A crowd of precious individuals

Twenty-three and a half years ago.
My goodness. I was just a naive teenager.
Dad was listening to the game on the radio. He called upstairs, to tell me "something's happened".
I shooed him away. I wanted to watch the game on Match of the Day later that night without knowing the score.
How antiquated that time seems now, a bygone age.
Soon after, he told me the game had been abandoned.
Hours later, on the evening news, I learnt that over 50 fans had died.

I remember the bewilderment. 50 dead? What? How?
It was only a football match.
By Monday over 90 were listed dead, and through the shock the slander started.
Bloody hooligans! No tickets! They rushed the gates! Drunken scum!
I remembered Heysel; and to my eternal regret, my sorrow was poisoned with shame.
Months later, watching a television documentary, I learned what really happened.
How 95 people could die at a football match. Horribly, as it turns out.
And I wept.

The more I learnt, the more I raged at the inhumanity of the police.
How they saw us as a problem to be managed, not citizens to safeguard.
How they saw football fans, their fellow countrymen, as a chaotic mob.
As a rabble to be caged, rather than thousands of fragile, precious individuals.

Individually, we are so small. We trust the law will give us justice.
But our system of justice was rotten.
Granting impunity to the incompetent, whilst treating the victims with contempt.
A slander, an injustice, that has persisted for 23 years.

Today - at last - an independent commission published its long awaited report, finally nailing the wretched lies and revealing the truth.

The commission reported that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the South Yorkshire police and emergency services made 'strenuous attempts' to deflect blame for the crush onto the victims. That the police took blood from every victim, including children, testing for the presence of alcohol in an attempt to 'impugn their reputations'. That 116 of 164 police statements were 'amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire police'. When the prime minister announced this in parliament, the chamber collectively gasped.

Put simply, not only have hundreds of families suffered the loss of a loved one, but they've been victims of an institutionalised cover-up. Remember those who died were not part of a reckless mob, they were ordinary folk just like you and me. And they walked unwittingly to their deaths. Yet those in authority decided their own reputations were worth far more than the truth, a truth that might help bring some closure to the grieving, a truth that one day, might save your life.

The truth matters because the truth keeps us safe.

Before Hillsborough, I'd experienced standing in heaving crowds, in shitty football grounds, being lifted and carried by ominous waves of surging people. Looking back, those memories make me shiver.

Crush disasters don't happen because of drunken crowds, or ticket-less fans trying to sneak in for free. They happen because crowds are poorly managed, when those in authority forget their fundamental duty of care, and start treating individuals like ball bearings, to be pushed down pipes.

Brian Reade memorably wrote of the 96: "Never forget that for English football's bright tomorrow, they gave their todays".

Never forget their sacrifice; the lessons bought with their blood keep you safe when you join a throng of thousands on the way to match or a concert, or stand in a crowd 10-deep on a packed subterranean tube platform.

From today, the truth can be told: that on April 15th, 1989, a crowd of precious individuals gathered to watch a football match, that their custodians failed them utterly, and then besmirched and blamed them, and perpetuated a disgraceful lie that has lasted for 23 years.

And understanding why is more than putting the record straight, it's about the kind of society we want to live in, one where the powerful protect the weak, and there's truth and justice for all.

Lean Football

What's the connection between a football club and a lean startup?

Rafa Benitez recently talked about being a data-driven football manager, which I found very interesting, because what Rafa was describing sounded a lot like the Build - Measure - Learn loop employed by lean startups.

In the business world, this process is popular with startups because they're attempting to make decisions in environments of considerable uncertainty. They don't know how good their product is, or even if anyone will buy it. So they need to test their assumptions, and they need to incorporate what they learn into the next version of their product.

The lean startup idea is about getting away from the 'Great Man' theory of leadership - that good decisions are informed, not opinionated, and driven by data rather than ego. This is scientific decision-making: you run experiments, you test your hypothesises, because nature can not be fooled. Remember, lean is not a synonym for quick and cheap, lean is a synonym for quick and experimentally proved.

