creating limboland

These past few days, I’ve discovered that the thing I like most about my Be Neighbourly business project is being able to design miniature villages and bees.  I spent several hours on Saturday creating a teeny weeny butchers’ shop complete with ham on hooks and I was deliriously happy.  Then I designed many, many bees.  A whole hive in fact.  And I went to bed feeling fulfilled and at one with the world.


This tells me two things:

1.  That I missed my calling and, instead of wasting all that time being a lawyer, I should have been working on Sim City or LEGOLAND; and

2.  I am avoiding doing the real work on the projects.

I know this to be true, because the post-its tell me so.  They are always there, surrounding me, with their accusatory neon hues.  Always pointing out what I haven’t done.

The Mack has a new post-it system (he is nothing if not progressive when it comes to post-its).  He adapted it from a project management seminar that he went to recently (one which overran and didn’t cover half of the promised material… hmmmm).

We used to have a 3 tiered system, with the most urgent tasks on the top line.  But this has radically changed.  Now we have a 3 tiered system, with the most urgent tasks on the top line.  But these tiers now have names: Work In Progress, To Do and Backlog.  And there are rules for the number of post-its that can go on each line.  You must not have more than 2 post-its on your Work In Progress line (in fact, it’s labelled Work In Progress (2), so you are in no doubt).  And there are a maximum of 6 tasks for To Do (6).  Backlog is more relaxed.  You can fill a whole wall if you so choose.

It has revolutionised my working life.  Because now I look at my two priority tasks and they’re on a line that says Work in Progress.  And I think: Great!  Someone is progressing these tasks.  So I can kick back and concentrate on designing some more pastel-coloured town houses…

Limbo, limbo ah-hah

We’re in a bit of limbo, the Mack and I.  Our projects are in the hands of developers, busily trying to turn my rudimentary powerpoint mock-ups into working websites.  We’re passed the design stage, so there isn’t much for us to see.  Occasionally, my developers Skype me when they’re having some “doubts” about my requirements (I choose to see this as a language issue – I’m pretty sure they’re not feeling that negative towards my entire concept).  But really we’re just waiting for them to finish programming, so that we can test the sites.

I’m not very good at waiting.  I get twitchy.  I’m a humungous control freak and leaving things to others to complete goes against everything I stand for.  I like to be able to watch over people when they’re doing a task for me, so that I can snatch it out of their hands the very moment that they make the slightest error.

Bit tricky when your developers are in Jaipur…

If I were a different (better?) person, I would be using this time to get ahead of the curve.  Drawing up my checklist for testing the website; pulling together all of the content sources that I need to get the first info up onto the site; identifying the local businesses that I want to partner with to attract users in the first few months post-launch.

Alas.  It seems that my time is already taken up with designing tiny meat products.

Still, I’ve got as far as putting those tasks on post-its on the “To Do” tier, so I’m bound to get round to them soon.

Marvellously Rio-tous

Anyone who has a vague grasp of geography and who has been following my travels on this blog will realise from the title that I’m skimming over Sao Paulo. No disrespect intended, but it’s a city a bit like London or Barcelona. You really need to know someone there to get the best out of it. We don’t. So we didn’t…

We were only there for 2 days, but we did manage to go on a walking tour downtown. And here it differs from London or Barcelona. Because Paulistas have a habit of knocking down all of their heritage buildings every 50 years or so in favour of more concrete high-rises. So it’s more a tour of what used to be there… Our young, energetic tour guide lost his audience in The Mack almost immediately, when the first buildings of interest he pointed out were 1960s architectural horrors. We ditched the tour an hour in to get lunch and a beard-trim (The Mack, not me). Sorry SP, you lost us.

rio's redeeming feature

rio’s redeeming feature

But Rio is something else. It’s one of those cities that has a tangible flavour. I can’t say what that flavour is, but damn sure it involves a ton of sugar and some cachaca. It’s sweet and sticky and it sends you a little bit crazy.

Some people say that it’s the geography that gives Rio its vibe.  Mountains and beaches and sun and sky.

sugar loaf summit panorama. a little on the wonk due to my abject fear of heights

I’m not sure. That gives a false impression of space and freedom – most Cariocas live in small apartments, lots of people crammed into a building. And you only have to see the physics-defying favelas, coloured boxes stacked precariously on the mountain sides, to know that space is scarce in the city. The outdoor lifestyle is definitely part of it – people like to get out, to socialise, to see and be seen. But they work hard too – Rio ain’t cheap and most seem to have to graft for a living.

