According to local news outlets quoting Indofood – the company which owns the noodle brand – Nuraini passed away on Wednesday afternoon.
The reason behind her death was not clear, though a spokesman said she had “returned peacefully to Allah”.
A Southeast Asian icon
Yvette Tan, BBC News Singapore
Mi goreng – two words that everyone in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia is well acquainted with.
Literally translated, it means fried noodles which is a common dish across the region – but Indomie’s iteration of it is widely loved.
At $2 a packet in Singapore, it’s cheap, convenient, and most importantly – delicious as sin. The recipe is perfectly simple – bouncy noodles, a dark sweet soy sauce, flavoured oil and fried shallots. But it works – and how.
It’s fair to say Indomie has a special place in all our hearts – it’s what your mum would make for you if she was particularly busy, or what you’d turn to for that very late night supper.
So great is the love for it that it’s even inspired an Indomie cake, a scented candle – and even a rap song dedicated to it that got more than a million views on YouTube.
What can we say? It really is just that great.
A Kompas news report said she had worked on various other Indomie flavours, including green chilli and salted egg.
According to Indomie, it launched its first ever instant noodle, the Indomie Chicken flavour, in 1971. In 1982, it launched its “mi goreng” flavour – its first dry noodle variant inspired by the Indonesian fried noodle dish.
How did a four-year degree become compulsory for nearly every job – and could the need to reboot the economy help tackle this problem?
Eleven years ago, Allie Cornett realized she wasn’t ready for college, and had lost interest in the geology degree she was pursuing at a university in Hawaii. She left school, and went to work in the hospitality industry as a tour guide. For the next decade, she found herself repeatedly running into the same wall.
“I have been told multiple times that I have a great resumé, and lots of experience, but no degree… so no potential for upward movement,” says Cornett, 33. At the last company she worked for, she applied for open managerial positions constantly over five years, “only to not get them because someone with less experience, but who had a degree, did”.
Cornett is a victim of a phenomenon called ‘degree inflation’: the rising demand for bachelor’s degrees in jobs that didn’t always require one, and probably don’t actually require one now.
It’s a widespread problem, says Manjari Raman, director of Harvard Business School’s project on Managing the Future of Work. According to a 2017 paper Raman co-authored, “the degree gap – the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees who are currently in that job who have a college degree – is significant. For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.”
In other words, the people currently doing the work don’t have degrees, but as they retire or leave their positions, their replacements will be expected to. This creates a system where companies struggle to fill jobs and incur unnecessary costs, all the while leaving experienced, willing workers out in the cold. Degree inflation has been a major problem in the labour market for decades, but the issue is even more pressing as we face a post-pandemic economy in need of a serious – and swift – reboot.
“I have been told multiple times that I have a great resumé, and lots of experience, but no degree… so no potential for upward movement” – Allie Cornett (Credit: Zachary Gorski)
Same jobs, new competencies
Degree inflation is most evident in what Raman calls “middle-skills jobs” – those requiring more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. Many listings for such positions now ask for a four-year degree, which only a third of American adults have. Globally, it’s even more stark. Less than 7% of the world’s population holds a Bachelor’s degree.
Experts who study the phenomenon say it’s due, at least in part, to the widening role of technology. “The seeds for degree inflation were planted as the nature of jobs was changing,” says Raman. “More and more automation created jobs that are called the same thing but require different competencies.”
She gives the example of a lineman working for a utility company. “Two decades ago, you were talking about somebody shimmying up a pole. You needed to be physically strong and able to work in all weather conditions, and that’s what made you successful,” she says. “Now, that job is very different. You’re in a pneumatic machine. You use a smart device to connect with the central headquarters to figure out the problem. You’re still using your hands, but also a lot of data inputs coming at you through technology.”
The people currently doing the work don’t have degrees, but as they retire or leave their positions, their replacements will be expected to
A version of this shift is present in just about any other industry you can name. “As more automation came in, there was more demand on these workers to display social skills. What you now needed was someone who could talk to a customer, who could articulate the problem and problem-solve,” says Raman. But rather than look for candidates with those specific qualifications, “many companies took the easy route of using the four-year college degree as a proxy: ‘I know if they have a degree, they’ll be able to use an iPad. They’ll be able to use Excel’.”
Those positions then become difficult to fill, because even middle-skill workers with experience are excluded by automated application tools that cut out those without degrees. “Many middle-skills jobs synonymous with middle-class lifestyles and upward mobility – such as supervisors, support specialists, sales representatives, inspectors and testers, clerks and secretaries and administrative assistants – are now considered hard-to-fill jobs because employers prefer candidates who are college graduates,” according to the Harvard Business School paper.
This focus on degrees creates exclusionary conditions, the “worst-case scenario” of which, says Ray Bachan, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton’s Business School, “is a lack of intergenerational mobility. It all has social connotations”. Less affluent parents are less likely to have children who go to college, he explains. And when those children struggle to find jobs, the result is a generation failing to be more successful than the one before it.
Crucially, degree inflation has a significant impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme. In the United States, black and Latino students are conferred just 11% and 14% of annual Bachelor’s degrees, respectively.
Many employers now require four-year degrees for jobs that didn’t previously need them, in part because of the increased role of technology across all industries (Credit: Alamy)
And all these socially detrimental practices don’t even result in a better-performing workforce. When people who do have degrees end up in middle-skill jobs that don’t actually require the specialisations they studied, they tend to be under-productive and quick to become “disenchanted”, says Raman. “There’s high turnover, because they were not happy doing what a middle-skill worker could and should be doing.”
Turnover adds to companies’ costs. Add to that the fact that employers pay college graduates as much as 30% more, and it’s clear a system of degree inflation benefits neither worker nor employer.
In fact, the only ones who do seem to benefit from degree inflation are the world’s academic institutions, which saw enrolment more than double between 2000 and 2014. In the UK, where degrees are ranked based on academic performance, there’s another dimension to inflation. Not only have universities there increased the overall number of diplomas by five times since 1990, but the students leaving school with first-class honours (the highest-rated degree) skyrocketed from 7% in 1997 to 30% in 2019.
Degree inflation has a significant impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme
“It could be due to better teaching methods, better facilities, more comprehensive libraries, the internet,” says Bachan. But more likely, changes to grading algorithms mean “it’s easier to get a higher degree than it was in the past”. That leaves workers who don’t have any degree at an even greater disadvantage in a workforce crowded with applicants with top-scoring degrees.
