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Your “good idea” isn’t necessarily a good business…

Over the last few years I’ve mentored hundreds of startups and founders, most of them in the early-stages of building their business. The single most common issue I see is that founders don’t make a distinction between a good idea and a good business. They think that because there’s a problem, then inevitably people will pay for a solution to that problem. 

As the number one reported reason that startups fail is “no market need” I wanted to write something that addressed this, and give an example I’ve been using for a while. Why are nearly half of us wrong that we’re building something that people actually want?

I stood in front of an audience of a few hundred people. “Raise your hand if you have ever spilled a drink?”. Inevitably, a few hundred hands went into the air. “And how many would like to never spill a drink again?”.

Every single hand stayed up.

“So” I continued, “we can assume from this reasonable sample that every person on the planet has spilled a drink, and would be interested in a product that stopped them doing it again, right?” 

On the face of it that feels like a pretty compelling problem to tackle. Based on that sample it is a pain that every adult on the planet has experienced, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there’s a vast amount of people who would pay for a solution.

And it’s the thought process that most would-be entrepreneurs have when they come up with a new business idea. They have a bias towards all the confirmation that they see around them, telling them that it *must* be a business that everyone needs. I’ve done it myself more times than I’d like to admit.

I then ran the audience through 5 or 6 different potential products to solve this issue that billions of people experience several times a year. They included: 

  • An adjustable cap that can fit on the top of a wine glass, pint glass, mug etc, like toddlers have. 
  • An app that you open when you start drinking, and it sends you regular reminders not to spill your drink. 
  • A heavy weight that you attached to the bottom of every mug or glass that you drink from, ensuring that it’s very difficult to knock over.

They are all terrible ideas, of course. Or, to be more precise, they are all products that nobody would buy or use. But I challenge you to come up with a solution that *would* solve this problem and, crucially, also become a successful business. 

My point is that there’s a big difference between a good idea and a good business. And the inability to acknowledge that fact is probably the biggest issue I’ve found when working with countless early stage entrepreneurs. They all fall in love with their solution, and not the problem. And whether people will pay for that solution. All the time that you are focused on YOUR solution, you are missing out on the fact that there may be a better solution just next door.

In other words, most of them are solving a problem that is not big enough to cause a change in behaviour (of either usage or payment) in their potential customers. And their emotional attachment to their solution blinds them to that fact.

We each knock over a drink every now and then, and we clean it up when it happens. Occasionally it’s a glass of water in a busy pub (no problem), and sometimes it’s a glass of red wine on our mum’s new beige carpet (major problem). But the reality is that it’s just not a big enough problem in most of our lives that we would consider changing our behaviour, or making a payment, for the problem to go away. 

In summary, don’t take what seem like huge signals of confirmation to be evidence that your idea will become a huge business. They’re not. It’s your mind and your ego tricking you. You need to ask the right questions (hint: read The Mom Test) to find out. For example, if you ask 100 people open questions about their drinking habits, and none of them offer you (unbidden) the insight that spilling a drink is a persistent, painful problem for them, then you arguably don’t have a business. 

Some of us wait until we’re far enough down the track with building our solution that we have become emotionally attached to it, are more likely to subscribe to the sunk-cost fallacy, and are reticent to change what we’re doing. Speak to your customers early, and in the right way, and you massively improve your chances of success.

Because a good idea isn’t necessarily going to be a good business.

I’m currently offering free mentoring sessions via Zoom. Enter your info here if you’d like to find out more. 

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Community during Coronavirus – CreativeMornings/Cardiff

I’ve been a fan of Melin’s for some time. Ever since I landed back in Cardiff at the beginning of 2019, I’ve been religiously attending CreativeMornings/Cardiff, of which she is the current custodian. It’s a huge, international network of events, and Melin runs the Cardiff chapter with great energy and humour. I’ve spent many Friday mornings, blearily arriving at a lovely cafe or art space to wake myself up with great coffee, great company, and inspiring talks.

Melin, please introduce yourself, and what you do!

“I’m the host of CreativeMornings/Cardiff. CreativeMornings is the largest face-to-face community in the world. It’s a breakfast lecture series where we host a talk as well as creating this space for people to come in and meet each other. In Cardiff, we have an amazing community that is obviously not just made out of creatives. We are called CreativeMornings but you don’t have to be creative to be part of it. You just need to appreciate and value creativity. I guess that’s like the baseline and the reason that we get together.

We are also a bunch of people who like to share stories, and who like to listen to stories to get inspired. I’d like to think of us as a support system as well, especially considering that we are a very tight knit community in a small city. Over the years, I’ve realised that we’ve facilitated a lot of people to meet and collaborate, or discover new ideas, new people, which I absolutely love. So I really miss our face-to-face community, and being a part of this has just been incredible, so far.”

What’s been the primary impact of coronavirus on the community?

A hug from Melin is an important part of CM Cardiff!

“A lot of people in our community are freelancers, makers and creatives. So it impacted them economically. People who create and make things to sell are questioning themselves about whether this is the best time to carry on selling those sorts of products. So they’re asking themselves how to survive or how to pay their bills. They’ve lost a lot of work. So there’s a real a struggle for the creative industry. Especially for makers. But these people are incredibly talented, and I’ve already seen some people change their business. So, for example, they’re creating rainbows out of new materials and donating some of the profit to NHS”.

Film-maker makes a visual note.

There are those people who get ahead of things and managed to remodel their businesses. But some people in our community, unfortunately, had to stop doing what they are doing or completely depend on online sales. 

Main difference is that, for freelancers and creatives, those face to face meetings, or going to events and meeting like-minded people, was often how they found business. Now that’s out of question. 

