Monday 22 June 2015

Episode 29: Jaguar

From Under Dark Clouds: The story of a burnt-out British celebrity who, after scandal and disgrace runs away to a little village in Greece to seek asylum and get his head together. All he needs to do is keep his head down until the clouds blow over and on no account get elected!

Jaguar - When you absolutely, positively gotta get away
from the cops with your business rival in the boot - accept
no substitute.
Since this whole enterprise thing started I have been run off my feet, my dear blogees. I've barely had time to shit or wipe, but NOT both. I've hardly seen the wife, and the kids only when they're sleeping.

I must confess, the Pitch and Putt had left me a little disappointed if the future rested on porn and olive oil. Jude had found the whole experience quite risible but after speaking to Aris, I explained that it was a move in the right direction and it was a mindset of creative solutions to the problem that was important and not the ventures themselves. We should take heart in the changing Greek paradigm.

Aris and the Shedders had selected eight teams from the prospects including the cyber-school, some of the apps and a couple of the better olive oil and feta cheese ideas. They would be taken to the next level through their mentorage. He warned that fundamental flaws in their business plans may emerge during the incubation process but they may be able to pivot before the end. The ventures would be taken through a lean development program to arrive at a minimal viable product or MVP. The jargon is quite contagious.

What I am left with is the feeling that entrepreneurism is the key to the future and I have to get on board. The government, of which I play a minor role, is becoming the enemy of the future. The country is haemorrhaging bright young graduates, mostly to my country, and what we have left is, well, porn and olive oil. I have spent my career ridiculing authority and now life was beginning to imitate humour.

Socrates has a friend who makes children’s clothes. He has been finding it difficult to make ends meet and is considering moving production to Bulgaria or China. This struck me as madness, we have vacant buildings that could accommodate his production and more unemployed than you could shake a stick at. Socrates arranged a meeting.

Makis turned up in a new Jaguar, always a sign of style in my opinion. He squeezed himself out of the driver's seat, puffed a little and I offered my hand, he grunted and took it. Socrates and I took him into one of the prospective premises.

He shuffled around the bare open space kicking pipes and grunting. I tried to engage him about his business but it obviously troubled him too much. I looked for signs of him imaging his business buzzing out dungarees and cutesy frocks but after kicking around he just said, “Next!”

After the third, an ex national insurance office that had been vacated due to the downsizing of both the nation and its insurance. Socrates asked him to make a choice.

"The Chinese are offering a purpose-built factory," he snorted.

"But here you'll have Greek workers, experienced and hardworking," I countered.

He snorted again, "lazy fuckers! Always wanting time off and more money!"

"Maki, you know how important it is to have your business close, where you can keep an eye on it. Just think how long it would take to deal with the Chinese," Socrates said.

"You think I wanna spend time here? I'm in London most of the time running my lets. Fantastic place, London, so civil and organised." He coughed and hocked a Loogie in the dusty corner. “And! You can rent a wardrobe out for a grand a week.”

I explained our vision; to breathe life back into community, to utilise the rich resources of the town and its surrounding villages, to rebuild the working community, give the working man, and woman their dignity back, to be a shining beacon to the rest of the nation, to put hope back on the horizon. He looked at me. I offered him the premises for the first year without rent.


I laughed, he didn't.

I told him that we wanted him to employ sixty percent local people rising to ninety within three years. Now he laughed. I said we could subsidise salaries for the first six months until the new staff were trained.

"Subsidise, How much?"

I had his attention now.

"Thirty percent!"

Now he laughed and hocked another Loogie. "Those Bulgarians have to fucking sue me to get paid!" He kicked out his cigar and made for the door. "And I get a kick-back from the lawyer!" He was still making for the door. "listen, boys you're fucking amateurs. Call me when you get something juicy." I think I heard him mumble something about high-school girls.

Socrates looked at me, I don't think I've ever seen that look in his eyes before. "Maki, I've got an accountant who can do magic!"

He stopped, "How magic?"

"David fucking Copperfield magic!" Socrates fanned his fingers in the air. He approached the man by the door and turned away from me. Sun poured in through the open door and maybe it brought with it the heat that I was feeling. Socrates' lithe figure vanished in the shade of the business man. After a few minutes they turned and Makis was smiling, I think I preferred him grunting, it seemed more in keeping.

He held out his hand and made three steps toward me, I made up the rest of the distance.

"Well done, my boy! I think we can work with that." He pumped my palm.

