Simon Sinek’s ‘start with Why’ has a lot to answer for. Good and bad.
Well be it, but just don’t you dare say it.
If you’re a creative entrepreneur it should be a given that you love what you are doing. In fact it’s a must and if you don’t love it, you should stop immediately.
But love and passion are not the same thing, and they should only be coupled together between consenting adults.
Passion is probably the most badly overused word in business, but that is because passion’s inexplicable burning urge is the one thing that links everything we humans love and respect. Passion is about emotion and all the things that make your heart soar and break.
Being passionate about anything work related has not just become a terrible cliche and a bland shorthand that signals a lack of imagination, but most importantly it now sounds like a whopping fib.
“We are passionate about what we do….”
I should ruddy well hope so, but aren’t we all dear — so what? Be more specific.
“We are passionate about hybrid cloud infrastructure”
You need to get out more sunshine.
“We are passionate about customer service.”
Hmm. Sorry, but if you’re having to say it, you’re clearly not doing it right and I don’t believe you. Not one little bit.
I met a dull bloke a while ago who told me “I’m quite a fun guy actually.” If you have to tell me you’re fun, you almost definitely aint.
If you’re really Mr Funtastic it’s plain to see, so let your passion be self-evident too.
Actions speak louder than words.
Let the things you create show your fervor. Let your work show your relentlessness, your conviction, your overwhelming and all-consuming desire to revolutionise the gas flow-rate monitoring industry.
Grab a Thesaurus, and ignore the synonyms for passion and search out more realistic and more powerful alternatives. What people really buy are expertise, conviction, style, panache, enthusiasm, excellence and the good old fashioned quality. Can you talk about any of them? Can your pictures speak a thousand better words?
Better yet, don’t gild the lily, just tell it simply and tell it honestly.
Passionate about a sustainable alternative to epoxy and carbon fibre composites?
No. Simply, ‘A new way of working with wool’.
If you have a clear and distinctive mission or know exactly why you do what you do (‘Our town is making jeans again’), then explain that, but don’t worry if what you do is like a lot of other people, just keep it very simple.
“The Break Fluid™ mission is simple. To deliver to your doorstep, the best tasting, highest quality, easy to brew coffee.” Smashing. Send me a load of that.
The reason that the classic Ronseal ad worked so well was simply because “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. They were not passionate about quick drying wood floor varnish, because no one is, but the Ronseal people did care very much that you got exactly the right product for the job.
The team at BeerBods are definitely passionate about beer, but they never say it they just give it the Ronseal treatment; ‘One beer and the story behind it, delivered for £3 a week. Love Beer? Join the club.’
Their passion comes through, unspoken but clear, in everything they do.
Lovehoney (the UK’s biggest online retailer of sex toys and other sexy business paraphernalia), probably have more right than most to use ‘passionate’ in their marketing, but they don’t.
They’ve nailed their purpose — so to speak — and simply say, “We’re the sexual happiness people. Our ‘we-just-want-you-to-be-happy’ attitude means literally that: making customers happy is what makes us smile.”
They back that talk with a very strong walk — a 365-day no-quibbles returns policy, and discreet packaging and invoicing — but most importantly in every communication they clearly look like they are having a lot of fun. Making their customers smile is exceptionally good for business and so Lovehoney are thriving.
As a French thinker put it, “We must act out passion before we can feel it.”
If you want to change the world, or if you just want to love your job, act out your passion and let it drive you and lift you. Show it in everything you do, just please don’t say it. If you’ve got it, I’ll see it.
What hardcore punk bands can teach us about creative entrepreneurship.
“I’m a piece of shit? Fine — watch what this piece of shit is gonna do.”
— Ian MacKaye
A couple of years ago, I went to see my mate Joe’s hardcore-punk band Attack! Vipers!, play in a windowless concrete basement, under a tattoo parlour on a Southampton side street. There was vicious blood-red graffiti on the walls and it looked like a deranged serial killer’s lair, but it was full of funny and welcoming, if highly pierced and elaborately inked youths.
“Do you have any earplugs?” Joe asked kindly. “The place is all concrete and it will be a bit of an echo chamber, so it might get quite loud” he understated. I was about to get quite a lesson.
I’m a fan of short-fast-loud, but this was volume, speed and urgency on a much, much higher level than I was used to. Never mind ‘liking’ the music; it was a visceral, thrilling and totally hypnotic ride that you felt in your intestines as much as in your ears. Even with ear defenders fashioned from toilet paper, it was still bone-shatteringly loud.
There was no stage so the band and audience melted into one — as lead singer, Joe spent most of the set deep in the middle of the audience, sharing his mike with the fans and physically exhorting them to get involved. I was knocked sideways — not just by the wall of noise — but by the passion. But passion doesn’t really come close to describing the physical and mental intensity they all brought to their playing. It was off the Richter Scale.
This music will never trouble mainstream radio, let alone the charts, but the musicianship was highly skilled; playing complex rhythms and melodies (yes they had those) and doing it with absolute conviction and accuracy.
Two other bands played before them, but they all shared drums, amps and PAs, and they all helped each other set up and breakdown. Sound-checks were short (“can you hear this?” Oh yes). In the side room, on a low table, friends had set up a merchandise stall with T-shirts, CDs, Vinyl and badges and everyone was sharing their BYO beers and ciders. There were a lot of smiles and a lot of laughter. There was a community — a very strong, purposeful and connected community sharing a secret love.
That night not only re-ignited my love of punk rock music, but also made me think about how powerful passion can be when it’s coupled with a community of people who believe what you believe.
Passion is probably the most badly overused word in business, but that is because passion’s inexplicable burning urge is the one thing that links everything we humans love and respect.
The roots of punk are long and tangled and the only real unifying theme is people making music they love with zero thoughts of commercial success. Because making money was never really on anyone’s horizon it became a DIY culture that needed a community of like-minded souls to flourish.
And flourish they did. One of the most fiercely intelligent and ferociously driven communities was the Washington DC hardcore scene, whose conviction and integrity spread across the globe.
That scene not only directly influenced genre-smashing bands like the Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana, but also set an ethos for any successful creative endeavour outside of the mainstream.
“Every song I ever wrote, I wrote to be heard. So, if I was given a choice that 50 years from now I could either have a dollar or knowing that some kid was listening to my song, I’d go with the kid listening to my song.”
— Ian MacKaye
At the centre of the Washington DC scene was Ian MacKaye. He was not only the lead singer of Minor Threat and the guitarist in Fugazi (two of the most influential bands), but also the founder of Dischord records, which has been putting out underground music for over thirty years.
Beneath mainstream music’s radar, they blagged and borrowed equipment, played gigs in the assembly halls and gymnasiums of their fans’ schools, toured and recorded on a shoestring, set up their own record label, pressed records in tiny runs (even having ‘sleeve-folding’ parties where friends would come and help put the records into their handmade covers) and distributed their music via clothes shops, fanzines and skate-parks.
Their gigs were frenetic, mad and joyous; the music was furious, frantic and angry, but the conviction and passion was infectious. They not only sold hundreds of thousands of records, but also influenced hundreds of subsequent bands to back their passion, trust their ability and to just do it.
“American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it’s profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It’s just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you’re making good food and people are happy.”
— Ian MacKaye
MacKaye admits that at the peak of the scene, and particularly when Nirvana proved that there was a global appetite for alternative music, he was courted by every major record company to sell out. But he never did. He knew that as soon as you put profit before purpose you lose the two essential elements that people really buy — your own conviction, and your audience’s conviction to join your community.
The bread example is a good one. The major supermarkets have in-house bakeries, but they can’t do what small independent bakeries do. They can’t experiment with unusual ingredients or flours — the size and complexity of their supply chain can’t buy ethically sourced Spelt, or a sourdough starter that’s been in the family for generations. A Turkish flat-bread with chilli and sundried tomatoes won’t shift enough units in an out of town Tescos to warrant the experiment. It probably wouldn’t make any money, so they don’t even try.
But artisan bakeries are thriving in every town precisely because we don’t just want bland Hovis or even just fresh bread. We want rich flavours, natural ingredients, and the inexplicable but very real taste of integrity. Artisan bakers, like hardcore record labels, can make a good living, and even a profit, but their profit-motive is simply to make more great bread or more great music.
“We play loud electric guitar music, and we’d hope that that doesn’t mean you have to act like an asshole.”
— Ian MacKaye
The DC hardcore scene had a much wider and more positive affect than just influencing other bands. They were out to make music for fun, but they rejected the nihilism and cynicism of early British punk in favour of something more profound. They not only wrote music about changing the world, they actively got involved in doing so too, playing shows for thePositive Forcemovement and protesting and lobbying against local and global injustices.
One of MacKaye’s songs, ‘Straight Edge’ became a rallying cry for rejecting the mindlessness of drink and drugs, and became a powerful international movement of young people that embraced sobriety, veganism, clean-living, equality and human rights. You didn’t have to be out off your head to stage-dive and mosh — their kind of music was about positive self-expression, not selfish hedonism.
“If You Want To Rebel Against Society, Don’t Dull The Blade.”
— Ian MacKaye
Staying true to your founding convictions is essential if you want your community of fans and customers to stay loyal.
The Body Shop built its reputation, and enjoyed huge global success, because it steadfastly stayed true to its principles of fair trade and sustainability and by telling the stories of everyone involved — from producers to customers. Founder Anita Roddick was, in a very femininely English way, very punk rock.
In 2006 The Body Shop sold out to L’Oreal and Anita Roddick died a year later. Since then the brand has lost its conviction and purpose and its activist’s voice. It was swallowed by mainstream profit-motives and shareholder value, customers slowly deserted them, and now it’s for sale again, struggling and rudderless.
The Body Shop’s heirs — Lush Cosmetics — have been rewarded with commercial success, precisely because they’ve maintained their rebellious activist heart and their credibility, and continue to put purpose ahead of profit. Their customers choose to buy from them out of principle, but that’s a precious and fragile state of mind that has to be defended with every business decision the company makes.
There’s a long list of examples that show that you’re only ever one bad corporate decision away from blowing your customers’ hard-won trust.
It doesn’t matter if your passion is making weird soap, strange bread or ear-bleeding music, there’s a huge appetite for anything outside the mainstream that has the authentic taste of conviction.
Never let anyone tell you that it’s too strange, or it won’t sell. If you’re making something off-the-wall, just for the sheer love of it, it’ll be infectious and you’ll be rewarded with loyalty and success.
Rick Rubin is one of the world’s most successful music producers — and is a huge fan of DC hardcore (his first band was called The Pricks). He’s maintained both financial independence and artistic credibility simply because he makes music that he loves, before any other thought or motivation.
“Be true to yourself. Make music that you love, go out and play, turn people on to it and spread it yourself. Don’t think it happens any other way.”
— Rick Rubin
If you really want to go places, you need to understand the power of empathy.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
According to an admirably diplomatic recruitment consultant, my career has been “non-linear”. Because I looked puzzled she explained, “you’ve done a lot of weird stuff in a lot of weird places.” Apparently, even though that’s very true, you can’t put that on a CV, so to help her do her job getting me another job she then asked, “what’s the unifying narrative in your working life?”
I told her that it was probably marketing and communications, which is superficially true too, but since the phrase ‘storytelling’ is a hackneyed cliche, I’d now go with ‘understanding the power of empathy’. Pretentious — moi? Maybe, but having experienced a lot of global weirdness, I’m convinced that empathy and understanding are the keys to any of life’s locked doors.
In a recent blog post Seth Godin made a compelling argument that we should value and train for ‘soft skills’, and he lists a huge range of non-vocational attributes all of which, to me, could be boxed up under the title Empathy — or understanding your fellow humans.
“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” Susan Sarandon.
When we say that ‘The world is your oyster’ we mean that the world holds infinite possibilities if you have the chutzpah to go out and find them. And that is true, but like all good Shakespearean quotes ‘it does not mean what you think it means.’
