Wednesday, 20 August 2008

You Cannot Be Serious

In Mrs Conroy’s English class we studied ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. As the pun is in the spelling of the name and my spelling is weak (because I am a free thinker) I can’t remember if it is Ernest or Earnest. Either way it means SERIOUS.

With Grasshopper it was clear from the start that the only way my sister and I could work together was if I stopped taking myself seriously and stopped trying to have meetings with her and set targets. If you work with people outside your gene pool they will defer to you, respect you and have meetings about targets to your heart’s content. The downside is the possibility that they will harbour an undetected resentment and leak information to a rival company in order for them to mount an aggressive take-over that leaves you unemployable and in therapy for the rest of your natural life.

The price for the mutual trust that I enjoy with Abi is a daily barrage of merciless teasing which usually focuses on me being Maggie Thatcher/ a hermit/ Rainman. Acting serious is, in fact, a Grasshopper crime punishable by vicious parody unless, of course, the defendant is rendered temporarily insane and morbidly self pitying by the mind altering effect of a hormone surge [AE: Which goes as extenuating circumstances in a court of law]

Mrs Conroy by the way (see top of paragraph) was a universally loved teacher for the following reasons:

1 She was very pretty
2 She had a bike with a wicker basket on it
3 She knew Sade

When I was 16 I wrote a very grim short story about a man who blows his own head off. Where other more conservative teachers might have questioned my mental health she gave me 20/20 and wrote ‘This is of a publishable standard’ in red pen at the bottom. Amid the self-doubt/ train tracks/ acne/ national health glasses while I waited for my proper ones (if you are too young to know what they are count yourself lucky) that recognition meant everything. Mrs Conroy, we salute you.

[AE: I just ran spellcheck over this and it said that ‘Rainman’ isn’t a word and suggests ‘Trainman’. Who’s ever heard of him? Tom Cuise stars in TRAINMAN?’]

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Happy Birthday Grasshopper

Today Grasshopper is 2. The enthusiasm with which I celebrate the passing of another Grasshopper year is in stark contrast to what happens on my my own birthday when I am always a misery. Self-pity descends, the annual Bridget Jonesian life inventory is taken and for another year, I fall short. Last year, anticipating the above Abi decided to come and see me in London. Unfortunately, due to the relationship between Abi's mental state and cataclysmic events [AE: See 'My Sister, London & The Pathetic Fallacy'] the resulting visit was 2 days of carnage culminating in my car being destroyed in the middle of the night by a truck. The first we knew of this was the cops waking us up at 2am and asking if they could come in. Abi, having gained all her knowledge of police procedure from the telly assumed that they had sent a lady police officer in order to soften the news that our entire family had been wiped out.

The statistics indicating the likelihood of a business to fail and leave its founders homeless, mentally unstable and unemployable (are you even allowed to issue yourself your own P45?) are intimidating. Last year's figures state that the changes of Grassy succeesing are marginally slimmer than the chance of:

1: Abi and I getting struck by lightening on different days.
2: A camel passing through the eye of a needle.

When Googling for these stats I found an online survey which asks questions like 'What market segment verticals are you targeting for?' It calculates the percentage chance of a business succeeding and ours came out at 8% but I didn't understand all of the questions so it wasn't really fair. So here we are, 2 years on, defying the odds and happy that we haven't had to get real jobs. Abi, no doubt, will be celebrating with a bag of winegums but I'll have to think of something else as I'm not allowed them (because they make my face swell up).

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

My Not-Husband

My Not-Husband is too old for me and looks like Chief Brody from Jaws. He has the neutral demeanour of a Tai Chi master and meeting him was like that game they play in Latin America when they electrocute themselves with a car battery for kicks. In retrospect I suspect that my metaphorical window overlooked his inner courtyard which people don't always like.

Last time I saw him he explained that Abi and I shouldn't worry about big companies making the same product as us and that we should put as much of ourselves into the brand as we could; that we were our own point of difference. This is a helpful notion and can help alleviate The Fear [See 'The Fear and How to avoid Panic Ping-Pong'] although obviously, we still don't like copycats.