We walked out to the Jaguar together in much lighter mood. Makis lit another cigar before sliding himself behind the wheel. "Listen, my boy, I'll be back from London in ten days. You know they still talk about you there.”


“Better off here!” his face assumed sympathy. “We'll make arrangements then. You want me to bring you something back?" He pumped a cloud from the window. "From home."

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Wednesday 17 June 2015

And the band played on.

and the band played on
Fresh calls for capital controls in Greece have met with frantic activity in the markets. As the game of brinkmanship plays out between the Euro 'institutions' and Alexis Tsipras' SYRIZA government, the only certainty in Greece today is the weather. So much money has left the country's banks over the last few years that they are only being maintained by emergency liquidity assistance, which itself is reliant on compliance to the ECB's terms. The country has already defaulted on one payment to the IMF under the guise of a forgotten clause in the loan agreement. The only question is whether the next will have any disguise or not.

A queue of bleary-eyed commuters wait at the bus stop to make their way to school or work. A car horn vents frustration at a driver taking a slim opening in the traffic.

The Greek economy has been in a shit blizzard for years now. A raft of new, often backdated, taxes and seemingly daily revisions to existing ones has made financial planning almost impossible for all but the biggest enterprises. In an attempt to extract blood from a stone, the government has raised VAT, imposed 'objective' taxes on the self-employed's receipt books and levied new taxes through energy bills.

A group of teenagers chat nervously as they walk into school for their final exams while another hits 'pay' to book his ticket to the UK to study advanced mathematics.

Tsipras has stood firm against the Eurogroup negotiators, refusing to cross the red lines of his mandate from the people to ease austerity. His economists recently presented a new set of proposals in order to release bailout payments, borrowed money that will go straight back to the creditors without touching the Greek economy.

A mother phones round her friends to reschedule her son's birthday garden party after hearing the weather forecast. Another packs her kids up for a day at the beach, now that they are on summer break.

According to Paul Mason, there is an option whereby the situation is put on suspension for nine months during which the IMF/ECB pay themselves, yet another default by another name. This may, however give time to work out a more tenable and long term solution or maybe give Tsipras time to prove his commitment to making reforms. But as GDP shrinks quicker than Levi's on a boil wash, there really isn't much more to tax. Greek HNWI have been squirrelling their assets far away from the greek economy for years now. VSBs and one-man-band enterprises have faced such aggressive taxation in a shrinking market that many just cover costs hoping against hope for things to change.

The owner of a car dealership goes through the week's sale figures. He is focused on improving turnover. He has a sizeable nest-egg in a foreign bank. He calls in his sales team, who do not. 

The high drama being played out in Brussels and the telephone-number sized debts have ceased to have any relevance to the Greek people. They know that nothing will change, the fear of falling has long passed. The colour of the notes in their pockets has lost any bearing on reality. Parents hope for a better future for their kids while their eye darts to this week's deals on the supermarket shelf. Few talk about it anymore, life has no penalty time, each day lost fretting over it will not be added to the end.

A man digs coins from his pocket to pay for his tobacco. Some teachers sit restlessly through a seminar on bullying in a stuffy school hall.

Greek capital will return home, when falling asset prices make Greece the biggest church bazaar in Europe. When land and real estate and any surviving businesses can be bought up and new empires built.

The Greeks are now the refugees with nowhere to go. They are already in Europe, they have no hazardous journey across the Mediterranean and no one to ask for asylum.

...and the band played on.

Monday 8 June 2015

Episode 28: Building a brighter future

From Under Dark Clouds is the story of a burnt-out British celebrity who, after scandal and disgrace, runs away to a little Greek village to seek asylum. All he had to do was keep his head down until the clouds passed. He couldn't even get that right, he got himself elected.

The future stars of business
Me and The Start-up Shed crew bowled through the teams of hopefuls. Aris high-fived and smiled, waving at those who couldn’t reach as we made our way to the entrance of the new accelerator facilities branded with Start-up Shed banners and a single poster with my cheery mug on it. The day had come for The Great Rookie Pitch and Putt, Dear Blogees and Aris had invited me to sit on the selection board. He’s a pretty smart guy, as it turns out, he’s got an MBA and everything. I really wanted to be an active member so I had done my homework. I tried to read the FT but watching Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank on YouTube had really whetted my appetite. We would be taking a risk on these ventures and I intended to test their mettle.

A girl shout from behind us. I looked round, my hand raised in recognition. “Danny!” My fat doppelganger turned and smiled at a young thing in a… well, it doesn’t matter. This guy has a big idea of himself, we may have grown up in the same area but we have nothing in common.