Sport is a very different kind of experiment, a test where you get the examination first, and the lessons afterwards - as the baseball pitcher Vernon Law put it.

Though just like in the business world, in the football world is dominated by 'Great Men' - patriarchs with decades of success behind them - who reign autocratically over the biggest clubs. The natural order of things seems to be Great Men rule Great Clubs with Great Transfer Budgets funded by Great Plutocrats (or Great Debt). Which made me wonder whether the Reign of the Great Men was inevitable and eternal, or whether the football world might ever witness the the kind of disruption the technology world has seen.

So I began to think about where lean principles have been applied to football. Looking back, was Rafa attempting to implement a lean approach when he was in charge of Liverpool? At the time, I remember Rafa being mocked for his insistence on "facts" and "qualitee" - and derided as being a cold, passionless strategist. Then again, we'd expect an approach based on objectivity to be much better at answering "how do I get the best out of each of my players?" than answering "how do I win matches in the most eye-pleasingly way possible?"

One form of evidence-based decision-making that has definitely been applied to sport is sabermetrics, currently in vogue having been popularised by the book and film Moneyball. Originally conceived in baseball, it seeks to find under-valued players by using stats to quantify talent. Whilst this can work well in baseball, which is effectively a series of one-on-one set pieces, it is more challenging in football, which is a much more dynamic team game.

In baseball, batting is easy to score, the striker either hits it or doesn’t. In football, a striker might score lots of goals, but understanding why is more complicated. Perhaps they play with several creative players, perhaps their style of play exploits weaker defenders, perhaps the manager has made playing football fun, or he's tailored the team's approach to suit their star man.

This makes it difficult to identify a talented, but under-valued, footballer through stats alone - because much of what makes a player exceptional isn’t actually evident in stats. This is why scouts repeatedly go to watch players in person, and why understanding a player’s personality is so important. A great team can make an average player look exceptional. Scouts attempt to assess a player’s natural talent.

The problem is that the evidence used in moneyball decision-making has been collected from the player's past. A player that has proved his worth in one team will not necessarily transfer that success to his new team. The lean strategy would be to identify lots of cheap prospects, put them into your team, and test them. If they work, great! - if not, that's a shame, we move on.

The sorry tale of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing provides a chastening lesson on basing your decisions on stats. In January 2011, Liverpool's then director of football, Damien Comolli, was tasked with quickly identifying a successor to the outgoing Fernando Torres. His eyes settled on Andy Carroll, a tall, strong Englishman then in great form for a resurgent Newcastle.

After an inauspicious start to his Liverpool career, it was clear Carroll wasn't getting the service that allowed him to thrive at Newcastle. So what about that Downing fella - he's a winger, and he's created more chances than any other player in the Premiership last season. Sign him, he creates chances, Carroll scores the goals, we win games. Too easy!

Now if your prospect is rated at £20 million pounds, and the stats say he’s one of the best in the country, the logic of moneyball is to say: no, don't do it - he’s too expensive. Forget the English Premium, we’ll look for someone similar here or abroad, after all there’s a lot of people playing football worldwide - as Arsene Wegner continues to demonstrate masterfully.

A £20m purchase also goes against the principles of the lean strategy, because you can’t afford the experiment to fail. As it happened, during the 2011-12 season, the experiment did fail: Carroll and Downing performed poorly, and there was no plan B. With our football having no direction, our Director of Football departed.

Yet one team that did use the moneyball approach shrewdly was Newcastle United, who quietly bought talented - but unheralded - players from the European leagues. Without a benevolent plutocrat to back them, Newcastle are forced to operate like any normal business, buy cheaply, add value, enjoy its advantages, and use profits on sales to fund growth.

In the coming years, as UEFA introduces its long-overdue Financial Fair Play regulations I hope the long-forgotten art of running a football club like a business will be revived. Just as in any business, once dominant giants are inevitably overtaken by upstarts. Historic clubs like Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal must now strive to compete against the expensively renovated plutocrat project clubs like Man City and Chelsea - and not forgetting Man Utd, who've dominated the last two decades through their commercial savvy and an exceptional ability to nurture talent.

