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Field Guide

Startup 101: Limited benefits

In my previous piece, Jo set up an online personal fitness hub called Fitness Match and was thinking about what form her business should take. She’ll be exceptionally busy while she’s setting up, so will want to keep admin to a minimum. She’ll also want to be confident that she’s not exposing herself to too many risks. If she operates the business as a sole trader, she’ll be liable for any of the liabilities of Fitness Match. This means that, if it all goes wrong, creditors could come after her personal finances, including her home, in order to satisfy any unpaid debts. For this reason, many small businesses operate as limited companies. So, is it a good idea?

Going limited: the pros...
A limited company would be a separate legal entity to Jo who would be a shareholder. This means she would have no personal liability beyond the amount she had paid for the shares, which could be a low nominal value. A company structure also provides an opportunity to raise money by issuing shares, is often easier to sell than a sole trader business and looks better to both customers and creditors because it is established and regulated. There are also tax benefits. For example, Jo could receive part of her salary by way of a dividend which would be subject to a lower rate of tax. Then, if the business expands and Jo wants to employ staff, she could offer them shares through tax-efficient incentive schemes. Equally, once she starts selling sports kit and developing her own fitness inventions, she may need investment from third parties. A company would make this possible as she could issue shares to interested investors. Jo would also be able to use the tax benefits of certain investment schemes as an incentive to attract investors. The Enterprise Investment Scheme ... More

Quantity over quality in the UK economy

I wrote a column in the FT some time last year that referred to quantitative easing (QE) as “evil”. It remained one of the most read on the site for weeks. Most people don’t think of the electronic money printing that is quantitative easing (QE) as a particularly bad thing. At worst they think it's pointless – something that moves electronic numbers around the place to no obvious effect. But there’s more to it than that. We don’t know if QE does much of what we want it to – increase bank lending, boost employment and so on. But one thing we know beyond any reasonable doubt is that it pushes up asset prices.

The rich get richer
This is something the Federal Reserve in the US and the Bank of England expect: the Fed is keen on the idea of the wealth effect (if asset prices rise, people feel rich and spend more), while the Bank of England published a chart showing how fast asset prices in the UK would rise during what it called the “impact phase” of QE. The chart showed them rising very fast indeed, and that is exactly what has happened. Why is this so bad? Because it makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. The poor have been hit with regular falls in their real wages as the inflation created by QE has outrun the nominal rises in their pay. At the same time, the prices of the assets they’d like to buy – houses and the like – are artificially inflated by the merry-go-round of new money. But the rich already own assets – shares, art, houses and classic cars. With every round of money printing, their total wealth grows. QE might be a monetary policy but it works like a fiscal one ‒ it redistributes wealth. You ... More

Mustard maestros

The service of a sommelier, offered alongside the restaurant wine list, is nothing new, but imagine being asked whether you’d like the beer sommelier to advise you, or the water sommelier, or the…? Wait. Did someone say mustard sommelier? Apparently so; there’s a new breed of experts in town. Despite being intrinsically linked with wine, the word ‘sommelier’ has a more general etymology ‒ an olden day logistics manager, if you will. It seems that wine was, quite rightly, a pretty important part of the logistics chain and so the term took on a more wine-centric leaning over time. Today’s wine sommelier is, of course, a qualified and highly respected expert, poised to suggest pairings and ensure that you don’t order that £300 Margaux unless you really mean to. And we’re getting increasingly confident at dealing with them ‒ after all, they’re not just for fine dining any more.

Let her tell you about beer
And so, as food trends accelerate, palates change and our thirst for knowledge grows, it seems that there’s a place for sommeliers beyond wine. Beer is the next logical step. Craft beer has grown in popularity in the UK over the past few years, with an unparalleled selection now available. Even asking for a lager now produces a host of sophisticated options which, naturally, we’d appreciate help with. Enter beer expert Melissa Cole, author of the excellent Let Me Tell You About Beer, who prefers the moniker ‘sommALEier’ (“because I can’t resist a good pun”). She has advised chefs, pubs and even street food vendors on matching beer with food. Cole reckons that any establishment ignoring the roar of the current beer renaissance is missing a trick. “In London, we’ve gone from ten breweries in 2007 to more than 50 just within the M25 ‒ and it’s growing.” “There’s ... More

Have you heard the one about fear of public speaking?

A few steps to reach the microphone, a split-second spin to face the audience ‒ and the adrenaline jolts the brain into rapid speech. Whether it’s on stage, at a conference or in an office meeting, some people love that initial chemical surge. Most, however, find it daunting. Research has shown that three quarters of people suffer from glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking. According to the National Institute of Mental Health it affects 74% of Americans ‒ far more than those who are afraid of death, spiders, darkness, heights or flying. Nor is it gender specific: National Institute data reveals that 73% of men and 75% of women are affected. That sudden dryness of the mouth, a shortness of breath, even a slight sweat ‒ all brought on by the need to talk in front of an audience ‒ is something most of us can relate to. Of course there are several training and relaxation techniques you could try. But there’s also a fun way: stand-up comedy.

