Don’t stand so close

Don’t stand so close

People sometimes ask where I get my stories from.

Sometimes I hear them, sometimes I read  a version somewhere, sometimes I go exploring.

For this one  I went exploring but decided to start close to home. Three of my sons are in a band The Blue Highways (check them out  – I’m biased but think they’re not bad ). Jack the lead guitarist plays a Fender so I wondered if the was a story there…There was…



By the beginning of the 1950s the Fender Electric Instrument Company was just starting to make a name for itself. Leo Fender, a self-taught electrical ‘tinkerer’ and the man at the heart of the brand, had made the then bold decision to move from just repairing electric instruments to producing them.

Starting with a range of steel guitars and amps, Fender then introduced the Telecaster and Precision Bass guitars, all with moderate success.

It was in 1951 that Leo decided to focus his attention on creating a new electric guitar model that would succeed the Telecaster and be able to compete with the more upscale competitors already on the market.

His secret weapon turned out to be the fact that he was an outsider. Tom Wheeler, author of The Stratocaster Chronicles says, “Leo Fender wasn’t a serious musician, had little background (or interest) in the traditional crafts or lore of instrument building, and was even less interested in associating with the old-boy network of acquaintances who ran the major guitar companies.”


What this meant was that, while he listened to and indeed acted on users’ feedback, he wasn’t constrained in his thinking or his approach. He was happy to break the conventional rules of the market. It has been said that “he just wanted to build a better guitar”.

The new guitar however wasn’t just an updated Telecaster.

The now iconic body shape was down to a combination suggested by a new employee, Freddy Tavares and guitarist Rex Gallion. Gallion suggested that a solid-body guitar didn’t need squared-off edges since it didn’t have an internal sound chamber. This allowed Leo to start considering using rounded edges to get away from a body that was always digging into the guitarist’s ribs. Encouraged by this thinking it was Tavares who sketched out something that adapted the original balanced two-horned shape for the Precision Bass.

Around the same time, the new model acquired its name courtesy of sales chief Don Randall: the Stratocaster. Randall, who often referred to the “plain Jane” Telecaster, also insisted that the Stratocaster needed to be more elegant. This led to Fender’s first use of a sunburst finish which comprised two paint colours; Dark Salem, a brownish-black was the outer hue which graduated to Canary Yellow, the golden inner hue. This had another advantage, but it wasn’t one that Randall included in his sales pitch. The sunburst finish lessened the effect of mismatched wood grain in the ash bodies, which typically,but not always, consisted of two or more pieces glued together.

While looks and name were important, the sound was always going to be key. So, to better compete with more high-end instruments from other manufacturers,particularly the new Gibson which Les Paul introduced in 1952, Leo decided to give the Stratocaster not one, not two, but three pickups, with switching and controls that would create great tonal versatility.

But perhaps the Stratocaster’s greatest innovation was its bridge. The team wanted the new guitar to have a vibrato system that would offer solid tuning stability without compromising tone, sustain, player comfort and ease of use.

Leo set to work.

After many hours an initial design was created, Leo and some of his advisors thought the sound was good, others weren’t convinced. Leo ploughed on and started tooling up the factory. But when guitarist and adviseor Bill Carson came back from a gig and announced that it “sounded like an amplified banjo with no sustain” the original design was scrapped, and the launch was delayed.

Leo set to work again. It is said that Leo was finally inspired by a gram scale and completed an entirely new design in late 1953. In it the whole bridge assembly moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The strings were loaded in a new and revolutionary way and the tension of springs on the back of the guitar and the strings on the top held the whole system “floating” in balance and enabled shimmering vibrato, uncompromised tone and, crucially, stable intonation.

Fender claimed the design enabled a pitch span of up to three half steps but guitar players would in the next few years find ways of creating sounds never envisioned at Fender headquarters.

Further design refinements were made throughout late 1953 and early 1954 and finally, the Stratocaster was introduced in spring 1954. The vibrato model was priced at $249.50 and the non-vibrato model at $229.50. (They can cost you up to $95,000 now!)