New kit; means business
As we Liverpool fans look back on a season of considerable disappointment, with the league won by one billionaire-backed club, and the Champions League final being contested by another, what next?

When we sing "They say are days are numbered, we're not famous anymore" we celebrate that we went from being a laughing stock to the best team in Europe in the space of a few years. Like 1999 and 2004, we must rebuild again, and we are missing more than just a piece from the jigsaw.

It was very sad to see King Kenny go, but in attributing our dismal last league campaign to bad luck he revealed he didn't properly understand what was going wrong, or how to put it right. Read through this excellent discussion of our lack of on-field intelligence, for example, and then tell me if you still believe in the power of bad luck.

Clive Woodward's "Thanks, you just cost us the World Cup" approach sounds harsh, but it needs to be said. Just as in business, mistakes need to be called, in order to be understood. Players need to understand why they're making mistakes before they can hope to correct them. Zen temple. Battlefield. Football field. The path to mastery is the same.

King Kenny had natural talent and intelligence in abundance, together they made him our greatest ever player. But he was unable to teach his football intelligence to others, perhaps he expected his men to intuitively understand the game, like he did. Whereas Rafa Benitez believed in data, he would scour videos for hours, so he could tell Torres where he should be in the box.

Like a man in charge of an ailing family business, Kenny managed by instinct, by sentiment. I believe we need a different kind of manager, a data-driven manager, who believes in making his own luck. Someone with fresh ideas, who can coach our players into better individuals, and collectively fashion them into a superior team. A startup manager.

Liverpool must become an upstart club again. 
One that's young, agile, innovative and fearless.

For Liverpool fans, 2005 to 2009 now seems like a glorious age of over-achievement.
Like many startups, Rafa's Liverpool FC enjoyed a meteoric rise and sudden fall.

But as Beckett said:
"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Vive le sport.

How to give a meaningful gift

Giving someone a meaningful gift is difficult.
We want the gift to say what we feel:
“I love you!”
  “Your life is so adventurous!”
    “You’re gorgeous!”
      “I treasure your friendship!”
        “You’re unique!”
But our gift can not talk.
So we buy something expensive and hope it conveys the right messages.
Or, we just convert our love into money, and send a gift voucher.

Why is giving a meaningful gift so difficult?
How did we end up expressing our love through money?
Why do we try to send messages through objects rather than expressing how we feel?
Are our words really that worthless?
After all, what could be nicer than accidentally overhearing someone say something lovely about you?

Everyone wants to be appreciated, and secretly, we covet praise. It makes us feel good. It reinforces our social bonds, it makes us feel accepted, part of the tribe. Without it, we feel ostracised, rejected, and lonely.

We've even invented a medium to convey our appreciation - the greetings card. So why is a humble handwritten card not the most treasured gift one can receive? We do we spend so lavishly on products to demonstrate our affection?

Alas, senders of greetings cards rarely open their hearts to express how they really feel. Instead they quickly scribble what they believe they’re expected to write; like a safe message wishing the recipient a lovely birthday, that they’re thinking about them, and they love them lots. What goes unsaid is why they love them, what makes them so unique, and why they absolutely treasure the time they share together.

Tell those close to you how you feel, before it's too late! Friends can drift apart, family members can move far away, and sudden tragedies can silence any one of us. What record will there be of the journey you shared? Do not save your feelings for a memorial. Tell them now.

And what power words have.

A couple of years ago, a friend was feeling down, so we contacted her friends and asked them: what is it about her you love so much? And they told us: scores of beautiful messages, heartfelt words, and quirky in-jokes. It gave us goosebumps. We married each comment to an image, and made them into a hardback book. When we gave her the book, she read it, then she smiled, and then she cried. She hadn’t realised how much she was loved. Few of us do.