In a parallel universe we settled down together in the big house at the end of Slapton beach and grew rhubarb.

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Fear and how to avoid Panic Ping-Pong

'The Fear' describes a state of sudden, paralysing anxiety, which arrests productivity and ones ability to observe even basic standards of civil behaviour with others (especially family members, call centre operatives and bank staff). Our in-depth research has proven that starting a business with your sister when neither of you has any idea what you are doing offers ample opportunity to experience The Fear on a regular basis.

The worst thing about The Fear is that it is catching; here is an actual example:

Abi: 'What's wrong with you?'

Fleur: 'It's all too much...I don't know what to do...I can't cope'

Abi: 'What do you mean you can't cope? What haven't you told me? Are you quitting? Who will run the business side of the company? How will I pay my mortgage? Who will look after my unborn children when I lose everything because of you?'

If I respond at this point the worst possible outcome ensues; an anxious exchange of escalating edginess flying backwards and forwards like a frantic game of panic ping-pong.

In these situations the standard co-dependent subtext is 'you sound scared, if you can't keep it together then nor can I'

Another method of expressing The Fear is by being bad tempered and scary to others. An example of this is what happened when I got The Fear mid-meeting with the bank manager. My demeanour changed from easy going organic porridge maker into Latin American dictator and commander of guerrilla forces in a grotesque David Banner style metamorphosis. Abi responded to this in a way that is unparalleled in its ability to exacerbate the situation; she took the mickey.

Abi: (as we are leaving the bank manager's office) 'Oh my God, you just turned into Maggie Thatcher'


Abi: LOOK, You're still doing it'

The conversation continues until eventually, from pure exhaustion I am forced to admit that I AM Maggie Thatcher and apologise for being rude in front of the bank manager and for dismantling the welfare state.

The only way to deal with someone who has the Fear is to act like it aint no biggie, Eg:

Abi: (Trembling like a frightened rabbit) 'What's going to happen at this meeting? What do you think they will ask me? (Translation: Do you think that it will show that we don't know what we are doing and that they will belittle us in a way that will mentally scar me for life?'

Fleur: (lying) 'It's not really a meeting, it's just a chat really, we're popping in, they're not expecting us to know anything about our business, it's very informal'

I know that I have The Fear when I notice that I have been lying on my bed staring at the ceiling for more than 10 minutes. Abi knows when I have the fear because she has an aerial in her head that can pick up my channel. She also uses Echo Location.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Helicopter Man

Funding has been a significant challenge [AE: Total nightmare] for Grasshopper since we founded. I spent time trawling the net for information and asked around to try and find out how other businesses survived before they were in profit. People were universally cagey about sharing this information. That, naturally, was an irritant.

The only options seemed to be:

1: Get a grant [AE: HARHARHARHARHAR] After exploring this option by filling in 10 grillion forms I concluded that of course, there is no free money except the MARVELLOUS Prince's Trust but we were too old for them. [AE: We LOVE Prince Charles]

2: Beg the bank for a massive loan [AE: Millstone] to fund you [AE: Ruin your life]

3: Go back to the Venture Capitalists [Tony: I'm not going and you can't make me]

Each of these options was equally repugnant and as it seemed like we had to choose one of them I began to feel extremely vexed about our situation. The amount of low-end confectionery I was eating reached an all-time high and green vegetable consumption (principally of the Brassica family) troughed. This period culminated in 2 virtually sleepless nights that went like this:

10pm Go to bed

11pm Get up and watch Jim'll Fix It on Your Tube (check out the girl that sang with Abba, where is she now?)

1am Go through every member of my kindergarten class in my head in alphabetical order to try and hypnotise myself.

1.30am Download Paul McKenna 'I Can Make You Supremely Confident' onto Ipod.

2am Do Paul McKenna 'ICMYSC' twice in a row (to try and garner some benefit from my predicament by using the time to subliminally develop life-long self esteem)

4am Wake up having had a nightmare about being Paul McKenna's assistant and losing something that he needs in his act.

Next night, repeat above.