No. What defines Rio is an attitude. It’s a conscious, collective commitment to full-life living. Rio, for me, is a city of hustlers. And I mean that in a good way. There’s a sense that you could do anything there. The framework of the city leaves gaps to be exploited. It says “You want to give something a go? Go right ahead. Don’t expect any support, but if you make it work then we’ll celebrate you to kingdom come.” I have it on good authority that it’s the place where global nomads go to settle down, because the people there understand the itch. Everyone in Rio is a little restless.


catedral metropolitan de Sao Sebastio

I loved it. The tiny studio apartment in Lapa that we rented (and our fabulous hosts). The every-Friday night monster street party that makes Notting Hill carnival look like a Hampshire summer fete. The samba bands outside bars in downtown on an average Monday night, attracting hundreds of locals (and a handful of gringos doing embarrassing-dad dancing). Getting your 5-a-day in the form of caipifrutas (avoid passion fruit – maracuja – delicious, but gets stuck in the straw). The strange anti-fashion all-occasion uniform of cheap shorts and flip-flops, contrasted with the country-wide obsession for straight, sleek hair (the ratio of products in any pharmacy are 20% medicines, 78% frizz-taming products and 2% other). The fact that everyone is mixed and more beautiful for it. The dalek-inspired cathedral. The buzzing beaches, even mid-week in Autumn. The hilarity of cariocas’ gym-junkie addiction, made necessary by a diet that consists almost entirely of deep-fried orange foods.

filthy Friday fun under the Lapa arches

filthy Friday fun under the Lapa arches

If you go, then my advice is stay in Lapa or Santa Teresa (Lapa if you’re an urbanite, Sta Teresa if you want a bit of quiet). Real life, not the euro-beach sanitised version you get in Copacabana or Ipanema. Just know that if you arrive in Lapa after dark, you will most likely be scared. It’ll pass by day 3. Don’t think that everyone is out to rob you or kill you. Some might be, but don’t take it personally. Most times guys will just get a little frisking from a group of hard-faced girls – in The Mack’s case, he only had beer in his pockets, so he got the better deal. Drink in local bars – don’t let your girlfriend tell you that you’re not welcome there. Try not to gawp at the working girls – yes they look incredible, but they have a job to do and it’s rude to stare.

I’m sure Rio Scenarium is great at weekends, when the local samba stars are out in force and the queues go round the block. But on a Tuesday night, it resembled a night on a cruise liner – middle aged Swiss physicists, a Joe Pesci-alike dancefloor demon and a pneumatic, second-time-around saucy couple who illustrated why Brazil is renowned for being the plastic surgery capital of the world.

cable cars - so beautiful from the ground

cable cars – so beautiful from the ground

If you do one tourist thing, then the cable car to Sugar Loaf is actually pretty cool (she says, still whimpering). But cut out the bottom bit. Take the trail up Morro de Urca and, like The Mack, as you reach the summit: bare-chested, sweating, cursing and a bit stinky, suddenly find yourself confronted with the tourist masses. Maybe give it a few minutes in the breeze before you get into the cable car…

eliminating obstacles to success…one at a time

I realised today, whilst strolling along deserted beaches to a beautiful lagoon in Tibau do Sul, Brazil, that I’ve written a lot recently about my travels and not quite so much about my business. Which probably leads most of you to think that all this “business” stuff is just my way of saying that I couldn’t hack it in the rat race and have decided to give myself the rest of my life off.

Nearly, but not quite.

If you remember, the idea wasn’t so much to drop off the grid entirely, it was more to set the grid to roaming. Seeing if it were possible to have a work/travel/bank balance.  Not spending more than 4 months at a time in the UK unless there was a very good reason (either I was incarcerated, or in traction, or my mum simply forbade me from flitting off again).  But getting some sort of business up and running to pay for the travels, so that I wasn’t burning through my cash.

Again.  Nearly, but not quite.  (Getting there.)

At the time I started all this, I hadn’t factored on The Mack getting in on the act.  With hindsight, it’s probably one of the reasons that we got together.  But I was so busy thinking that he’d Derren Brown-ed me into being his girlfriend that I wasn’t paying attention.  All that tappety-tap-tapping my shoulder and repeating seemingly innocuous words.  And leaving a trail of gingerbread men on my route to our first date.  I mean.  The Mack is ginger.  And he’s a man.  The fact that I didn’t see them because they’d been squashed by passing commuters didn’t stop their subliminal power.

Anyway, much as I would love to lay the blame for my lack of results squarely at The Mack’s door by saying that he’s diverted my focus, jumped on the start-up bandwagon, addled my brain with wantrepreneurial jargon… that would be (1) wrong, (2) wrong and (3) wrong.  Because, if the truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have got as far as I have if it weren’t for him.

Thanks to The Mack, I’ve identified the top 3 things that have been stopping me making progress on the business side of things and I’ve figured out a solution to each of them.

Issue #1:  Never Seeing Anything Through to the End

I am excellent at starting things.  And doing a nice design.  I am less successful when it comes to completing anything.  Or caring at all after about 2 weeks.  Or when someone distracts me with something shiny.

Apparently, this lack of motivation for really pushing through on my projects is down to my inherent pessimism.

You say pessimist, I say realist.  Let’s call the whole thing off…

Solution #1:  Learned Optimism

The Mack bought me a great book by a guy who made up the idea that you can learn to be more optimistic and that it will transform your life.  I was a little sceptical.  Oh wait…

I started reading it and my productivity levels went right up.

Unfortunately, I **accidentally** left it in the seat back of the plane to Buenos Aires.

What a downer.