Given the timing of the launch, coinciding as it did with the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, you might think the Stratocaster would have been an overnight sensation.

It wasn’t.

In fact, it got off to a rather slow start. Even three years after its introduction, it was still not particularly well known or well regarded.

One reason was that during the early years of rock’n’roll, its main lead instruments were saxophone and piano rather than guitar. Early rock ‘n’ roll musicians who did sling guitars most often played flat-top acoustics or big, hollow electrics by Gibson and Gretsch.

Leo and his team continued to have faith in their guitar and further improvements were made.


buddy 2

The fortunes of the Stratocaster and indeed the whole Fender brand changed on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1957 when a Texas rock ‘n’ roll trio called the Crickets appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. They sang two songs, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” both penned by the group’s Stratocaster-wielding leader, a bespectacled 21-year-old singer/guitarist named Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly.

Sales increased, and the brand was soon leaping up the charts.
And the moral of this story is that sometimes it is better to bring a fresh perspective to an established industry.

Footnote: A post-World War II import trade ban on U.S. goods made getting a Fender instrument next to impossible for youthful British guitarists in the late 1950s. One of those disappointed guitarists was Brian Rankin. Like others he had seen Buddy Holly holding a Stratocaster on the cover of 1957 album “The Chirping Crickets” and desperately wanted one. Somehow his band leader managed to acquire him an early 1959 Fiesta Red Stratocaster with gold hardware and get it to London. Brian, or to give him his stage name, Hank Marvin, was extremely grateful to band leader, Cliff Richard. Together they became huge stars and Marvin became Britain’s first full-fledged guitar hero.


How good is your Korean?

How good is your Korean?

So your challenge is to translate the title of the new edition of my book.

The Korean publishing house decided they weren’t going to use the UK title – How Coca Cola took over the world – and picked a different story

and on many of the sites I looked at – I have clearly become Giles Ruri

Korean book

Sofar so good

Sofar so good

sofar 1

Do you like good music?

Do you like live music?

But how often has your enjoyment of that music, that event been spoiled by someone or something around you?

  • Being so far away that you feel you might just as well watch it on TV
  • People talking through the performance
  • Your view being blocked by someone tall or just wearing a hat
  • Being distracted by the glare as the smartphone next to you lights up for the umpteenth time
  • The hands not waving but drowning out your line of sight as they hold up those same phones to record the band

In March 2009, Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and Dave J. Alexander went to a Friendly Fires concert but instead of enjoying the gig, they became more and more annoyed by people talking over the music, other gazing into their Smartphones and the background beat provided by the clanging of beer bottles.

They thought there must be a better way

Rafe in particular decided something should be done and later that year he invited some friends over to a London flat for a low-key, intimate gig.

Eight people gathered in the living room to listen to live music performed by friend, fellow concert go-er and musician Dave Alexander. They shared a drink, and sat on the floor and quietly, respectively, attentively and appreciatively listening to the music.

The event was christened SOFAR, an acronym of So-unds f-rom a r-oom

sofar 3

It is said that the room was so quiet, you could hear the clock ticking in the background during the pauses in the songs.

The evening was a great success and there were more people at the second gig as word had spread.

It wasn’t long till Sofar expanded to Paris, New York and Los Angeles.

By early 2017, they were putting on about 500 gigs per month in more than 300 cities worldwide. Each of those gigs is small, and typically features three diverse acts, with no headliner.

sofar 2

UK and Irish acts who have performed at Sofar shows include James Bay, Hozier, Emeli Sandé, Will Young, Tom Odell and Wolf Alice. Some US performers who have appeared include Giselle Bellas and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ front woman Karen O

Sofar is now a truly global community in 434 cities, and it claims its mission is to transform everyday spaces – like living rooms or shops – into “a captivating venue for secret, live shows, creating an immersive experience that brings guests and artists closer together”.

The Everyday Innovator

The Everyday Innovator

“Inspiring Innovation” a short podcast I did with Chad McAllister of The Everyday Innovator podcast, telling a few tales from my latest book and discussing the origins of brands and the idea behind them -enjoy



The bear necessities of becoming a brand

The bear necessities of becoming a brand

maxine clark bear

Maxine Clark has always liked shopping, and in an interview with Fortune recalls “One of my favorite things as a child was to go shopping with my mom and looking was as good as buying. I always had a curiosity about how people shopped.”

So, perhaps it was no surprise that when she graduated from college she went to work in the retail industry. More of a surprise is that having reached the upper levels of the industry, becoming President of ShoeSource, she found herself dissatisfied. “When I got to the top, my financial rewards were very high, but my psychic income bank account was nearly empty. I felt the retail world had lost its spark. I wanted to be more creative again, so in 1996, I left the company.”

Maxine however kept on shopping and was just as curious as she had been as a child.

“One day, I was shopping with Katie Burkhardt, the daughter of one of my good friends, and her brother Jack, who collected Ty Beanie Babies. When we couldn’t find anything new, Katie picked up a Beanie Baby and said we could make one. She meant we could go home and make the small bears, but I heard something different. Her words gave me the idea to create a company that would allow people to create their own customized stuffed animals. I did some research and began putting together a plan.”

The plan was for an interactive retail destination where kids could make personalised “furry friends.”

With her experience as a buyer, she knew how things were made and how she could source the components. She knew about siting and how to run a retail operation.

However, when she started to talk to her potential audience, friends who were mothers and fathers, it seemed like there might be a problem. Those first parents she spoke to kept saying things like ‘Why would anyone want to make your own stuffed animal when you can buy it at Target’

buildabear workshop

Luckily, or perhaps just sensibly she also spoke to the kids of those friends and their response was the polar opposite. They were excited by the idea of getting the chance to do-it-for-themselves. It was at this point that Maxine decided that she needed a Cub Advisory Board, a group of children who offer their opinions about the products and services. As Maxine says, “Kids have insights and offer inspiration by looking at the world differently.”

Convinced she was really onto something, in 1997, Maxine withdrew $750,000 from her retirement account to get the now named “Build-a-Bear Workshop” going. The money would cover startup costs and the building of the first prototype store. She also secured a bank line of credit for inventory and working capital, with her house as collateral.

Even that wasn’t enough as Maxine knew from the start that she wanted more. “I knew I wanted to build a multimillion-dollar business with hundreds of units, and I realized I didn’t have the ready cash to fund that growth. I knew I’d have to partner with outside investors.”

Maxine went looking for PR opportunities and when coming soon signs prompted a St. Louis Business Journal to run a story about the first store and its unique hands-on approach, it was seen by Barney Ebsworth, who owned a private investment firm. Ebsworth and his business partner, Wayne Smith, believed in the idea and bought in for 20% for $4.5 million providing sufficient capital for several years.

The first store opened in the St. Louis Galleria on a Sunday, and always a good sign, there were lines out the door.

Despite early resistance from some mall landlords, who didn’t at first get the concept, its success soon had them begging Maxine and her team to come on in. Other investors noticed the success too and more funds came in. “We had to turn investors away after that because the business was so successful, we didn’t need their money” says Maxine.

The original offer was just bears and clothes, but the range soon expanded to include shoes and accessories, and then more animals. They moved into licensing products, carrying costumes from Disney and Major League Baseball teams.

Looking back Maxine recognizes how they both played off and with the growth of technology. She felt that “At a time when everything was going high tech, high touch and hands-on was a good balance.”

However, Build-a Bear also harness technology to good effect. “We started when the Internet was just getting popular, so we were able to track people in our loyalty program from day one, and continually do customer research. We’re constantly creating new products, so there’s no niche that needs to be filled. Everything is focused on the customers and giving them a good experience.”

Build-a-bear also wanted to give something back, long before the notion of brand purpose became popular, as Maxine explains, “We want to engage kids beyond selling them something in our store. Every year we look for 10 children around the country who are doing things to help their communities, and we name them our Huggable Heroes.”


In 2004 they opened their first overseas store in Japan and are now in 19 countries.