On day three I spoke to Helicopter Man. He started his own business and has a hairy chest like Magnum PI except blonde. He emphasized the difference between debt at the bank and debt to people who know you in real life. He extolled the beauty of multiple soft loans and it all made perfect sense.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

My sister, London and The Pathetic Fallacy

Abi is happiest when she is on or near the sea, preferably in it. When she was little she wore her goggles and swimming cap at mealtimes and spent hours in the bath, timing how long she could stay under (ages). Because of this she rarely comes to London and her impression of the city is primarily based on what is reported on the 6 O'clock news (stabbings, bombings, abductions general carnage). Every time she takes the train to London for a meeting I reassure her that London is a friendly and vibrant global village and yet, every time her reluctant foot steps onto the platform at Waterloo the Universe seems to sense that she has arrived in the City and unleashes hell.

Everything that I tell her only happens 'once in a blue moon' or 'only on the other side of town' seems to arrive on our doorstep: choppers circle overhead, joyriders career onto the pavement and handbags are blown up by the cops in controlled explosions. Could this be the pathetic fallacy that Mrs Conroy was talking about in fifth form English [See 'You Cannot Be Serious'] Could Abi actually be manifesting the chaos around her through the power of thought? I considered putting my theory to her, to try and find out if we could harness her powers to influence our customers' buying behaviour and boost porridge sales. After some consideration I decided that to draw attention to her dark powers could trigger an anxiety response similar to Sissy Spacek in 'Carrie' inadvertently putting the whole City at risk. So I decided to say nothing and distract her, instead, with a packet of winegums.

Friday, 8 August 2008

How business is like dating

In the World of dating I am the last to get picked for the team. My sister is the opposite. Her hair is lustrous like the Golden Fleece and her presence has the same effect on men as chumming the water has on sharks. Where managing relationships in business is like dating I have learnt everything I know from her as none of it comes naturally to me.

When we have something the other people want they respond to my emails on the same day, point by point. They get things in the post on the same day that I ask for them and they tell me how much their child/wife/boss/swimming teacher loved our product. How friendly they seem: how personable.

When the other people have what they need they stop replying to my email. When I phone I get voicemail or a secretary. The secretary recognises my voice from when I called yesterday and the day before. On Monday she was sympathetic, on Tuesday she was embarrassed and today she is irritated. She thinks that my persistence is impertinent; she reveres her boss and thinks that I am pestering him when he is important and busy. 'He will be in touch if he wants to take things further' she says. This is the business version of 'He's just not that into you.'

In order to 'take things further' in circumstances like this one needs to practice the advanced Marshall art of 'Come here, go away' One has to know when to respond and when not to. My sister is a black belt. I still make elementary mistakes. If someone doesn't take my call I want to call again and again and again until I get the answer I want. I become a monkey with a button that can't stop pressing it even though he is electrocuting himself. When they continue to ignore me I am Margaret Thatcher in a headscarf driving a Sherman tank towards them. 'OBEY ME' she glares. This method does not work.

In real life Abi says that i am not allowed to phone a guy after 3 dates and say 'Are you my boyfriend? Do you think that you want to settle down with me?' and in business the guidelines are the same. I have to act cheerful and easy going even when they keep me waiting or are rude or annoying. This guy I liked last summer organised for me to go and see a psychic as a treat (as you do). I felt sure that in doing so he was making a pass at me. The psychic said that I was part alien and that I had a large aerial sticking out of my head. I didn't want to make her feel like she wasn't good at her job so I thanked her and told her that everything she said to me made perfect sense and that she did indeed have strong psychic powers. I asked her about my not-boyfriend who had organised for me to see her, perhaps she could psychically sense whether we had a future together? She looked at me with a mixture of embarrassment and pity and the aerial on my head picked up the psychic message that she was sending...'He will be in touch if he wants to take things further.'

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Porridge is good for you (probably)

After we got the nod from Harvey Nichols I had to make sure that our labelling met the criteria contained in a million sub-clauses in the Encyclopaedia of European Union Food Labelling Law that I had recently received by post (highly recommended with a glass of warm milk if you have trouble dropping off at night). Hundreds of stupefying pages can be summarized in 7 words; don't claim anything that you can't prove.