Issue #2:  Contrasting Working Styles

I have discovered through this process that I’m quite difficult to work with.  I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why that is, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that I need to get my own way on everything because my way is the right way and everybody else is stupid and wrong.

I don’t know.  It might be that.  It probably isn’t though.  Probably it’s The Mack’s fault.  For being stupid and wrong.

Solution #2:  Working Space

I think that space is very important when you’re a couple working together.  Right now it’s about 4,500 miles and things seems to be going well.

Issue #3:  Hating the Game

I have a slight problem with the whole start up scene.  I think it’s the combination of self-congratulation and jaw-dropping naivety that sticks in my craw.  And when I say slight problem: what I mean is utter contempt.

I’m not even sure how I ended up working on start ups.  I think my plan was just to have my own business.  I don’t remember ever talking about wanting to build a start up.  Tappety-tap-tap….

Solution #3:  Hate the Player

Hell, this one’s easy.  Every time I catch The Mack reading one of Paul Graham’s essays or signing up to a General Assembly workshop, I openly despise him.

I think now that I’ve eliminated these issues, progress will come in leaps and bounds.  Stay tuned, people.

on the set of El Shining… Uruguay and out

It says a lot about us that The Mack and I decided to ditch a trip to Iguazu Falls and the nature reserves on the Argentine/Brazilian border in favour of a few nights unbridled hedonism in the Uruguayan Ibiza, Punta del Este.

It says even more about us that we turned up in Punta del Este to find that we’d well and truly missed the party.

The plan seemed foolproof and awesome.  By boat from Argentina to Uruguay then up the beautiful coast to Brazil.  For The Mack, it meant 3 countries in 3 weeks.  For me, a nice little sojourn before the Brazilian main event.

Buenos Aires to Colonia


catholic upbringing

A hop over on the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia for a spot of lunch.  Pretty little colonial town (clue’s in the name). Coloured houses round a cobbled square, old jalopies with foliage dotted about the place, that kind of thing.  Just the right side of Disney in the sunshine.

Except that by the time we’d got off the ferry, found the tourist office, then found the bus terminal, booked our onward bus and dumped our luggage, we only had 2 hours to eat it and beat it.  Still, what we saw looked cute enough.  Even if all of the people in the town looked to be from the same family.  Very distinctive features, Uruguayans.  I think it’s the straight noses.

Colonia to Montevideo

We’d been told that the bus journey from Colonia to Montevideo was around 2.5 – 3 hours.  What they hadn’t told us was how unbelievably comfy the bus seats were.  Like they’d been woven from our most beautiful dreams, to gently cradle and cosset us.  Not only that, but the buses have wi-fi.  And they run on time.  And the staff is incredibly helpful and courteous.  The word that sprang to mind was “agreeable”. Uruguayans are just very agreeable people.  We think we figured out why, but more on that later.

What we hadn’t factored on was the bus stopping everywhere on route to pick up passengers.  Mainly in lay-by’s where there didn’t seem to be a single building within 5 miles.  And you’d be able to spot it.  Uruguay is very flat (probably).  And very rural.  All the shops we passed en route were selling tractors or farm implements.

We had seats assigned to us on our ticket.  But there was someone in mine when we got on the bus and there were plenty of other seats, so we did that very British thing of just taking the seats in front rather than trying to make a fuss in a foreign language.  Which was fine.  Right up until a young couple got on at about the 24th lay-by and told us we were in their seats.  So we got up, ready to recover our rightful seats.  Only to see that they were now occupied by a fast asleep guy and a woman with a sleeping toddler in her arms.

But it was ok.  We stood, figuring we only had about a half hour left of the journey.  Chalking it up to experience.  And then I made the mistake of thinking out loud to The Mack that maybe we’d screwed up and this wasn’t a direct bus, given the number of stops it was making.  By now it was 8pm.  We were hungry, crotchety and standing.  I didn’t have a ready guesstimate of how long it would take.  I wasn’t an expert on the arterial roads of Uruguay and how this affected journey times.  I should have kept my mouth shut.  I was saved when we rolled in to Montevideo 45 minutes later.

We’d only planned to stay one night in Monte.  We weren’t convinced of its merits when we did our pitiful research.  I think we were right.  However, our hotel was adorable.  The Hotel Palacio.  Just off the main square and staffed by spritely septuagenarians.  The Mack was expecting a s***hole.  What we got was a spruced up turn of the century room with great big bathroom and a huge terrace overlooking the city.  Not bad for £30.  And a lovely old man who spent 10 minutes showing me how to work the cable TV (there were 2 on buttons and an up and down programme selector involved… and he had bifocals).

view from the terrace

view from the terrace

We tried to have a night out in Monte.  We’d heard that it got a bit lively on a Saturday night.  It certainly had a strip of pubs/bars to rival even the ropiest UK town.  After careful deliberation (based on the severity of the look of horror on my face), we picked one that had “Pony” in its name.  It didn’t disappoint.  All you need to know about it was that our drink of choice was Long Island Iced Teas.  And the covers band started with a Bon Jovi ballad.  It was all we could do to drag ourselves away.

