Holiday.

I am typing this from the departure lounge at Hong Kong Airport, on the way to Singapore for the final leg of investor meetings.

The last few days have been both a productive business trip and one of the best holidays of my life. The team, mashed against each other in a taxi, admiring the Shanghai skyline. Drinking with one of our favorite investors until 4am in Hong Kong and blaming each other for the mess in the sink the next morning. We ate breakfast with a Chinese man with a Ronaldo hairstyle and a Mexican moustache, who went from selling food along the street to listing his restaurant business on the stock market, and then dinner with a young lady who was forced to drop out of university and now rakes in 40m RMB a day selling clothes online. There is no comparison at all to the sanitised, choreographed, shopping-oriented tours I went on when I was younger in this part of the world.

Today I leave the rest of the team behind. They have a few meetings lined up in Hong Kong over the next few days while I tackle Singapore on my own. The goodbye stung: if nothing else, even if all our meetings ended up fruitless, that in itself made the trip more than worthwhile.

Externality.

What gets measured gets managed. – Peter Drucker

Conversely, what cannot be measured tends to be ignored. Externalities – benefits or costs created by one party that affects other parties around them – are usually left out of consideration no matter how powerful they are.

Placemaking is the art of capturing externalities. Creating a cool recreational area with free entry in a deprived area that generates zero income but raises house prices by lowering youth crime. Offering a rent-free period for an independent cafe because good coffee and a good meeting place are both crucial elements of a good place. Placemaking is a human art, where tenants are chosen as if they were colleagues (in a way, they are), where place is the focus and money is the byproduct. It is a careful crafting of invisible things: vibes, image, branding.

Sadly, good placemaking is rare because it requires scale: one needs to capture a substantial enough amount of the positive externalities in order to bear the cost of subsidising them. However, scale requires big budgets, big budgets require big companies. and big companies are generally not good at managing things which cannot be measured.

Kings Cross, a £2bn regeneration project, is successful by many measures, but yet feels so much like a missed opportunity. What could it have been if the developers had resisted bringing in established brands in the beginning and let the independents have a chance? What if it had tried harder to retain its urban grunge rather than focused on cleaning it up? What if regeneration had been led by art rather than money — would it have, ironically, become more valuable that way?

Photo from the Argent website

 

 

 

Humanity.

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Just received these books in the mail today, all the way from Asia. I bought them from a friend who moved to Japan from Singapore and recently started a business making these books – Tezukuri Nikki, or handmade diary.

There is something sacred about things that are handmade: not in the arts and crafts way where flaws are part of the charm, but in the obsessive way that is characteristic of the Japanese, where pride trumps business sense. Each diary is handsewn with needle and thread and handcased using bookbinding glue. As books they are perfect. As products they are madness, anomalies in this day and age where businesses and their consultants are constantly tinkering at the price-quantity-quality equation to maximise profit, too often at the expense of the latter. I can see writers hugging these books as VCs shake their heads in despair, unable to scale or synergise or leverage or whatever the latest smart thing to do is.

I see my friend in the books (no he does not look like a waving cat). We were colleagues once, young journalists writing articles and doing interviews and reviewing gadgets together. I remember his sharp intellect, the precision of his words and actions, and his love of the weird and quirky. I remember an intensity that is not immediately obvious – his fashion style then, like mine, could be described kindly as forgettable – that only revealed itself when he spoke or put pen to paper. He might not have personally made these books, but they are unmistakeably him. I hope the things I create retain as much humanity as his.

You can support him here: musu.bi

Unprofessionalism.

In the corporate world of suit and tie and tidy ponytails, the blanket concept of “professionalism” is the order of the day. Professionals are supposed to be cool and dispassionate. Smiles are controlled so they don’t slip beyond politeness into actual happiness, and emotive words are stripped of their power and replaced with corporate-speak. Plain talk is reserved for when backs are turned and doors are shut.

But business is theatre in its manic, wide-eyed glory: it is the frantic gesturing, the cheeky grins, the meaningful glare after a profound statement. The grubby shoes, the chin stubble, and the untucked collar add to the flavour, the distinct feel that the guy on the other side of the table is human, who eats and drinks and laughs and has trouble getting out of bed in the morning like you.

Only when the human connection is established, when heart and breath synchronise, can passion and conviction and electricity flow. Without it everything is just sales talk and empty pitching.

Be unprofessional.

 

A big canvas.

Today marks an end and a beginning, the culmination of four crazy months of travelling thousands of miles up and down the UK and between UK and Asia. Four hundred acres of land — a canvas big enough for a big vision, for big hopes and dreams.

When we got the call from our lawyer we jumped from our seats and hugged. Then we sat back down and started making calls and banging on our keyboards. You can’t celebrate too much for getting to the starting line.