Around this time our favourite smoothie company got busted by the Advertising Standards people for saying 'detox' and we developed a healthy fear of that happening to us; I have never been to court and i would like to start with something small like parking fines to get the experience before being whacked with something like that.

After applying what we had learnt the nearest thing to an admissible health claim that we could come up with was this:
Eating porridge could make you slimmer if you are a bit on the chunky side but wont do anything if you are just big-boned.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Everything I know about Venture Capitalists

When I worked as a nanny I looked after a little girl who was happy and robust and a natural horsewoman.
Her parents weren't together and her dad occasionally came to the house to pick her up. He was a Venture Capitalist and would tower over her in the doorway in a dark suit, frowning and asking her about trends in her examination results and adding value to their downtime by going to the park together. I kissed her head and said 'have a nice time darling' but really I wanted to stand in between them, stare him down and say 'back away from the child' in a menacing voice.

Ten years later I found myself in a Venture Capitalist's office waiting to discuss Grasshopper and our need for investment. The room was small with a coffee table in the middle; similar to the ones they take you into in hospital to tell you that your entire family has been wiped out. 

I tried to relax but unfortunately Tony was there against his will and he was doing everything in his power to make me look mentally weak [AE: Tony is Fleur's imaginary friend who tells her what to do, see 'How we make decisions...' entry]

This is how the meeting went:

VC1: Thanks for coming; I like the product. I eat porridge every day, not organic...I found yours far too smooth, I don't know who would want to eat it like that. Also, no-one surely cares if it's organic or not, my daughter did say that it was convenient though.'

Fleur: 'Yes, it is a convenience food'

VC2 'I've taken a look at the financial forecasts you sent and I have to be frank: they are very aggressive and appear to be wholly unsubstantiated. Do you have any advanced orders to back them up?'

Fleur: (Like Paxo on University Challenge) 'Nnnn-ope'

VC1: 'I really do like the product. Obviously it is over-packaged and doesn't taste very nice, the price is also far too high but I do like it.'

Fleur: 'Good'

VC1: 'We want you to know that we are really interested in this project although of course I haven't run it by my boss yes and he is very unlikely to like it at all but I really like it.'

Fleur:  (losing the will to live, considering the option of opening a vein) 'I see'

VC1: Moving forward I'm really excited about this and really think that if you can make this business profitable in the next month then it would be really great to talk again.' (Translation: you are a joke, your business is a joke, come back when you are in profit and I may offer you a small amount of money [AE: Which we wont need by then because we will be in profit] for half of your business. I'll then use a loophole in a sub-clause of the shareholder's agreement to get you and your sister sacked from your own company; guaranteeing you a life of lost opportunity and bitterness and me a summerhouse in Portofino.)

VC2: 'I hope that you've found that useful'

Fleur: 'Yes, very, thank you both so much for your time and expertise'

Tony: 'I can't believe you just said that'


Sunday, 3 August 2008

Unsolicited Advice

Since Grasshopper’s conception we have been the unwilling recipients of an almost constant barrage of unsolicited advice. The fact that we don’t know anything about how to build an organic snack food empire apparently doesn’t matter, as we seem to be surrounded by experts. Here are some of my favourite suggestions so far…

1: You should the make the porridge without milk or fruit (when valuing this guidance consider that their recommended recipe would consist of one ingredient only, oats)

2: Get an advert on the TV (30 second slot during Coronation St = £150 000, total Grasshopper marketing budget for 2007 = £nil)

3: Don’t pay your staff more than you have to (We are the only staff and we don’t get paid as we don’t have any money)

4: Don’t aim too high; when things get big it is really hard work. (I have OCD, I love to work)

5: Don’t rush into anything (I rush, it’s in my nature)

6: Patent the recipe (You can’t patent a recipe. Everyone who has ever watched The Dragon’s Den tells us this. I have a short presentation on PowerPoint underlining the basic principles of intellectual property protection which I direct them to because going through it all again makes me upset)

8: You should make bacon-flavoured porridge (there is a reason that no-one has ever made that)

And, my personal favourite:

6: Don’t give up your day job (Too late)