• Taking time out

    Iceland Horses

    There aren’t many times in my life I can remember not having a computer nearby. Even on the very few holidays where I’ve decided not to work, I’ve taken my MacBook with me just in case.

    I recently discovered a decline in my motivation and ability to concentrate for any length of time. The usual procrastinations became my daily affairs, rather than my momentary flings. Any form of work, even a simple email, became a monumental effort. Tasks would remain half finished in windows dotted around my screen and clients started wondering why the delay.

    This was strange to me. I have always loved my job, the clients and the translators I work with. The process that forms the majority of my daily activities isn’t particularly difficult and it’s accessible any time of the day, from anywhere in the world.

    I had never experienced burnout in this way before. Usually my burnout is accompanied by a desire to do even more and a vacuous, demoralising feeling that everything I’ve accomplished so far is totally worthless. This time it was different. This time it was preventing me from doing any more work. It was as if my brain was demanding the time off, analogous to my own computer that needs time to process before moving on to the next task.

    The feeling had been growing over a long period of time, but I kept ignoring it. Eventually I found myself getting less and less sleep, trying to fit in everything I wanted to do, every single day. My friends started to notice how badly bitten my nails were and how tired I was looking. When I couldn’t spend a weekend at a friend’s house without looking at my computer for a couple of hours, it was clear something had to change.

    “When was the last time you went a week without a computer?” my friend asked. I couldn’t remember. “It’s time we went away together”.

    Several weeks later we had booked our February trip off-the-grid in Iceland. She demanded I left my computer at home, at whatever cost to my company, and turned off my iPhone, only to be used in cases of emergency (the death kind, not the Google Maps kind). I was happy to oblige.

    Iceland was everything I had hoped for. Without any strict schedule, my appearance changed in days. My nails grew, the black rings around my eyes disappeared, I stood up taller than usual. My mind raced through the last year, processing, categorising and filing everything it needed to. My dreams became more and more vivid as my sleep increased from my usual six to eight full hours.

    I went swimming four times, walked ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres a day. Lost weight and felt more flexible. My eyes were no longer straining and the aches in my back had gone. I found time to read four books, infinitely more than I had read in the last six months, and watched mindless TV without my normal feeling of frustration that I could, should, be doing something ‘better’.

    Above all, I found time to coherently think about my plans. I made a mental list of everything that was making me both happy and unhappy and how I would solve them. I realistically prioritised what I can achieve in the near future, including time set aside to just do nothing.

    While my flexibility at work has always been fantastic, I have been spurred on to create some kind of boundaries. Not just for myself, but also my friends and family who want, nay, deserve my full attention when I am with them.

    In daily life, I often find my mind racing towards several futures that may or may not ever exist. I try and achieve everything I want in what limited time I have and I punish myself when I don’t meet those expectations. I don’t appreciate the free time I do get and I’m rarely mindful of the things I already have.

    If you feel this way too, I recommend taking a week away from it all. Turn off 3G, no social networks, no messaging, close your computer and get away from your normal surroundings. Your friends and family won’t miss you for a week or two. Try and discover who you are right now, work out what really makes you happy, not what you think will make other people happy. Make a list of your goals, prioritise them and understand you can’t do everything. But most of all, give your head space. Space to work out what it needs, without interruption.

  • 2015: MyIntent to learn

    MyIntent

    My first company, Applingua Ltd, is now over four years old. When I quit my previous job and started my first company I looked at it as a training programme. I told my friends and family that I couldn’t afford to study for a masters and instead would start and run my own business for a year. I hoped that I would learn by doing all the legal, accounting, finance and management myself; and by researching and overcoming all the stumbling blocks that many first time business owners are confronted with.

    It’s impossible to quantify how much I learned in that first year. Not just the hard facts, but also the emotional roller coaster of getting clients, invoicing, setting pricing. Non payers and managing subcontractors. It wasn’t overly difficult, but it did take a lot of brain power and that was tiring.