But this, too, is ultimately bad for both employers and their prospective employees. Academic credentials are meant to be a signal to employers of how good applicants are. Degree inflation, says Bachan, makes those signals unreliable. “There are so many people now with good degrees, it’ll be difficult for employers to select the people who actually do have the highest level of skills.”
‘Stop doing that’
There’s no reason to expect the number of people getting degrees to drop significantly; while enrolment at US institutions did fall by 2.5% overall in 2020, there’s evidence of an increase in people – many of them older than the average college student – returning to degree programmes over the course of the year. In the UK, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service recorded a significant jump in the number of applicants 35 and older this past summer.
Allie Cornett is among these returnees; when the California vacation destination where she was working shut down due to coronavirus, she moved to Oregon and was accepted to a Bachelor’s degree programme in outdoor adventure leadership at Southern Oregon University. The pandemic, she says, “gave me a chance to really focus on what I wanted from school and out of my future career”.
Degree inflation has a significant negative impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme, including black and Latino students (Credit: Alamy)
Yet she could graduate into a different recruitment environment because, while degree inflation is a problem decades in the making, the pandemic may have opened the door to big changes. “In general,” says Raman, “we find Covid is like an X-ray machine. It starkly exposes the issues in the economy.” To survive in a post-pandemic economy, companies may find doing away with degree inflation gives them an influx of talent and saves them money. It’s a direction major companies were moving before 2020, but now, Raman says she expects to see degree inflation reversed even quicker.
“It’s almost a no-brainer once you point it out,” adds Raman. “The first thing CEOs do is call their HR person and say, ‘Are our job postings slapping on a four-year college degree? And if they are, stop doing that.’ There are very strong financial reasons for right sizing. It’s not just salary – you reduce the cost of turnover, increase productivity, increase retention. These are important for companies, and they understand this. They’re seeing that by following degree inflation they’re only hurting themselves.”
Raman notes that mammoth corporations, including Amazon and Walmart, recognised the issue long before the pandemic. Amazon launched a $700m (£512m) programme in 2019 to provide education and training to its existing degree-less workers, with the idea that it’s more cost effective to train incumbent workers for management positions. (Walmart started a similar programme in 2017). Raman says those companies, and others, have also begun removing arbitrary degree requirements from middle-skill jobs. The policies adopted by major corporations tend to trickle down to medium and small ones. Preliminary data, she says, suggests that’s already starting to happen.
“Compared to 2015, in 2021 there’s far greater acknowledgement and understanding that packing more BAs into your company is not positive,” she says. “Pre-Covid, we knew degree inflation was something that’s not good for companies and not good for workers. Post-Covid, we have to remember that and rebuild the economy in such a way that it doesn’t just work for people who have a four-year college degree, but also for the many hundreds of thousands of people who don’t, but who have experience, qualifications and are eager to work.”
It seems like the salaries of big-time CEOs just keep getting bigger. But why do they make so much, and has it always been this way?
At around 1730 on Wednesday 6 January, about 34 office working hours into 2021, bosses of top British companies had earned the same amount that an average worker in the UK earns in an entire year.
According to research from the High Pay Centre, an independent think tank based in London, FTSE 100 chief executives earn a median of £3.6m ($4.9m) a year – more than 100 times the £31,461 earned by full-time employees. At the top of the pile of those CEOs is Tim Steiner, chief executive of the online supermarket Ocado, who was paid £58.7m in 2019. That’s 2,605 times the company’s staff on average. In one day, he earned seven times their annual salary.
Across the Atlantic, the picture is even more extreme. Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank, showed chief executives of the 350 largest US companies earned an average $21.3m (£16.9m) in 2019. This puts the CEO-to-worker pay ratio at 320 to 1 – more than five times the level in 1989.
These findings come as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened inequality across the world, exposing low-income populations to greater health risks, job losses and declines in wellbeing. These divides have come into sharper focus than ever as awareness grows of the value of ‘essential’ workers – who often have few employment rights and little pay.
The result is mounting confusion and anger over the extraordinarily high salaries that top bosses continue to earn. With these deep-set inequalities laid bare, the question for many is how these huge pay packets ever came about. By whom and how they are given the green light and, crucially, should they continue to have a place in post-pandemic society?
Some people see high pay appropriate for visionaries like Elon Musk, but these pay packets are more perplexing for average CEOs, who aren’t exceptional talents (Credit: Alamy)
The roots of ‘price-driven salaries’
The executive pay gap has its roots in the policies put forth in the 1980s by the Reagan administration in the US and the Thatcher government in the UK. Their political philosophies drove deregulation, privatisation of the public sector and free-market capitalism. Both also took a dim view on labour unions, which ultimately played a role in these organisations’ reduced capacity to advocate for workers.
“If you go back to the early part of that period, it was very common for executives’ jobs to be part of a company’s overall job-evaluation system. There was one system to evaluate everybody’s pay,” says Sandy Pepper, an expert in executive pay at the London School of Economics. This month, Pepper published a paper exploring why the pay gaps have opened up between CEOs and the wider workforce.
But he says the previous system “broke down” when executive pay became connected with share prices, and “asset-based rewards” took off under the prevailing neoliberalism. Pepper’s analysis of FTSE 100 data since 2000 showed that all-employee pay has increased about 3% a year on average, but CEO pay increased about 10% per year.
Pepper says the underlying logic was to pay the CEO according to a company’s financial performance, since they were the most important factor of success. So, on top of basic salaries, CEOs were given performance-related bonuses and stock options allowing them to buy company shares for a set price. Ocado CEO Steiner’s 2019 pay packet included a bonus of £54m for realising a five-year “growth incentive plan”, which measured the company’s share-price growth relative to the FTSE 100. (Ocado declined request for comment.)
Companies rely on compensation committees, mostly made up of board members and executives from other companies that meet once a year
At the same time, the proportion of UK businesses owned by individuals dropped precipitously. Shareholders grew in power, and their demand for booming stock prices led to booming pay packets for CEOs – in turn signed off by boards of directors eager to please their investors.
Robin Ferracone, CEO of Farient Advisors, an international executive-pay consultancy, agrees with these “price-driven” salaries. “If you have a good CEO, the multiplier effect can be huge,” she says. “So, in principle, median pay for median performance and high pay for high performance makes sense.”
Walking on eggshells
However, in reality, the system of calculating CEO remuneration is more complicated. Companies rely on compensation committees, mostly made up of board members and executives from other companies that meet once a year.