The venue for the First-Steps pre-seed incubator and accelerator programme is the new health centre that the previous mayor built. It was one of the few projects on the council’s balance sheet that ever really got built, needless to say it has never seen a white coat. At least now it would be used to do some service for the community.

We took our places at the top table with Aris at the centre and me to his right. He’d allocated Nigel a place at the end, he’d gone to cover some fracas in England but he promised to be back for today, he was cutting it fine. I could have given him some advice about schmoozing with the press but he’d have to learn his own way and I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, as I said, he’s pretty smart.

Aris looked to each of the members of the board, I clapped my hands and told him to bring it on. “Let the future begin!”

The first candidates came in and introduced themselves and set up at the easel.

“So, tell us about your business model,” Aris said in English. He spoke to everyone in English, especially the Greeks.

They looked to each other and one began. “Everyone knows that Greek food is the best in the world!” Obviously. “What is lacking is an international brand that stands for quality nutritious products such as olives, olive oil, yoghurt and feta cheese.” They proposed to build a brand name that would use the best Greek produce and market it worldwide. The other member rolled a poster down the easel with a very nice logo on some mock-ups of the bottles and packaging.

Aris grilled them on their SWOT matrix analysis, revenue streams and marketing strategy.

One of the Shedders asked about supply. They had been negotiating with some producers in Crete. What guarantees had they that once the brand expanded and with it, turnover that they could satisfy demand. They smiled and high-fived each other. We will continue to build a network of producers.

I shuffled the papers in front of me and cleared my throat. “And if your supplier gets greedy before you gain real traction?” Traction, eh?

They both chuckled, “He’s our uncle!”

The next team were two guys, with a video streaming service.

“Have you ever been out with you company, trying to decide which club to go to only to find that after you paid your entrance that it’s empty and you have a boring night?” he asked.

They had an app called iNight. They proposed to use camera feeds from a number of nightclubs throughout the city and users could get to see inside before they chose a club.

“What are your revenue streams?” Aris asked.

Clubs would pay to be featured. It would be free to users but there could be secondary revenue from beer and spirit companies.

Then another involving olives and feta cheese.

We had a another team who proposed a satellite system that took metrics of agricultural land to save farmers money with over watering and unnecessary over-use of fertilisers.

Aris went through the regular questions; revenue streams, competition, scalability. They passed on all points.

I decided to jump in, “So, very impressive!” They smiled gratitude. “Do you have the intellectual property on this technology?”

“Yes, of course, no-one else has this, yet.”

Aris, nudged me, this was exactly what we were looking for. To bring new technology from Greece that would change the paradigm of agriculture, worldwide.

“Could you give us a demonstration?” Aris asked.

“Well, no. But we are sure it can be done!”

Another with olive oil.

After that, things took a turn for the better, if only Jude had been there to see it. A cyber English school on Second Life. Students could have a classroom experience from the safety of their PC. I often see the kids coming home from English night-classes at the most unearthly hours. The streets are not as safe as they were in my day.

Another social network app proposed to help young people get the look they wanted by taking pictures of well-dressed bystanders then asking others to tag the pictures with opinions and where they could get the same clothes.

My phone buzzed, it was Jude. He was on his way from the airport.

More feta cheese and olives.

The last on our list was a brother and sister team with a video streaming service. It was the striking girl who’d called out to Danny on our way in. They exchanged smiles.

Subscribers would pay for personalised content including a gifting service to send the content to a friend on birthdays and special events.

“What is the scalability of your service?”

The young man explained that his sister was fluent in five languages including English and Russian. She said, “Hi!” and waved. Another member who couldn’t make it today spoke Chinese.

“Do you have any secondary revenue streams?” Aris asked.

Jude peeped round the door and slipped into his place on the board. Aris leaned round me and shook his hand.

“We are hoping to secure sponsorship from international agricultural producers for content marketing purposes.” He seemed to know his shit.

“Now, the internet is saturated with video content providers. How do you intend to differentiate your service?” Aris had assumed a stoney face but the team were unphased.

Jude opened his laptop and began tapping.

“Let me demonstrate,” said the guy. He reached into a bag and pulled a length of agricultural produce and passed it to the girl who made it disappear up to the Chiquita sticker. I crossed my legs tightly.

We all sat silent until Jude stopped tapping and leaned back. “So, is this the future?”

Photo Credit: S. Nirza via Compfight cc

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Friday 5 June 2015

All you need to make you a Writer

So, you're a writer?