In June 2013, Maxine stepped down from her Chief Executive Bear role to apply her entrepreneurial skills to her passion for improving K-12 public education and to invest in and mentor women and minority entrepreneurs.

Footnote: if you want to know more about Maxine and her story, she published her first book “The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart” in 2006.

One night in Paris…

One night in Paris…

rainy night in paris 2

As 10cc famously sang “One night in Paris will wipe the smile off your pretty face” and it will, especially when you are standing there on a winter’s evening in the rain trying to hail a cab.

And it’s on just such a winter’s night in 2008 that our tale begins. Two old friends, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, had been attending the LeWeb, an annual tech conference. Both had reasons to be cheerful as in the previous year they had both men had sold their start-ups for sizeable sums of money. Kalanick had sold Red Swoosh to Akamai Technologies for $19 million while Camp sold StumbleUpon to eBay for $75 million.


Getting over their frustration and the cold, they briefly discussed the germ of an idea, a timeshare limo service that could be ordered via an app. However, nothing happened immediately, and they went their separate ways.

Camp, now back in San Francisco, was still working as CEO of StumbleUpon but he continued to mull the idea over. Increasingly he thought there might be something in it and started to work on it as a side project. He bought the domain name

In 2009, he contacted and persuaded Kalanick to join as UberCab’s ‘Chief Incubator’. The service was tested in New York in early 2010 using only three cars. The official launch took place in San Francisco in May.

The service started to catch on. The ease and simplicity of ordering and paying for the ride made it really attractive.

This led to the company receiving its first major funding, of $1.25 million in October 2010 – a round led by First Round Capital. It would be followed by other larger funding rounds – a $11 million Series A round of funding led by Benchmark Capital and in December, back at the 2011 LeWeb Conference, Kalanick announced that Uber raised $37 million in Series B funding from Menlo Ventures, Jeff Bezos, and Goldman Sachs.


The funds helped the brand expand to New York, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C. as well as its first foray abroad into Paris, of course.

In 2012, the company broadened its offering by launching UberX, which provided a less expensive hybrid car as an alternative to black car service

Its growth hasn’t always been a smooth ride though. In 2014, traditional taxi drivers staged large scale protests in London, Berlin, Paris, and Madrid. Taxi companies claimed that since Uber avoided their expensive license fees and bypasses local laws it created unfair competition. There have been legal challenges in many European as to whether Uber is a transportation company or a company offering what they call ‘information-society services’.


There has been a long running case in the UK where there have been challenges to Uber’s position that its drivers are self-employed rather than employees. In October 2017 Uber lost its license to operate in London where the company has 40,000 registered drivers. Transport for London (TfL) said Uber was unfit to hold a license; Uber felt that the Mayor had caved in to a minority who wanted to restrict consumer choice. On June 26, 2018, a London judge overturned the ban, effectively allowing Uber to operate under a 15-month license, albeit with certain conditions.

Despite these bumps in the road Uber continues to grow and expand.

According to their website they “ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.
Good things happen when people can move, whether across town or towards their dreams. Opportunities appear, open up, become reality. What started as a way to tap a button to get a ride has led to billions of moments of human connection as people around the world go all kinds of places in all kinds of ways with the help of our technology.”

My favourite story – Tom Speed

My favourite story – Tom Speed

As I’ve said before “Stories are meant to be told …and re-told” so from the recent launch of my new book ‘Inspiring Innovation’, here is another story re-told by a fellow Value Engineer.

Here Tom Speed tells his favourite story about a brand I know he personally loves…

Thanks to Tom Speed and the other Tom, Tom Langridge, the man with the video skills

The Supermodel with socks appeal

The Supermodel with socks appeal


Kathy Ireland was one of the elite group of 1980s supermodels; a group that included Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford. She may not have been quite as famous internationally as Chrissie and Cindy, but her career post-modelling suggests she was by far the most business-savvy.

She was scouted by Elite Model Management when she was 16 and became best known for appearing in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. During Sports Illustrated swimsuit’s 50th Anniversary event, Ireland’s 1989 cover was awarded “The greatest Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover of all time” by its publisher.