Besides the more traditional measures of past experience and performance, committees use benchmarking as a key part of the process – working out how the CEO’s compensation will compare to those at similar companies, according to Steven Clifford, a former CEO and author of The CEO Pay Machine. Often the sum will be in the 50th, 75th or 90th percentile, therefore constantly maintaining or increasing pay, he writes.
Bonuses are then agreed as a way to measure performance, either increasing based on financial measures or provided in sum if specific goals are met.
As shareholders have grown in power, their demand for high share prices has nudged up CEO pay (Credit: Alamy)
Both the process for base pay and for bonuses are seen by workers’ representatives as problematic because boards, not wanting to upset the leader of their company who could leave or fire them, therefore push up pay.
Janet Williamson, senior policy officer at the UK’s Trades Union Congress, argues the system of compensation committees, who often report directly to the CEO, lacks impartiality and should be reformed. “We need to move away from performance-related pay – that’s what has led to these increases,” she adds.
In fact, Pepper argues the empirical evidence shows the strongest correlation between pay and company financial measures is not financial performance, but rather the size of companies – there is simply more money to spend. “The bigger the company, the more CEOs are paid,” he says.
‘CEOs are key to success’
Whether CEO pay is justified remains subject to fierce debate. On one side, free-market economists argue high executive pay is justified if it aligns with the interests of executives and shareholders. If businesses are willing to pay these sums, they say, that is value that the market thinks the executives are worth.
“CEOs are key to success,” says Daniel Pryor, head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal think tank. “It’s quite clear there are a limited number of people that have the skills, the personality and disposition to be the CEO of a top company, and those limited number of people are highly sought after.”
Is their ability so rare? I think it’s a con – David Bolchover
Pryor points to the examples of Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Elon Musk with Tesla and SpaceX, exceptional talents who’ve forged revolutionary technologies from the ground up. Yet a number of researchers say that the role of the average CEO – a managerial type that hasn’t founded the business and hasn’t been a visionary – is overstated. Rather, other factors are more important in deciding the fortunes of a company.
“There are several reasons a company can perform well,” says David Bolchover, a management-pay expert who wrote the book Pay Check: Are Top Earners Really Worth It?. “Maybe the economy or their sector is buoyant, which has nothing to do with the CEO, maybe they operate in an oligopoly. It could be the contribution of workers. The impact of a CEO on company performance is not measurable, which is the nub of the issue. They have this ‘talent ideology’ to justify this. But is their ability so rare? I think it’s a con.”
Bolchover says the 2008 global financial crisis is a prime example of how performance and pay don’t always align. “The financial sector always defended their high pay on the basis of their rare abilities and their talent,” he says. “But a lot of these banks went bust during the crisis, and people started to ask questions – why were they paid so much and why did they continue to be paid so much even after the crisis?”
According to Bolchover, the “vortex of self-interest” between shareholders, board members and executives is why CEO pay has not dipped – and, for him, that is why there is growing pressure from the general public.
‘A dramatic step forward’
While top-brass pay keeps sailing on, employee rights seem to be on a downward trajectory – especially for front-line staff amid the pandemic. For many average workers, these huge numbers have become an increasingly bitter pill to swallow.
Workforce anger at this pay disparity spilled over earlier this month when thousands of employees at British Gas went on a five-day strike in response to plans to reduce the workforce and shift employees to new contracts with fewer rights. Tensions had already been boiling since 2018 after the chief executive of Centrica, the company which owns British Gas, received a 44% pay rise to £2.4m.
Workers for large companies in which CEOs earn big are becoming more agitated at the pay gap, especially as inequality persists (Credit: Alamy)
“It’s the greed and it’s the grab,” says John, a 32-year-old worker at British Gas, whose name has been changed due to job-security concerns. “It’s more than the prime minister gets paid. How can they justify it? When you’re paying that much money, it doesn’t mean you’re getting quality, but you’re getting a certain kind of person from a certain kind of background.” (Via email, a Centrica spokesperson commented that the base salary of the company’s current CEO is 19% less than the previous CEO, and that during 2020, neither the CEO nor executive directors received an annual bonus or any annual pay increases.)
There are signs, however, that the rise of CEO pay is at least slowing. Paul Lee, who has worked as an investment consultant for 20 years, says that CEO pay in the UK has “plateaued” in recent years, “but the level has been around the £4-to-5 million mark for several years”.
Lee believes the changing mindset of institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds is behind this recent stalling in salaries. They invest in these high-paying companies, but are ultimately funded by the general public – through pension and investment funds – and are aware of the growing unease. “Are those numbers justified? It’s really hard to say objectively,” he says. “But there’s a growing atmosphere of accountability. Partly because of a debate in the public, partly pressure from the government.”
For instance, in the US, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s draft Accountable Capitalism Act proposes time limits on company stock sales, in an attempt to shift the focus from short-term shareholder returns to the long-term goals of all stakeholders. There are also emerging initiatives like those in San Francisco and Portland, where businesses are taxed if their pay ratio is too high, creating an explicit economic incentive for greater equality.
Improving those normal peoples’ lives with relatively small increments of money could be transformational – Luke Hildyard
Luke Hildyard, director of the High Pay Centre, says companies can take further meaningful steps to reduce the pay gap, such as worker representation in boardrooms, and better reporting of company pay data to increase accountability. Company earnings could then instead be distributed more evenly across the workforce.
“Improving those normal peoples’ lives with relatively small increments of money could be transformational,” says Hildyard. “That would be a dramatic step forward.”
For Hildyard, the eye-watering CEO figures are “startling” evidence of a growing societal divide. “The UK is one of the most unequal countries by income in the developed world, and that has risen in tandem with the rise of executive pay.” He argues this is significant because research shows that unequal countries tend to do badlyon measures including social cohesion, public health and wellbeing, crime levels and education. Higher levels of inequality mean society suffers.
With a global economic recession on the horizon as the pandemic rages on, Hildyard believes “scrutiny of inequality” will heighten. He says the growing role of the finance industry, the outsourcing of low-paid work and the decline of trade unions are behind the widening inequality gap over recent decades. “At the same time, those at the top have not only maintained their wealth – but seen it grow massively,” he adds. “If that trend continues, society will become even more divided and workers will suffer.”
A Burundian pattern-maker working for Paris-based luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton whose mother wanted him to study medicine and become a medical doctor has told the BBC how he hopes to transform the fashion industry back home.
