Bookshops and restaurants – nice idea but don’t, top management thinker Charles Handy advised Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler and author of Business for Bohemians.
However, dear reader, Hodgkinson did set up and run a coffeehouse, bookshop and events venue in a quiet street in London for five years and this book is a collection of the wisdom he acquired. “I have learned that business is a skill, like carpentry. It must be studied and practised,” he writes.
“I was thrown from a four-hour workday writing books to a 14-hour day serving customers, ordering books…stressing about dirty lavatories and moving furniture around.”
Unlike the usual fare that I recommend which is full of high-flying achievers growing the next big thing, this a book for people running lifestyle businesses. Hodgkinson makes this clear on page 1. Visiting his tycoon friend, publisher John Brown, he is told the Idler is not a business, it is a lifestyle. Tycoons, he notes, consider any business that does not make a ton of cash as nothing more than a hobby.
If you need to get control of your business, this is a great book.
If you are already in control,
it will remind you what works
But he argues many people are content with running a lifestyle business. They enjoy their work and earn a sufficient income. The café around the corner from his office is one such business. It’s run by Alfredo and his son and to run your own small business of this sort is “quite a noble aspiration. It is a rich life and never boring.”
Yes, this book will make you feel good about being a local retailer with one or two stores. But it is also a great guide to best practice and hugely entertaining. Chapters on how to write a business plan, learning to love the spreadsheet, and the art of accounting are a joy to read.
For example, he writes that management accounting is important “because it helps the business owner make plans to reduce working in some areas, increase in other ones, to decide what is working and what is not. The process of doing this forces you to create targets and to think through every detail of your operation. If you don’t have management accounts, then you are lost in a fog of your own creation…”
Keep your prices high, he argues. “My friend Jim, who runs various pop festivals in the UK, reckons if people are complaining, then you’ve got the price about right.” The chapter on how to sell is a must read.
After useful thoughts on having a website, social media, marketing and negotiation, Hodgkinson unveils his best chapter: How to choose who you work with.
“Employing people is tricky. You begin to realise why there are thousands of books about management out there: it is a very difficult thing to do.”
How did we get it all wrong, he asks. Mistake number one was to be called the Idler. How can you tell your staff to work harder when you are telling the world to slack off? The second one was to employ people who were available and seemed nice. The third was to assume they would know what to do.
Which leads to his employment of Tarquin. “Why did you get sacked?” he asked. “Because I’ve got a personality I suppose,” was the reply. Tarquin turned out to be a bit of a bad egg and Hodgkinson had to sack him.
The answer is to find the right people and let them get on with it. Easy to say but hard to do. If you need to get control of your business this is a great book. If you are already in control, it will remind you what works and to keep on going. It’s also very, very funny.