Montevideo to Punta del Este

The Mack was quite excited about hitting Punta.  He’d been allowed to choose the hotel for this one and we’d upped the budget so that we could do a bit of pimpin’ in Punta. We’d booked 2 nights, so that we’d have plenty of time to recover from a big night on the razz.

I’d checked where the hotel was before we left Monte.  I knew that it was a bit out of town, and I’d mentioned it to The Mack before we booked it, but he said he was fine with it.  Perfect mix of detox and retox.

When we arrived at the bus station at P del E, I asked the lady at the info point to show me on a map where our hotel was.  But she couldn’t.  Because her map didn’t cover a large enough area.  Because we’d booked into a hotel about 15km away in the next resort.  Literally miles away from the action.

So you see Punta del Este on the right.  And the arrow on the left.  Well look above the arrow and you'll see a lake in the middle of nowhere.  That's us.

So you see Punta del Este bottom centre. And the arrow on the left. Well look above the arrow and you’ll see a lake in the middle of nowhere. That’s us.

You think that was a disappointment…  Fortunately, it didn’t matter so much when we walked into the town to find a cab only to discover that it was empty apart from some tumbleweed blowing down the main street. Apparently, party season in Punta del Este stops at Easter.  Who knew?  Clearly not us.

Ok, no problem.  So what?  We get to spend a couple of days in a lovely golf and spa resort on the banks of a lake.  Tennis courts, bike rides, swimming pools, the works.

lady of the lake

lady of the lake

Oh.  And one other thing.  It’s deserted.  Most of the lights are switched off in the common areas.  They’ve drained the jacuzzi and turned off the sauna. You’re paying over £80/night to stay in a mausoleum.  The rigidly bored girl on the front desk tells you they’ve upgraded you to a lake-view room.  You realise it’s so they can better keep an eye on you and they only have to hoover one corridor.



We tried to escape on some rented bikes.  After an hour’s cycle of pedalling past weird thatched cottages, swearing, reattaching our chains every third revolution and a knackering hill climb, we saw Punta del Este still miles out of reach.  We cycled back, dejected and resigned to our gilded cage.  Pimpin’ it weren’t.

El Bungalow.  Honest to God.

El Bungalow. Honest to God.

We had a hushed dinner in an all-but-empty restaurant.  The food was good, but it came at a price.  I had no idea tedium could be so costly.  We marvelled at the fact that the mixers in the mini bar cost the same as the spirits.  So we just made stronger drinks.  We slept.  A lot.  And our dreams were a montage of The Shining and Cocoon.

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired...

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired…

We pondered on Uruguay.  Its political and economic stability, compared to its better-known neighbours.  It’s cleanliness and organisation.  The agreeableness of its people.  And we realised, it can be all of those things because… THERE’S NO-ONE IN IT.

So we decided to cut our losses.  No adventuring in search of people in ever remoter fishing villages up the coast, as originally planned.  Nope.  You won’t find anyone there.  We spent a heart-breaking amount of cash on a next-day flight to Sao Paulo.  But when we paid almost the same again in a taxi from the resort to the bus station at Punta del Este, we knew we’d made the right decision.  And I vowed never to let The Mack choose anything, ever again.

Buenos Aires: big Mack style

So The Mack flew out about a week ago to join me in Buenos Aires and, in typical fashion, I greeted him with clenched fists rather than the traditional open arms.  I would love to be one of those girls who gets really excited at the prospect of 3 weeks’ quality time, away from it all.  But I’m far too uptight for that.

It’s ok.  We’ve developed a system.  We wake up, get a few hours’ work done.  Have a huge fight.  Then head out for some lunch and sightseeing.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about The Mack that winds me up.  It seems to be everything.  Let’s see…

He can’t speak Spanish, so I have to do all the talking.  And when he does try a few words, he says them in a deep throaty growl, so he sounds like a Latin American Tony the Tiger.  “Una cervesa-grrrrrrr”.  Funny the first time…

The fact that no bread basket is safe within a 5 metre radius.


But mainly because he wants to do stuff all the time.  Not just mooching around, but stuff that requires some degree of organising.  I mean, how dare he come all the way over here and then want to do something interesting.  Why the hell can’t he be content with just being here?  So bloody unreasonable.

What can I say, I tried my hardest to deter him, but the man is strong-willed.  And thank God he is, because otherwise we would have missed out on some corkers.

So I give you Buenos Aires: big Mack style…


At least one meal a day must consist of something that your girlfriend/wife/cardiac surgeon says is bad for you.  If you can, try to combine deep fried with pastry and sugar.  Plenty of options in Buenos Aires.  Sweet and meaty empanadas?  Dulce de leche with everything?  Two double-scoop ice-creams back-to-back, with extra sauce and cookie sprinkles?  Don’t mind if he does.

Teatime at Las Violetas

Teatime at Las Violetas

The Mack said that he’d always had dreams of retiring to Buenos Aires and could picture himself as a bald, fat man in a white linen suit.  Sadly, we weren’t able to find the linen suit….