Pierre Hardy Mwete – whose mother wanted him to become a doctor – told BBC Great Lakes that he wants to tap into Burundi’s young talent. Quote Message: When you speak of fashion and tailoring, many Burundians think of people on streets with sewing machines to repair clothes.”
When you speak of fashion and tailoring, many Burundians think of people on streets with sewing machines to repair clothes.”
But the 23-year-old, who studied in Paris, plans to start a fashion school in BurundiQuote Message: I want to change this mindset, I want to start a fashion school in Burundi that will teach fashion, just like other careers, and create jobs for talents who do not have chances today.”
I want to change this mindset, I want to start a fashion school in Burundi that will teach fashion, just like other careers, and create jobs for talents who do not have chances today.”
Many Burundians consider fashion design to be a poor-paying job and discourage young people from such a career – an attitude the young pattern-maker hopes to change.
Since September we have been speaking to people who created start-ups during the pandemic for our business advice series CEO Secrets. Series producer Dougal Shaw explains what he learned from this snapshot.
“Lockdown put fire in my belly.”
“It was a sink or swim moment.”
“I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.'”
These phrases are taken from emails and messages I received from entrepreneurs. More than a thousand have got in touch with me since we announced in September that CEO Secrets was focusing on lockdown start-ups.
This year has been one of unprecedented economic misery, especially for those who work in the hospitality and retail sectors. But for some it provided a jolt. Starting a business has been a way to take back a measure of control – and provide a sense of hope.
The number of new companies being created in the UK compared with last year has soared in the second half of 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Here are eight things I’ve noticed from speaking to these new entrepreneurs.
1. People had different motivations, it wasn’t all about necessity.
You might assume people created their own companies because they had lost jobs, or feared they were about to, and so were desperate to generate income.
For most this was the case. The newly married Gallaghers in Staffordshire both lost jobs they were about to start in hospitality. They made the decision to start a home-cooked food delivery business within hours of the government’s first lockdown announcement – and it turned into a roaring success.
There were many examples like that, but I realised there was something else going on too. Lockdown gave people on furlough a unique opportunity to explore business ideas that perhaps only seemed like pipe dreams before.
“Lockdown created a break in my routine that forced me to focus on my long-term goals,” wrote Felix Atkin, founder of event-space rental business Sharesy.
Entrepreneurs like Andrew Woodhouse told me they hated the idea of being idle. While furloughed from his job organising corporate events, he followed his passion for fishing and set up a smoked salmon business.media captionAndrew Woodhouse built a salmon smoker in his garden
Some people also wrote in to say they had committed to taking redundancy in order to start a new business before Covid struck, and had decided to carry on regardless.
Kavin Wadhar, the founder of KidCoachApp, explained it to me this way: “If you are an entrepreneur, you just have an itch to scratch.”
Fashion entrepreneur Tracey Curran put it like this: “I can’t go to my grave knowing I didn’t give it a try.”
2. Running a business from home made sense during the pandemic.
People were encouraged to work from home and avoid offices to minimise contact with others. So if you were thinking about setting up a business, it seemed logical to do it from the comfort of your own home. It also reduced overhead costs.
For parents it made sense for childcare, especially when nurseries and schools were closed.
Keith Tiplady decided to turn his kitchen into a chocolate factory, which also allowed him to keep an eye on his three-year-old twins in an adjoining playroom. It was straightforward to set up his business at home, Keith told me. He registered with the council and organised public liability insurance.media captionKeith Tiplady runs a chocolate business from his family kitchen
I also met Sarah Furness, who set up a gluten-free sweets business from her home in Ascot.
Like other parent-entrepreneurs, she and her spouse had to juggle childcare, and segregate time for herself and the business, typically when the kids were in bed.
3. Food and craft products were popular
I encountered a wide variety of businesses in the series, but recurring themes were food and handmade products. I’ve already mentioned some of the food businesses above.
Among craft businesses, jewellery and candle making were popular pursuits. Sewing skills were also put to use by many, making everything from face masks to, in Josephine Philips’ case, vintage clothes alterations.
Often these were hobbies and passions that Covid-19 had turned into revenue lifelines.
Many entrepreneurs also started making brand new products or services that were specifically designed for life in lockdown.
Several companies approached me who had started window box subscription services (for people longing to reconnect with nature by growing plants and vegetables), and outdoor or home cinema providers also appeared.
4. People found their skills were more transferable than they thought.
I spoke to people who had lost jobs in specific sectors: aviation, hospitality and retail. Primarily these people had worked in public-facing roles. One thing that came across immediately was their natural presentation skills and flair for customer service.
They told me they were surprised at how transferable their skills were to new activities.media captionSophie Southwood explains how she uses her cabin crew skills
I visited Sophie Southwood who lives near Guildford. She has worked all her adult life as cabin crew for Qantas. She’s now on unpaid leave and has turned her hobby of floristry into a business.
“A cabin crew’s real talent is anticipating people’s needs,” she told me. “It’s ingrained in us.”
Victoria Gordon began stitching artistic face masks from home and selling them online after losing her job with a High Street fashion retailer in Newcastle.
She told me she used her shop floor skills, built up over a decade, to help manage her online shop, as it helped her with stock control, pricing and after-sales service.
5. Customers wanted to support local enterprises.
Many start-ups I encountered began by serving their local community, then built outwards.
The Gallagher chefs, chocolate maker Keith Tiplady and mask maker Victoria Gordon all started with family and friends as their first customers. For these entrepreneurs, it was feedback from this initial, trusted group that gave them the confidence to reach further.
These businesses often used Facebook and Instagram to find a small, targeted customer base in their vicinity.
6. Companies did well that focused on online.
Perhaps obviously, given many physical shops and face-to-face services had to close during lockdown, companies that offered their services online, or who sold physical items online and then delivered them direct to customers, both appeared to do well.
Terry Fox wrote to me saying she began offering online sewing classes and found hundreds of people joining each session.
The founders of LiveToYourLivingRoom told me they were offering virtual gigs for bands that normally played small venues, and were now attracting 100-150 people per show, after just a few months.media captionLisa Pilgrim and Kirby Bryant set up virtual online wine tastings
On the one hand, people were literally stuck at home and so had to consume this way.
However, this may also have been part of a more fundamental shift.
“The pandemic has greatly accelerated changes that would have happened slowly due to the rise of online shopping,” according to Prof Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research. We’ve reached a stage this year that he had previously thought would only arrive by 2025.
