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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Monday, 25 May 2015

Episode 26: Hobnobs

From Under Dark Clouds

From Under Dark Clouds

After scandal and a legal battle with the Vatican, a British media celebrity has a very public breakdown and seeks asylum in a sleepy Greek mountain village. Battling his addictions and delusions, all he needs to do is keep his head down while the clouds pass.

But can he keep his ego under control? Can he fuck! He gets himself elected into public office. 

The situation on the home front had gotten pretty bad pretty quick, Dear Blogees. I don’t expect you to understand, celebrity is a fickle mistress and she had chosen me to do her bidding. Trouble is though, that the wife is having some issues with my burden. I don’t think she is willing to share me with my public. The world’s press is camped out in the street and she’s phoning round her relatives for a spare room. I think a couple of sessions with Dr. Alex would do her the world of good right now but I have bigger fish to fry.

My phone rang, this time it was Socrates so I answered. “Where the fuck have you been? I need to give a statement.” He told me to sit tight and wait, he was cooking something up, vindaloo hot. I told him to curry up; I really had my comedy mojo back. The wife had already beaten some paparazzi off the veranda with a broom. It was gonna get ugly, and soon.

The wife had holed the boys up in the play room under strict instructions not to come out. I went down to check out what they were doing. The little angels’ faces were bathed in light from the screens as they swiped and poke at them. My eldest lifted his head. “Are you ok, Daddy?” He is a real chip off the block, sometimes I feel like he’s the only one that truly understands me.

“Listen son, things are gonna get a bit mad for a while but Daddy promises you, and your brother that everything will be good.”

“Look Daddy, I built an abattoir in Minecraft!” he said. I believe that his resilience comes from a balanced upbringing.

Outside, a hum of excitement and the ignition of generators preceded a knock on the door; it must be Socrates with his curry-hot news. I raced to answer but the wife grabbed my arm with a stern warning not to open the door. I waved her down but did look through the spy-hole, it was the neighbour. I opened and ushered her in.

Had we seen the hullabaloo outside? Apparently there was some infamous fugitive in the neighbourhood. The wife said that we knew and tried to sweep her out, not with the broom this time. She asked if we knew who it was. I told her calmly that there was a very famous celebrity in their midst but there was nothing to worry about. She asked again, “Who?”

The wife opened the door and as she pushed her out I caught the smell of grilled meat. Someone had set up a barbecue and was selling souvlaki to the journos. This gave me an idea.

Hobnobbing with the world's press
I told the wife to put the kettle on and make, I made a quick calculation, twenty cups of tea. Did we have any Hobnobs?

The wife opened the door again and pulled the neighbour back in, she hadn’t got far and was willing to help in anyway but still wasn’t clear on who the paparazzi were looking for.

A fanfare of tea and biscuits announced my appearance on the veranda.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you are all dying to know the developments in my story since I retired from the limelight and retreated from Blighty’s shore.” I began.

“Got any more Hobnobs?” Came a voice from behind a camera.

I looked to the wife.

“Could I have coffee, instead?” asked another.

“I know that, just like me, you have a job to do that comes with great pressure. I am just a man.”

“Yeah! I don’t drink tea, either.” Another shouted.

“We have always had a good rapport, you and I.” I turned to the wife to pass on their requests but she simply hung an erect finger at her thigh. “Sorry, guys I’ll see what I can do later.” This provoked groans but the enterprising souvlaki guy sent his boy off in the direction of the mini-market. “Sometimes expectations on me were more than I could burden,” Shit! wrong word but they wouldn’t notice. “I needed to be with my family, my dear wife needed a husband and my children a father.”

“Is that why you said you were the son of god?” A bushel of iPhones had sprung from under my parapet.

“I wanted to empower my fans to make real change!”

“The Pope didn’t see it that way, did he?”

“How much was the settlement?”

“Have you paid it all?”

“How much do you have left?”

I heard the door slam behind me, this was a very sore point with the wife.

“Now, guys! Let’s look forward. I now have a mandate from the fine people of this country.”
“So, are you Greek now?”

The questions were coming hard and fast but my campaigning had honed my skills; I ignored them.

“I want to tell you about the good work I’ve done since my inauguration as mayor.”
“Didn’t you break into the town hall?”

“And do time for it?”

This was a much tougher audience than the electorate had ever been. “Any more tea, guys?”
This provoked mumbles and shaking of heads. “Some more Hobnobs?”

“I didn’t get any!” Came a woeful cry. I assured them I’d get on it.

“Now, I’ve started a social housing programme for the displaced of the community and will soon have news of something hot. If you’ll just bear with me.”

I spotted Socrates’ old Mercedes coming up the road. He stopped at the mobile grill and tooted. This distracted the crowd just long enough to compose myself. The grill was moved to the side of the road and he pulled up in front of the house dispersing the faithful and emerged from the back door. Socrates conducted the journos with a raised hand and a smile. He strode up to the veranda with a file under his arm.

Socrates ushered me into the house and brought me up to speed with the spicy news. It was just what we needed to get the press looking forward to my great achievements.

We stepped out onto the parapet to make the announcement. I took a statesman stance and filled my chest with the air of pride. “Ladies and gentlemen, I can now proudly announce.” I paused for effect as they gathered back around, allowing them to ready their recording devices. “After much work by my team we have just secured premises and funding to establish an initiative to breathe life back into the community that will help nurture the young and enterprising to reclaim this country’s tomorrows. A plan that will empower where there was prostration, provide impetus where there was inertia. We will arm this proud and ancient nation with the tools necessary to nurture a renaissance of Spartan vigour, to beat back the oppression of the Eurocrats.” Socrates laid his hand on my shoulder, I turned to enjoy his smile, even the wife slipped back out to listen.

Turning back to blow their minds, I saw the crowd fragment. The souvlaki guy had an open box at his feet and was holding aloft a packet in each hand.

“Hob Nobs! I have Hob Nobs, chocolate and classeek!”

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From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY