Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

My 21st Century Toolbox

Like most people today, I rely on technology to help me do my job. It’s a far cry from business life back in 1992, when I left Ernst & Young and began my entrepreneurial career.

Back then the mobile phone hadn’t been invented – that would come a few years later – and the only computers we had were fixed to our desks. We saved data onto floppy disks (remember those?), and I used a briefcase to take stuff home to read in the evenings.

Life must have been a lot simpler back then, but I don’t remember because Rebecca was born late 1992, so spending time with my little girl was how I occupied my evenings.

I remember in the mid-90s getting a Time System organiser. It was made in Denmark, I think, and beautifully designed. It organised my life, before things moved online – pencil and paper being replaced by code.

I can only imagine the 23 year old me being transported to the future and seeing how we live our lives today. In those following 23 years the world has changed massively, driven by technology.

I don’t need a briefcase now, as everything lives in the cloud. I have a new Riut bag to transport my laptop, vlogging camera and iPad – none of which existed back in 1992. I use Apps to organise and run my life – my current favourites, in order of use, being:

  • Slack
  • Evernote
  • Trello
  • Contactually
  • Google Drive

not to mention email, Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn and of course YouTube. When you stop and think about it, it’s crazy!

These, and many other apps, are the tools that help me do my job. They allow me to be effective and efficient. In the next week I’ll add a Virtual Assistant to the mix.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

What will happen in the next 23 years? That’ll take me to 70. Three score and ten. Holy moly!! Just as the 23 year old me couldn’t imagine the world we live in today, I have no idea what the world will be like in 2040.

I’m looking forward to the journey to get there though, and continuing to have fun along the way!

Innovations we take for granted

My mum joined us for dinner on New Year’s Day. As we were having a cheeky aperitif, we were talking about shopping – it’s thrill a minute in the McGill house! My mum’s not so good on her feet these days, so rather than getting the bus into Perth, traipsing around the supermarket, bagging up her groceries, then getting a bus or taxi home, she gets onto her iPad and shops online.

What’s so special about that I hear you say, we all do it? Yes, but think about it for a minute. To do things the ‘old’ way would have taken my mum a few hours and cost her upwards of £10 in taxi fares. Never mind the strain and stress it would have caused her.

Instead, she now shops from the comfort of her home, our home, or wherever she happens to be using her iPad. And what do Tesco charge her for this? £1 and that includes the delivery!

Just think about that for a minute. £1 for them to do her shopping for her AND deliver it to Scone. Wow!

Why do they do that? It’s clearly costing them money. However, if they didn’t do it, someone else would and Tesco would lose the most valuable thing in the whole transaction – the data.

For my mum, and lots of other people like her, this innovation is a god-send. It got me thinking about what other innovations have been similarly liberating for her generation. Mum likes to read, so her Kindle has been a huge benefit (although there are still about a million actual books in her house!). Then there’s Amazon. She can order stuff that she needs and get it the next day.

Amazing! And it gives her more time to spend on Facebook, catching up with friends and relatives around the globe.

What other innovations can you think of that have been equally empowering?


Ordinary to Extraordinary – part 2

In 1990, Joanna and I bought our first home, a little flat in the west end of Dundee. I can still remember the excitement of moving in and having our own place to live. It’s where Rebecca took her first steps in 1993. I cycle past there every now and then, it makes me happy to do that and think back to all the happy times we spent there.

However, the one thing we didn’t have was a garden. And when you haven’t got a garden, then there’s nowhere to put a shed.

We moved to Perth at the end of 1993, our first house with a garden. Which meant we could get a shed. Much excitement. Now, uneducated as I was at the time, I believed that a shed was simply a shed.

Fast forward 20 or so years. By now we’ve moved a few times, lived in different parts of the country, and returned to our roots in Perthshire. Inchture to be precise. On my frequent training rides on the Perthshire roads, I’d often pass by Errol Station, and notice the sign that said Gillies and Mackay.

