Looking in your rear view mirror, what are your ‘notes to self’​ for 2023?

Christmas comes but once a year, yet it confers no obvious benefit for those who don’t believe in it for religious or personal reasons, and it’s costly for something that’s purely sentimental. Yet on the whole, there is no other time of year set aside primarily for the family closeness we enjoy that is important for us all. I hope you had a good one.

Even if we are not religious, there is an element of hope and warm inside feelings that we humans crave which we get from Christmas. This should not be taken lightly. The psychological effects of Christmas and sentiment enables us to focus on feelings rather than thoughts, and in a world dominated by rationale and reason, it is good to sit for a moment with our feelings and emotions.

Now as we move on from Christmas and into the early days of the new year, I find myself ready to reflect on the past twelve-months, contemplating the year ahead. For sure, 2022 was another year that put the world to the test. From the invasion of Ukraine to Covid, from inflation and interest rate mayhem, to the passing of Robbie Coltrane, Wilko Johnson, Taylor Hawkins, Doddie Weir and Terry Hall, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, to social and political turmoil in the UK, 2022 asked hard questions.

We had taboo-busting populist politicians and three Prime Ministers in a fifty-day period. In America, centrists used their ballots to preserve fundamental rights, including the right to an abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. All around the world, Economic nationalism is popular. The largesse during the pandemic changed expectations of the state. Creative destruction, which reallocates capital and labour, may be unpalatable to ageing populace that put less store in economic growth, and to younger voters who embrace the politics of identity, but with a decline in respect for individual dignity by many Governments, it has been a tumultuous twelve months.

Just about every country in the world has grappled with soaring inflation. Promisingly, some of the factors that fuelled inflation have started to fade. Prices of consumer goods have declined as supply chains have returned to normal. The cost of oil has fallen back to its level a year ago, in part thanks to a recovery in production. 

Interest rate rises in the UK were tumultuous, although it should improve in the coming year, but at a severe cost to economic growth and dampening the property market.  Rising interest rates turned the tables. With rates at 1%, to have £100 in ten years’ time you must deposit £91 in a bank account today. With rates at 5%, you needed only put away £61. Tighter monetary policy works by choking off demand, and that is starting to happen, but fears of inflation may give way to concerns about unemployment in 2023.

Financial historians will look back at the 2010s and marvel that people really thought interest rates would stay near zero forever. Markets expect rates to stop climbing in 2023, with a peak of 5% in the UK, but the odds of them falling back are slim. The era of free money is over. Capital was not just cheap in the bull market, it was also seemingly everywhere. Now capital abundance has turned to capital scarcity. The end of cheap money shortens investors’ horizons, forcing them to prefer immediate profits to those in the distant future. Growth stocks are out. Value is back in vogue.

The past year also saw humbling of Silicon Valley billionaires Musk and Zuckerberg, thanks to ego-driven choices, erratic decision-making, and an obsessive focus on pet projects. Meta announced the first mass layoffs in the company’s history after its revenue nosedived and development costs hit $15bn. Zuckerberg said that Meta’s current losses are a necessary sacrifice in building the metaverse of his imagination.

Tesla’s stock price plummeted despite a hike in volume of sales as Musk focused on Twitter. He spent $44bn on Twitter in October, after attempting to pull out of the offer he made in April. While many predicted a disaster, few foresaw quite how quickly. Advertisers and users have fled the platform. Musk has made near-daily changes to Twitter policy. He fired half of the company’s staff in his first week before asking some to come back, then banned and un-banned journalists critical of his leadership. The effect has been significant: not only has Musk lost his title as the world’s richest person – his net worth is down an eye watering $132bn – but his reputation is shredded, being described as ‘floundering’, ‘annoying’ and ultimately ‘someone who  doesn’t know what he’s doing’.

So, it’s against this backdrop that I really enjoyed Christmas. For me, I think it’s the nostalgia, hope and indulgence of Christmas which make it memorable. Above all, the nostalgia. Morecambe and Wise make me laugh out loud and recall memories of Christmases as a child, and the eventful Christmas celebrations of the past – the Christmas dinner at Sheffield in my student house when the turkey plate splintered in the gas oven and the fat caught fire – bring a warm glow, and I recall, a calamitous ten minutes back in 1983.

Hope is also important too; family time creates a yearning that the next year will be better for us all. Hope is essential. Yet it’s complicated. Hope was the last thing to emerge from Pandora’s box, yet we all believe that hope is empowering. In the face of threats and downsides, we are told, it is vital not to give up hope. Yet ‘It’s the hope that kills you’ also pervades.

To hope is to risk the agony of defeat, but those who valorise hope point out that action is impossible without it: you cannot strive for what you care about, when success is not assured, or at least progress. To hope for something is to believe that it may happen. If it’s good to pursue your goal, and that requires hope, isn’t hope a good thing, too?