Have absolutely no sense of direction and claim that it’s because they built BsAs the wrong way round.  Seriously think about downloading a compass app so that you can find North.  Regularly say to your girlfriend: “it’s that way, right”?  Er, wrong.

Mix with locals

Use to find interesting tours and experiences given by local people – we did a tour of the lesser known Caballito district (cool barber-shop museum and an incredibly ornate church where Pope Francis was baptised, no less) and a wine-tasting (which I spoiled by being a know-all and the best taster was actually the Mendoza olive oil).


Buy yourself a pair of finest Argentinian leather brogues.  In a colour that can only be described as dirt-cowboy-yellow.

Point out to locals the inherent flaws in their economic and fiscal policies.  And make a sound like a ticking clock when talking about their future.  Then say that it’s such a shame, because they really were such a highly educated, civilised, wealthy nation…


Be afraid, be very afraid of the gargantuan koi carp in the Jardin Japonais.  Especially the one that looks like it has false eyelashes.  Make sure you push a few small children in front of you for easier bait.



Make sure you get to a football game.  Don’t bother with Boca Juniors – $200 a head to sit with a load of other gringos doesn’t make for fun times.  The Mack found a great guy called Eze through Vayable who took us to his family’s box at Independiente to watch a relegation battle.

Thoroughly woeful match (no structure to their play and the worst back four we’d ever seen), but great atmosphere.  And we had the excitement of being bundled into Eze’s uncle’s car as the final whistle blew to avoid being beaten to death by the Independiente fans who were baying for the Chairman’s blood after the 1-1 draw (the Chairman’s box was 3 down from ours…).  Footballing passion in spades.


Admire the old Mafioso-looking men at the afternoon milonga at Confiteria Ideal.  Feel truly like the Mack Daddy when they ask you for permission to dance with your chicas.

Get suckered into trying a tango lesson when you’d only turned up at Café Vinilo so early because you wanted to be sure to get a table.  Mangle your girlfriend’s feet and get frustrated that Tango is such a restrictive dance when you’re just itching to bust some moves.  Console yourself with the full Latin cheesiness of the club singer. Decide that the chorus lyrics to all tango songs are probably “Antonio Banderas, Antonio Banderas, Antonio Banderas…. and Penelope Cruz“.

Off the Beaten Track

Take a trip out to the delta at Tigre.  Ignore the weather forecast and sit on a speedboat for 6 hours wearing only a t-shirt.  Discover that the river plate makes it possible to walk on water for a stretch of about 60km between Tigre and Buenos Aires (you might have to swim the last 200-odd metres).  Bang on about this amazing phenomenon for the rest of your trip/life.  Don’t worry about whether anyone’s listening.

Tigre Delta

Tigre Delta

And then congratulate yourself for a job well done.  Next stop, Uruguay.

trouble and strife – the reality of living and working together

I’m staying at The Mack’s this month, before we head off to South America.  We just about survived the moving in of my stuff.  Mainly thanks to The Mack getting rid of 95% of his possessions to make space for the 10% of mine that I carefully calculated I could hide about his place and get away with.  That and his vow of silence.

It’s been a week so far and, put it this way, I’m pretty sure that The Mack cannot wait for our 3 week trip, just the two of us.  On the strength of my performance so far, I think we can safely say I’m not in the running for Girlfriend of the Year 2013.

the taming of the shrew

Now some lesser men might have taken the view that, if you give houseroom to an unpredictable, highly-strung creature with a history of fiery outbursts, you should probably try to maintain a calm, stable home environment.  And avoid anything that is likely to rile the beast.

Not The Mack.  His view is that if he is kind enough to give houseroom to said creature, then it gives him free rein to wind it up. stand back – taser in hand – and watch it run itself into exhaustion.

I’m starting to suspect that he’s using this as some sort of social experiment.  He knows I know I’ve got nowhere else to go…

I hate you so much right now

Two things I really don’t like.  The whole start-up over-exuberance and slavish adherence to made-up methodologies.  And anyone checking up on me.

So The Mack has kindly decided to combine both of these in what has proven to be a foolproof system of destruction of will.

There are too many things that make me mad to list them all here, but I’ll give you the highlights (and don’t worry, I’ve got the others safely filed away in my brain under “things to bring up in our next big public argument”):

– his enthusiasm for our business ideas and general upbeat attitude vs my rightly-held belief that everything we’re doing is a pile of crap and an utterly pointless big fat waste of time.Post its

– making me write tasks on post-its, which we stick on the wall for each of our projects.  Colour-coded for the different types of tasks (concept/content, technical, marketing).  Ranked in order of priority.  Allocated to one of us to action.  “Action”.  Oh dear lord.

– his insistence on having “team” meetings every morning where we update one another on progress.  It’s an interrogation, people.  The man is never satisfied with my answers.  And I’m realising I’m quite a defensive person.

– scheduling our time each day “cos it’s the only way things get done”.  2 hours on my project, 1 on his, 30 minutes on planning our trip, 1 hour off for lunch where we watch either an episode of Girls or Modern Family (there are no other options, soldier).

– using an egg-timer app to make sure we stick to the schedule.