    As the years have gone by, running the business has become almost second nature. The process has stayed more or less the same and I’ve found myself having to read up on certain topics much less than I once had to. In some respects, my need to learn at work has diminished.

    In November I found myself at a Startup Mixer in San Francisco, where one guy, Chris Pan, took to the stage to tell the room about his project, MyIntent. He described the MyIntent bracelet as ‘wearable technology’ and gave what the British might call a ‘sugary-sweet, love-peace-and-harmony’ speech about what is essentially a wearable imprinted metal drain pipe washer. I rolled my eyes, tutted and wondered if I could exit the auditorium without being seen. For all intents and purposes I was not willing to learn what he had to say.

    Later in the evening I came across the MyIntent stall and scratched my head as to why anyone in their right mind would be impressed by this low-grade metal ring. Through sheer curiosity and the much more open-mindedness of my friend, Xenia Menzies, we approached the stall where one of their reps asked us out straight, “What’s your word?”. I looked at her perplexed, what on Earth was she asking me? “What’s your word?,” she repeated, “You know, what one word defines or describes your purpose in life? Why are you here? What is your intent?”.

    I would have thought this was a question that required weeks of introverted thought and consideration, but in that single moment only one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, something I had consistently told friends over the years, “all I ever want to do is learn”.

    “Sorry?”, the rep replied.

    “To learn! Learn. Learn, is my word”.

    For two months now I have worn this little metal washer with pride. On more than one occasion, when I’ve felt like avoiding going out of my comfort zone, or felt too lazy to read an article, I’ve noticed this little imprinted word shining back at me, reminding me to learn. Its neurolinguistic properties remind me of Mauricio Estrella’s Medium story about how changing his password, changed his life. It may sound kitsch, but the power of one word, repeated over and over again is immense.

    This simple, throw-away washer has had a big impact on my enthusiasm for 2015 and the possibilities of what I can achieve not only in my private, but also my in professional life and Applingua’s own success. I’ve decided that it’s time to learn at work again full time. To grow my business and to take it to new levels. In some ways to reinvent it and to learn from the process, whether it succeeds or fails. MyIntent is to learn this year, and that’s what makes 2015 so exciting. I was wrong, Chris Pan, and you were most definitely right.

    So, what’s your word?

  • Visiting Buckingham Palace

    Me and The Queen

    A few weeks ago I received an email from The Duke of York’s Personal Secretary, inviting me to a Technology Reception at Buckingham Palace. I couldn’t refuse such an offer, so booked flights back home, ironed my suit (thanks Mum!), bought a new tie and polished my shoes. Before I knew it, I was lining up at the gates of Buckingham Palace along with 200 other influential people in UK tech.

    Of all the amazing opportunities I’ve had since starting this blog, I would probably put this near the top. It’s not something I ever imagined would or could even happen, but it was an honour to be in a room not only with our Head of State, but also many other CEOs whose companies I admire, respect and often look to learn from.

    My thanks go to Neil Cocker, for putting my name forward and for organising our transport to London; to the Duke of York, for hosting this event; and, of course, the Royal Household for recognising how important our industry is quickly becoming to the UK’s economy. Fantastic day – will never be forgotten!

  • Working nomadically: the tools I use

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    I’m often asked how I can keep on top of work while travelling around so much. I have to admit, when I took my first location independent leap it was a major concern for me. Nowadays it almost seems like second nature.

    In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of employees working remotely. It makes sense to me – companies don’t have to provide the overheads associated with physical desk space, they can retain good employees who require flexibility (working mothers and fathers, for example) and, in my experience, it empowers employees to manage their own tasks and time more efficiently. I really don’t see this trend declining any time soon.

    There are two of us in-house at Applingua and a further 30+ freelancers. On the one hand, it’s obviously important that communication and access to information runs efficiently in any company, in case someone is ill or away on vacation. But it’s very important if you want towork remotely from one another. So how do Applingua and I do it?

    Internet access

    Even before arriving in a new place, I check out potential internet access. At the very least, you need a strong connection where you are sleeping, be that a hotel or sublet. Make sure WiFi is available in your room, so you don’t have to go hunting for it elsewhere in your building (hotel lobbies suck).

    Don’t rely too much on coffee shop WiFi access. In many countries it conveniently doesn’t work ‘today’ so they can get more customers through their doors (fair enough, really). While in others, quite considerable charges are normal.

    In the next few years, the EU should move to remove roaming charges, but in the meantime the first thing you should think about is getting a SIM card. In my experience, it’s cheaper to buy a SIM even when you’re on holiday for a week. Check which sim card would be the best before you arrive then head right to their store. Data on your smartphone is essential for so many different tasks, from quick email checking to finding your way around a new city (and finding WiFi hotspots!).

    File sharing & storage

    Most companies have work they need to save and documents they need to share. I’ve been using Dropbox for what seems years now, but it wasn’t until I started working with others professionally that I saw just how great Dropbox really is.

    The idea of file servers have plagued small businesses for years. I remember pulling my hair out trying to work out how to set up a file share between five computers at my father’s company when I was still a teenager. Nowadays Dropbox lets you create a folder, right-click and share with friends and colleagues. As it is backed up automatically both off-site and locally, it completely negates the need for cumbersome and un-travel-friendly external hard drives. What’s more, the files can be accessed from any device, iPod touch to Desktop.

    (I should enter a quick note here that if you’re keeping company data on Dropbox, it’s probably good practice to keep it in an encrypted image, which can be mounted at the start of each work day. No idea what I’m talking about? Here’s a handy guide.)

    Communication & project management

    We all know the most important aspect of any business is good communication. It’s important for everyone in a team (remote or otherwise) to know where they stand at any given moment. It’s also important that when communication fails, or when communication is not possible, there is a list of tasks that can be done without the rest of your team.

    Over the years I have tried so many different project management tools, shared to do lists, instant messaging apps, but in the end only two have prevailed. Skype and Trello.

    Skype lets me check in with my colleague Sarah once a week on video or whenever there’s something more complex than possibly by email to discuss. I also have a fixed Skype line phone number, which means my calls can be routed wherever I am in the world. This is especially useful when my mobile number changes when changing countries.

    Trello is an extremely useful online todo list and project management tool. We’ve used it for almost two years now and it’s never failed. I’ll admit at some times I’ve been a bit lazy updating it, but I know that should I ever be stuck for something to do, there is a great backlog of admin and potential marketing duties listed there.

    Trello really is a great tool for collaborating on projects – I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

    Business admin

    No one particularly likes admin tasks. When I started Applingua I decided I wanted to be completely paperless. Aside from the environmental and cost aspect of running a paper-based office, keeping physical records of everything is a sure fire way to prevent you from remote working or becoming location independent.

    I was lucky to find an easy solution early on, meaning all my company’s documents can be accessed anywhere in the world and at any time: Canon P150 Scanner + Evernote.

    The canon scanner is a very portable, high speed scanning device that breezes through multiple letters and receipts in no time at all. You can then choose to automatically upload to an application of your choice, mine being Evernote. While I am away from the UK, a friend or relative picks up my limited, usually SPAM, mail approximately once a month, places it on the scanner and clicks go!

    The documents then get uploaded to Evernote, which automatically files and indexes them so they can be searched instantly. It’s extremely convenient to be able to search through years of paper letters and documents in just seconds to find exactly what you’re looking for.

    There are alternatives to both the Canon and Evernote. I believe Doxie is one of the most popular scanners and many use Google Drive for storage (it also does OCR now). Personally I’m happy with Evernote’s iOS, Mac and Web apps for the time being.

    Finance & accounting

    There’s nothing more off-putting when starting your own business than Finance & Accounting. It’s scary and the idea of Excel spreadsheets makes me want to run away and hide under my bed covers with my first teddy bear, Growler.

    I’ve mentioned it a hundred times before, but I believe FreeAgent is the very first service new businesses should invest in. Whether Freelance or Limited, accounting has literally never been so easy (I realise I sound like I’m on their payroll…). It automatically interacts with my bank accounts, giving me a daily overview of all goings on. I invoice from there, manage clients, time, payroll and salary. It even lets me run a trial balance sheet and profit & loss. It really is out of this world.

    What I’ve not mentioned before perhaps is the next vital aspect of running your business smoothly, making it even easier to work nomadically or be location independent: a good accountant.

    I use Maslins Accountants. Chris and his team are based in Kent, we’ve never met, I don’t think we’ve even spoken on the telephone. His team’s communication is so good and responsive, I’ve never needed to. They work directly in FreeAgent too, which, compared to some companies I know who deliver kilograms of paper to their accountant at the end of every year, is incredibly convenient. Everything is done electronically – even to the point of signing off my accounts at the end of the year.

    It is not possible to overemphasise how essential a good accountant is. I know no matter where I am I can send a quick email and get a reply nearly always the same day.

    Some might say this is all too easy, but I just think of it as an extra day off a month which would normally be spent trawling spreadsheets.

    The answer is in the cloud

    You’ll notice that all of the above exist in the cloud. They all store my data on remote servers that can be accessed anywhere in the world. If my computer gets stolen, if my colleague Sarah needs to get hold of something or if I’m away from the desk and someone needs something urgently, I can access the information from any device, any where.

    I’ve even gone so far as getting an accountant that forces me to think remotely, even when I’m working from Applingua’s HQ in Cardiff. It’s these things which cut all ties when I decide to just up and leave from one day to the next.

    I started writing this post sprawled out in my own night-train compartment watching the sun rise over the snow-capped mountains surrounding Lake Garda in Northern Italy. For me, at least, working nomadically doesn’t get much better.

  • Goodbye USA! This is what I learned

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    After 18 months back in the UK, I decided my motivation batteries needed a bit of recharging. It didn’t take me long to decide on the USA, the home of enthusiasm and tech startups.

    I’ve just spent a month living in Boston, MA. During the last four weeks I was lucky enough to attend some incredible lectures at Harvard and MIT, got to listen to world-leading thinkers on business and politics and chewed over hours of strategy with my good friend, and fellow startup founder, Xenia Menzies (keep an eye out, she’s a rising star!).

    I also took the opportunity to visit San Francisco for the first time, where I worked on-site at a client’s office on their release day, and I jumped on the train to New York, where I met another client at their amazing office for vegetarian meatballs (the mind boggles).

    I want to share with you my biggest take aways from the month and hope they serve as a reminder to me in future.

    Celebrate those who try

    Of all the people I met, whether at a startup or just in general conversation, they were all enthusiastic about those who try, even if they fail. They applaud those who take risks and they never lament or patronise when someone fails.

    Don’t be afraid to ask

    People don’t mind calling in favours. Us Brits always feel like we’re intruding or don’t want to bother others with our requests. I almost see a correlation with the Germans here, if an American wants something, they’ll ask for it. And why not? There will almost always be a time when it will be repaid.

    Simplicity is always best

    Bureaucracy almost doesn’t exist in the US (though I’m sure they’d disagree). Every service had ‘an easy option’. Getting a sim card, there were contracts but there were also simple all-inclusive, one-time-only pre-paid sims.

    My gym too. Alongside the annual memberships were hey-you’re-only-in-town-for-one-month memberships too. No ‘sign up and cancel later’, no ’30 day notice period’ like i had on my monthly gym membership in the UK. Sure, it was slightly more expensive, but convenience has a value. In fact, everything in the US has a value.

    Everything has a value

    That’s right. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between the US and Europe. Everything has a value. You want sides with that main course? Pay for them. You want your luggage taken to your room? Give me a few dollars.

