Business

Andrew Hill

Self-manager: Zappos' Tony Hsieh  © Zappos

When I first wrote last year about Zappos’ efforts to introduce a self-managing system called Holacracy, I said that for most companies to adopt such an approach would take “time, a leap of faith and an act of unusual self-effacement by their leaders”.

An extraordinary memo from Tony Hsieh, chief executive of the Amazon-owned online shoe retailer, has underlined just how difficult it is. In the memo, published by Quartz this week, Mr Hsieh says that in the face of potential resistance, the company is now going to take a “rip the bandaid” approach to accelerate its progress towards self-management.

Quartz reports that some of the things I predicted would be stumbling blocks — confusion about the absence of titles, defection of staff — have already affected the transition. Mr Hsieh is not giving up; indeed he’s offering severance packages to staff who are not comfortable with the new approach. The fact that a chief executive has to order a change to a system with no chief executive is only one of the apparent contradictions here.

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Andrew Hill

It’s reasonably well-known that WPP stands for Wire & Plastic Products, the wire basket manufacturer that Sir Martin Sorrell chose 30 years ago as a vehicle for his plan to build a global advertising and marketing business. Wire & Plastic Products, operating from an industrial estate in Hythe, Kent, is still part of the group.

Wire & Plastic Products’ pre-history is a little more obscure. In researching my recent FT Magazine profile of WPP’s chief executive, I dug out the FT advertisement for the flotation of the original company in April 1971. Read more

The San Francisco trial pitting Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most venerable venture capital firms, against Ellen Pao, a former junior partner who claims that she faced sexual harassment and discrimination, has forced an institution that prefers to remain private into the public gaze. Among other things, it has raised questions about how well John Doerr, its de facto leader, knows his own firm.

After Etsy revealed its plans to go public on March 4, discussion forums for sellers using the online craft marketplace ignited with a mixture of those two great stock market emotions: fear and greed.

On the 50th anniversary of Berkshire Hathaway, the investment fund-cum-industrial conglomerate that now employs 341,000 people and is the fourth most valuable company in the US, the question is: is Warren Buffett inimitable? Or could the Sage of Omaha be cloned?

Stuart Gulliver’s crisp explanation this week of why he once held his annual bonuses in a Swiss private bank account via a Panamanian company was plausible yet somehow more puzzling than if he had been evading tax.

Adam Jones

  © Henrik Sorensen/Getty

Remember those days when long-haul flights were sometimes only a half, or even a third full? The joy of sprawling out across four seats in economy for the original “flat bed” experience?

Airlines’ use of technology to manage their flights more efficiently has largely killed that 20th-century pleasure. I’ve struggled to count more than a handful of empty seats on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent years.

Now “big data” seems to be on the cusp of streamlining many other workplaces in a similar fashion — with consequences for workers that go far beyond a mere bad night’s sleep.

The latest edition of Harper’s magazine picks up on the growth of labour scheduling software in business, which, by matching shifts to demand more accurately, is helping to make sure businesses are not overstaffed. If only it stopped there. Read more

Emma Jacobs

Vivek Wadhwa

Can a man speak for women’s experiences? It is a perennial issue, leading to charges in the Twittersphere of “mansplaining”, explaining things to women that they have more expertise on themselves.

The controversy re-emerged this week, centred on Vivek Wadhwa, a lecturer at Stanford University. A blogpost by Amelia Greenhall, a tech blogger, forcefully described her anger at Mr Wadhwa having become the go-to guy for opinions on women in the tech industry.

“Many tech feminists (such as myself) like to mock Vivek Wadhwa as “The Guy Who Gets Paid to Talk About Women in Tech,” but what he does is a serious problem that hurts women in tech in tangible ways. By appointing himself the unwanted spokesman for women in tech he has kept actual, qualified women’s voices from being heard widely in the mainstream media.” Read more

Money laundering is when someone channels the cash from robbery, fraud or expropriation into a Swiss bank account, or an expensive apartment in Manhattan, to make it look clean. So what is the term for sullying profits from legal enterprise with tax evasion and shenanigans? Money staining, perhaps.

Emma Jacobs

Project managed home life

The lean and flexible management model deployed by software developers is being adopted by companies in sectors beyond technology. A new book by Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of the Scrum project management process, encourages teams to work together by setting clear goals. The book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, claims that meeting regularly and having visual workflows can reduce workloads, raise productivity and speed up development.