Telling a joke has serious benefits
It may seem odd to learn to tell jokes so that you sound good when presenting the annual results, but what was once considered a lowbrow art or an act of rebellion has become an increasingly popular tool for companies looking to improve their managers’ presentation skills. There are at least a dozen comedy courses in London targeting the business community. There’s City Lit, the centre for adult learning, which offers classes with comedy directors such as Chris Head, who also runs sessions for Google and creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Or Funny Women, a community of female comedians who offer “stand up to stand out” workshops to show companies “how to add humour to their armoury of talents”. It sounds fun, but how does it work? Logan Murray, comedian, ... More

The 42 funniest films

01 Monty Python and the Holy Grail
“Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” There must and shall be Python. A seriously close call between Grail and The Life of Brian, but the Knights who say Ni!, a stack of earworm songs and killer rabbits swing it.
02 Airplane!
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” For spoofing the entire genre of disaster films; ridiculously over-packed with jokes and for the jive-talking nun. For reals.
03 In Bruges
“A great day this has turned out to be. I’m suicidal, me mate tries to kill me, me gun gets nicked and we’re still in fucking Bruges.” Beautifully farcical, funny and rather violent. Shoot first. Sightsee later.
04 Dr. Strangelove
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern took the decidedly not-funny book Red Alert by Peter George and made a satirical masterpiece out of a nuclear disaster. Black humour doesn’t get a lot darker than that. Genius.
05 Harold and Maude
“Harold, everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.” Dark as hell and bleakly funny… just like life. Hal Ashby’s 1971 tale of a suicidal teenager and an anarchist octogenarian is an art house favourite.
06 Team America
“ Bonjour, everyone! Don’t worry. Everything is bon! We stopped the terrorists.” It is next to impossible to find a quote from the film which doesn’t make it seem devoid of context, outright racist and a bit sweary, but then that’s the point. It’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone flipping the bird at just about everyone and it’s very funny. Also there are songs.
07 Rushmore
“I saved Latin. What did you ever do?” Wes Anderson hasn’t out-funnied this fiercely eccentric film from 1998. Note ... More

DIY charisma

What’s the relationship between power and charisma? If you look at which currencies we’re using today, there’s the currency of money, in today’s world the currency of information is front and centre. In ancient times, currencies were geared towards brute strength or physical beauty – male and female. Charisma is one of those currencies like intelligence, like information, that I think has always been highly effective. But this is the first time we have the toolbox to acquire the asset of charisma. In many ways, power is a result of all the assets that you have. I’d say that what has changed throughout the ages is which asset was most valuable when. Society puts more emphasis on the social graces than would Silicon Valley. So power is a changing, fluid metric. Depending on which environment you’re in (you should look at) who is the audience around you and what your strengths are. According to your book, the judgements that we make in 17ms have a lot to do with very primal, hardwired reactions about whether people can hurt us. So I suppose one of the things that we are still assessing at a very subconscious level – that brute strength is still there, isn’t it? The power of that big physical presence. Yes, however what people assess is more confidence that it is actual physical strength. We play Russian roulette; we infer. From confidence we infer that person has something to be confident about. This may or may not be correct but that first impression will have a primal theory effect that will linger. However, if you were in Silicon Valley and someone walked in with a great amount of confidence and physical strength, but opened their mouth and it was clear they didn’t have the , they would ... More

Power on the brain

First the good news: power can make you smarter, bolder, more goal-focused and strategic in your thinking ‒ and less anxious. Now for the bad news: power can make you narcissistic, risk-blind, unempathic, prone to sexually harass or bully underlings, disinhibited and hypocritical. Men and women both respond to power in similar ‒ but not identical ‒ ways. So how does power have such…powerful effects? Let’s start with a definition: power means having control over things that other people want, need or fear. So every supervisor, every doctor, every care assistant and every ticket office clerk has power, to varying degrees. Power increases testosterone levels in both men and women, and this in turn ramps up activity in the brain’s reward network, giving a boost to an important chemical messenger in the brain ‒ dopamine. Dopamine also affects the frontal lobes, crucial decision-making, strategy-formation parts of the brain, which is why power can make you smarter. It can also make you feel more upbeat and less anxious.

Getting the balance right
As with many of the brain’s chemical messengers, dopamine activity is a double-edged sword: too little makes you under-function while too much has the same effect. There is a ‘just right’ Goldilocks zone of dopamine activity. This is why some people really ‘grow into’ power ‒ cometh the hour, cometh the woman sort of thing ‒ while others appear to have their judgment, emotions and behaviour unbalanced by it. But people have different appetites for power. Some of us are most motivated by wanting to be liked and accepted by others (‘affiliation need’), others by wanting to be recognised for our achievements (‘achievement need’) and some by a desire for power (‘power need’). These are largely unconscious drives unless we really work at self-analysis, but certainly your underlings will know whether you have ... More

Lessons in Latin

Every so often at school, when our class wanted to waste time, we would ask our teacher, “What’s the point of Latin, sir?” The answer was a mix of things: that learning Latin grammar is good for your English grammar; that English words are derived from Latin words; that classics trains the mind. All that is true…sort of. Learning Latin grammar is good for your English grammar; not because they’re similar – but because they’re so different. There are all sorts of things in Latin that just don’t exist in English: gerundives, ablative absolutes, sticking the verb at the end of the sentence. It is in learning the differences between these grammars that the brain really starts to dissect the building blocks of language – that, I suppose, the mind is trained.

Curious origins
It’s true that two thirds of English words are derived from Latin ones. But if you relied on original Latin word meanings to work out modern English meanings, you’d soon be in trouble. The word ‘candidate’, for example, comes from the Latin candidus (-a / -um), meaning ‘white, pure, unvarnished’. It’s a long time since I’ve seen these words in the same sentence as a political candidate. The reason for the connection is that, in the Forum, Romans standing for office sprinkled themselves with white chalk dust to make them stand out in the crowd – so they became known as the candid, or the white ones. All very interesting, but not terribly useful. The real joy of Latin is that it hands you the key to Roman architecture, satire, comedy, tragedy, poetry, philosophy and history – and then the Western European world clicks into place. In his novel The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst describes people who know the turning points in history as being able to look back at the world ... More

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