It didn’t mean anything to me at first, but in October 2015 I joined the Content Marketing Academy and met the force of nature that is Cara Mackay. Cara’s dad, John, started the company 25 years ago with his business partner Grant Gillies. They are two of the finest people you will ever have the good fortune to meet.

Gillies and Mackay make sheds and summer houses. But not just any sheds. No, these are the best sheds and summerhouses in the world! Take a look at their website. These are things of beauty. These are very much not ordinary. These are extraordinary.

Cara’s now taken over as Managing Director and is designing the business for the next 25 years. I’ve spent a good chunk of my career working in the construction industry, but this is not your typical building firm. They do things differently at Gillies and Mackay.

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with John and Grant and we’ve talked about the ethos behind the company. The thing that you notice straight away is the passion and care they have for what they do. They’re incredibly proud of their buildings, and rightly so.

Take a look at the blog, which is Cara’s work and you’ll be amazed. Also pop onto Instagram and take a look at their work. This is a company with personality, with attitude. Sassy and confident.

By now you’ll have realised that there are shed companies and then there are SHED companies. The vision and imagination, care and attention, that has gone into building Gillies and Mackay, matches the craftsmanship that goes into every building they make.

Which just goes to show that if you can think big, and aren’t shackled by doing things the way they’ve always been done, then no matter what business you’re in you can be extraordinary. Gillies and Mackay prove that.


Making the ordinary extraordinary

Yesterday I wrote about the fact that opportunities are all around us if we’re prepared to look for them. Today I want to put a little meat on the bones for you with some examples. I’m going to tell you three stories over the next week of people who’ve done just this – made the ordinary extraordinary.

First up is Pam Laird. Pam runs Fin & Co, a hair salon in Carnoustie. Pam’s mission is to banish bad hair days forever! When I first met Pam, she was very clear with me that she wanted to have the best customer experience, of any salon, in the world. Amazing! I love people that think like that.

Over the past year Pam has worked tirelessly towards her goal. The average experience at a hair salon is just that – average. However at Fin & Co, Pam’s been relentlessly focusing on how she can make it better. That’s involved a refit of the salon, training for the team in customer experience, and trips to industry events around the world to learn from the best.

Pam also surveyed her customers this summer, but not in the way that people normally do – where they ask questions that are really designed for marketing purposes. You know the style. No, Pam asked some great questions designed to get feedback that could make the experience better. Questions like, “what should we stop doing?”, and “how could we improve?”.

Over 120 people took part, which was amazing. And as you’d expect, now that you know Pam, she’s already using their feedback to improve the experience. I have absolutely no doubt that Pam will achieve her goal, and her competitors better watch out. One of the fascinating things that came out of the research was where people travel from to get their haircut. Pam’s got people coming from Aberdeenshire, Fife, Edinburgh and beyond.

Now, walk down the High Street of any UK town or city and you’ll see a plethora of hair salons. It’s an incredibly competitive market. But Pam’s proving that if you set out to be the best – to move from ordinary to extraordinary – then you can achieve great things.

Spending time with Pam is inspiring. She’s got great drive and vision. She’s created a salon where you want to go, just to hang out. The atmosphere is so good, so positive and upbeat. It’s what success feels like.

So, how can you make the ordinary extraordinary?

Opportunities all around us

We live in a time when it seems that everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. It’s sexy to be running a startup, working on the next great App. Putting a dent in the world as Steve Jobs so eloquently put it, when he snared John Scully from Pepsi all those years ago.

However, the majority of those startups will fail. Several research studies have been published on this recently, and all of them point to the same thing as the primary cause of failure – no market need. Close in its heels comes no businesss model. Here’s one of those studies from Forbes magazine.

So, no market need and no business model. Both of which would be thoroughly tested in a design-led approach, although very few people take this approach. But I digress.