But on the up side we’re all learning a lot about how much communities matters and we are being creative about how we support each other. On Instagram people are reposting their maker friends stuff, or talking about that person. One of our CreativeMornings/Cardiff team members lost their job, and she actually put that on Instagram, we all reposted it, and she got a couple of jobs out of it.

Maybe these are not big thing, but I think they matter.

I think the community feels are continuing online. It’s just a little bit more challenging. But I think that we’ve always had that in Cardiff. People are just lovely. Everyone is really ready to support each other, and we just keep on doing that”.

How are you planning to take such a physical meetup online?

“Yes, obviously our biggest thing is that it is usually face to face. But me and the team got together to see how we carry on from now, and we decided we’re still going to approach our speakers that we have on our wish list. Obviously it’s going to be online. Our first one is going to be a relaxed one where we’re just going to invite a speaker to just chat on Instagram live.

Christmas event at The Gate

So we plan to have more of a casual conversation than a talk. We want to warm ourselves up, rather than just go straight into a proper online “event”. The great thing about this is that we can actually approach anyone, anywhere in the world now. Previously we had all these worries about how we bring speakers to Cardiff, how do we afford to host them here. What would make that person from London or Essex get up and come here? Now we don’t have that limitation. 

Our aim is still to inspire and give hope to people. We don’t want to do something heavy hearted. We don’t want to leave people with heavy feelings. So we’ve really concentrated on people who have a lot of positive impact, who have hope and great messages in the things that they create.

We also introduced weekly newsletters as “virtual care packages” Mared is such a good writer, she has been putting these newsletters together with the team to spread positive and fun news from around the world as well us tips from us on work, health, and fitness. We’re aware that we may not be able to deliver events as timely and perfectly as before but we still want our community to know we are there for them”.

Note from NC – a week or so later, and they did just this – and it was great! I’m really looking forward to what they do next.

What’s the biggest challenge for you in maintaining and building these communities

“I think the most difficult thing is finance. It’’s because ours is a completely volunteer-run event. Nobody gets paid, and we also don’t charge for events. This means that we can only facilitate events that are as good as our sponsors. If we’ve got a good sponsor, that can allow us to have 150 free coffees, for example. But if we have an even bigger sponsor we can have a bigger event and maybe more giveaways. Or we can create more opportunities for our attendees. But now those aren’t really issues, and we’re not thinking about money. We’re thinking about what we can do as volunteers to create those opportunities.

What does the community need? What do they need to hear? Who do they need to see? Has Cardiff and the world heard of the magical things happening right here on our doorsteps?

And although we’re really invested in actually creating awareness about local stuff, we also include hard truths that maybe some people don’t want to know. So we are always trying to keep that level of sweet and sour. 

At Off Track, a cafe under Jacob’s Market

We’re not always giving them what they want. That’s a conscious decision, because it’s a creative community that we lead. Creative people are more prone to want to see people that are doing amazing, beautiful drawings, but we don’t want to just keep bringing the same type of people, and same ideas”.

And so what’s next? What will change for CM Cardiff, and for you?

“I’m quite excited to see the world after this and, and how it impacts our relationships. I think strong teams and strong communities will survive this. I believe in the people who are really supportive and helpful and caring, I think we are already seeing amazing examples. But I also hope we will learn to judge less. We rely on social media so much as a community that I also want to make people aware that whatever we are seeing is maybe not exactly what it is. We’ve got to remember that whatever we’re putting out there is a conscious decision, and people will respond to it in different ways. I hope people will have more tolerance for each other”.

What was really interesting to me about chatting to Melin was how as a group the CM Cardiff team decided not to just rush into the idea of just doing talks on Zoom, like everybody else. But, mainly, they’ve seen it as an opportunity to widen the scope of who they can attract as a speaker. The limitations of social distancing have in fact made some things, in fact, more possible than before…..

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Community during Coronavirus – BCT Wales

In the third of my series looking at how community builders and managers are keeping their communities vibrant during lockdown, I spoke to Chris Johnes, CEO of BCT Wales. The work that BCT do is really impressive, and it’s nice to hear about it in more detail.

I’ll let Chris explain… 

“The thing that we spend 90% of our time doing is running something called the Invest Local program, which is a mixture of funding and support for 13 communities spread across Wales. Each community gets a million pounds over roughly a 10 year period to spend on whatever they want to do to make their community stronger. In most cases that involves some sort of investment in local community organizations – either making the existing ones stronger or building new ones”. 

And what did that support look like, before Coronavirus changed everything?

So, in each area they’ve got a group of local people that come together to actually manage the program. They might be residents who aren’t involved in anything else. They might be the secretary of the local football club and the treasurer of the local community association. Or somebody from the local church. So it could be quite a variety of people, and our job, in a sense, is to help them work effectively together and help them reach out to the wider community. It’s all about advising them, supporting them, sometimes challenging them, and also making sure they have access to wider information in order to help them draw up plans for spending. Finally, we are very keen on a focus l on evaluating the work that’s done, but again, what communities decide to prioritise for monitoring and evaluate is very much up to them

We’re not hands on community development workers. Our job is not about telling people what they should do, but it’s once they’ve decided what they want to do, helping them do it as effectively as possible.

And what changes have happened for BCT and your supported communities since the advent of the current crisis?

Very simply, everything has been turned on its head. And it all turned on its head in about the space of a week. The shift has been dramatic and complete. 

If you roll back two months we were very much focusing on longer term development; building organizations, running programs which address, say, wellbeing in isolation of older people, development and informal learning for younger people, some social enterprise development, some environmental projects. And suddenly now there is a focus on food provision. There is a focus on ensuring there are enough local volunteers to provide support for isolated people. 