Ok, so you’re a writer, eh? I want you to write something, could be a scene or a description, your choice. I’ll wait, I’m not going anywhere.

Super, now read it. Done? Great, now I want you to delete it. Yes, delete it!

So, you don’t want to, eh? How about leaving it on your hard drive somewhere or send it to me. I’ll read it and delete it.

Now we’ve ascertained what you want. You want to write and you want people to read what you write and you want it to be more than just me.

For the next demonstration I’ll allow you to use your imagination, but it might be fun to do it for real. Again, I’ll wait. Go down to your local burger joint, stroll in and flip some burgers. Do it for as long as you enjoy it, then walk out. Alternatively, you can walk into and an accountant’s office, sit down and do some really tough sums. Now ask the owners of the accountants office or burger joint for some pay. What did they say? How rude! Ok, now do that from time to time, a couple of times a week, even a little more. Now ask for some wages. Maybe a little less rude but still no money, eh?

So, you write but you are no more a writer than a burger flipper or an accountant until you employ a work ethic. There will be no paydays until you start clocking on and becoming productive. Your writing is a hobby and that’s great but we already decided that you want to be read and by more than just me. That’s only going to happen if you get readers and that takes work.

Turn off the TV and social networks. Do accountants and burger-flippers have them as part of their day? Nor should you.

Set goals, keep to them. 1000 words a day is a good start, not as easy as it sounds but you will be able to fit it in with your day job.

With that goal you will be able to finish your first draught in less than six months.

Learn proper use of grammar. This is the tool of your trade. Read Strunk and White’s Elements of style, it’s a great first step to improving you’re(sic) use of punctuation and much more. Then go back and edit your work.

Read. Read fiction of varied genres but do not ignore the craft of journalists. A good article will drive you to the end and that is what you want your story to do. Some of the best authors were once journalists, George Orwell, Martin Amis and Graham Greene to name a few.

If you really want to be a professional writer, you need to adopt a professional approach. Being a professional means learning your job, learning the business, putting in the hours and producing the goods. It is (almost) that simple.

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Monday 1 June 2015

Episode 27: The Startup Shed

From Under Dark Clouds is the story of a burnt out British celebrity who runs away to a little Greek village to seek asylum. All he had to do was keep his head down until the clouds passed. He couldn't even do that right, he got himself elected.

The future of modern business, from a Shed 
My nerves were jangling like a piano in a pickup, dear blogees. We are on the cusp of something big and it was all my idea. We have the tools to begin a new Greece from within, taking the young and equipping them with the needs of all their tomorrows. A wise man once said that if you give a man a credit card he will shop until he maxes his limit, but give him a banking licence and he will spend for a dozen lifetimes. We were establishing an an incubator in our town and I could not wait to get those eggs hatching.

Remember when we were running for office, Mike the IT guy had talked about such things but the truth is that we had kinda forgotten it until now, which was very fortunate because now I had the world’s press on my doorstep which would give us ample forum for its launch. We had some empty premises in our possession and all we needed was someone with the skills to run the project and now we have them. They are an outfit calling themselves The Start-up Shed, yeah I know, but apparently it has some kudos, something about Steve Jobs starting out in a shed. They are part of a new wave of entrepreneurs in this country who aim to bring it out of the same cycle of making money from tourists and olive oil. Young graduates have two choices, unemployment or they go abroad to get work in Britain, Germany or the States, programming apps and making tech and loads of stuff that the modern world is selling their grandmas to get hold of. The young bright hopes of this country are going to build the futures of other countries. This has to stop.

We had a meeting with the guys in the board room of the town hall and I was eager to get there on time. Socrates headed down while I went to pluck Mike the IT guy from his den with Jude, a correspondent for the Cerberus, a quality British newspaper.

Apart from the blinking LEDs and monitors mike’s den was dark. Mike slapped the lid of his laptop down and spun in his seat.


“We’ve got the meeting for the incubator-thing. You are coming?” I said.

He looked passed me. “Yeah, sure. When?”

“Now. Oh! this is Jude from the Cerberus.” I introduced the correspondent to our grandmaster geek.

“Oh, don’t listen to him. I’m just a hack!” Mike modestly offered his hand.

“Me too,” replied Jude.

I stopped at the door to the board room and composed my entry, but there was no need. Socrates was alone.

We sat in silence until Jude asked Mike about The Startup Shed.

“Well, they’re a group of professionals from diverse backgrounds who take groups of young entrepreneurs and accelerate them to develop or destroy their business plan.”

“Destroy?” Jude was taking pictures of me.

“Well, if their idea isn’t viable, they need to find out quickly and pivot.”


“Change their idea until it has potential to create revenue streams,” Mike said.

Jude put his camera down. I relaxed in my chair. He pulled out a tablet and began tapping away.

Socrates looked at his watch for the umpteenth time.

The first of the Shedders to arrive were a couple who introduced themselves, apologised for being late and asked where the others were. They were accountants and busied themselves with bags and folders. I was eager to know what this was all about but when I asked them they looked to each other and told us that it would be better to get the full plan from the team.

The door cracked and surveyed the room. “Is this the meeting for The Startup Shed?”

I smiled and ushered the girl in. She parked up next to the couple and leaned across to exchange some words with the couple.

Socrates looked at his watch.

The team’s banker arrived with an ashtray and a frappe, placed them on the table and squeezed our hands one at a time. “Panos,” he said and I had no doubts. He sat on the opposite side to us and leaned across the girl to speak to the couple. They shook their heads in answer. He pulled a packet from his suit jacket and positioned the ashtray before him. I was getting the taste as the smoke wafted under my nose. The town hall has a strict no smoking policy but seeing as I’m the mayor I guessed I had power of veto or something. I rolled and lit. The girl stood to open the window.

Socrates addressed the team curtly in Greek and the they shrugged in unison. He looked at his watch and began again, pointing to Jude and the lady pulled a phone from her bag.

The door bounced on its hinges and standing in the way in golf trousers and Batman t-shirt was Danny, the English contingent of the team. It was like looking in a fat-mirror. “Sorry I’m late, gents. Where’s our Aris?” He ran his hand down the back of his trousers. “I’ve got mine!” He slung a battered leather bag on the table and slumped in the chair next to the banker who greeted him warmly.

He looked up and launched a palm across the table at me. “Freddy! I heard you’d be here. You know we’re both A13ers.”

It took me a moment but it made sense. The A13 is the road that runs from London to the Essex coast.

The team huddled and turned to Danny. “Would you like to tell Mr. Fygaso about what we do?”
“What do we do, Anna?” He asked.

“Can you just tell them about the accelerator programme, Danny?” She jabbed her head in my direction.

“Right, yeah, ok! What we do is take a group of young hopefuls and—”

Another knock at the door and a tall lanky unshaven type with a school bag walked in. “So you started without me?”

Anna leapt to her feet and turned to me. “This is Aris, the CEO and founder of The Startup Shed.”

The English guy took his seat again, thank god, he was really starting to get on my nerves. I know I’m retired but too many comedians in one room is just too many.

Closely behind the lanky leader was a slight American woman and a young girl who was parked at the end of the table.

Socrates looked at his watch. I checked that we were all there. We were.

Mike stood to help Aris connect his laptop to the projector.

“Since Mike spoke to us about running the First-steps, pre-seed acceleration programme here, we have begun applications and have now narrowed the candidates from twenty eight to nineteen.” He spoke in English and very well too, albeit with an American accent. “I would like to show you a PowerPoint presentation. Mike, the lights please.”

Words in minimalist monochrome ping-ponged around the screen to a soft-rock soundtrack; Scorpions, I think.

The little girl occupied herself with a naked Barbie doll and some crayons, I wondered if she might like to meet my boys.

Eventually, finally, thankfully the outfit’s logo dropped onto the screen preceded by the words powered by and it was over.

Aris leapt up with a Cheshire-cat grin and looked from me to Socrates, to Mike. The little girl continued drawing crayon clothes on her Barbie.

It was Danny who broke the ice. “So, apart from the lighters-in-the-air rock, does it make sense?” Was this guy writing my thoughts?

Fortunately the lanky one continued. “We can be up and running with the selection process, the Saturday after this when we’ll bring it down to eight to ten teams. Then we’ll begin acceleration the week after. This is the schedule.” He threw some printed sheets with their logo all over them to us. I took one and began to browse.

“Aris?” He nodded.”Excuse my ignorance but I do have one question.” He smiled and looked like he was listening. “What is an accelerator programme?” Socrates deflated next to me.

“Well, we are a team of diverse professionals and what we do is take young entrepreneurs and accelerate them to develop or destroy their business plan,” he paused and smiled. “Now, destroy I hear you say! Well, if their idea isn’t viable, they need to find out quickly and pivot.” Pause and smile. “Pivot, I hear you say!..”

Jude stood. “I think I need to make some calls.” And left.

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From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY