I realised recently that whatever you think about Uber, they have managed to pull off an impressive marketing trick that most companies can only dream of. They’ve managed to insert their name into the English language in place of the generic name for the type of service they offer, and they’ve done it in a very short space of time. People don’t use Uber to book a taxi, they book an Uber. People think of it as a completely different type of service, when the basic utility they are getting, moving themselves from A to B is the same, and it’s mostly the same cars and the same drivers moving people around, customers are just using a different system to book their taxi. Uber themselves would debate they are offering a taxi service and have even fought court cases over it, but it seems pretty plain to me.
I’ve become increasingly concerned the last few weeks about the number of high profile people from Jeremy Corbyn to Newsnight presenters using Trump’s term “Fake News” to refer to false or misleading news stories. In a way I think using it this way is much more dangerous than Trump using it himself, because it causes confusion and legitimises his use of the phrase. In general when Trump uses it, it’s to attempt to discredit a news story (or an entire organisation) that’s true but doesn’t fit his agenda. He’s certainly not trying to address what is a genuine widespread problem of news outlets producing news stories that are either intentionally misleading, or just plain made up. The worst offenders of this are actually outlets like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail who are generally sympathetic to politicians like Trump, and are actually the kind of outlets that have a big part to play in the success of people like Farage and Trump, by creating in many people’s minds a view of the world which is quite different to reality. They do this by systematically and intentionally misleading their readers. This is far from a new problem, but sadly it’s a problem that it suddenly seems fashionable to highlight using a buzzphrase coined by a man who seems to want to kill off genuine journalism, and make up things that are convenient to his agenda and fit the worldview of his supporters.
So I think anyone who genuinely wants to address the issue of misleading news stories, needs to stop using the term “Fake News” to talk about it, right now.
Throughout my life I’ve spent quite a bit of my time thinking about how to make things better, and more recently just stopping them getting any worse. But just like everyone else living in a capitalist society, I spend so much of my time and energy on getting money to eat and have somewhere to live, that I don’t have much left to actually do anything about it. Politicians know this, and count on it. This is the problem with money, it’s a trap. Maybe there are things we can do about the immediate situation like the privatisation of the NHS and schools, but in the longer term the only solution I can see for a better world is to move beyond money, because it corrupts everything, takes away our freedom and pits everyone against everyone else. As the saying goes: “The trouble with the rat race is even if you win, you’re still a rat”
For most people, with how the world works now as a starting point, a future without money is difficult to imagine. We are conditioned to think that humans are inherently selfish, but I think that actually the opposite is true. The powers that be would have us believe that without the need to work to obtain money, most people would do nothing. I think the reality is that given the chance, most people want to be useful and make a positive contribution to their community. So how do we get there? Well my idea is to buy our way out of capitalism starting with housing. I’ve been working on an idea called The People’s Trust. Using money to work towards a future without it sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me. The idea is that money is raised by people signing up for regular donations to a trust which gradually buys houses and people pay rent. As the trust grows, one by one, tennants can stop paying rent.
Imagine how much freedom and security you would feel if you didn’t have rent or a mortgage to pay. You could work part time, and spend the rest of your time doing whatever you like. Volunteer in your community, spend more time with your friends and family, or work on a plot to bring down the government. Whatever you think is useful or makes you happy. As more people have this freedom, more things that need to will get done, including things that aren’t done properly now because they’re not profitable. Also less people will waste their time doing work that only exists because money does. Through this process I think we can create a transition to a future where people need money less, and eventually not at all.
If people don’t need money, those who have lots of it no longer have any power.
Can you imagine a future without estate agents? Let’s make it happen!
The People’s Trust has a website which is here: People’s Trust
Following Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination to be a contender in the Labour leadership elections I’ve been experiencing a period of excitement that maybe, just maybe, someone who’s political views echo those of the movement that gave the party it’s name could become it’s leader and steer it back where it came from. In the last few days however I’ve started to wonder if Jeremy Corbyn winning will be such a good thing, because even if he does the Labour party will continue to be run by people who think that winning elections is a valid aim in it’s own right and that the way to achieve that goal is to convince people who voted Conservative to vote Labour. Now any sensible left-thinking person would never vote Conservative, which means this strategy is leaving a huge number of people behind. So I’m starting to think that it would be better if Mr Corbyn, someone who I agree with 90% of what he says, didn’t win, because then we can write the Labour party off once and for all and do something different.
It’s worth noting that I’ve never voted Labour because they don’t represent my views, but I know that they should. My grandmother was active in the trade union movement and my Dad once said to me “If your gran was alive to see what’s happened to the Labour party she’d be spinning in her grave”.
This week, following a 2 year(?) sort of absence from Facebook I decided to go back to it. I say sort of because I never actually left, I just deleted all my friends. That might seem like a weird thing to do on a social network but previously I’d tried to get off it by suspending my account, but it turned out all you had to do to get back on it was log in. So I decided to make it a bit harder to go back by deleting all my friends. I was a bit concerned at the time that some people I don’t know quite so well may actually have been offended that I “unfriended” them. I think some people take it a bit more seriously than they should, considering that after all, it’s just a website. I kept my account because I was running a fairly busy group, and a member of some other groups, as well as having a page for my business. So I’ve continued to use it quite a bit, just not the way most people do.
There were two reasons for “leaving” in the first place, one was because of privacy concerns but the main one was because I didn’t think it was very good for me. I had become pretty addicted to it, constantly checking to see if anyone had posted anything new and I came to realise that it made me feel like I was in touch with people when actually I wasn’t, at least not in any kind of meaningful way, and as a result actually made me less sociable. The other thing about Facebook is that it can actually make you feel a bit down. Generally people are the best version of themselves online and probably one of the most common type of post on Facebook is “here are some photos of a fun thing I did” and even if you don’t think it consciously, I think there’s only so much of that anyone can look at before feeling left out and a bit rubbish about themselves that they’re having less fun than, apparently, than everyone else they know. My thoughts on the privacy side of things started before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden, several years ago when I went to the cinema to see a documentary called Erasing David about how easy it is for anyone to find out personal information about you by what you put online, and information held about you by companies and organisations. So for that reason, as well as deleting my friends I removed nearly all personal information about myself – interests, location, previous workplaces, schools attended etc.
The reason for going back was that Facebook has become so ubiquitous (I think that’s the right word) that if you’re not on it you get left out of things. That’s not so bad when you see people regularly as you get to hear about things anyway, and not everything that happens is put on Facebook, but partly due to moving house multiple times in the last year I’ve got distinctly out of the loop with most people I know and wanted to re-connect. So I’ve set up a new account just for the friends aspect of the site, the idea being that I will only need to check it when I get an email saying I’ve got an event invite or a message. Whether I can be that restrained and not go back to justifying the term “facecrack”, we shall see.
PS I had no idea I had so much to say about Facebook, quite a long post!
I’ve decided to join the long list of seven zillion people who write a blog as if anyone cares what they think. It’s more for my own benefit than anything else as I think quite a lot about a lot of different things and this might help me make sense of it all. Also if it helps me find people who think some of the things I do then I’ll feel less like one of the few sane people in an insane world. If anyone reads this they can expect very irregular posts to follow it on a range of topics they may or may not find interesting. Cathartic, I think that’s the word I was looking for.
PS Yes there are posts before this one, from when I though this domain was going to be a professional portrayal of myself, but it seems a shame to delete them since I took the time to write them.
Last year I started a gardening business. I did ok and put a lot of work into building up a customer base and got quite a bit of work, but gardening work is very seasonal and I didn’t make enough to see me through the winter. The first year was always going to be tough, it’s just one of the realities of starting any small business. Instead of getting into debt I decided to spend the winter staying with family, resolving to take what I’d learnt in my first year (a lot) and come back to it in the spring with a much better sense of how to make it a viable year-round business.
I’ve only been back to it a couple of weeks and I was asked to do a job for which I needed to order a large amount of materials (roughly double the labour cost). Last year I didn’t do any jobs involving material costs just because they tend to be the bigger projects, which I avoided because I was still establishing a group of contacts I could call in for help.
Partly because the reason I got the job was the customer had been ripped off by a cowboy, and partly because I think it’s important to project an image of success in business, I hadn’t asked the customer to pay anything up-front. Unfortunately as both the companies I was ordering supplies from are small businesses themselves, and I’d never done business with them before, they wanted payment upfront.