It’s very much become locally focused, with very short term needs now being prioritized. In a sense everything else has gone onto the back burner. 

Mostly it was all led by the local residents. They said, right, we’re going to do this and they’re going to say to us, how can you help us? 

Finally, we had to look at the way we dealt with finance. Normally the funding systems meant that money had to be part of a wider plan. What we’ve done now is just say, right, this is the money for coronavirus. Have what you want, and tell us what you did with it afterwards. In a couple of places we had to release new money, and we did that in about three or four days.

And outside of the finance and the best practice, how else are you supporting them? 

One of the things we have been doing is facilitating people to actually make decisions, because they can’t get in a room together, and meet. So, we’ve been trying to make sure as far as possible they’re linked In to what’s already going on through things like County voluntary councils, local authorities, town community councils, so that what they are doing in their localities is as joined up as possible. The last thing we want to do is have duplication.

You mentioned that most of the projects have gone from long-term to short-term focuses. Have there been any other strategic changes like that?

Many of the projects are mutual support groups, mostly looking inwards providing services and activities for their members. And they’ve suddenly started reaching outwards to provide external support. One group of women, which is in some ways an economically vulnerable group but they’re healthy and quite resilient. Most of them are relatively young, and they don’t feel under threat themselves, so they’ve then reached out to other people who might be more vulnerable in this context.

They run an informal cafe where a lot of mothers with young children would come together, cook, and socialise. And that was largely around tackling their isolation, and a route into training in areas such as childcare. 

But because of Coronavirus what they’ve done is shifted to using the kitchen facilities to providing food for old and vulnerable people on the estate. And because they can do it very locally, the GP surgery is also willing to say who might need their support. So they do cooking in the morning, and then they walk around the estate dropping food off to people on their list.

What’s been really interesting about chatting to you, is hearing of those two clear strategic shifts. Firstly, from a long-term focus to a short-term one. And then, in some cases, those groups going from inward looking, to outward looking.

Yes. In one or two cases they were also reacting to government changes, particularly on things like children’s meals at school. But in the majority of the areas they almost did that instinctively. They said “we’ve got to change, we’ve got to do new things”. And they did.

If you’d like to find out more about the work that Chris and the team do at BCT Wales, then check out their website, and their Twitter (@BCTWales). Also, this ITV news article is also informative.

If you’d like to read more of my blogposts about community during Coronavirus, you find them here…

Welsh ICE & Platfform

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Community During Coronavirus – Platfform

I first got introduced to Candice Lloyd via Twitter, and I’m very glad that it happened. The work she does is amazing, and it’s impressive how she’s been building and maintaining a community with complex needs, even before the exceptionally difficult current circumstances.

Tell me about the work you do, and the communities you work with.

I work for an organization called Platfform, which used to be known as Gofal. 

Platfform is a mental health and social change charity. What we’re looking at is changing the perceptions of mental health. And we’re providing a platform for people to support themselves in their communities.

We work with young people throughout Wales, so from 14 to 25, and over the last 18 months have developed the State Of Mind program, which is a mental health and wellbeing program designed alongside young people. We’re building a support network, where people are there for one another, sharing stories of recovery, and ideas and strategies for wellbeing.

Relationships are fundamental to what I do. Not only with the young people I work with, but also teachers, social workers, parents, the teenage children and young people. So relationships I think stem from having a good community understanding. And being very open and curious about what you learned and what you can share.

I go to schools, I go to colleges, I go to hostels. I do one-to-one work. I run groups. Sometimes we do an activity together, like cook a meal. And our strategy is around building a toolkit for other organisations to use, and to follow, and implement. Especially where they don’t have the time or resources to support these young people themselves. We’ve really connected with the community that people say that is hard to reach, even though they’re right there. 

And in 18 months we’ve worked with 1,200 young people.

Tell me how Coronavirus affected your community, and how you work with them.

The first thing that we did was we had a massive panic! But we had this amazing community and, I discovered at this time, it’s actually been kind of the glue that’s held them all together. 

I think what people are doing is starting to open their doors and really connect with each other. I have a friend, a family that I work with in college, and they’ve lived on the same street for fourteen years, but don’t know the neighbours. All of a sudden they have a WhatsApp group for their street, and, they know everything that’s going on in each other’s houses. Just hearing that mum’s real pleasure in knowing her neighbours, and now for the first time not to just get in the car in the morning to go work without really knowing them, is really lovely. There’s a real different connection that’s going on. And it’s really meaningful.

But our work has definitely recently become really challenging. Our initial panic was because I work with young people who are vulnerable and in need of crisis support services. 

So those strategies being employed at times of difficulty is quite concerning and the worry of them not being able to get crisis service. So my overarching concerns when hearing that we might be in lockdown wasn’t the physical aspect.  To me, it’s always going to be the long-term aspect and how we provide that support. A lot of the people I work with have experience of being in care, so they will have been removed from their families due to experiencing trauma. Isolation and lockdown could be re-traumatising for them.

So we had to think to ourselves “how can we mobilize very quickly and adapt to the new situation?” We decided that if we couldn’t do groups, we’ll make videos and start giving them strategies and role modeling them via video. These short videos were anything from mindfulness to poetry to just footage of one of my colleagues dogs running around the fields of west Wales. If they’re stuck in a highrise flat those videos can be so vital to them. We have about 30 videos up now, and we offered them out to schools to see if they would like access to them. We expected a small handful of people to be interested, but we now have about 600 people on that mailing list.

We’ve also been using Zoom, which I didn’t think would work, but actually has been brilliant. I’ve got one group and they’re so varied so from in locality where they live. They’re from all across Wales, and they’ve never met before.

I thought what would be useful for them is just to have a set time every day that they could check in, and see how each other’s feeling. We kind of have a “post it” system, so they put how other feeling and then they just post it on the wall. So we’ve continued that. We don’t need to talk about their feelings, necessarily, but they can just simply express how they’re feeling on these post its, even if it’s just “shit”, or “total bollocks”, you know. Because you know, sometimes it’s okay to say it’s shit.

So you have the same kind of group stuff that you would have even though it’s not that physical, there’s a cool little kind of person to person dynamic.

So you’re not finding the lack of physical interaction being a barrier to human connection?

One of the young people I work with has been self isolating for months because she lives with someone who’s a little bit worried about her own health issues. Her carer can’t come to take her out any more. So meeting new people and connecting via this medium is being transformative. Another young person has been attending zoom meetups, but not turning her camera on. But this week she did, and it really felt like the barriers were coming down. It feels like the meetings are really worthwhile in that sense.

For some young people there’s quite a lot of sadness about the rituals that they’ve lost. So if you think about those who won’t get to have their shirts signed on the last day of school. Or haven’t gone to the pub with friends, or bunked off together, or done a prank. They haven’t had that goodbye to friends, goodbye from teachers They won’t have that kind of really nice transition period of passing through into the next stage of education. No proms, no first music festivals. There’s a sense of loss, you know, a moment. So I’m doing a creative writing thing with them, so they’re writing about it’s time for them and how it feels. That seems to be proving to be really cathartic, just writing and capturing this time.

One thing that stuck out to me in my conversation with Candice is that even though she’s working with what some would see as one of the most difficult communities to engage and build, she’s managing to get results through gentle perseverance.

There were so many other great stories that I’d love to include (like Candice distributing hundreds of packed lunches to homeless centres sat were intended for staff on the cancelled Wales v Scotland rugby match), but there’s just not enough space here.

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Community during Coronavirus – Welsh ICE

Introduction

I’ve been building communities of one sort or another for years without really thinking too hard about it. As I’ve become more and more interested in the subject on an academic level, I’ve written thousands of words about it. Until I find a proper home for that writing I’ve decided to write a short series of blogposts about creating, building and maintaining communities during this global Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll be interviewing community leaders to ask them about their communities, how they’re coping, and the work they’re doing to keep their communities together at this time. Hopefully it will provide some insight into the work people are doing, and provide inspiration for those of us who also run communities.

My first conversation was with Jamie McGowan, community manager at Welsh ICE, a coworking space and business support centre in Caerphilly, South Wales.

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NC: Tell me about your community.

JM: “We have a community of 250 businesses who have memberships to ICE, meaning there’s a total of about 400 individuals in the community, with a further alumni of 200-300. All of them identify as startups, creatives, or self-employed. They’re all businesses of some sort, but they all want to do something different. They don’t want to work for “the man”. What’s interesting is that they’re not from any specific sector. We have dog walkers through to lawyers, and they come from across south Wales, although lots of them are from the valleys.”

NC: And what’s your role there?

JM: “My role is effectively to recruit people into that community. It’s not an open door policy. But we do make it easy. You can effectively have a desk within an hour of walking through the door. In terms of supporting and building the community we try not to be too hands on. On top of that, I kind of play the role of a “Tummler”, which is a Yiddish word. A tummler is basically someone whose role, particularly at Jewish weddings, is to introduce people to each other and make sure they meet other interesting guests at the event. I’m there to make sure that people can find the right person at the right time.

But beyond that, we give the community permission to run their own thing, because you can’t do everything for them.

Our culture means that we never say no. It’s about helping people, it’s about being open with your black books, and helping without expectation.”

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NC: And how are you dealing with the Covid-19 situation?

JM: “It’s not been easy, because everything we do is about convincing people to spend time around other people and not work from home all the time. Our whole messaging is based on that. But we’ve stopped recruiting new community members, and started really focusing on helping our existing members.

Currently a lot of the activity is in our community’s Facebook group. We’re in there, engaging with the community, and taking part in the many discussions that are happening. It’s basic, but it’s where all the conversation happens.

On a more proactive level, we’ve moved all our events online. Our events tend to be mainly practical. So workshops about how to use Mailchimp, Photoshop, and that kind of thing. But we haven’t just moved all that online, we’ve tripled that amount that we do.”

Our thought process was ‘Let’s scale up, not scale back’.

We’re also adding stuff that is more relevant to the current time. Webinars about mindfulness, cashflow, and things that help specifically right now. Also, we traditionally have our own members run the majority of the workshops on their areas of expertise. It makes connections within the community but also keeps the payment internal, too. And that’s so important right now.

We traditionally have a communal lunch at ICE in Caerphilly but now, between 12 and 1pm, we have an open video chat channel for people to jump in and join. You can see your coworkers. Hear them. Talk over lunch. But we try not to talk about work. It’s just normal conversation.”

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NC: Yes, I’ve had a Google Hangout running much of the day while I’m at home, with the mic muted, and I publish the link on Facebook. Friends can swing by and wave at me from my second screen. Just getting a daily sense of there being other human beings around, especially if you live and work alone, is so important. What other group activities are you running?

JM: “Our monthly film club has always been really popular. Traditionally we’d go upstairs to a big training room, and use a projector there. It often attracts some people who don’t go to anything else. Maybe just because you sit silently in a dark room, it can work for the introverts who are members. Now we’re running them online using Netflix Party [https://www.netflixparty.com/]. It allows us to all watch together, in sync. We chat in the chatbox, and it’s a fairly communal experience. We’re just curating feelgood movies at the moment though, for obvious reasons!