– endlessly using the phrases “engaging the pre-frontal cortex”, “synapses”, “gamification” and “what’s for lunch, babe?”.

work-life balance

I know, I know, you’re wondering how it is that I’ve managed not to crack under this inhumane regime.  Well, I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with this toxic environment.  They include:

– crying.

– talking in a really shrill, harpy-like voice.

– sulking.

– cursing (both like a navvy and like a witch-doctor).

– taking myself off for a late night walk through dodgy estates in South London (there’s nothing like fear of personal attack to make you want to come back “home”).

– watching Rambo I and II.

The worst bit about it all is that I know that The Mack has a point.  We need to start making some money fast, and getting on with our projects is the only way that’s going to happen.

Doesn’t stop me wanting to stab him repeatedly with a fork every time we break for lunch though…


PS:  I’d be really grateful if my UK readers could take 5 mins to fill out an online survey for a new business venture I’m working on to do with friends and communities.  Please go to  Thank you!!

lifestyle tetris – downsizing and deflation

There comes a point where it’s no longer enough to talk about the lifestyle changes you’ve made, which, when you boil them down to the bare bones, equate to little more than not working and going on slightly longer holidays.

4 weeks instead of 2 weeks in the sun.  Take that, rat-racers…

That point has well and truly arrived for me.  As I sit amongst packing boxes, trying to decide which charity shops should share in the spoils of my decluttering (bad person alert – I give my best stuff to the ones which make an effort with lighting and merchandising and my shameful tat to the dusty ones manned by myopic elderly spinsters).

The fact is, it’s been looming over me for a little while.  How it’s all very well to pretend to change your life, by only giving up the bits that you don’t like.  But at some point, you’re going to need to make a few more difficult changes.


So for me, the main one is giving up my rented flat in North London.  When you have no income, it suddenly seems a little bit ridiculous to be spending over a grand on basic living expenses every month.  So The Mack gets me as a houseguest for a month (lucky, lucky man) and, in return, the money I’ll save on rent will pay for his ticket to come join me in Argentina.

Cos that’s the other thing.  It’s actually cheaper for me to go to Argentina and Brazil for a couple of months than it is to stay in London.  I find it strange that London has such a strong start-up community, when it’s such a cripplingly expensive city.  I can only assume that Google campus works like a soup kitchen for starving wantrepreneurs.

So, anyway, it all sounds very exciting.  Living without a plan.  Travelling to hip destinations.  Not knowing where I’ll live when I come back.  Taking risks and living in the now.

Well let me describe the realities of the now…

I hate you so much right now

The now is the sort of logistical puzzle that, in comparison, makes me feel fairly certain I could mastermind a major war and comfortably expect to win with minimal loss of life to my troops.

It involves many lists of the many items that I own.  Most of which have been happily hiding away in the loft spaces since my last move 18 months ago.  And which, when assembled fully in my bedroom, make me want to weep at the enormity of the task before me.

take it away…

It involves various google searches to find people prepared to take away my unwanted furniture and electrical goods.  (If you’re interested, British Heart Foundation is pretty good for furniture and large, working electricals and there’s a scheme called 1,2,3 Recycle For Free for collection of electrical goods, big or small).

I wouldn’t bother trying to sell your stuff.  No-one’s buying.  If you can be arsed to enter the barcodes, then apparently Music Magpie is ok for CDs, DVDs and computer games, but you’re talking about 10 – 20p per item, so you need a fair few before you make any real money back.  And if you have any old textbooks, then Fat Brain is another good one, I’m told.

store it…

If you have stuff you want to keep, then you’ll need to navigate the dizzying array of storage options.  I nearly started a spreadsheet to make sense of the different pricing offers.  Some give you a free month if you take a minimum of 2 months.  Others charge per month and not every 4 weeks.  Some give free collection.  Some free insurance.  It’s a minefield, people.

In the end I went for Henfield Storage.  They’re the cheapest I found, they offer a free collection service if you pre-pay 3 months and they have good locations.

I’m just hoping that all my stuff fits into the size of room that I’ve reserved.  I’m quite tense about this.  My spatial awareness (or rather lack of it) is legendary in my family.  I’m the girl who struggles to fasten those elasticated luggage strap things on the inside of suitcases.  I’m there for days, twisting those stupid little fastenings around and around, just praying that somehow they will magically come together.  I’ve been known to cut them out of my suitcases in a fit of pique.  Hateful little things.

So, in my mind, a sideboard, chest of drawers, trunk, 2x stag armchairs, 2 x small chairs, wine rack, 2 large mirrors, a screen, 2 old-fashioned suitcases, various boxes of crockery, DVDs, kitchen stuff, microwave, stereo, clothes, ironing board and duvets, should easily stack into a 5ft x 7ft x 10ft room…  Right??

I’m taking The Mack with me to help me unload.  This could prove to be the toughest test of our relationship.  I think he’s going to be thankful that there will be an innocent bystander there too.  And that it’s a public place.  Otherwise this could get U-G-L-Y.

