 

Team work takes you to the top

Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Jessica Ennis-Hill. They might be the faces of the Olympics, but behind them there is a huge group of coaching and administration staff. Not to mention all of the mums, dads, partners and siblings who provide vital emotional support (and chauffeuring services).

Although they are not the ones on television, that support crew is a vital part of the success that the sports stars experience.

In business, team work is equally important. No one person can do it all – or at least, do it all well. So make sure you have people around you that believe in your mission, have skills that you don’t and can fulfil the essential roles and tasks required for business success.

You then need to get everyone talking. Watch any of the Olympics events and you will see the competitors continually communicating with each other and their coaches – the gymnastics, synchronised diving and tennis doubles are great examples – to ensure they’re aligned and also for motivation and support.

Great communication in a company is crucial too. It will enable you to maximise results and achieve more than you can as an individual. By supporting one another in a business, you can also learn faster and make fewer mistakes.

 

Develop a gold-medal attitude

A gold-medal mindset does not come from fearing failure.

Using positive self-talk and mental imagery, and managing emotions effectively, are skills that professional athletes frequently allude to when speaking about what helps them to reach the heights of their sports.

Maintaining a positive outlook, and visualising a successful outcome is not just a mental device for Olympians, it is something that can assist everyone in their day-to-day lives.

When facing challenges in business, taking a positive stance and looking for ways to solve a problem, rather than dwelling on the negative, is the best way to move forward.

In another of my previous blogs, I mentioned that inspirational leaders tend to have a bold visions: “Whether this is outselling competitors, developing groundbreaking products or services that advance industry standards or meeting ambitious growth targets, being able to think big and articulate their goals clearly and convincingly helps to set the best businesspeople apart.”

So, as the Rio Olympics draw to a close, I believe it’s not only worth celebrating the wins and the medals, but also the incredible drive, commitment, gruelling work and passion that the athletes and the their support teams have brought to this event. For me, that is what’s truly inspiring about the Games.

 

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which includes the global field-marketing organisation Appco Group and high-performance race-car manufacturer McLaren GT.   

 

The key to keeping a balanced perspective in business

As the leader of a business, it can be all too easy to lose your perspective. You might find yourself working all hours and, even when you’re not officially on duty, your thoughts might be consumed by the latest developments in your company.

If you’re not careful, you could find it impossible to keep a balanced view of your business – and on life more generally. With decades of experience as an entrepreneur, I know that maintaining a clear perspective can sometimes be difficult, but here are some techniques I’ve picked up that have made it easier for me to stay positive and in control.

Manage your time effectively

Effective time management is a must for all businesspeople. If you don’t plan your days properly, you will quickly start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do.

Part of time management is prioritising the most important tasks and focussing on them first. It’s also important to delegate responsibilities to suitable people within your organisation. If you try to micromanage too many elements of your company, you won’t give yourself the time you need to set the strategic direction for your business.

Take care of your health

Trying to get by on minimal sleep, compensating with copious amounts of caffeine, filling up on convenient but unhealthy food and failing to get enough exercise are all things that many business leaders can relate to.

Bear in mind though, it’s difficult to stay mentally strong if you’re not looking after your physical wellbeing. If you’re unfit, tired and generally rundown, you’ll find managing your company more difficult. So, even when you’re busy, it’s important to put some time and effort into staying healthy. This could involve adopting a better sleeping routine, changing your diet and squeezing exercise sessions into your daily routine.

These things can all help you to keep a clear head and cope more easily with any difficulties you encounter in your work. They’re also important for your long-term health, so this isn’t an issue you can afford to ignore.

Make time for friends and family

Many – if not most – entrepreneurs fail to achieve a good work-life balance and it certainly can be a challenge. But not seeing enough of your family and friends, or simply taking time out for yourself, can make you lose sight of what’s really important and why you’re striving for business success in the first place.

By reserving some personal time in your schedule, you should find it easier to keep sight of the bigger picture and ensure your stress levels stay in check.

As founder and chairman of the Cobra Group of Companies, Chris Niarchos is responsible for setting the strategic direction for all the businesses within the group, including AGS Global Fundraising Services. As the leader of an international conglomerate, he knows exactly what it takes to keep a clear head in business.

Why leadership doesn’t have to be lonely

Being a business leader can give you a great feeling of professional achievement and satisfaction, but it does also have the potential to be lonely. You have ultimate responsibility for the success of your company and this puts you in a unique position within your organisation.

However, my own experience as an entrepreneur tells me that heading up a business doesn’t necessarily have to be isolating. Drawing on observations I’ve made throughout my career, here are some suggestions that could help you to stay connected to the people around you.

Continue reading “Why leadership doesn’t have to be lonely”

4 skills that will set you apart in business

Anyone can set up their own company, but it takes a certain type of person to climb to the very top in the business arena. Following are four skills that I believe help to set people apart as successful entrepreneurs. If you are planning to start your own company, it’s worth asking yourself if you already have these abilities or you need to work on them.

Continue reading “4 skills that will set you apart in business”