7. Social media is your marketplace.
This is the 21st Century after all and many of our lockdown entrepreneurs talked about the importance of social media as a way to reach customers.
This has given younger entrepreneurs an advantage, recent graduate Sehrish Ahmed told me.
She started selling jewellery online when job opportunities dried up, using Instagram and TikTok as the shop window for her brand Rose Eclipse. She knew how to jump on the latest TikTok trends, she explained.
8. Not all of these businesses will be permanent.
Despite the 2020 boom in start-ups, not all will be long-term fixtures. Some of these lockdown businesses were only ever set up on a temporary basis, either as a stop-gap between jobs, or a side-hustle during furlough.
Andrew Woodhouse and his salmon-smoking business is a good example. When he returned to work after furlough, he had to scale back his growing business. He now does just enough to keep it ticking over.
Recent graduates Joshua Barley, Sonny Drinkwater and Kieran Fitzgerald set up Snackcess, selling boxes of healthy snacks that companies can send out to employees working at home. Originally, it was meant to be a short-term project because the three were struggling to find the usual graduate placements during the pandemic. These three graduate friends set up their own healthy snack business
Kieran has now started a graduate job, but the business has been so successful that Sonny and Joshua have decided they’re going “to try and see this through”.
“Entrepreneurs will often find it difficult to accept the restrictions of being an employee once again, after they have tasted the excitement, freedom, and sense of achievement associated with being on their own,” says Prof Cyril Bouquet of the IMD Business School.
What’s more, even when entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul, in general around 20% of start-ups fail in their first year and only around half make it to five years.
“It is very unlikely that a first entrepreneurial attempt will be the most successful one. Many people stop after the first failure,” says Prof Bouquet.
For those that are lucky enough to be succeeding right now, there was one other thing I noticed. They were all guarded about celebrating their achievements at a time when they knew so many were suffering.
If you clicked on this article looking for sharp, insightful, industry-leading knowledge about the fashion industry, you’ve possibly come to the wrong place.
After all, this time last year we said the big styles for 2020 would include buttery leather, floral prints and bucket hats.
What actually transpired was a year of facemasks, slippers and jogging bottoms as the country worked from home and social events were cancelled.
Still, we’re feeling more confident about our predictions for 2021. The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine should hopefully mean we will once again see other human beings in the coming year, which means now is the time to start thinking about post-lockdown looks.
One interesting side effect of the pandemic is that some designers reined in their usual experimentation and extravagance and instead prioritised practicality, opting to showcase clothes which were “more thoughtful and realistic”, according to Vogue.
“For the first time in a long time, these looked like clothes that are meant to be worn,” added the magazine, which is always a bonus when being charged £800 for a T-shirt.
Here are seven of the major trends for 2021:
1. See-through layers
You might think of yourself as the kind of sceptical person who can see right through the fashion industry’s latest money-grabbing trends.
Well, now you can quite literally see through them thanks to these transparent outfits made of lace, mesh or sheer, which are going to be big in 2021.
“Shed winter’s dense layers in exchange for spring’s light peek-a-boo pieces,” suggested Marie Claire. “Designers like Dior mixed sheers with barely there underpinnings, while Sportmax paired transparent overlays with fuller coverage slip dresses.”
Fashionista advised that these designs aren’t intended to provide the X-Ray treatment. “Instead, the transparent clothes act as layering pieces to add intrigue to standard tops and bottoms,” they said.
Roughly translated, that means: for goodness sake don’t forget to wear something less see-through underneath.
2. Strong shoulders
You grace me with your cold shoulder, sang Adele in 2008.
We grace you with our bold shoulders, say Balenciaga in 2021.
The luxury fashion house showed lots of outfits with prominent shoulders during Paris Fashion Week in March, and many others have been experimenting with the idea too.
“The peaked shoulders at Balmain and Balenciaga will cut through space with glamour and a bit of grit,” said Vogue. “Big time shoulders are not new, but they are not going away either.”
The good thing about this one is your head and shoulders are usually all anybody can see of you on Zoom, so it’s one of the few styles that can actually be appreciated virtually.
Claudia Winkleman will be delighted to see that long fringes are back in style, although these are the fabric kind rather than the so-low-you-can’t-read-the-autocue hair kind.
“It’ll be hard to resist twirling all day long with this trend,” said Cosmopolitan. “With every step you take you’ll be turning heads.”
(Partly because the strands of fabric will be whipping someone in the face.)
Nothing is as stylish as looking like you’ve been sneezed on by a unicorn, and with so many people stuck at home in the past year, DIY tie-dyeing maintained its popularity.
The colourful trend has been popular for a while, but has now filtered up to the major designers, who are re-imagining tie-dyed fabric in their latest collections. Some fashion magazines are relieved the experts have taken over from the amateurs.
“While we appreciate the sentiment of creating your own colourful tees, we prefer how the experts are translating the counterculture mainstay,” said Harper’s Bazaar.
“From caftans to maxi dresses, sweat suits and denim, these shibori-inspired patterns hit every colour of the rainbow, and are decidedly bougie.”
5. Fruit pastels
If you prefer your shades slightly softer, then candy-coloured pastels could be for you.
“These sorbet-inspired colours are the perfect option for summer and they suit a wide variety of skin tones,” noted The Trend Spotter.
“Choose from a boiler suit in cool mint green or an oversized trench coat in soft lavender – better yet, try them both simultaneously. Suits and separates in the soft and buttery hues elevate your overall aesthetic and will remain one of the chicest styles for seasons to come.”
Which is great news for us because it means we can copy and paste this entry in next year’s list.
These nets are the catch of the year.
“While our actual fishing references are admittedly limited, we do know that some well-placed netting satisfies our desire for purely aesthetic pleasures,” said Harper’s Bazaar.
“These nets are not here to keep you warm; they serve no higher purpose other than that they exist as eye candy, as newness, as that something that feels perfectly right now.”
Stella McCartney gets double credit here for an outfit (pictured far right) which contains netting *and* a fringe – so you can be twice as stylish.
7. Holy Moly
It is never a bad idea to expose large chunks of flesh totally at random, as Christina Aguilera taught us in 2002.
Whether society is finally waking up to her wise teachings or whether designers simply ran out of fabric, it doesn’t matter. The point is, holes are in for 2021 so get ready to feel the draught.
“Showing some skin – by any measure – feels like a necessity after wearing oversized loungewear for months on end,” pointed out Marie Claire.”From turtlenecks to bodysuits to full-on jumpsuits, designers like Prada found ways to reveal flesh in unexpected ways.”
8. Covid compliance
We’re dedicating this last one entirely to the Kenzo showcase at Paris Fashion Week in September.
The fashion house, whose founder died shortly after this show took place, displayed a large number of outfits which covered the face, and sometimes the entire body.
This may or may not have been Covid-influenced, and we’re not confident these outfits would realistically provide much protection against the virus anyway, but it certainly felt in keeping with the theme of social distancing.
The other big coronavirus-influenced trend, of course, will continue to be stylish facemasks.
“No surprise here, the biggest accessory trend of 2021 will be masks,” said Style Caster.
“If you rushed to buy some basic masks a few months back, don’t hesitate to invest in both high-quality, breathable fabrics as well as masks you simply find attractive now that we’re in it for the long haul. The more you like the masks you’ve got, the easier they are to commit to wearing.”
Born into poverty in 1922 near Venice in northern Italy, his family emigrated to France when he was still a child.
He grew up in the French industrial town of Saint Etienne. At the age of 17 he became an apprentice to a tailor in Vichy and was already specializing in women’s suits.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Born to French parents on July 2, 1922 in a town near Venice, Pierre Cardin was a teen when he started in dressmaking and quickly embraced the idea of “bella figura.” In men’s fashion in particular, Cardin designs have a sculpture-like silhouette. The owner of 800 factories worldwide, a castle, a museum and half a village, Cardin was one of the richest men in France.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
In the 1960s, Pierre Cardin dressed his models in shiny patent leather, plastic, and tight, shimmering metallic bodysuits – all of which are totally hip at the moment, too. Cardin presented the above collection at the 2012 Barcelona Fashion Week. Cardin fashion is available worldwide in dozens of franchise and privately-owned retail stores.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Cardin always tended toward Italian futurism. Painters and sculptors, architects and designers had a significant influence on his abstract fashion designs. Cardin’s ideas were often breathtaking – but not really suitable for everyday use. Few men would actually go shopping in a “Made by Cardin” outfit like the above.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Couture for men
Cardin revolutionized fashion: each new collection was different, was more innovative. His creativity appeared to be boundless. He was the first fashion czar to sell affordable haute couture off the rack. The famous Galeries Lafayette department store carried his collections, including the above menswear for the fall/winter season 1983/84.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Fastidious, Pierre Cardin made sure his fashion was cut from the best material. Fabric was made to his specifications. He was usually ahead of his terms in his choice of colors and texture. Cardin set new textile trends, and other couturiers often followed his lead. Above, the designer inspects exquisite tweed wool fabric.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Icing on the cake
The designer is involved in every minute detail before the models saunter onto the catwalk to present his latest fashion. Above, he tweaked a hairdo here and a hat there for a show presenting avant-garde fashion in Rome in 1960.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Famous fashion designers like to be surrounded by rich, beautiful women. Or better still, celebrities, queens, film stars and female aristocrats. As a businessman, Pierre Cardin was fully aware of the promotional effect that stars like “Bond-Girl” Ursula Andress had when wearing his designs in the glitzy world of Hollywood.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
The Cardin brand
The fashion house that Pierre Cardin founded in 1950 has become both a temple of haute couture and a vast business empire. Cardin has sold more than 600 licenses to produce clothes under his brand name. This discreet leather patch adorns the backside of Pierre Cardin men’s jeans all over the world.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
Always good for a spectacular surprise, Cardin let male and female models show his 2008 spring/summer collection striding down a catwalk across a desert landscape in northwestern China. A year later, he sold licenses to China to sell coveted Cardin fashion and accessories.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
2016 saw the last Cardin fashion show to date. This time, however, it was presented in classic catwalk style in Paris, the fashion capital and the center of Cardin’s business empire since 1944. As always, the colors and styles were modern and distinctive. The nonagenarian still spends hours every day sketching draft designs.
AVANT-GARDE FASHION, FUTURISTIC DESIGN: PIERRE CARDIN
His fashion and the Cardin empire have made the Italian-born designer not only rich, but also a legend among old-school fashion designers like Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. Pierre Cardin was a match for them all.
He then moved to Paris, where he designed the mesmerizing sets and costumes for the film “Beauty and the Beast” with poet, artist and director Jean Cocteau in 1947.
After a stint with Christian Dior, Cardin founded his own fashion house in 1950. In the following decades he built up a global business empire.
Cardin’s futuristic looks
Along with Paco Rabanne and Andre Courrege, Cardin was hailed for developing the futuristic Space-Age-inspired styles that defined looks in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1954, he showcased the now-legendary bubble dress. A decade later, he unveiled the 1964 “Space Age” collection that remains a landmark in fashion history.
It was defined by cut-out dresses, knitted catsuits, tight leather pants, close-fitting helmets and batwing jumpers.
He was also credited with bringing stylish clothes to the masses, popularizing the turtleneck sweater for men and bodysuits for women.
Both businessman and designer
Cardin was the first designer to sell clothes collections in department stores in the late 1950s, and the first to enter the licensing business for perfumes, accessories and even food — now a major profit driver for many fashion houses.
His business sense was controversial. He sometimes faced criticism, accused of destroying the value of his brand and the notion of luxury in general. But he seemed largely unaffected by such comments.
“I don’t dream of money after all, but while I’m dreaming, I’m making money,” he told Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2007.
When Hannah Chapman started her scented candles business, it was more successful than she could’ve dreamed of. But the dream almost turned into a nightmare – she had to spend so much money to meet soaring demand that she risked running out of cash just months after starting.
“It was really, really difficult,” says 25-year-old Hannah. “It was a case of managing money to the penny.”
Hannah quit her job with a marketing agency two years ago to launch Ava May Aromas, and started making her first products with a candle-making starter kit in the kitchen of her parents’ home in Andover, Hampshire.
She quickly built up a following through marketing on social media, with her wax melts and reed diffusers also proving a hit. Orders were coming in so fast that her family had to order takeaway food because Hannah was constantly melting and moulding wax in the kitchen.
But Hannah couldn’t keep up with the orders she was receiving.
“We had to close the website down for two weeks and put up a holding page saying, ‘Apologies to anyone who’s wishing to order but we are unable to take any orders at this time.’
“It did cause us huge concern that we were going to be losing customers as fast as we were gaining them because we had to shut down so frequently. This was something we could only sustain for the short term.”
Hannah needed to move the business out of her house and into commercial premises so that she could increase production, but how could she afford to do so? She had only made money intermittently from the business, but would now be facing constant overhead costs.