Frustratingly I was just £50 short. No problem I thought, I’ll just call the bank and ask for a temporary overdraft facility, it’s just a cash-flow problem I’m sure they’ll be able to help. Well it turned out I was wrong. I called the bank and was told that someone from the lending department would call me back. Fair enough I thought, and someone rang me within an hour. I explained that I just needed a £50 overdraft facility for a few days and was told that because there had been very little turnover on the account in recent months that this wasn’t possible. I explained that this was because it’s a gardening business so seasonal by nature, but was still told no. It’s that old banking adage that to get a loan you have to prove you don’t need one.
I would have thought that they would be more willing to help. Don’t the Co-op bank understand that cash-flow problems are one of, if not the most common problem faced by small businesses? As the go-to bank for members of the Federation of Small Businesses you’d think they would, and when you’re only asking to borrow £50 it really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Today I received this letter from the Co-op Bank, some of which is an assault on the English language.
Dear Mr Stent
I wanted to write to you personally to thank you for standing by us during some of the most difficult times in our history. Whilst we still have some challenges ahead, I now want to update you on the progress we have made.
I am pleased to say that we have strengthened both our capital position and our management team. We have also put in place a business plan which we intend will restore us to longer-term sustainable profitability over time. This means that we are now able to look forward and begin to reshape our business around what’s important to our customers.
For over 140 years the ethics and values of The Co-operative Bank have set us apart and I’m proud to say that these ideals are now enshrined in our constitution. We would like to build on this heritage and want to do this in partnership with you. As such, this spring we will be engaging with you around what’s important to you going forward.
I would also like to reassure you that we remain focused on providing great customer service and meeting your day-to-day banking needs. We
are committed to delivering products and services to make it more rewarding and easier to bank with us. We will improve our online banking service and our mobile banking application as well as providing exclusive product offers for existing customers.
Whilst delivering our plan remains challenging, I hope I have given you a sense of some of the steps we have taken both to strengthen the business and begin to reward the faith you have shown us. Thank you once again for your loyalty and for banking with The Co-operative Bank.
Chief Executive, The Co-operative Bank
Several parts of the letter are written in opaque management speak, but the part that struck me the most was “engaging with you around what’s important to you going forward”. Engaging around what’s important suggests that engagement will involve everything but things that are important. I’d much prefer it if the engagement were about what’s important. Also why must I be “going forward”? What if I want to talk about things that are important to me and stay still? Or is it the bank that’s going forward, if so where are they going? It’s all very confusing.
Aside from the management speak and poor use of English I’d be interested to know how they will be improving their online banking, because in the 15 years since they launched Smile, their online banking has changed very little. During this time the other banks have launched their own online banking, which in most cases started off better and has continued to improve. So I will believe it when I see it.
With all the benefits that social media can bring to your business, it’s easy to overlook the humble email, but if you do you’re really missing a trick. Let me explain why.
If you use a Facebook page for your business, when you post a message, on average only 10% of your followers will see that message. Facebook tweak their software that way, because they can charge people to make their posts more visible. A similar percentage applies to Twitter where most of your followers will be following hundreds if not thousands of other accounts, so unless they happen to be looking at their feed the moment you post, it’s likely they won’t see it.
In contrast, if you send someone an email you can almost guarantee they are going to know about it. Admittedly there’s always a chance they could delete it without reading it, but at least they know you said something.
The difference between social media and email is like the difference between traditional advertising and direct marketing. With advertising lots of people will see it, lots won’t, and only a small percentage of those that do will be interested. With direct marketing you know exactly who’s going to see it and you can be fairly sure they’ll be interested because (hopefully) they signed up to your mailing list.
With the buzz and excitement around social media the last few years I’ve seen many small businesses become fixated on getting more likes or follows, and it’s not necessarily time well spent. While social media can be a hugely powerful tool to promote your business it’s almost like most people have forgotten email exists when they think about their marketing strategy. Before social media came along the email mailing list was the main way businesses kept their customers updated. As I often say about technology, when something new comes along it doesn’t make the old thing suddenly become less useful. (which is why I use one of these)
So if you don’t already have an email list it’s really worth starting one, either via your website or getting addresses in person. You can keep it simple by just storing them in a spreadsheet, or use something like MailChimp. If you go with the spreadsheet option you can always import it into MailChimp or a similar tool later.
Once you have the list I’d advise doing a mailout no more frequently than once a month, so as not to annoy people, keep it to 2 or 3 paragraphs and spend a bit of time thinking about it.
Thanks for reading and if you follow this advice let me know how you got on. You can comment here or tweet me @RobinStent.