Everyone’s trying to create the next BIG THING. The next Facebook. However those are extremely rare, and the reality is that you’re more likely to become one of the 99% that don’t make it. I say this from experience, having tried to build a software business a few years back and failed.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate for entrepreneurship, for taking a risk, and trying to make a difference. However, maybe instead of trying to be the next Facebook, we should take a look around us. There are opportunities everywhere.

In our customer experience workshops, we get people to dissect bad experiences. Most of those are in what we’d call ‘traditional’ industries. Car sales, cafes, building companies, IT support, accountants. Every one of those industries is ripe for disruption. Put the customer at the heart of the business and deliver an outstanding service. Take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

Very few companies are doing this. You can innovate on the business model, and you already know there’s a market need, it’s just that the market is pissed off with the current offerings. 84% of customers now expect to be let down.

There’s the opportunity!

A Fair City?


We left Perth and moved to Aberdeenshire in 2004. It seems like a lifetime ago. Back then, Perth was a prosperous market town and the locals tended to look down on it’s city neighbour along the Tay.

How times have changed.

Many of the locals still look down on Dundee, but living as we do now between the two cities, having moved back in the summer, we see things a bit differently. We’re drawn to Dundee rather than Perth most weekends. For retail and leisure, not to mention culture, Dundee wins hands down. The wonderful DCA, Dundee Rep, the McManus Galleries, the University and DJCAD. I could go on.

We lived in Dundee in the late ’80s, indeed Rebecca was born there. In those days Dundee was still a manufacturing-led city, although that was dying. It had yet to re-invent itself and no-one could have foresaw the computer games & drug discovery industries that would replace manufacturing.

It’s like a different city now . The City of Culture bid is creating a buzz about the place, but you feel that even if the bid isn’t successful the regeneration will go on. The city has embraced it’s creative heart and allowed it to flourish. Initiatives like Creative Dundee, Vanilla Ink and the We Dundee project are incredibly exciting and have me babbling about how great it is to be back.

But – yes there’s a but – my gut tells me I shouldn’t be feeling like this. You see, I grew up in Perth. Well, Scone to be honest, but near enough. My mum & dad met at a dance in the city hall. I went to school there (Perth Academy) and met my wife Joanna at a disco at the Wheel Inn in Scone, September 1986. Back in the days when I played golf I was Perth Boys Champion and represented Perth & Kinross. I used to be a youth coach at St Johnstone Football Club. The city is a huge part of my life, of who I am.

And yet it feels like I’m disowning it. Dundee’s better, so we’ll just go there.

But you don’t change things by dong that. I’m a Perth boy and I love the place. Yes, it’s not the City that it once was, but that’s all history. All that matters now is what lies ahead. Indeed, there are parallels with the journey of re-discovery that Dundee was forced down.

If you look at things differently, Perth actually has a lot going for it. It’s a hub for tourism, and a wonderful golfing county – the Ryder Cup is coming here next year. There’s the magnificent Horsecross Concert Hall, the theatre (which is about to undergo a major redevelopment), the Festival of the Arts. There’s a creative heart in this city too, but we don’t shout about it.

Recently I’ve met with Enterprise North East Trust, who operate the Business Gateway in Tayside & Angus, and do you know what? Perthshire accounts for the lions share of startups each year in Tayside. That surprised me. I also spoke with the local council economic development team and they’re doing some great things to encourage business growth and entrepreneurship including next month’s Business & Enterprise Month.

I’ve started following Perth folk and organisations on twitter. There’s a good core there of people who care and who are doing amazing things in the city they love.

It’s just doesn’t seem at all joined up to me. Plus people spend too much time looking back. Yes, it’s not the city it was a decade or two ago, but so what? We can either look back and get depressed, or we can look forward and imagine what the future might be.

Let’s make it a city to be proud of for the next generation. A City of Opportunity to rival the City of Discovery. I’m up for it, who wants to join me?