“The cashflow was becoming one of the biggest issues,” she says. “We had been having this sudden influx of cash and then nothing for a couple of weeks.
“[Now I had to pay for] new units, new outlays, new staff, wages and overheads, which I hadn’t had at my parents’ home. That was a huge, huge problem.
“One of the reasons why businesses go bust within the first 12 months is cashflow, so managing that every day, every week, was so important.”
Hannah expanded the company by stages over a six-month period, moving to gradually larger and larger premises as she could afford the higher rents.
Now, the business operates out of 10 large units on an industrial estate in Andover and employs 25 full-time staff. It had a turnover of £2.2m this year and Hannah is hoping to increase this to £3m in 2021.
Hannah’s advice to other young people who have started a business, or who are thinking of starting one, is to think ahead more than she did.
“I hadn’t anticipated being overwhelmed with orders. I suppose I hadn’t anticipated any success at all,” she says.
“If a young entrepreneur thinks they have a good idea and they think it’s going to go somewhere, you need to have a plan of how you’re going to manage that growth. How are you going to expand? What is your next step going to be?
“I had zero plans beyond my parents’ kitchen. Had I planned how I was going to move forwards, I probably wouldn’t have suffered quite so badly. The cashflow problem wouldn’t have been such a shock. Planning six months ahead, planning 12 months ahead – that would have been a great thing. I wish I’d done that.”
As part of our CEO Secrets series, which invites business leaders to share their advice, we are focusing on start-ups that have launched during lockdown, looking at different types of entrepreneur. This week, we hear from people who worked in the retail sector.
Tracey Curran, 33, started the year by landing her dream job: an assistant menswear buyer for online fashion retailer Asos.
Having previously lost her job in a similar role at Debenhams in 2019, when the department store went into administration, she felt her luck had turned.
But then in March coronavirus struck. Asos put Tracey on furlough, which lasted until June.
Tracey, who lives in Enfield, north London, has two young children, and a third on the way. Her husband was also furloughed.
She knew she was lucky to still have a job in that time and 80% of her pay, but still the experience left her feeling powerless – and restless.
Although she hadn’t been in the job at Asos for long, she had quickly come to realise that the role was all-consuming, putting a strain on family life. “You’d go to bed with your head swimming with retail figures and projected sales,” she remembers.
It occurred to her that if work was going to dominate her life, she’d rather it was her own company and vision, and began thinking about starting her own fashion label for women.
In October she took the plunge and left Asos to start her business, Sunday Archives.
The original designs come from her love of vintage clothes, inspired by old movies, fashion cuttings and her father-in-law, who she says has “some of the most amazing blazers I’ve ever seen”.
Launching a fashion start-up during lockdown has been challenging.
Normally a designer would be face-to-face with fabric suppliers when explaining their visions and would visit the factories that will make their creations, but none of this has been possible.
Nevertheless, she will unveil her first collection in February.
To pay the bills in the meantime she took a zero-hours contract at an Amazon logistics centre and tops this up with work for Deliveroo.
“I know I had a job to go back to,” says Tracey. “I’m mad, right? I know me and my family are suffering for this now, but I can see the end goal.”
She thinks running her own business will make it easier to balance family and work life in the long run.
“It’s been the most beautiful year for me, growing as a person,” says Tracey.
“You see, I’ve realised that fear is the only thing that stops you, I can’t go to my grave knowing I didn’t give it a try.”
Retail in crisis
The UK is in the midst of a “retail massacre”, according to Prof Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research.
Nearly 160,000 jobs have been lost in the sector since the start of the year (140,000 of those since the first lockdown), according to his organisation.
It also calculates there have been 15,443 actual and announced store closures this year, of both chains and independents. This figure will rise significantly when the likes of Debenhams, Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Arcadia Group reveal their plans, with a further 25,000 jobs at stake.
“We had zero online presence when Covid struck,” says Kirby Bryant, 34, director of the Cambridge Wine Royston shop in Hertfordshire. In the course of the pandemic that situation turned on its head.
Her shop has been a successful business for more than 15 years – but it’s always been very much a bricks-and-mortar affair that relies on good footfall, loyal customers and a steady stream of wholesale trade to pubs and restaurants.
When the first national lockdown was announced in March, Kirby and shop owner Lisa Pilgrim, 60, realised that they were in big trouble.
Although they were allowed to remain open as essential retail, they thought their tiny shop would endanger staff and customers who visited, so they closed their premises.
With no web presence, in order to keep trading they started taking orders by phone and email. Their six staff would deliver orders by car.
“Emails came piling in and at one point we were so busy we had to disconnect the phone,” remembers Kirby.
After that first hectic week, Kirby’s sister Carley built the wine company a website, which helped to streamline orders.
However, as lockdown drew on longer, the team had another idea. Why not start a new spin-off business that is completely online? The shop used to host drink tastings twice a month in-store, which were always popular. However, they had found that people often couldn’t commit to specific dates and times.
So they launched a company called In House Tasting in June that posts out tasting kits for people to sample drinks at home. Customers are given access to a pre-recorded online video with a host, who is usually a local distiller.
The idea is you “drink along” to the video.
They created 100 tasting packs for their first experience and these sold out within two hours.
Kirby’s advice for other business owners is: “Get feedback from people you respect, but know your vision, because people will try and pull you in different directions.”
Victoria Gordon, 41, had worked as a sales assistant for the same High Street fashion retailer in Newcastle for a decade. She was put on furlough in March – shortly after, she lost her job.
She bears no ill will towards her employer and feels what happened to her may have been a blessing in disguise.
“With lockdown I started to look inwards,” explains Victoria. “You look at what matters to you and for me it’s making things.”
Having studied textiles at university, Victoria started upcycling old bits of furniture during the first lockdown. She had inherited a sewing machine and other equipment from her grandmother, who had owned a haberdashery shop.
She then jumped on a new trend that emerged during the pandemic: sewing colourful face masks, setting up a business called HeartOfChard on the online craft-selling platform Etsy.
She found that people wanted personalised masks with friendly messages stitched on the outside for strangers to read, like a bright “Hello”.
Some customers also wanted bespoke, private messages stitched on the inside of the mask. One woman ordered one for her mother, a lifelong Liverpool football fan, which read: “You’ll never walk alone.”
Victoria could barely keep up with demand by the summer, but soon the face mask market became saturated so she started to design other products.
“I’m making a sequined ornament that looks like a hand sanitiser that you can hang on the Christmas tree, embroidered with 2020 on it,” she says.
“I still keep old baubles that remind me of Christmases from my childhood,” says Victoria. She thinks one day people will want a memento to mark the Christmas of 2020, since it will be like no other.
Her advice to others is: “Don’t see competitors as rivals, you should build connections with other similar businesses. Female creative entrepreneurs in particular have been great at sharing their highs and lows with me.”
Friendship can either strengthen a start-up or bring it down. How can entrepreneurs harness this force for success?
Peter Reinhardt, CEO of San Francisco-based technology company Segment, met one of his co-founders in middle school. The pair later joined forces with two other undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dropped out as a group to pursue the entrepreneurial dream. They moved into a house in Silicon Valley in 2011 and secured significant funding from an incubator programme.
But the first year and a half was “dark”, says Reinhard. “We burned half a million dollars.” Their first two business ideas failed, and Reinhardt tried to keep everyone motivated by avoiding anything his friends could perceive as negative. It created friction.
When their third iteration – a customer data platform now used by the likes of Deliveroo and Levi’s – first showed signs of success, Reinhardt remembers feeling elated – and exhausted. “I realised I’d been intellectually dishonest,” he says. “I so wanted to keep the team excited about what we were working on. I never wanted to deliver bad news.”
Reinhardt’s experience reflects both the pitfalls and rewards of starting a company with friends. High-profile examples of those who have succeeded abound: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the seventh-grade school friends who create their eponymous ice cream; the founders of Airbnb, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. But these stories obscure a lesser-known truth: unfortunately, many businesses founded by friends don’t survive.
In The Founder’s Dilemmas, Noam Wasserman – then a professor at Harvard Business School – studied 10,000 technology and life-sciences start-ups, of which 40% were founded by friends. His research, published in 2012, showed that companies with friend-founders were less likely to work – and each social connection on the founding team increased the likelihood of a founder leaving by 30%.
Right now, amid the deepest global recession in years, Americans are starting new businesses at the fastest rate in more than a decade, according to US Census Bureau data, and a similar trend is being observed in the UK. Many of these will have been founded by people with pre-existing relationships. Given that one in five start-ups fail within a year and only half make it to five years, how can these budding entrepreneurs ensure their friendship becomes a positive tool for building their business – and not something that leads to its demise?
‘Date’ each other and ask tough questions
Wasserman, now Dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, says that when people are starting a company, it can be very comforting to have a familiar face along for the ride. But he says founding with friends is like playing with fire: “It can either forge a stronger team and relationship, or it can blow up the team and relationship.”
His research showed that the most stable structure for starting a company is, in fact, a group of strangers, rather than co-workers, family or friends (although co-workers created a more stable structure than friends). That’s because strangers have fewer expectations of each other; there’s no concern about jeopardising a friendship when bringing up mistakes or issues.
Companies created by friends, he says, are more likely to fail for interdependent reasons linked to people being overconfident and underprepared. “When we found with friends, we are confident that our team will be of the stronger variety,” says Wasserman. Yet friends often have no experience of each other professionally, and don’t test the waters before founding. “We assume that we know each other, but have you ever seen your best friend in a work context and know how s/he acts there?” comments Wasserman. He advises entrepreneurial friends to “date” potential co-founders as a precaution to iron out kinks and be certain in their decisions before assuming risk.
Because we avoid discussing that bad scenario and how we could avoid it, we increase the chances that it will occur – Noam Wasserman
Sir Cary Cooper, business psychologist at the University of Manchester, is aware of the unique dynamics of setting up shop with a friend: he established occupational psychology firm Robertson Cooper with a fellow professor in 1998. The two knew each other both professionally and personally, so there were fewer unknowns about abilities and working styles. The key to a successful partnership, he says, is to “listen, talk and discuss mistakes”.
Yet when things go wrong, discussing tough topics can be hard. Wasserman explains that a common experience among friends is a tendency to shy away from necessary, tension-filled conversations for fear of souring their relationship. But this can have dire implications: “Because we avoid discussing that bad scenario and how we could avoid it, we increase the chances that it will occur.”
Hamish Grierson, CEO of London-based health-tech firm Thriva, agrees that awkward conversations need to take place. A lifestyle brand he set up with a friend didn’t work, and the relationship was partly to blame: they didn’t hold each other to account. “We spent way too much time focused on improving our launch product than we did on identifying whether anyone wanted the thing we were creating.”
Wasserman believes it’s essential to establish friendship “firewalls” to avoid this kind of error. These could be structural measures so one friend isn’t performance reviewing another, or the appointment of a mentor who can facilitate discussions or identify conversations that are being deliberately avoided.
Shared priorities, shared bonds
Despite these challenges, Gabrielle Adams, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and an expert in interpersonal dynamics, believes that going into business with someone you already know well has advantages. “Good friends know how to work out conflict,” she adds, and familiarity “can mean it doesn’t take as much time to work out the nuances of communication, such as how to communicate or what certain reactions might mean (or not mean).” She says successful co-founders who are also friends have two main things in common: “They have a solid, open channel of communication and hold shared, explicitly agreed-upon priorities.”
That’s been the case for Hannah Silvani and Rosie Scott, the duo behind sustainable fabric shop The New Craft House, who first met as teenagers in Germany nearly 20 years ago. “Most people talk about work and decompress away from their boss, which obviously isn’t possible within our friendship and equal business partnership,” says Silvani. “We’ve found the best way to address this is to regularly appraise all aspects of our company to make sure it’s going in the right direction, including each other.” She says she can’t imagine running a business with anyone but a close friend, adding: “It’s much more fun to see your business grow with someone you like a lot.”
In fact, that bond may be what keeps you going in tough times. Researchers from London’s Cass Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania examined how friendship between founding members impacts on behaviour when a start-up’s finances start to suffer. They found that start-ups established by people with a strong friendship were more likely to persist if a venture looked like it was failing; founders escalated their financial commitment rather than terminating it. Their research showed that friendship can foster entrepreneurial hope in the face of uncertainty (though they didn’t go on to examine whether that hope ultimately led to success).
Reflecting on his experience co-founding Segment, recently valued at $1.5bn (£1.16bn), CEO Peter Reinhardt says: “In the early days, we were often seduced by each other’s grand visions for how we thought the world should work. But we learned that the world doesn’t care about your vision. It just has problems it needs solved. It was only once we were comfortable being totally honest with each other and ourselves that the company started taking off.”