    Nothing is bundled. I always feel like we’re taken for a ride in the UK. “Free PlayStation with your mobile phone contract!” Break down your monthly costs, that PlayStation is not free. The American way lets those who use a service, pay for it and the rest of us get the cheapest deal.

    Big up your position

    Finally, stay humble but do not allow modesty to become confusing. I’ve met many small business owners in the UK who shy away from even the official term “Managing Director”. In fact, I myslef find it difficult to say anything other than “I kinda work for myself”. Americans assume this means you’re unemployed or freelance. If you are director of a Ltd company, especially if you are an employer, then you are CEO or, at the very least, a Founder.

    In the past I’ve lambasted those who use the term CEO when they only manage a handful of people, but now I realise that’s due to a cultural difference in the use of the term.

    CEO is the word for Managing Director in the UK. So if you’re looking for investment from Americans, or dealing with other American companies, they will probably want to deal with the CEO.

  • Inquiry into Young Entrepreneurs

    I was recently asked to take part in a Wales-wide inquiry into youth entrepreneurship. Although I am now slightly out of the age range to be classed as ‘youth’, I was when I started my business, Applingua Ltd, on my 24th Birthday.

    The video speaks to several young entrepreneurs who give their opinion on a wide range of issues around starting your own business in Wales and was shown to the Enterprise and Business Committee at the National Assembly for Wales on Thursday 12th June 2013. You can read the agenda and minutes of the meeting here.

    I promote youth entrepreneurship at any given chance and have always maintained that our education system should promote starting a business as a viable form of post-education employment. All too often schools boast about their ‘successful’ pupils who gone on to work for big-city companies across the bridge, when they should also celebrate the 16 year olds who leave school early, train as a hair dresser, and now run their own salon employing 10 people.

    Wales is in an ideal position to encourage entrepreneurship through local grants. I would most like to see this being supported by Welsh Government through the expansion of the Enterprise Zone trials in England, whereby individuals starting a business can claim Job Seekers Allowance for the first nine months. I strongly believe this will encourage people without a job to take the leap.

    New companies make new jobs and push our economy forward. The more startups we have here in Wales, selling products and services around the world, the more attractive our country becomes to outside investment and high-net worth individuals who can feed back into our economy. Let’s make it even easier for people, young and old, to start a business and promote Wales as a great place to do business.

  • Cardiff Start Launch

    10 months ago I wrote a post on the start of a new community of entrepreneurs in Cardiff. After months of meet-ups, socials and not-so-great delivery pizza, we finally launched Cardiff Start.

    On 11th April, over 200 people landed in City Hall for the grand opening of Cardiff Start. People from all walks of life came, from those interested in running their own businesses to those Cardiff’s creative movement. The video above is a short clip detailing what we’re all about.

    Check out the Cardiff Start website if you’re interested.

  • Forgetting the power of face-to-face meetings

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    I, like many others, hide most of my day behind a computer screen. Social media, instant messaging and email allow me to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues no matter where they are. It’s so natural to just sit and type, I sometimes forget just how decisive face-to-face meetings can be.

    Prior to the Cardiff Start Launch Event a few colleagues and I trying to organise corporate sponsors to help fund a day of free workshops and a launch party in the evening. We identified several companies that we thought were a really good match, but emails and calls mostly fell on deaf ears.

    Less than a month before the big day, I happened to be at an award ceremony in Bath as part of a competition I was mentoring. One of the awards went to a company we had previously contacted for sponsorship. I quickly made a mental note of what the guy on-stage looked like and decided to hunt him down after the ceremony.

    I found our guy by the bar and took the opportunity to buy him a drink. Now that we were face-to-face, I just came out with our request and asked him about sponsorship for our launch event. We spoke a little about the event’s mission and also what they could get out of it. Within five minutes we’d shaken on it.

    To say I was pleased is an understatement.

    I, like many others, hide most of my day behind a computer screen, but in doing so we allow people to ignore us or say no without any real thought. It’s much easier to receive criticism and much harder to adapt your proposition during an online conversation than when you’re standing in front of the person you are talking to. It may seem obvious, but after spending several years dealing mostly online, it’s easy to forget.

    From now on, if I really need something, I will make much more of an effort to stand in front of the person and ask them in person.

  • Starting your first business is like learning a new language

    Starting your first business is like learning a new language. You progress quickly and only then do you realise you know very little. But that doesn’t mean you should stop learning, stop progressing, because when you get to a point when you can converse with clients and business partners, nothing feels better.

    Attending holiday-language lessons gets you only so far, but it’s not until you get into a tricky situation do you realise you don’t have any of the required vocabulary to converse properly. You have a choice at this point: ask someone around you who can translate for you or lose out on what you really want to say.

    Running a business is very similar. You progress so quickly, registering your company, getting your first client, a whole world of possibilities seem open to you. Then, suddenly, you are faced with accounting, bureaucracy and legal issues and you hit a brick wall. If you don’t ask for help, you’re likely to get it wrong.

    When I first started my business, I was shy to ask for help. I wanted to learn and understand everything for myself to maintain ultimate control. After all, a business is like your baby, you want to help it grow, nurture it, but you always want to protect it too. I quickly realised that in order to protect my company, I sometimes needed to ask for help.

    Making mistakes can sometimes cost you dearly, but you will always learn from them. Surround yourself with people who know what they’re talking about and never be afraid of embarrassing yourself. (S)he who dares, wins.

    My top tips for learning to run your business fluently

    - Let people (including clients) know you are just a learner. This might sound totally against everything you think you should do, but believe it or not I got my first client by saying, “Hey, never done this before. New company, want to give us a go?” and landed a contract 15 times the capital I started the company with…

    - Find a mentor. Search Google for local mentor groups. Your local authority will probably have a few links too. Otherwise search further afield via the internet. Even a Skype or Email pen-friend is better than nothing. Someone you can bounce ideas off and someone who has done it before.

    - Join a business community. There are startup communities popping up everywhere. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from chatting to a stranger over a beer in a local pub. I’ve pivoted entire sections of my business just from a single conversation that opened my eyes.

    Look for free workshops. HMRC run them. Your bank will offer them too. Your local authority may also run events. They’ll help you in the beginning with tax returns and legal advice. You’ll quickly outgrow them, but they make a great starting point.

    - Choose the right tools. No matter your business, some tools just make work so much easier. Try Trello for project management or reminder lists and Evernote or Google Drive for storing and scanning important documents. It really depends on your business, but there’s lots out there that can make your life a whole lot easier.

    - Cheat. Some tools are just too good to be true. My favourite cheat is business accounting software FreeAgent, which makes all your invoicing and accounting a right doddle. Highly recommended.

    - Practice makes perfect. Just like learning a real language, the more opportunity you get to practice, the better you will be. Also just like learning a language, make mistakes and you’ll never make them again. It’s absolutely fine to get things wrong once in a while and, so long as you’re honest, most, including the tax man, will forgive you.

    In bocca al lupo!

  • Languages and Entrepreneurship


    A few months ago I was contacted by Lizzie Fane, founder of ThirdYearAbroad.com, to take part in some research she was conducting for The Higher Education Academy and The British Academy. The report, entitled Languages and Entrepreneurship: A guide for students, highlighted language graduates who used their experiences abroad to push them to take risks and be more entrepreneurial.

    In late October Lizzie asked whether I would like to speak at the report’s launch event. I genuinely believe, and am hopefully living proof, that taking taking a year working or studying abroad opens your mind to new possibilities and makes you less risk adverse – two essential factors if you are to be successful in business.

    And let’s be honest, it’s not every day you get to speak at The Royal Society, so how could I possibly refuse?

    Update:
    The British Academy have contacted me to let me know the video of my little and hopefully motivational 7 minute talk is now available on YouTube. If you’re interested, watch it above or by clicking here.