A recent interview on the Harvard Business Review blog discovered that executive coach Frank Saucier applies such management methods to family life.
At home, as well as the office, he uses a board to display tasks that need to be done, are being done and done. So, “go bowling” gets added to a list, much like tasks in beta testing would.

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Andrew Hill

“Even if the truth is more complex than the headlines, re-establishing confidence in and respect for the banks will be a journey up a steep mountain.”

Stephen Green – now Lord Green – has not commented on the leak of files exposing tax-avoidance practices at HSBC’s Swiss-based private bank. But in 2009, the then chairman of HSBC put his whole philosophy of ethical business on the record in his book Good Value, sub-titled “Reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world”. The newly topical quotation above is an extract. Read more

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison: entrepreneur, plain and simple © Getty Images

Thought leaders were bad enough. Changemakers were hard to cope with. Do we still have to put up with serial entrepreneurs?

The phrase has become alarmingly common — more than 15,000 people on LinkedIn have decided that “serial entrepreneur” best describes their career path.

Admittedly, there is a certain genius in co-opting a word whose better known application to careers has been as a preface to “killer”. And these days being an entrepreneur is more fashionable than shaving off your beard while binge-watching Netflix.

But that does not excuse the phrase serial entrepreneur. Read more

Andrew Hill

Uber – arming up (Getty)

I did a double-take at Uber’s decision to fund driverless car research in partnership with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Not because I think it is a strange departure for a company whose relationship with drivers is key to its success (though if I were a young Uber driver, I wouldn’t count on the job for retirement income). It was the juxtaposition of the names Uber and Carnegie that stood out. Read more

While I flew to Barcelona last week to speak at a conference, my iPad was at breakfast at a restaurant in Cambridge. That, at least, is what I deduced from the device’s location, transmitted to me after I activated the Find My iPhone app on my mobile phone.

Emma Jacobs

LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman assesses levels of 'alpha-ness'. © Bloomberg

Everyone knows what an alpha personality is. Typically but not always a man, they dominate a group or workplace and are at the top of the pecking order, or ambitious to be so; they are assertive, often with a whiff of aggression. Read more

Nicolas Brusson, the founder of BlaBlaCar, the French ride-sharing start-up that in June raised $100m to expand across Europe, got the biggest laugh of the week at the DLD technology conference in Munich. Asked about operating in a “single market” with 28 sets of laws and regulations, he replied: “When you start from France, everything looks simple.”

Emma Jacobs

Wobbling among the Elsa princess outfits and the dinosaur models at the Toy Fair in London’s Olympia exhibition centre this week was a four-foot, buildable robot, the $399 Meccanoid G15 KS.

With its big saucer-shaped eyes and moveable limbs, the toy has revived interest in its maker: Meccano, which was created by the British toy maker, Frank Hornby, a century ago.

Spin Master, the Canadian company that bought Meccano in 2013, hopes it will be essential kit for parents hoping to get their child interested in building and engineering.

It is very much in the spirit of the “maker movement” — an enthusiasm for manufacturing and making things, helped in part by the rise of 3D printing. Read more

John Gapper

  © Charlie Bibby

It was a kinder, gentler and more strategic Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, who took to the stage at the DLD technology conference in Munich on Sunday to offer the mayors of European cities a “new partnership” with the ride-hailing network, rather than a bitter legal and regulatory battle. Read more

There comes a time in most people’s lives, usually very late in the lives of self-made billionaires, when they settle their affairs and divide up their assets to put everything in order for the family. It has the added benefit for business moguls of pleasing the shareholders.

William Agush, founder of Shuttersong (Bryce Vickmark)

In the popular imagination, technology entrepreneurs are scientific whizzkids barely out of college. The reality is a little different, according to research from Endeavor Insight, a US-based non-profit organisation that supports entrepreneurs.

The most successful founders of technology companies, it found, were steady mid-career specialists with a significant amount of industry experience.

Using data from social media sites including LinkedIn and interviews with 700 technology business founders in New York, Endeavor found that the average age a founder started their company was 31. More than a quarter were over 35 when their company was established.

Youth, it discovered, had no bearing on success. Using earlier research by the Harvard Business Review, Endeavor compared technology entrepreneurs’ ages and obvious measures of success – such as company headcount – and found age was irrelevant. Read more