The Mack thinks it’s all a game.  Silly, silly man…

Yesterday, I felt totally overwhelmed by the whole packing up process (err, you can maybe tell I don’t work anymore, if this is my idea of stress..?).  Today I feel calmer.  I have a game plan.  It is flawless.  Probably.

Step 1:  Charity Shop – I have packed 10 bags of unwanted stuff to take to the charity shop on Thursday.  This is neatly stacked on the landing outside my flat, so as to leave more room inside for more packing.

Step 2: Mother’s Pride –  I have identified the stuff that I’m going to store in my mum’s loft (the “good stuff”).  This is packed and in an easily accessible corner of my bedroom.  My mum may shed a few tears when she sees the extent of what I’m bringing home, but her maternal instincts will prevail, I’m sure.

Step 3:  Collectors’ Items – I have booked collections in a couple of weeks’ time for my unwanted furniture and electrical items (the woman on the phone said “electronicals”, but I let it go…) and my stuff to go into storage.  I will mainly be spending that week waiting for white vans to show up.  I have itemised lists so that I don’t send the wrong items with the wrong van…

Step 4:  Mack Attack – I’ve hired a van for the day after the collections, so that The Mack and I can take whatever’s left over to his house.  I had promised him that I’d only be bringing 2 suitcases (normal clothes for now and stuff for our trip) and a plant and my bike.  We’ll see…

I suspect that what will actually happen on Step 4 is that I’ll look around and realise that there’s loads more stuff left over than I expected.  I’ll then have a little cry.  The Mack will lose patience with this woe-is-me routine after about 3 minutes and tell me to pull myself together.

We’ll then have to split up the stuff into different piles.  There will be a “shit, that was meant to go into storage” pile, a “fuck it, that can just go to the dump” pile and a “please can we find a little tiny space in your flat for it?” pile.  Which means that our journey to The Mack’s in deepest South London will be via the storage facility in North West London and the nearest landfill.

We don’t celebrate Valentine’s day.  Why would we when we have all of this to look forward to as a true expression of our commitment to one another?  I’ll make sure I keep back one of my bottles of champagne to toast the occasion…

keep it lean …. how to develop a lean start up business

1994 price guide to Star Wars collectibles

The Mack is one of those guys whose CV starts at age 8: picking up unsold comics from the school summer fete and reselling them to his mates.  This was followed by a stint in events and catering (holding discos in his parent’s garage and selling orange squash and mum’s home-baked biscuits to the little ravers) and personal services (car washing).  His career peaked aged 15, when he made a killing in commodities trading: flogging his friends’ classic star wars figures to collectors old enough to know better.

It was one of those early conversations when we were getting to know each other.   It highlighted the difference between The Mack’s instinctive capitalist tendencies and my more liberal leanings.  He was making money swindling his school-mates out of their once-cherished toys.  I had a block printing press, which I used to create a free local paper for the kids in my street.  I didn’t even sell advertising.

So, you can imagine, he was pretty excited to discover that Lean Startup Machine, an Apprentice-style workshop, was coming to London.  Over the course of a weekend, this workshop aims to teach you how to apply the Lean Startup principles to get your product to market faster and more effectively.  Let’s see how he got on…

the Lean Startup philosophy

The term “Lean Startup” comes from a book by Eric Ries: The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

The philosophy is based on creating an efficient ideation / assumption / validation / modification workstream.  In simplest terms, it’s all about getting customer feedback at an early stage in the product development life-cycle and using that feedback to make a more market-ready product.

Sure, you may think that your idea is genius.  Foolproof.  A dead cert.  But the fact is, you simply don’t know.  Those pesky consumers are a fickle bunch.  And Mr Ries doesn’t want you wasting your precious time and hard-earned money developing a product if you haven’t checked if anyone wants to buy it.  What a nice man. 

learn to be lean

The guys at Lean Startup Machine have taken this philosophy and turned it into a step-by-step process.  Their workshop involved pitching a new product, working in teams to find the best ways to test consumer feedback to the product and modifying the product, target consumer or delivery method in line with that feedback.   

This makes sense to me.  As much as I loved the film Field of Dreams as a kid, I get that in today’s world of overwhelming consumer choice, the days of “build it and they will come” are long gone.  No more dreaming.  Just build what they want.

the validation game

The entire process revolves around a validation board.  It looks like this:

You can download a copy of the validation board at and there’s a great tutorial on how to use it here.

It is deceptively simple.  You work with post-it notes, fat marker pens and a limit of 10 minutes per task and 5 words per post-it.

When The Mack described it to me, I was pretty dismissive.  My reaction involved a lot of eye rolling and “yeah, yeah, yeahs”.  And then I tried to apply it to a business idea I had.  I didn’t get out of box one.  I couldn’t define my customer or the problem that my idea was supposed to solve.  Like pretty much everyone, I’d started with a solution based on a whole load of untested assumptions.

Back to the validation board I went.  And this time I got The Mack to walk me through it:

Step 1 – Define your Hypotheses:  Who is your customer? (note, there could be more than one customer, e.g. if your idea has both a B2B and a B2C element to it: where you have a 2 or 3 sided customer group, you always validate the riskier side first).  What problem do you think that customer has?  Write these down (in max 5 words) and stick them on the board.