We have a daily check-in thread in the FB group, which is working really well for accountability. Everyone drops by first thing in the morning to say the things that they plan to get done that day, and it’s just a way of us all keeping accountable to each other. And it’s entirely run by the community.

Perhaps the best example is the online award ceremony we ran. We have a programme called The 5-9 Club, which allows those still in full time employment to work on their new business after work. It operates across 6 towns in South Wales, and an awards ceremony for the participants had been planned. Instead, the main facilitator, Lesley, and I dressed up in our finest awards clothing, a tuxedo and ballgown, and presented it online. We had over 50 people in the online audience, and they all had their microphones and cameras turned off, unless we announced them as a winner. In which case they switched on their microphone and camera and came to the “stage” to accept their award. They were greeted by digital clapping – everybody typing X’s in the chatbox. It really felt like a proper event, and real celebration of these people who were working so hard after hours to get their businesses launched.”

Outro

I’ve long been a fan of Welsh ICE, and the buzz when you walk through the door there is always noticeable. They have such a great community feel, and it shines through in everything they do. And they’ve gone above and beyond to make their community feel special. As Jamie said, they decided to scale up, not scale back. And despite the inevitable challenges that the next few months will pose to them, they’re clearly not going to abandon their community.

While you’re here, check out these other posts which might be of interest:

The Dash, and how it helps us build better communities

A weekend of thinking and relaxing

Happiness – my reading list

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A weekend of thinking and relaxing

About 5 or 6 years ago, I wrote about how I felt that retreats seemed to be the preserve of religion, or some kind of spirituality, and that I would love to organise something different. A space for those of us that needed space, but didn’t want it codified by faith (even though people of faith would obviously be 100% welcome). As with these things a lot of the time, the idea fell by the wayside. But as I’ve become more interested in community and connection, it’s kind of been resurrected. Albeit in a slightly different form.

Later this year, but before school holidays make scheduling and pricing an issue, I’m planning to book a big country house for a weekend. It will probably be close-ish to Cardiff. The plan would be to spend a weekend with some likeminded people, talking about personal projects, and global issues.

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Might not actually be anywhere near Cardiff…

I’m imagining a weekend of very loosely curated discussions over coffee, walks in the woods, the occasional presentation, and some late night stargazing. Time alone to work on personal projects, too. Maybe even an early start for a dawn walk!

To keep costs down it would require us all to muck in, cook together, maybe sleep in shared rooms etc. Hopefully the price would be between £100-£200 for the whole weekend (food included). I want to make this affordable.

If you’re interested, then please leave your details below. I think the only provisos would be that you’re:

  • willing to muck in and help.
  • willing to at bring one idea to the table (maybe even a short presentation).
  • happy to be open to hearing new things, without judgment or prejudice.
  • you’re OK with one mention of “Trump” and “Brexit” allowed all weekend per person. 😉
  • happy that this is an experiment, and that it won’t all work.
  • happy that I don’t quite know what this is yet.

I’m going to make every effort to make sure that the events have a diverse, interesting bunch of people at them, and that it’s not too navel-gazey. I want it to be useful, and have some actual outcomes for anyone who attends.

At the very least, I’d like to create a weekend where we could be open, and honest, and hopefully come away feeling more inspired, energetic, and focused.

If you’re interested in finding out more, attending, or getting involved, then please drop your email below.

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The Dash, and how it can help us build better communities.

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This is my friend John. In 2012 he rowed across the Atlantic. As I write this he is prepping to do something similar, by rowing across the Indian Ocean. The incredible tale of his first row was so compelling that I asked him to speak about it at a couple of events I used to run. 

John is a retired firefighter from Barry, South Wales. As a result, he’s been to more than his fair share of funerals. When signing a book of condolence he came across the poem “The Dash”, which inspired him to name his first rowing adventure “Atlantic Dash”. 

The poem talks about how your entire life is represented by the dash on your tombstone that sits between your birth-date and your death-date. Every hope, dream, failure, success, heartbreak and joy, all represented by a tiny, seemingly insignificant line. This dash feels like an overwhelmingly insignificant way to encapsulate a rich, full, exciting life. The prominence is given to the birth-date and death-date. But all the value is in the dash.

I was thinking about this as I sat on the train to give a talk in Birmingham about community building, and I had this realisation that the same is true of network or community “maps”. You have all these “nodes” that represent the person or organisation in the network. And maybe their size, shape, or colour of these nodes changes to represent various elements of their size, value, sector etc. 

But, as with the dates on the tombstone, that information really doesn’t mean anything without an understanding of the flow of information, resources, value etc between each node. You can capture countless bits of information about individuals or organisations in a community, but without connections to others, they’re just pointless islands bobbing in a limitless ocean.

In other words, the real value in a community is represented by a simple line that just doesn’t do it justice.

Without these lines, the dashes, the nodes exist without connection to other nodes. And therefore have no value. What is a manufacturer without a supplier? What is a tennis player without a practice partner?

But even with the lines we have no idea what is being conveyed between the nodes. Is it one way, or both ways? Does it represent money, goodwill, or collaboration? Or even love?

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The nodes are where the potential lies. But they are nothing without the connection.

As community and network builders we often focus far too much on the value and importance of the nodes themselves, without thinking about how to improve the flow of value between the nodes. Whether it’s something systemic, like moving everyone to a unified communication platform, or something more human like ensuring team members have regular coffees, we need to think about how to improve the quantity and quality of exchanges between the people, organisations, or sectors in communities. 

So, when considering your community, and how you can make it more connected, more useful, and more cohesive, consider the the “bonds” between the nodes, and how you can make them stronger. 

Think about how you create better bonds. Better dashes. The stronger the dash, the clearer the pathway to better connections.

Don’t just create things for the community just for the sake of it. Create and do things that strengthen bonds, create pathways, and leave some kind of legacy.

Sometimes that can be as simple as getting people into the same room at the same time, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes people want to stay stuck in their silos, and need to be convinced to come to the table. But if you create pathways to connection then those that want to progress will be able to find their way more easily. Whether it’s a connection with a fellow tennis lover, a potential investor, or an industrial collaborator, think about how you make it easier for everyone involved.

So, here’s a few questions to ask yourself when pulling together ideas, events, and projects for community building:

  • Have you built a pathway, rather than just an isolated thing?
    • In other words, have you made it easier for connections to be made, and to remain. Or have you just created something that will happen, and then be forgotten? There’s arguably no point in organising an event if there’s no mechanism for those people to stay in touch, or ever meet again.
  • How can you ensure that any connections made will last, and deepen?
  • Have you over-engineered it? 
    • Is there a simpler way to achieve the same effect?
    • The Water Cooler effect couldn’t be simpler, but it has proven benefits – even improving scientific research!
  • Who are the key members of the community, and how can you engage them?
    • Try not to default to the obvious ones – are there ways in which you can diversify your “key” group?
  • Are the pathways already there?
    • If so, why are they not working?
    • Are they blocked?
    • Can we unblock them more easily than creating new ones?

Measuring community “success” is notoriously difficult. Sometimes it’s one of those things that you can’t put down on a bit of paper, but you’ll be able to “feel”. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t see obvious, immediate effects. It’s not an overnight process. 

A good way to think of it is to ask yourself how much “data” is passing through the dash. Whether that’s money, emotion, support, or regular contact. You can follow each other on every form of social media, but unless there’s some value in your exchanges, I’m not sure it contributes to improved communities.

In my next post I’m going to look at some of the simple ways in which I’ve found to improve community building without over-engineering it.

Further reading:

You can see John’s talk at TEDxCardiff here.
You can read the poem The Dash here.
Follow John’s latest adventure here.
Article about how the Water Cooler Effect and more “face time” among scientists improves scientific research.

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Neil’s guide to Tirana, Albania

Following on from my Guide to Sofia, here’s another Balkan city guide. It’s nowhere as comprehensive as my guide to Sofia, as I only spent 5 weeks in Tirana. However, hopefully it will prove useful if you’re visiting this vibrant city, in this beautiful, friendly, oft-misunderstood country.

Let’s start with the most important thing – Everything you’ve heard about Albania is probably wrong.

Albania is easily the friendliest, safest place I’ve ever visited. I was treated with nothing but courtesy, smiles, and hospitality every single place I went. It may be a country still rebuilding after decades of North Korea style isolating communism, but you have nothing to fear from the amazing people here.

The capital city, Tirana, is a rapidly growing city. If you listen closely you can almost hear the streets creaking under the strain of the pressure of growth. Like a teenager with growing pains, it’s changing all the time, and isn’t always comfortable with what’s happening to it. But there’s enough positive traits here to know that this will one day soon be a mature, confident, vibrant “adult”.

English is very widely spoken. You can safely assume that most people under 40 will speak pretty fluently. But, of course that’s no excuse not to learn a few words (usually pronounced pretty much as they’re written)…

  • Hello – Përshëndetje
  • Thank you – Faleminderit
  • Please – Ju lutem
  • Goodbye – Lamtumirë
  • Cheers – Gëzuar

Take the free tour. Even if you’re there for only a few days, it’s a fascinating two hours, and your experience of the country will be all the richer for an understanding of the people and their history.

Where to stay

If you’re only here for a short break, then stay in the district called Blloku. Or within a few streets of it. It’s a dense concentration of cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs, to the south of the centre. It’s also a short walk from the park and lake that just sits at the south of the city, and 10-15 minutes stroll from Skanderberg Square. But maybe also bring earplugs. It can be noisy, even though there is a fairly strictly observed curfew of midnight. Historically, only the elite of the communist party were allowed to live in this area, but now everyone is able to visit and get the finest food, drink, and nightlife.

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Old and New. (I'm so profound).

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Beeping of horns

Albanians use their car horns to communicate a variety of things, and you won’t go 30 seconds in the city without hearing a very loud beep. Here’s some of the things they use their horns to communicate.

  • “Fellow driver. I would like to forcefully inform you that the lights turned from red to green approximately 0.000001 seconds ago”.
  • “Hey Vasken! You’re looking well! Say hello to your mum for me.”
  • “Hey driver in front of me. I can see that you’ve stopped to allow that pregnant woman cross the road with her elderly mother and her disabled child, and I want to express my approval and support for your act of humanity by resting my hand on the horn until we start moving again. Please take your time and don’t feel that I’m pressuring you to start moving as soon as you possibly can”.
  • “Nice shoes”

Also worth noting that you need to keep your eyes and ears open around traffic. Levels of respect for pedestrians and cyclists is probably lower than what you’re used to. Somebody suggested to me that as the majority of Albanian citizens have only really been able to own cars since the nineties, there’s not a great “cultural knowledge” of driving (although I’ve no idea if this theory holds water). Regardless, it can be a little chaotic.

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National Museum mural, Tirana.

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Breakfast & coffee

Albania reportedly has more cafes per capita than any other country, and it’s not difficult to imagine that after just a few minutes in the city. They are everywhere. And it has managed to achieve this status without allowing Starbucks to set up a single store.

Coko – the Balkan cities that I’ve visited don’t appear to have a breakfast/brunch culture in the same way that you might find in the US/UK. But this is one cafe that I found that does good eggs, toast, smoothies etc.

Destil – if you just need coffee and to hang out with the cool kids, head to this place. It’s a hostel, a music venue, gallery, bar, cafe, and all-round fun place to spend a few hours. Especially in the leafy yard when the sun is shining.

There are two main coffee chains here – Mulliri i Vjeter & Mon Cheri. Both are fine for coffee and laptops etc, and you’re never more than 400m from one of them. The safe bet i a pinch.

Lunch & Dinner

Honestly, there’s an overwhelming choice of places to eat, especially in the Blloku district. So I’m going to randomly list a few places in which I enjoyed good meals. But otherwise you can safely just stroll until you see somewhere that takes your fancy.

However, there are SO MANY cafes that it’s easy to confuse them with places that serve food, so double check before you sit down.

Bufe – more along the wine bar and meze vibe. Really good food etc though. Really like it.

Era pizzeria – apparently there are two of these, but I only went to this one (several times!). Usually quite an international crowd in there.

Serenity – the only Mexicna restaurant in town, I expect. But it’s fun. Big portions, friendly (although the staff are friendly in EVERY restaurant in Albania). and there’s some cute disclaimer on the menu saying that the food isn’t very spicy because it’s “not to Albanian tastes”, so you have to let them know if you like your Mexican food to have a little “fire”!

A La Sante – I never actually visited here, but got advised several times to go because the food is apparently fantastic. But I just never got round to it.

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More Albanian Alps action.

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Drinking

Hemingway – cool, hipster cocktail bar. My only drunken night in the city was here. I just remember that it had a super nice vibe!

Komiteti – cafe/bar that is also a kind of museum. Highly recommended.

Radio Bar – in the heart of Blloku, and a great atmosphere. Plenty of space both indoors and outdoors.

Things to do

  • Climb the pyramid in the centre.
    • Disclaimer – at your own risk.
    • Use the slopes furthest away from the main entrance. They’re less steep.
    • Go at sunset for the best views.
  • Walk around the lake
    • Go at dusk, and you’ll meet everyone from the rest of the city!
  • Go up Mount Daijti for lunch.
    • Get the blue bus (apparently there’s only one blue bus) from the street east of Skanderberg Square, and ride it until the ticket guy tells you to get off. Probably about 30 mins, depending on traffic.
    • Ride the cable car to the top. Enjoy the views. Have lunch in the restaurant with a big glass window overlooking the city.
    • If you want to climb to the peak (it’s not the greatest hike I’ve ever done – beautiful woodland, but it’s steep and there are few opportunities for views), then you need to walk straight out the back of the cable car building, up the path to the disused hotel, and round the back. You’ll find a path into the woods there. After a few mins you’ll need to turn left up the hill. If you find yourself walking “horizontally” for a few hundred metres along some almost paved path, you’ve possibly gone too far. Retrace your steps until you see the sign pointing up the hill. Now climb and follow the red and white markings.
  • Bunk’art
    • Hyper-paranoid communist dictator Enver Hoxher built this mammoth complex of bunkers on the outskirts of the city (it’s one bus stop before the cable car stop, so follow the instructions above). It’s a fascinating, and slightly creepy, experience. I probably wouldn’t bother with the audio guide. It doesn’t add anything above what you can read on the walls. The audio piped in of soldiers marching, air raid sirens, and dictatorial speeches, make it an atmospheric few hours.
    • The tunnel you walk through to get into the museum is creepy enough on its own!
    • If you don’t have time to go to the main one, there’s a smaller version (Bunk’art 2) in the city centre which concentrates a little more on the grisly elements of the dictatorship (torture etc) – I didn’t make it to this second one.

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A dramatic entrance to a museum.

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More oversaturated Albanian goodness.

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Outside the city :

If you do have time to get outside Tirana, then he’s a few places to check out. It’s a beautiful country, and tourism is apparently growing at a rate of 30% a year. So get here and visit so you can say you were here before it was cool!

Valbona to Theth – an incredible hike in the Albanian Alps. Possibly the best thing I did while I was in the country. I went with these guys. And here’s a bunch of photos from that weekend. 

Active Albania – best providers of adventure in the country. Rafting, mountain biking, hiking etc etc. Ask for Blerina!

Apparently the beaches near the south of the country are world class, and so beautiful. I didn’t manage to get down there, sadly.

I loved my weeks in Tirana. I never got bored of it’s architecture, people, or weather. And the constant coffee, of course! I hope you love it as much as I do!

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Happiness

Last week I sat in a sunny, leafy street in a suburb of Sofia, eating tapas with my friend, Uwe. We don’t know each other particularly well, but bonded over our recent experiences of moving to different countries, the nature of friendship, making decisions to prioritise happiness over wealth and accrual of material stuff, and the general science of happiness.

I actually felt like i was repeating myself a lot, because one of the most regular conversations I’ve had over recent years has been about happiness, and the evidence and research behind it. I’ve been boring anyone who will listen about my reading on the subject. More than a few years ago I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Psychology, but can’t say I’ve ever really used much of that learned knowledge or analytical skill in the intervening years. But now I’m starting to feel that the small amount that I still remember from those three years at Cardiff University are starting to come in handy.

As I’ve been through a huge amount of change over the last few years, I’ve reassessed almost every part of my life, and started to put into practice things that I’ve recently been learning and reading about. I’ve spent many, many hours reading, writing, and staring into space, trying to work out who I am, and what it is that I want. And although I’ll almost certainly never reach any Buddha-like clarity and enlightenment, every day I inch closer and closer to a certain level of self-knowledge and contentment. And there are a number of books, talks, podcasts, and conversations that have immeasurably helped me with this.

Anyway, with that in mind, and to save me from writing the same email to friends over and over again, here’s my list of vital reading and watching. Inspired by Uwe, and the recommendations I promised I’d send him. Please drop any recommendations into the comments.

Stumbling On Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

This book is perhaps, more than any other, the one that started me on this process. A very easy read, driven by science (the author is a Harvard Professor of Psychology), and actually very funny, it basically hammers home why we’re mainly wrong when we think about what makes us happy.

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It contains so many fascinating pieces of research, and also introduced me to the concept of “the elasticity of happiness”. In other words, all those things that the post-war generation handed down as the main things to achieve in order to be happy (marriage, kids, suburban house, good job etc) don’t necessarily improve our baseline happiness. They just give us a temporary bump, after which we return, elastically, to our baseline happiness level. The traditional “milestones” in our life that society often lobbies that we aim for aren’t a guarantee of happiness at all. For many they do provide happiness, but in fact, for many of us they can take our eye off the ball of the things that really help us achieve happiness. Read the book, or digest some of the key bits in Dan Gilbert’s rapid-fire TED talk….

 

The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton has written brilliantly, and accessibly, in many books about how philosophy can help us live better lives. This one addresses several human fears one by one, including “Not Having Enough Money”, “Unpopularity”, or a “Broken Heart”, and how particular philosophers address these particular, and almost universal, frailties. The Montaigne section on “Inadequacy” has a particularly great section on farting… 😉

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It was through this book that I found out that I probably philosophically sit somewhere between the Epicureans and the Stoics.

 

Derren Brown – Happy (Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine)

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Derren Brown over the years. His good nature, amazing skills, humour, and insistence that we can still find wonder and joy in the world even as rational, scientific sceptics, make him a big hero of mine. So when I found out he’d written a book on the subject, I jumped to it. His evisceration of the self help industry, particularly of books like The Secret, demonstrate just how much bad science and wrong-thinking about the attainment of happiness there is in the world, and how we are easily, and usually understandably, misled in our search for a happier life.

I’ve always been sceptical of the wider self-help movement, which often comes with ridiculous amounts of speculation, nonsense, and “woo”. There’s just no evidence that many of the processes and techniques that are espoused actually help us live better, happier lives. And while we’re still no closer to having a global, agreed definition of what happiness really is, I’m interested in those thing that we can prove have an impact on our well-being and sense of contentment.

Brown speaks of the Stoics, of whom I’m reading more and more (sidenote: Apparently Ryan Holiday is a good starting-point for Stocism, and I have several of his “in the queue” on my Kindle – see below), and he goes some way to defining happiness – in his words, more of a contentment than a continual jump-up-and-down joy.

 

The Science of Happiness podcast

Part of UC Berkeley’s “Greater Good” project, which aims to use “science based insights for a meaningful life”, this podcast is great. Every episode sees a guest try a research-based practice, such as “being thankful” or meditations on quieting your inner critic. It takes a very human approach to the process, with the anecdotal experiences of interesting people, but also talks about the research behind it.

 

The Freakonomics podcast

I was a huge fan of the book, so subscribed as soon as soon as I heard about the podcast. Strictly speaking it’s a behavioural economics podcast, but it will constantly challenge you on what you believe, and why you believe it. Which I think is a key to introspection and self-understanding. And therefore happiness. Coincidentally, when linking to the archive above, i noticed that the latest episode is called “How To Be Happy“. It’s a sign!

 

Daniel Kitson – After The Beginning, Before The End

I ummed and ahhed about whether to include this, but I just so happened to be listening to this again on the same day as writing this post. I’m a big fan of Kitson’s work, and I think this might be his finest moment. When I first saw it performed live it left me genuinely speechless, for many reasons. For those that don’t know him, he’s part comedian, part storyteller, which probably doesn’t do him any favours as a description. While it doesn’t speak directly about happiness, this particular work speaks about self-knowledge, and the stories we tell ourselves about what and who we are. I think that’s crucial to attaining some kind of happiness, and being better as human beings. I also find it comforting to know that people much more talented and successful than me experience almost exactly the same fears. Those fears are part and parcel of the human condition.

Plus, we’re both fans of The West Wing, obscure radio comedy The Department, and we were both utterly crap on the 90’s UK TV quizshow for schoolkids, Blockbusters.

 

Robert Waldinger – What Makes a Good Life?

This TEDx talk focuses on one aspect of the “happiness matrix”, and is a must-watch. And it makes me very thankful that I have so many great friendships, and a good handful of very special ones.

 

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

This poem reminds me that the grass is *always* greener on the other side, and that I should never bow down to the fear of missing out – something that I really struggled with for many years. Dan Gilbert’s experiments on choice and happiness are absolutely critical in my understanding of this – The more perceived choices available, the less happy we are with the thing we chose. And if we understand that we’d probably have been just as happy with most of the available options, it massively minimises FOMO or regret.

Also, it reminds me that doing the “obvious” thing, or maybe the thing that’s expected of us, isn’t always the best route to happiness.

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So, that’s my list. I’m bound to edit it once I realise I’ve missed out a vital book or podcast. But it’s got the most important stuff in it, I think. Please feel recommend me something you think I will benefit from!

Finally, as a blogpost it was conceived at a moment of happiness – sat on a sun-dappled side street, eating good food with a new friend, discussing life, adventure and the promise of the future.

 

Also on the reading list:

These books are on my reading list, and I hear good things…

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
by Jonathan Haidt

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
by Ryan Holiday

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Laptop Friendly cafes in Sofia, Bulgaria

When I first moved to Sofia I was often looking for places in Sofia to sit down and do some work, and I often struggled to find them. So I created this map, but it’s here for anyone to use. I haven’t visited all of these (many are taken from other lists and suggestions I found online), but if I’ve missed anything, please drop me a note in the comments below and I’ll happily add it.