In 1993, now 30 and pregnant with her first child she was approached by John Moretz, a marketer and asked if she wanted to model some socks.

For some models this might seem a little bit beneath them or a sign that their best years are behind them. Kathy saw things differently, a natural entrepreneur, she made a counterproposal – a partnership to produce and sell her own brand of socks.

“I wanted to make it clear to them that I didn’t want to just put my name on it,” says Ireland. “An endorsement wasn’t interesting to me.”

Looking back, she recognised that “It would have been easier to do a swimsuit line, but if I could put my name on socks and be successful, then I must really have something.”

Equally open to new ideas, Moretz too could see the potential; “She’s the girl next door who happens to be beautiful, that forms an emotional bond with the consumer.” So, he bought the rights to use her name on a line of socks and agreed to pay for manufacturing and distributing the socks that Ireland would design and promote.

In return Ireland would get a royalty on every pair sold.

She took out a $50,000 personal loan to launch Kathy Ireland Worldwide.

Moretz got her athletic socks into a number of sporting goods stores like Big 5. They did well enough for him to buy the rights to license exercise clothes, bodysuits and eventually swimwear.

Moretz became the master licensor for Kathy Ireland, sublicensing her name to companies that made things besides socks and collecting 30% of that revenue stream to Ireland’s 70%. His biggest coup of those early days was in helping her get an exclusive deal in 1994 with Kmart.

In 1998, thanks in part to some advice from her famous mentor, Warren Buffett, who appreciated their shared childhood experience as newspaper deliverers, when she decided to expand into furniture.

He told her that fashion changes, but the home remains far more secure. And that in apparel every celebrity already had a line or was pitching one. There was a market gap in home furnishings and Kathy Ireland range was a huge success.


kathy ireland Worldwide (or kiWW, for short) has now grown to become one of the world’s most valuable global licensors covering Home, Fashion Apparel, Wedding, Fine Jewelry, Baby, Children’s Toys and books, Publishing, Pet Care, Crafts and Gifts. It is consistently ranked among the top 50 licensors, In 2015 it was No. 31 on License Global’s “Top 150 Global Licensors” 2015 list with $2 billion in retail sales.

The brand’s appeal may have been launched on her fame, but it is now built on providing products that are at once aspirational and relatable. Kathy Ireland Worldwide has thrived by imbuing the most unglamorous products with glitz – desks, end tables, beds, headboards, rugs, carpets, ottomans, bookcases and windows.

She also has a real affinity for her core target audience, perhaps her most famous quote is about the trials and tribulations facing busy moms – . “Recognizing that for a busy mom, getting in the car when you’ve got car seats and temper tantrums, making it out the driveway is a victory. Making it into the store, that’s heroic.”

The company’s motto is “Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms,” and Kathy has found lots of those solutions.

Interestingly her commitment to her core audience is also reflected in the fact that she avoids store openings and may public appearances, despite her drawing power. “We’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work,” she says. “What happens is the store gets cluttered with guys who are there with 500-year-old copies of Sports Illustrated. How does that help a busy mom? These people are just in her way.”

Moral: Sometimes the most obvious thing, isn’t the right thing

Post scripts

Kathy Ireland is known to have an eye for an opportunity – She inherited pal Elizabeth Taylor’s dogs, Gracie and Delilah, and designed a pet collection inspired by the Maltese canines.

She is approachable but has an inner strength – As a teenager, Ireland reported that a photographer once “crossed the line” with her and wanted her to pose topless. She did not feel comfortable and he did not respect her “no.” He reportedly pushed her and got physical and she “decked him.”

My favourite story – David Holland

My favourite story – David Holland

“Stories are meant to be told …and re-told” is something I have long held dear, so at the recent launch of my new book ‘inspiring Innovation’, I asked some of my fellow Value Engineers to retell their favourite story from the book.

Here David Holland tells his – a story set in Italy…


Thanks to David and Tom Langridge, the man with the video skills