Step 2 – Define your Core Assumptions:  What assumptions are you making about the customer or their problem?  You need to get pretty basic with these – you are looking for assumptions that you’ve made in your mind that, if you’ve got them wrong, your business idea fails.  At this stage, all of your assumptions should be around whether or not the problem that you’ve identified actually exists for those customers.  If your initial assumptions are around things like “do they like my brand name?” or “is this the right pricing model?”, you’ve got ahead of yourself.  Write your core assumptions down (in max 5 words) and stick them on the board.

Step 3 – Identify the Riskiest Assumption:  So now you look at your 5 or 6 core assumptions that you’ve jotted down on the board.  You look for the single riskiest assumption. i.e., which is the assumption with the highest level of uncertainty?  This will normally be the key assumption on which your business idea hangs.  The reason for testing this one first is obvious.  If you’ve got this one wrong, then you’re dead in the water and all of the other assumptions are irrelevant.  Move this post-it note into the Riskiest Assumption box.

Step 4 – Decide how to Test that Assumption:  There are 3 methods for testing.

  • Exploration (interviewing target customers; making sure you ask open, not leading questions – and remember, you’re asking them about their “problem” not necessarily your perceived solution).
  • Pitching (getting customers to “buy” into your product via a dummy landing page, email sign-up, advert or similar).
  • Concierge (actually delivering your product to a small number of customers to find out what makes them happy so they’ll spread the word).

Clearly, they get progressively more time consuming and costly as you move from Exploration to Concierge, so you start with the cheapest and easiest route available to you.  Write down your method for testing your assumption in the Method box.

Step 5 – Define your Minimum Success Criteria:  This is pretty tricky.  For the assumption that you are testing, you need to decide what is the minimum threshold of validation.  Write down your minimum success criteria.  

The Mack said that a lot of the people at the workshop set their thresholds too high and wrote off their businesses as failures when they weren’t.  I would say that whatever threshold you set (for example, you develop a landing page for your product and you want at least 50 people to register their interest within 24 hours), if you don’t hit that threshold, take a moment to think about what that actually means.  It may not be total invalidation, you just may need to test again with slight tweaks to your method or you may have set your threshold artificially high.  However, don’t dismiss evidence of failure just because you’re desperate for your idea to be proved “right” – that defeats the entire purpose of this process.

Step 6 – Get out of the Building!!!:  This is where you stop thinking and start doing.  Execute your testing method (exploration, pitch, concierge).  This doesn’t have to take long – it can be a matter of hours or days.  Remember, the workshop is taught over a weekend.  The message they drill home is that it’s better to move quickly and do something than to spend hours overthinking it.  Get that feedback fast and make sure you’re talking to the right customer base.  For this purpose, friends and family do not count.  Do not include them in your results tally.

Depending on the outcome of your testing, when compared against your minimum success criteria, you will have validated or invalidated your assumption.  Move your post-it from “Riskiest Assumption” to either the “Invalidated” or “Validated” box.

Step 7 – Pivot or Test the Next Riskiest Assumption: If you’ve met your MSC, great.  Now identify your next riskiest assumption from the remaining post-its in your core assumptions box and go through the same process.  Do that until you’ve successfully validated all of your core assumptions.  All successfully validated? Now go make some money….

If your assumption was invalidated, don’t panic.  This is the whole purpose of the exercise, to identify obstacles to your product’s success.  Here’s where it gets interesting, so pay attention.  You now need to pivot.  And by Pivot, they mean more than just a minor tweak to your product.  A pivot refers to a real change to either your customer hypothesis (i.e. you were targeting the wrong customers) or to your problem hypothesis (i.e. the problem you identified doesn’t actually exist) or both (through your testing, you’ve identified a new problem for a different set of customers).  Write down your new pivot hypotheses under 1st Pivot.

And then you start the process again using these new pivoted hypotheses, so you go through steps 2 – 6 and see where you end up.  You may have validation or you may need to pivot again.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you move quickly through the process.  Assumptions are validated and you build on them or they are invalidated and you move on to the next.  And if ultimately your great idea proves not to be so great, well you’ll have saved yourself plenty of time, cash and heartache in finding out.

why this changes things for me

I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself a natural entrepreneur.  I get ideas, but most times I dismiss them.  Usually after having tried to think of every reason under the sun why they will fail.  I’ve found that my biggest stumbling block has been going from idea to any form of execution.  I’m using my own money for my business ventures and I’m hesitant to spend money when I don’t have a roadmap.

Which is why this lean startup process appeals to me.  I like having a method to my madness.  I particularly like having a visual method that is very practical, focused and has a rapid turnaround.  I’m a bit impatient.  I want to know quickly if an idea has legs.

I’m finding it a little slow-going to get to grips with it this first time, but following the steps has given me so much structure to my thought process and it’s actually made me enthusiastic again for some of my dormant ideas.  I’m heading to Launch48 this weekend, so I’m going to test it out on a bunch of strangers and see if the machine works.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll just pivot.