You cannot lie on the sofa surfing the internet scoffing the giant toblerone from your sister, hoping things improve, without giving a thought to how. Hope may be utterly quiescent. If there’s courage in hoping, it’s the courage to face the fear of disappointment that hope creates. And while hope may be a precondition of meaningful action, it’s the action, not the hope, that matters.

So, having considered the 2022 macroeconomics, the troubles of two global tech entrepreneurs and the value of hope, how should we consider the past year that gives us a platform to do better in our own startup venture in the new year ahead?  I’m not one for rabid ‘new year resolutions’, but I do like looking in the rear-view mirror for a retrospective. I’m never bothered about ‘if only with hindsight’, what’s gone has gone, rather I am one for reflecting on what came about and putting some learning markers down – research by Harvard University shows that folks perform 23% better after practicing learning-based reflection.

Reflection is to look at the highs and lows, the wins and the losses, and to evaluate them in a way that will change your behaviour, reactions and decision making to improve performance and change outcomes in the next period. Reflection is giving yourself feedback, drawing conclusions, and highlighting lessons to benefit the future. Moreover, reflection teaches you how to deal with similar situations better. Taking the time to understand why you did something will help you decide if you need to do it again or modify it to serve you better.

But keep it simple. Go through your collection of notebooks for the year and highlight comments you marked at the time – I call them ‘notes to self’ – or review them in the next few days if you’ve not done that, curating the standouts from throughout the year. I’ve used this ‘note to self’ technique to take reminders of something important said or heard. It can be anything from a verbatim to a reminder nudge. Usually, these notes are lightbulbs that illuminate a lesson or a short empowering statement that I need to heed for future actions.

In our fast-paced startup world, it’s important to press pause, look in the rear-view mirror and remind yourself where you’ve come from and the key moments, and not simply keep doing. Imagine the possibilities if you connect with and focus on these key points you’ve now picked up to take intentional action in alignment with them for the future? They also remind me that there are always takeaways from other people’s wisdom, who have gone through experiences to share such comments.

Keep them simple. Here are my fifty ‘notes so self’ for founders that I’ve captured in my rear-view mirror for 2023:

1.    Make something people want, not what you want to make.

2.    A great team, a great product and a great market are all important. You need all three.

3.    Talk to users. Most other things that founders do are a waste of time in the first year.

4.    Stay focused and stick to the knitting, don’t try to do too many things at once. 

5.    Be smart and agile. They are your main advantages over the established competition.

6.    Eliminate distractions.

7.    Think like a customer.

8.    Transparency is your friend.

9.    Growth solves nearly all your problems.

10. Hire smart committed people. 

11. Celebrate milestones along the scrappy, friction filled journey to launching your MVP.

12. Be resourceful and frugal.

13. Product/market fit is what matters. 

14. You will make a lot of mistakes.

15. User experience is everything.

16. Momentum is critical. Don’t lose it.

17. Keep salaries low and equity high.

18. Keep the organisation structure as flat as you can.

19. When fund raising, create a competitive situation.

20. Don’t forget you have to make money at some point.

21. Life is not always about holding good cards, but sometimes playing a poor hand well.

22. Listen to everyone. Then make your own decision.

23. Don’t be cocky. There’s always someone better than you.

24. You learn by doing. Founder led sales make the difference.

25. Have a direct, personal and energised relationship with your partners.

26. Be strong minded, do not be easy to push around.

27. Don’t hire managers too early.

28. Simplicity is a virtue. 

29. Don’t trust the weather forecast, it’s always overly optimistic.

30. ABC – Always Be Closing. Make sales happen, don’t talk a good pipeline.

31. In-person is better than tele-anything.

32. Most things are not as risky as they seem.

33. Raise a bit more money than you think you need.

34. High expectations are the key to making progress.

35. Trust your instincts.

36. If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.

37. If you pivot, do it fully and with conviction. Don’t try to do a bit of the old and the new.

38. It’s better to make a decision and be wrong than to procrastinate.

39. Always acknowledge colleagues’ good work.

40. You can win with the best product, the best price, or the best experience.

41. Talk about your company, not about being a founder.

42. It’s better to have a few users love your product than a lot of users who sort of like it.

43. Learn how to stay externally optimistic when your world is melting.

44. Roll up your sleeves and get stuff done. Lead by example.

45. Keep a daily to-do list and put the three big things you want to work on at the top.

46. Sleep.

47. Raise money on clean terms.

48. Keep an eye on cash. Keep burn low until you’re sure sales are working.

49. Have a team meeting once a week. Share results with the team.

50. Get a mentor to give you a balanced perspective and avoid blinkered thinking.

I hope this ‘note to self’ list is helpful to kick start your reflections on the past twelve-months and shape your thinking and focus for 2023. Aim high: Harrison Ford, now in his 80s, is returning for a fifth Indiana Jones film in 2023. Beat that!

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