The character who says it is trying to extort money from his friend. “the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” To shuck an oyster and find the pearl takes force and a sharp blade. But the world doesn’t truly open up to you by force, quite the opposite, it takes empathy to reveal its riches.
Travelling to explore other cultures is good way to learn empathy. Living and working in them is even better.
When I was twenty-three I pretended that I could speak French to get a job running a skier’s’ lodge in the Alps and although I got the job, I quickly discovered that there was a good reason why speaking the language was an essential skill required. No one in the remote village spoke English — or if they did they weren’t about to use it to make ‘les Anglais’ life easier. So get anything done, I had to learn fast.
I learnt by trial and error, but mainly because I asked for help. It’s amazing how much of a language you can learn in bars and cafes with a positive attitude and a combination of handy phrases like ‘Comment tu dis?’ (how do you say…) followed by a quick game of charades to ascertain the French word for lift pass / radiator / plumber / anterior cruciate ligament / morning after pill (for one of the staff, not me). Arm-waving, shoulder shrugging and pouting are essential parts of the French language, and copying and deploying them at the right moment speaks more eloquently than most words.
That one thing led to another and another and another. Learning French under pressure and in situ led to a job in Italy, which led to a job in London, which led to a job in Switzerland, which led to a job in Australia, which led to a job in Singapore. The link between them all was learning how to empathise with strange people in strange places. Empathy looks different in different cultures, but the instinctive principles are the same and they transcend any language barrier.
In South East Asia, to do business you have to give ‘face’. It’s more complex than simple respect. It means understanding a person’s position and standing in the negotiation and showing them, in words and silent actions that you understand their importance to getting this thing done. Face not an easy thing to teach — bowing and flattering aren’t enough — you have to feel it and experience it.
Faced with the probability that it would cost several thousand dollars in bribes to secure a permit to fly a hot air balloon in Vietnam, our translator was struggling to explain my request without insult. If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon, it’s difficult to grasp the idea that you can take off and drift around at the mercy of the wind with no idea where you’re going or where you’ll land. I tried a different tack with the stern-faced General. His impassive face flickered when I showed him a video of the balloon over England.
“My wife has always wanted to do this,” he grunted via the translator.
“She’d be very welcome to fly with us.” I offered.
“She’s busy.” He grunted back.
“No one has ever flown a balloon In Vietnam, would you like to be the first man to fly in one over Hanoi? It would be a world record.” The translator’s face lit up as he explained this much simpler proposition.
The General blinked twice and bravely withheld a smile. Then he barked a stream of orders over his shoulder, stood up, shook my hand and departed.
“Tomorrow morning.” The relieved translator confirmed.
The General was the first Vietnamese man to fly in a hot air balloon over his country, and once airborne he became the most garrulous man in the country too. He spent the whole flight yelling to his friends on his mobile phone, waving to everyone below and literally squealing with delight. It didn’t need a translator to explain the gist of his “yes, it’s me — look up — I’m up here — look at me — look at me — I’m flying!”
Three hours after his historic flight, I was given a simple letter from the highest ranking air force commander, the gist of which read “let these guys fly anywhere they like.” Which came in very handy in half a dozen other countries too.
Getting that permit and glowing reference required a fistfull of Godin’s soft skills, none of which I’d learnt in school or on vocational training courses.
“It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work. Culture defeats strategy, every time.” Seth Godin
The simple truth is that life is not only easier, but far richer if you can see and feel what everyone else is facing. This is not just some new age mindfulness schmaltz to fill the world with peace and love (although it wouldn’t hurt for our leaders to try it), this is hard-edged business nouss too.
Show me any successful sales, marketing and even HR strategy and I reckon I could show you the empathy at the heart of it in seconds. Likewise, every commercial and PR disaster you could name usually has a lack of understanding of the relevant humans at its core.
The customer journey — the user experience — brand loyalty — company culture — are all powered and fuelled by empathy.
I agree with Seth Godin, empathy can be taught, but it’s a helluva lot more fun, and it’s far more powerful a lesson to go out into the weird parts of the world and learn it for yourself.
“True contentment comes with empathy.” Tim Finn
“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.” Steve Martin.