Her friends loved it too, we’d provided an opportunity to truly tell her how much she meant to them. It was as if we’d given them all permission to say something heartfelt. Our creation had brought joy to our small world of friends, and it felt awesome. 

Producing this first book was tremendously time-consuming, unexpectedly hard work, but as Paul Graham says, at the heart of every good venture is a schlep - a tedious task you believe you can do better. Still, we sat on the idea for a year, thinking someone should do something.
The realisation dawned slowly; gift giving was broken, and we had an opportunity to fix it.
We imagined a social gift, where feelgood messages of appreciation didn’t just accompany the gift, they were the gift.

And so we created gleambook.

The idea was to bring friends together to create unique, heartfelt gifts. Now all you need to do is say something nice, and invite your friends to do the same, and we take care of the hard work. From the collected comments we design and produce a truly unique work of art, a physical artifact, a book full of pages that look like this:

And you get to see your loved one gleam.

How much better it is, to give the gift of feeling good.

Come and say hello at gleambook.
We’d love to hear from you.

The Lean Startup Montage

“The best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas” -- Linus Pauling

But how do you prove an idea?

Last week, I went to listen to Eric Ries talk about lean startups to a packed Mermaid Theatre, (a great event, thanks BLN). He began by asking the audience if anyone had ever seen a movie about a startup; all hands up, for sure, we’d all seen “The Social Network”. But - says Eric - don’t forget that other truly great startup movie: Ghostbusters. Then he asked: what do both films have in common?

Both films have the same structure: introduce the characters, show the struggles of the nascent business as they count down to their last dollar, before finally hitting the big time and connecting up/saving the world. And somewhere in between comes the bit where the company actually gets built, but that’s not as interesting, so it gets condensed into a montage with a catchy soundtrack.

Of course, in a startup, the building bit is the difficult bit, and product design meetings make poor cinema. But products shouldn’t take so long to build that they have to be squeezed into a montage. In a nutshell, the lean startup approach urges entrepreneurs to get a minimum viable product out as quickly as possible, rather than worrying about perfecting it. Then once in customers’ hands, the product can be scientifically tested and tweaked to fit the market’s demands.

Steve Blank defines a startup as: “a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”.

In other words, startups attempt to monetise opportunities, rather than exploit certainties.

It is this extreme uncertainty that makes the scientific method of forming hypotheses, collecting data and testing your assumptions so useful to early stage startups. If you’re being innovative, or seeking to win a new market niche, there’s no blueprint, no-one to imitate, and no guarantees anyone even wants your product. You’ve got to run the experiment.

And the key word here is experiment. The lean startup approach is encapsulated in 3 words: Build. Measure. Learn.

Build means launching as early and cheaply as possible. Using an agile approach to code and deploy quickly, using open source to avoid reinventing the wheel, and the Cloud to minimise capex. Scaling is done just-in-time, as it’s needed; there’s no sense delaying your launch until you’re convinced you can support thousands of users when you don’t know if you’ll attract ANY users.

Measure means determining what users think about your product. The data is collected by tools like real-time analytics, split testing and surveys - the principle here being: better to have bad news that's true, than good news that you’ve just made up.

Learn means deriving insights from what you’ve measured - to better understand your product’s performance and the needs of your market. This will generate new ideas to tune your startup’s engine to perform even better.

If you're building the wrong product, there are no possible optimisations. But better to discover that now, rather than 5 man-years into development.

This field-testing seeks to avoid wasting time solving a problem that no-one is having, or a technical solution that just doesn't work, or a product that users don't like. The insights you derive can help distinguish between user indifference and disapproval, and allow you to adjust your approach accordingly.

The lean startup philosophy is about testing and continual improvement, with decisions based on solid data rather than the whims and egos of entrepreneurs. It’s about realising an idea, but not being so wedded to it that you can’t improvise and adapt it into something even better.

As Pablo Picasso once said: “You have to have an idea of what you’re going to do, but it should be a vague idea...”

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